What is True and Can We Tell? Reflections on Inception

12 08 2010

Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake?Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (1847)

These words, though written more than a century and a half ago, could have been written about Christopher Nolan’s latest movie, Inception. This movie, if you have not yet seen it, is a labyrinth of dream sequences of different levels into which the main character, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) enters with his team to implant a thought into the head of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) so that he will break up the oil empire that his father is set to leave him upon his imminent death.

Cobb, an architect by training, left the world of designing buildings to enter the world of designing dreamscapes. He develops his skills to not only extract information from people by entering their dreams, but to also implant ideas, leaving no trace of his having done so. Cobb is approached by Fischer’s competitor and enticed by the offer of being able to return to his home and kids from whom he had been estranged due to legal troubles. To do this, he must go into the consciousness of Fischer through his dreams and continue going deeper and deeper into those levels of his consciousness until he can implant the thought without leaving evidence of his having been there.

The story combines elements of Dante with hints of Freud as the team delves lower and lower into the mind of Fischer, while at the same time, Cobb battles his own memories of his kids and his deceased wife for whom he carries the guilt of her death. The story is a parallel between what Cobb is trying to accomplish in the mind of Fischer and what is going on in his own consciousness. As he goes into the dreams of others and plunges deeper into their consciousness, he can’t help but bring along the memories that haunt his own.

Nolan uses different images to depict this Dante type going down in the life of Cobb as he tries to keep these memories caged up within him, only to have them escape at the most inopportune moments. In the end, Cobb appears to conquer these plaguing visions, but is it too late? That is where the audience is left questioning in the end. Has Cobb returned to reality? Can one distinguish between reality and a dream? Can one awaken a person who dreams that he is awake? Nolan leaves us wondering what is real and true and what is not. Does the spinning top tumble in the end or keep spinning? We may never know…

While this movie is a fun thought experiment, it is not indicative of the world in which we find ourselves. Yes, there are those who would have us believe, as Nolan hints at in this movie, that all expressions of reality that we experience are merely that which our minds produce. The real world, according to these solipsists (for that is what they are called) merely exists in the mind of the thinker and does not exist outside of the mind. To seriously pursue that line of thinking, I believe, would lead a person to madness. To doubt one’s intuitions is to question all of reality as we experience it and that is an endless pursuit downward into the abyss of nihilism.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” He spoke as if what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth” actually exists and the it was embodied in him. The reality toward which it pointed was the Father, for he said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) In other words, our pursuit of truth should result in a restored relationship with our Creator, which makes sense. If we want to understand our meaning and purpose, who better to reveal that reality than the one who created us with a purpose in mind.

In the end, Cobb’s pursuit led him back to the relationship with his children (if you believe that, in the end, he was not still caught in a dream state), and that is a good pointer to the ultimate relationship to which we are called, but only a pointer. One of the benefits of human relationships is to point us to a still greater relationship, the relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul says, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12) That is the truth we are called to pursue.


The Real Thing and the Really Real

16 01 2010

Years ago, in fact when I was a kid, Coca Cola had a tagline, It’s the Real Thing. I’m not sure
why they believed that this was the right message for the time (1969), but for some reason that is the message that their marketing team thought was most important to convey. People always feel more secure dealing with the real thing in these days of fakery and fraud. We want to know when we buy something online that we are going to get the genuine item and are dealing with a legitimate merchant.

It has been often said that when a federal agent wants to learn to spot counterfeit currency, they must first know the genuine currency inside and out, so much so that it is easy to spot the fake. We live in an age of technology in which it is much easier to make realistic looking fakes. It has made many of us cautious and skeptical when reading marketing pitches, buying items online or in stores, and even when listening to the media.

There is another level of skepticism that is rising in our time and culture related to the nature of reality. This new skepticism would have us believe that reality consists only of that which one can see, feel, hear, taste and smell. In reality, this type of skepticism is not new, but merely a repackaging of an old skepticism that dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries A.D., which itself was a repackaging of skepticism that dated back to the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C., which was a repackaging of skepticism that dates back to the Garden of Eden. Wasn’t it the first skeptic who started his question with the words, “Did God actually say…?” Skepticism is not new, however, it is being renewed in our time in the guise of the new atheists.

C.S. Lewis set  this type of battle of the mind against skepticism in his book, Til We Have Faces, his retelling of the ancient myth of Psyche and Cupid. It is Orual in Lewis’ book who is in the battle with skepticism as she is raised on Greek philosophy by a materialist known as The Fox. Even when she has an encounter with the gods and the immaterial world into which her sister, Psyche, has entered she simply dismisses it once the vision has gone away. Throughout the book she is in a battle to suppress that immaterial reality and to hold on to her belief that reality consists of the material world.

I often encounter this same attitude these days in people with whom I have discussions. Their attitudes are much like the Kangaroo in the movie Horton Hears a Who who said, “If you can’t feel it, see it or hear it, it does not exist!” The question is whether this is true? Is the physical stuff all there is, or is there a reality beyond the physical stuff?

Plato certainly seemed to understand that the physical stuff was not all there was to reality. He understood, in fact, that it is the immaterial forms (the perfect idea of what is represented in the material world) that were the highest and most fundamental nature of reality, and not this world of material world. This was one of the ways that Plato overcame the problem of universals or ideals (i.e. how does one account for perfection or ideals if everything is in flux). I think that in many ways Plato was moving in the right direction with his thoughts, although, I think where he missed the mark was to have abstract ideas without a mind from which they originated. It seems to me that it is more logical and reasonable to think that these ideals were the thoughts of a perfect being – God.

The author of Hebrews echoes these types of ideas in the ninth chapter when he compares the earthly tabernacle (the tent that served as Israel’s meeting place with God as they traveled through the wilderness) with the new tabernacle that God has prepared for us. The author writes,

11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, wrote of Jesus, “If only he had remained in the desert and far away from the good and the just! Perhaps he would have learned to live and to love the earth – and even to laugh! Believe me, my brothers! He died too early; he himself would have recanted his teaching if he had reached my age! He was noble enough for recanting! But he had not yet matured.” (from On Free Death, p. 55) Nietzsche’s mistake was to think that this world was all there was to reality, when in fact, Jesus knew of a better reality – he knew the difference between the real and the really real.

If this physical world is all there is to reality, maybe Nietzsche was right and we should learn to love this world and eat, drink and be merry (even though Nietzsche himself never epitomized this in his life). On the other hand, if Jesus and the authors of the New Testament were right, then we are called to a different mindset, one completely opposite of what Nietzsche advocated. The Apostle John writes,

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

Jesus, through his resurrection demolished the idea that this physical world is all there is to reality. Jesus told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them and that he would come back and take them with him, he said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6,7) In Jesus we have seen God.

Jesus himself is the bridge between what we see as real and that which is really real. He left heaven to enter into space and time. He left the immaterial world to take on flesh and blood. He is evidence to all who will see and hear that there is a reality that we cannot now see or hear, but which is more real that which we do now see, hear, feel, taste and smell. Like Orual, we can convince ourselves that it doesn’t exist, or we can embrace what we truly know deep down, that this world is only a pointer, an indicator, a sense of longing for the truer reality that lies beyond it. Let me return to C.S. Lewis to tie these ideas together. He wrote in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” And so we are…

Truth, a What and a Who

1 08 2009

I have written on the concept of truth in previous posts (April 2009); however, it is an important topic and I would like to address it from a different direction in today’s post.  As many of you are aware, we live in a postmodern generation where truth is considered to be relative.  In other words, a thing is true if you believe it to be true, but that same idea does not need to be true for me if I don’t want it to be.  Confused yet?  Let me explain further.

Many are most familiar with this concept in the area of morals.  We are often told, “that may be true for you, but not for me” when it comes to a person’s favorite cause or sin (as the Bible would describe certain actions).  This statement is often followed by an admonition to not be intolerant or try to force our beliefs on the other person (a principle that most people consider to be as close to absolute as possible!)  I would like to look at whether this idea is true (objectively) and also whether a person could even live consistently with such a belief.

So, is it true that something could be true for one person but not for another, whether it is a moral truth, a scientific truth, or any other type of truth?  I don’t think so, let me explain.  Could we ever conceive of an instance where murder (the taking of innocent life) could be justified?  How about an issue that has been in the news recently, racism?  I think in both of these cases one would have to say no to both questions, and those are just two of a number of cases in which I am sure we would also give the same answer.  However, I only need to show one case in which a moral value is objective, that is, that it is true whether or not anyone on earth believes it to be true, to make the case that morals are objective in nature.

This week we saw the “Beer Summit” in which a white police officer and a black professor sat down with our President (himself black) and our Vice President (who is white) to discuss a recent incident in which the black professor was arrested by the white officer.  Apparently, the officer was provoked by the professor according to witnesses, some of whom were black, when the professor broke into a tirade after being questioned about breaking into his own house when he apparently forgot his keys.  The President was asked about the incident at a press conference, not knowing all of the facts surrounding the case, and claimed that the police officer “acted stupidly” and the race discussion was set off in the media.

The question is whether it is ever justified to be a racist, no matter what a person’s skin color?  When we say that someone is a racist, I mean that they judge a person solely by the color of their skin, not, as Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped for, by the content of their character.  I submit that it is never justified to judge a person solely by the color of their skin and would challenge anyone who tried to justify such behavior.  However, according to the postmodernist, it is possible that it may be justified for a person to be a racist, or a murderer, or exhibit any number of other behaviors that the average person would call immoral.  We simply cannot say that anyone is really wrong as that would be imposing our beliefs on them.

Now, let’s look at whether a person could consistently live by this belief or philosophy.  Again, I would say that a person could not and have challenged many who espouse this belief.  In fact, I was temporarily suspended from a message board recently when I challenged a poster on this issue.  What is interesting is that he was willing to impose his morality on me when I offended him.  Fortunately, we were able to exchange some messages and have actually begun some good dialog with each other.

The question is whether a postmodern would fly with a postmodern airline pilot who believed that landing in the ocean is the same as landing on the runway.  Or, would a postmodern go to a postmodern surgeon who believed that removing the liver is the same as removing a kidney, or a heart bypass can be done using a piece of the intestine.  Postmoderns obey traffic signals, read labels on medicine bottles to make sure they are taking the right one in the right dosage, and get highly offended when told that they are wrong.  In fact, I heard the story of a postmodern who fired off a terse letter to a reviewer of his book claiming that the reviewer didn’t understand his book! In other words, his words did have objective meaning after all.

So, truth is something.  It is often described as that which corresponds to reality.  If I say rock, you know what I am talking about, even though you may not be picturing the same rock that I am, you know what a rock is.  If I say look up, we all would look in the same general direction.  Words mean things and we usually all understand them to mean the same thing.  Jesus spoke often about truth, telling the woman at the well that we must worship God in spirit and truth.   He often started important statements with “truly, truly” to let us know that these were important statements and that they were true statements.

However, the Bible tells us that truth is not just a what, but it is also a who.  Jesus told Thomas and the disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)  Jesus also told us, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)  I don’t believe that Jesus meant that we must simply understand some ideas or concepts to be free, although we must understand and trust the gospel, but we must also know Jesus, the truth, in order to be set free.

D.A. Carson quotes Dodd in his The Gospel according to John, saying, Because of truth’s intimate connection with Jesus, true disciples ‘must not only hear his words: they must in some sort be united with him who is the truth'” (349).  So, when your friends ask you, as Pilate did to Jesus, “what is truth?” (veritas) (John 18:38) you can tell them that it is a what and a who and it is found in Jesus.