What is Lost actually about?

The producers of Lost, must have been reading about Modal Realism, the philosopher David Lewis's notion of possible worlds. This theory suggests that all world are possible, providing that they are logically possible. That is, if they can be constructed without invoking an internal contradiction. Given the number of 'philosopher name' connections on Lost, it is interesting that this suggestion has not actually been given more prominence, especially when one looks at the definition of what the theory of modal realism proposes. To clarify :

The actual world is regarded as merely one among an infinite set of logically possible worlds, some "nearer" to the actual world and some more remote. A proposition is necessary if it is true in all possible worlds, and possible if it is true in at least one.

Clearly this has a connection with the idea of a Multiverse, first envisioned by the philospher William James, but revived as a possible interpretation of Quantum Mechanics by Hugh Everett.

Consider the following. Each of us, everyday, constructs our own realities. Our reality at home is different from our reality at work, in the street, with parents or with friends. We abide by different sets of rules; we act differently with different people and in different circumstances. Sitting in front of the TV late at night, we are relaxed, and we do things that we would never think of doing in front of customers, or our work colleages, especially the one we find particularly attractive. We create different worlds for ourselves, and we live in them. Everyone does this. The world of the suicide bomber is completely alien to most of us, yet to him/her it makes total sense. We therefore need to accept the existence of these different worlds we all inhabit. One explanation is that these worlds are just mental constructs, and every person creates their own universe inside their head; but it's more than that: some people create fictional universes which have never existed at all, such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, BladeRunner, 15th Century Verona, early 20th Century New York - all of these are possible, and some people choose to live in them as if they were real. They do this, because to them these universes are real; they make them so.

None of us can live in anyone else's universe; when we imagine what it's like, we simply create another one of our universes, which tries to mimic the universe we imagine the person lives in. In essence we are all alone in our own universes, and never leave them. This scenario is a Postmodernist nightmare. The playwright Václav Havel defined the postmodern world as

one based on science, and yet paradoxically “where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.”


We imagine there is a reality 'outside' ourselves, but how do we expereince it? We can only experience it through our senses, and by these means construct an interpretation of it in our minds. All we have is a shadow of reality, like the prisoner in Plato's cave. It seems as if you see, feel hear and touch things, but actually these are mental constructions; mere shadows of what is actually 'out there'.

What has all this to do with Lost?

Lost presents a series of vignettes of the people who crashed on an island. We are lulled into thinking that all these vignettes, these 'flashbacks' are from the same world, the same universe. But they are not; they present each individual's version of events. They are already 'flash-sideways', becuse Hurley's world and Jin's world are worlds apart. Hurley appears as a shadowy figuure on a TV screen in Jin's world. Jin is aware of Hurley's existence; Jin does not even figure in Hurley's world. To say they live in the same universe, is to deny what their universes are, and the way they are configured. So, in Modal realism terms, we are presented with 'possible worlds'; worlds which are logical, and make sense to one person, the person whose life we are witnessing as if first hand.

Lost then takes us on a journey, a 'what if' journey of epic proportions. It takes all of these people out of their 'possible worlds' and throws them into another, completely alien and seemingly, "impossible" world. The island is an alien, bizarre and inexplicable place. The single rule for creating a "possible world" is that it should not be self-contradictory. However, how far can we stretch a "possible world" before it becomes "impossible"? The incredible events and grotesque occurrences in the Lost Universe come thick and fast, and little is explained, but have we broken the rules? Is it impossible? The answer is no, because the people are still there; the rules haver not been broken, and the universe is still intact.

The island is the closest thing we have to an 'impossible world'; it has a man who presses a button every 108 minutes to save the world; it has polar bears in tropical latitudes; it has 'others' with inexplicable rules; It has a spiritual leader who can travel off the island to 'touch' people and influence their lives for years to come. At wthe point where we should be saying 'enough is enough'; this is impossible; this is NOT a possible world, we meet a group of people whose mores and customs are so outlandish that in order to become leader, it is required that you slay your own father. At this point, by every rule of what we know and live by, this is impossible; no society which we have ever encountered has ever, or could ever, abide by such rules. However, the island is such that it makes its own rules, and the logic of events has become twisted, thast killing your own father seems like a reasonable request, and we are forced to feel sympathy for the man who fails to do it. It may not be normal, but it has become possible: the logic tells us so. But then logic itself becomes tested to breaking point: individuals are cast back into time, and encounter seemingly paradoxical consequences, such as a compass which loops through time, and was never made, and a man murdered by his own mother, pregnant with the very child she has just killed. Even then, then do we say "stop! this is not possible!" ? We do not, because however inexplicable, however bizarre, Lost is still a possible world, and that is the point. Unless the world contradicts its own existence it is still possible.

Lost explores the theme of possible worlds in many ways. The island becomes a crucible where many of these 'possible worlds' collide. It shows how each person's assumptions about the way the world works are used by them to interpret a new and alien environment. Lock has spirituality; he interprets his experience as a 'communinion with the island'; he sees the island as a living, breathing being. To Sawyer, "it's just a damned island", and another opportunity to do what he does best: to con, to make deals, and to get by. Each person creates his or her own version of the island, and each sees it differently. It explores contrasting philosophies: do we have free will, or is everything ordained. In all possible worlds, all things are possible. In one world there IS free will; in another, there are certainties; in one world fate rules, in another it's merely coincidence. For some people, there's all the time they ever needed (Rose & Bernard); for others there is never enought time, and things have to be done now:

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It's abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.

(Samuel Becket; Waiting for Godot.)

We see how each person has constructs his or her own version of what life "ought" to be like on the island, following the crash. Jack becomes the leader with "what it takes"; Lock becomes the hunter he always wanted to be, doing his walkabout, in full possession of his faculties; Kate is free; free of her guilt, free from being pursued. Rose has her cancer cured. All it takes is "belief"; belief in oneself, belief in what the island can do. This, then is a true paradise, a garden of eden, even with a father-figure: Jacob, the island's own living, breathing, speaking god. The downside is that it also has its serpent; a smoke monster who, like the serpent in the bible, can tempt, tease and kill.

The island of Lost is a nexus to the possible worlds of the Losties. All worlds collide here, at this point. Time, space and probability are all one on the island, and everything that can be, is. The important thing is that we, the viewers are watching. It is us that makes the island real, we make it into a possible world by our belief in it. There may be an explanation for why it exists, how it got there and why things are happening, but ultimately, it is the viewers who make sense of the occurrences, who will create the island. This island connects us, the viewers, to all the possible worlds of the Losties, and allows us, and them, egress and ingress to those worlds. Some viewers will accept explanations based on science ("exotic matter"); some will see religous aspects as underpinning the mystery ("faith"); others will believe that magic is responsible, some supernatural phenomena, while some just relish the story and don't even care how or why it all works. This nexus is what makes Lost, and will ultimately be what causes lost to arrive at a crisis.

Every possible world is only possible because it adheres to the rules and logic of that world. It must be self-consistent, otherwise it is impossible. The rules, laws and conventions of each world are unique; if it were not so, the world would be something else. In creating the Island, the most perverse 'possible world' possible, there still need to be rules; characters must obey these rules, objects must obey the rules, otherwise there is a danger that this world ceases to be "possible". Changing the rules is dangerous, as there is potential for catastrophe. If this island 'possible world' were to become impossible, the nexus beween worlds collapses, and contradictions are introduced into every possible world - then no world is "possible". This is like a logic bomb hidden in every possible universe, primed, waiting to explode. Everything disappears by each world simply contradicting its own existence.

And here we arrive at the final season, and the very thing that cannot happen, happens. We are presented with a world which DOES contain contradictions: Jack has a son, but no son has been born; Hurley is unlucky, but Hurly is the luckiest man alive; Nadia is Dead, and Nadia is alive. A thing is, and is not at the same time - the perfect contradiction. Surely then, at this point, when we know it is not possibe, and that here, we have evidence that it is an "impossible world", can we, as viewers escape from the island? The answer is no, because this is only a 'deferred contradiction'; we suspend belief until we find a resolusion, and explanation of why both of these things are occurring in the Lost Universe at the same time. We now know what the problem of the island is: It gives you things that cannot exist together with your own "possible world", and one of them must go. However, like the cat in Schrodinger's box who is both dead and alive until an observer peeks inside and sees what has happened, our world and not-world exist side by side until such time that the box is opened, and is inspected. The question is: who is doing the inspecting? Who in this case is the cosmic observer, who will cause the universe to collapse down onto a single possible world? All the time, we have been watching; we have been observing, and it is us, the viewers who must finally look inside the box. The possible world that we encounter when we do so, will be one of our possible worlds. It will have been constructed by us, and it will be the version of events which makes sense to us. The resolution of Lost out of the conflict CAN only be done by each person 'looking in the box' to find a version of reality which makes sense to them.

In other words, at the end of Lost, there is no one answer. Each person must construct their own resolution in a way which makes sense to them, and is logically possible. My prediction, for what it's worth, is that Lost addicts the world over will be poring over details, arguing about the final outcome, trying to interpret and re-interpret for years to come. The point is, there will be as many outcomes as there are viewers, and all of them will be logically possible.

But what of the island? What is its fate? Well, one thing is certain: in a universe that contains all possible worlds, the island is somewhere, sitting, waiting.

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