Belief in Tigers

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?”

Richard Parker

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.

    Last update: 04/02/2012

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