Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The One With The Tiger

It's a shame that I just got around to seeing "Life of Pi", since it would have been truly amazing on a big screen in 3D. As sheer film-making it's pretty amazing, but what's more noteworthy is that it's the rare huge box office success that really has something to say. Most big budget films (and this most assuredly was one) go out of their way to not offend anybody, but Life of Pi is strident with its message. Clearly the book's (and film's) pro-spirituality moral has connected with millions of people but has proved off-putting to others. That's the main reason I didn't rush out to see it.

The good news is that "Life of Pi" is still well worth seeing. But the message at the end didn't sit right with me. In short, the film's view of faith is reductive and a bit insulting, denying the possibility that faith and reason could coexist. As befits a film that outright claims its story "will make you believe in God", it writes a few checks its ass can't cash. As a fan of religion myself, I have a few words. And yes, I'm going to blow the ending. so MAD SPOILERS.

So the story begins with is that Pi as a child living in Pondicherry, India. The spirituality of Indian culture completely envelops his life. His mother reads him inspiring stories of the Hindu gods, and when he gets a little older he discovers Christianity and Islam, both of which set his mind aflame with possibilities. He senses that of these cultures touch on aspects of the divine, and he wants to believe in all three. His mother supports him, while his cartoon rationalist father complains. First Pi's father complains about religion being terrible, and later complains that Pi needs to pick one religion and stick to it.

This is all prep work for the meat of the story, where Pi is separated from his entire family in a catastrophic ship disaster and cast adrift on a life boat. His only company are several animals who managed to stow away: a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a tiger named Richard Parker (long story). Soon the numbers shrink as you might imagine: the hyena kills the zebra and orangutan in short order, and the tiger dispatches the hyena. Pi is concerned that "Richard Parker's final meal might be a small vegetarian boy", and has an opportunity to let the tiger drown. However, Pi can't bring himself to do it and saves the tiger. The bulk of "Life of Pi" concerns these two coming to terms with each other's presence and eventually surviving hundreds of days at sea.

The end is where things begin to get tricky. Pi, recuperating in the hospital, is visited by some insurance agents who ask him to tell him what he knows about the ship's sinking and how he survived. They find his story to preposterous to believe, and ask him to tell them something that isn't so fantastical... something plausible for their files. He then tells them a very different story indeed:

Instead of animals, he was really stuck on the lifeboat with three other humans. The zebra was a wounded man, the orangutan was his mother, and the hyena was the ship's cook. The cook ends up killing both of the other passengers, and after his mother's death Pi kills the cook in retribution. Richard Parker was the animal aspect of Pi's character, the one capable of murder.

As he's telling this story to Yann Martel (writer of the book), Martel finds the second story very upsetting. Pi says that both stories describe what happened, and neither can be disproved. He asks Martel which story he prefers. Martel picks the one with the tiger. Pi responds "So it is with God".

The main reason I find this upsetting is that it assumes a certain view of faith: i.e. a story that we know is false or implausible but choose to believe in anyway. I'm sure a lot of people feel this way: they have religious beliefs that comfort them, but that they don't think too hard about. These people see two alternatives: Embrace faith in things that you admit are implausible, or confront the terrifying possibility of a world without it.

What if there's a third possibility? And yes, I think there is. We don't have to choose faith or reason over one another. Scientists have faith all the time in things they don't know are true. That's why they create hypotheses. They then devise experiments to test these hypotheses, fine-tune their studies based on the results, and eventually attain truth. One can approach religion the same way.

I couldn't help but notice the conspicuous absence of Buddhism from Pi's childhood studies, and not just because I'm a practitioner myself. Growing up in India, it's almost inconceivable that he wouldn't have run into at least a few Buddhists, or at least some of the mutual traditions shared by Buddhists and Hindus (Hinduism being vast and containing multitudes). This didn't offend me, but Buddhism's central concept of applying reason and inquiry into the spiritual realm contradicts the film's simplistic moral directly.

In my case, I have spent a lot of time meditating on the nature of my life, body and self. I've thought about things that didn't immediately make sense: my consciousness, the physical and nonphysical components that I believed made up my self. Buddhism posits some rather complex notions of the nature of reality that I won't bore you with. But after much reflection and thought, these notions made sense to me. They have become my hypothesis. I will spend the rest of my life testing them.

Some say that spiritual beliefs can't be tested, but I think they can. For example: If someone claims that the Earth was created 6000 years ago in a flash of Jehovah, there's a mountain of physical evidence that directly contradicts them. They may continue to hold that belief, but the more evidence that piles up to discredit it, the closer to a willful delusion it becomes. Philosophers have spent thousands of years coming up with rational ways to investigate thoughts, notions, and beliefs. Most people don't take the time to investigate what they believe but it can be done.

My beliefs are not bullet-proof. I constantly study other religious and spiritual traditions for further insight. And I don't agree with every Buddhist text I've read (they don't really have a single Bible, and Buddhists tend to disagree on what texts are even canonical). If better theories come along, I will investigate them. It's a life-long journey.

In Pi's case, he knows what happened. My impression was that the more terrible version of the story was the true one... Pi's emotional reaction while telling it would certainly indicate that he wasn't just making it all up. He knows that his mother wasn't an orangutan. But he willingly comforts himself with a delusion. He knowingly chooses a poetic lie over the truth. Honestly, that reaction makes sense, given what he's experienced. But it's a stretch to say that that's why we shouldn't be atheists.

In the beginning of the film, the author says somebody told him Pi's story "would make [him] believe in God". I find it hard to believe that this story could do that. True, if somebody already accepted Pi's implication that confronting reality is too painful to think about, then this film would give them a pleasing pat on the back. And again, it's great any time a movie has the balls to actually have an opinion on anything. But the spiritual world is far too fertile a place to be boxed in by "Life of Pi"'s limited perspective. Get out there and explore it!