Life of Pi–Is God the Better Story?

Director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee have done an excellent job of adapting Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi to film.  When I read the book back in 2004 I thought at the time it would never be made into a film because the novel was too cerebral, too narrative heavy, plus, how could anyone get a tiger to do all that acting?

bengal-tiger

Life of Pi the film covered a surprising amount of the content of Life of Pi the book.  So far I can think of just three scenes I missed.  First, story of Pi’s family running into Pi’s three religious leaders.  Second, showing how Pi used turtles to survive, and finally, the scene where Pi is blind and hears people in another life raft.

Still, Lee and Magee beautifully succeeded with capturing the philosophical heart of the novel.  If you loved the book, go see the film, you’ll be surprised by how well it was filmed.

Is God the Better Story?

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, don’t read beyond this point if you plan do either, because I’m going to analyze the philosophical statement of the book and it will spoil the story.

In the main story, a boy from India, Piscine Molitor Patel,  who wants to be called Pi, is shipwreck in a lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena and a tiger named Richard Parker.  Martel tells us this story very realistically and we are expected to believe it happened. But along the way, Martel takes us through scenes that are very hard to believe, like the carnivorous island with the meerkats.

Yann Martel has crafted a Zen kōan into a novel.  Most kōans are short, “What is the sound of one hand clapping.”   Yann Martel essentially asks, “Is God the better story?”

At the beginning of the novel and movie, in a pseudo introduction, the author is told by an older Pi, that he can tell the author a story that will make him believe in God.  Yann Martel creates two stories, one very long, elaborate, fantastic, awe inspiring – and brutal, and a second that is short and brutal.  We are asked which one we prefer.  Martel is right, everyone, including realists like me, will pick the story with Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger.

So where does God come in?  How can this story make us believe in God?  Analyzing fiction for symbolism is tricky, but for me, Richard Parker represents God though analogy.  At the end of the film and novel, when Pi has told his long fabulist story to two Japanese insurance investigators they refuse to believe him.  So Pi tells a shorter, ugly version that we know is true, but hate to believe.  Then Pi asks the investigators which story they prefer.

We all want to believe in the story where Richard Parker existed because it’s a better story than the one of madness, murder and cannibalism.

So what about the prediction at the beginning, that the story will make us believe in God?  I believe Yann Martel uses the desire to believe in Richard Parker as a stand in for God, creating an analogy, that the readers and audience must make on their own.  Pi desperately wants to believe in God.  Pi asks us to believe in Richard Parker because the story of surviving in a lifeboat with a tiger is a better story than going mad and surviving alone.

The whole point of the novel is to trick the reader into the question:  Which story do you prefer.  Of course everyone prefers Richard Parker to be real.  By transference, we’re ask to accept that belief in God is the better story, just like how we want to believe that Richard Parker existed.  We’re never explicitly told that wanting to believe in Richard Parker is the same as wanting to believe in God, but I feel it’s obvious.

Yann Martel tells us people prefer religion over reality because the story of God is a better story than reality.  And I ask:  “Is this why people refuse to accept the fact of evolution because they prefer the story with Richard Parker – oh, I mean God?”

The novel is an elaborate metaphor to explain why people believe in God.  It doesn’t say that God exists.  Nor do we know what Yann Martel believes.  It just says people prefers belief in God because it’s a better story than how we see reality directly.

What the novel is tricking us into confessing is that the belief in God, no matter how unbelievable that story might be, that it’s a better story than reality.  That when we’re pushed to the ends of our physical and mental limits, we want God even if he’s cruel, vicious and indifferent.  That the belief in God is what gets us through this life.

Has Yann Martel stacked the deck?  Is God the better story?  Yes, reality does sometime involve madness, murder and cannibalism.  And even in the God story, people die, animals are cruelly killed and eaten, people suffer.  If the audience was given the Richard Parker story, and a documentary about the evolution of the universe with cosmology and the evolution of life on Earth with evolutionary biology, is God still the better story.  I don’t think so.  Richard Parker is like a magician’s diversion.  If you could watch this movie and blot out the tiger, the reality of Earth is magnificent!  Richard Parker and God divert our attention to our fantastic reality.

God is only the better story when you don’t understand reality.  Richard Parker is ferocious, terrifying, cruel, indifferent and doesn’t answer prayers.  No matter how much Pi loves Richard Parker and wants his recognition, Richard Parker ultimately refuses to acknowledge Pi’s existence.

So why is God the better story if Richard Parker just walks away from us?  I know many people who have long given up religion but haven’t given up on God.  They say that God must have created us but walked away from the universe and is no longer involved.  Personally, I’m confident there is no God and the size, age and origin of reality is beyond our understanding.  I find it far more comforting to know the rules of our local universe and not feel the need to blame a superior being for bad things or beg for good things.  If a bacteria, shark, drunk driver hurts me badly, I just accept it was the luck of the draw and not a judgmental deity deciding I had done something wrong.

Where the metaphor of Richard Parker breaks down is Pi can see Richard Parker, and we never see God.  It’s actually easier to believe in Richard Parker than it is to believe on God.  Life of Pi is a wonderful novel.  I’ve read I twice now.  And each time I want to believe the Richard Parker story, even though I know the truth is the story about cannibalism.  How many times will I have to read this book before the realistic story is the better story?

What if the novel and movie had been about a boy that survived 227 days on the ocean and had endured the incident with cannibalism and madness and survived.  No tiger, no zebra, no hyena, no orangutan, just Pi, his mom, the Frenchman and the Buddhist sailor?  It would have been brutal, but the success of Pi surviving the ordeal would have been just as magnificent.

Why do we want a better story?  Santa Claus is a better story than parents buying kids Christmas gifts from Target.  The tooth fairy is a better story than throwing milk teeth in the garbage.  Heaven is a better story than dying.  But why is God a better story than reality?  Is God a better story than evolution?  If you understood evolution and cosmology, God isn’t the better story.  God is a simpler story, and God’s story is endlessly confusing and contradictory.  It’s just God is fantastically powerful like Richard Parker.

Even though I disagree with Yann Martel’s assertion, I love his fiction.  See, that’s the real revelation in this.  Fiction is the better story, and Life of Pi is very good fiction.  Humans embraces fiction with an intense passion.  Richard Parker is a better character than a cannibalistic Frenchman.  And for many people, all the stories about God, are a better story than the brutal aspects of reality.  However, there is nothing in fiction that comes within light years of evolution.  All stories about God are just crude children stories compared to the complexity and beauty of evolution.  Evolution is just as brutal as the Old Testament God – it’s just not personal.

Here’s the final kōan:  Did Yann Martel write this story to make us atheists or make us believers in fiction?

JWH – 11/28/12

26 thoughts on “Life of Pi–Is God the Better Story?

  1. How about those of us who did not like the book, Jim. Will we like the movie? :)

    As you know, my interpretation of the book was completely different (although maybe yours is closer to the author’s intent, I don’t know). Pi was clearly shown to have a fantasy-prone personality. After all, how could the author have made that any more evident than having him believe three mutually-contradictory religions at the same time?

    And although it seemed likely that Pi had just imagined the tiger story, it seemed equally likely that he’d imagined the second story, too (which also wasn’t at all believable). It seemed to me that Pi had started with a fantasy-prone personality and then, through his privations at sea, had completely lost the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

    Yes, the first story is the better story, just like one work of fiction might be better than another. Well, the first story was much longer and was much more detailed and elaborate. It’s like the difference between a great novel and an off-hand comment about witnessing an accident. Which is the better story?

    But if you compare that to religion, you have to admit that science has a far better story – far more detailed, far more explicative, and far less contradictory – than religion. If you know anything at all about science, it’s easily the better story, don’t you think? Not to mention that it’s actually true.

    I don’t know if this was Martel’s intention, but to me, the story showed believing in a god as fantasy – indeed, as extreme gullibility, or even the inability to distinguish reality from delusion and wishful-thinking. I mean, that was Pi, wasn’t it? Wasn’t that the author’s implication?

    If not, what was the whole point about showing us Pi’s religious gullibility and willingness to believe even mutually-contradictory dogma? Does that part of the book make sense with any other interpretation?

    I wasn’t crazy about the book – I thought it started way too slow and ended badly – but I have to admire a work which is open to such different interpretations as yours and mine. And I suspect that it would make a good movie.

    1. I don’t know if you’ll like the movie or not, Bill, since you really didn’t like the book. The film is very beautiful, however, some of my friends are sensitive to animal suffering, and there’s a lot in this film, so I have to be careful recommending it to anyone.

      Even though you didn’t find the second story believable, I think we are to assume it was the real story. There are real stories of sailors living in a lifeboat for months resorting to cannibalism, so it had a ring of truth to it to me. And the whole metaphor of the novel won’t work without the second story being true.

      I love Life of Pi because it reminds me of all the people who refuse to believe in science. I’ve always preferred knowing the truth. I figure as a species we should all seek the truth. And I know most religious people believe they are choosing the truth when they commit to their religion. However, I wonder how many of them are like Pi, and choose religion over reality because it’s a better story? It’s what they want, even though they know the truth.

      1. “And the whole metaphor of the novel won’t work without the second story being true.”

        Not so, Jim. Your interpretation wouldn’t work, but mine would work just fine. :)

        And I can’t imagine why you’d think that religion is a better story than reality. For me, as I noted above, science has a far, far better story than any religion I’ve ever heard, not to mention that we have good reason to believe that it’s true.

        Now, yes, the second story in Life of Pi isn’t anywhere close to the quality of the first one. But Martel didn’t even attempt to make it as interesting as the first. So how can that demonstrate anything?

        Well, as I say, to me it just demonstrated that Pi couldn’t distinguish fantasy from reality. He might have believed that it was about God, but we’d been shown what a fantasy-prone personality he had. And, at the very least, he’d lied at least once. So why would you accept his view of that?

      2. Bill, why would you assume I would think religion is a better story than reality? I don’t, and you know that. That’s the point of my review. Yann Martel has set up his story so we know that Pi Patel thinks God is the better story, and as viewers or readers, we do want to believe in the Richard Parker story, but I’m like you, I see science and reality as the better story, and know God isn’t the better story.

        The question I asked at the end is whether or not Yann Martel is very devious and he’s expecting us to revolt against his trick and pick the second story. So he knows that we know that he’s tricking us.

        I think for people like us who want to promote science and evidence based thinking, we have to make our story the better story. Sometimes science fiction does that, but all too often science fiction creates just another false story to believe in. The only real way to promote science is to study science and to ignore fiction. I wonder if Martel is also warning us of the dangers of fiction.

        Yann Martel could have made the second story far more interesting than the first story, but he didn’t. He was stacking the deck in the favor of his supposed hypothesis. Like I said, it was slight-of-hand diversion. But is that Martel’s real intention?

        Martel gets us to believe in a tiger that didn’t exist through the power of fiction. He could also be saying that we believe in God through the power of fiction. Maybe he’s not saying to believe in God because God is the better story, but maybe he’s saying: Watch out for the power of fiction!

      3. I know that you don’t believe in a god, Jim, but you seemed to imply that religion has the better story. That’s my mistake, if you didn’t mean that.

        However, I have to disagree about the “dangers of fiction,” too. Science fiction is not “another false story to believe in,” because it’s fiction. And it makes no pretense about that. It doesn’t pretend to be real.

        I still prefer my interpretation of the story over yours, but I’m willing to believe that Martel might have meant something different. Still, what I get out of a story doesn’t have to be what the author intended me to get (not that I’m convinced you know what he intended, necessarily). :)

        PS. I must admit that I love debates like this, and any author who gets us to discuss these things must have done something right – whatever his intention.

      4. The best fiction is ambiguous. There will be no right answers.

        In some ways I wish Martel hadn’t included the introduction of the writer meeting the older Pi, and just gave us the story without coloring our expectations.

  2. Here is a relevant excerpt from my own review of the novel:

    What the author does say is that in the second story Pi is the tiger. So in that interpretation in the first story it is just Pi on the ship, but the tiger represents a different part of himself, a part of himself that is stronger, and more confident. Pi says many times in the story that he could not have survived without Richard Parker. It does add another layer to the story to think that rather than a flesh and blood being Pi is referring to an actual aspect of himself in which he was able to find the strength to carry on.

    Now I won’t deny that invoking the metaphor of Richard Parker as God is an interesting exercise, for example, you have Pi providing food for Richard Parker and in the metaphor it becomes equivalent to giving sacrifices to a God. But the metaphor fits a couple of times but mostly there are just too many details with that that don’t jive. Why the details of training Richard Parker with a whistle? In no religion do the humans train the God. Pi takes Richard Parker’s feces and openly smells it in order to dominate the tiger. Explain that one in terms of religion? Richard Parker marks his territory with urine. I missed the part of the bible where Jesus does that. I doubt that’s in other faiths either.

    My full review can be found here: http://chimeradave.blogspot.com/2011/08/thoughts-on-life-of-pi.html

    1. I don’t think Richard Parker has to be a perfect one-to-one analogy with God to make my point. And I think Richard Parker can represent things other than God. For most of the story Richard Parker is just supposed to be real tiger. He gets seasick, he kills and eats the baby goat, and so on. Martel has most of the middle of the story set up to be as realistic as possible because he wants us to belief its true.

      Like Bill said, it’s lots of fun when a writer creates a book that inspires so many interpretations. Since Martel tells the readers that the story will make them believe in God, y’all should come up with an explanation in how that happens. John, you do believe, so do you find the story convincing in a way I don’t. Bill is like me, but he’s so much more rational that he doesn’t want to find a way to believe in God in the story.

      1. “Since Martel tells the readers that the story will make them believe in God…”

        Does Martel tell us that? I thought it was Pi who made that assertion.

        “Bill is like me, but he’s so much more rational that he doesn’t want to find a way to believe in God in the story.”

        That doesn’t sound “rational” at all, Jim, not to me. Why can’t we just disagree? Can’t I disagree without “wanting” to find a way to disbelieve your interpretation?

        I do like John’s point about the tiger possibly being part of Pi, the part that helped him survive. But that fits fine with my interpretation of the book. :)

    2. John, I went and reread your review of Life of Pi. I like the story about your great grand father and trying to find the truth about his missing finger. Your theory that we’re told the story we want to hear is an interesting one in relationship to Life of Pi. So your theory suggest that God is the story we want to hear and not the better story. There’s a subtle difference, and you can make a case that the fiction we read are the stories we want to hear.

      But how do you explain “this story will make you believe in God?”

      It would be interesting if we never had the introduction where a writer meets Pi when he’s older and not be told that his tale will make us believe in God.

      If all we saw was Pi as a boy and then his adventures on the sea, would we ever think to bring up God? When Richard Parker walks away without acknowledging Pi at the end of the story, would I have leaped to the conclusion Richard Parker is acting just like God?

      We have two stories, and in the second the Japanese investigator draws links between each animal in the first story and a person in the second story, finally concluding that Pi was Richard Parker. But who was Pi? There are 5 mammals on the life raft in the first story, and 4 in the second. If it was a true fable, there would be 4 animals in the life raft in the first story, and no boy. What if Pi was Pi, the zebra the sailor, the orangutan the mother, and the hyena the Frenchman, and Richard Parker was God? To Pi, God is always with him. He wants to see God. He wants to communicate with God. He wants God to recognize him. He wants God to love him. Maybe when you’re on a boat in the Pacific for 227 days, God can appear to such a person as a Bengal tiger.

      1. I think your interpretation of Richard Parker representing God is a valid and interesting one. But I don’t feel like it’s the only one. And if it is what Martel was trying to say, he did a poor job of it.

        As far as the beginning of the novel and Pi saying the story will make you believe in God. You might just be looking too much into it. Christians are always trying to convert people and they see God everywhere. For example If they can’t find a job, God has a job for them somewhere and if they find a job God gave them the job. So it might just be the Pi believed that his story proved that God existed. He would say “How could I have gotten through that without God?”

  3. I think there is a small mistake in this review…
    Yes, the novel says that God and religion are the better story. Says that believing is beautiful, and yes, Richard Parker is itself a metaphor of God.
    But I think it doesn’t defend the idea of getting voluntarily convinced of something that changes factual reality. On the contrary, I think that the novel emphasizes a lot in accepting what our senses catch and don’t try to change it, because it would be to evade it. The novel is also an apology for reason, and the main principle of reason is the one of identity, that things are what they are, that A is A… that an animal is an animal, a lesson that Pi learns twice in the story. And Pi has to use reason for protect himself from Richard Parker, and knows that praying at God won’t protect him from the tiger.

    And no, the story doesn’t apologize that God is a story better than evolution, otherwise Pi wouldn’t become a zoologist when growing up! I think somewhere in the novel is stated that Pi believes in evolution.

    I think the novel just says that we have to accept what we know and see… but what we can’t see, we should try to imagine as the better, and the better story is God.
    Sincerely, I don’t think the better story is God, but I think we have to be very, very faithful to believe in free will and not in mathematical-mechanical determinism. In that sense, I think I am a deeply faithful person.

    1. I don’t believe in free will. I think it’s an illusion. As much as I want to believe in free will, I tend to think I’m really along for the ride.

      Julen, your comments are very interesting. I don’t think Martel is apologizing that God is a better story than evolution. I think he’s merely observing that people prefer the idea of God over a universe built on random events.

      The Life of Pi isn’t rigidly exact, and it can be intepreted in many ways. If Pi (Martel) hadn’t told the readers at the beginning on the novel that his story would make them believe in God, I would have explained the novel in a different way.

      My guess is Martel wanted to write a book that explained why people believe in God when they encounter so much evidence against their beliefs, even people whose faith is tested in horrible ways. Pi is a lot like Job. God really tested him. Of course, I always thought The Book of Job was the best Bible story to disprove God. Maybe whoever wrote The Book of Job was doing the same thing that Yann Martel was doing.

  4. I think Yann Martel does well to tell a story in the way he does without promoting an agenda. There are many moments that you could argue are promotions for the benefits of believing in god, such as ‘the better story’, but there are also promotions for believing in reality too. When Richard Parker walks away Pi’s heart gets broken. This was his own fault for elevating Richard Parker to a status of something he was not. A symbolic reference to the dangers of worshiping idols maybe? And as someone here also mentioned, reason saved Pi on more than one occasion when he’d forget that Richard Parker was a flesh eating animal before his reasonable self reminded him otherwise.

    But no the story did not make me believe in god, but it did allow me to appreciate the pros and cons to belief, as well as the pros and cons to reality.

    Also on a side note I never got the impression that Richard Parker represented god, as some have said here, but more that he was the brutal raw nature of man, and it was Pi who was the anomoly entity. So in the second story Richard Parker was Pi, and the Pi in the story was a representation of something higher than raw nature… A desire for Richard Parker’s (i.e Pi’s) spirituality maybe.

    1. I think a lot of believers feel hurt that God doesn’t answer their prayers or even acknowledges their existence. That’s why the scene where Richard Parker walks away without acknowledging Pi is so important. I think Yann Martel is saying two things here, probably more. One, if God exists, he’s not a personal God, one that will communicate with us or listen to us, but an existential God. Second, Martel is showing us how much believers want just the smallest recognition from God. A third point could be made, that Richard Parker also represent the universe or nature, and the universe is quite indifferent to us too.

  5. I agree with Jazz that Richard Parker did not represent God, but only the animalistic side of Pi. I also do not agree with most here that evolution is a better story. Isn’t the whole point of evolution to find a more scientific, logical, explainable alternative to the fantastical story of creation by a god with the accompanying storys of supernatural miracles and eternal life? Souls, spirits, omnipotent power, and eternal afterlife in paradise is certainly a better story than being just another link in the food chain and ending up as nothing more than worm food. Evolution may be more logical, but God is definitely the better story.

  6. God is a better story because he kept Pi alive. And it seems to me tht you’re an Atheist and ypu will not be saved to the kingdom of god and ypo dont understand how almighty and powerdul be is.

    1. Right on two counts Amy. Belief in God did save Pi. And I am an atheist. Whether I’ll be saved is debatable.

      The question that the story poses is: Do we want to know the truth or do we want to know what will help us to survive? I accept that belief in God will help people survive. I’m just curious if we couldn’t survive with just the truth.

      1. Don’t forget that it was our curiosity for truth and understanding the mechanics of the world that gave us a HUGE survival advantage over other animals in the first place.

  7. You state people don’t believe in evolution because they prefer a creation stroy so not to deal with reality. This is true and some cases, but evolution is to large to define in the account you reason. Adaptations within each branch of life dosnt disprove God… prove to the world one brach to another… your ego hids the truth of the book. we can prove life, hardship, love and death…. the rest is open to each conscience observer… freedom of choice, your veiws if science must tend to explain all… this is faith far from truth!

    1. Maybe a better way of explaining it would be to say that evolution offers an alternative explanation to origins of reality as oppose to the theory that God created reality. Now I’ve heard some people theorize that God uses evolution as his tool to create, but I tend to doubt that. I think it’s an either or proposition – either a higher being created everything, or it evolved out of nothing. That’s just two choices out of many to explain the origins of our existence.

      What I’m suggesting is some people want to believe a being created everything, and other people are saying everything evolved out of nothing. It’s a choice. Both have their philosophical problems. Who created God? How does something come from nothing? To combine the choices just clouds the issue.

  8. To make this simple, ill agree on the point your making. I agree there is a complete divide in the way we can look at reality and the human story. But its not best described Creation vs. Evolution. Evolution is not Abiogenesis, another thought-Creation is an event, wheres evolution is process. They cant be compared.

    Creation/metaphysical vs. materialism/naturalism. This is the front lines of the battle.

    I respect your thoughts and opinions. I just had to clear up the evolution train of thought. Evolution can not stand to creationism. But I do agree how you show both sides have there draw backs. But take faith, I respect that you can see and admit this, this is a mature way of talking about this subject.

    Just to throw this out, it is incoherent to asks, Who created God? If we are to ask such questions, we fall into a incoherent loop of nonsense. You need to first choose what “God” your evening talking about. Lets choose the christian God for example. God is just a title, lets state a name, “I AM THAT I AM” or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE”. We really need to have a decent amount to study in the scriptures to debate this, I have spent time so I would feel fine stating this. God is the first cause of all reality, hes the underlining consciousness of all understanding. Titus 1;2 helps us to understand. It shows God before time. Simple, there is a first cause of reality. You cant run from this problem with incoherent loop holes. Hard Materialist try and argue this, very quickly show a huge lack of knowledge in the concepts of theology, and it becomes known at that moment useful communication fails.

    So I have made a stand for God, not perfect “I am far from perfect” But there reason in this thought process, this is why so many believe. Not to mention Stephen C Meyers works or David Berlinski’s works plus many more scientist works that show pure evidence for “Intelligent Design”

    In turn, you could argue “Quantum Fluctuation” and some of the works from Hawkins. And if we need to address these issues before assuming the theology account of the story. Which I do enjoy QM in all its madness : ).

    My point is, the “God did it” remarks, can just as easily flip to “science has all the answers”. There is a middle were some people stand, searching and find wonderfully things : )

    1. The best answer to “God did it” versus “science explains it” is the book The Beginnings of Infinity by David Deutsch.

      I have a different take on The Bible. It was the best intellectual explanation of its day, 2000-3000 years ago, but is totally invalid today. I find Bible history an enticing subject, but only in an anthropological way. Very little of what humanity knew before the Enlightenment was right, and even afterwards is not so solid. Deutsch likes to talk about “best explanations” about reality. They are the explanations that hold up to the most critical of philosophical thinking and scientific research.

      Intelligent Design has been well refuted by many, both philosophically and logically, but it is still an interesting hypothesis, and I can understand why some embrace it. The trouble is the immense weight of evidence is on the side of evolution. It is the best explanation by far.

      A better concept for you side to embrace is the idea of Emergence. How does order keep popping up in so much entropy?

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