January 30, 2012

Introductory book about the ideas behind this blog

During the fall months of the past year, it's been a little quieter than usual on this blog. The reason was that last summer I found that I needed something more of a coherent presentation of the ideas behind it — a kind of backgrounder and introductory text. So I sat down to write that. The result has taken the shape of a small book, which is now available in a draft version. (There is still some formatting work I want to do to optimize readability, and possibly smallish corrections in wording and grammar.)

You can download the pdf version here.

The table of contents looks like this:



  Living your life · Reflection · Imagination · Philosophy


  Beauty · Excellence of character · Eudaimonia


  Unreality · Interplay · Apartness · Present


January 26, 2012

Hinting at the difference

In Jasper Fforde's series of 'Thursday Next' novels that begins with The Eyre Affair, the borders between reality and fiction are permeable: they can be crossed from either side. What's more, there are multiple ways to do the trick. One way is open to young children with strong powers of imagination. The main character recalls:
my mind was young and the barrier between reality and make-belief had not yet hardened into the shell that cocoons us in adult life. The barrier was soft, pliable and for a moment, thanks to the kindness of a stranger and the power of a good storytelling voice, I made the short journey — and returned.[1]
Let's put romanticism about childhood experience aside (Fforde exploits this cleverly in this passage, but it's not this rhetorical aspect I'm interested in here). What is the function of such explanations about the "barrier between reality and make-belief"? (Which are explanations, really, about the theory or metaphysics underlying the world of the book.) What do they help to achieve in the process of our consuming (or appreciating) fiction?

It is sometimes said that their function is to motivate what is going on in this instance of fiction (i.e. in this book or movie), that they are included in order to make the goings-on (the events, the reaction of the characters) plausible. Their function then, on this view, is to help us believe what we observe; they move us from incredulity to acceptance; they enable suspension of disbelief.

Now this is certainly not entirely wrong: such formulations probably do all these things. But suggestive though it may be, this way of putting it also obscures an important distinction. We don't perceive worlds of fiction. We imagine them. (No doubt we perceive, visually and auditorily, what goes on on a movie screen. But that's not the same as perceiving the imaginary world. In order for the latter to become accessible, there must be a process of imagination, just as there must be such a process when we read a novel. The imagination may be greatly supported by the movie images and sounds, both of which aren't there when we read prose. But what constitutes the fictional world, in both cases, is a process of imagination.) In contrast to perception, then, what we do isn't in the first instance belief-forming, but something more like stipulation.[2]

What phrases such as this one do is not to make the fictional world believable, I'm going to contend. Rather, these are hints to the imagination, design hints. They guide the imagination in fundamental aspects of the fictional world it constructs. They control the frame of what we imagine.

For instance, in the quote above from the Fforde novel: what we are told here is not that, contrary to our everyday belief, the borders between reality and fiction might be more porous than we thought, after all. (How would that be a plausible claim, even if it were made with the intention to appear as one? Countless experiences and the whole body of common knowledge weigh in favor of the contrary.) Instead, it is an indicator, given by the author, of the kind of fictional world we're in. It gently nudges our imagination in a certain direction. We're to imagine a fictional world (that is the world of the novel The Eyre Affair) in which, much in contrast to the real world, the borders between this world itself and any nested fiction (nested unreality, such as that of the book Jane Eyre as referred to in the novel The Eyre Affair) are permeable. It's more subtle than the traditional "Imagine, dear reader, a world in which the borders between reality and fiction can be bent, so that one might travel between the those two..." — but the function is exactly the same. It isn't intended to make such a thought more plausible or believable; it's intended to point out ways for us to imagine such a world.

Such pointers, such hints at differences between the fictional world we're dealing with and the real world, have something in common with the bits of fictional export I mentioned in the previous post. The author provides us with them so that we are better able to imagine the fictional world in question. The materials for fictional export hold also in the real world, and they are included by the author in his fictional world because they are required for the narrative. (Think explanations of forensic methods in crime fiction.) The differential hints I'm discussing here are of course explanations of differences between reality and fiction (this particular fiction). But they serve the same function: helping us to better understand what sort of world we are to imagine in order to make sense of the narrative.
[1] Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair. London: Hodder and Stoughton 2001, 63.
[2] Both perception and imagination are incredibly complicated processes, which haven't been researched in all detail by cognitive science and other disciplines yet. A good starting point for reading up about the differences in phenomenology is Colin McGinn's Mindsight. Image, Dream, Meaning, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2004, especially chapter 1.

January 25, 2012

History, time travel, and informedness of unreality

'Join us for an amazing journey through time!' — Exhibitions at history museums sometimes advertise that they will 'take you back in time', typically to some earlier period the exhibition is about. And in fact, if the period in question is interesting and colorful enough in itself, and the exhibition supports it by a suitable manner of presentation, focusing not so much on written descriptions and explanations, but rather on rich tableaux, original costumes and items from the time, and appropriate lighting and background sound, you may easily find yourself suddenly 'in' that past world, looking at a lavish banquet, say, feeling almost as if in fact you were there.

Now this is 'time travel' only in a metaphorical sense: you're not actually going back in time — you're just imagining yourself at another time. Or perhaps you don't even imagine yourself as being there, you simply imagine what it must have been like, how it must have looked (and sounded, and smelled) at that time. This is different from time travel as it is presented in novels and films: there, a character is transferred from his own time into a different time and then is actually there. Put differently, a time traveler in a movie would perceive a different world, the world of the past, while a museum visitor imagines it. Both may have some visual impression (and again, also impressions on the other senses, too) of that world. But where the time traveler perceives an independent reality, not subject to his will, the museum visitor shapes such a world in his imagination, and is therefore free to include whatever he fancies (he might for instance imagine his romantic partner sitting at that banquet table in an exquisite old-fashioned dress). By virtue of this difference, the museum visit isn't time travel in a proper sense, only in a metaphorical sense, based on some similarities in the experiences one would have.

In order to make this distinction as clear as possible, I have so far not mentioned a complication, which we now have to look at. The complication is this: even though we imagine (not perceive) the world of the past into which the museum invites us, we couldn't just dream it up ourselves. After all, the very purpose of the exhibition is to make us familiar with details about the past which we didn't know about so far. We learn something from it, something we didn't know before, and what we learn is obviously not coming from our imagination, but comes from the outside, channeled through its presentation at the exhibition. Where does it come from?

The exhibition will be informed, often by historical or scientific fact which we know about. Thus, if the exhibition is about dinosaurs, much of the information will come from science (what did a dinosaur look like, what were its dimensions, its color and shape, its typical movements, how would a typical environment have looked, which plants were there, and so on). It's science which reconstructs these things and can tell us how we would have to imagine them in order to keep within established facts. If the exhibition is rather about historical or cultural matters (such as the history of an island or the life and work of a composer, say), then that information comes from history. (History has methods that are somewhat different from those of science.)

So, from a historical exhibition, we can learn something about the real world, even though we look at the world of an instance of unreality. I call this the informedness[1] of unreality by bits and pieces from the real world. This does not run counter to the general character of the unreal as imagined, as being a product of the imagination; it just shows that the workings of the imagination always take up some materials from reality and include, shape and develop them in the process of generating an instance of unreality. You can learn from an exhibition about the past just as you can learn from a movie or a novel, or a dream: for instance, if you are a reader of crime fiction, you might learn a bit from it about police procedure, or forensic science. Of course, it's only in there because the author has researched it and built it into the world of her story, and it goes without saying that there is no guarantee that it's not fictional — the author might just have invented some bit of science which was necessary for the narrative, but which isn't actual science. Even dreams include memories, thoughts and emotions from waking life as building blocks, however much they may rearrange and distort them; from these you may pick up things about yourself and your recent experience you haven't noticed (yet) while awake.

(Such informedness is in some respects a counterpart to sedimentation; just like the latter, the former results from the interplay of reality and unreality, resulting in a mix of both along the path. Instances of the unreal sediment into reality when they influence our views and actions; bits and pieces of the real make up the materials from which the worlds of unreality are created.)

[1] It's also sometimes called fictional export. See for instance Christy Mag Uidhir and Allen Hazlett, "Unrealistic Fictions", in: American Philosophical Quarterly 48 (2011), 33–46. This seems to be a very helpful notion, but I have to read up more about it.

January 22, 2012

Passage and nested unreality

In my earlier posts about entering the worlds of movies and the pull this exerts on the imagination I looked closer at the fascination we might feel with this idea.

So, as I wrote, the worlds of some movies exert a pull on the imagination; but there is no way to satisfy the desire, no way to go in and follow up. So what does the movie do? It 'knows' about that desire and 'satisfies' it, by giving it expression, playing it out. In the movies, everything is possible, including entering a movie plot. So in the world of a movie (such as Die Einsteiger), a device is conjured up that fulfills the desire. It's not different from many other wish-fulfilling machines (or from wish-fulfilling magic). The worlds of fiction are in part intended to act out fantasies in which desires are fulfilled. Thus the idea of a passage into the unreal is born.

Note that this is in some sense a reflective process: fiction, as it were, self-consciously exploits a desire which it itself has helped to generate in the first place. But we must be careful not to make too much out of this reflexive constellation. People in movies don't just travel into the worlds of fictions, but also into dreams, or the past and the future. It's not the reflexivity that makes this work; that's not even a necessary attribute. It is merely a spicy extra feature in the particular constellation in which the world from which departure is taken and the destination world are both instances of the same form of unreality (i.e., worlds of movies).

There seems to be one thing that is required, though. In the real world, it's not possible to travel into the world of a movie, a dream, or the past or the future. In the real world, there is no magic, and neither are there any technical devices (at least up to now) which can do the trick. And therefore we (real people) cannot make any such journey. The only people who can are fictional characters, people who are already part of the world of a movie (or other fiction, such as a novel). The starting point of any passage into the unreal must lie within an instance of unreality already. The laws that govern the real world don't allow for it (as far as we know), but the laws that govern any world of fiction can be adjusted by the creator of that world, the person who imagines it, and so an instance of unreality might allow traveling into those worlds of fictions, dreams, or the past and the future. Note that this means that passage is always a matter of going into the world of a nested fiction. There is no way into fiction; just into fiction-within-fiction.

(It's an interesting question exactly how far this can be generalized: there seems to be a passage from fiction into dreams, and the past or the future; maybe there's a path from dreams into fiction, or again the past or the future; there might be dreams-within-dreams into which we can travel from dreams. There seems to be no passage from either the past or the future to anywhere — what does this tell us about the differences between these forms of unreality?)

So when there is what I have called 'passage into the unreal', we're always talking about nested unreality— there is an outer instance of fiction (the world of the film Die Einsteiger) and a bunch of inner instances (e.g. the world of Dance of the vampires). That they are nested means that the second is, as viewed from within the film itself, a film with its fictional world. The characters in Die Einsteiger are like people in the real world in that they watch movies, put them on video cassettes (which weren't yet replaced by DVDs or Blu-rays as the prevalent medium at that time), and watch them for entertainment. They have the same idea of a movie as fiction, and of the world of that movie as a fictional world (just as I described it in my previous post). But of course, what's fiction for them is fiction-within-fiction for us, the audience in the real world, for these people are fictional characters already. And of course only because their world is a fictional world is it that people can jump into movie worlds (worlds of movies-within-the-movie); that's not possible in the real world (for all we know).

Such fiction-within-fiction is not exactly a rare phenomenon. There is nothing unusual for people in novels to read books or watch movies, or for film characters to do the same. After all, the characters in those novels or films are often intended to appear much like people in the real world, and consuming fiction is something that people in the real world do. Sometimes, fiction-within-fiction has a more substantial role to play than just making characters seem like real people. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the Danish prince uses a play to confront another character with a story very similar to what he thinks might have been enacted by his uncle. In other words, Hamlet uses the play-within-a-play as a means of indirect communication, and something that is intended to awaken emotions and provoke a reaction.

In any case, however, this nesting of fiction-within-fiction is necessary for passage into the unreal: there is no traveling into fiction unless you are already within a fiction.

January 20, 2012

More on pull on the imagination

In my previous post on entering the worlds of movies, I noted a certain fascination we might feel with this idea. Let me expand on this a little.

Psychologically, there is certainly some trace of a wish-fulfillment dream in here, but for now, that's not the aspect I want to look into. There is also what I have called a 'pull' that is exerted on our imagination: we feel ourselves drawn into a fictional world, and this feeling of being drawn is not that of a physical dragging, nor necessarily that of a psychological grip (the movie doesn't have to be totally absorbing in order for us to feel the pull). This pull is on the imagination — we feel invited, encouraged, sometimes even compelled to begin imagining ourselves in that world, to think of things we might do in addition to those we watch the characters do, and so on. (I have said that our imagination maps out spaces of options in the world of the movie; that is one of its primary operation modes, and so it's no wonder that it eagerly follows the invitation to take any opportunity for doing so.)

Sometimes this is achieved directly, for instance when a character does something we know he shouldn't do, and we want to shout, sometimes even do shout, something like: "Don't go up there!" — because we know what's going to happen. Sometimes characters do something very unexpected, and there is a residue of things we'd like to check or review, etc. Sometimes there is teasing that isn't followed up in any way. In all those cases, our imagination gets engaged, and by that operation we have the feeling of being pulled in.

At least for someone like me (who likes to muse about the workings of fictional worlds), there is a two-fold pull of that sort in movies like the one I mentioned as an example, Die Einsteiger. One is the pull which the movie exploits: we all know the films that are the targets, those into which the characters of Die Einsteiger enter with the help of their machine; and they are popular samples which certainly have nudged our imagination themselves. (Not each of them, perhaps, but an assortment is used that will probably have something for everyone in a broad group: it includes adventure, horror, romance, and history films.) The other pull is the one the movie itself exhibits: the film is an instance of fiction itself, and in the fictional world of this instance, there is something like this machine — and obviously the imagination of the audience is encouraged to work on that idea. (What would you do if you had such a machine, which movies would you enter?)

January 16, 2012


When I was a child (I remember) I watched a movie called Die Einsteiger. It was centered around a couple of geeks who were able to 'jump into a movie' by means of some technical instrument. The film was firmly in the genre of light entertainment, and the technique of entering the worlds of movies was simply used as a device for bringing in jokes and a bit of action. But I was fascinated by this core idea: what if you could simply enter a movie plot, such as that of Raiders of the lost ark or Dance of the vampires, walk around in the world of that movie, participate in the action (or wander off to some parts of it that weren't even shown in the film)?

Where did that fascination come from? Was it just childish identification with the adventurous heroes in those films? A bit of that was certainly in the mix for me, at the time. But then the fascination didn't fade away even long after heroic fantasies had (predictably) lost their appeal. So perhaps there's something more interesting to be found here. Mostly, I think, what was intriguing was this notion of crossing that border, of walking around in a world I knew didn't exist. After all, even though it didn't exist, it could be imagined, described, and even depicted in a movie. So how much of a step could it be to actually go there, to travel into it and walk around inside it? Strictly speaking, it actually can be done in fantasy only, and a movie such as the one I saw is best described as simply acting out a fantasy. But the fact remains that the idea on which this fantasy is based exerts an immense pull on the imagination. So let's have a closer look at that idea.

The world of a movie, just as the world of a novel, the past, or the future, is the world of an instance of unreality — it's not really there, but you can imagine it (including the people and events in it) to be there. Typically, this imaginative activity requires some prompting. Fiction is a paradigmatic example of what induces us to imagine such unreal worlds; but there are others, too: dreams do the same; or you can deliberately trigger it yourself in daydreams.

When we imagine the world of a movie, we fit it with as many details as is needed for the narrative. Thus Dance of the vampires will include a wide landscape in deep snow, a rustic inn, and a sinister castle where the vampires reside. It will also include a bizarre cast of characters (the single-minded professor and his fearful assistant, the selfish innkeeper and his beautiful bathing-addict daughter, and the cruel and powerful vampire chief along with his dandyish son). Once the world is stuffed and staffed with all these items and people, there is a sequence of events (the plot), with some memorable scenes perhaps standing out of the stream of what happens. What we mean when we speak of 'the world' of this movie is something like this rough inventory I've just given. We're only able to speak about it like that after we have seen the movie, of course, and that implies also that, even before that, the movie must have been realized (i.e. produced). All those items must have been created (by use of props and scenery, with the help of a camera and nowadays quite likely also computer-generated imagery); all those characters must have been portrayed (by actors), guided by a script and directed by someone with an overall vision, in order to make it coherent and detailed enough to be recognized as a fictional world on its own.

Now if such a fictional world exerts a certain pull on our imagination — if it is an interesting enough place to capture our curiosity and attention —, it seems that this creates a desire for more: we might want to re-watch the movie (sometimes several times), to re-live the experience of getting immersed in that story and its world. (Perhaps a movie makes this even easier for many people because, in contrast to a novel, the visual representation facilitates the operation of the imagination.) What's more: we might also feel that the world in which the story unfolds is so rich and fascinating in itself (aside from the particular plot) that we can easily imagine other interesting stories unfolding in it, too. In other words, we begin to imagine that more happens within the same landscape, more happens to the same characters, than the story presents. If you fancy yourself in the plot of Dance of the vampires, it's not that you simply want to mechanically play out the same role as, say the young assistant to the professor, Polanski's character, seeing the world of the movie through his eyes, re-experiencing what he must have felt. In a sense, that is what you already get from the movie. You want more. You think that you, in the place of that character, might have done something different. Perhaps you may have simply lingered for half an hour longer in this curious old castle, or spent a couple of hundred years reading through that enormous library, or perhaps you might have done something different entirely which none of the movie's characters would ever have thought of. The point is that the moment you can imagine doing something else in the world of that movie than the characters do, however minor a thing it might be, you are on the track I'm exploring here. (Your imagination has widened the space of options within that world of fiction.)

But of course, there is not much of a chance that this gigantic movie machinery will be put to use again just in order to give you that experience. (Some experience may be outside the powers of even Hollywood, anyway.) So your phantasy will probably remain just that. And this is where the idea of a device that can take you there, a device as in Die Einsteiger, begins to seem mightily attractive. (It's the same way in which a time machine begins to get a very desirable thing when you consider using it to visit some event in your past that you happen to have missed.)

So it seems there are at least two conditions to the desire to travel into the world of a movie: it must be a full-fledged world that is open for some possibly interesting activity (an activity that would be interesting enough so that you want to engage in it), and the surroundings must include options which you can't get anywhere else. (Consider: if a movie is set in the Bahamas, and the only thing that is intriguing for you is the nice, sunny beaches you see, then you wouldn't desire to be in the movie — you would simply desire to be in the Bahamas. Now unless that is so unaffordable for you that it is entirely out of the question, this is a desire that's easily fulfilled: just go there! The desire to have a movie-travel machine won't come up. It will only come into play if there is something attractive about the world of the movie itself, something you can't have by merely booking a holiday.)

January 15, 2012

Time-traveling to the sequoia trees

Vertigo (from which the visual motto of this blog comes) has sparked quite some reflection, both in discussions, aesthetic and otherwise, and in movies themselves, as intertextual references.

The most directly inspired follow-ups are of course Chris Marker's La Jetée and Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. The memorable scene under the sequoia trees in Vertigo, in which Kim Novak's character points out the dates of her birth and death (and we get the feeling that she really is possessed by a ghost in this moment, a ghost who reflects on its own former life, its beginning and end), returns in both later science fiction movies as a quotation.

The past and the future, two forms of unreality which we can become particularly desperate wishing to travel to, are never out of sight in all three films; but the two later ones are imaginative science-fiction films that use time travel whereas Vertigo was based on other motifs.

More precisely: the past and the future are expressly sought in both movies; their character as unreal is dramatized by first making them accessible (and apparently even changeable), which is made possible by the device of time travel, and then bringing them into the paradoxical shape of a story knot.

Vertigo, on the other hand, never focuses so baldly on either the past or the future. In Vertigo, the past exerts its influence in the shape of history (personal history, as in Scottie's fear of heights; family history, as in the fake Madeleine's unhappy and mad ancestor; and local history, as illustrated in the melancholic reflections in Gavin Elster's office, the San Francisco bookstore, or finally under the sequoia trees); the future looms in deceptive suggestiveness, in dreams, and in the shape of a plot which drives relentlessly towards its inevitable, tragic conclusion. Character traits and dramatic constellation have in Vertigo the function that in La Jetée and Twelve Monkeys is taken over by the science-fiction devices of time travel and story knots.

January 14, 2012

Entering dream worlds

Suppose you could enter someone else's dream just as if you were visiting a party. It's not that this is an entirely unpopular idea, there are several movies based on this notion, such as only recently Inception. But let's for the moment leave the elaborate theories presented there aside and examine the basic idea in a more simple setting.

1) Suppose, then, you could enter someone else's dream. Let's call the dreamer 'Joe'. You're now in Joe's dream. What would this be like? Would you just be at the same location, see what Joe sees in his dream? Imagine that Joe is in fact dreaming about a party, and now that you have entered the dream, you're at that party. Just as Joe, when he dreams about being at a party, it's as if he were standing in the room, together with all the other guests, hearing the music and idle chatter, seeing those people, the furniture, some food and drinks on a table, the dimmed light, the stereo in a corner... just as for Joe it feels in his dream as if he were actually there, it now also does for you. You're there with him in that very room, seeing and hearing the same things. But does this mean that you can see everything in the room, including the things that Joe isn't looking at, including the things that Joe hasn't even looked at up to now? Or is what you see restricted to what Joe sees, or at least to what he has seen so far (what his dreaming mind has, so to speak, dreamed up)? For instance, if Joe is just standing near the door, looking into the room — does it mean that all you can see is this room, or can you actually peek out the door and see what happens in the next room, even though Joe has (so far in his dream) never turned round and looked there?

We can only answer that question if we have some account of how dream worlds are built. Who decides what and who is in the room at that party Joe and you have joined? Since Joe is the dreamer, it seems that Joe's dreaming mind must do that job. The moment Joe dreams up a chair standing in the middle of the room, the moment that chair exists in the dream world. As it happens, there are three ways this can look to him. Let's say that Joe hasn't glanced at that spot before; then he either might take it that the chair has been there all the time, or he might think it just appeared out of thin air. On the other hand, if we assume that Joe has been looking there frequently and there's never been any chair, then he might notice that now, suddenly, there is a chair where none was before. (Dreams are like that, such things happen all the time.)

But what does that mean for you, the extra participant? What's going on from your point of view? It seems clear that in the third case you are observing a dream world in which there is an empty spot in the middle of the room and in which suddenly a chair appears in that very spot. But what about the two others? What if Joe has been transfixed by some events in the left part of the room and for quite some while hasn't looked at the middle of the room: what do you see when you do look there? Do you see the chair? Since Joe hasn't imagined (dreamed) it yet, perhaps we should say that you can't see it. Now what if Joe now turns to the middle of the room and calmly imagines a chair there, satisfied that it must have been there all along?

We seem to have run into a dilemma here: on the one hand, if we grant the dreamer authority about the furniture of his dream, its position and its changes of place, then we can only observe what he's already dreamed, so there is literally nothing there at any place until he brings his attention there. And presumably, when he turns his awareness somewhere else, there can't be said to be anything there as well: it's neither that the chair remains there nor that it suddenly disappears, leaving the spot empty again. Somehow, it seems, if we take this point about a dreamer's authority serious, the largest part of the dream world is undefined, for most of the time. If, on the other hand, we relax this strict adherence to the dreamer's attention (and imagination), we might enjoy a much more stable world of the dream, but it would be less clear in what sense this is still the world of that dreamer's dream.

2) At this point we might borrow a trick from the way fiction (another form of unreality) works in order to avoid this kind of trouble. No fiction describes each and every detail of the fictional world it is about — that wouldn't be possible. So what usually happens is that there is a tacit agreement between the author and the audience that the undescribed portions are filled in with appropriate assumptions. Thus if a story starts by telling us that "It was a cold, rainy autumn day in London of the year 19__", we can assume that the big city has many inhabitants who go about their lives, and that there has been a day with some weather before and after that particular day at which the story begins, while none of all this is ever mentioned, and quite probably most of it is also totally irrelevant for the narrated events. We just imagine the relevant parts and assume the rest as suitably fixed.

We mustn't misinterpret this 'filling in', however. When you read such a sentence, you may or may not visualize the streets of London in pouring rain, and to any degree of detail you like. Perhaps you'll take a moment after reading this very first sentence and bring those streets before your mind's eye, one by one, with every house clearly and to the smallest detail specified; but probably not. But then some people read stories without even picturing anything; and still they can take up the general idea of a cold, rainy day in a place like London.) In either case, none of them will have to imagine anything about the weather on the previous day, the day before the story begins, our about all the other people in the city which don't have any bearing on the story. To 'fill in' the necessary detail, then, is not to run through all the small details in your mind and fill them in. It's just to suppose that, as in the real world, there are some facts of the matter about all those things, and to be content that they would be described to us, should they be of any relevance to the story.

How can this stance of 'as close to what you'd expect unless directly specified' help us with the world of the dream party we're attending? Let's go through all the possibilities again. First, let's say Joe has looked several times at the center of the room, never noticing a chair or anything else there, but then suddenly dreams up one standing there; he thinks 'Whoops, there's a chair there!' for a moment, and then turns his attention elsewhere. For you, as an observer, the sequence would be the same: you see an empty spot up to the moment when suddenly a chair pops into existence there; you might have a similar thought about it, and from now the chair just remains standing there. Should Joe at some point turn back to see if the chair is still there and then dream its sudden disappearance, then at that moment the chair will dissolve before your eyes as well. Second, let's say the moment you enter the room you look at that center spot, whereas Joe so far has never as much as even glanced there, transfixed by the events in the left part of the room. If the room is mostly empty, then we wouldn't expect neither a chair nor anything else there, so you don't see a chair. (Of course, if the room is actually like a theatre audience with rows and rows of chairs, then we wouldn't expect a gap at this spot either, and so we would do see a chair there. It all depends on what the reasonable thing to expect is.) When Joe turns his attention to this spot, suddenly imagining a chair there, then the chair will duly appear, and for you as observer it will appear only then, even if Joe thinks that it has been there all the time. (That is, the third option above collapses into the second option — there isn't any difference between them, except in what Joe thinks; that, however, is not part of the dream world's exterior, but only of Joe's awareness of it.)

I think this approach preserves most of the authority of the dreamer while still keeping the dream world somewhat stable. Just as always in dreams, completely surprising things can suddenly happen (such as a totally unmotivated appearance of a chair in the middle of the room), but then that's just what dreams are like. However, only with this extra assumption can there be something like a shared dream world, something that both Joe can dream and you can observe. The minimum is some assumption of stability and filled-in detail. Otherwise, the whole idea of entering someone else's dream wouldn't even be conceivable.

But note that this means that Joe can be wrong about the world of his own dream in some respects: not about its present state, for that is exactly as he imagines it, and there is no way he can be wrong about that. (We still hold on to the idea of the authority of the dreaming mind. You can't be wrong about what you imagine. It is as you imagine it, by stipulation.) What he can be wrong about is what was going on before. The past sequence of dream events must be something stable, for that's not something Joe imagines, but something that he has imagined, and you have perceived. It's not something that can be up to anyone's imagination any more. It can be tracked as if it were an objective fact about the dream world, no longer a subjective element that is in Joe's imagination. (I think there is something wrong about this move, but I won't follow up with this here. I'll reserve that for a later post.)

3) So far, we have only talked about looking around, and what it would be like for you to be an observer in someone else's dream. What about exploring this dream world a little more actively? Think of that door next to which Joe is standing. Since he hasn't yet dreamed about what's behind that door, it could be anything from a yawning abyss to an ordinary floor — or perhaps it's a blind door that is fully blocked by a wall. Assuming what is most likely, we would think that if you looked behind it, you'd probably see another room that appears roughly as one would expect; you'd however step through at your peril, for if Joe focuses on it and imagines a blind door there, then you're suddenly in the middle of nowhere (possibly in an adjacent room, or falling down several stories outside — whatever the most likely scenario would be under the changed circumstance, or alternatively, if Joe dreams anything more about it, then whatever that will be).

The world of someone else's dream is an extremely unstable thing: a dreaming mind will change the surroundings all the time. Remember your own dreams: sudden changes of place, or transformations in your surroundings aren't in the least unusual.

4) This is not yet the end of our difficulties. What happens to the authority of the dreamer when it comes to interaction? Once you're not just an observer, but also take action in the dream world, there is potentially a conflict in everything that happens. Suppose you've spotted a chair in the middle of the room, and that chair is actually dreamed by Joe; now you decide to walk over to that chair and sit down on it. Suppose further that Joe's repeating nightmare is an empty chair that just remains empty however long he stares at it. But this time, you just go there and occupy it. Can we still claim that we're in Joe's dream, when this sequence of events is not something that originated in Joe's mind, when it in fact couldn't even have originated there (assuming that the nightmare pattern is relatively sticky and Joe would go through it all over again if left to his dream).

Now you might perhaps say that there is nothing unusual about this: after all, things happen to us in the real world all the time, we don't have full control over events (not even nearly). So why should a dream be different?

It should be different because dreams are a play of the imagination. You may not be able to control what you dream — in fact, most of the time, our dreaming mind plays wild spectacles for us without us having even the slightest say in matters of the program. But even though it is the arbitrariness of our dreaming mind, it is precisely the arbitrariness of our mind. It's not as if you perceive events going on somewhere. You imagine them. Thus the wildest things may happen indeed, but none of them have originated outside your imagination. There is no such thing as an independent actor, or an independent event. It's all in your head.

Intervening in someone else's dream, then, is probably best taken as indeed breaking up the dream state and fiddling with it from the outside. It belongs in the same category as noises or light effects in the sleeper's room which get through to the sleeping mind and become ad-hoc components of the dream; or talking to someone who is in the process of waking. There's decidedly an outside influence here. Sometimes, this idea is taken to the point of actual therapy: in Dreamscape, for instance, dream researchers enter others' dreams in order to figure out the deep-seated origins of nightmares (typically some repressed idea, a notion from the Freudian tradition of dream theory), and address them from within the dream. It is, as if a helping hand is extended to you from a character in your dream, only that this character is not in fact a character at all (someone imagined by you), but a real person who is projected into your dream. (Is there a way for the dreamer to distinguish between a proper dream character and an impostor, someone who came from the outside world into the dream with an agenda?) In any case, interaction is a further complication that makes the idea of entering someone else's dream a rather difficult setup. (Remember that we still haven't even discussed the question how this might be implemented: we're only talking about the phenomenology, that is, how it appears; or how it would appear, if it were actually possible to implement.)

5) Because of all this, in Inception a wholly different process of dream world creation is used.

The basic idea of the movie is that you can get into another person's dreams and there interact with that person's mind, in particular, steal some information that person wouldn't reveal to you when awake. This notion is probably inspired by the observation that dreams do visualize much of our inner lives, especially our emotional lives, which we wouldn't be willing (or even capable) to expose to others in words. Since you put your deepest secrets into pictures when you dream, you open up to spies there much more than when you're awake.

But your dream world would be much too unstable for anyone to enter it, and thus too dangerous — the plot would be infeasible. Therefore, the spies won't simply put you to sleep and then enter your dreams. Instead, they let you enter the dream of someone from the team; and the world of that dream has been pre-designed. It's not something his dreaming mind creates on the spot, it's something that an 'architect' has carefully drafted and later on explained to the team member who dreams it. Then you are invited into this world, and you start walking around in it. When you encounter a safe place, such as a bank vault, you'll picture your innermost secrets as lying there, safely. (You also 'populate' it, in the film's lingo, with projections of people you know.) The gang of thieves, who don't just know the interior of the world much better than you, but also quite probably have built in some back doors and secret shortcuts, will then 'extract' that information from the safe place, and so in effect steal it from you.

So, in other words, the way Inception solves the problem of the instability of dream worlds is by using worlds which aren't, strictly speaking, dream worlds at all. They resemble much more the worlds of a video game: they're pre-designed, not just in their layout, but also with a specific purpose in mind. You don't enter another person's dream, you enter a virtual-reality playfield. (Revealingly, the dream worlds are called 'dream levels' in Inception jargon, which is probably not a coincidence: the worlds of video games are also structured into 'levels'.) By treating dreams as a kind of shared video game, the creators of Inception have addressed an inherently complicated aspect of a world of unreality to make it plausible that you can 'enter' it, as it were, travel into it. (In this way, the film is also similar to those which play around with the notions of the past and the future, to make it plausible that you can travel there, using a time machine.)

(Side remark: This is basically a more detailed exposition of the line of thought at the end of my earlier posting on Projection, interception, and Inception.)