Descartes’ theory of distinguishing between dream and reality is similar to the idea of the totem portrayed in Inception. In order to differentiate between the world of the dream and reality, the characters in the film each carry their own totem unique only to the beholder. As the film describes it, the totem is “a small object, potentially heavy, something you can have on you all the time…like - this is a loaded die.” Another character then reaches out to feel the die. To this the owner responds “I can't let you touch it, that would defeat the purpose. See only I know the balance and weight of this particular loaded die. That way when you look at your totem, you know beyond a doubt you're not in someone else's dream.”
The totems in the film are basically objects that have certain characteristics that are known only to the owner. Therefore, when in a dream, the characteristics of that item can help the owner discern whether or not they are in someone else’s dream. If they are in someone else’s dream, that other person does not know the particular characteristic and thus in that dream the totem will not behave properly, signaling the owner that they are in someone else’s dream. If the totem does behave as the owner knows it should, then the owner concludes that they are either awake or in their own dream. Another example of this as portrayed by the movie is the totem of a spinning top. When the character is in someone else’s dream the top continues spinning indefinitely. When he is in reality or his own dream the top topples after a matter of a few seconds.
This idea of a totem seems plausible (supposing there were a way to get inside others’ dreams), but doesn’t propose a solution to the question of whether or not we ourselves are dreaming. The totem only informs the owner if they are in someone else’s dream. It does not help them differentiate between reality and their own dreams. Whether we consider this or not, the idea of the totem raises an interesting question: could there exist a universal totem, one that works for anyone and everyone? The film’s representation suggests that there could not. It emphasizes that the totem is a physical object and that its characteristics are known only by the owner such that those characteristics cannot be reproduced in another’s dream. Therefore, if everyone had the same totem then everyone would know that special characteristic and would reproduce it in every dream defeating the item’s purpose.
Descartes on the other hand, suggests that there could be a universal totem. He mentioned that one can know if they are dreaming based on the fact that they are considering their current state to be a dream. It is not a physical item like the film uses, but his theory could be applied to everyone as a sort of universal reference.
This idea of a universal totem is also suggested throughout culture in the form of pinching. It is common practice or belief to pinch one’s self when thought to be dreaming such that the pain of the pinch might induce waking. This therefore could also be used as a universal sort of totem or reference point. Arguing against this, Blackburn states that a person could merely dream the pain of the pinch in response to the action. He suggests that whatever the test, one could simply dream the expected result (25). This agrees with the film such that a person’s totem cannot help them discern between reality and their own dream.
As of the writing of this paper there has not yet been discovered a surefire way to distinguish between reality and the world of the dream despite these thoughts. Nevertheless, countless philosophers and filmmakers have provided thought provoking or, at the very least, entertaining ideas on the topic. Whether cruising through reality or living amidst the world of a dream, the mystery remains. Whether spinning a top or pinching until the skin turns purple, the discernment eludes. That said, it is possible that this assignment and the resulting paper at hand are all figments of the imagination, brought about by the dreams of someone fast asleep in a cozy bed… or perhaps no more than a brain, floating in a jar atop someone’s (or something’s) desk.