Something From Nothing

With Season 5's introduction of time travel to the world of Lost then the show's plot dynamic is under scrutiny. Darlton set their stall out when they talked up how much time and research they put into breaking down the time travel aspects. They've explicitly stated that there is one timeline on the show, and have used the likes of Pierre Chang and Daniel Faraday, right from the first episode of the new season, to express that there are strict 'rules' that cannot be changed.

When Pierre Chang told the Dharma worker about time travel the worker's reaction was to wonder whether they were going to go back in time and kill Hitler. Chang jumped down the guy's throat and told him that could not be done because of the rules. Likewise, when Sawyer wanted to go stomping into The Swan Station and get beer he was informed, in no uncertain terms by Faraday, that he was wasting his time.

You can't change the past. What happened, happened. There's only one timeline and you can't create divergent timelines. Those are the rules.

Apart from Desmond, these rules have (so far as Jughead) been adhered to perfectly well. (There are debates about this, of course, to do with Locke meeting Ethan and so on, but personally I feel there has been nothing to contravene the fundamental principle that the past cannot be changed, and has not been changed, and the Losties happening to be in it is presenting no infringement - it's just filling in the blanks.)

Then there's Desmond and this 'memory insert' business. Now this does trouble me. Not enough to cry foul just yet - because Faraday has reached a conclusion that Desmond is unique. It'll probably be 'explained' by Desmond having had dalliances with time travel already; it's flimsy, but Lost can just about wing this notion and make it fly.

So what am I talking about here then, you ask? Ostensibly I am talking about cyclical paradoxes created by time travel. It’s about Locke, Richard Alpert, and a compass. Let's take a deep breath. Clear our minds. And try and get this straight as painlessly as possible.

Let me walk you through this, using the compass as a prime example. The cyclical paradox goes as follows:

In 2005 (for argument sake, since we don't actually know the precise year), Locke is lying by the drug plane, shot in the leg. Richard Alpert turns up, tends to the wound, and gives Locke a compass. Locke takes this compass back to 1954, and meets Alpert, and gives him the compass. Alpert keeps the compass, therefore, so that in 2005 he can give it to Locke. And so it goes.

The obvious question this flow presents is: Where did the compass come from? Here's a diagram I artfully put together. (Click on it to enlarge.)

Amazing graphics, I know. Thanks. But what the flow demonstrates is the closed circuit of the compass handover; the important part is that the compass comes from nowhere. Locke can't give it to Alpert if Alpert hasn't been given it from Locke. You with me? The compass has no start point, and this is a cyclical paradox. Something from nothing. Well, it would be, but I can get around it by theorising there are two compasses for a little while, and one of them gets lost in the loop.

Here's an elaboration of the flow diagram to explain the point. (Click on it to enlarge.)

Basically, then, Alpert already had a compass before Locke turned up in the 1950s. This makes sense. A man turning up, claiming to be from the future, having an identical compass he apparently got from a future counterpart would convince Alpert that Locke was genuine. So, in this respect, the compass doesn't present a paradox - with a bit of creative thinking.

So, are we OK? We clear? Because I want you to have both feet planted firmly on the ground, assured, for the introduction of the next bit: How Locke and Alpert meeting makes for a (so far) irresolvable cyclical paradox.

Let's run it through again. How did Alpert know to find Locke by the drug plane, injured, and give him a compass so that 1950s Alpert would know him? Because Locke, in 1950, turned up and presented a compass? That can't work. Because how did Locke know he had to present a compass? Because Alpert told him so! You see the problem? The actual knowledge that a compass was required to facilitate a meeting came out of nowhere. Something from nothing.

It's precisely the same idea as the compass example I outlined, only we could get around that by saying Alpert already had a compass in his possession. We can't say that Alpert already had the idea he would need to give Locke a compass in the future beforehand. Here's another diagram illustrating the closed loop. (Click on it to - oh, you know by now.)

An example. You are where you are now and some guy shows up wearing a crown and furs, rich as can be. He gives you lottery numbers and a time machine and tells you to go back in time, find him, and tell him to play those numbers. So you do it. You go back in time. You find the man, looking all poor and raggedy, and give him lottery numbers. Then you return to your own time.

The use of the winning lottery numbers to make a poor man rich is precisely the same impossibility as Alpert’s use of the compass to make Locke prove he was from the future.

(I know for some people that this time travel logic just doesn't sit well with their brains. It's fair enough. I have a similar problem with drawing pictures, as my flow diagrams show - my brain just can't grasp it.) The fact of the matter is there is, at this moment, an unresolved cyclical paradox in the show. You can take my word for it if that works better for you!

My worry is they'll never even attempt to explain it.

My worry is they haven't even realised the error of their logic and will go on to do more of the same, passing this off as ‘clever’ storytelling and ingenious use of their new-found time-travelling Island dynamic.

Hopefully, for some of you, your eyes will be opened to this problematic way of considering time travel and you'll be alert and on the lookout for such events in the future. In the meantime, for the philosophical amongst you, we're left with this. . .

. . . fused with the age-old question about these two. . .

Great Scott!


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure whether you have overlooked this brother, but didn't Richard say that John told him to meet him at the beechcraft, in which case there's a meeting between the two that hasn't yet been shown?

AngeloComet said...

Anonymous - absolutely Alpert and Locke will meet up again. They need to in order for Locke to explain about getting shot in the leg and informing Alpert of where he can be found in the 'future'.

However, what's certain is that any meeting between them will happen AFTER this 'first' meeting they had at The Others camp in 1954.

As such, the problem I have poured over above remains. Alpert makes the plan to give Locke a compass that Locke gave to him within a 'closed circuit' of time loop logic.

I do hope that the writers have factored in all my concerns and do have some fabulous and meaningul explanation for it.

Acharaisthekey said...

I think Alperts initial Trust only exists because Locke uses the name Jacob. Brilliant move (almost as brilliant as the diagrams :)) on Locke's part. If Locke would have run up there saying RICHARD I HAVE THE COMPASS, he would have been shot.

As far as the problem goes, you are absolutely right. This is a problem is one that I am avoiding because I'm enjoying the development of why the WAR between widmore and ben factions started. However, to your point...

Richard can't possibly know to have John give Richard the compass if Richard doesn't know John is going to give Richard the compass. Thus the vicious cycle. However, what if Richard doesn't know at that time it is important to give John a compass, what if he is randomly picking something to have John pass along. Richard is confident that John is going back in time, but does the compass mean anything to Richard at the point of there conversation, or does a simple object.

Furthermore, and what I hate to think about, what if this is a time loop within the TIMELINE (I hate the idea, but have to heed the possibility) that during this record player spinning around, Richard gives Locke a Knife...but that ends up bad, then gives Locke a vile of sand, and that ends up bad, but now has given him the compass, and is hoping that works....It's a stretch, and I hope it's not the case...but I wonder if the RELIC Passing helps correct a course.

I'm going to hope that the compass was not significant, but only what Richard gives John. If john goes back in time and gives Richard a glass eye, richard would have recognized john through the possesesion of a glass eye...

OK, i'm confused...Nice diagrams though...i think they help

bob said...

This isn't really a paradox. Objects and knowledge that exist in a circular "time loop" (like the compass) are referred to by physicists as "jinn" or "jinni." There's all kinds of scientific literature on this subject. The bottom line is that the existence of such objects, though strange, is self-consistent and therefore possible. The writers of the show have definitely thought about this and are intentionally introducing these so-called "paradoxes" into the show. It's not an oversight. In fact, I'll bet they took the idea directly from this book (starts on page 20):

Corellian said...

doubt a lot they will explain this...

ladylavinia said...

"You can't change the past. What happened, happened. There's only one timeline and you can't create divergent timelines. Those are the rules."

And this is where the writers of "LOST" has 'lost' me. It seems as if Abrams, Cuse and Lindehof refuse to consider the possibility that many things in life are uncertain or that some matters might be pre-determined and some might not.

I think they're limiting themselves with this kind of storytelling and it smacks of absolutism.

Tim said...

I find the statement of rules quite encouraging - without explicit rules time travel gets very sloppy very quickly. A subject like time travel *needs* limits.

ladylavinia said...

"I find the statement of rules quite encouraging - without explicit rules time travel gets very sloppy very quickly. A subject like time travel *needs* limits."

Why? Even in CHARMED, the topic of changing the future is more flexible. And it is saying something . . . at least to me that a mediocre series like CHARMED was capable of accepting the uncertainty of time travel and LOST was not. I find that disturbing.

zorro said...

bob is correct. This situation is mind-boggling, yes, but it is definitely not a paradox. A paradox involves an inherent contradiction--a lack of self-consistency in the causality loop. In the example you give above, the causality loop is completely self-consistent and thus not paradoxical. The fact that something seemingly comes out of nowhere lies at the heart of quantum physics. Where did it come from? Who knows, but quantum physics tells us that's exactly what happens.

Tim is also correct in his response to ladylavinia. The rules established by the writers are absolutely necessary for good storytelling. Any time-travel story which follows the paradigm that the past and future can be altered at will will necessarily devolve into foolishness. There are no stakes or drama to anything, because anything can be changed if you can get back far enough into the past. (See Heroes for an example of this.)

Ladylavinia, you obviously are a post-modernist, offended by anything fixed or certain. I urge you not to let your presuppositions ruin your enjoyment of the show. I also urge you to examine your post-modernist mindset, as it is just as untenable in real life as it is in works of fiction.

former lost-theories reader said...

looks like zorro has a new target...

AngeloComet said...

Bob/Zorro - Never heard of jinn/jinni's before. When I have a stretch of free time and hardy concentration I shall definitely read into it, starting with that link. If there is, as you say, solid science backing up these apparently impossible narrative logics then I shall be a happy Comet.

Ladylavinia - Lost, for me, has always dangled the idea of fate vs coincidence (or free will, if you like). And I think once the show moves out of this 'Island time travel' phase we'll be back to a narrative without flashforwards, where 'what happens next' is less known (at least by us viewers).

I do feel that a narrative about time travel needs 'rules' to govern itself, mostly because I also watch Heroes and I've seen the mangled train wreck of inconsistency that shows calls a plot to know I don't want the same, ahem, fate for my favourite show.

And, to whoever it may concern, this is A Lost Place. If you're not making a comment that's about Lost then you're in the wrong place.

The one, and only, exception to this rule is if you're leaving a comment to exclusively and explicitly relate how fabulously funny and witty and clever you think I am. Those kinds of comments are allowed, and encouraged.

Tim said...

"Ladylavinia, you obviously are a post-modernist"

Ironically I'd consider myself to hold a Richard Rorty-esq postmodernism on a fair few subjects. I'm not sure post-modernism has that much to say about free will/determinism, although this might be getting a little off topic...

"The fact that something seemingly comes out of nowhere lies at the heart of quantum physics."

That's pretty much the ultimate question anyone can ask - why is there something rather then nothing? In that sense I'd agree that the chicken and egg compass scenario isn't necessarily a paradox, although I'd feel happier about it if I could be sure that it was a consciously thought through position of the writers, rather than a happy accident.

ladylavinia said...

I find it sad that no one seems willing to accept the uncertainty of life. Even in fiction. On CHARMED, whenever Phoebe hsa a premonition, the sisters try to change the future. Sometimes - or many times, they succeed. But sometimes, the future plays out exactly how one of the sisters envisions.

You see, even CHARMED is willing to admit that everything, including time travel or changing time, has an uncertain conclusion. Sometimes, one can change the future. And sometimes, one cannot.

But not on LOST. According to the writers of this show, everything needs little rules and labels for good storytelling. That is pathetic. And this is probably why LOST will never be the masterpiece it has the potential to be. How pathetic.

That's not good storytelling to me. that's playing it safe. And I don't find that admirable.

DanX said...

On the chicken and the egg question:

If you're a creationist, the chicken came first, if you're an evolutionist, it was the egg.

On the question of Richard's compass knowledge - wouldn't it make sense for some kind of contingency policy to be in place if you lived on an island with bizarre time phenomena? Maybe the compass is the Others' way of distinguishing real time travellers from spies?

And good to see you zorro. My beans have been less cool with fewer discussions with your good self ;)