This page is for participants for my Inception workshops.

Cover of Buckland's 'Hollywood Puzzle Films'

See also, Impossible Puzzle Films by



Inception has been called a puzzle film because of its complexity and ambiguity. The film leaves viewers with questions like:

- Did the top stop spinning at the end?

- If it did or didn’t does it really matter?

- What parts of the movies were ‘real’ 

and which were dreams?

- What does real mean anyway?

- What is the meaning behind  Inception?

- Did the director, Christoper Nolan, have one main intention or meaning behind it?

Inception is complex and ambiguous. Philosophy also is complex and often deals with questions that have no simple answers. 

What better way is there than to  do philosophy by thinking about Inception?

“From Inception to The Lake House, moviegoers are increasingly flocking to narratologically complex puzzle films. These puzzle movies borrow techniques—like fragmented spatio-temporal reality, time loops, unstable characters with split identities or unreliable narrators—more commonly attributed to art cinema and independent films.   - Hollywood Puzzle Flims edited by Warren Buckley, Routledge.

See also, Impossible Puzzle Films by Miklos Kiss and Steven Willemsen

Sample from Miklos Kiss /  Steven Willemsen

Introduction and first chapter  Contemporary Complex Cinema

Narrative Metalepsis as Diegetic Concept in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception.’ Acta Film and Media Studies, 2012 Vol.5: 35-54.

The Uses of Inception for Philosophy

 Internal Motivators:

There are standard philosophical themes that inception assumes and raises as follows.

· Epistemology- the theory of knowledge, truth & evidence.

Epistemology tries to answer  questions like:  How do we know? What is knowledge? What is the relation of truth to knowledge? Is having a true belief enough for knowledge?

If we cannot know anything, then epistemology might end up with a particular variety of skepticism – local skepticism about one branch of knowledge,  or global skepticism such as  external-world skepticism.

Realism versus Idealism:  Realism = there is an objective mind-independent reality outside of us – it is discovered.  Idealism = the mind in some way constructs reality – it is made. What we perceive is mind-dependent. 

Cobb briefly brings this up when he draws two arrows in a circle where we both create and perceive reality at the same time.

Ethics/Moral Philosophy- the theory of right or good action.

  What is the right thing to do, what kind of person should I be? Is it wrong to use other people as means to my ends such as  inception  and thereby using Robert Fisher  Jr.  to break up a company's monopoly?

Axiology- the study of values -  what matters, of what is worthwhile, important;...what we value in life. 

Axiology tries to answer  questions like:  why do we value truth, good and beauty. Why do these things matter? What should we care about?  We can call this topic ‘value theory’.


· Hermeneutics:  The study of interpretation. (Hermes – the messenger). 

...Asks questions like,  what is it ‘about’; what is the meaning of this text, this movie? Is meaning constructed by the  author/artist or the reader/beholder?

Is there only one correct interpretation of a text or a film? (cf. ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ –Monroe Beardsley). Should we take Chrisopher Nolan's thoughts about Inception given in interviews as a reliable guide to the meaning of the film?

External themes:

By external themes, we mean how we can use Inception to take philosophy further. Here are some ideas…


Thought Experiments: philosophical stories to aid analysis and evaluation of various concepts and positions.  Philosopohers tend not to do scientific experiments since the subject-matter of philosophy is often no empirical or observable. Instead we do  thought experiments where we consider a story and infer what is reasonable from the scenario.

Consider this: the whole movie is one big Thought Experiment that we can use to philosophise about the topics given above.

The only criteria for a thought experiment is that it is  logically possible,  it does not matter whether there are scientific or physically impossibilities involved. 

For example,  if you have heard of the story of Mary in the Black and White room, (the Knowledge Argument), there does not appear to be any logical contradictions involved though it might be physically hard ( and ethically wrong!) to raise someone in a complete monochrome environment as a scientific experiment.

· Arguing About Inception 

Because of the films complexity as a puzzle, people disagree. The film can be used to practice reasoning under uncertainty much like a jury needs to reason to prove either guilt beyond reasonable doubt, or not-guilty. Juries are not expected to prove the truth or to have certain knowledge of events but to reason defeasibly  with degrees of probability. A claim is  defeasible  if it can be falsified with other known evidence. 

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