Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy and Film Course: The Philosophy in 'Inception'

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses both online and in-person. Please check the delivery format for each class before you enrol.

Please note that course materials for all classes (excluding prescribed textbooks) are shared electronically within 48 hours of a course starting. Printing is not available.

Join us as we explore the philosophy behind Christopher Nolan’s film Inception. This philosophy course considers the theoretical presuppositions inherent in the film and the key themes of dreams as alternate states to reality, knowledge (how do you know?), and scepticism (do we know anything?).

Finally, we will consider the film’s final ‘cliff-hanger’ scene in which many of us want to know, did the top stop spinning?

Join us for a lively discussion on the philosophy of Inception where we consider these two questions:

How do you know you are not dreaming?


How do you know you have the right interpretation of Inception?


The aim of this course is to use the film Inception to develop your understanding of philosophy, including: epistemology, metaphysics, and axiology (knowledge, reality, and value-theory). The secondary aim is to improve your skill in complex puzzle-solving and to help you give consistent interpretations and arguments for your conclusions about the film’s plot.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • consider the important philosophical themes of epistemology, metaphysics, values, and ethics
  • identify and discuss the relevance of these philosophical themes in the film Inception
  • compare different interpretations of certain scenes within the screenplay
  • resolve complexity and reason under uncertainty in regard to the film’s narrative and story
  • argue for the best interpretation of the meaning and purpose of Inception.


This course covers the following topics:

1. Introduction: Inception, dreams, and philosophy

  • The basic plot of Inception – a reminder. Different interpretations of the film.
  • Mazes, puzzle-solving, argument and thought-experiments in philosophy; Inception as a philosophical puzzle.
  • Philosophical themes in Inception:
    • Knowledge & scepticism, (epistemology)
    • Metaphysics: what is real?
    • Values: why the real matters over the fake (axiology)
    • Ethics and moral responsibility
    • Interpretation (hermeneutics)

2. Scepticism and dreams

  • A review of the problem of dreams in historical philosophical texts: Socrates, Descartes, Zhuangzi.
  • Descartes and the quest for the foundations of knowledge: The Cogito; the method of doubt.
  • Simulation hypotheses.
  • Arguments for external world scepticism.

3. Reality, reality checks, and totems

  • What is reality? Waking life and dreams.
  • Can reality checks be the solution for external world scepticism?

4. Values

  • Values: the things that matter.
  • Valuing the real over the fake.
  • Robert Nozick’s ‘experience machine’.

5. Ethics and Inception

  • Inception as manipulation, free will and moral responsibility.
  • The morality of dreams: can we act immorally in dreams?

6. Interpreting Inception:

  • The ‘meaning’ of Inception and the Intentional Fallacy.
  • Is there one right interpretation of the plot?
  • ‘Inference to the Best Interpretation’: Did the top stop spinning, how do you know, and does it matter?

7. Summary and final discussion:

  • How do you know you have the correct interpretation?

Intended audience

Anyone with an interest in philosophy. It should also interest anyone who wants to understand the philosophical presuppositions behind the plot. Finally, it will appeal to those who have watched Inception and wish to find ways to solve its riddles and puzzles.


There are no prerequisites for this workshop other than having watched Inception at least once.

Delivery style

This is a one-day course consisting of lectures and class discussions. Class participation by way of asking questions to the lecturer and other students is encouraged.


Handouts are provided electronically.

Recommended reading

“Inception” by Heather Rivera, Philosophy Now, view here. Accessed 10 March 2019.

“The Philosophy of Dreaming” by Ben Springiest, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, view here. Read Introduction and sections 1 to 3.

Wind, J.M., Dreams and Dreaming, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), view here. Read Introduction and sections, 1,2, & 5.

The following three readings can be found in the edited volume:

Perry, J., Bratman, M., & Fischer, J.M., (eds.) (2007) Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Oxford University Press.

  1. Descartes, R. Meditations on First Philosophy, pages 136-160. Read Meditations I, II, IV, VI, and study questions at the end of this reading.
  2. Grau, C. Bad Dreams, Evil Demons, and the Experience Machine: Philosophy and The Matrix. Pages 160 -167 including the study questions.
  3. Nagel, T. The Absurd. Pages 755-762 including the study questions.

Or these readings may be sourced directly:

Grau, C. (2005). “Bad Dreams, Evil Demons, and the Experience Machine: Philosophy and The Matrix” In Philosophers Explore the Matrix. Oxford University Press.

Nagel, T. (1971). “The Absurd” Journal of Philosophy 68 (20): 716-727.

You may like to consult the script of Inception:

Nolan C. (2010). Inception: The Shooting Script. Insight Editions / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

Philosophy and Film Course: The Philosophy in 'Inception'

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