Life of Pi by Yann Martell is a superb book. It’s well written (far better than anything I could do), never boring and full of interesting characters. It’s a thoughtful book; at times funny, at times heart-breaking. It manages to be a profound and moving piece of literature while also being easy to read. Everything a good novel should be in other words.
It’s also worth mentioning that the film adaptation by Ang Lee is equally well crafted. Considering most of the story takes place on a single boat the film manages to remain visually interesting while Lee uses colour, angle and even aspect-ratio to immerse you in this half-real, half-fantasy world. I would recommend both book and film to anyone who asks.
But Life of Pi is dangerous. I believe Yann Martell’s superb book perpetuates a dangerous myth. One of the most popular and persistent myths in the world.
Now, I’m aware that many people in the world, when they find a book’s ideology threatening will ban it or burn it. I think that's a terrible idea. When I eventually run the world, I will not burn Life of Pi or indeed any other book I find problematic or offensive (looking in your direction The Slap).
Instead of banning Life of Pi outright I’ll try to make my case for why it should be treated with the utmost caution. People can still read the book, but I will obviously force everyone in the world to read this blog post beforehand, on pain of death.
The following contains *major spoilers* so if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, I recommend you do so. You will most likely enjoy it. Curse you Yann Martel. If you'd written the book badly it would be so much easier to criticise.
The story of the book is as follows: a ship is sunk in the Pacific ocean and after several months, the only survivor – a teenage boy named Pi – washes ashore in South America. Two insurance men and a writer come to talk to him about what happened and he tells them two different stories.
One story is a brutal, heart-breaking tale in which he and a few other people (including his mother) try to survive in the life-boat but hunger, aggression and greed lead to fighting and eventually murder of the other passengers.
In the alternative story Pi is trapped on the life-boat with a Bengal tiger. The two castaways discover a mysterious island complete with acid-lakes and they battle storms, drought and learn mutual respect for each other in order to survive.
The book concludes with Pi explaining that both stories are possibly true and there is no way of distinguishing them. One of the stories is more fantastical, more entertaining and more gripping, whle the other is bleak, flat and depressing. With no way of deciding between them, Pi asks the people interviewing him (and we the reader) which is the better story. The answer is obviously the one with the tiger.
And this becomes the story everyone in the book decides to go with. The message is clear: if you have no way of deciding something one way or the other, go with whatever you like the best.
The Great Unknown
The current accelerated expansion of the Universe is not understood. We’ve nicknamed whatever’s causing it ‘dark energy’ as a place-holder until we get a better understanding. For now 'dark energy' is a complete mystery.
There lots of potential explanations (hypotheses) and none of them can be verified or falsified. It could be that we need to modify Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it could be a new type of force, it could be some sort of negative gravity. We have no clue. So when someone asks us what is happening to the Universe we really ought to say “I don’t know which hypothesis is correct” because that is the honest answer.
Now, suppose someone were to put forward the hypothesis that the Universe is inside a giant balloon and there’s an enormous fish-wizard called Greta exhaling into it, thus expanding the Universe. This is an explanation. It’s also a pretty awesome explanation. It’s definitely a better story than "we need to check the equations"....so do we accept the cosmic fish wizard? Obviously not.
We should be comfortable saying we don’t know what the truth is. Ignorance is not a bad answer. There isn’t a hypothesis-vacuum which must be filled with any explanation we can find. When we accept a suggestion we must do so based on convincing evidence. The more remarkable the claim, the more convincing that evidence has to be.
But where’s the harm I hear you say? Why can’t people just be allowed to believe whatever they want to? I agree, much of the time it makes no real difference. If a person wants to believe their flowers grow better if they put mustard on them, where's the problem? It harms nobody. But let’s say that same person decides you can use mustard in place of a headache cure, or antibiotics, or cancer-treatment. Or what if they applied this approach to their pet or even their children? People have believed stranger things.
I agree that believing whatever you want doesn’t always lead to harm but it does have the potential to do so. Yes, people are entitled to believe what they want. But don’t people want to believe what’s true? Wouldn't the world be a better place if we tried to do that?
1) I’ve written before about Conspiracy theories. We aren’t privy to what goes on inside a government meeting for instance, so there are two stories about what’s going on behind the closed doors of London and Washington: (1) they’re plotting to mind-control us…....(2) they’re not.
The first story is more dramatic, more exciting, more edgy and makes us feel courageous for exposing the truth. But it could lead us to be mistrustful of a government, affecting the way we vote. It could make us paranoid, draw us to fringe groups, even violence in the name of what we think is truth.
Some conspiracy hypotheses might be correct (just like the tiger story) but why assume they’re true when there’s just as much evidence for as against them i.e. none whatsoever? Wouldn’t it be better to say “I don’t know if we can trust the current government, let’s try to find evidence?”
2) Suppose a court has to decide on the verdict of a murder. There will be a defendant and an accompanying story in which they are guilty. If we decide they are innocent we are essentially saying “we don’t know who the killer is”.
Clearly in this situation we should be open to saying we don’t know rather than go with the convenient or dramatic story that the person is guilty (they might be of course, but if the evidence isn’t strong enough, we shouldn’t convict on the grounds of not wanting to admit ignorance).
3) Imagine a person believed a unicorn spirit monster was telling them to commit an act of mass murder. There is no way to confirm or disconfirm this hypothesis. They really might be getting secret messages telling them to kill, but they might also be deluding themselves.
If it’s fine to “believe what you want” then obviously there’s a reasonable chance the person will believe the unicorn story. It makes them feel special (the chosen one) it makes them feel there are forces at work we have no control over (removes responsibility and blame) tells us there is hope for an afterlife (spirits exist, therefore afterlives might also) etc. etc. Holding off on the killing is to admit ignorance, but the unicorn story is definitely more appealing than "we just don't know." Do we really want this person going with the story they like best?
Hint on subtext: “the unicorn” may or may not be a metaphor for another type of belief which can persuade people to commit terrible acts on the strength of zero evidence because they like the idea and it makes them feel special.
The Coin Debate
Imagine you were in a debate with a friend about something harmless, say you were deciding what movie to go and see. You flip a coin but it brexits your hand and ends up beneath the sofa. If your friend said “well, we don’t know which way it landed, so let’s assume it landed heads”, you’d obviously say it wasn’t fair.
The answer to which way the coin landed is unknown. You don’t just go with whatever version you or the other person likes best. You replay the point. You flip the coin again or you move the sofa, whatever. The point is: you admit you can’t decide what the original answer was and flip it again.
The really weird thing is, we can all imagine arguing with the friend. How dare they just pick the version of reality they like? Utter nonsense. And yet, how often do we see people doing this with far more important issues? People choose to believe all sorts of un-provable things including potentially harmful ones by appealing to “well it's my opinion and I like that belief”.
If we wouldn’t accept it in the coin-toss example, why should we accept it when it comes to far more important things like beliefs about politics, beliefs about God, beliefs about medicine, beliefs about love, beliefs about parenting etc. etc.
Defending a position because “you can choose what you want to believe” is a very harmful thing to say because it allows people to defend whatever horrifying thing they like - or excuse potentially harmful actions - by saying “well that’s my opinion”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: yes you’re entitled to your opinion, but you can’t have opinions about the nature of reality.
Scientists – the destroyers of fun
There’s another problem with “picking the story you like best”. If you pick an answer to a question, you stop saying “I don’t know” which means you stop looking any further. The enquiry ceases and no progress is made. If we’re honest and admit we don’t know the truth, we are reminded to keep looking, to keep investigating. Picking an explanation before the facts are known is intellectually lazy and stunts discovery.
Imagine if Fleming or Pasteur had looked at diseases in the world and said “I don’t know what the cause is, so I’m going to go with the story I like best: demons cause disease!” they’d stop looking further and we’d have essentially no modern medicine.
The Scientific position on such matters is to say we don’t know what the truth is until there’s evidence. The story of the tiger might be more fun, more magical but that isn’t a good enough reason to believe it. And, in fact, if we apply Occam’s razor it’s often more reliable to go with the less extravagant claim. The more down-to-Earth one. But people don’t like doing this and I know why.
People resent Science for “taking away the magic”.
When we’re young we believe all sorts of fun stories about the world. We believe myths, urban legends and rumours of the playground. A scientific education nails these things to the wall and flames them mercilessly. We replace superstition with theory. We replace hearsay with research and we replace un-checkable claims with an admission of ignorance. Yes. Scientists do take away the magic. But we replace it with better magic. Magic that is real!
I’ve genuinely had people criticise me on this point because, in their own words, “why can’t we just believe in things like Santa Claus?” Well, you can believe in Santa if you want, I can’t stop you. But in doing so you’re missing out on something even better: a fully-fledged, complex, intricate and reliable view of the this astounding Universe. Why is Science doing something bad by encouraging people to see the beauty of reality rather than the beauty of made-up stuff?
Anyone who thinks nature is boring hasn't studied it in any kind of detail. You think reality is boring? There's a planet which rains diamonds. Some of the particles in your body can teleport...to the moon. Chimpanzees have invented machine technology. You can hypnotise people into not feeling the pain of surgery. You have a neuron in your brain which responds specifically to the face of Jennifer Aniston. Your legs are experiencing time at a different rate to your head. We have conducted rudimentary thought transplants. You can set fire to water. Bumble bees vote by performing dance-battles. Don't tell me nature isn't interesting.
Nature is not boring and neither are people. Both are worth learning about.
Science is magic.
And while we're at it, let's take the Santa Claus example further. Technically, when we are asleep we don’t know what happened. The grounded explanation is that our parents gave us presents, the magical one is that Santa did it. But really, is the grounded explanation bad or disappointing?
Isn’t it nice to learn that our parents love us and go to the trouble of surprising us at Christmas? OK, we have to let go of Santa Claus, but don’t we gain something deep and profound about the real world by exchanging the magical belief for the more likely one? Isn’t there a beauty in reality that we miss if we believe the fairy tales?
Likewise, in Life of Pi, the more plausible story (murder and desperation at sea) tells us something about human nature. It doesn’t have the fantastical tiger or the magic-island, but isn’t human nature worth learning about?
I’m not saying Life of Pi is going to turn people into crazed conspiracists who believe in fish-wzards and murder-unicorns. Of course not. But I do think it’s a novel which perpetuates a potentially harmful myth which can, in the long run, lead to unhealthy thinking.
The idea that ignorance is to be avoided, that we can pick whichever version of truth we like and that it is possible to decide the outcome of an experiment when there’s no supporting evidence one way or the other.
So, that’s my case. Life of Pi is a wonderful book but it’s indicative of a certain way of thinking which says our personal preferences and opinions have baring over reality. They don’t. But that’s not a bad thing. The real world has magic in it. You don’t have to give it up when you become a Scientist! And guess what, we're not trying to ruin anybody's cherished beliefs. We're trying to give the world something even better.
Life of Pi cover: Canongate books
The Slap: Ben Veal
Fish wizard: Gameteep
The Euro: Wordpress
Easter Bunny: Funchap
I love science, let me tell you why.