Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Desmond Exception...

In anticipation of the Variable, which marks 100 episodes of Lost, here is my take on what I like to call the "Desmond Exception." According to Daniel Faraday, the general rules of time travel include whatever happened, happened...except for Desmond David Hume. But what exactly makes Mr. Hume this miraculous exception to Faraday's rules? The answer touches upon quantum mechanics and existentialism, two subjects that seem increasingly central to the show. To understand why, it helps to have a brief background in some relevant philosophy and science.

When I studied philosophy, the apparent conflict between free will and determinism fascinated me. I was surprised to learn that most philosophers (including David Hume) have a very limited conception of free will. I had assumed that true freedom must mean stepping outside the causal chain of events to make a choice that is not the effect of any prior cause. I never considered Hume's claim that such an undetermined choice would be completely random. There's a great riff in Waking Life about why probabalistic quantum mechanics, despite its indeterminism, doesn't really help us understand freedom for this very reason:

What Waking Life doesn't mention is that some existentialists actually celebrate freedom in this random and irrational sense. Nietzsche espoused a kind of "radical freedom" that finds expression in Sartre and Heidegger's writings, as well as Kierkegaard's famous "leap of faith." Under this view, you liberate yourself from history's influence by acting contrary to prior reason and experience to embrace a totally new system of beliefs and assumptions. That's basically what Jack did in 316 by becoming a man of faith for purposes of returning the Island. Remember the shoes?

Really, though, nothing on Lost exemplifies radical freedom better than the Desmond Exception. His physicist friend Donovan put it perfectly: "The wild card part is unpredictability -- run the same test 10 times, you'll get 10 different outcomes." Des has become an unpredictable wild card in the otherwise orderly operation of destiny, analogous to the Mule in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Chronology Protection Agents like Ms. Hawking have been watching him because his deviations from whatever happened risk randomly changing the "picture on the box" of history.

So how did Desmond gain this miraculous ability? It has something to do with bathing in the Island's exotic energy following activation of the Fail-Safe. In the Key to the Whole Game, I suggested that the Island is a place where the rules of quantum mechanics, which usually apply to very small things, govern everyday existence at a macroscopic level -- like in physicist Brian Greene's Quantum Cafe. As we discussed above, quantum mechanics entails indeterminism. That's why DHARMA chose the Island for their efforts to alter the Valenzetti Equation's grim mathematical prophecy.

That may also be why DHARMA -- or at least the writers -- chose a black swan for the Initiative's most famous symbol. The Black Swan theory, as articulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, describes the type of rare and unpredictable event -- e.g., the rise of personal computing or the start of World War I -- that alters the course of history. The name refers to the seemingly impossible coming to pass -- all swans were assumed to be white until the 18th-century discovery of black swans in Australia. DHARMA sought to break fate's harsh decree by using the Island to create a Black Swan event.

Desmond, in others words, is not the only exception to the rules of time travel. The Island itself is also a variable in destiny's equation. What makes Des miraculous -- perhaps uniquely so -- is that he's the living embodiment of this exception. (In that regard, he resembles Miles, whose ability to scan minds makes him a kind of living version of Smokey.) The original DHARMA's efforts were hindered by the need to bring key players to the Island. By contrast, Des can go where he wants limited only by the law of course correction, which minimizes the effects of his deviations on history.

This makes Desmond a powerful but potentially dangerous piece in whatever game Ben, Widmore, and DHARMA: TNG are playing. I've previously discussed the undesirable ways that Des changed the picture on the box by delaying Charlie's death. Faraday's attempt to exploit the Desmond Exception backfired as well with Ben mortally wounding Des. To paraphrase Chekhov, however, you don't introduce a gun unless you plan to shoot it. By the end of Lost, therefore, I predict the Desmond Exception will yield some kind of causal paradox -- or a parallel timeline that avoids it.

So, there you have it -- the Desmond Exception in a nutshell. Ago gratias tibi to Team Darlton for 100 mind melting episodes of Lost! As always, I welcome you all everybody to post anonymously, but please identify yourself somehow, so I can distinguish between anonymous posters. Thanks!


Merrylegs said...

?"Ben mortally wounding Des.."

Do you really think that's true, BM? I went through that scene frame by frame and could not see any evidence of a wound. Plus, I don't see Des giving Ben the whup-ass he did if Des were mortally wounded.

Otherwise, enjoyed your post as usual!

Anonymous said...

LantzDogg here!

Just want to say that this post is fantastic. BM...your analysis and writing continue to impress me.

Josh H. Pille said...

"100 mind melting episodes"? C'mon, Big, you know that isn't true! I'd guesstimate about 80 or so mind melting episodes, maybe 15 water-treading episodes, and about 5 pieces of crap.

Let's give 'em props when they deserve it (which, lately, is almost always), but let's recognize that it hasn't always been so.

neoloki said...

Little nit picky their Josh?

Great article. very much enjoy the relation of quantum mechanics to Lost.
Though this might not directly pertain to Lost my definition for freedom has always been "true freedom is being able to make a choice that gives it up."

Thank you for the great Lost articles.

neoloki said...

One other thing: D & C mentioned in a podcast that Des was wounded by Ben's gunshot and it could be very serious. In promo pics for next episode we see Penny in a hospital.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post. I definitely can see how this relates to Desmond's unique character and gives me a possible answer for why no one particularly tried to get him to return yet he was at the exact place and time to make the CHOICE to return...and ultimately didn't.

On another front...why did Hurley return to the island? I hope they answer this soon...


Rambling Thoughts of Poohbear said...

Good Morning Everyone!

Thanks Big!! Here it was I thought I was gonna go thru LOST discussion withdrawal this week. Leave to you to bring some thought provoking conversation.

LostPDX, I too am curious as to why Hurley returned to the island, with a guitar case, no less. Since there's three (someone please confirm) episodes left, I dunno if we're gonna get his story this season. Considering how he went from not going back -- at least not going back with Ben -- to being on the plane with the case, someone dropped knowledge on him. Whatever he signed up for didn't involve Ben, that's for sure.

Neoloki mentioned shots for next week. If Des is in the hospital, I think it would be a set up for him to return to the island. Still think he has work to do.

Did anyone see the special last night? Definately a filler for those not familiar with the storyline. Was kinda disappointed. They made it seem as though you were going to find out something new about our Oceanic 6 folks.

That's it for me. Gonna take with Biggy wrote and digest it. As usual, looking forward to the conversation ...

Have a GREAT one!!

mary said...

Big, awesome post. I agree with Rambling...what a waste of an epi. The only thing I enjoyed was the narrator's voice.

Also agree with merrylegs...there was no wound when he got shot. It just knocked him down, weird.

Jason said...

This leads me to ask: Was the Desmond who attacked Ben the same Desmond who Ben shot? If he is indeed the exception to the rule of time travel, the scenario wouldn't be out of the question. I think...

Ivo said...

Cool article as always. I think that Desmond actualy did change the history.

-Flashes Before Your Eyes" showed Desmond and Charlie together off the Island. But Charlie didn't remember this.

Desmond and Daniel had meeting in the Oxford. But Daniel didn't remember this.

They didn't remember because none of these actions took part in their life. Only Penny did remember. These meetings happend in alternate time line and meeting with Penny is point which lies on both timelines. On origin time line and paralel one.

Bigmouth said...

Merrylegs: You're right that there's no obvious wound. But I think Des was shot in the shoulder because he only hit Ben with one arm. I also believe his wound is life threatening -- that may be what drives Penny and Des back to the Island. Perhaps the beat down was a temporary surge of adrenaline, and we will learn that Des collapsed thereafter.

LantzDogg: The respect is mutual, my friend -- keep those insightful comments coming!

JHP: It's just an expression. Any thoughts on the Desmond Exception? The compatibility of free will with determinism a question as old as Aristotle, and you strike me as a guy who knows his philosophy.

neoloki: I'm glad you enjoyed it! Your definition of free will is actually pretty close to most philosophers'. They would say I have free will when I would be free to do otherwise if I willed otherwise. According to this definition, free will is compatible with determinism.

LostPD: You know...that's a great question regarding Hurley. Seems like we haven't had anything truly Hurley-centric in some time. But I have a bad feeling that's about to change since Hurley doesn't seem to accept that whatever happened, happened. I can already see him sabotaging the Swan in an effort to prevent the crash of Oceanic 815...

Poohbear and Mary: Thanks! I turned off the clip show about halfway through, but there was one revelation of note. They seemed to confirm that Charles Widmore was responsible for faking the recovery of Oceanic 815's wreckage...

Jason: Hmmm...not quite sure what you mean by the "same" Desmond. As I mentioned above, he only hits Ben with one arm, which is consistent with him getting shot in the other shoulder.

Ivo: Those are EXCELLENT examples of possible Desmond Exeptions. I'll have to ponder these a bit before I post more...

Jason said...

There was (to me) obviously no gunshot wound on Desmond when Ben shot him. Ben shoots at grocery bag, can of soda explodes, Desmond flies backwards dropping the bag showing his front, no wound.

Anonymous said...

Good post -- I'm going to weigh in on the side of "Desmond's gonna be fine, we didn't see a bullet hole" and ignore whatever people think they see in the promos. They get a little clever with those, methinks.

I like this theory of "everyone is basically locked in but Desmond", but there are a couple questions associated with it. If Desmond truly has more free will than the rest of them, how can Hawking be so sure that "the Island isn't done" with him yet?

Also, when Desmond mind-travelled into the past in Flashes Before Your Eyes, he get smacked with the cricket bat, instead of the bartender. This seems to me like a potential time-altering event (and if memory serves, the producers confirmed as much in a podcast). So, what did Dezzie change, and what effect has that had on the events we've witnessed since?


f/k/a NetProphet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
f/k/a NetProphet said...

Reading this really struck a chord - and compelled me to share something I posted on another forum a while back. This is an excerpt from something I rather grandiosely called Desmond Unbound : Supercausality and a Free Will in time.
Full post @
(I know it's longwinded, but it has some great Douglas Adams quotes if nothing else.)
"From the earliest days of the show TPTB’s usage of names - Locke, Hume, Rousseau, et al. - has hinted at something big. Questions involving man’s role in the universe and the pivotal argument of free will versus determinism. Like Ben, TPTB always have a plan.

It is certainly no coincidence, then, that a lot of us have recognized the free will questions inherent in context of time travel. In fact, no where is the question of man’s free will more problematic than when faced with the prospect of time travel to the past. Its easy to see why. Free will seems most toxic to temporal stability; step on that Jurassic butterfly and next thing you know it will be raining doughnuts. So there must be rules. Temporal protection against maniacs who really do have it out for their own progenitors.

On the other side of things stands stoic determinism. Want to change something? Sorry, your path is set in stone, can’t do anything that didn’t already occur. Whatever happened, happened. Not very fun though, is it?

And as many of the forum dwellers here have noted, isn’t the purported goal of all this ultimately to save mankind from doomsday? Surely the center piece of time travel must have some role to play in the grand scheme of TPTB that will allow our heroes, heroines and even anti-heroes to alter the ever enigmatic Valenzetti equation? How else will they Change the Course of Man?

The quest to reconcile these notions has lead me to some interesting places. Yet it all came together upon revisiting those philosophic roots. Does it really have to be either or, Free Will or Determinism? Can’t we all just get along? Enter David Hume, champion of Compatibilism

Hume Sweet Hume...

No need to doubt Faraday on this point; Desmond is special. As other forum dwellers here have pointed out, this Hume appears to have some unusual qualities, most notably what appears to be a non-linear mind. Desmond then, like his namesake David, may indeed be the Key to Compatibilism of pre-determined fate and free agency. And if this was the plan all along, then maybe TPTB had a compatible theory of time travel in mind - something beyond the dogma of “whatever happened, blah, blah, blah” and the spoon-fed pablum of “course correction.” A different, yet still scientifically recognizable, concept of time and quantum mechanics... something that sprang like a djinn from the magic lantern of retro-causality."

Gratuitous Douglas Adams quote:

Anything that happens, happens.
Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen.
Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, happens again.
It doesn't necessarily do it in chronological order, though.

KoreAmBear said...

Great post Big. Perhaps Desmond, in the hospital, decides to go back to the island in order to kill Ben, who tried to murder the love of his life. Maybe he later even goes to daddy Widmore and mends fences with him in order to eliminate a common adversary (like Sun tried). Or, perhaps Penny tells Desmond that they will never be rid of people like Ben endangering their lives, unless the island is done with them. Maybe they go back to Ellie Hawking and find out what's up. Maybe they as Cheech or Kate Bundy for some advice as to what to do. But will he go back to 2007 or 1997? Stay tuned.

neoloki said...

Well, it has been pretty much confirmed by D & C during their last podcast that Desmond is far from fine . The bullet went through the bag and into his shoulder/arm area. He has been badly wounded and the pictures I saw definitely show Penny in a hospital. Something will come out of his trip to the hospital with Mrs. Hawking showing up that will motivate Des to go back to the Island. I hope it is not revenge because something seems too obtuse about that explanation. I am going to say that Eloise wants Des to help her son. Faraday is in some sort of trouble that is fundamentally linked to the Islands survival and Des is the only one who can affect a change in the past that will extricate Daniel from his situation. Or it might be Des is the key to getting everybody that is in '77 back to the future.

Bigmouth said...

Jason: Here's the best screen cap I could find of Desmond's bullet wound. It's a small hole on his upper right shoulder -- you see the blood just starting to stain his sweatshirt. That's why Desmond only hits Ben with his left fist after tackling him.

Karmavore: See my comments to Jason above regarding the gunshot wound. You've got the right idea with the example of Jimmy Lennon's cricket bat. That would work perfectly to illustrate the Desmond Exception if Darlton hadn't inexplicably dismissed it as Des simply remembering what happened incorrectly. Now that I think about it, the Penny examples cited by Ivo may turn out the be the key. I remember Damon(?) specifically flagging the existence of second picture of Penny and Desmond as a possible butterfly effect.

Netprophet: Brilliant post! In fact, you've inspired me to edit my own to attribute the point about an undetermined cause being random to Hume. It's fascinating to wonder what Hume would have made of quantum mechanics -- his determinism was such a function of his Newtonian view of the universe. I have to believe the man who so persuasively critiqued metaphysical accounts of causation would have been open to its possibilities. I think where you and I differ is in the relevance of retrocausality to the argument. Why isn't enough simply to say that QM is indeterministic? What about Desmond's experience do you see as retrocausal, as opposed to the result of ordinary cause and effect with time travel?

BTW, I urge folks to read the whole thing over at I love your analysis of why Ms. Hawking intervened at the point of Des attaining "supercausality." This part particularly caught my eye: "Despite [Ms. Hawking's] admonishment about course correction, she knows that history can self-tune. She, in fact, wants it to, but only in a way that suits certain needs. While Desmond might be a useful tool down the line, she’s got to keep him on the path."

KoreAmBear: Like neoloki, I'm hoping it will be more than revenge that drives Desmond back to the Island. But I'm with on the possibility of Eloise playing a role in whatever does.

neoloki: Thanks for the podcast info! Anything else of interest? As I mentioned to KoreAmBear, I like this idea of Ms. Hawking playing a role in sending Desmond back to the Island to fulfill some purpose. Do you suppose she'll tell Des he needs to stage another shipwreck?

Anonymous said...

You know what would get Des to return to the island? If Eloise told him that somehow the Losties back in 1977 do something that in effect causes him to not meet Penny and thus, no Penny, no little Charlie, no choice of happiness that was the reason he did not follow them back to the island when give the choice.


Bigmouth said...

LostPDX: Whoah...I like that...I like that a LOT!

Capcom said...

Wow, great post and discussion everyone! Too bad about this week's "Lost For Dummies" recap, some tasty bloopers and out-takes would have been more entertaining.

Right, Greene's Quantum Cafe! :-D Des as a Black Swan is very interesting. I agree that Des will probably turn out to be a wildcard aspect (like Jacob) that will remain uncovered until the end.

Great idea Lostpdx! :-o

I've seen a few screencaps where Des seems to have a wet area like a wound in the shoulder. Unless there were some kevlar diapers in that grocery bag, it looks like he took a hit in some capacity. Let's hope that his wound won't travel to the other side like Little Ben's did. :-p

KoreAmBear said...

LOL, Lost for Dummies clip show. Even a dense guy like me thought that was way, way too boring. Yes, maybe showing a few takes on Hurley throwing his Hot Pocket at Ben would have been more appropriate. Or the 3 year old actor dude that played Aaron saying, "mommy, I'm thowsty" - I'm sure it took him 2-3 times to do that. And also to say "juice box." Or how about a couple of out takes from when Tom and Arturo give each other a peck on the cheek, with Michael doing a spit take. I tell ya, lost (pun intended) opportunity for ratings, Darlton. You blew it.

Capcom said...

LOL, I agree. They've got enough of those that they put some on the DVDs. If they have to take a mini break for whatever reason like this week, a blooper show would be awesome. :o)

Synchromystic Librarian said...

just watched "juliet" on jimmy kimmel, i hope she doesn't die, i'll miss her eyes

i think kate & jack might have to go live with the Others and kate/sawyer will reignite a romeo sawyer as DI) & juliette (kate as Other)love affair, sure kate may have ALSO come back to find claire but she came back for sawyer as well and jack came back for juliet

i'm thinking the shadow people are DI AND Others' offspring, they played together on the island and created a "club" with a secret password phrase, they now intend to save the island TOGETHER rather than the way their stupid parents did it as Others vs DI

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice comments Capcom and Big! I had a "ping" in my head when I came up with that one...

I also started thinking about how maybe the the whole thing is about kismet. Maybe by showing us how they were all interconnected but all very unhappy before the island, they were missing each other instead of finding each other. Maybe that is why no babies on the island, because it has another purpose. Maybe Des and Penny are a centerpiece then, an illustration that without certain things happening, they can't meet, they can't ultimately be happy. And maybe it is sunny finally in Portland and I am just happy.


Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I, too, like the idea of Desmond being told that the past can be altered so that he & Penny never meet. A simple enough scenario (though WE know it's false), Widmore dies in the 70s, Penny's not born. But how can Desmond be certain that this will happen just because Hawking tells him as such? Will it be like Faraday's message during the time skips, Des will wake up and its just all different?
I think that if Hawking does toss this up to Des, well, he doesn't really know of all the "what happened happened" scenarios we have seen from our POV. He'll be acting on faith if he just accepts the time-shift as something that only he can help avoid.

Is that why there's a photo of Brother Campbell with Hawking at the monastery where Des first met Penny, that Campbell was a kind of secondary time protector, not having Hawking's powers but working with her as needed to ensure Desmond meets Penny? Here's something nuts, what IF the whole way to get Des back to the Island was to have Des meet Penny in the first place, i.e., because if they never knew each other, Des would not just have just ended up shipwrecked in 2001 but he wouldn't be a part of this whole end game at all. Hasn't it pretty much been suggested that Hawking has been screwing with Desmond's life for quite awhile?

Desmond is the wild card of LOST, but however and whenever it happened the first time, Hawking had to first place him in the deck of cards itself. Anyone? (I think that this scenario is too complicated to rectify given the time left on the show,though it could show how much temporal power Hawking wields, as well as finally explaining why her photo is in the monastery. Hawking might have been the person to nudge Libby into the situation that led her to offer Des her sailboat.)

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Last night, I read NetProphet's incredibly brilliant thesis that Big provided the link to up top. And I recall his comments here on this blog back in February, hearkening back to Boone's telling Locke about his nanny Theresa falling down the stairs/falling up the stairs, just as Faraday's Theresa is now doing the same.

As Big mentioned, everyone should read the piece, not just the excerpt NetProphet provided us here. Its about Desmond, yes, but NetProphet also talks about how the "picture on the box" keeps changing on LOST, one example being the photos on the walls of the grandma Miles ghostbusted for. We've all been making similar comments at times, one that stands out is how different the DI processing center looked in 2007. (On the recap show, it was mentioned that the O6 went back to the Island in 2007, presumably in April, if they are still sticking with the LA Times obit for Jeremy Benthem.)

Go back to the link, I'd just be bastardizing NetProphet's ideas. One commenter did post something curious. I, myself, always thought "security system" was an odd phrase, almost formal, compared to Smokey or the Monster. The commenter asked if the Temple Security System really meant Temporal Security System?

The Island is not through with Desmond, just as it wasn't for Michael or Locke. Locke hurt his leg, Boone went into the plane, Bernard tried the radio, Boone answered as the plane fell, because Boone was expendable. I think we all get this in some way. But why is it that most people refer to Desmond turning the failsafe key as the start of his becoming special? Turning the key may have fine-tuned him. Hawking was paying close attention to him for years. That's why my pet theory is that 1977-2007 has happened before and will happen again until a certain event occurs, presumably changing one of Valenzetti numbers.

Been enjoying the comments during my recovery. Enjoy the coming week, everyone.

KoreAmBear said...

Recovery? Hope all is well, Wayne.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Yep, been MIA on the blog here for a bit. Kinda went into my circumstances on my blog in a few entries. Thx for the well wishes. And, of course, we would ALL be doing well if Tom & Arturo appear on the DANCING WITH THE STARS finale (since they have their filler gimmicks).

Anonymous said...

Thanks Big, you've successfully activated my Foundation dorkiness!

Some like it Rossem?
If the Second Foundation = DHARMA: TNG, would they be operating on the island? ...Since the players in the 'who rules the galaxy' game (the Mule, Pritcher, and Channis)weren't aware of the elusive home of the Second Foundation, but Widmore, Ben, and now Locke all knew the location of the island at some point. If they are drawing from the ruse of Rossem being the location of the Second Foundation, is the island and all it's wonders just a distraction/illusion from an upgraded Quantum Cafe somewhere else?

Jacob = the Mule? Desmond sure acts the part of the variable, but he doesn't seem like the Galaxy-dominating type.

I'm very aware of the high level of wackadoo here, I just think it's interesting to speculate how much Team Darlton might have drawn from the Second Foundation conflict story.


Bigmouth said...

Welcome LucidLife! One of of US...LOL!

I think I've got it. Everything we've seen is the result of the Desmond Exception -- INCLUDING his activation of the Fail-Safe. The threat that DHARMA foresaw, the one predicted by the Valenzetti, was their own creation (i.e., the Swan Station). The reason why Ms. Hawking has to intervene to make sure Desmond doesn't propose to Penny is not to PREVENT him from changing things, but rather to ENSURE that he does. The problem is that the universe keeps trying to course correct back to a timeline where DHARMA destroys the world. Desmond must return to the Island to ensure that the loop she's set in motion continues so they can save the world.

Anonymous said...

Love this! Great ideas... as usual!
I love that Daniel FINALLY talks about the Variable and free will.