Life of Pi's Case for God: Two Philosophical Interpretations

*Major Spoilers Ahead*

"We believe what we see" "...what do you do when you're in the dark?" - Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Life of Pi is a beautifully profound film, and leaves much to think about. I haven't read the novel, but friends tell me that it's over-all a pretty faithful adaptation. Yann Martel seems happy with the film as well, though he does note that the "ending is not as ambiguous as the book’s". The film is decently good and engaging for most part, but it is really the ending which takes it to a whole new level. The possibility of another version of how the events in the film happened hits you out of the blue and alters the whole perception of what had happened. I also like how the story is tied up with spirituality. To understand the film fully, one has to understand how the film makes a case for God. The film begins with a writer approaching Pi after hearing that he has a story to tell that would 'make one believe in God'. The tale Pi tells is his shipwreck survival story as a boy, who gets stranded on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan who lost her child, and a hyena. Soon the hyena eats the zebra, and kills the orangutan. At this point a Bengal tiger (who has previously been introduced in the film as Richard Parker) emerges from hiding and kills the hyena. From there on Pi has to struggle to protect himself from the fierce tiger as well as keep themselves both alive, taking him to the very brink of desperation. An encounter with a carnivorous island provides them with lifesaving rest and nourishment (while making the story more fantastic). Ultimately the two reach the coast of Mexico. Richard Parker goes away into a jungle without so much as a goodbye and Pi is taken to a hospital. Later he is approached by two insurance agents investigating the shipwreck. They find his story incredulous, and request him to tell 'what really happened', something that they can write in their report. Pi then tells another story, but with striking parallels to the previous one. He describes how he was stranded on the lifeboat with his mother, an injured sailor and the ship's cook. The cook kills the sailor, and then his mother, using them as food and as bait to catch fish. Furious and mad, Pi kills the sailor. The two stories are analogous as the injured zebra can be seen as representation of the sailor, the orangutan of Pi's mother, the hyena of the cook, and Richard Parker of Pi himself.  Pi asks the writer which story he prefers. He picks the story with the tiger, and Pi states: "And so it is with God."

As I see it, there are two possible ways in which we may interpret it.

1) One of the story Pi tells is true, but we don't know which one. As the evidence available to us is consistent with both, we have a choice, depending on our preferences. We can either pick the more fantastic story as a spiritual adventure of courage and hope, or we can pick the more physically tangible story which is otherwise bleak and horrible. From the point of view of Pragmatism, as the choice between the two cannot be made on grounds of objective evidence alone, the choice would have to be based on pragmatic considerations and the 'will to believe'. We'll pick the story that goes along and supports our world-view. In this sense, the question of believing in God is the pragmatic question of believing in a higher presence, assuming that the bare physical and scientific evidence is consistent with both theism and atheism. (Life of Pi views God in a very broad manner in which he transcends the differences and conflicts of specific religions.)

2) Both of the stories Pi tells are true. They are true simultaneously in virtue of being two perceptions of the same reality. From the physical perspective, what happened to Pi is the horror story of starvation, cannibalism and madness, and from the spiritual perspective, it is the story of Pi confronting and taming his inner animal, and finding his life imbued with a higher meaning. This argument strikes me as somewhat similar to a neo-Wittgensteinian view of religion as a language-game. To believe in God is to view the physical world as having an allegorical and deeper significance just as Pi saw an allegorical and deeper significance in his otherwise tragic story.

P.S. This is the second of the new films I have seen recently (the previous being Cloud Atlas) which juxtapose the despair of a world that has no plan in it with the faith in a world that has one, while being ambiguous enough to allow both views to be possible.


Zaidan Idrees said…
So I have been thinking and here's why I don't like the film.
Both of us agree that it is the ending which takes this story from the level of mere adventures of a shipwrecked young man to a more metaphysical plane. The second story comes as a surprise and a shock and we have to reconsider all that has gone before. My objection is that in the book you 'read' both the stories. By which I mean that words describe both the stories (one in much more detail than the other). But in the film you 'see' the first story and 'hear' the second one. Visuals describe the first story and spoken words the alternative one. For me this makes a big difference and the impact of the ending of the book was much greater than the film.
Thats how I have analyzed the film and I am aware that the distinction I am making may not hold much importance for many. But for now I will leave you with the question, What if Ang Lee had actually shown us the second story too? After seeing the images of the brutal deaths of the buddhist, the mother and the cook (the last one by the protagonist himself) which story do you think would have stayed with you more.
And so it is with God.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Zaidan

You are right. The film does bias one version of the event over the other. Indeed, if it had been done as you suggest, the visuals of the killings and cannibalism would have been far more striking. Confronted with the two narratives, the reader/viewer finds himself believing one scenario more than the other. As the book/film, I feel, is targeted more for a "disenchanted" audience, it makes sense to slightly privilege the fantastic narration over the other, as a way of forcing the audience to consider it a real possibility, which they otherwise may not. In a way then it is a matter of 'seeing past the bias'. It is easier to do that in the book and more difficult in the film.
F. said…
"My objection is that in the book you 'read' both the stories. By which I mean that words describe both the stories (one in much more detail than the other). But in the film you 'see' the first story and 'hear' the second one. Visuals describe the first story and spoken words the alternative one. For me this makes a big difference and the impact of the ending of the book was much greater than the film."

Excellent point! I've read the book though I haven't seen the movie, but I hadn't thought of this.
So...what if the movie had shown brutal realism first and described the alternate? Seen as a case for God, how would it impact people? Would the conclusions be different? Would the case be different? Would Atheists who turn down God as an emotional crutch against this world's harsh realities or the Theists who turn down Godlessness as an inability to imagine/perceive meaning beyond the assuredly physical choose differently than they would have otherwise?
Really, I think the only people who can even genuinely ponder upon this question are those in the middle--those Agnostic.
The rest already know. (And so it is with God, too.)
Komal said…
I love your first interpretation, and this sounds like a great book. I shall watch the movie, now that I've read this blogpost.

Nice summary of pragmatism, btw.
mully said…
The film moved me profoundly.I took from it a brilliant fable illustrating peoples primitive uncontrolable instincts. The fact that in the second story Pi was the tiger is the key to the interpretation that he was facing a dar, dangeroous aspect of his personality, a brutal, terrifying aspect of his personality that surfaced in times of danger and stress. In the course of his ordeal he was forced to confront this ego state, control it to the extent that it eventully left him
impact glory said…
You obviously dont underatand film. Vs books it was amazingly well directed and put together. It doesnt bias any views. The spiritual view NEEDED to be painted with a brush.. the cannablism story is a story we ALL are accustomed to in thisnworld and needs no explainationnor visuals... but it is upto the person watching thw movie to decide whoch they believe... and thia relies on the viewers own views on life.. for the more pessimisticaybe such as yourself.. you will see pi cry and tell a propelling story about canabalism and believe that must be the truth.. and the first storybwas fantasy.... for a more optimist thinker beliver. They are more open. And see it as it doeant really matter... the beauty is how pi survived and even with the pain of losing EVERYTHING and being alone at see.. many wouldnt aurvive and crack... for a more spiritual open minded thinker. The film is so well put togwther it leaves you questioning and rethinking back and leaves a journey and imprint on your life.. it is very inspiring.. and philosphical... all great minds will underatand and meaning bwhindbthis film and be touched bybthe tiger story.. regardless of hard core proof... it is the faith and strength. Which is also tide in with God... and how we should see it as spiritual and not a boxed in religion as many small.minds think.... that is specifically why pi believes in so many religions to find god.. because thatbis spirituality.. ang lee is a genius and a greatbthinker.... you have nooooo idea at all if you think it was biased.... i can understand the ppl that watch the film comming away and simply believing the cannalism story and getting on with their miserable lifes... but its seriously touching for others that underatand it to thw core... but non beliwvers were never ment to believe. Believers are chosen by God anyway..
Xulfi said…
My understanding of the Martel's idea is that we as humans have the choice to believe in God or not. If you do then you just have to have a leap of faith and you can enjoy this life as a spiritual being who is on a self discovering journey or you may not take the leap and believe that we are a product of chaos of universe in both cases you exist but the manner of your existence changes, as a former Atheist and now a spiritual student i think that all of us, rich, poor, white and black has a chance to chose.This book is not about giving the prove of existence of God but it gives a completely different prospective on our your own existence,but the bias is the beauty of this idea, that its your choice to accept one reality from the given two choices,both of which do not have any scientific evidence.
Waldo Pepper said…
""As I see it, there are two possible ways in which we may interpret it.""

As I see it there are multitudes of interpretations available to me. I could conclude that BOTH stories are the ravings of a mind unhinged, or other possibilities.

Believing in ANY story without any compelling reason to is folly. Which humans continue to do despite the consequences.
jo said…
Following on from the discussion, only having seen the movie last night, and not having read the book yet (now I might), all your interpretations show some of the diversity of responses that this narrative (as a whole) can engender.

From my perspective, which totally contrasts with Waldo Pepper's take, this is a story about story, about humans as story-telling animals, whose narrative-imagination differentiates us (as far as we know) from other beings in the universe: the story of God, the story of who we are. What story do we leave behind us? Even the story of Jesus Christ...perhaps following from a Derridean perspective, there is nothing outside of the Word..let's make a good story with our lives...