Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Why Jack Pressed the Button...

The most recent repeat went to great lengths to portray Jack as making a grudging and dramatic leap of faith to keep pressing the button. Occurs to me, however, that what Jack did was completely rational. In fact, I'd submit that any true man of reason would do the same.

It all has to do with Pascal's Wager. Pascal once posited that it made rational sense to believe in god (i.e., be a man of faith) because the expected value of belief is always greater than the expected value from non-belief. In other words, the cost of not believing is so great if god exists (you go to hell) that it overwhelms any competing considerations.

This same dilemma gets played in all sorts of debates over how to assess risk in the face of catastrophe. Basic rational choice theory posits that the cost of a negative outcome should be discounted by the probability of occurrence. For example, if I have a 50%chance of getting a $100 ticket when I speed, my expected cost each time I speed is only $50 (meaning I'll continue to speed as long as I obtain more than $50 in value from doing so).

Some outcomes, however, are so costly (e.g., nuclear annihalation) that they skew the risk analysis irrespective of their probability of occurrence (infinity discounted by even a miniscule probability is still infinity). That's basically what we have on the island, where the possible cost of not pushing the button (i.e., the end of the world) is so great, it makes rational sense to keep right on pushing, almost irrespective of whether we believe Desmond.

In a way, therefore, our man of science really had no (rational) choice.