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.

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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…