'Lost': Cause and effect, Part One

Michaelemerson_lost_s5_240 "Lost" has always involved philosophy as part of its complex package. From the use of various names of philosophers in the naming of its characters to the fundamental problems faced by everyone it its universe, the show has constantly striven to provide a philosophical underpinning to its fantastical world. But in dealing with the repercussions of Sayid shooting Ben, it's forced the audience more than ever to confront the problems faced by the fictional characters they have followed for five seasons.

In essence, the show is all but breaking down the fourth wall to ask the audience: "What would YOU do?" The playful interplay between Miles and Hurley is undoubtedly a prescient take on Darlton's part to anticipate the various questions we would have upon seeing Young Ben amidst his future antagonists, but it's the way in which Jack, Juliet, Kate and Sawyer deal with Ben's life-threatening condition that forces us to put us in their footsteps. Forget about asking yourself about what you would do if you found yourself on an Island with a smoke monster; ask instead if you would save the life of someone you thought could cause unspeakable harm later in life.

I use "could" intentionally, because the four are acting in an air of relative uncertainty. When they signed up to return to the Island, the Oceanic 6 did not know they would end up in 1977 living alongside a younger version of their nemesis. Had they known, then the philosophical inquiry would have taken place in modern-day Los Angeles, deep in the bowels of a church hiding a Dharma station.

The question is NOT, "Should we go back and kill this man before he can do any harm?" For one thing, the ability to even do so is in question thanks to Faraday's beliefs about causality and Hawking's assertion of course correction. Secondly, I doubt any of the 06 would have preemptively agreed to such a plan, even without Ben there to stare slack-jawed as they argued the merits of killing his younger self. What we're dealing with post-Sayid's attack are people coming to grips with an action they couldn't have predicted that fashions a future that is far from clear.

It's one thing to say "whatever happened, happened." It's quite another to say "whatever will happen, will happen." The former assumes a universe in which certain elements are irrefutable/unchangeable. The latter assumes there's an invisible hand up all our posteriors, denying us both will and responsibility. I don't buy that's what's going on, which is why I'm less worried about "fate" as a guiding principle in the "Lost" universe than critics that state that nothing that happens anymore matters due to its being predestined to happen.

What's playing out is not some sort of puppet theatre, but the series of choices made by people at certain times that led to a particular outcome. It's the choice that matters in the "Lost" universe, and if you want to assign some master plan to an individual, assume said architect selected people with certain dispositions, psychological makeup, and yes, philosophical outlook. If you put those people into a specific social scenario, you might have a good chance of decently predicting how they will act. But you can't actually MAKE them do anything.

Let's take an example from my life. I met my wife back in 2003. I met her at a housewarming party in Manhattan; I happened to be living in Boston at the time. So the popular, romantic notion is for people to say, "Well, if you hadn't gone to that party, you never would have met, and you never would have gotten married." Which is not only extremely dumb, but also completely ignores the work put into this relationship afterwards. As if the work of this relationship was somehow locked down by some cosmic force making my friend move during that month while pushing me onto a Greyhound Bus while kicking her out of the door that night instead of staying in. As Aristotle once said, "As IF!"

One can look at our life now as the inevitable course of action, or as a series of discreet decisions that led to this point simply because we MADE all of those decisions. If you view it as the former, than we weren't actually involved in our lives. We just coasted along the ebbs and flows of Father Fate. Or, you're Jack right now, waiting idly for the Island to do its thing while Ben bleeds. If you view it as the latter, then you see Kate and Juliet's desire to save Ben not as a part in some cosmic screenplay but making a choice based on personal morality.

Further complicating this choice? The parties involved are not guaranteed that either of their options will actually have the desired outcome. Tomorrow, I'll look at the affect of this choice made by the "Lost" leading ladies, abetted by Sawyer. Are either Faraday or Hawking's theories infallible? How much wiggle room does the time/space continuum allow? Is change not only possible, but inevitable from here on in? We'll discuss more in detail in the next entry.

Ryan also posts every 108 minutes over at Boob Tube Dude. He invites you to join the hundreds already in Zap2It's Guide to Lost Facebook group. He also encourages you to subscribe to the Zap2It's Guide to Lost Twitter feed.