SPOILER ALERT! Do NOT read this piece until you have watched the film “Inception”.
What is Existence? It is the domain of our senses which persists independently without them. Our knowledge of existence requires 'senses' but existence itself is independent of our senses.
Philosophers throughout time have questioned 'existence' and have elaborated and discussed it. Interestingly, this is one of those topics in philosophy which have branched out into several sub-topics and has effectively made its stand in all those disciplines. Metaphysics, Ontology, Religion, Epistemology, Materialism, Supernaturalism and Mathematics all have important references to the concept of 'existence' and define and work with it in their own ways.
There are lot of interesting theories on existence. David Hume for instance argued that if existence of something adds to our notion of that thing, we are adding nothing to the thing. Then Materialism believes that whatever exists in the universe- life or not life, is composed of matter. Supernaturalism counters this by saying there is 'something more' than just matter.
Aristotle, Descartes, Antoine Arnauld and even modern age European philosophers gave various theories based on existence. Buddhism in India under Nagarjuna saw a great extension in the concepts of existence under the school of Mahayana Buddhism.
But much before all of this existed the concept of Brahma....
‘Brahma’ is the Sanskrit word for the creative principle of the universe. The term ‘Brahma’ is coined from the word ‘brihi’ which means to expand (clearly they knew since then itself that the universe is expanding).
It is believed in Hindu mythology that Brahma created the initial ‘beings’ entirely through the power of his mind. These mind-born sons of Brahma are called Brahma-rishis. The responsibility of conferring ‘consciousness’ onto those who are capable and worthy is of these Brahma-rishis...that is how life is growing.
Another very interesting theory in the Hindu mythology is that of the concept of time. According to the texts it is believed that time is slower for Brahma than for his beings in the universe. The lifetime of Brahma is the lifespan of the universe. When Brahma dies, the universe would die. Life of Brahma is said to be 100 years, which is equivalent to 311,040,000,000,000 years in the universe. This is called the Maha-Kalpa.
Also Hindu mythology quite regularly mentions a term called ‘Maya’. It is a complex term revolving around the concept of illusion. While illusion we understand is entirely false, ‘Maya’ is not. ‘Maya’ is neither true nor false. All that is material is ‘Maya’ and hence with respect to us it is true, but with respect to the ultimate truth (Brahman*), it is untrue.
*Not to be confused with Brahmins…duh :)
In the last 100 years or so, in physics, a lot has been studied under the concept of Space-Time. Einstein suggested that Time is an integral part of Space and that the universe should be studied in the form of a Space-Time continuum. Here is when Time was considered to be the ‘fourth dimension’. Feynman conceptualized time in a rather unique way. He believed that time could possibly have more than one direction. He suggested that while what we experience is a normal timeline (horizontal) and there exists another timeline that is vertical and he called them imaginary.
That is, the events we are experiencing in our space are in the timeline we are living in. Also, in the other perpendicular timeline we may not exist or perhaps be experiencing something entirely different. This piece of idea gave birth to the ‘Many Worlds Theory’ and now it is accepted in cosmology.
Einstein did not know about this during his time though. But even he believed that an individual may be experiencing his past and future simultaneously. If you dig a little deeper you might very well say that the terms past and future may be just illusive and there is a possibility of simultaneous presents instead.
An interesting excerpt from the best-seller A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking-
...This might suggest that the so-called imaginary time is really the real time, and that what we call real time is just a figment of our imaginations. In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space-time and at which the laws of science break down. But in imaginary time, there are no singularities or boundaries. So maybe what we call imaginary time is really more basic, and what we call real is just an idea that we invent to help us describe what we think the universe is like.
The above paragraphs will certainly throw us into thought and probably create tremendous confusion too. That is because, first, we try to weave all the above facts into a meaningful output and second, we try to conclude something out of that output. There is where we go wrong. All of the theories/facts/ideas we mentioned above are NOT to be weaved together and form a new idea or concept…not at all…Rather, the above theories/facts/ideas are subtle hints discovered by painstaking research of great men and sages who could dare to think beyond the mind-maze of their part of the universe and perceive their own space externally, thereby studying its dynamics. Their discoveries are our hints to find the ultimate truth and unravel the mystery which is so complex that all of it seems like an illusion or may be it really is an illusion-who knows.
This illusive existence was portrayed in the form of the ‘dreams’ in Christopher Nolan’s recently released masterpiece, Inception. The ‘dreams inside the dreams’ gave a hint to the ‘Many Worlds Theory’ -that the same person experiences different occurrences simultaneously.
Also what is further interesting is that in the film, as one moves into a deeper layer of the dream (dream within dream is the second layer; the film went up to four, perhaps even more), the ‘speed’ of time changed. The deeper you are, the slower the time would move for you. This is highly in coherence with the concept of Brahma’s timescale mentioned before in this article. Not only does time has more than one type, time also operates in various speeds. Unthinkable!
In the film, it was said that the architect of the dream can make changes to the world he creates. Any other person can access the dream through his subconscious. All other entities are projections formed of the subconscious. This is entirely analogous to the fact that Brahma (the architect) constructed the universe (the dream world) and produced beings called his mind-sons (the subconscious participant). The mind-sons on the other hand confer the consciousness to the worthy (the subconscious produces the ‘projections’). So what are we? Mere projections? The answer may not be really clear, but may not be a NO either.
A very important element of this film was the ‘totem’. For Cobb it was a spinning top. For Ariadne it was a chess piece. A ‘totem’ tells if you are in a dream or in reality. If you are in the dream, the ‘totem’ would behave in a way which is different from the real world. For instance, the spinning top would never stop spinning in the dream world, but in the real world we all know it does.
Go back to the excerpt above from Hawking's Brief History of Time -
Notice the phrase in bold. “...laws of science break down”. A spinning top stops spinning in the real world as the surface it spins on provides friction to its tip which constantly reduces its speed and by Newton’s First Law of Motion, it stops. When the top spins in your dream, or in imaginary time, it need not follow the laws of science (no singularities or boundaries, laws of science break down) and thus….never stops! (Nolan is baaap!!)
Finally, we come to the last scene now. Cobb returns home and finally meets his children. The camera then shifts focus from Cobb and his children and moves onto the top which he spun.
Before the audience can tell if the top has stopped spinning or not, the screen goes black…
We believe the spin would not stop. Cobb sees his children exactly as he had seen them years back. If what he was seeing was exactly resembling a figment of his 'memories' then he was still in a dream. Or was he?
This is the question that would linger. What exactly we chose to question is up to us. If we question whether this is a dream or not, we could be stuck in an inconclusive argument. But what if we question reality itself? Is there anything called "reality" or the world we dwell in is completely virtual?
It cannot be false as we are experiencing it. But is it really true? Again, this dilemma of whether our existence is true or false is captured in the ancient concept of Maya.
May be with his last scene, Nolan points towards this concept of Maya. The Hawking's explanation of imaginary time and Feynman's proposal of 'directed time' and Einstein's belief of simultaneous existence, the many philosophies on 'existence' and 'being' and now this masterpiece by Nolan, all speak of Maya in some form or the other....
Anti-Realists are the class of philosophers that believe that nothing exists outside the mind. They believe that all actions are in the mind. They question the very existence of the physical world. They suggest that the dynamics of the physical world are all in the mind. They say, your mind is the platform for all action in the universe, which pretty much makes Nolan say, Your Mind is the Scene of Crime.