Is it just scientists who need the answers to Lost's mysteries?

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In this week's New Scientist is an article entitled Perfectly Imperfect by Marcelo Gleiser. The article is an essay summarising the arguments within Gleiser's book "A Tear at the Edge of Creation". In it Gleiser explores the idea that scientists throughout the centuries have assumed that there is a "Theory of Everything", and that the ultimate quest of the science project is to uncover this, and to encapsulate it mathematically.

Are Science & Religion both quests for a 'Theory of Everything?'

Gleiser argues strongly that "The urge to unite the laws of nature into an elegant whole is driven by unconscious religious impulses which obscure the wonderfully messy, life-giving reality of an imperfect universe". In other words, he equates the "belief" that there is a Theory of Everything , a quest to find what he calls the "hidden code of nature", with the quest for meaning which is normally the domain of religion or philosophy. In addition he makes an interesting case that life, the universe and everything as we know it, is not actually the result of the symmetries described by mathematics, but actually arise through certain asymmetries: the disparity between matter and antimatter in the early universe; the spatial asymmetry of amino acids; the anomaly of oxygen "pollution" on this planet via blue-green algae, the idiosyncracies of plate tectonics. He further argues that looking for deeper reasons, and an overarching theory is probably fruitless, and is motivated by what he calls the "scientific equivalent of the religious belief in oneness held by the billions who go to churches, synagogues and mosques every day", and that "Our presence here has no meaning outside of itself, ... the unplanned complexity of humankind is all the more beautiful for its improbability. It’s time for science to let go of the old aesthetic that labels perfection beautiful and holds that "beauty is truth."

Some Alternative Views

This reminded me of a previous New Scientist article "On the origin of gods: The evolution of religion", which discussed Nicholas Wade's (2009) book "The Faith Instinct". In the book, Wade concludes that religious behavior was favoured by natural selection because of the survival advantage it conferred on early human groups. Many writers on this topic (including Richard Dawkins) have speculated that the origin of religion is a deep-rooted and fundamental instinct of humankind. Churchward's 1924 book on The Origin and Evolution of Religion is one such text which describes man's spiritual journey. Some, such as the 2008 paper by Norenzayan and Shariff see the origins of religion in what they call "Prosociality", an evolutionary predisposition of human beings towards ethical and/or altruistic behaviour arising from commonly held beliefs in the supernatural. Such behaviour works to create social cohesion, and therefore is an advantage in evolutionary terms. (For a more detailed discussion of this see this blog on the cultural evolution of religion. Others, on the other hand, such as David Lewis-Williams (in his 2008 book Conceiving God: the Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion, attribute religious predispositions not to sociality, but to neurological brain function. Lewis states that: "Religion is one possible explanation, not for natural phenomena, but for highly complex experiences that the human brain generates. It does so in such a way that a whole range of further explanations (for natural events, death and so forth) becomes available." Yet other authors see science and religion as sharing the same mental space. Michael Horace Barnes, writing in Stages Of Thought: The Co-Evolution Of Religious Thought And Science (2008) writes: "... the history of religious thought and science shows that they have shared in the same sequence of thought styles, at least in several great world cultures, East and West. One implication of this history is that scientific rationality is not a peculiarly Western mode of thought. Another is that religious thought became more sophisticated and less primitive precisely by sharing in the stages of thought that have led also to modern science." Interestingly, Barnes also argues that the cultural evolution of religious and scientific thought of society as a whole mirrors the individual cognitive development of an individual, as identified by Piaget. "Theories are recognized to be models and images that must be consistently and carefully checked against all relevant experiences to test their ongoing adequacy" ([1])

Is there a 'Lost' Theory of Everything?

I find these discourses interesting, because many of the discussions within the Lostpedia blogs appeared to have mirrored precisely these academic debates; some explicitly, most implicitly. It is also interesting because the mysteries of Lost, appear to parallel the mysteries of the Universe. One view would be that just as the mysteries of the universe form part of a grand 'theory of everything', then the mysteries of Lost are all part of an holistic vision by the writers, and each contributes to a meaningful whole. The opposing view would be that in the universe, there are some things which have no explanation: they are coincidences, accidents, miracles or acts of God which passeth all understanding; likewise in Lost, each mystery is either accidental or simply a writer's device designed to entice, intrigue and interest the viewer, and there is no actual connection between them. In the first viewpoint, mysteries have meaning and all submit to an underlying explanation. In the second viewpoint, there is no such underlying explanation, and to expect one to be forthcoming would be pointless.

Stances concerning Lost's Mysteries: an observation and a speculation

I have noticed in the blogs of Lostpedia that there are essentially two different attitudes which bloggers take towards Lost's mysteries. Some bloggers can accept the mysteries as mysteries, they are "facts of life" or "facts of the story", and they are happy to let the mysteries remain, well, ... mysterious. Other bloggers would be very unhappy if what they see as the "important" mysteries were left unanswered, with no resolution. It has occurred to me that the distinction between the two attitudes might be whether or not a particular blogger's orientiation was primarily towards science or philosophy/religion.

The science-oriented view?

It seems to me that a science-oriented viewer will probably approach Lost as he or she approaches real life; s/he will expect that connections, correlations, patterns and anomalies have explanations somewhere, and will expect the writers to have thought these through before incorporating them into the show. A typical "scientist"-viewer will therefore expect that each mystery has an answer, the answer is 'encompassing', has connections to other mysteries, and furthermore will feel cheated by the writers if a satisfactory answer to all the major mysteries is not forthcoming. A person with a strong scientific focus, will never take anything for granted, and will expect everything to occur for a reason.

The non-science oriented view?

On the other hand, a non-science-oriented viewer (and in this category I include those who have a religous or philosphical orientation, those whose primary focus is on human behaviour and interaction, as well as those who watch Lost for its literary and visual appeal), will be more willing to accept Lost on its own terms and not expect that every mystery will be answered. If this is correct, then the "non-scientist" viewer will be prepared to accept fewer explanations, some of which are relatively superficial, less connectivity between 'mysteries', and will certainly not expect that there is a single answer which explains all. In particular, viewers with strong 'religious' commitments will be familiar with accepting that there are certain things in life which need to be taken 'on trust' or 'on faith', and will have fewer issues with 'unanswered mysteries'.

A Straw Poll

I fully understand that many people do not see things in such black-and-white terms, and that it is certainly possible for people to have faith and be scientists. Even with that caveat, I am putting forward the following hypothesis:

  • A predominantly 'scientific' viewer will obtain their greatest satisfaction and resolution of the Lost Saga in a full and coherent set of explanations to the mysteries of Lost, whereas a 'non-scientific' viewer will be happy with answers to a handful of mysteries, but find their 'satisfaction' in the resolution of the storyline and the fates of the characters.

I therefore pose three questions:

  • Do you see yourself predominantly as a scientist or a non-scientist? Clearly there is a continuum here, and many people could claim elements of both in their character.
  • Would you ideally want to see Lost's Mysteries answered in a coherent, comprehensive manner in some depth, or are you happy to accept discrete one-sentence answers to a few of the crucial mysteries, providing that character and storyline resolutions are satisfactory? Again, there is a continuum, and many people would want both; however, what I am really asking is which, to you is the more important?
  • Do you think there any validity at all in the contention that a 'scientific' viewer has a fundamental need to have the mysteries answered, whereas a more non-scientific type viewer will be happy with relatively few answers, but requires a satisfactory resolution to the story lines, such as the Kate/Jack/Sawyer triangle?.


Whilst composing this blog in my sandbox, I have already had two different people criticising my research design, so I am well aware of the shortcomings of a simplistic categorisation of bloggers as 'scientists' or 'non-scientists', and of assuming that the need to have mysteries solved or not is an 'either/or' situation. Clearly if this were intended for an academic paper I would approach it differently; one thing I would not do is to provide people with the arguments underpinning my hypothesis, and ask people whether they agree with it. Despite all its failings, I am still nonetheless interested in whether other bloggers think this idea has any merit whatsoever.

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