Inception and the Philosophy of Mind

Inception and the Philosophy of Mind

inception-explainedAdmit it. You no longer believe in one reality. So choose. Choose to be here. Choose me”. These enigmatic dialogues, directed towards Dominic Cobb are spoken by his subconscious which has taken the form of his deceased wife, towards the end of 2010 blockbuster ‘Inception’. She tries to convince him that his reality would be what he himself chooses to believe as real and hence urges him to choose for himself. This film is a rare example in the context of Hollywood, which is entertaining as well as intriguing and succeeds viscerally as well as intellectually. It is rich in its non-linear, often ambiguous narrative style and its subtle and surreal imagery, many of whose aspects could be subject to detailed analysis. The above comment for instance, gives us an inkling into the philosophical implications of this movie. It specifically points towards a branch of western analytical philosophy known as the Philosophy of Mind.

inception-leonardo-dicaprio-marion-cotillardIt would be helpful at this point, to give a basic overview of the philosophy of mind before we proceed further with our analysis. This branch of philosophy deals with the study of the mind, its existence, properties and functions, the origin of our consciousness and their relation to the physical world. One of the central goals of this philosophy, is seeking an answer to what is commonly known as the mind-body problem. The mind-body problem arose because human beings since time immemorial, have felt that mental properties like fear, pain, desire and above all consciousness are substantially different from physical bodies on which they seem to depend. Therefore a question naturally arose about the constitution of the mind and the body, their interrelation and interaction. rene-descartes

Two main schools of thought namely Dualism and Monism exist in Western Philosophy, which take two alternative approaches to address this problem.



spinoza_4Dualism, propounded by iconic Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristrotle and later formulated by French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, nurtures the belief that mind and body are two separate entities. It proposes that the mind is a non-physical entity which is distinct from the physical world. There are numerous variants of Dualism which differ on the arguments of whether mind is a non-physical substance and how the two entities interact and influence each other


Monism, propounded by the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides and later formulated by Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, holds the belief that the mind and body are in essence not distinct entities, but are different manifestations of the same entity. As in the case of Dualism, here also we have variants of the main theory that differ on the question of which entity to be considered as supreme. A variant of Monism, known as Monistic Idealism states that the mind is the only thing that exists, the body as well as the physical world are fabrications or illusions created by the mind. This theory places the mind as the supreme entity in the universe.

In the case of Inception however, we cannot pin down the interpretation on a specific theory that easily. The brilliance of Christopher Nolan lies in the fact that, through a magnificent intertwining of reality and dream and a perplexing ending sequence, he has managed to keep the movie quite ambiguous, much like Belgian filmmaker Andre Delvaux’s surrealist classic, ‘Un Soir Un Train’(A Night in The Train).


unsoiruntrainHence to analyze the philosophical implications of ‘Inception’, we need to look at all the possible and debatable interpretations.

For this purpose, I have devised a logical treatment. Let Fig1 below represent the hierarchy of dream states(multilayered dreams) with each concentric circle signifying a dream state. A circle within a circle signifies a dream within a dream. L0 being the outermost circle represents reality. L1 is the first level of dream L2, L3, L4 upto Ln further states of dreams within dreams. L4 occuring after L3 should be considered as the Limbo.


dream-statesFig1 : Hierarchy of Dream States

With the help of this treatment, let us now look at the different ways of interpreting the movie:

2010-07-26-02-700x437Some different ways of looking at it are:

  • The plain approach – The futuristic world that possesses the technology to enable shared dreams is a reality and can be represented by L0. While performing inception on Fischer, Cobb traverses through the dream states L1, L2, L3 and finally reaches limbo L4. There he succeeds in persuading Saito of the unreality of L4 and together they traverse back up to the reality L0, i.e they wake up. Saito fulfills his promise and Cobb returns home and finally meets his children. Hence the spinning top at the end of the movie would finally come to rest after the screen goes blank.

In this scenario, we have a frame of reference L0 by means of which we can distinguish between the real or physical world and the dream states L1, L2, L3, L4, which are fabrications of the mind. Hence this interpretation is in favor of Descartes’s Dualism

  • The not so plain approach – The futuristic world is still real and is represented by L0. However since Cobb and Saito have missed the kick which would have let them traverse back to reality L0 and also owing to the deep sleep induced by Yusuf’s tranquilizer, they are unable to wake up from Limbo L4. Thus when Cobb is shown to be waking up in the flight he has not actually returned to L0, but relapsed into a further dream state which should ideally be represented by L5. L5 represents the dream state where Cobb finds all his wishes fulfilled, i.e his being acquitted of all charges, returning home and meeting his children, which does not happen in reality. Hence the spinning top at the end would continue to spin after the screen goes blank.

In this scenario, we still have a reference frame L0 for distinguishing between reality, which encompasses all the events that happened before Cobb entered the shared dream on the flight and the states L1 to L5 which are fabrications of his mind. Hence this interpretation, like the previous one points towards Dualism

  • The imaginative approach – The whole movie is a dream. Cobb is actually traversing through the labyrinths of his mind. The concept of the totem as well as the belief that one can wake up from a dream through death, is the actual Inception, which manifests itself in Cobb. The spinning top comes to rest in the dream states which Cobb’s conviction label as reality and the top continues spinning in whichever dream states he recognizes to be dreams. So the top’s continuous spinning or coming to rest is controlled by Cobb’s own conviction as to what is reality or dream. In his dream, Cobb’s subconscious fabricated the character of Mal as his wife, someone who never really existed. It is never clear which dream state actually represents the Limbo that Mal and Cobb were in together. Let us assume it to be Li, where i is a natural number ranging from 1 to n. When Cobb and Mal killed themselves in Limbo Li, Cobb did not wake up, but relapsed into a further limbo state Li+1. Mal played the part of Cobb’s subconscious aptly and proposed the idea that their waking world was not real. This time she killed herself by jumping off a building and showed Cobb the correct method of waking up by means of a kick. However Cobb continued to live in Li+1 convinced of its reality. His mind eventually fabricated the characters Saito, Adrianne, Fischer and his entire team in order to pursue his goal of returning home. This can explain why the multilayered dreams during the supposed inception on Fisher follow a mathematical precision regarding the relative time, since the whole scheme of inception through shared dreams had been engineered by Cobb’s mind. Adrianne once again, taking up the part of Cobb’s subconscious, suggests the correct way of waking up through a kick, but to no avail. While trying to perform the supposed inception on Fisher, Cobb penetrates further into his dream states and reaches a state Lj(where j>i), which looks similar to the limbo Li, since Cobb envisions himself to be back in Li. He convinces Saito, i.e his own subconscious that they can escape the Limbo by killing themselves and thereby completes the inception on himself. Cobb shoots himself and is seen to be waking up on the flight, but actually reaches a state Lj+1(where j<=n), which resembles state Li+1. Here his wishes are fulfilled and he is able to return home. When he spins the top, it initially spins without deceleration, since Cobb still has his doubts. However, when his children look up and he goes to meet them, the top follows a natural course and seems to slow down, once again indicating that the inception on Cobb has been successful. The children don’t seem to have grown any older than the last time he saw them; however Cobb is convinced of his reality, the one he truly desires. The top would finally come to rest after the screen goes blank, but it would still be a dream.

This interpretation rules out the scope of a reference frame for determining the reality in the context of the above diagram. We have no way of knowing where and when, Cobb had initially started dreaming. What we had initially perceived to be reality is nothing but a dream state Li+1. We also do not have any standard to affix a specific value to i. Considering the lowest possible value i=1, the outermost state L0 is revealed to be a limbo state itself. Therefore, this interpretation leaves us with no other option than to take an abstract view of the nature of reality. It makes an amazing suggestion, that reality could be a dream as well, making it very much aligned with the postulates of Monistic Idealism. The dialogues mentioned at the beginning of this article are very much suggestive of this as well. The idea that the dream states are no different from reality, both being fabrications of the mind and hence each dream state could be considered as an alternate reality; can definitely be thought of as a corollary to Monistic Idealism. This purview seems to be the most feasible of all in my opinion; some subtle elements in the film, acquiring full proportion only during the second viewing, stress this aspect. However, still more varying interpretations could be made about this movie by different critics. Moreover, it would be wrong to impose any specific interpretation on a movie that aspires to remain ambiguous.






Christopher Nolan himself chooses not to explain much about this movie which in my op01034668-photo-christopher-nolaninion is a correct decision, since an explanation would close the avenues for further speculation and take away the romance of the ambiguity which Nolan has taken such good care to impress upon the viewers. It is possible that Nolan himself may have pondered over the philosophical implications while scripting the movie, or they may have been imbibed from the literary works of Jorge Luis Borges which have acted as a main inspiration for ‘Inception’. Whatever be the case, it is apparent beyond doubt that this movie is an allusion to the philosophy of mind, in one way or the other.

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