Free Will & DHARMA

In last week’s show, when Adam criticizes Juliet’s choice of books (Carrie, which he says Ben, who is also book club host, would not have liked), Juliet says:

“And here I was thinking there was such thing as free will.”

This is just one of MANY references to the idea of free will and how it plays a part in the lives of those in LOST:

  • The DHARMA symbol is a bagua, a Taoist symbol that has to do with predetermination. It is a wheel for predicting a future that human acts may not be able to alter. Many of the religions referenced on the show also have beliefs which involve enlightenment only with the acceptance of fate.
  • From The Lost Experience, we know that DHARMA stands for Department of Heuristics and Research on Material Applications. Heuristics is a study of human choices and how they affect our decision-making.
  • The Pearl/Swan observational setup, the bear cage apparatus, and Juliet’s mind games with ‘breaking’ Jack all strike me as behaviorist and Skinneresque experiments (B.F. Skinner has also been referenced as being influential in past podcasts).
  • Characters John Locke, Rousseau and (Desmond) David Hume were all named after philosophers who wrote about free will vs. determinism.
  • A repeated phrase in Lost from multiple losties is “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”, which pretty much bucks the concept of determinism. This is said by multiple characters at multiple times; there is a good long list here.
  • The character connections we keep seeing in all the shows could be seen as commentary on serendipity, which has to do with destiny (many know this as the “six degrees of separation” effect). Some episodes of LOST, in fact, are devoted to this concept of fate, and how much of it is changeable: take “…And Found”, for instance (story of how Jin and Sun met, after Tai Soo made his prediction from the Destiny Book).
  • From The Lost Experience, we know that the ultimate goal of DHARMA was to figure out if they could change the Numbers (‘human factors’ from the Valenzetti Equation), to prevent mankind’s self destruction. This leads one to believe that DHARMA and the Others believe in predetermination only to a point.
  • So, what does all this mean for what DHARMA and the Others are studying? What are they trying to get out of their imprisonment of these specific individuals on their “list” that they haven’t been able to find otherwise?

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    28 Responses to Free Will & DHARMA

    1. Robert says:

      Good points — you’re obviously on to something. Wonder if they’ll mention Asimov’s Foundation at some point?

      What is the connection between Desmond and Hume? I must have missed that.

    2. Jason says:

      Desmond’s full name is Desmond David Hume.

    3. Cecilia says:

      Yup, Desmond’s full name was said in Live Together, Die Alone…

      Robert, cool, you are an Asimov fan. That would make a cool literary reference… well, there are a lot of things that I think would make cool literary references. 🙂 I’m surprised they haven’t used Shakespeare yet! (aside from the fact that the tale vaguely reminds me of The Tempest)

    4. Andreas says:

      At first I thought this would be a post about free episodes of “Will & Grace” and “Dharma & Greg”, hehe.

      Very good list Cecilia. It’s becoming quite clear that free will versus fate is one of the most important questions on Lost, if not even THE question the show is built on.

      At this point I’m not sure that we can ask what The Others are studying, because we have no idea if they still follow the original DHARMA plan, if they are on Mittelwerk’s side or if they have a completely different agenda.

    5. Robert says:

      Yup, Desmond’s full name was said in Live Together, Die Alone…


      Ah — silly that I’d forget that! On an effectively unrelated note, I understand that one translation of Al-Quaeda is “The Foundation.”

    6. Lesley says:

      I agree that LOST constantly makes us consider the relationship between free-will and determination. There are two philosophical views of the nature of free will, one that is compatible with determination and one that is not. For instance, biological determination provides that our behaviors and beliefs are fixed by our genetics so we do choose (and have free-will to do so) but those choices are based on our biology. Theological determination dicates that a deity controls us, thereby making free-will incompatible with determination. There are other forms of determination but it is most interesting to note that David Hume was a compatibalist and maintained along with other philosophers that free-will is compatible with determination.

      Juliet implies when talking to Jack that she is a doctor, when he asks her what she does and she answers that she is a repo woman. The Others seem to want Jack in his capacity as a surgeon but are stuck with a very stubborn free-willed kind of guy. Kate and Sawyer are also very strong-willed but Jack is inside and Kate and Sawyer are outside in more harsh conditions.

      I suspect the Others will use Kate and Sawyer to get Jack to do what they want him to do but that is the issue I get stuck on. Is one of the Others badly hurt? Does their grand plan involve the need for a spinal surgeon? How do Jack’s skills figure into this? (Maybe the community hospital needs a Chief of Surgery….jk.)

      Judging from the way the Others collected the Losties’ names I am guessing they have access to the internet and researched each of the survivors to determine how they may be able to use them in their cause…whatever that may be. Having a person’s life history tells them something about that person’s choices and the way they behave. Hey, seems like the Others are playing God doesn’t it??

    7. Austin says:

      Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. The others seem to have all of these down, and these are the characteristics religions give to their God(s). But what i think makes this interesting is if we apply a theory that was on another stream which was that the others were just pretending they knew everything. Remember how Ben tells some subordinates to find everything about them, why would Ben need to do this if he has the internet and can just look up the latest flight to disappear, and then use Foundation resources to get the flight log? Maybe God (or Gods) are not as powerful as we hope, or fear. To go along with the whole “God” theory, there do seem to be many “miracles” that occur on the island.

    8. Lesley says:

      Pretending is the word that Walt used. Austin, I like that idea, the Others want the Losties to think they are omnipotent, that they know everything when they really do not. But the Others do seem to have some connection to the “outside world” or perhaps the ability to at least communiate. How can we explain the CDs? How do the Others know what college Jack attended and that he graduated a year ahead of his class? (Maybe Walt was able to secure that information for them?) As usual there are more questions than answers (and the reason we all keep watching and discussing)… and things never do seem to be what they first appear either.

    9. MasterPo says:

      It is possible we’re reading too much into the “free will” comment Juliet made.

      I have found that scientists have a way of speaking more ‘flowery’ in everyday conversation than the rest of us common-man people (I’ve worked with theoretical scientists – I sometimes think they are all just fustrated philosphers!). Especially when speaking to other scientists. Maybe by speaking so prosey and philosophically it’s the scientific communitty’s way of playing whose-is-bigger. 😉

      So when she starts saying about free will being alive and well might be like you and I simply saying “I’m the host this month and it’s my choice!”.

      Remember that nothing on the island is ever exactly what it first seems to be.

    10. Hammer says:

      “Remember how Ben tells some subordinates to find everything about them, why would Ben need to do this if he has the internet and can just look up the latest flight to disappear, and then use Foundation resources to get the flight log?”

      Austin, I think the list Ben wanted was of survivors. As you recall, the first “other” was discovered in group because he wasn’t on the flight log. This suggests it was more important to infiltrate and find out who the survivors are then without delay. He wanted names in 3 days (maybe because it takes that long to info from the outside).

    11. Chris says:

      i have noticed that the show has a kinda anti-plot. where there is never a question answered with out there being 10 other questions asked. maybe even to the point where the writers forget some of the questions they brought up earlier. for instance where did the polar bears come from. and what about the bigs black mist monster. but i know that they didnt realy forget i would just like an update on soem of the eariler questions. hey if either of those questions were answered and i missed it tell me.

    12. Cecilia says:

      Master: While her statement WAS made in passing… I think I would discount it as more just a figure of speech had there not been piling through the seasons all the other references to free will and fate as a major theme (in fact, it was one of the themes for the pre-season 2 promotional series “Everything happens for a reason”, which had every major character discussing their thoughts on fate).

      The one character that really confuses me on this issue still is Locke. On the one hand, he is the character that does what he wants to do irregardless of what the rest of the group wants, and he is the one who says “Don’t tell me what I can’t do” more than any other character. He was also named after one of the most famous philosophers that championed the large role of free will in the human condition. But on the other hand, he talks about fate quite a lot: “Each one of us was brought here for a reason”… “This is my fate, this is my destiny.” (about opening the hatch and being on the island) He also for a long time pushed the button without question (before the Pearl was found). This seems to be something of a contradiction to me, perhaps one of the reasons his character is most interesting.

    13. MasterPo says:

      Locke is definately a very interesting character. Not only for those reasons but he clearly knows (or at least has deductively reasoned) more than he is telling the rest of the Losties. Which is curious unto itself since he didn’t like being deceived by others (his long lost father for example) yet is willing to deceive these people he counts on for his very survival.

      Also, keep in mind that when Ben (disguised as Henry) was captured by Rousseau he told Locke that he was on his way to the Losties to bring Locke back with him.

      Assuming this to be true, why is Locke so important the Others’ leader personally goes to get him? Did Ben think his words would convince Locke to come with him?

      (Footnote: If Ben is so smart and talented why was he caught by Rousseau?)

    14. Cihan says:

      I thought the Dharma symbol involves the use of the ‘I Ching’, which is a method of predicting the future but does not discount free will, it infact gives the user/reader the ability to change a future outcome by using the I Ching.

    15. Cecilia says:

      I think Ben intentionally got caught (though the way he did it didn’t seem very realistic… if Rousseau had missed his arm by a few inches, would have killed him with that crossbow). I think Ben put himself in that situation, because like a good cult leader or suicide bomber, he thought the mission (observing the losties in Swan Station) was too important to leave to one of his subordinates.

      Cihan: You make a good point, but my understanding of the I Ching is that it is more of a guide to understanding the path before us, but that the change itself is inevitable (one of the central tenants of the I Ching). I will say that I am Chinese myself and have read up on the subject, but that I am not Taoist personally, so if someone has more insight into this, feel free to speak up. I can’t say that Taoism discounts free will in itself… I don’t think that the school of thought really puts the two concepts at opposite ends of the spectrum necessarily.

      I think you brought up a paradox I’ve always found interesting… those who say they believe in fate “but that we make our own fate”. Though it sounds good, isn’t this a basic contradiction, also? Fate implies that there is some larger picture and grand design; our own actions might alter the smaller picture, but if we truly believe in fate, the larger picture has already been set.

      Take “…And Found” for instance. Jin’s friend Tai Soo reads the Destiny Book and says “Love will look ‘orange'”. Jin laughs this off and forgets about it until the end of the show. Towards the end, the irony is that the girl he turns to look at is wearing orange, but that is not the woman he falls for, Sun, who is wearing white. However, if he hadn’t turned to look, he wouldn’t have bumped into the love of his life. This made me think the message of this episode was that there is such a thing as fate, but that what leads us there is unpredictable, and will not usually take us down the path we think it will.

    16. Umbrella al says:

      It seems as if Dharma has chosen the big 3 because of their leadership values in respect to the other survivors. Perhaps their goal is to break the will of the leaders in order to gain access to the rest of the camp and incorporate them into the “others” community for whatever unknown reason.

    17. Andreas says:

      Cecilia, check out Lesley’s comment about free will and fate, he has some good points.

    18. MasterPo says:

      There are definate choices we make in life, and there are times you have few options often just having to select between the lesser of evils. If you want to call that “fate” I suppose so.

    19. Cecilia says:

      Andy, yeah, don’t worry, I saw those and thought they were great also 🙂 Just didn’t have any particular response to them, but I try to read the comments here… they really make you think.

    20. Anon says:

      Re: “Carrie”

      Go back and watch “Maternity Leave” from Season 2. Locke gives Benry (locked up in the armory of the Swan) a copy of “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “I thought you might like something to read,” says Locke. Benry replies, “You don’t have any Stephen King?”

    21. david says:

      this is by far the prettiest lost site i’ve ever seen! when i first saw it i didn’t realize that it was a lost blog, because it was so designy. btw, i found your site from, which is an excellent resource for the best web designs! your site was in the “super clean” section (pt. 2). keep up the excellent work. one suggestion.. have an anchor link that takes you directly to the comment box at the end of an article so ppl don’t have to scroll all the way down. it’s a small thing =)

    22. JD says:

      This was not the latest post a couple hours ago….wasn’t there something on charlie and kate getting married? and something else?

    23. Andreas says:

      [quote comment=”7406″]this is by far the prettiest lost site i’ve ever seen! when i first saw it i didn’t realize that it was a lost blog, because it was so designy. btw, i found your site from, which is an excellent resource for the best web designs! your site was in the “super clean” section (pt. 2). keep up the excellent work. one suggestion.. have an anchor link that takes you directly to the comment box at the end of an article so ppl don’t have to scroll all the way down. it’s a small thing =)[/quote]

      Glad you like the site David! An anchor link sounds like a good idea, I’ll add one asap. Thanks!

    24. Cecilia says:

      Hey, pretty cool, Andreas, to get recognized by a site promoting the KISS concept (and I agree) 🙂 In this age of everyone trying to insert zebra backgrounds, loud mp3 embeds and scrolling font banners with hearts and crap on their MySpace page, I liked seeing some of the other designs there, too.

    25. violet says:

      so they’ve got catholic themes, eastern philosophy, and greek mythology… maybe they’ll venture into norse myths and african folk legends next… like neil gaiman does…

      and btw, what’s with the disses on stephen king and his low-brow lit? if the writers of the show rip a bunch of stuff off of stephen king, and two of their characters (at least) think king’s not up to literary par, are we supposed to think those two characters are too haughty for their own good, and the rest of us should reside with juliet and her favoritism for king?

    26. rejus says:

      Wow that could be the key point and the final message of the whole story!

      Locke is my favourite character and I believe I really understand him. As Lesley said, people like Hume think that free-will is compatible with determination (this concept is part of the Christian Catholic belief, for example). So does Locke: I think he’s aware of a sort of good destiny that surrounds him, and for this reason he pays the greatest attention to the signs that reality offers to him and that guide him through the path (he’s the hunter). He’s able to sense if what’s happening is part of that destiny (what is good or evil, what is coherent to his heart/desire or not), so he takes decisions even totally different from the other people, decisions that are perceived as totally FREE and a bit weird.
      In other words, I think he’s FREE to follow his good destiny. He is not a GOD – free to do whatever he wants – he is a free man that knows that there’s a good destiny planned for everyone and everyone can freely choose to follow it.
      So when he lost his faith, he lost everything: not pushing the button almost led to the island’s destruction (and maybe his life??). But that could have been another sign, to let him follow his destiny again.
      From this point of view, Locke is really a religious hero.

      Just for that, I believe that Locke is somehow useful for the others. They might want Locke to think that his desired destiny coincide with their ultimate goal, and try to manipulate him in the future. Some signs like the inexplicable recover of his legs and his feeling so oddly comfortable on the island could be good ways to ‘break’ him.

    27. Chris says:

      Great entry. The same “book club” episode is also the one in which Desmond comments on the contents of “Locke’s speech” which had not yet been given. Then Locke gives it as Desmond looks into the background. Perhaps going through the explosion gave him insight or the ability for determinism. I’ve been on this theory for a while and got recharged when I made the Locke / Hume connection.

    28. Jeanne says:

      HI I love the lost show and I have recently been enjoying your blog thanks it really makes me think about what I have seen. I have a question I was hoping anyone could help me with. In the new season 3 the first episode started off with coleen putting on a record or a cd of a song. it went somthing like ” its time we all get together” does anyone know who sings the song or the name of the song. I have been driving myself crazy with it. thanks in advance for any info Jeanne

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