Why Push The Button?

One of the obvious subcontextual themes of LOST is science vs. faith. The most notable portrayal of this theme is the juxtaposition of Jack, the pragmatic neurosurgeon, and Locke, the idealistic “collection supervisor for a box company”. One of the most notable conflicts arising from this contrast is of course, the button. “Pushing the button”, or more accurately, entering the number sequence and pressing “execute”, is described by Locke in “Orientation” as a leap of faith. Why would Jack, the pragmatist, take a leap of faith? In order to understand why Jack decided to “push the button”, we must take a closer look at rational decision-making when faced with uncertainty.

There is an inherent paradox in acceptance or “pushing the button”. The paradox is thus: We do not know what will happen if the button is pushed. We do not know what will happen if the button is not pushed. Which is better, then? The universe is constantly changing, and we’re inside the universe, which means that we’re constantly changing, too. We can either try to avoid change, or accept it; but change can be for the better, or for the worse. So, the answer to the question, “Which is better?” will always involve a leap of faith, because there is no correct answer. Or, more precisely, the correct answer is, “neither, and both”.

How to decide then? In decision theory, especially when faced with a decision to be made under uncertainty, the rational procedure is to identify all possible outcomes, determine their values (positive or negative) and the probabilities that will result from each course of action, and multiply the two to give an expected value. The action to be chosen should be the one that gives rise to the highest total expected value.

This was invoked by the famous French mathematician and philospher Blaise Pascal, in what has come to be known as Pascal’s wager. Basically, Pascal’s uncertainty was the existence of God. Belief or non-belief in God is the decision to be made. Pascal posited that the reward for belief in God if God actually does exist is infinite. Therefore, however small the probability of God’s existence, the expected value of belief exceeds that of non-belief, so it is better to believe in God.

Obviously, Pascal’s argument is subjective, and only works from the perspective of the wagerer. I think that Kate, and Sayid (both of whom were present at the time of Desmond’s departure), to some extent went along with Locke for this reason. They feel that if “pushing the button” will save the world from some unknown catastrophe, then however small the probability that the catastrophe will happen, it is better to “push the button”. Any other possibility, including the possibility that “pushing the button” is actually sending an “all’s well – no need to send a rescue team” message to some Dharma Initiative supervisory board, will have a lower expected value than that of saving the world.

Hurley, who was also present, is going along with Locke out of fear that if others know of his conviction that the numbers are cursed, they will think he is crazy. He is conforming to the group, succombing to peer pressure.

This brings me to Jack. Why did Jack decide to “push the button”? As a rational, pragmatic man, he probably rationalized his decision similarly to Pascal, but Jack, too, is succombing to a form of peer pressure. He must fulfill his role as leader of the group, by serving the greater good, even if it goes contrary to his own beliefs.

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21 Responses to Why Push The Button?

  1. Lesley says:

    Considering how ruthless these “Others” are and also assuming they control the bunker in some fashion I doubt they would let the world/DHARMA come to an end in the event someone like Jack decides not the push the button. Otherwise aren’t the the Others are gambling their future? DHARMA doesn’t stike me as a group of gamblers. They seem to know exactly what they want. I believe their goal is ultimately to control society and make it better. (IMHO history has proven that every time some noble cause has that in mind they become the “bad guys”.)

    The butten also assists with Jack’s ability to control people as well and he recognizes this. And what if something bad happens, even if the chance is small? Then Jack is to blame and his position is forever changed with the group. Assuming they survive after not pushing the button, Locke becomes the person in charge….and we cannot have that!

    I am interested to see how they resolve the conflist between Jack and Locke, however as I enjoyed Locke’s more adventurous side. And Henry gave a wake up all when he pointed out they are always fighting. Maybe the tables turn since Locke is stuck pushing the button, when Kate eventually shows Jack the medical bunker and he becomes this season’s explorer.

  2. Keiko says:

    I have always felt that the button is a giant Skinner experiment- during the Orientation video, it’s mentioned that the grad students performed work along the lines of psychologists like B. F. Skinner.

    Skinner is best known for the following theory (taken from http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/skinner.html): “B. F. Skinner’s entire system is based on operant conditioning. The organism is in the process of “operating” on the environment, which in ordinary terms means it is bouncing around its world, doing what it does. During this “operating,” the organism encounters a special kind of stimulus, called a reinforcing stimulus, or simply a reinforcer. This special stimulus has the effect of increasing the operant — that is, the behavior occurring just before the reinforcer. This is operant conditioning: “the behavior is followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence modifies the organisms tendency to repeat the behavior in the future.” ”

    So basically, the button is the stimulus responsible for influencing the subject’s behavior just prior to having to push it. Even though the consequence is unknown to the subjects, they still feel compelled to push it b/c it’s been done for the last however many years and the importance of continuing the procedure is stressed during the Orientation video.

    I was convinced that if the button isn’t pushed, nothing will happen. I think the whole experiment is to see whether ppl will continue to do what they’re instructed to do, regardless of knowing the outcome. Now I’m not so sure nothing will happen having seen previews for this week’s episode, “Lockedown.”

    Even so, I think that Jack suspected this is a Skinner experiment too (I think he even mentions that if you don’t push the button, he thinks nothing will happen), but pushed the button b/c he’s been conditioned to press it- his behavior has modified as a result of this experiment. In that regard, the experiment is a success.

  3. Pandora says:

    Strong first article, Job! (For those who didn’t notice the author change–Andreas writes most of the blog articles, and I write from time to time, and Job is our newest “guest writer”)

    I like the tying in of Pascal’s Wager. We often think of “pushing the button” as keeping something from happening (likely bad)… but it’s interesting to turn the tables and consider it as either “perpetuating something (bad)” or “keeping something good from happening”.

    To me, Jack’s decision was always more of one to humor the others, especially Locke. At times being a leader involves not only doing things you believe in, but doing things that people you lead believe in. Sometimes these things are symbolic.

    Good other comments as well. This is a great topic to lead us into next week’s episode “Lockdown”… which I have a feeling will really explore these themes… I’m guessing from the previews that the countdown will run out, and we’ll see something interesting go down.

  4. Cecilia says:

    Oops, keep forgetting to post under my other name. :) Pandora = Cecilia

  5. SmileyMe says:

    Lockdown looks like it’ll be a shocker! I can’t wait. Oops, I supose I shouldn’t bring that up considering it will bring up spoiler-ish topics.

  6. Job says:

    Thanks for the intro, Cecilia. I’m glad to be onboard here.

    Thanks, everybody, for your comments. I’d like to adress a few things:

    Keiko, I’ve always been of the opinion that the operant conditioning chamber analogy is a red herring inserted by the PTP (hence the direct Skinner reference on the Orientation film). Perhaps a case could be made for Desmond (or Kelvin, or anyone who came before, for that matter), but our LOSTies have had no reinforcement. How can the act of “pushing the button” be both the unconditioned stimulus and the conditioned response of the experiment simultaneously? If you want to use the Orientation film as the reason the LOSTies are “pushing the button”, this would more closely resemble Stanley Milgram’s “Obedience To Authority” behavioral experiments.

    Lesley, I don’t think the “Others” are gambling, but I don’t think they’re much in control of the Swan bunker, either. If -and this is still speculative, but if- the “Others” are all (former) Dharma scientists and their captives/willing associates, whatever their goals may have been before “the incident” are probably no longer the same.

    I like what you said about Henry giving them a wake-up call. I think there’s a lot more we’ll be learning from Henry soon.

  7. Bill says:

    To simply be an experiment has always been hard for me to swallow. Aren’t there easier ways to test people as to whether they will push a button or not? Why build a hatch on an uncharted island. Why make everything so elaborate. My guess is that you could replicate the spirit of the experiment without making the controlled environment so complex.

    Also, what would be the value of such an experiment? It is being performed on too small of a population (Kelvim and then Desmond) to really have any scientific value. Even among people on this board there are some that would push and some that wouldn’t. Having just 2 people being tested (or even more if folks were here before Kelvim) won’t provide enough statistical information to make an assumption.

    Finally, we do know that there are some very weird things happening on this island which tend to support the idea that there is something more than just a Skinner test. Between swarms, baby stealings, people being healed, etc there is just a lot going on.

    At the end of the day I have no idea what the ramifications are for ignoring the button. I would just bet all that I had that things will not turn out nice.

  8. Pingback: Bill’s Lost Site :: To Push The Button Or Not? :: March :: 2006

  9. florims says:

    Hello, I am a French and live in Paris, I follow the second season thanks to the internet downloadings : because you have to allow a year in most European countries to see American shows. I love your blog, it is really interesting (even though sometimes it gives me spoilers when I can’t find the latest Lost episode).

    I think the way you compare the button problem with Pascal’s theory is very bold. I would like to add that John and Jack, in my mind, don’t push it on account of the fact it gives them a sort of hope. I mean if everything gets really “lost” for the group of survivors (for instance the others attacking harshly) they still know that they have a last weapon before loosing : if they have to, they can use this last power over themselves despite all the tragedy and the absudity of what happens to them.

    Moreover, it gives them a reason to live : but Jack can’t confess he needs something mysterious to live because he’s rationalist. Also Locke can’t admit they will probably be nothing if they don’t push this button because he’s an idealistic … they need each other to survive, they need to have a conflict of sense to create feelings in this chaotic and deadly situation.

    As for me, I love this show because it is a real metaphor of our own human life. Just imagine : why are we here ? How do we have to act to give a sense to this world ? How must we behave facing the others (those who are not part of our family) ?

    I think one another point is that it is typically anglo-saxon that the “others” are dangerous, indeed John Locke is a also philosopher of the XVIIth century who theorized the human behaviour to build up a society. And he said that we contracted a society to be protected and to cope with dangers.
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau (also XVIIth century) is opposed to this theory : he thinks we didn’t created the society to deal with the wilderness of the others but because we all loved each other … this is why our political society are so different.

    Isn’t it amazing, in this respect, that there is both a Locke and a Rousseau (the French chick) on this island ?! Probably the screenplayers did that on purpose … could it mean that Rousseau is part of the “others” … and Locke too !!? This will be too far-fetched for me.

    Congratulations for your blog !

    ps : Oh my God ! Rousseau absolutely doesn’t have the French accent, and when she speaks French, she makes bad mistakes !!!!

  10. Chris says:

    Wait wait wait. Is the title for the next episode “Lockdown” or “Lockedown”? Because that little ‘e’ could make all the difference in speculation. ;)

  11. Cecilia says:

    As with so many titles on the show, I think it’s a double entendre (meant to be read on two levels or is a play on words–take “The Whole Truth”, “Maternity Leave” and just about every other title). This show is about the hatch locking, but I think will also focus on more backstory with Locke.

    Great insight! The Rousseau connection has been discussed in the past, but always deserves revisiting. And I’m sure Job will love to meet you as well, since he has lived in France and is fluent in French. Welcome to our readers from abroad!

  12. SmileyMe says:

    It’s Lockdown… no ‘e’. But ya, the titles tend to have double meanings (‘Whatever the Case May Be’).

  13. SmileyMe says:

    Oh, and could anyone clarify what juxtaposition means? It’s one of the things that Dharma is doing/based on, and it was used in this post, I’m not good with big words, lol. Thanks

  14. Job says:

    Hé florims, merci pour ton analogie. Moi aussi, je pense que LOST est un metaphor pour notre existence humaine. Je suis convaincu que les “pouvoirs qui soient” ont nommés Locke et Rousseau tels exprès, sans hasard. Mais, je ne crois pas qu’ils sont avec les “Autres”… à suivre, hein?

    (Oh, d’ailleurs, l’actrice qui joue Rousseau, Mira Furlan, est d’origine Croate, et elle n’est pas francophone.)

    Sorry for the French interlude.

    Bill, I agree with you, but in my typical dichotomous fashion, I have to ask another loaded question. If it’s not an experiment, then what plausible reason could there be for not implementing a system to automate the “button”? Surely that would make more sense than to rely on fallible (or unwilling) human “button pushers”.

    SmileyMe, juxtaposition simply means placing two things side by side in order to compare and contrast them.

  15. Lesley says:

    This is such an interesting topic and great comments by everyone. I believe the Skinner experiment was the original intention of the Swan bunker and somehow it was linked to electromagnetics. Although Skinner rewarded certain behaviors, Swan operates in reverse by using fear to prompt a behavior. (Some how that does not seem “good”.) The “incident” was mentioned in the Orientation film as the cause for changing the use of Swan from a lab into something different requiring “button pushing”. Some other event(s)probably assisted in rendering the Swan “Skinner box” into what it has now become. The questions is whether it is really an abandoned experiment or a trap. I did not think that the “Others” could control Swan but after seeing the previews I too have been examining my previous theories regarding the bunker. (Maybe it is an old Army training sire converted by the DeGroots?)

    I also cannot reconcile the fact that so much of the bunker appears to be neglected but there is a full pantry of edible food (manufactured by what appears to be a large company) and a newer washer and dryer. Considering the Others use costumes to sneak about perhaps the failure to update provides a costume of sorts to Swan.

    I can’t wait to see additional crucial information in the still missing portions of the Orientation tape. that Locke is still searching for.

    I agree that pushing the button gives the group some focus or sense of purpose, whether or not they all agree with that action or not. It provides some constant/order in the chaos they are living.

    It appears the writers want us to believe that DHARMA (assuming that the “Others” are DHARMA gone “bad”) originally had good intentions. Didn’t Skinner intend to use his works to better society? What if the orientation film is just a small piece of DHARMA propaganda and DeGroot’s crew were always militant scientists?

  16. Andreas says:

    If it’s not an experiment, then maybe the button and the code is a way to make sure that the persons who are supposed to be in the hatch are still able to insert the code and push the button.

    If they do not input the code, it would be assumed that they where dead or maybe.. “infected” (as in quarantine) and the hatch would be sealed off and/or destroyed to either make sure that a sickness does not spread or to make sure that the technology or information held by the hatch or the persons living there does not end up in the wrong hands.

    Oh, and great first article Job, welcome to the team!

  17. Laura says:

    great post! i must admit i always found it odd that Locke’s “leap of faith” constituted the pushing of the button. wouldnt it take more of a “leap of faith” to NOT push the button, put your fate in the hands of a “higher power” (dharma, others, god, etc), and trust that whatever was going to happen…to have faith that it would all be ok? ….just a different interpretation….

  18. Keiko says:


    Great point! I never thought of it that way before. A leap of faith seems more about giving yourself up to the unknown. Locke knew what would happen when the button is pushed (counter resets, alarm stops) but they have no idea what happens if they fail to push the button.

    Well, I think from the teasers for tonight’s episode we just might find out- I hope we do anyway! :)

  19. Tomas says:

    Let’s call the button a machine. Machines have buttons, and as machines exist, they are man made. That which is man made, will break, or at the very least deteriorate over time. We do not know what happens if this machine ceases operation, and thus a maintenance system needs to be implemented. I’ll hypothesize this though – what happens when the button is *not* pressed, must at the very least be of significance to humans. Furthermore, it is a jump to
    conclusion that it is a “doomsday-machine”. Even in Pascal ideology the natural human assumption is an all or nothing thing – an absolute truth. God exists or he does not. Is there no balance, no fulcrum, no middle ground? This show is a million miles from absolute truths, and thus the answer might lie not with Pascal (my personal favorite Christian philosopher btw), or with Skinner at the other extreme – but perhaps in a more grey area – something more philosophically along the lines of perhaps Neitzsche.

    Skinner: Pushing the button maintains human behavior.
    Pascal: Not pushing the button destroys human behavior.
    (feels like two sides of the same coin)
    Neitzsche: Pushing the button kills God.

    Humans built the button (what, a Commodore 64? … not exactly on par with the long term engineering of Roman acqueducts or Egyptian pyramids), and in the Neitzsche dialogue, humans built God. How do you maintain the permanent operation of a man made machine? I could think of no better
    machine for operation than man himself. The pyramids will fall, but man prevails – and when man no longer exists, who cares if the button gets pushed or not? We’re all gone! Is it a concidence that the
    characters upon countdown are egyptian heiroglyphics?

    Some might take this as a argument for the button as an absolute force, a doomsday button. No. The nature of the button is too relative. The pyramids were engineered, built, maintained, and eventually abandoned, just like every other human construction in history. Man either chooses to maintain the machine, or not, moves on, creates another.

    This is not to say that the concept of doomsday is not at play here. All of Lost takes place post-nuclear awareness. The nature of a “bunker” connotes post-apocalyptic survival, and the writers are no
    strangers to the iconography of these things. The button probably could not exist and be maintained as simply a God-button anytime before the A-bomb.

    So my point in the end is that there IS no more reliable system of button machine maintenance than man himself. He is certainly more reliable than a Commodore 64 (which has nearly been broken already,
    but was promptly fixed by Sayid, a man), and as we’ve seen – despite the world, we still keep filling it with new people – especially the Lost island itself.

    So the next big question is in Neitzsche terms – if man attempts to, or accidentially kills God, does it actually work??

  20. frenchy_florims says:

    Hé Job ! Bravo pour ton français, cécilia m’a dit que tu avais vécu en France, c’est pour ça que tu as fais l’analogie avec Pascal ?

    Anyway, I am very happy to share my “Lost passion” on the internet, it is quite new for me and I really think it’s an amzing idea to speak about one of our favorite show together.
    But, generally speaking I think you American people really have a greater sense of fun and imagination than the rest of the world. In France, shows like this are considered in a trivial way, you know most people think it is just advertisement. Of course, it is ! however it really has deep meanings too.

    okay everyone, I ain’t gonna log in this site until this weekend when I find the new episode on the web otherwise it will be spoiled. The synopsis seems REALLY good !

    See you lucky ones !

  21. Bill says:

    Job – great post again. I was glad that I linked to it from my blog. Friends and family have enjoyed your post and the site as a whole. You have a new following!

    You asked what might be the real reason to push a button – a task that could easily be automated. Of course I don’t know for sure but here goes …

    I have a couple of theories but most of them are based around the loose concept of making sure the stations are staffed. By having a timer count down you can ensure that that someone is present who knows what they are doing every 108 minutes.

    If a person isn’t present then some drastic action is taken. Maybe information is cleared from a computer, a bunker is destroyed, or something far worse. Something like what Kelvin told Desmond, “Just saving the world.”

    To me this is viable on a couple of fronts. First, if Dharma and Hanso are doing something illegal or otherwise not good, they would have a system like this that could destroy any evidence of their activites if they ever lost control of the bunkers. Think Mission Impossible … the hero gets the mission and then in 10 seconds the record of the mission is destroyed. Same kind of concept.

    Anyway, just a thought. Should be interesting to see how this all plays out. Keep up the great work!

    Now I don’t know what Hanso might be covering up. Whatever it is I think it is pretty bad.

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