Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Interpretation of Inception

I saw Inception a few days ago, and from my collective experience with my other friends who've seen it, it's the kind of movie that you have a strong opinion about; you either love it or you hate it and there's always a reason or five.

I personally loved the movie, I thought that in spite of its flaws that the plot was extremely complex, well-informed and theoretically adventuresome. I saw it as a metaphysical thought experiment that follows in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan's last non-Batman movie, The Prestige. My fascination with the movie came from my seeing the movie as an extremely ambitious thought experiment on narrative, epistemology, language and consciousness; which in itself is funny because it made me realize what a structuralist I've become. I used to always get annoyed when I talked to diehard Freudians because they kept bringing up the same interpretive framework for everything, but it's hit me that whenever I watch a movie or look at a piece of art, I end up seeing it as addressing some question or another about narratives and signs that only a structuralist would really care about.

I'm going to write my interpretation in the form of small vignettes since I don't feel that I could give a single elegant interpretive framework. It's also hit me that I've always worked very hard at linearizing my non-linear way of thinking and that it might be okay for me once in a while to present things in a more free-form fashion that doesn't take up so much energy.

Also, if you don't like things that are "pretentious", then you may not want to read this entry; it attempts to connect a lot of very strange concepts. You've been warned.


1) Mal (Marion Cotillard) is quite clearly insane. There is no two ways about it; she's mad. That seems like a rather banal observation, but it is tempting at first to empathize with her after seeing so many layers of dreaming throughout the movie and actually believe that she has a valid reason to be skeptical. But when it comes down to it, Mal has no basis for believing that she's in a dream when she kills herself. She can say "Well, dreams seem real, so there's no way I can prove that this isn't a dream", but she would have to ask that on ANY level of consciousness; in other words, if she was right that she was in a dream, then she would still have to ask the same question when she woke up in the next level up.

2) So there's an epistemological question that goes on with these dreams. You can't know whether you're in a dream if there's no reference to the waking world. This is equivalent to Bertrand Russel's problem of meta-languages. You cannot verify the statement "this statement is true" on its own merits. There needs to be some metalanguage that can say whether that statement is true or false and that can directly compare two statements. If anyone's ever told you that you're comparing apples and oranges, it means that you're dealing with two or more objects that do not have a shared system of comparison, i.e. a metalanguage. Of course, if we constantly concerned ourselves with trying to find a transcendent metalanguage (or for all of you postmodernists out there, a transcendent signified), we'd never get anywhere. Narratives in general, especially religious narratives, help us deal with this kind of problem; from the common ground of shared narratives, we reach some sort of understanding of the world through dialogue.

Madness is epistemic nihilism, a belief that nothing is sacred (which may yet explain people's reactions to my sense of humor). In my last entry, I pondered about how cognitive dissonance allows us to participate in a collective narrative. In Luigi Pirandello's Henry IV, the main character, a disgruntled and possibly schizophrenic impersonator of the German monarch Henry IV raves about the freedom he's gained from dropping the mask and living in a state of constant flux without worrying about contradicting any narrative he or others may have made about himself. He's become quite literally anti-social, a sociopath. On an interesting digression, he is faced with the choice, after murdering his ex-wife's fiancee, whether to keep his mask as Henry IV and trap himself in the narrative of madness, or face the consequences of his crime the minute he stops acting like the supposed lunatic who murdered him; a Madman suddenly forced to sanely masquerade as a madman.

Mal is an epistemic nihilist, and she faces the worst possible consequence for it.

3) The way in which dreams operate is based on a phenomenological theory of storytelling in which the reader's consciousness fills in the semantic gaps left by the text. If I say "He walked down the street" you have to come up with your own idea of what that person looks like, what kind of street they walk down and perhaps how they might be walking. In fact, maybe you don't even think about some of those things until I point them out, or until I give a second phrase that reads "and people laughed at the way he walked." Of course, now that I told you that he was laughed at, you accommodate this whole sentence by giving him a funny way of walking.

In Inception, the shared dream is populated with an arbitrary landscape, perhaps a city, a tundra or a hotel. There are people walking around and perhaps even some familiar locations, but for the most part, these are all arbitrary landmarks. The dreamer populates the dream using his subconscious, filling in for what's left blank with their own personal thoughts. The initial setup of objects demands that the dreamer forms some causality between initial objects in the dream and, as a result, the dreamer creates a narrative out of the objects that reveals information about themselves. This is how the process of extraction works.

4) The process of extraction mirrors how we use language and narratives. Words on their own are arbitrary, meaningless symbols; mere parts of a (very very messy) syntax. By drawing connections between the words that somebody says, that person can communicate with us by allowing us to draw connections between the words and extracting information from the context that emerges when multiple words or sentences are arranged in a particular way.

Narratives work in the same fashion. The "dream defenses" in inception are a perfect example. I personally thought that the dreams having some literal military looked silly, as many people may have. Despite the fact that we know that it wouldn't really look like that in real life, we understood what the military men signified by seeing them try to kill any and all intruders. Every metaphor requires at least two juxtaposed symbols; they are an invariant representation of a pattern. By juxtaposing two or more symbols, you can imply some sort of causality or context that mirrors something that people understand and therefore turn meaningless symbols (such as say... a bunch of talking farm animals) into something that helps us understand the world (such as, just for the sake of argument... Animal Farm.)

5) Extraction works by framing a person's consciousness with arbitrary symbols and then causing them to involuntarily fill in the blanks with parts of their personal life. We're simply hard-wired to look for patterns and try to make predictions by accounting for the unseen. The dreamer reveals their secrets by allowing the intruders to see how they connect the dots and account for what isn't present in the dream.

In other words, it is the context of what somebody is saying that reveals the truth. Otherwise, the person could be lying or telling the truth or just saying nonsense; but if we compare it to what they've said before and under what circumstances, then we can assign some sort of information content to the words. The logical conclusion of this is that the truth about a person comes from what isn't present in what they say, that it's always looking between the juxtaposition of somebody's words, sentences or actions. This is why our English teachers always tell us to "read between the lines."

6) As an extension of (3), art and religion make for very good learning tools because they utilize our brain's incredible talent for storing patterns as invariant representations. Stories represent a wealth of highly abstracted shared wisdom accumulated over the course of civilization; all in a convenient narrative form. But I digress.

7) The dreamscapes created by Ellen Paige use logical paradoxes in order to "close the loop" of the dream. Most notable was the infinite stairs reminiscent of M.C. Escher. I don't fully know what to make of it, but such paradoxes seem to tie in well with Bertrand Russel's metalanguage problem. The dreams have within them some sort of "incompleteness" in that the dream simply cannot account for all possible questions the dreamer might ask. By making the dream physically loop on itself in a seamless fashion, Ellen Paige can make sure that the dreamer will simply not be able to answer certain questions such as "does this dream end or is it infinite?"

In real life, we're faced with a similar phenomenon. Many logical paradoxes exist within our world, one of which has shown that some true statements in mathematics simply cannot be proven. This is called Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. In this sense, the dream is arguably just as real as "real life" because it has a set of symbols upon which we are able to endow a narrative and has logical paradoxes which shroud certain epistemic questions about reality.

8) And logical paradoxes might just be the most essential thing to the fabric of reality. If we had "total knowledge" by which all things were proven with a consistent set of axioms, then we would no longer have any sort of experience because there would be nothing left to learn. All experience is caused by the activity of the brain making sense of its inputs and all narrative is us drawing causal links out of an infinite amount of possibilities to account for some series of events (or more accurately, some set of symbols.) The existence of epistemic limits means that we continue in the activity of learning and creating narratives.

In my opinion, narratives are the essence of experience because they're about imagining what isn't there; we live ineffably. Things continue to be ineffable in the absence of irrefutable proof. But perhaps it's also because reality works just like the dreams featured in Inception; that the universe just doesn't have enough material to answer all of our questions and so reality closes itself under a logical paradox that leaves us to continually guess with narratives. The universe is hardly the static, sound and complete ontological entity that the Enlightenment envisioned, it's a constantly fluctuating narrative where ideas like "true" and "false" are far less understandable than we think.

And I think that's why Christopher Nolan made the last scene such a cliffhanger. To be honest, I actually hated that scene, I think it was an extremely un-subtle way to address a question that the movie already implied and I believe that by putting it in the forefront, it made people take the problem so literally without wondering whether it even mattered whether Leonardo DiCaprio was still dreaming.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance and Narrative Troglodytes

So, this is a theory that I've been thinking about for a long time and I decided I may as well put this up for a first entry.

For those who know about Cognitive Dissonance, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. If you don't know what it is, I'll put it very simply. You're more likely to like somebody if you help them rather than if they help you. Following this pattern: if you act unfriendly to someone, you're more likely to dislike them. A little bit counter-intuitive, but nonetheless supported by a great deal of scientific data. The best explanation as to why this happens is that people feel the need to have a consistent narrative of their actions--if certain occurrences don't fit into that narrative, or run completely counter to it, then you're going to have to use up more mental energy to keep multiple narratives running in your head. Considering that both intuition (which constitutes, I'd venture... 95% of our thinking) and memory are associative phenomenon, that means that you expend a lot of mental energy holding unassociated and seemingly contradictory ideas.

But that explanation (or just-so story, you decide) isn't the point of this entry. Just to show how general the idea behind cognitive dissonance is, I'd like to talk about a related phenomenon. The face has some dozens of muscles that can be either active or at rest. All of our facial expressions are created by activating combinations of these muscles. But by moving any one of these muscles, we send a special electric/chemical impulse that causes us to feel what we're communicating with that muscle. That is, if I make an angry face, then I will feel angrier. If I smile more, I'll feel more jovial.

For yet one more example, think about how hard it is for people to lie. People fidget, sometimes break out into laughter (although I used to get nervous when telling a story when I was little and my sister would accuse me of lying, which would of course make me smile or laugh more), our palms will get sweaty, which is why polygraphs can (admittedly unreliably) detect lies. Taken together together, there seems to be a general pattern here that escapes our everyday intuitions: that what we show on the outside is not simply a manifestation of how we feel but that in fact the connection between our feelings and our actions goes both ways.

This isn't very shocking on its own; I think most of us understand what I said to some degree. But I think that the implications of this idea have not been thought through. Consider, for starters, why we would evolve in such a way that it's hard to lie or to operate independently of what our own actions may infer; after all, if we know everything that's going on in our own heads, shouldn't we not try to make inferences about our own actions? I know that the question is more complicated than simply that (and I'll get to that in a moment), but consider the utility to a band of hunter-gatherers of nobody in the group having an easy time lying.

In fact, take it one step further and consider what cognitive dissonance (and everything related) does for us. It gives both our actions and our thoughts narrative continuity. I've preferred chocolate to vanilla my entire life; I may order vanilla whimsically once in a while, but I know that I generally prefer chocolate ice cream. It would be very hard for me to know what ice cream to stock the house with if several times a day, based on my temperament and not on past actions, despised the flavor of ice cream I liked two hours ago and loved a flavor that I was lukewarm about.

Of course, that's a mere nuisance compared to what it could do with myself and people. What if I suddenly, for no reason, despised my best friend while we were hanging out and then the next day I was fine with him again? I may have reasons in my own head for it, but if there was no precedent in my actions, then to other people it will look completely random; both initially despising him out of left field and suddenly being cool with him the next day. Most of our understanding of the world is based on narratives; we use narratives to make predictions (which would explain why we don't do so well at prediction in a more interdependent modern world) and we rely on predictions to know whether we can hang out with a friend the next day or trust our neighbor to feed the cats. Therefore, cognitive dissonance assures that most changes will happen gradually; a friend of mine might suddenly have an outburst and storm off once in a while, but I can be pretty sure that that friend is not going to have a change of morality overnight and sell my kidneys on the black market.

So cognitive dissonance is a social mechanism that helps the survival of groups of people. Evolutionarily, this seems in line with the fact that our closest relatives are more social than our more distant relatives. This also leads me to believe that Rousseau had it entirely wrong when he said that humans were meant to be solitary creatures; solitary schmolitary, we're open books!

We're not just social creatures, however; we're also narrative creatures (however much those two concepts are independent, but I'll leave that to another essay.) For those who don't live entirely under a rock, you know as well as I do that people love reading and telling stories. You also know from high school English class that people also love interpreting stories. This instinct, to me, seems to be reflective of the inferences that we make about other individuals as well as groups of people. We fit our own actions into a story that other people can read and by extension we all participate in a collective narrative.

And narrative is in fact the operative word here. Narrative interpretation has much more to do with associations between ideas than deductive logic. The brain itself works primarily by finding patterns through association, also known as intuition. Deductive logic, by contrast, is a trick that we seemed to formally coin in the classical era and is still used in small doses. The basis for our interactions with other people (and perhaps even our conception of the self) is one based on being able to infer patterns and construct a narrative. Without the narrative continuity of cognitive dissonance, people would be black boxes from which we could only stand to learn about them by deductively testing rigid hypotheses, since there would be too many significant hidden variables for us to know how somebody is going to behave (social conventions also matter in this regard, but they themselves come from the same concept of a shared narrative, which I'll once again have to save for another essay.) So instead of telling you to wear a condom when you go on a date, your parents could remind you to bring your notepad, your data tables and your TI-86 Scientific Calculator. Sounds perfect to me.

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Also, if you extend the logic of this post, you can forget the "enlightened" political theorists Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Shmocke, Crocke. It seems to me that only Edmund Burke was on target about societal behavior.
Hi everyone,

For those who know me (the short version): I have a lot of idle thoughts about narratives, technology, math, uncertainty, systems, subjectivity (blah blah blah) and I thought that I should write them down.

For those who may not (won't be that long): I'm a recent college graduate with a B.A. in Computer Science and English. I study (and mess with) the intersection between narratives, technology and math. I'm working on several projects, one big one that I talk about here. I like just about any subject or idea that I can fit into a larger framework. This blog is meant to contain a lot of my thoughts about subjects ranging from literature and philosophy to neuroscience and economics. Just about every entry in this blog will draw from at least two "disciplines"--I rarely like thinking in a vacuum. Oh, yeah, I also dislike departments and the "specialization" of knowledge rampant in academia, but that's another story.

So if you're interested in any of the subjects I talk about, keep an eye out for new entries. And if you're a contrarian, please be sure to attack my ideas; keep me honest.