Life of Pi is the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who survives a shipwreck on a voyage from India to Canada alone on a lifeboat with a tiger for 227 days. In the “author’s note” at the beginning of the 2001 novel by Canadian writer Yann Martel says this is “a story that will make you believe in God”. The 2012 film adaptation by director Ang Lee emphasizes this dimension of the film by using a dramatization of the author’s note as a framing device for the film and repeating the claim that story “will make you believe in God” at least three times at various points in the film. It is tempting, then, to take Life of Pi as a kind of argument for the existence of God. But the film – even more so than the novel – is ambiguous on multiple levels.
As the film progresses, the story gets more and more unbelievable. At one point Pi discovers an island made of carnivorous plants populated by thousands of meerkats! The film ends with Pi finally arriving in Mexico where he is interviewed by a team of Japanese insurance agents investigating the shipwreck. The investigators initially reject Pi’s story as incredible. Here the film skips the important section of the novel where Pi defends his faith by answering the investigators’ objections. Just a hint of this sequence is left in the film when one agent questions Pi’s claim that bananas float.
Despite Pi’s ability to answer their objections, the investigators remain unconvinced, and Pi offers them an alternative story in which the tiger symbolizes his own inner capacity for violence which allowed him to survive at sea but which frightens and shames him in retrospect. In contrast to the first story which implies the existence of a personal God who miraculously answers prayer, the alternate story is the alternate story does not ask us to believe anything supernatural. It is more “realistic” – at least as realism is defined by metaphysical naturalism – but it is also darker and more pessimistic, revealing human beings to be nothing more than animals. After presenting the two stories, Pi asks “Which story do you prefer?” The investigators answer that the miraculous story is “the better story,” and Pi replies, “and so it goes with God.” Here we have the payoff to Pi’s initial claim that his story will “make you believe in God”. Here, too, we have a couple of the film’s most interesting ambiguities.
First, there is the obvious ambiguity of whether Pi was on the lifeboat with a literal tiger or whether the tiger story was an allegory. Viewers may want to debate what really happened on the boat, but the film isn’t interested in that question. Pi doesn’t ask which story is more reasonable or more likely to be true, but which story we prefer. Thus the film seems to imply that objective truth is irrelevant and one can simply choose whichever story is subjectively more attractive. Here it seems significant that when Pi says his story will make you believe in God but he does not say his story will make you believe God exists. So one important interpretive possibility is that the film means to affirm theological fictionalism. On this view God is like a fictional character. Just as Pi’s mother claimed that science tells us objective facts and religion tells us the subjective meaning of those facts, the metanarrative told by religion can be existentially meaningful even if it is ontologically false – spiritual truth simply has nothing to do with historical truth. Perhaps something like this is what Voltaire meant when he remarked that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”.
The fictionalist theme runs through the film. When he first sees the tiger at the zoo, Pi is convinced he can see the animal’s soul when he looks into its eyes. His father sees this as pure anthropomorphic sentimentalism. “When you look into his eyes”, he says, “you are seeing your own emotions reflected back to you.” At the end of the film, after having (allegedly) spent more than half a year on a lifeboat with the tiger, Pi claims the tiger is “my fierce friend, the one who kept me alive”. This line makes no sense literally, since the tiger does nothing but threaten Pi’s life. But, taken as a symbol of Pi’s own inner aggression, the tiger could be said to have saved Pi’s life by giving him the will to survive. Even in the first, fantastical story Pi is forced to eat fish despite being a life-long vegetarian. And in the second, naturalistic story Pi is forced to kill another human being in self-defense.
As a symbol of aggression – one’s sinful or “animal” nature – it makes sense that Pi would say the tiger “can’t be tamed, but with God’s help, he can be trained”. In the Hobbesean state of nature, alone on the sea, Pi’s animal nature is necessary for survival, but back in civilization religion is what allows Pi to control his darker urges, keeping the tiger hidden and contained. In the opening sequence Pi says Christianity taught him love and Islam taught him the brotherhood of all humanity, both things he hadn’t found in Hinduism. More importantly religion – Hinduism in particular, which Pi says taught him the importance of myth – allows us to see ourselves as something other than simply Darwinian animals struggling for survival. After telling his story, Pi says “I have to believe that there was more than my reflection looking back.” Here he has flipped his father’s original warning on its head. Where his father said Pi was projecting humanity onto the animal, Pi worries that, from his father’s “scientific” point of view, humans themselves would just be animals. Religious myth is his way of avoiding that sort of reductionism.
On this reading, the atheistic story is technically the truth. But the fiction of the theistic story allows us to go on living. We need a mythology to give meaning to our lives even if the mythology is false. Religious mythology is necessary for moral inspiration. It is a kind of self-fulfilling deception in which we tell ourselves that human nature is good and it becomes good. The atheistic story alone requires us to be nothing more than animals and, if we believe this, we consequently devolve into mere animals. A radical form of fictionalism is hard to square with Christianity, which traditionally takes actual historical events as its basis. But perhaps fictionalism can be helpful in showing why atheism isn’t attractive: if atheism were true we would have existential reason to convince ourselves it was false, for atheism is unlivable.
Yet, again, there is an alternate way of reading the film. While the fictionalist interpretation fits the text very well, one could also read the film as being compatible with theological realism – the view that God is not a fictional character but is an ontologically real being. It is important to keep in mind that, according to the film, we can’t know whether Pi’s story is literally true or not. Pi proclaims explicitly, “No one can prove which is the true story.” Recall Pi’s ability to answer the investigators’ objections to his story. So it is not that we can simply ignore the evidence and believe whatever we want. Instead, our subjective preference of one belief over the other is only justified in those cases where the objective evidence is inconclusive. In this way, we can read the argument of Life of Pi as a “pragmatic argument” for belief in God along the lines of Pascal’s “Wager” or William James’s “Will to Believe”.
On this way of thinking, the film is about two possible worldviews – theism and atheism – that equally account for the evidence, but one of which is more imaginatively attractive. Which one is a “better story”, Pi asks. Which one would you rather be true? The argument is that, if theism and atheism were equally coherent, we would be justified in believing theism is true, because it is more beautiful and more deeply satisfying to our innate human longing for meaning.