The Philosophy of Science Fiction: Interpretation of Inception

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College

Sci-fi brings philosophy to the masses, and forces people to grapple with the important philosophical questions like nothing else does. What then could a movie like Inception be telling us about how to interpret its meaning?

Sci-fi concept of an astronaut standing on huge rock.
Science fiction can raise important philosophical questions through its complexities. (Image: Tithi Luadthong/Shutterstock)

The Philosophical Aspect of Sci-fi

Lucasfilm’s Chief Creative Officer John Knoll once said about Sci-fi:

“One of the big misconceptions about science fiction is that it’s … escapist entertainment for kids that [doesn’t] tackle any serious themes. [But] the best science fiction gives you an opportunity to explore philosophical and moral themes. There are often societal problems that are very emotionally loaded … [but] if you … recast them in a science fiction setting, [and are thus] looking at a more novel situation, then you can leave some of those preconceived notions behind and … reevaluat[e] it anew. [This] may cause you to rethink your position on the terrestrial version of that problem.”

Attempting an interpretation of Inception raises a host of philosophical questions. It raises a key issue we must address before we address anything else: How to interpret science fiction, and more generally, how to interpret art.

The philosopher Arthur Danto argues that, by its very nature, art invites the audience to interpret it, “to finish” it even. Art is public in nature. Once completed, a work of art is the property of society. As such, everyone is invited to interpret it as they choose.

Learn more about how to view and appreciate movies.

Interpretative Possibilities

Of course, that does not imply that some interpretations can’t be better than others, or even that there can’t be a “best” interpretation. Indeed, philosophy can help us here too. Logically, a good interpretation can’t contradict the basic facts of the film. You might suppose something happened off screen, but you can’t ignore what does happen on screen to bolster your favored view.

And the principle of charity demands that you not embrace an interpretation that makes the work or author seem worse than they otherwise would be. Assume the author isn’t an idiot.

Context also matters, and so do authorial intentions. They’re just not the final arbiter, but they can help. Steven Spielberg’s intentions, for example, in making Schindler’s List make it clear that it could never be legitimately interpreted as a pro-Nazi film. Given all this, we can turn to the question of how to interpret Inception.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Inception: Real or Dream?

How much of Inception is a dream? It is possible that all of it is a dream, from beginning to end. This perspective wouldn’t contradict any fact in the film; indeed, Nolan intentionally left this interpretation open. But most importantly, this interpretation of Inception makes the film better. So, it’s also the most charitable interpretation.

Why? For one, if the real world really is real, well, it’s kind of hollow. All the characters besides Dom Cobb, the protagonist, are one-dimensional. They have no exterior motivation and are merely there for Cobb’s convenience. Good movies have developed characters. But if the fact that they are one-dimensional is a subtle clue that Cobb is dreaming the entire time, which is brilliant.

New York City midtown panorama in inception futuristic style.
Inception is full of clues and hints that the entire sequence may be entirely a dream. (Image: Nick Starichenko/Shutterstock)

There is also a lot of sloppy editing in the film—quick cuts, sudden transitions. In one scene, Cobb is outside a classroom looking in on his father-in-law, and then suddenly, without explanation, he is sitting in the room. Now, these cuts make perfect sense when Cobb is dreaming; indeed, Cobb even points out how, in dreams, you often arrive in places with no memory or awareness of how you got there. But if the real world is real, that’s just lazy editing. But again, as a subtle little clue that Cobb is dreaming—that’s brilliant!

There’s even bad writing, like when Saito shows up, completely unexplained, to rescue Cobb in Mombasa. “What are you doing in Mombasa?” Cobb asks. “I need to protect my investments.” Saito replies. Come on! That’s silly. Your savior showing up out of nowhere? But that’s exactly the kind of thing that would happen in a dream.

Of course, some will argue that the entire movie being a dream makes it worse because nothing really happens; it’s all just a dream. But here’s the thing: it’s a movie. Nothing really happens whether it’s all a dream or not. Why would we care less about a movie that is a dream, when movies that are not dreams are just as fictional?

Learn more about science fiction as philosophy.

The Paradox of Fiction

This gives rise to something called the paradox of fiction. Why do we care, why do we emotionally react to fictional stories, when we know full well that they are fiction? Why care whether Cobb makes it back to his children, given that we know that neither Cobb nor his children really exist? The paradox can be solved by, essentially, realizing that movies are like optical illusions for the emotions. When you see an optical illusion, rationally you can realize that it is illusion, but the illusion will still fool you.

In the famous Shepard tabletop illusion, two tables facing opposite directions—one vertical, the other horizontal—look to be entirely different shapes and sizes. They’re not. You can take the surface of one and place it on the other, proving that they are actually exactly the same—but you will still see them as different. A part of your visual center is, essentially, immune from the influence of your rationality. In the same way, you can know that a movie is fiction, but your emotional center is immune to that knowledge. You’ll still react to it as if it were really happening, even though rationally, you know that it is not.

Image of two tables placed in opposite directions.
The two tables give an illusion that they are of different sizes when they are not. (Image: Iva Villi/ Shutterstock)

But we still haven’t addressed the true interpretation of Inception. Because at the end of the film, after spinning the top, Cobb turns away when he hears his kids. We might think, therefore, that Cobb no longer cares about whether he is in a dream or not. He has decided to stop worrying about it and just believe he’s awake. If so, the moral of the film may be that true belief doesn’t matter; you should just decide to believe what you want. If that’s the message, however, it’s not one a philosopher should be happy with. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and philosophers seek the truth above all else.

Common Questions about the Interpretation of Inception

Q. What does Arthur Danto say about the meaning of Art?

The philosopher Arthur Danto argues that, by its very nature, art invites the audience to interpret it, “to finish” it even. Art is public in nature. Once completed, a work of art is the property of society.

Q. What makes it probable that all of Inception is a dream?

The portrayal of the real world makes it possible that Inception is a dream from beginning to end. All the characters besides Dom Cobb, the protagonist, are one-dimensional. They have no exterior motivation and are merely there for Cobb’s convenience.

Q. How does the editing of Inception indicate that the film may be a dream?

There is a lot of sloppy editing in Inception—quick cuts, sudden transitions. These cuts make perfect sense if you assume Cobb is dreaming, and operate as a subtle clue that the entire film may be a dream.

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