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Worlds Within Worlds

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

-- Emily Dickinson

In the thriller Inception -- a kind of psychic heist movie -- Leonardo DiCaprio plays a man who steals people’s secrets by entering their dreams and extracting valuable information hidden away in their subconscious. The dreams do not exclusively belong to the intended victims, since they are carefully crafted in advance and implanted in their minds, along with a crack team of extraction specialists who also inhabit the dream. The dreamer is free to project his or her own content onto the dream as well, which can lead to complications. Sometimes the aim is not to steal secrets but to implant an idea that the dreamer is made to feel is his or her own. This involves penetrating the deepest layer of the subconscious, which is experienced as a dream within a dream within a dream.

With the action unfolding on multiple levels simultaneously, this movie demands an unusual degree of concentration from its audience – and still more to figure out what is finally real, if anything. The philosophical implications tend to get short shrift within the film itself, what with bullets flying everywhere, a hotel room and corridor lurching crazily, a locomotive barreling down a busy city street and a van full of team members plunging backward in slow motion off a bridge. No doubt the film’s centrifugal force would tear it apart if you actually stopped to think about it. But its forward momentum carries it along to a satisfactory – if somewhat ambiguous – conclusion, with the protagonist rejoining his family in the end.

Or has he? It’s so easy to get lost in all these nested dream worlds, which seem real while you are dreaming them. To test whether or not they are back in the real world, team members carry a personal token known only to them that presumably would not be there if they were stuck in someone else’s dream. DiCaprio’s character carries a small top that he can spin, which he does just before he is reunited with his children in the final scene. He follows them off-camera, leaving the top spinning on a table. It spins, wobbles, regains its balance and keeps on spinning until you start to think the laws of motion no longer apply. Just then the screen goes black, leaving you to wonder whether DiCaprio is still lost in a dream world.

When we are truly awake, most of us can tell right away we are not dreaming. Locomotives do not barrel down busy city streets; vans do not plunge off bridges in slow motion; and spinning tops obey the laws of motion. The trouble is, when we are dreaming, we are usually so caught up in the action that it rarely occurs to us to ask whether any of it is real. Psychologists who use a therapy called lucid dreaming to combat nightmares will train their patients in certain techniques to determine whether they are awake or not. Does your image appear normal when you gaze in a mirror? Does time advance properly when you glance at your watch and then look again a minute later? Do the lights go on when you flip a switch? Perhaps the simplest reality test is to remember to ask yourself, “Is this a dream?”

Western civilization has developed a sure-fire reality test for our waking life called the scientific method. Unless we are all lost in the same dream, the world we jointly occupy operates according to certain inviolate physical laws that can be verified through empirical observation. Within its own sphere, the scientific method has proven itself to be all but infallible. The only real debate is what its sphere actually is. Materialists argue that the scientific sphere encompasses everything – or at least everything that is not fantasy or wishful thinking. However, materialists have yet to account satisfactorily for human consciousness, which is the medium through which all our perceptions of the world are received. The scientific method focuses exclusively on what is observed without taking the observer into account. The assumption is that consciousness is entirely transparent, thereby ignoring the fact that it can distort reality or even make things up, as it does when we dream. The reality is that we perceive nothing directly of the world; what we perceive is a mental picture based on neurons firing in the brain – the same neurons that continue to fire even when we are asleep.

The limits of the scientific method become obvious when we attempt to apply it to our own consciousness. Like a hand trying to grasp itself, our consciousness cannot simultaneously be the perceiver and the perceived. Many cognitive scientists sidestep this difficulty by equating consciousness with neurons firing in the brain and leave it at that. Yet, as biologist Thomas Huxley noted more than a century ago, “How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn, when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.” Science presupposes an external observer of phenomena, whereas we see everything from the inside, including the results of empirical observation. None of this should suggest the real world is actually a dream or that the scientific method is an illusion. However, we should not discount the possibility that the reality we wake up to every morning is nested within a still-larger realm of pure consciousness that is the true ground of our being.

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