Inception and the Epistemology of Dreams

Inception and the Epistemology of Dreams

Last week I went to the movies and watched Inception, a movie about the boundaries of reality explored in the lucid dreams of the main characters.

The main question posed in this flick is how we can know whether we are dreaming. This is an age old question in philosophy and was most famously explored by French soldier-philosopher René Descartes. In his magnificent philosophical book Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes doubts all sources of knowledge and asks himself:

How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of such familiar events — that I am here in my dressing gown, sitting by the fire — when in fact I am lying undressed in bed. … As I think about this more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep.

Descartes doubt in his first meditation is total. Descartes is, however, not actually convinced that we can not know anything. He merely engages in a thought experiment to find the one true source of knowledge. Eventually he concludes famously that the only thing he can know is that he is a thinking being — I think therefore I am.

The storyline in Inception refers back to Descartes’ argument. In the movie the main characters experience a collective dream and even dream within a dream, within a dream, within a dream. The main characters know that it can be confusing to distinguish our waking reality from our dreaming one and they use a little trick to determine where they are.

Although Descartes thinks he can not know whether he is dreaming or not, there are clear differences between our waking and dreaming reality.

Most importantly, the waking reality is bounded by causality. If you hit somebody in the face in reality, there will be consequences. If you do the same in a dream, there are no consequences. The other difference is that waking reality is a shared experience. You can hit your best friend in the face in a dream, but she will not show up with a bruise in waking reality. Even if there was no mark, your friend will not have experienced being hit by you in her dream. Dreaming reality is a private experience.

The question remains, however, which reality we should give primacy, the waking world or the dreaming one. The empiricist philosopher might argue that since our experiences in waking reality are shared and can be confirmed by others. This seems an attractive line of reasoning, but the question of reality can not be resolved by democratic means. Just because we all agree on something does not mean that it is the truth.

Chien Andalusia: What do the Lyrics of the Pixies mean?

The music of The Pixies was part of the soundtrack of my student years. Experiencing their sound for the first time live in 1989 at the Pinkpop concert opened a whole new planet of sound to me. I vividly remember standing in front of Joey Santiago as  he was playing Vamos. Cool as a cucumber, he produced the most bizarre sounds I had ever heard come from a guitar.

After the festival I immediately bought their Doolittle and Surfer Rosa CDs and immersed myself into the absurdist musical art of The Pixies. Being only 19 years old I attempted to seek meaning in their lyrics, such as Debaser:

Got me a movie
I want you to know
Slicing up eyeballs
I want you to know
Girlie so groovy
I want you to know
Don’t know about you
But I am Un Chien Andalusia

Listening to some of their Doolittle tracks such as Debaser placed a lot of questions into the mind of a 19 year old.  What do these words mean? Does Frank Black possess some profound knowledge he wants to share only with those whoc can decipher his songs?

Little did I knew that their inspiration came  directly from the 1929 film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. This surrealist work of cinematographic art is a disjointed jumble of weird and disturbing images. It is all too human human to seek meaning in everything we perceive. The makers of Un Chien Andalus were, however, quite clear on their that there was absolutely no meaning attached to the images:

No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted … Nothing, in the film, symbolises anything. The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis.

Absurdist art shows us that there might not be any meaning and that things are just the way they are. Psychoanalysis is, by the way, the ultimate attempt to seek meaning where there is none. Absurdism highlights the meaninglesness that is in our lives and provides a point of reflection on sobering fact. It has taken me two decades of studying philosophy to understand this! Our minds are information processing machines that try to put everything we perceive into some kind of order. In most cases, however, things are just the way they are. And so is the music of The Pixies.

Their songs are symphonic eruptions that sound like a psychotic version of Abba.  Joey’s snaring guitar and Black Francis’ frantic screams are counterpointed by the tight rhythms  for David Lovering and sweet sounds of Kim Deal’s voice. The music from The Pixies can only be enjoyed head on; not interpreted and analysed, but experienced.

The Pixies in Melbourne, March 2010 (Flickr, dai pontybodkin).Last week I was fortunate to experience a live Pixies concert once again, this time in Festival Hall in Melbourne. Although the music was played somewhat mechanically, it was a great concert. Although I think I am getting too old too immerse myself in the mosh pit—I have been limping for the past three days—the best way to experience any  rock music is through lots of sweat.

At one stage I was standing back, as I was gasping for breath, and was hit in the face by the  sheer beauty of their compositions. Reflecting back on my 1989 Pinkpop experience, it dawned on me that The Pixies propelled me on a musical journey which  showed me how to experience music in a different way. After discovering the The Pixies, I am no longer afraid of music!

The journey took me from the likes of Einstürzende Neubauten and Karl Heinz Stockhausen to composers such as Phillip Glass, John Adams and Béla Bartók. The Pixes bridged the eighties and the nineties from a Rock & Roll perspective by creating the foundation for what would become known as grunge. Most importantly, their music also bridges a gap between popular music and contemporary art music as their complex compositions are timeless pieces of rock & roll.

Un chien andalouUn Chien nnn

The Truth About Pi

Smoking sheesha in Luxor, Egypt

Smoking sheesha in Luxor, Egypt

My idea of having a great time: smoking sheesha in Egypt, wearing my favourite T-shirt (ThinkGeek.com). The print on the shirt consists of the first 4,493 digits of the number Pi in the shape of the symbol itself. In my view, the number Pi, not the number 42 as some have proposed, symbolises the ultimate truth of the universe. Let me explain why.

On the way back from Egypt I watched The Oxford Murders. In this movie, the question whether mathematics is the underlying truth of the world is discussed between the two main characters. Martin, a student played by Elijah Wood, said:

“Things are organised following a model, a scheme, a logical series. Even the tiny snowflake includes a numerical basis in its structure. Therefore, if we discover the secret meaning of numbers, we will know the secret meaning of reality.”

But is Martin correct? Can all philosophical questions and truths be expressed in mathematics? Will we eventually calculate our way out of ethical dilemma’s? Can we improve our understanding of Shakespeare by expressing his prose in formal language?

To be or not to be

I tend to agree with Professor Martin Seldon, played by John Hurt in the same movie:

“Since man is incapable of reconciling mind and matter he turns to confer some kind of entity on ideas because he can not bear the notion that the purely abstract only exists in our brain.”

With this in mind, why does the number Pi reflects the ultimate truth about the universe?

Pi is an irrational and transcendental number and the digits of which it is composed comprise an infinite array of random numbers. Even after calculating billions of digits, there does not seem to be any pattern in the arrangement of the digits. It is this lack of any pattern, the absence of logic, that illustrates the structure of the universe itself.

Pi is an artificial structure of our mind, not something existing in reality. Nature doesn’t care about perimeters and diameters, although it might seem that the ubiquitous nature of Pi seems to suggest differently.

Pi is an important number in physics and is included in many formulas. This implies to me that there is something inherently random in the structure of reality.

However, we perceive our environment in discrete terms. Common sense mathematics does not include irrational numbers such as Pi. We think in whole numbers and fractions. This is reflected in the fact that in ancient cultures, Pi was perceived to be a fracture, such as 22/7. This is the value that I use in my own calculations as it is accurate enough for almost all computations.

But the number Pi is ubiquitous in mathematics and physics. We rely on an irrational numbers such as Pi and e in much of our modeling of reality. What does this say about the structure of reality? I do not have an answer on this, but for me, the existence of irrational numbers shows the great divide between common sense and our scientific description of the world.

Torchwood and the Meaning of Life

Resurrection gauntletThe first episode of Torchwood has finally aired on Australia television! This contemporary Doctor Who spin-off is more than just another way to cash in on the popular science fiction series. Torchwood is more violent and daring than the series that spawned it, but underneath the sex and violence the stories deal with philosophical issues, some of which deserve exploration beyond the screen narrative.

The Torchwood team has a metallic gauntlet by which they can revive the dead for a short period. Several people are killed by the same method and knife. When John Tucker, one of the victims, is revived, Jack Harkness asks him:

What was it like when you died? … Nothing, I saw nothing. Oh my God, there is nothing.

John is clearly disturbed by this prospect, specially because he knows that he will die again soon. The idea of total blackness and nothing seems to scare him profoundly.

This fear of nothingness is a fascinating aspect of the human condition. When analysing the problem it is clear that this fear is not rational because when there is nothing, there is also no threat. A state of not-being is not something to fear because it is not rational (not justified) to fear something that does not exist. So why are people not content with a prospect of an absolute end to life?

Leo Tolstoy thought that if there was no life after death, then life would be meaningless. This approach is, however, not satisfactory because it relocates the problem of whether there is meaning to a life after death. If there is life after death, then what is the meaning of that life? Is there a life after life-after-death to provide meaning? Ad infinitum …

The Epicureans did not agree with this line of thought and were right in arguing that death is inconsequential to the question whether life has meaning or not. Although death may be final and could make all our efforts futile from a perspective of eternity, we can only judge life from the internal perspective. The idea that death only removes meaning is forced upon us when we look upon life from the eternal perspective.

We can, however, not view life from an external perspective, because we are bound by our internal point of view. Any attempt to take an external perspective, such as religion, can not provide a final answer to the quest for a meaning of life.

The meaning of life is embedded in life itself and we should not hope, nor fear for anything after death.

Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life

Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life

Red Dwarf and the Meaning of Life

The answer to the question of meaning of life is for many the ultimate quest. I have found an answer by watching the delightfully silly science fiction series Red Dwarf.

The second episode of the fifth season is very different to most story lines, as it deals with the ultimate question: the meaning if life. The Inquisitor is on a journey through time, seeking out the worthless and erasing them from existence, allowing a different person to exist in their place:

Well, the legend tells of a droid – a self-repairing simulant, who survives till the end of eternity; to the end of time itself. After millions of years alone, he finally reaches the conclusion that there is no god, no afterlife, and the only purpose of existence is to lead a worthwhile life. And so the droid constructs a time machine and roams eternity, visiting every single soul in history, assessing each one. He erases all those who have wasted their lives and replaces them with those who never had a chance of life – the unfertilised eggs, the sperms that never made it. THAT is the Inquisitor – he prunes away the wastrels, expunges the wretched, and deletes the worthless!

After hearing this story, Lister asks how to determine who is worthless, which is a profoundly philosophical question. Not so much the question who is worthless and who is not, but the question whether there actually can be rational demarcation criteria to separate the ‘wastrels, wretched and the worthless’.

Dealing with these issues is seen by some as philosophical Russian roulette because the answer might lead to a totally different view of the world – some pointing directly to the Nazi eugenics projects. But this question is not about that – it is a meta question. Can we find rational means to determine which lives are worth living and which are not. The question whether a life that is found not worth living can be expunged is an ethical question and a whole different matter all together.

Is, as Rimmer eloquently puts it “eating sugar puff sandwiches for eight hours every day” more or less valuable than writing symphonies or painting the Sistine Chapel? The immediate gut feel answer is that the latter is more valuable than the former. The silent premise in this line of reasoning is that something has to have external value, e.g. value to something outside the person themselves in order to be worthwhile.

Kryten clearly follows this external view when he argues that: “you don’t have to be a great philanthropist, or a missionary worker, you simply have to seize the gift of life! … Make a contribution!”

If this would be the case, if a life was only worth living if it has external value, then all animals are leading worthless lives. Looking at our cats, I see totally egocentric beings, who do not care about anything else but their own please. To them, eating tuna, the feline equivalent of sugar puff sandwiches, is a perfectly good life and most certainly worth living.

In Religion as a Vehicle for Meaning I have already argued that there are no rational means to determine which life is worth living. Religion provides no philosophical justification and philosophical reasoning often leads to concluding that there is no meaning of life, outside life itself.

In Red Dwarf, the Inquisitor determines whether somebody’s life is worth living by letting people judging themselves: “a bit metaphysical … but it is the only fair way”. The Inquisitor thus judges each life on internal values. It is indeed the only fair way. Not very rational or scientifically justified and theologically surely not satisfactory, but it is the only thing we got!