Inception: How I ruined it for myself

I watched Inception. I talked to people and read reviews before watching it. It seemed like there was a general consensus about it being a good science fiction movie. I used to love science fiction movies, but I have lost interest in them because every time I watch a movie, I find millions of things that do not make sense scientifically. For me, good science fiction should show what current science can’t, and may even lead or direct scientific endeavor.

I don’t think this is the case with most science fiction movies of today. There might be two main reasons for this split between science and science fiction: First, scenarios that make scientific sense may not be as exciting and easy to understand; and second, to write a scientifically plausible movie, the scriptwriter has to be a scientist herself, since it is the scientist in a particular field who can really keep up with the latest research. Scientific discourse changes so fast that it is not open to the full comprehension of the public or even to scientists in other fields.

Yes, I watched Inception and although I think that it is a good movie in terms of the visual effects and acting, the science fiction aspect of it did not really excite me.


Sharing a dream with another individual was the core concept in the script. I am not particularly critical of the technology they used to do this, which is some kind of hub that connects to each participants’ arm. I am more critical about the very concept of sharing a dream. In the movie, sharing a dream was very similar to sharing a physical context. There are objects that are open to everyone’s experience. The architect can change the context, but then the participants’ subconscious realizes the change and becomes hostile (or something like that).

At first look this does not seem like such a bad idea– since we can share the same physical reality, why can’t we share a dream, a form of virtual reality? Because, unlike when we are awake, the objects we experience in a dream are sensations with different modalities. There is no physical correspondence that allows multiple interpretations.

For example, a table conceived by the dream’s architect, who is another human being, is a table only to the architect. It is an experience that the architect reproduces with different, combined modalities (visual, tactile, olfactory etc.). It is not possible to create a virtual stage where the architect can project these sensations so that the same object can be experienced by another human. This is because the sensations that yield to the experience of that object is unique and bounded by the bodily existence and previous experiences of the architect.

When we are awake, the physical reality we are living in provides such a stage. Although the same apple would taste different to different people, and even to same person in different times, it exists even before someone eats it. No matter what you and what your previous experiences are, the apple has an existence in itself. An apple in a dream is different. It exists because you experience it. The experience of the apple is the apple. It is not a thing in itself (Hi Kant, howdy?), it is a sensation.

For two people to experience the same apple in a dream, there has to be an interpreter who can the architect’s experience of the apple and make it an object on a virtual stage that is open to other parties’ experience. The difficulty with this is that the interpreter would impose his own laws of physics on all participants, as the universe does on us.

The closest thing to an interpreter in Inception is the architect of the dream. The architect sets the stage and the participants fill it in. The problem here is that the architect cannot be a human, since being the interpreter requires the ability to translate any person’s sensations (or whatever it is that the architect gets from the cable connected to her arm) into an object. In a way, the interpreter is “being” that person and re-experiencing the object in the way she did. The “being the person” part is similar to empathizing or putting yourself in the place of another, but in a much more powerful and godlike way. The architect in Inception was actually an architecture student, which in a way shows that the scriptwriter assumed that the ability to design a building is enough to be the interpreter, which, I argue, is not the case.


Finally, the fact that the protagonist is carrying a spinning top to distinguish the dream from reality shows that the script writer understands some of the problems with the idea of sharing a dream. DiCaprio carries his spinning top to everywhere and never allows anyone to touch it. This way, although he might be fooled into a dream, he can always take his spinning top and the tactile feeling helps him distinguish dream from reality. Since the architect can never touch the spinning top there is no way she can reproduce that experience. I completely agree, but isn’t this the same for all objects?

Firat Soylu is a PhD candidate pursuing a dual major degree in Instructional Systems Technology and Cognitive Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.