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.