Thursday, February 07, 2013


Sitting around a Quad Dining Hall table, a group of us were discussing life and the meaning of Life of Pi. A couple of us had read the book; some of us had seen the movie; a few had done neither. So first, a quick summary: Pi tells the story of a boy’s journey to safety on a lifeboat. In the narrative, he is accompanied by a tiger, and the two coexist and ultimately help each other make it back to civilization. The bulk of the action is just the two of them, finding ways to eat and sleep and overcome storms and boredom. When the boat lands on land, the tiger scampers off without a backwards glance and the boy is saved. The end. But then, he reveals that there is another version of the story, and in a few sentences, he shatters the magic: there were no animals on the boat, just humans who killed each other. Perhaps the tiger is symbolic of his own animal instincts needed to survive. But all that is unresolved. As is: which is the true story? Animals or no animals? He doesn’t say, although we all know it must be the second one. On the other hand, the question he asks his interviewer (and us) is, Which story do you prefer? Tiger or no tiger? Easy: We prefer the story about the tiger. And this is where it gets confusing. He says, “And so it goes with God.” 

 So "what" goes with God? 

Does the fact that we prefer the story about the animals prove that God exists, or that God doesn’t exist? There are two stories. In one, everything is explained – through storytelling, mythology, fiction, lessons, a supreme being that created everything. In the second – cold, hard facts. No miracles, no magic, no real explanation for anything that happens. Just humans who kill each other senselessly. We prefer the first one, the one about the animals. I asked the table: What’s the message? Is there a God or not? Most quickly lined up: the religious kids said yes, and the skeptics said no. One girl, just to be different, said, “I don’t know.” Not acceptable, I said, you must choose one or the other. So she chose, although I later realized that, initially, she had been correct. The actual answer to the question of God’s existence is a simple “I don’t know.” We will not know – in the scientific way of knowing – the answer until we die. Until then, it comes down to belief (which is a very different way of “knowing” something). So, the question was incorrect. The correct question is, Do you believe in God? This question must have an answer. The answer might be, “Yes, absolutely.” Or, “I don’t know if there is a God, but I believe there must be.” Or simply, “No, I don’t believe.” 

 I suppose most people probably prefer the story of the boy surviving with the tiger. And this is why most probably prefer the stories in their holy books. Without those stories and lessons, what is life? A man walks into a school and kills children. A dictator engineers a holocaust. A society turns its back on the poor. People drop dead too soon. All of it cold, hard, and true. All meaningless. We are born, we live a while, we die. Just like every other living thing. And we’re replaced by the next generation, which is more sophisticated and technologically advanced and knowledgeable but, ultimately, cursed to repeat the same mistakes, cursed to repeat the same vicious cycle of biology: birth, life, death. Is there meaning behind any of it? Maybe, maybe not. We can’t know if there is or isn’t, but we can prefer to believe there is.

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