a few thoughts about Determinism versus Free Will on ABC's Lost
As of this writing, next Wednesday will be the evening of the last new episode of ABC's Lost until some time next year. This will be the end of season five. The episode's name will be "The Incident." We are to assume the show will be about an incident that has been described or alluded to several times throughout the series' run, but that we've never actually had a chance to see happen, until this Wednesday. How did we get here?
For those unfamiliar with the TV series Lost, here's a vain attempt at a crash course in the plotline. Let's say for the sake of argument that in September of 2003, a commercial jet air liner was cruising from Australia to LAX and encountered a temporal anomaly in the shape of an uncharted island that just happened to be along their trajectory at just the right moment. A shaft of energy shot up out of the island from a man made installation that would later be discovered to be called "The Swan Station," built and funded by an organization called The Dharma Initiative.
This plane crashed on the island, and the survivors spent one hundred and eight days there surviving, interacting unsuccessfully with the previously ensconced inhabitants of the island, and eventually negotiating what they thought to be rescue off said island. However, due to a varied and hard to predict number of variables, only six individuals from that plane actually made it off the island. These six people attempted to return to their normal lives, but so much had upset the trajectory of their lives that it was quite literally impossible for them to return to any resemblance of normality.
None of them wanted to come back, and some were never convinced they had to return, but eventually either voluntarily or by coercion, five of the six "lost" people who thought they had been "found" were forced to admit they were still lost, and went back to the island to finish what had been started. Is this destiny? Are these people unable to stop the inevitable? Or is it their very actions and the choices they make that cause their own misery and strife? Or is there something more complex at work here than either of those possibilities?
There are multiple schools of thought in philosophy. Essentially for purposes of this rambling of mine, it boils down to two sides: Determinism & Free Will. We either get to choose what happens in our lives, or regardless of our choices, fate or God or something else decides for us what's going to happen. If the latter is true, then it's pointless to get out of bed in the morning, because our destiny will seek us out whether we actively pursue it or not. However, if we choose never to get out of bed, then if there were a destiny out there for us, our actions would prevent us from achieving them... UNLESS of course, we were destined to sit in bed and await death.
The real dilemma with this very discussion is that the entire contemplation is essentially a quagmire of thoughts previously set down by philosophers and Great Minds of humanity's history. One must define such things as "Free Will" and "Determinism" and there are many who will argue to the bitter end on semantics; so much so, that it becomes impossible to even agree between people upon what "choice" means. Or any aspect of the conundrum. Or even whether or not it's a conundrum at all! Needless to say, for all the generations of contemplation, we haven't really come up with a final answer as a species.
Of course this ain't for a lack of trying. The great minds of which I speak include but are not limited to the following names: English politician Anthony Cooper, Irish statesman Edmund Burke, Utilitarian and Legal Positivist Jeremy Bentham, Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, Law professor John Austen, Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Philosopher of Enlightenment John Locke, Scottish skeptic David Hume, Dutch novelist Hugo de Groot, Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, and author Clive Staples Lewis. Astute observers of Lost have noted that many featured characters of the series are named after these great philosophers of human history.
One can also argue that the Holy Bible deals greatly with the issues of free will versus determinism, and the names of characters Jack & Christian Shepherd alude to this. Religious minds accept as a given that their god is omniscient, and as such knows everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen. If this is true - and accepting as a given means for those doing that it IS true so don't bother arguing about it - then their god's knowledge means that everything is already essentially set in stone. We don't know the Master Plan, but there is a sentient being out there that does. Though we can't see this set in stone, we must assume that it is. This pretty much precludes Free Will. Whatever happens happens, and there's not much to be done about changing it.
However, the reason why things happen, or don't happen, in your life (beyond events that are caused outside your purview), is because you choose or choose not to do them. You can opt to stay in bed. So you don't go driving today, so there's no chance you'll be in a car wreck, unless someone drives a car into your home. That's not completely out of the realm of possibility, but if for some reason you fear being in a car wreck today, not getting out of bed lessens the odds that such an event will happen to you. Therefore, your action, or rather inaction, has affected the probability of certain events occurring in your life at that time. So you have the freedom to do as you wish, and the will to commit to whatever action you choose to make. This means if there's destiny, you make your own.
Now here's where it gets murky. You have free will. You prove that every time you choose to do anything, even if it's just getting out of bed or having a glass of water or having a beer instead of a glass of water or a glass of water instead of a beer. You have free will. ...So does everyone else.
Your actions sometimes affect only you. Sometimes they affect you and the objects around you that you use to commit those actions. Sometimes your actions affect people in your immediate vicinity. Sometimes your actions and choices affect either directly or indirectly people not in earshot or eye shot of you. Sometimes you make choices which lead to other choices that lead to even more choices that eventually put you in a position where whatever you do this particular day will cause X number of people to be put in danger or even die, so that Y number of people may retain or maintain some level of security or freedom or pleasure or contentment. Maybe you make choices that lead you to robbing a bank. Maybe you make choices that lead you to commanding a military outfit. Maybe you make choices that lead you to becoming the assistant director in charge of media affairs to some conglomerate organization. Maybe you make choices that lead you to becoming a vagabond who is standing on a street corner and is about to walk out into the middle of the intersection because you see a frightened cat about to be run over by a bus and you have to save her.
Choices. Actions. Reactions. Consequences. You choose to make all those choices. You will yourself to commit to those acts. So do all the people around you. There's also physical laws that inanimate objects must adhere to.. usually. There's also other aspects of reality that we don't quite yet understand, but when we perceive things we don't know we (many of us) chalk such things up to miracles or magic or aliens or supernatural forces or something anything than just "I don't know."Things we take for granted now, were considered fantastical less than a century ago. We can make fire now with a cigarette lighter in the palm of our hand. Such a thing would have been considered the Devil's work back in medieval times. There are things at work in the universe today that were we to witness them we'd have no way to comprehend the how or why. It's not magical. We just don't understand how it's done yet.
Earlier today I was at a laundromat and I witnessed a little boy (apparently unsupervised by his mother) climb into a metal laundry basket that's on four wheels and is built in such a way as to topple whenever a child attempts to climb into it. I've seen other children do this and fail. I was too far away to do anything about it. I found myself just standing there witnessing this, expecting the inevitable. It was going to topple. The child was going to fall two feet to the ground and the laundry basket was going to fall on top of him. Then the child would run away screaming to his mother. I've witnessed this before. Sometimes I'm able to stop the children from harming themselves but I do not adhere to Hillary Clinton's insistance that it takes a village to raise a child. It takes parents to raise their children. If I wanted to raise children I would have had some. So nowadays I pretty much just let them be. It's just two feet. His butt will be bruised and he'll run off crying and that'll be the end of it.
However this time, against all logic and common sense I could muster in that moment, the little child climbed into the laundry basket on wheels without toppling it. Once he was inside the laundry basket on wheels he seemed very pleased with himself, but about thirty seconds later he found himself wanting to get out of the laundry basket on wheels. This proved even more difficult and time consuming but he pulled that off too.. almost.
I'm watching this, now mouth slightly agape because this child is in my layman's opinion defying all laws of physics accomplishing this feat, but here comes the inevitable and it looks like his small weight is going to cause the laundry basket on wheels to topple, and at just the last second before that happens, a larger child who may have been his big sister or may have been a complete stranger I don't know, but she saunters by and just at the right second she put her hand on the basket, keeping it from toppling, and the boy touched the floor without ...incident.
The child in question chose to climb into the laundry basket on wheels. He chose to climb down. However, he didn't choose the laws of physics that he was ignoring. They exist whether he wants them to or not. Gravity is still going to bring that laundry basket on wheels down on his head unless he manages a way to balance himself on the thing, however precariously, to keep it upright long enough for him to climb into and out of it. Where he puts his hands, how far his first leg goes before he pushes up and lets his other leg off the ground, how he shifts his weight so as to not upset the cart, all these things and more, including tiny minute decisions he makes with regards to breathing and movement and balance etc., he does have some control over what happens with regards to himself, but he has no control over his own environment. More importantly, he has no control over the other people in the room. I was certainly of no use to him because rather than walk across the room and stop him from endangering himself, I had chosen to not get involved. He had no control over that. Furthermore, he had no control over his sister stepping in at the last second and helping. Perhaps he did not want her help, because now he can't say with pride that he did it all by himself, whether he could have done so or not.
So we have free will, but our actions do not solely determine the outcome. There are forces beyond our control. Friends, family, strangers, animals from elephants to bacteria, and the world at large, all these and more are out there and will either assist our endeavors or become obstacles to our goals. It is the combination of all these factors, variables far too numerous to comprehend much less ever successfully calculate to any non relative certainty, that accumulate into what we (for the lack of a better word) perceive to be our destiny.
We have free will, but our actions and reactions are affected by the consequences of past actions made by ourselves and others. In the Lost television series we've seen this at work countless times. Kate Austen murdered her father, because she felt he had been physically and mentally abusing her mother. This action led to Kate having to run from the authorities, limiting her choices to stay in one place and have a normal life. Resisting arrest and other illegal actions she committed while on the run eventually led to her capture in Australia, which threatened to severely restrict her free will from then on.
John Locke gave his kidney to his father, because he perceived this would bring them closer together. However, his father behaved in a way counter to Locke's anticipation, and because of choices he and his father made and reactions to one another's actions, Locke eventually found himself thrown out an eight story window by his own father, which led to paraplegia for several years, until he arrived on the island. Was Locke always destined to lose control of his legs, or was it his inability to forgive and forget his father that crippled him? Or was it Anthony Cooper's fault alone, and regardless of his actions, Locke is not to blame for his own condition? Was he always meant to be in that wheelchair, so that when he went on walkabout in Australia, they'd turn him away which led to his plane trip back on Oceanic 815? Was he always meant to try the walkabout, or was it the suggestion to him by Abbadon that caused Locke to try something so improbable despite all common sense to the contrary?
If one were to meditate upon the back story of each of our principal characters, one would see that while they had free will, their actions tended to cause consequences that minimized or polarized the choices they had later on. Hugo Reyes used a curious set of numbers he'd got from a friend to play the lottery, and those numbers led to him winning the lottery, but though the millions of dollars at his disposal gave him the appearance of freedom, it also gave him responsibilities that weighed him down, and the numbers themselves led him down a dark path where he discovered others who used the numbers for personal gain later regretted the "bad luck" that it seemed to engender in themselves and people around them. His investigation led him to Australia, and later to the fated plane crash upon leaving Australia. Was all this fated, or did "Hurley" do it to himself? Or is it a combination of the two?
We are also limited by the laws that dictate how the universe behaves, only some of which we actually understand. You can choose to jump in the air, but this will only defeat the force of gravity for a fraction of a second before despite your desire to remain aloft, gravity will usurp your will in that regard. We have free will, but we are restricted by what goes on around us.
If there is a god, s/he/it may know what will happen and how and even why, but s/he/it may not have absolute control over the outcome. It is the culmination of everything in the universe that determines the outcome. The godhead is one element of that culmination. She/he/it may opt to change the outcome, or it may just observe. Quantum physics theorizes that its not possible to observe without affecting the outcome. If one molecule is moved out of place at a strategic time, that could be enough to change everything. Chaos theory speculates that a butterfly can flap its wings in Tokyo thus causing it to rain in California. This is highly improbable, but not outside the realm of possibility. Would that be destiny if it happened, or would it be because the butterfly chose to flap its wings? Simultaneously the answer is both and neither. If such a thing happened, its because the butterfly flapped its wings and it was always destined to do so in that moment, because that's what butterflies do. More specifically, it's what that butterfly would do in that moment if it had free will to do so, and its actions lead to consequences, most of which are beyond the little butterfly's control.
Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle once said, "Everywhere the human soul stands between a hemisphere of light and another of darkness; on the confines of the two everlasting empires, necessity and free will." The television series Lost has dealt with the idea of 'light and dark' both symbolically and literally. However, what appears to be light is not always predictably good and what appears to be dark is not always predictably bad. In fact, trying to determine what the "sides" are has become increasingly difficult.
The final conundrum leading up to The Incident is this: Jack believes he needs to set a bomb off at the Swan station in order to destroy it, so that there will be no Swan station thirty years later. So that his plane will never be struck by an energy beam from the Swan station, and it will land in LAX like it was always (according to him) meant to land. Kate was on that plane too. While what has happened to her is as frustrating as what has happened to Jack, and they have for the most part shared this confounding journey together, had she and Jack landed on LAX without crashing on the island, they never would have met, and she would have gone straight to jail, because of choices she had made prior to getting on the plane in Australia. So to Jack, changing their destiny appears to be a good thing. However, to Kate, changing their destiny is a very bad thing indeed. The fact that Jack wants to erase the past three years, essentially means he wants to erase his entire experience with Kate. To Jack this is a small price to pay for saving the lives of all the people they have lost in the past three years. To Kate, this means he never loved her in the first place, and wants to wipe the slate clean; he'd rather save all those other people than save her.
And you know what? She's absolutely right.
You Broke Me A Little Bit
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