Monthly Archives: June 2010

Joining the Lost dots

Briony Addey examines what Lost has to say about coincidence

The flashback sequences of Lost are littered with apparently coincidental connections between the characters’ lives. In Season One, for example, we see Sawyer and Boone cross paths in an Australian police station as Sawyer is arrested while Boone is making a complaint against Shannon’s boyfriend. But what exactly is a coincidence?

We can say that a concurrence of events or entities, say, A and B, must fulfil three criteria to qualify as a coincidence.

1)Those events or entities must have been previously connected in some way X.
2)The events or entities now concur, not because of that previous connection X, but seemingly randomly.
3)The concurrence is improbable and therefore surprising or unexpected.

A good example from Lost is Jack meeting Desmond in the hatch. The two men have a previous connection, their conversation in the stadium in L.A; their meeting in the hatch doesn’t seem to be causally connected to that previous connection; and the meeting in the hatch seems highly improbable. Therefore the meeting in the hatch is a genuine coincidence.

Whether or not the various connections between characters (the “Losties”) are genuine coincidences makes a huge difference to the type of answers viewers of Lost give to the question “What the hell is going on?” Of course the viewers are not the only ones trying to figure this out. The Losties themselves have been literally crashed into a situation that becomes more puzzling with each passing day. There have been many questions. What is the “sickness”? What was the Dharma Initiative up to? Who are the Others, and what do they want? What is the black smoke? What was the monster/security system? The structure of the show, alternating between thematically linked scenes of life on the Island and flashbacks to life before the crash, suggests there is some kind of real connection between the Losties and the Island.

Some viewers think all of the connections are pure coincidence. But most do not. As one post to a Lost Internet forum, The Tailsection, says: “seeing that all of the losties are all connected in some way, I don’t think it is all coincidence. I think they were somehow meant to be on the island too.”

The idea that someone is “meant to be” in a particular place at a particular time could be a description of one of three related but different philosophical theories: divine providence, fate, and determinism.

The theological theory of divine providence is the idea that God has a plan for all of us. To say that the plane crash in Lost was providential is to say that it happened under the ‘watchful eye’ of God, that what occurs does so because God wills it.

Fatalism is the idea that no matter what choices a person makes, a certain thing will happen to them. The most famous story concerning fate is Oedipus Rex. Oedipus is told that his fate is to kill his father and copulate with his mother. He leaves home to avoid this, only to encounter his real (rather than adoptive) parents and meet his fate after all.

Determinism is the idea that every event is necessitated by previous events and natural laws, and this, unlike the idea of fate, includes human thoughts and actions. So whereas if one’s doing X is fated, one will do X no matter what one decides or chooses, if one’s doing X is determined, that’s because one can only choose to do X given previous events and the laws of nature. With fate it seems that human choice is ineffective, whereas with determinism, human choice is effective, within certain limits, as it forms links in causal chains. So we might say that Jack’s being on Oceanic Flight 815 was determined, not because he would have been on the flight no matter what decision he made, but because given certain facts about the kind of man he is, his choice to fly to Australia to find his father was itself inevitable.

All three theories are linked to the idea of coincidence. Sometimes a belief in one of these theories will be sparked by an experience of an amazing and seemingly meaningful coincidence. If a man’s plane crashed on an island where his brother’s plane crashed years before, and he was a religious man, he might come to believe that it was part of God’s plan. If a man who had believed it was his destiny to go on a spiritual quest in a harsh, physically challenging environment crashed on an uninhabited island he might believe it was fate. Sometimes the strange coincident events that happen to us seem so incredible that we suppose that there must be some explanation other than chance or randomness. The explanation sometimes given is a transcendental force (providence), or a more mysterious destiny or inevitability (fate) or a kind of necessity (determinism).

One of the central elements of a coincidence is that it is improbable. If I walked out of my front door and bumped into my neighbour, we would not call this a coincidence because it is pretty likely that this will happen on a somewhat regular basis. If, on the other hand, I walked out of my front door and bumped into my long lost cousin who had returned from the other side of the world with his new wife who just happened to live on my street, this highly improbable occurrence would be a coincidence. Still, as Locke observes, if something is too unlikely or improbable this may suggest that it cannot be a coincidence. So we have a sliding scale of probabilities: too probable to be called a coincidence, just improbable enough to be called a coincidence, and too improbable to be called a coincidence.

But how good are our natural abilities at judging how probable an event is? Let’s look at some examples. If there are 23 people in a room, how likely is it that two of them have the same birthday (excluding year)? Many people are surprised to learn that there is a 50% chance that two of those people will share a birthday. This example seems to suggest that we often judge situations to be more improbable than they actually are. This could affect whether we deem something to be an amazing coincidence or not, as well as whether we view it as too improbable to be coincidental.

Another way that our intuitions about probability lead us astray is thinking about the probability of a particular hand in cards. Taken in itself, a bridge hand containing 13 hearts is no more unlikely than any other bridge hand. There are a possible 635,013,559,600 different thirteen-card bridge hands, and any particular hand is equally improbable: 1 in 635,013,559,600. Of course, the odds of getting a hand specified in advance are much longer. Consider also the Law of Truly Large Numbers. This law states that with an extremely large number of events, you would expect all kinds of events to occur, even occasionally very improbable events. For example, if you played enough poker, eventually you would expect to see a perfect hand of cards dealt to you.

It would be highly improbable if no highly improbable events occurred. The nature of true randomness, combined with a large number of events, ensures that some very unlikely events will occur. For example, with a fortune the size of Hurley’s, imagine the number of business transactions, clients and employees that his companies deal with. That large number makes it less unlikely that he should bump into someone with whom he has had business dealings (Locke works for a box company that Hurley owns) than if he only owned a small business.

When we are assessing reasoning about apparent coincidences, we need to consider the possibility of confirmation bias: the tendency to ignore evidence that contradicts our theory or preconceptions, or to search for information that supports them. Confirmation bias connects with what is happening when people register “amazing” coincidences. We hear about and experience a great many events each day, but when one event coincides somehow with one of the great many dreams, thoughts, and images we have recently experienced, we notice. We tend to ignore two considerations, because they would falsify, or at least undermine to some extent, the remarkableness of the coincidence. Firstly, all the other different events that might have happened and would have been considered just as much of an amazing coincidence, and secondly, the number of chances there are for us to experience something coincidental when we don’t.

We also tend to ignore the problem of multiple endpoints. Whereas the odds of a particular coincidence, specified in advance, in other words a single outcome or endpoint in a specified window of time, may be very low, the odds of any coincidence or a set of coincidences which could include any number of outcomes or endpoints in a vague or not at all defined window of time, none of which are specified in advance, could be pretty high. So, for example, it seems really unlikely for Jack to meet Desmond on the Island when he’s already met him in LA. But when we consider the amount of people that someone like Jack (a social, professional man in his thirties, who lives in a huge city) comes into contact with, along with the fact that if it were any of those people that Jack met in the hatch it would seem to be an equally amazing coincidence, the coincidence doesn’t seem quite as unlikely.

Are the connections between the Losties really that unlikely or improbable? In the 1960’s, the psychologist Stanley Milgram did a series of experiments called the Small World Study. The experiment was set up so that randomly selected “starters” in one part of the USA were given a folder. The object was to get the folder to a specified person, the target, in another part of the country by sending the folder on to an acquaintance who might know the target. The results of these experiments was the familiar phrase “six degrees of separation.” Milgram thought it showed that each person in the USA was connected to any other through an average of six others.

So whether or not the connections between the characters are really something that need to be explained is questionable. Maybe if you took any event, even if it is a random (?) disaster like a plane crash you could trace connections between the lives of everyone involved.

Conspiracy theorists often cite strange, highly improbable coincidences surrounding events such as the moon landing as proof that there is more going on than meets the eye, because they find the coincidences too improbable to be truly coincidental. They call anyone who disagrees, and believes they are simply weird coincidences, “Coincidence Theorists.” Theories about Lost can be divided into these two categories, those who feel the need to incorporate an explanation of the connections between the characters (the conspiracy theorists) and those who don’t (the coincidence theorists). Which camp do you fall into?

Extracted and edited from Lost and Philosophy: The Island Has Its Reasons edited by by Sharon Kaye, part of of the Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series.