Slicing the Life of Pi

The Introduction

These are irrational times. Subjectivism (noun: the doctrine that knowledge and value are dependent on and limited by your subjective experience – WordWeb) is something I believe in myself, but the idea is being misused to justify some highly questionable moral and spiritual positions. We see this in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi. Martel is a fine writer. His book is a great read, but its message is just plain foolish.

Life of Pi Cover

Can we skip thinking, ignore reality, and believe something just because we like the sound of it?

The Moral Sense

Martel ludicrously simplifies the difficult subject of the moral sense by working the popular emotional angle: “… a quickening of the moral sense, which strikes one as more important than an intellectual understanding of things; an alignment of the universe along moral lines, not intellectual ones; a realization that the founding principle of existence is what we call love.”

What we have here is yet another tiresome example of the relentless irrational assault on reason that now pervades our faltering Western culture. Things have reached such a state that we see this “God is love” drivel as profound. It is impossible to divorce the moral sense – the ability to distinguish between right and wrong – from thought and place it in the realm of the emotions. Feelings know nothing of morality; by their very nature, they are completely thoughtless and irrational.

Emotions power lynch mobs. Shall we call a lynching moral because feelings motivated the violence? You know, we all loved Bob so much that when Harry killed him we just had to string Harry up. Or must we love Harry so much (in spite of what he has done to poor Bob) that we give him a big affectionate hug and send him on his murderous way? Clearly, the situation is too tangled and complex to be sorted out with so blunt an instrument as feelings.

If the moral sense is about love, why do we have laws and courts with lawyers and judges? Seen from Yann Martel’s perspective, we must be a bunch of unenlightened cold-hearted dummies too wedded to reason to understand that love is the “founding principle of existence.” Then again, perhaps Martel is too wedded to subjectivity and emotionalism to see that the cosmos is an IQ test. Dodos disappear.

The Agnostics

Martel’s revealing opinion on agnosticism: “the agnostic … beholden to dry, yeastless factuality …”

In other words, it is wrong to disbelieve in God because the facts (realities) supporting unbelief are rather dry! Martel’s view reveals the religious person’s usual distaste for reality, their dissatisfaction with the world as they find it, and their preference for hiding inside childlike fantasy and self-delusion. I have a taste for enchantment, but I recognize it as a mood I enjoy, one that makes life more pleasant, enhances my creative abilities, and tells me something about myself. I do not insist that only enchanting things be believable or convincing.

The Conclusion

Martel is promoting a return to humankind’s distant and primitive past, to believing whatever takes your fancy simply because you like the story. If you have two conflicting stories, choose the one you like best. If you like them both believe them both. Let us go back to the courtroom. The jury listens to the story of the defendant and that of the plaintiff. Each juror ignores “dry, yeastless factuality.” They set aside their intellect and choose the story they like best, or they choose to believe both stories.

I will leave the rest to you.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

8 thoughts on “Slicing the Life of Pi”

  1. I enjoyed ‘Life of Pi’, but I have to agree with you about this wave of irrationalism (I don’t mean so much in relation to this or any other novel, but in general). ‘Follow your heart’ is the snippet of New Age wisdom that particularly winds me up. For a start, what exactly is meant by ‘heart’ is never defined, and is not obvious (conscious will? desire?). And what if my ‘heart’ tells me to kill someone? Should I go ahead and do it, thus being true to myself?

    This woolly thinking doesn’t trouble me particularly in the context of fiction, but I find I get very annoyed when these lazy platitudes are peddled as some kind of profound truth (often in the worst kind of self-help books). I think it would be very sad indeed if people were to grab at these things, believing that they represented a sure path to happiness or enlightenment. IMHO, if there are any certain answers to the questions posed by our existence, they are neither obvious nor apparent. (A self-help book penned by me wouldn’t even run to one full page … :-))

  2. A wink? There’s gratitude for you. I work my butt off writing posts to save you from the clutches of benighted irrationalism and all I get for my trouble is a cheeky wink? I know you, Lucinda. I’ll bet you have a big fat Cheshire cat grin on your face as you read this! Lol.

  3. The concept of “the heart” is indeed vague. When most people speak of “following your heart,” they are using “heart” as a stand-in for certain emotions. They want to select out love, sympathy, and pity, and then make all of their decisions based on these particular “higher” feelings. The popular belief among those who love to wallow in emotion (i.e. soak themselves in hormones) is that this makes you a warm and “good” person and therefore better than someone who uses reason, which is regarded as cold, dry, and unsympathetic. However, trying to figure out what muddle-headed New Agers believe is a hopeless proposition. Sometimes I think they just wantonly believe everything.

    My position is that exclusive use of either emotion or reason is a mistake. We have both faculties because we need both faculties. Emotions, however, are irrational, powerful, and primitive and therefore must be unleashed with care. The “heart” brigade wilfully overlooks the truth that anger, fear, and hate are also emotions.

    I recommend that, for navigating on the fly, do as you *genuinely* will. Since authentic will originates from a set of emotionally important ideas, it automatically takes both reason and emotion into account and will steer a course *between* reason and emotion thus saving you from any extreme behaviour. Your fear that being true to yourself could lead you to kill someone is unfounded. Very few people are murderers and anyone who is a killer has already shown their true colours by the time they are adults. Trust your Self is my version of “follow your heart.”

    It’s worth noting that most murders are committed by those in a state of extreme emotional agitation. Less common are murders committed by cold-blooded sociopaths with no conscience. The latter are alienated from both their emotions (cold-blooded) and their authentic self (no conscience). In contrast, being in touch with your authentic self yields wise, conscientious, and sane behaviour.

    I don’t share your view that fiction peddling faulty philosophy or spirituality is of small concern. Many people who don’t read non-fiction look to novels and stories for guidance and enlightenment. Lovers of literature, especially, often say they read to learn something about people and life. My post, “Literature is Philosophy for its Time,” gives an overview of the more-popular topics dealt with in fiction. I would argue that leftist writers have for decades been sowing the seeds of our current bumper crop of irrationality.

  4. Interesting point, Thomas, and a difficult one to answer. On the one hand I believe that if there is just one arena in which it is valid to explore ideas that do not have a great deal of rational traction, it is surely fiction (says the keen reader and writer of ghost stories, hoping that she hasn’t dug herself into a hole here… 🙂 ). As long as such works don’t pretend to be anything they are not, there’s probably a limit to the amount of harm they can do.

    However, people do often look to fiction for guidance. I can think of one very popular work, which I won’t name here, which could sit equally happily on both the self-help and fiction shelves. According to the blurb, it is a work of almost unbelievable moral and spiritual profundity. Personally, I found it to be utterly inane. However, when I glanced at the reviews on Goodreads I was heartened to see that quite a few people shared my views. I think and hope that readers are for the most part way too clever to be taken in by platitudes posing as wisdom.

    Quite possibly works of fiction should come with a warning, as cigarettes do. ‘Take moral or spiritual inspiration from this work at your peril’, perhaps!

  5. You are right when you say fiction is a valid platform for exploring irrational ideas. In spite of my concern over the number of authors promoting irrational thinking, I would not interfere in any way with their right to do so. Writers do not always lead the reading public. Often they are following, and merely provide what is wanted picking up the spirit of their times and putting it in their books. In fact, authors that do this best, sell the best.

    Literary critics talk about the “willing suspension of disbelief,” and I think this plays into your point about fiction not influencing people. Readers see genre novels (including ghost stories), as entertaining “guff,” enjoy them, and move on unaffected.

    With literary fiction, where authors are deliberately trying to “say something” and hoping to have some effect on their readers, the situation is more complex. You have to assume that some will be unmoved while others will buy in, especially those who regard reading as a way to enlarge their understanding of the world. I suppose your opinion on how many choose to believe depends on how you view the reading public. Are most people sophisticated enough to filter out the platitudes? I am less optimistic than you are.

    One other point bears mentioning. Every book has an implied author. Novels and stories with an irrational theme but a rational implied author are not likely to persuade readers to take up irrational ideas. Your own novel, *The Quickening,* although it is a ghost story, has this quality.

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