A Completely Atheistic Interpretation of the LOST Finale
No disclaimers here. (Except that one)
It ended. It well and truly ended, but what are we to take away? Where there is criticism (and there's plenty) of what was, in my opinion, a pitch-perfect master-class of sci-fi/fantasy/adventure storytelling, it seems to originate in the claim that lost ended on a note of hokey, postmodern pseudo-spirituality, quietly validating the delusions of faith-heads the world over. To what degree is this valid? Are we left with no recourse but to accept that in the world of LOST (and by the sort of meta-association that all works of fiction employ, our own), eternity is the one governing principle of the universe? Is there a heaven in Lost? A God? The show has always gone out of it's way to avoid giving explicit validation for any particular spiritual/supernatural belief system, but is that the way it went out? How does the atheist, the viewer who is certain beyond any reasonable doubt that, in the admittedly dubious words of Benjamin Linus, 'dead is dead', swallow his or her LOST finale?
There are two ways of analysing the Lostian take on religious and spiritual issues. One is purely thematic; the interweaving of religious imagery, the constant allusions to mythic and religious texts, the comparisons that can be made to the structures of known myths, and the ways in which the characters react to the options they have for perspective. I'm going to leave that for the likes of Doc Jensen to cover, because let's face facts, he's the God of it. What I'm going to try to tackle is the other issue, namely: what does LOST actually posit in its metaphysics? How is reality structured in the LOSTverse, and how can an atheist react to it in a positive way, without feeling like Christian-American hegemony just slipped under the radar again and torpedoed the Enlightenment? I just reminded myself of the sub...sniff.
I hope, by this point, that all the people who think the main characters died in the crash have been shamed into hiding. It couldn't have been drilled into our heads any more that everything that happened on the island mattered. It was real life, being lived by each and every one of the characters we came to know and love. The island is not purgatory, its an island. It's an island that houses a unique energy that has had a profound effect on everyone who's ended up there throughout the course of history. Theirs are stories we're never going to hear, and that's fine, because they would only be the genetic ancestors of the story we were told. That is to say, they would all be stories of the repeated aversion of a catastrophe that would represent a devastating transformation of the nature of reality.
The energy of the island is, as we know, some form of potentially explicable (and, if Faraday's notebook/The Swan hatch/The Orchid/Widmore's equipment is anything to go by, reasonably well understood) electromagnetic energy. It has a million and one effects, all of which are simply to be understood as such. This is a strange phenomenon, and it has strange results. It is also almost certainly the case that no one being knows, has ever known or ever will know what all of those effects are. One effect is that it allows the island to travel through time. How it does this would no doubt be interesting to know, but it is irrelevant. Another effect is to bestow people with apparently supernatural abilities (accelerated healing, Walt's telekinesis, Jacob's ability to gift immortality etc) None of these are problems. They are effects that the writer's decided not to go into any further detail about, but we can safely ascribe them to the electromagnetic core of energy that makes the island such a special place. Equally, none of these phenomenon are any more of a problem for the atheist than for the straight-up zealot. But when we get to such phenomenon as the whispers, Hurley's ability to see and talk to the dead, Miles's ability to read the dead's last thoughts, we come to an impasse. Is LOST simply saying, as so many American films and TV shows are prone to doing, that ghosts exist, that there absolutely IS an afterlife? If this were the case, I would find it alienating. More to the point, I would find it irritating and subversively conservative. If you want a really good example of what I mean by subversively conservative, go and watch/re-watch the 1999 Kevin Smith flick 'Dogma', in which every effort is made for the film to appear like a scathing, liberal critique of organized religion, while underneath it all everything fundamental to religious belief is ruthlessly preserved.
So why, on LOST, do the dead continue on? What we need to remember here is that the show has given us an as yet untapped eighth wonder of the natural world. Much in the same way that a computer has more than enough capacity to scan and record the activity of a human brain, is it not comprehensible that a completely new kind of fundamental physical force could map and replicate (into an immaterial form) the entirety of human consciousness? I think this is exactly what the light does on our show. At the point of birth, a person's consciousness (I resist using the word soul here because that connotes something supernatural and connected to an 'essence' that has nothing to do with the brain) is mapped into the light. Mother was close but incorrect when she said that a piece of the light exists inside every person. Rather it is every person that exists with the light. Where Mother is right is when she says that if the light goes out on the island, it goes out everywhere. In the LOSTverse, life, or perhaps more specifically conscious life, is not possible without the light, and this is a dynamic which, if the writer's chose to explain it, could fit quite happily within a atheistic, science-fiction metaphysics.
So what then, is the progress that occurs in the finale from the sideways reality to some other place, if not a movement from purgatory to eternity? Just as Christian revealed to Jack in that tragic, gripping scene, the sideways world was a place they made for each other. It was a shared psychic reality which, once all of them were dead (in many cases of simple old age), they inhabited. They created it so that they could remember what they had been through together in their final moments. I say their final moments because I strongly believe that once that all-consuming light embraced them as they sat in their wonderfully Flight 815-esque church pews, each and every one of them met with a peaceful but absolute oblivion. The light serves a dual function. One, it holds and maintains consciousness. It's other, equally vital function, is that it facilitates the dissolution of that consciousness: death. What our beloved characters all experienced during those tear inducing 'revelation' moments, was akin to a person laid out on their death bed with their loved ones around them, savouring a life well lived, finally ready to 'move on'. This dissolution, while it appeared to occur contemporaneously with events on the island, occurs, as Christian reveals, in a time vacuum. It is simply the function of the light to perform it, but perhaps it is also the case that consciousness must enter a particular psychic configuration (a state that has its visible affect in 'peace' or 'contentment') before it can be dissolved.
So what is the significance of the 'purgatory' reality to the overall plot of the show? It's connection is that it is precisely what would have lingered forever had the light not been protected. Jacob knew, on one level or another, that what he was protecting was vital to the dynamic of life in the LOSTverse. Knowing that MIB would one day find his loophole and kill him, he began searching for candidates to replace him as overseer of that light, leading to the events of our show. When he talks about the fact that it would be a catastrophe were MIB to leave the island, he is referring to the fact that the only way for MIB to do so is for him to put out the light (perhaps because he would otherwise, not knowing the island's current co-ordinates, be unable to use his boat to escape). Jacob was never afraid of MIB wreaking smokey havoc on the outside world, he was simply aware that if he did get off, it would mean that the light had been extinguished, and as we've already established, that would mean the end of life on earth. What it would also mean, and this is why it so important to our characters specifically, is that their purgatory would never have its dissolution. Their past lives, the memories of the people who had meant so much to them, would remain tragically unremembered.
Jack saved the light, and in doing so secured these characters right to die. It's possible that, just as the water in the chamber behind the waterfall is cyclic in nature, forever moving through the various flumes, forever replenishing itself, the human consciousnesses that constitute the light must also undergo a process of renewal and replenishment. I suspect that the light needs to intermittently dissolve those consciousnesses to make room for the latest arrivals that come about by the constant human births on earth. This would explain why the dimming of the light was accompanied by a cease in the flow of water: the cycle of absorption, maintenance and release that is so integral to the process of life and death in the LOSTverse was paused. It took Jack restarting the flow of water, the flow of conscious life, to facilitate the possibility of our characters 'going into the light' at the end: the system is flushed out, washed clean, and will begin again, replenished by the water, for as long as the island exists.
Ultimately, LOST was a show about the one thing that makes human beings so intrinsically tragic: our awareness that we will die. It explored the myriad attitudes to this process, attitudes which most often find their expression in religion. Obviously, what I've said in this theory takes an awful lot of interpretative liberties and conjecture to make any sense, but that's the magic of this show: by refusing definitive answers even after the end, the writer's have given us free reign to take from it what we will. When even a dyed in the wool atheist like me can come away from one of the most overtly spiritual episodes of television in history with an ear-to-ear grin of complete satisfaction, you know something special just happened. So don't be fooled. LOST didn't pander to the Christian majority, and it didn't undo all its good sci-fi and real world drama work by getting godly on us in the final fifteen minutes. It told us a story, and it made us think hard before we decided how to relate to it. That was a hell of a thing.
LOST, I salute you.
A Completely Atheistic Interpretation of the LOST Finale