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.