LOST: Philosophy Around the Watercooler

3 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

For most people, studying philosophy is about as appealing as a root canal. Yet when ABC premiered the hit show LOST, suddenly philosophical ideas were piped into living rooms across the country.

Many have been quick to pick up on characters who share their names – in whole or in part – with famous philosophers including John Locke, Rousseau, David Hume and C.S. Lewis (but sorry, philosophy majors, the characters on the show don’t always emulate the philosophies of their namesakes, so you might want to be cautious about any overt comparisons in your next term paper). And did anyone else catch the last night’s visual nod to Kierkegaard?

When I was an undergraduate student, I had a physics professor who used to say that there was two ways of looking at mathematics: a “cathedral” view saw math for its innate beauty and complexity. A “wood-shop” view saw math for its ability to solve problems. I think philosophy is the same way, and since you asked, I’m of the “wood-shop” variety, who thinks philosophical questions are best answered in the context of life or, in this case, a TV show (is there a difference? Now there’s a philosophical issue. Talk amongst yourselves; discuss).

This isn’t a post about spoilers. Or smoke monster theories (though I have one). And yes, there are actually books out there that address these issues in more detail, including Chris Seay’s The Gospel According to Lost (I haven’t read any of these books, but I have a birthday coming up. So you should get on that).

Based on last night’s premiere, this is just a quick run-down of some major, philosophical themes that I anticipate being dealt with in the coming season.

PHI-LOST-OPHY 101

  1. Philosophy of time. This is the big one, and the one most integral to the show’s plot. What we saw in the premiere could best be articulated in the context of a “predestination paradox:” if Flight 815 lands safely, then how could Jack have set events in motion (culminating in the bomb) to ensure its safe return?Further, the episode raised questions regarding the absolute time of the island itself, which leads to some further exploration of the subject of alternate timelines and maybe parallel universes.
  2. Free will/determinism. This issue stems from the one above. Some philosophers appeal to something called the Noikov self-consistency principle, meaning that anything that happens must necessarily be what was “meant” to happen. Meaning that Jack and the others are – one way or another – destined to end up on the island, which could push the show all the way to the “fatalism” side of the free-will scale, meaning that the character’s actions are bound entirely by the hands of fate.This issue was previously explored when Desmond found himself jumping through time in an earlier season. Similarly, the greater theme of “destiny” has found itself on the mouths of more than a few characters, most notably John Locke. Additionally, in the premiere, the Locke/smoke-monster character told Ben that he didn’t “make him do anything.” The island will surely highlight the dynamic ways in which man’s freedom of choice is bounded by extenuating circumstance – time travel or otherwise.
  3. 3. Mind-body problem. This I didn’t see coming, but probably should have. The premiere featured a wheelchair-bound John Locke in conversation with Jack Shepherd, reassuring him that what had been lost was his father’s coffin and body, but that nobody really knows “where he is.”From the standpoint of philosophical anthropology, this is quite a mouthful; Locke’s ghost-in-the-machine statement makes a clear distinction between body and soul. Mind-body dualism is a subject discussed for centuries, and finds a multiplicity of answers. But like most components of the show, there seems to be a Platonic influence that highlights the contrast between the illusory, physical world and the “ideal” world that dances before us like shadows on cave walls. This mind-body distinction will almost certainly help explain how the survivors (including Hurley, Miles and even Jack) are able to see and communicate with the dead.
  4. Faith-versus-Reason. This was a theme that started back in season one. “You’re a man of science,” Locke tells Jack, “I’m a man of faith.” The premiere showed the island’s more mystical elements (the healing pool and temple) triumphing where Jack’s medical knowledge could not. As someone with a vested interest in both faith and science, I am optimistic the show will lead toward some form of compatibilism.

There are many other issues as well, including the duality of good-versus-evil (often visually revealed through light and dark – think the yin yang symbols of the Dharma initiative), the reflexive nature of karma/samsara and the nature of redemption itself, but currently it seems clear that these will be the pivotal philosophical questions that will govern the show in this final season.

WHAT’S THE APPEAL?

The show’s frustratingly complex plot combined with unconventional programming schedules has made television watching a baffling ordeal.

So why the fuss?

People love complex ideas. I really believe that. In the culture of Ancient Greece philosophers and scholars used to gather in the agora, or “marketplace” to discuss the latest ideas and teachings.

Now we’ve moved from the agora to the watercooler. And the greatest appeal is that these themes find themselves actually lived out in the context of human experience (albeit fictional), with the Kate-Jack-Sawyer-Juliet love story creating more drama than a girls’ dormitory.

And people also like the idea that things make sense. Despite all of our postmodern posturing on the indeterminacy of truth, people still want to know that the butler did it. The appeal of LOST is the same as that of crime dramas and Gregory House: we want to watch the pieces fall into place to form a picture that makes sense, which in turn gives us a sense that our own lives make sense.

3 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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