Lost is an American television series that enjoyed a run of 7 years from 2004 to its final 6th season in 2010. The story revolves around a group of survivors of the Flight 815 plane crash, and their experiences on a mysterious island they cannot seem to escape from.
Central to the story are plot elements that hold great philosophical meaning: from the anathema apocalypse button to the abandoned experimental stations owned by the clandestine Dharma Initiative. The series also employs the use of flashbacks to showcase the lives of the characters, from the superstitious Hurley to the morally conflicted Michael.
This essay delves into the meaning behind The Button in season 2, as well as the philosophy behind Jack Shephard and John Locke.
The button that has to be pushed
Jack: Did you ever think that maybe they put you down here to push a button every 100 minutes just to see if you would? That all of this, the computer, the button, it’s just a mind game? An experiment?
Desmond: Every… single… day. And for all our sakes, I hope it’s not real.
Season 2, Episode 3 – Orientation
Suppose you are placed in front of an anachronistic computer console and told, rather bluntly, that if you do not push “EXECUTE” on the console every 108 minutes, the world will (quite literally) blow up.
The “button-to-push” is a central plot element in season 2 of Lost. The “button” is manifested as a computer console found in an underground hatch on the island. Inside is a Scottish man named Desmond Hume who has lived in the hatch for 3 years. Desmond explains his purpose of staying in the hatch: to repeatedly enter a code into a computer console every 108 minutes. He says that if the code is not entered by the 108th minute, the world will end. A timer on the wall shows the countdown, with an alarm alerting Desmond by the 103rd minute. When pressed for answers, Desmond laments that he does not exactly know what will happen, only that he does not wish to find out.
Such a situation raises interesting questions. Firstly, how can a man commit to such an enigmatic task? Desmond obviously knows little about the console or the hatch he has been confined to. Secondly, how does something as harmless as a computer console confine a man underground for 3 years?
There are several lessons that stem from the “button-to-push” analogy.
Firstly, it teaches us that purpose gets lost with repetition and time. Recall Ivan Pavlov’s experiment on Classical Conditioning with dogs. Just as in Pavlov’s experiment, Desmond’s sense of urgency is the conditioned response to a conditioned stimulus. Almost robotic, Desmond immediately drops all ongoing tasks and religiously answers the call of the computer console. After 3 years, he no longer questions why he is doing this, nor if he should stop, only that he must.
Secondly, it teaches us the power of doubt to override rational thinking. If you are rational, you make decisions based on your ability to predict occurrences from learned knowledge/experience. However, Desmond’s lack of knowledge of the computer console, coupled with his uncertainty and the sheer terror of what would happen in the 109th minute, erases any curiosity or desire for understanding. So great is the power of doubt that it erases any desire to stop pushing the button every time the alarm sounds.
Interestingly, consider what would happen if we were to alter the elements of the situation.
Suppose Desmond did know for sure that the world would end. Suddenly, it becomes strange if he refuses to push the button. After all, all doubt would be erased and he would have gained a greater sense of purpose. Desmond no longer looks like a jester bound by chains to his accursed button, but instead is awarded with a shiny badge of recognition for heroism and service to humanity. If his purpose is justified, his existence takes on a whole new meaning. What separates Desmond the Fool from Desmond the Hero is therefore the element of validation.
The Apocalypse Button represents a central ideal in modern society. As rational beings, we are surprisingly unable to explain many of our actions or behavior. Throughout our youth, we live our lives as students chasing the evanescent qualification. As adults, we ruthlessly strive to climb the corporate ladder, only to find nothing once we reach the top. Like rats on a wheel, we live our lives without any deeper level of understanding or meaning. While our original intentions may have been clear to us in the first place, as they were clear with Desmond, they soon become lost after years of routine and repetition. By chasing a better life, we forget to live.
Perhaps what keeps us in line is the ambivalence behind the question: “What If?” Despite an awareness of our slow descent into meaningless, we wake up every day to continually push our wretched buttons. How brave are we to stop hitting execute at our metaphorical consoles? To go against what we are “meant” to do and engage the indiscernible? Just as Desmond must have certainly considered freeing himself from the button, so do we consider turning our lives over for what we deem better. We know, however, that as much as Desmond desired to free himself, his metaphorical chains grew stronger by the day. Are we brave enough to let the timer run to zero?
Man of Science, Man of Faith. The Rivalry of Jack Shephard and John Locke.
Locke: Why do you find it so hard to believe?
Jack: Why do you find it so easy?
Locke: It’s never been easy!
Season 2, Episode 3 – Orientation
Jack Shephard, played by Matthew Fox, is the first character introduced to the audience. His background is also the first to be revealed. A highly respected spinal surgeon, Jack’s life is greatly influenced by his father, the hospital’s Chief of Surgery. On the island, Jack immediately takes upon the role of leader amongst the survivors.
John Locke, played by Terry O’Quinn, is introduced in the first season’s fourth episode. A mysterious and solitary man, his first appearance shows him sitting alone on the beach, apparently choosing to cut himself off from the rest of the survivors. He only talks to them when the food supply starts dwindling, when he reveals himself to be a skilled hunter and tracker.
While many other characters display leadership ability, Jack and John are the only two who fully embrace the role. While both display a sense of practicality and a common goal for the group’s interest, their perspectives and principles begin to clash and a rivalry soon ensues.
Jack Shephard is a utilitarian. While the other survivors struggled to recover from the psychological shock after crawling out from the wreckage, Jack was the first to determine the best course of action and begin pulling the unconscious away from the spinning blades of the engines. He gave several other conscious survivors a purpose by tasking them with specific jobs so as to focus their minds on practical actions rather than on the tragedy of the disaster. He was the first to determine the best option for the group’s survival by moving them into the jungle for shelter and water. He feels he can control his circumstances and discard any emotion.This attitude is reflected in his adamant refusal of failure, and his unwavering belief in his own ability.
In contrast, John Locke is a spiritual person, an advocate for the “intended” path. He believes that “everything happens for a reason”, and that every one of the survivors were stranded on the island for a greater purpose. He goes so far as to convince the drug addict Charlie, the party girl Shannon and her half brother Boone that they too have a purpose on the island. He personifies the island, regarding it as a living, breathing organism, as shown in his claims of it “bringing him here”. In episode 3 of the 1st season, it is revealed that John was a wheelchair-bound cripple before his crash on the island. Miraculously, John discovers his ability to walk after waking up from the crash. This reinforces his belief that he was brought to the island for a reason, and his reanimated legs were meant for something greater. When John discovers the hatch door in the middle of the jungle, he believes it was his destiny to find it, and that all reason and purpose would be revealed once he manages to open it.
Desmond: Can I ask you a question, brother?
Desmond: Is the reason you’re letting that clock there run all the way down to the very last click, is it because you need to look down the barrel of a gun to find out what you really believe, John?
John: I looked down the barrel of the gun, and I believed. I thought it was my destiny to get into this place. Then somebody died, a kid, because he was stupid enough to believe that I knew what I was talking about. And on the night that he died for nothing, I was sitting right up there, all alone, beating my hand bloody against that stupid door, screaming to the heavens, asking what I should do. And then a light went on. I thought it was a sign. But it wasn’t a sign. It was probably just you, going to the bathroom.
Season 2, Episodes 23/24 (Season Finale) – Live Together, Die Alone
Following the events of the series, John does succeed in letting the timer run to zero, only to experience the violent implosion of the hatch and the realization that this was his ultimate test of faith; a test that he failed.
There are several lessons that can be drawn from the rivalry of Jack and John.
Firstly, Jack and John share principles that are representative of the general mindset in human nature.
Jack is a utilitarian, considering the needs of all the survivors over those of a few. He represents the rationale side, one that requires truth and logic in order to function. He walks a path that is clear and steady, and avoids leaving problems or explanations up to fate. He adopts a strong sense of justice, and shoulders a moral burden towards actively helping and improving the lives of those around him.
John represents the spiritual side of human nature. His principles are rooted in what he cannot see. What others dismiss as random and negligible he sees as patterned and karmic. John represents our need to actualize and find meaning in our experiences. He embodies a spirit of discovery, and seeks understanding and enlightenment above everything else.
These two viewpoints are not necessarily different sides of the same coin; they are unable to coexist in many instances as shown by the men’s rivalry. While certain situations see one crossing over to the other side, one generally follows either of these two principles. Such a dichotomy, while different in so many ways, represents our great need to understand and explain our world. Our interpretation of our experiences, whether logical or spiritual, seems to be something our psyche demands.
Secondly, while Jack and John fervidly adhered to their respective philosophies, both failed to recognize that the answers to their problems lay in each other’s attitudes. Jack’s inability to accept circumstances is the antithesis of John’s approach towards letting events take its course. John’s stubborn refusal to shed his belief in destiny is the antithesis of Jack’s approaching events logically and systematically. Both individuals, blinded by a selfish belief in their own perspectives, forget to properly consider that of the other. If they had worked to shed their narcissistic hubris, a consensus could have been formed, bringing the two men closer to a mutual understanding and a better environment in which to lead.
Thirdly, Jack and John are forced to confront the horrible reality that life is disappointingly random and scattered. Jack, despite his pedantic and systematic approach to protecting his fellow survivors, did not and could not foresee John’s actions leading to Boone’s death. This principle echoes even more so for John, when his faith in his apparent purpose on the island is shattered after his discovery of the research station responsible for monitoring the participants in the Apocalypse Button hatch.
Whether we choose to be a man of science, or a man of faith, there will be instances when our ways of life betray us and our perceived knowledge is greatly challenged. As Jack and John struggled in Lost, so do we when we meet with evidence suggesting otherwise.
The world is undeniably a complex place. No single rule or principle is able to give a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps such is what gives life its beauty. By recognizing that neither science nor faith is fully sufficient, we are then able to shed the side of humanity that shamelessly begs for an understanding we are not meant to obtain.
“People are saved in different ways, Charlie.”
Mr Eko – a Nigerian drug dealer turned priest, in response to why he expressed little desire to leave the island.
Inspired by the television series itself, as well as the collection of essays entitled “LOST and Philosophy” – Edited by Sharon M. Kaye