Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lost versus the Temporal Paradox

Both online and offline, I've found myself, geek that I am, repeatedly in a similar argument with other geeks and more mainstream fans of the ABC tv series Lost. I attribute this to decades of television shows like the Star Trek franchise, Quantum Leap, Voyagers, Time Tunnel, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Sliders, Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, Tru Calling, and most recently, Heroes. I also blame the Terminator franchise and the Back To The Future trilogy. What all these shows have in common is the use of what some (not all) Quantum Physicists (perhaps predominantly the ones who like cameras and audiences more) would call the Many Worlds Theory of Quantum Mechanics, because of temporal paradoxes.

In a nutshell it goes something like this: in your future you view a webpage that shows you how to make a time machine. You build said time machine and go back in time where something so terrible happens you don't want to experience it, so you travel forward in time to the day when you first learned how to make a time machine and convince yourself not to make it. That way, you'll never go back in time and you'll never experience that horrific event. However, that horrific event was the impetus that caused you to tell yourself not to go back in time. So if you never made the time machine, you could never have experienced that horrific event, and therefore you wouldn't know to stop yourself from making the time machine.

With the Many Worlds Theory, what actually happened was you went forward in time and met yourself and in that instant, you entered an alternate reality. Some theorists think the event of meeting yourself would cause a 'rupture' in reality and others say that reality was always there waiting for you, identical in every way but your arrival to it. The thing is, when you meet yourself, you experience an alternate reality and that other you is not you, because you don't recall meeting yourself in your past, and this other you never makes the time machine. So it's impossible to change your own reality in this manner. Were you to go back in time one second prior to the furthest past you've been, and then immediately return to the exact instant that you left, in theory you'd be back at your original reality (or at the very least, a reality so close to your own that you'd probably never notice it wasn't exactly the same one).

But think about this a moment: For this to be possible, we are not talking about a finite number of alternate universes. There would have to be literally an infinite number of possible realities existing simultaneously omnisciously throughout all of time and space. Perhaps some realities were so similar that at certain causation points they'd have to merge causing some historical innacuracies among those who travelled through time, but people experiencing the universe on a linear temporal causation vector would have no idea that when you went back to change history that any change to history had ever been made, provided it was a relatively small change and in the big scheme of things universally, ANYTHING happening on Earth would be comparatively insignificant.

Some writers would dismiss the causation loops and merges. They'd treat their time story as if there were one final outcome reality. They wouldn't waste time trying to understand the ramifications of their lucid approach to time travel. No wonder speculative fiction, particularly time travel stories, rarely interest a mainstream audience beyond novelty: they never make any sense.

Now many who have been watching Lost are expecting that critical climactic moment when Jack or Locke do something significant that changes everything, and all the sudden (for one possible example) they will have never crashed on that Island because they never had to. However, the writers and producers of Lost have gone so out of their way to avoid this and have even telegraphed to the viewers that they are not going to do this, that it frustrates me more and more when I find myself in a message or a phone conversation or over drinks at a restaurant and this topic inevitably comes up.

I talk Lost. I'm a geek. So?

The writers have clearly pointed out that whatever happened before on the show, even if it was in the future, it happened. It's not going to un-happen. This is not your grand-daddy's time travel story. Everything is in stone. Whatever happened happened. They even made that the title of a recent episode. How can they make it any more clear? When Sayid shot young Ben, in an attempt to keep Ben from growing up and turning into the jackass that has been causing trouble for our heroes since they first landed on the Island, he inadvertently started the very chain of events required to turn Ben into the (once and perhaps again) leader of The Others. One can argue that had Sayid not shot Ben, eventually he would have defected to The Others anyway. That was obviously the child's goal at the time, but it could have also been a phase he was going through. Arguing over whether or not Ben would have become the man he is without Sayid's interference is not relevant. Sayid shot young Ben. That always happened, because whatever happened happened.

There is not an alternate reality here in which other events occurred in a different order. There's only one reality and that's the reality they have shown us thus far. Notice that they have purposefully told the story out of sequence, but they are holding true to a very detailed timeline. Furthermore, they very rarely show one scene that immediately overlaps another, unless it's all part of the same internal narrative. The first 180 days on the Island, we think we know everything that transpired from the moment they crashed to the moment the Oceanic Six escaped, but if you back over the television series carefully, there are a number of opportunities for the writers to go back and invent events that occurred which would explain things happening later.

Claire's disappearance for example. What we know is that Miles, Sawyer, and Claire were alone in the woods. Miles told Sawyer that Claire followed Christian into the jungle. We saw Claire wake up and witness Christian holding Aaron. Sawyer and Miles found Aaron abandoned at the base of a nearby tree. There's several ways to explain these events from a writing perspective, but the writers (prior to Some Like It Hoth) purposefully avoided telling us for purposes of suspense. Also perhaps because they're not entirely sure themselves but purposefully left a lot of information vague and ambiguous so that they could fill in the blanks later. They could not have done that had they not kept the events of that night open to interpretation. Furthermore, when they explain that night, they will do so in a way that keeps more holes open that they can opt to fill in later. They may show us what happened between 3 and 4 am but we won't know what happened from the point immediately after they all fell asleep to the moment immediately after Claire left Aaron behind. There'll be time (even if it's just moments) unaccounted for. This is by design, so they can add more events later if they need to explain why a future event doesn't mesh with a past event.

From the standpoint of an aspiring writer, witnessing this unfold is brilliance in action. In essence this means the tv series cannot have any temporal paradoxes. The writers aren't allowing it. Notice how little information the characters seem to share with one another. Again, this is by design, so they don't have to later explain why character X didn't stop Y from happening after being cautioned about it from character Z. The more in the dark most of the characters are, the better, and in some cases the more in the dark we are the better.

Another argument I'm finding myself in, though not as often at least yet, is whether or not Ben knew that our Losties were going to visit him as a child. When Ben had been captured and was pretending to be Henry Gale, he did not seem to recognize Sayid. That's been explained away for now as trauma due to his injuries. However, back at the end of season two, Ben purposefully had Michael bring four specific Losties to him at the pier. Those four people were Kate, Hurley, Sawyer, and Jack. No one else. It had to be those four. That just happens to be the same four (not including Miles, Faraday, or Charlotte who hadn't arrived yet on the Island) who later found themselves back in time living with the Dharma Initiative.

But were Jack, Kate, and Hurley ever meant to leave the Island? YES. However, they couldn't remain off the Island, because there was historical evidence (the photograph hanging on the wall in the old Dharma office for example) that proved they had been on the Island in the past. When Locke tells Jack they were never meant to leave, that's misleading. They were always meant to leave, but they're also always meant to have come back. In fact, had they never left, they never would have been on the 316 plane which led to their journey back in time. So, not only does everything that happened have to happen, but everything that will happen did happen.

This inevitably leads to the question of predeterminism versus free will. That opens a whole new can of worms.

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