I’ve just finished reading the book Life of Pi. I personally think that it’s a fantastic book and the author, Yann Martell, does a brilliant job making the quite outlandish and surreal story seem so believable. I’ll confess that through the first half of the book or so, I thought I was reading a true story; he’s that good. Of course, that’s actually part of the point of the story. It deliberately challenges what one accepts as criterion for belief by asking the question, “Between two equally complete and sound explanations for an event, which makes the better story?”
Chesterton pointed out in Orthodoxy that human beings have this desire to ‘seek.’ That is, to look for some kind of greater meaning in this existence of theirs. They witness coincidences and see providence. They experience suffering and find a journey. They view themselves and everything around them and see more than what is plainly obvious. They see God, or their version of God, in everything.
Yet, at the same time people also have a seemingly contrary desire to be objective. Objectivity brings strength because it helps to avoid falsehood and delusion. It allows us to make choices wisely. It allows us to know, not just think. Yet, devotion to objectivity has leads us to society today, where people believe that to seek meaning is not objective and this has created a situation where people are torn between these two desires and many forgo any concept of higher truths in hopes for fear of falling into falsehood.
Life of Pi attacks this situation. It is the story of how the titular Pi Patel survives in a lifeboat for two hundred and twenty seven days at sea before being rescued. Pi is a religious boy, and in his adventure he find himself coming closer to God. Or does he? The story is Pi’s story and it’s unclear how much of it is the truth, how much is false, and how much is metaphor for what “really” happened. Pi’s story is fantastic, and it involves tigers, zebras, and fantasy islands, none of which seem out of place or unbelievable as he tells his story, but all of which when taken together seem incredible. Pi offers an alternate, less fantastic explanation, but asks us whether we really want to believe that explanation.
Life of Pi touches on that need to “answer the riddle” which Chesterton pointed out, but it seems to have a different take on the issue. While Chesterton claims that humanity seeks and therefor there is something to seek, Martel claims that there is clearly nothing to seek, but we should believe anyway because the alternative is too depressing. If Life of Pi has a thesis, it’s this: “There is no God, but we should believe anyway.” I’m not sure how to take that.