Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In the dream of Inception

What is reality? What is a dream?

These are fundamental questions asked in Christopher Nolan's movie Inception, which you should see as soon as possible, if you haven't already, and aren't doing very meaningful things anyway.

This movie has its protagonists move through various layers of dreamworlds, up to a point where you also start questioning whether the layer that is presented as 'reality' is actually just another dreamlayer. And this, I think, is exactly the point of the movie. If, through tapping in people's brains, we can create worlds as realistic and consistent as what we experience as reality, what for practical matters then, is the difference between reality and a dream? If we are embodied, and our skilled actions have lasting physical consequences in our lifeworld, does it then still matter whether this world is 'naturally given' to us, or 'technologically simulated'? Can't we experience the same things if we still have the same body and mind, can't we create the same things, can't we have the same emotions and existential realizations?

The main difference between the dreamworld and reality at this moment is that the dreamworld is fleeting and unstable. In general, we can grow because our reality is pretty stable, so we can use prediction to learn and adjust our actions to generate certain physical, mental and emotional results. In the dream state, as you don't use your prefrontal cortex, it's very hard to reflect on things and learn. This can be very frightening, but sometimes an attractive temporary alternative to the inertia of things in the 'real world'. As long as we wake up from it. But when this difference vanishes, and the dreamworld become as stable as reality, then the tide turns and we might start to long for living in the dreamworld.

I remember how I couldn't wait to go back into my dream, when I as a child had had a long dream that had continued the night afterwards. I wanted to know what would happen and what creative capacities I could develop in this other world. Basically I wanted to know whether I could split myself up in two worlds. Unfortunately, the dream never continued.

Inception shows that, with the appropriate neurodevices, we can create a lasting dreamworld in which it becomes clear that our mind has a direct creative influence on the world. In such a world, we literally awaken in the dream, because we reflectively realize that it is a dream, and that we have an embodied creative stance in it. We come to see that everything outside is really generated inside, that in fact there is no difference between mind and world anymore. Indeed, that the entirety of experience is what you can call mind.

Now, as seen in Nolan's masterpiece, this blurring of worlds can create very disturbing psychological effects, such as an emotional longing to something that only exists in one layer of dreamworld. To me though, this is not so interesting. This is merely a variant on psychological conditions that have since long existed, which are all based on creating a delusional world to escape into in order to not have to integrate what has happened in the 'real' world. What is interesting, is that when we can create a lasting dreamworld, the experiences and realizations that can dissolve such mental conditions can reveal themselves more easily.

Life is but a dream, so accept it, live it, be creative in it, and develop yourself all you can. What does it matter if the universe is simulated? It's alive, it's given to you, it's eternal, and it's ultimately beautiful. What are you trying to change?

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