Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Jigsaw Falling Into Place: Lost- Season 4 in Review (Part 2)

From Nowhere To Nothing: Philosophical Implications Updated

Consequentialism: How John Locke Turned into Jeremy Bentham
Without a doubt, the two primary candidates for one of season three's biggest mysteries (i.e. who the hell was in that damned coffin) were Benjamin Linus and John Locke. The mere mention of the name Bentham (as crazy screencap hounds found out from the split second we see Jack holding an obituary) was enough to limit the identity of the dead mystery man to our two favorite island sons. As Kate confirmed in There's No Place Like Home, the namesake of Bentham did, in fact, belong to Jeremy Bentham, a English philosopher with a penchant for, at the time, radical recalcitrance. Bentham was ultimately a social reformer, an advocate for what he deemed utilitarianism. Bentham states utilitarianism as "the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of moral and legislation". In other words, the moral of an action is judged by the utility of an outcome. Ultimately, utilitarianism is "all's well that ends well", or "the ends justify the means". Suffice it to say, Bentham's philosophy was always apparent, albeit being contradictory, to the character of John Locke, which is why it makes perfect sense for him to be in the coffin.

The etymology of Bentham's name evokes a number of implications for the hero's narrative of John Locke. On the surface, it marks a shift in the nature of the great bald hunter, who is no longer a man of, like his former namesake would imply, natural rights and the social contract, but more of a man of, as his new namesake would suggest, legal positivism (or the philosophy that laws are made, whether deliberately or unintentionally by human beings and, consequently, produces no inherent or necessary connection between the validity conditions of law and ethics or morality); in other words, Bentham would state that the mere concept of natural rights, or even the social contract, would hold no grounds in the context of legal states, since they could never hold a verified objectified standard. The quintessential problem with Lockean thinking, as his critics (i.e. Bentham, Hume) would surely point out, is that there is too much of an emphasis on the belief that human beings will naturally be inclined to deal with reason. Our John Locke has been the personification of this very struggle; constantly trying to maintain balance between the assumed ideologies of each respective adopted namesake.

This paradoxical conflict between the battling ideologies of John Locke was a gradual process spreading over all four seasons. Island Locke was first introduced as a stoic and enigmatic figure, using philosophical metaphors such as the contrast between black and white on a backgammon board to further separate the line of ambiguity between good and evil. Essentially, first season Locke was born into tabula rasa, or blank slate, (both a philosophical concept by the real John Locke [believing that we are all born like 'white paper', meaning that not only are we born without concrete ideas, we also lack abstract concepts, such as morality] and the title of Kate's, and the show's, first episode). Being healed from his inability to walk, island Locke was given a new outlook of life with his rebirth. He was no longer in a constant battle against fate, but for the first time, was a companion of it. With this newly acquired mentality, island Locke saw that maintaining the natural rights of each individual on the island was a virtue to be
upheld, being that in Locke's pre-island life, his unalienable rights were constantly infringed upon. Locke would consistently give his fellow castaways the ability to pick their own trajectory, having the freedom to pursue any endeavor just as long as it did not impinge on anyone else's natural rights. For example, Locke giving Charlie the choice to decide whether or not he wanted to continue using heroin. Locke saw that, as long as Charlie's drug use was not adversely affecting their newly found community, then it would be rational for Charlie to choose his own fate. The minute that Charlie started to infringe upon his fellow castaway's natural rights, then Locke would exhibit Bentham like qualities (i.e. discipline: apparent in Locke's backhand to Charlie's cheek after kidnapping Aaron in Fire + Water).

While our John Locke certainly practiced the ideals of universalism and, to a certain extent, the trust of the social
contract, or the proposition that citizens would give up certain liberties and rights to an authority in return for particular guarantees that would ensure social order (i.e. Locke being the guardian of the hatch, guns, drugs, etc.), the great bald hunter never saw reason exactly the same way as his namesake would imply. The word "special" gets thrown around a lot on our show, even having a episode called "Special" (focusing on Walt's uncanny abilities). Our Locke has always been fixated on being "special", and having that quality, on the island and off, has been one of the most prevalent themes throughout the show. With that being said, it is only reasonable to understand why the rational side of our Locke constantly struggles with his fundamental and, almost esoteric, faith in the island. From what we know of his pre-island live, Locke was nothing more but a squabbling old man, paralyzed from the lost of his legs after being royally screwed (for the third time) by his own father. Locke, however, always portrayed qualities of being outside of the norm; a more than average person stuck in a less than average world. From his most recent episode, Cabin Fever, it is very clear that the reason why Locke was never the man he is on the island is not because of his own detriments, but because he was never in a place "special" enough for his qualities to truly show. When Oceanic 815 crashed, the island, for the first time in John's life, activated him into a man with direction, and the island accomplished this with the held of miracles (i.e. getting his walking legs back), visions (heralds visiting him in dreams to point him to the right direction), and coincidences (Anthony Cooper turning out to be the real Sawyer, Jack and Desmond meeting before, Christian Shepherd being Claire's father, etc.).

Unsurprisingly, the way Locke responded to these mystical apparitions points toward blind faith rather than thoughtful rationality. This is the metaphysical John Locke at its very core; ignoring reason for some sort of transcendent faith in the mystic powers of the island. This quality in the enigmatic John Locke was the starting line toward the complete transition into Jeremy Bentham. With issues of power, knowledge and social order, our John Locke lost all semblance of the man of reason, but instead, saw that the one defining goal in his life is to protect the power of the island and all agents that fall under his umbrella. Locke, in trying to find the ultimate answer and meaning to his post-crash life, put all of his fellow castaways at risk (not pushing the button), killed a defenseless woman behind her back (Naomi), and held many as prisoners, even some of his former "friends" (Sayid); as the real Jeremy Bentham would say, "the ends justify the means".

As of this very moment, we know that Bentham is dead. We know that he went back to the mainland, a place that he never wanted to return to, to get back the 6 (or 7 if you count Walt) that originally left the island. From this, we can assume that something horribly wrong happened on the island. The fact that the creators of the show used the name Bentham is supposed to foreshadow certain things that happened from the time the island moved to the time we see his body in the casket. Perhaps, Locke's stoic and undying faith in the island has withered away for more conventional means? As the real Bentham would suggest, natural rights (or most things that came out of the real Locke's mouth for this matter), can never exist, since rights are ultimately a function of law, and law is controlled by a form of state or government. Is Richard Alpert and his band of Others the head of state? Was Alpert's presentation of "Book of Laws" to a very young John Locke in Cabin Fever a sign of things to come? One can only speculate, and my brain is fried from the mere possibilities. One last thing about the real Jeremy Bentham. After his death in 1832, his will specifically mapped out a plan for his body to be preserved and stored in what is called an "Auto-icon", basically a giant wooden cabinet. The dead Bentham was brought back home after being preserved, as he sat in on meetings at University College London, in which he was "present but not voting". It is interesting to note that our own Jeremy Bentham is in a "wooden cabinet" of sorts as well, also on route to returning to his former home.

Compatibalism: See Ya In Another Life, Ya?
It would be neglectful not to note that the first mention of our favorite button-pushing, conscious-jumping, time-warping Scotman's full name was not revealed until the end of season two (Live Together, Die Alone). From a return address written on a letter, we find that Desmond's full name is Desmond David Hume, a more than apparent reference to 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. With the introduction of another philosopher, a whole new era of philosophical implications for where the show was heading were brought to light. And in a season which was mostly built on speculation, mythology, and, ultimately, the search for a quintessential truth, it is more than mere coincidence that the namesake of Hume would appear to provide us the answers to a arguably frustrating season.

Hume's introduction to the mosaic of Lost thinkers was not out of the ordinary. Hume's work was significantly
influenced by John Locke's work on empiricism, subsequently leading Hume to declare that all human knowledge is defined by perception. Perception is, ostensibly, Lost's first dominant theme, represented by the ubiquity of eyeshots, usually at the beginning of particular episodes (i.e. In The Pilot, the episode begins with Jack's eye opening and diluting). Although Locke placed much faith in the concept of reason, he also believed that the strongest form of human knowledge was intuition. Hume ran with this idea, leading to his theory on causation, believing that cause does not necessarily have to lead to effect, that, instead, perception should be taken into account. It was only fitting for the climax of season two to have both Locke and Hume trapped in the Swan Station, waiting to find out if the button was real, and if it was, what it actually did. Locke, basing his decisions on reason with a hint of his own intuition, concluded that the button was not real. Desmond, despite being told many things from a variety of people (primarily Kelvin Inman and John Locke), concluded that the button was real based on his own perception (the whole episode, Live Together Die Alone, was told from Desmond's perspective), consequently discovering the "truth" about the electromagnetic properties of the island, which unsurprisingly led Desmond David Hume to an entirely new transformation in his own perception. This change in perspective led Desmond to develop prescient qualities, a platform for the show to launch into a discussion concerning determinism, free will, and the combination of both, known as compatibalism.

First, a quick lesson in philosophical terminology. Determinism, or a belief that "every event, including human cognition and behavior, decision and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences", was part of Hume's make up of how he saw moral theory and its relation to freedom and the human will. In other words, much of what we decide as human beings is determined by the past and the present; however, according to Hume, his version of determinism (unlike fatalism) emphasizes that humans still maintain an influence on the future and its events. In addition, Hume saw free will, or the extent to how much rational agents have control over their actions and decisions, and determinism as compatible ideas, that it was possible to subscribe to both ideologies and not be paradoxically inconsistent. This is what we call compatibalism. Hume would go onto suggest that, from a compatabilist's view, that in order for a rational agent to fully practice free will, he or she would not have to be forced to make that choice. Desmond is the personification of a compatibalist. With his visions, he sees what will happen in the future, and he enacts his own freewill to change it. In season three, Desmond was given the ability to see vision of Charlie's death. Within these visions, he would see the bits and pieces of the prior occurrences that would ultimately lead to the death of Charlie, and with this foresight, Desmond can practice his free will to change it, if he chooses to.

Some would argue, and it would be right for them to do so, that Desmond's visions of Charlie's death is a more
fatalistic ideal, that Hume's version of determinism did not focus much on future events as it did on the past and present. Therefore, Desmond is nothing but a soothsayer, a person given the ability to change the picture in his visions by knowing how that picture got there in the first place. However, fatalism implies that the future is set out or us, that everything we will ever do has been set out carefully for us and we lack the inability to change this. Remember, the theory of determinism puts an emphasis on our "choices and decisions and what gives rise to them are effects". There is no talk of anything being set in stone; determinism is more about cause and effect, what one thing might do to lead to another thing, and what that thing might do to lead to its ultimate effect. Desmond is changing the future, changing the course of what is set out for himself in the future. From Flashes Before Your Eyes, we find out (from Ms. Hawking, the creepy white haired lady in the jewelry store) that Desmond's future is supposed to be away from Penny, in the Swan Hatch, pressing that button to save the world, and that even if he doesn't, the universe will find a way of "course correcting" itself (i.e. finding new ways to kill Charlie). "Course correction" is basically a different way to say "fatalism", that whatever the universe has mapped out for us will eventually be succeeded in the end. So how is Desmond changing his fate? A fatalist would probably argue that Desmond's ability to be "unstuck" in time was always part of the universe's plan, that his ability to see visions of Charlie, his departure from Penny, even his meeting with Libby were all intricately set up so he could reach his end goal, which, if the show ended during season four, was to get back to Penny. So what is there that we have seen that can possibly explain how Desmond, and the whole narrative in general, is working from a compatibalist's point of view? The mere idea that he is "unstuck" provides us with some answers. It seems that the whole template of the Lost universe follows a Kurt Vonnegutt's Slaughterhouse Five lead, with the main character, Billy Pilgrim (sound familiar?) getting "unstuck in time" after minor brain damage from a plane crash (sound familiar?!). In fact, Vonnegutt's book was mentioned in Michael's episode Meet Kevin Johnson and Desmond's friend in The Constant was named Billy. Vonnegutt, like the Lost scribes, based his science on the idea of an "unconstant" plane where time and space are on an equal playing field; that, yes, the universe has a particular course where everything has been played out, BUT, something can happen where an individual may experience something (i.e. a plane crash? maybe being exposed to electromagnetic activity) cause the individual to be conscious of this laid out, universal agenda. How can this clarify Desmond's ability to control his own fate? Enter the science of Lost.

Only Fools are Enslaved in Time and Space: The Science of Lost...coming soon (i hope)

in the mean time...i found out how they ultimately will ALL get off the island: http://maclost.ytmnd.com/


Anonymous said...

Bentham's panopticon? Any emphasis on that? Well written. Kudos.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why Locke's belief in and protection of the island is "blind faith" or in any way irrational.

If I had been healed from paraplegia and saw others be healed quickly too, among all the other unusual things on the island, I wouldn't be agnostic anymore. I think it's perfectly rational to conclude that this place is special, and must be protected (even at the cost of Naomi and a few castaways) as it could ultimately save many lives. The ends justify the means, right?

Anonymous said...

i think what he puts it in the context of Locke versus Jack. Locke is the center of what Jack sees as irrationality and Jack is the center of what Locke sees as too self righteous.

warplayer said...

Great article, I'm very impressed. Any idea when part 3 might come out?

BillyPilgrim said...

part 3 is on hold for now. it's probably the most challenging to tackle since it's not subject matter that i'm totally comfortable with, but at least i'm half way done. it's going to take some time for me to finish, i'm currently taking classes for the lsat and will be concentrating on that until october. during my free time, i might be able to finish it. ill set a goal to get it published by the beginning of september.

to be as succinct as possible, i was mostly concentrating on how locke fully commits himself to something that he fully does not understand. he fully puts himself in the position where he would be susceptible to anything the island wants him to do; for example, being dragged down a deep hole by an ominous cloud of smoke.