Philosophy


Like a bunch of other people I recently saw Ang Lee’s screen interpretation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I thought the film was pretty good – a decent cinematic imagining of the tale, even if it did gloss over some of the subtleties of the book.(i) That’s the legacy of cinema of course – commercial pressure sees to it that any idea, big or small, must be squashed into a two or three hour format no matter what the consequence to the idea. But this is not going to be one of my film reviews, you will be pleased to hear. Instead, I want to talk about the premise of the story of Life of Pi itself, and why I think its pop wisdom coda is curiously diffuse and widely misinterpreted.

[Spoilers: To make the point of my post I must necessarily relate plot details and give away the ending, so if that bothers you, you probably should stop reading now.]

The framework for the novel relies on a conceit that has an anonymous narrator relating an incident in which he meets an elderly man who offers to tell him a story fantastic enough to give him faith in God. By inference, we, the reader will also become convinced enough by this wondrous affair when it is revealed to us, to adopt faith in God ourselves.(ii)

The rest of the tale is then told in the first person voice of Piscine Patel – the eponymous ‘Pi’ – and concerns the adventures that ensue when his father, a zookeeper, is forced to close the family menagerie and sell the animals to other zoos around the world. As the story sets out, we learn of a young Pi’s attempts to make some sense of the religions he reads about in school. His efforts to square those beliefs with the harsh lessons of nature he witnesses among the animals in the zoo culminate in him taking the unusual step of adopting Christianity, Hindi and Islam all together – because he can’t see that any one of these doctrines by itself is exclusively of merit. And still, we sense, he is not happy. It sets Pi apart as a curious and conflicted boy, searching for answers that come neither from his rationalist meat-eating father or from his religious vegetarian mother.(iii) The main part of the story takes place when the family set off to Canada via ship, to escort the last of the zoo animals to their new home. The voyage doesn’t go well, and the ship sinks in bad weather, eventuating in the death of Pi’s family and all the animals save a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and the memorable ‘Richard Parker’ – a Bengal tiger – the four of whom end up adrift in a lifeboat with Pi. The hyena, zebra and orangutan don’t last long for various reasons and what then ensues is a highly improbable fantastic journey, in which Pi trains Richard Parker not to eat him and the two companions witness all manner of marvels including phosphorescent sea creatures, great flocks of flying fish and a carnivorous island inhabited by meerkats. It’s a sweet and engaging tale.

Yann Martel intends it to be more than simply that, though. Navigating past assorted obstacles that are mostly philosophical and/or religious feints that are, unfortunately I think, never really addressed or resolved, Pi and Richard Parker become ever more desperate, until at last, dehydrated and starving, they are washed up on a Mexican beach. Richard Parker immediately vanishes into the jungle with nary a tip of the cap or a cheerio, and Pi is rescued by some itenerant fishermen. On his recovery, he is obliged to undertake an interview with Japanese officials attempting to discover the cause of the disaster which shipwrecked him. Quite understandably, they find his tale completely implausible, and so he tells them another more brutal human story in which, instead of animals, some members of the crew and his mother end up in the lifeboat. They all die in unpleasant but probable ways, and the Japanese investigators draw the conclusion that Pi’s first story is an allegorical recounting of what really happened.

‘But which story do you prefer?’ asks Pi.

The investigators choose the version with the animals.

Pi thanks them and says, ‘And so it goes with God.’

In 2010 Barack Obama wrote a letter directly to Yann Martel, describing Life of Pi as ‘an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling’. It makes me wonder whether President Obama read the same book as I did, and if so, where the ‘proof of God’ actually was, because it seems to me that it’s the very antithesis of that.(iv)

It bothers me deeply that people seem to have read the story in this way. Life of Pi provides no compelling argument for someone to take up faith in God (which was the promise made by our narrator in the beginning, as you will recall). Nor, indeed, does it advance any kind of advocacy for religious belief.(v) Sure, it indisputably does offer up a wonderful poetic vision of why it would be nice to think that God exists, but just look at that coda: ‘Which version’ asks Pi ‘…do you prefer?’ Isn’t that as plain as day?

Of course we all prefer the story with the tiger and the magical luminous creatures and the spooky island(vi) – but preferring it makes it neither true nor illuminating. It just means it is a nice story. In the event, Pi’s journey has no material significance as far as the Japanese officials’ investigation is concerned, so a fictional recounting is neither better nor worse than the truth for the purposes of their report.

With this in mind, a sensible person would surely interpret the message of the book as: Believe whatever makes you feel good as long as you understand that it has no relevance to real life. To accept that this holds any kind of profundity, though, is as absurd as saying that it’s rational to discard the truth for fanciful ideas about Santa Claus, or elves, or the Tooth Fairy, simply because all those are preferable stories. These are concepts we entertain when we are children; fantasies that are quite harmless in the protected realm of childhood but which break down when confronted with rational scrutiny. People who still believe – literally – in the Tooth Fairy into their adulthood tend to have a lot of trouble dealing with the real world.(vii)

In addition, and perhaps more gratingly, this conclusion – that choosing to believe in a nice story is preferable to committing to actual reality – sells the alternative short. It diminishes the wondrous nature of the universe by squashing it under the squalor of the worst aspects of humanity. Pi’s alternative narrative is an unpleasant and uncomfortable one, evoking as it does all the terrible (animal) traits of human beings. It’s certainly not a story someone would ‘prefer’ to live through, but it is the story we are obliged to live through. The obvious takeaway for most people seems to be that the lively fantasy version of the tale, with its more-than-human animals is somehow truer to the way humans ‘really’ are. It’s a familiar hubristic 19th century Judaeo-Christian worldview. Despite its 21st century multicultural pretensions to a lofty spiritual philosophy Life of Pi veritably reverberates with the echoes of the fairytales of Rudyard Kipling and A. A. Milne. Religious thought has ever been like this. It wants to hijack the noble parts of humanity and make a claim on them, whilst distancing itself from the bestial, the venal and the mortal, but the fact is that we humans will never truly be on the path to a worthwhile future as long as we try to set ourselves apart from nature. We can simply ignore what we’re really like or we can attend to it and attempt to address the bad bits. It is a magnificent talent that we can make up colourful and imaginative stories, but we should never, ever, start preferring to believe in them to the detriment of seeking real, touchable, relevant knowledge.

Unless, of course, the consequences actually don’t matter. Then go ahead and believe anything you want.

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Footnotes:

  1. …and lean a little too heavily on other not-so-subtle things… []
  2. In the movie, the narrator is personified as a young novelist looking for a story and it is an older Pi who offers to provide the justification for faith. This whole mechanism seems tacked-on and clumsy, and exists solely as a setup for the flimsy ‘gotcha’ moment in the finale. When I read the book it tainted the whole experience for me, because I was constantly waiting for the whammy. It would have been SO much more elegant without it, and seems like such an awful high-school flub that I’m totally surprised that it wasn’t heavily criticized. It would have lent the story an ambiguity – indeed, a point – that certainly wouldn’t have prompted a gushing letter from Barack Obama. I can’t say exactly why, but the mechanism was more irksome in the film. It’s been several years since I read the book, so maybe I’m just more touchy on the subject these days… []
  3. Yes, when you put it like that, it does seem rather heavy-handed, doesn’t it? But I’m just telling it like it is. []
  4. Even now, I am compelled to wonder if Martel intended to write an endorsement of atheism but chickened out at the last minute – for, without the framing story, that’s exactly how you would read Life of Pi. []
  5. You could argue that the island with the meerkats is an allegorical criticism of organised religion, in fact. []
  6. Although I feel I must point out that there are undoubtedly writers who could have made the other story as equally compelling, compassionate and poignant if they’d turned their hands to it. It’s another conceit of the novel – in pursuit of its high moral ground – to paint reality as something that is distasteful, miserable and undesirable. []
  7. Indeed, people who hold ‘religious’ beliefs that don’t square with the endorsed and accepted ones face exactly this problem too. You’re an Aetherian? Seriously? [woooo-eee-oooo] []

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Eager to please!

The other day, whilst in a philosophical mood, I got to musing on whether there would be any way for humans to tell if we were being kept as pets by some alien intelligence.

Consider the goldfish that we keep in our kitchen.

Goldfish contemplating sunken treasure chest.

I doubt that they have even the foggiest idea that the glass-walled vessel in which they find themselves is in any way strange. Or even that they have any idea of what ‘glass’ is, or what ‘strange’ is. They are quite obviously accustomed to the large shadowy figures that loom over them from time to time, and have come to associate these figures with food, which makes for obvious excitement for them. Their goldfishy brains probably can’t even encompass the idea of humans, or a kitchen bench, or meatballs and tomato sauce (which is what I happen to be cooking for dinner as I write this).

But what if we are like that? If we were the pets of aliens, how would we even know? Our puny human brains might be to them as goldfish brains are to us. If we are being kept in the alien equivalent of a glass tank on an alien kitchen bench, how could we even know, if we are unable to contain the concept of alien glass, or alien kitchen benches or alien meatballs? If we know nothing other than the circumstances in which we find ourselves – like the goldfish, raised in tanks in an aquarium and transported in plastic bags to a new home – what possible reference point could we have?

As silly as this sounds, I don’t mean it to be a flippant question. It is at least as plausible as any other hypothesis for why we are here, and it is just as unfalsifiable as postulating the existence of God, or alternative universes, or that we are a computer simulation.

If you accept that there are grades of intelligent awareness possible in the universe (and our own experience tells us that goldfish seem to be less aware of the universe than we are, and at the same time more aware of the nature of things than bacterium, say, so that appears to be a fairly reasonable assumption) then putting ourselves at the top of the intelligent awareness ladder seems a tad presumptuous. Is there any way, therefore, to know whether our reality is a ‘natural’ one or whether we are in an alien goldfish bowl?

I suspect not. But the places to start looking would be things in our universe that seem to be a little too ‘convenient’ for us to be here. And there are, indeed, some of those.

While Violet Towne and I were out on our bikes yesterday, our conversation turned to philosophy and politics, as it sometimes does. Specifically, I was defending the Mars Lab/Curiosity program against her assertion that it was a waste of money when there were so many much more important issues on the political plate. Well, I agree that there are numerous pressing matters that need our attention (and money) but I was most vehement that there are a lot of other things that could lose a few pounds (metaphorically speaking) before we should start carving up great and inspiring science projects.

“For instance,” I said, “Do you realise that the 2012 Olympics cost more than twice as much as Curiosity? And that the US bank bailout was more than ten times the budget of the Mars Science Lab mission?”

I don’t think she believed me.

“Show me the numbers!” she said, defiantly.

Well, Acowlytes, you all know it’s best not to challenge the Reverend when he’s on his soapbox, even if you’re the Reverend’s wife.(i) When we had pedalled homewards, I went straight to Captain Google, and plugged in my questions. You might understand, dear Cowpokes, my utter amazement when I found my figures were wrong. Wrong by an order of magnitude. But not in the direction VT had hoped. It’s FAR worse than I had even imagined. Here ya go. I made a graph:

As you can plainly see, the budget for the Curiosity/Science Lab project is not even one pixel high on this comparison scale.

So, in order to get some perspective on how much that little rover trundling around on the surface of Mars costs, let’s examine some of those figures and related issues. First of all, it’s obvious that the military budget for the US for one year (2012) and the amount of money spent on the bank bailout are each in a completely different league to the kind of expense put aside for Curiosity. It isn’t hard to see that even NASA’s entire budget for 2012 is hardly a blip on the radar for the government accountants when compared to sums like that. What’s even more gobsmacking is that each of these figures (that is, ONE SINGLE YEAR of US military spending, or the humoungous pile of money forked out to save the US economy from the destruction wrought by the excesses of greedy and morally reprehensible assholes) exceeds the budget of NASA’s entire 50 year existence.(ii) The yearly outlay for military air-conditioning alone exceeds NASA’s annual budget by 4 billion dollars.(iii)

The London Olympics cost, in fact, nearly 6 times more than Curiosity – not merely double as I’d thought – and we’re only talking about the money spent to stage the games.(iv) It’s plain that large amounts are poured into the Olympics from elsewhere as well, including every participating nation’s competition expenses, and not insubstantial amounts from all the bids made by countries attempting to secure the Games every four years. That’s a frikkin’ ginormous pile of cash for a sporting event. Even if you amortize the London expense over 4 years, the yearly figure still exceeds that of the Mars Science Lab mission. Of course if we permit that, it should be fair to amortize Curiosity’s cost over the Mars Science Lab program’s lifetime (9 years), making the contrast even greater and returning an expense to the US taxpayers of $277m per year (or, less than a dollar per person per year). For 2012/13 the Australian government has budgeted over 10 times that figure for sport.(v)

To put that per-person/per-dollar/per-year expense into perspective, Americans(vi) spent 4 times the cost of the Curiosity mission at the cinema in 2010(vii), and are spending something like $137 billion dollars a year on alcohol(viii) and somewhere in excess of 30 billion dollars a year on cigarettes. In 2011, the US government spent 313 billion dollars(ix) on ameliorating the problems caused by the abuse of all that alcohol & tobacco. And, while we’re on the subject of substance abuse, coming in at a staggering 30 billion dollars,(x) America’s so-called ‘War on Drugs’ costs the nation over 10 times the budget of Curiosity (or, nearly twice the annual NASA budget) every year and that is widely argued to be a complete waste of money.(xi)

I could, of course keep going with this – I haven’t touched on gambling, or government inefficiency, or tax breaks for religion or a half dozen other areas where large amounts of money seem to slush around without a proper degree of scrutiny. But what does all this mean, in the end?

For me, it’s simple. As humans we can, of course, choose to put our resources wherever we like. So far, I believe that choice has always leaned far too heavily towards the things at which animals are good – being the fittest, the strongest, the fastest. Or being the greediest, the most aggressive, the most dominant. It has not served us well. The result is that we have become powerful animals facing an existential crisis, and the traits that we carry as animals – the aggression, the greed, the power-mongering – are the exact opposite of what we need to get us out of this crisis. We are starting to encounter problems that we will not conquer by being fast, or strong or fit.(xii) Being better at animal things was once enough. Now it isn’t.

The things that humans alone are good at – the things that our brains enable us to do such as imagining the possibilities of the future, pondering the poetry of our existence, turning our curious gaze onto the mechanics of the very universe itself – occupy the very tiniest parts of the minds of most people (and therefore most governments). This ability that humans have to plan for the future by creating a mental vision of it is more-or-less nonexistant in all other animals.(xiii) So what do we do to the people who are very good at this kind of inspirational far-thinking? We vilify and undervalue them. When they tell us ‘There is a big problem with the climate and we should do something about it!’ the powerful apes get up on their boxes and beat their chests, so that they might remain popular and powerful, and the greedy apes use all the cunning that their superior brain has given them to make arguments that everything is OK and we should all just kick back and consume, and the fit and fast apes run around entertaining everyone. If we cannot use the leverage that nature has given us to come to terms with the world-destroying problems we now face, we are truly doomed. We have squandered the one advantage that we have over other animals. Our difference will have enabled us to wipe ourselves out, rather than allowed us to achieve that future which we alone can imagine.

So what has all this to do with a little vehicle pottering around in the dust of a cold world some 225 million kilometers from our home? Well, in my opinion, projects like Curiosity help us turn our gaze outward – out of ourselves and away from our tiny little human preocupations. Indeed, I think that this curiosity to know stuff that has no direct consequence to our animal existence is a marker that says that we may, perhaps, have a chance after all.

There are, of course, many areas where we might have directed the 2.5 billion dollars that went to Curiosity. Violet Towne considered that it would have been better spent going towards helping solve the climate change problem, for example. Well, I agree that climate change research is an area that could really use that kind of money. And there are numerous pressing compassionate issues that are desperately in need of money also. I hope my argument has convinced you (and her), though, that stealing the funds from visionary human endeavours like the Mars Science Lab is entirely the wrong tactic if you want to help address these probems. I want to make it quite clear that I’m not advocating doing away with sport, or stopping everyone from imbibing reality-altering substances, or even saying that we could conveniently curtail all our military spending, but to me it seems that all these pursuits – these profoundly ‘ape-like’ pursuits – are where we should look first for money that could be better off spent elsewhere. I’m pretty sure they could spare a little of the quite exorbitant amounts of cash that are currently rained down on them.

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Violet Towne fears that I have portrayed her as a Luddite here, and as somewhat anti-science. I want to assure you that she is not, and that I respect her views, and her willingness to challenge me on my own, very much. You all know that it’s unlikely I would last long with a partner who didn’t have a vibrant and informed worldview. But I think I am right in saying that, like many people, she had formed an opinion – almost entirely concocted by irresponsible and ignorant media reporting, in my view – that NASA spends excessive amounts of money on things no-one really cares about. My intent with this post is simply to demonstrate that, in the grand scheme of things, NASA’s budget is relatively well spent. It seems to me that robbing Peter to pay Paul by redistributing NASA’s budget to areas of more pressing need is a kind of madness fanned by a perplexing and distressing anti-science sentiment creeping across the world.

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Footnotes:

  1. You’d’ve thought she would have figured this one out by now… []
  2. Here. Do the sums. []
  3. The Pentagon rejects this figure, which was calculated by Brigadier General Steven Anderson, a military logician for operations in Iraq. They have, however, not put forward an alternative anywhere I could find. I’m open to correction on this. []
  4. Arguably, some of that expense is recouped in benefits of one kind of another by the British taxpayers, but not the majority of it by any means. Equally as arguably, the Mars Science Lab program has benefits of one kind or another for the human race. []
  5. I had trouble finding out how much the US government spends on sport. It’s either a well kept secret, or they don’t care to support the same ridiculous level of sports fantaticism as ours does. []
  6. Canadians are also included in this figure, but even cutting it by, say, a generous third, that’s still a shitload of money. []
  7. I couldn’t find anything more recent, but I think it’s safe to say that 2011 & 2011 will track that figure. []
  8. 2002 figures, but I think we can probably assume that has trended upwards rather than down. []
  9. This is probably a conservative estimate – it’s hard to get an exact figure due to the nature of defining the field, but I’m quoting on the conservative side. Stats here and here. []
  10. Depending who you ask. It’s variously quoted at somewhere between 20 and 40 billion. It’s certainly not less than 20, but it may be more than 40. In any case, I’ve erred on the probable side of conservatism and just taken the median. []
  11. Here, here, and here, for just three examples of hundreds you can find. []
  12. Or religious. []
  13. To all intents and purposes it is completely non-existant as far as we know, but that’s an area of research that is still contentious. []

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When I was a kid the most coveted material possession of school life was a set of Derwent Pencils.(i) Derwents were the créme de la créme of primary school artistic tools – without Derwents, your chances of ever becoming a new Picasso or Rembrandt were vanishingly small. Derwents were, however, also quite expensive, and my family wasn’t well off, so for many years I had to make do with the much cheaper Faber Castells, and the fond hope that I could, if fate was on my side, aspire to the crazy heights of illustrating pamphlets for the ladies down at the Lilac City Festival offices.

Then, one sunny day – I don’t even think it was my birthday – my mum gave me a box of Derwents.

I was in Pencil Heaven. Just look at that chromatic spectacle of luscious luxurious pencilness! No more scratchy Fabers! Derwents spread their rich waxy hues across the paper like a rainbow rolling softly out over a coarse grey sky!

True, it was just a box of 12 Derwents – not even close to Charlie Peerbohm’s set of two million…

…but they were Derwents nonetheless, and they were mine. It goes without saying(ii) that I took them to school the very next day, nonchalantly slipping them from my satchel and making sure I used them whenever an opportunity presented itself. I fancied that I caught envious stares from the kids still using Fabers, and I reveled in my new-found Pencil Czar status. Derwents of my very own! It was a happy day.

A short-lived happy day, as it turns out. I arrived home from school, still giddy from the day’s sheer brilliance, opened my bag… and with frightening suddenness an awful realisation closed in on me that somehow, somehow, I’d left my brand new box of Derwent pencils on the bus. Dammit! I even remembered taking them out of the bag and putting them on the bus seat. Why did I do that???! I was devastated. I ran to tell mum.

She looked at me with an expression that was completely inscrutable, and then did something that was unprecedented in my young life. My mother said:

“Oh well.”

And I knew instantly that I had irretrievably lost my Derwent pencils. That, as they say, was that. They weren’t coming back. I couldn’t blame my mum, she hadn’t lost them. And I knew it was completely unreasonable to expect her to get me another expensive set. I was angry. Not with her, but with myself. My pride was hurt and I felt cheated and powerless and stupid. And it was, indisputably, all my fault.

With the full understanding that I was very upset, my parents chose (wisely, I came to realise) not to simply buy me another box, nor to coddle me, but just to let me understand that sometimes life is shit and your only option is to deal with it.

And it set me on the road to discover that a man is a fool who takes anything for granted.

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Footnotes:

  1. Yes, things were much simpler back then. Now, apparently, kids expect to have phones and computers and all manner of other expensive concessions and treat it all like it was simply their right. “All the other kids have [insert desired item].” It’s not an argument that ever held water when I was a child. Where on earth did this overbearing and irksome sense of entitlement come from? []
  2. Just testing! []

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You know those daft motivational posters that have been well-and-truly pwned by Despair.com? Well, a guy named Douwe Osinga, who works for Google, has made a fun web time-waster called Auto Poster that allows you to make your very own inspirational pontifications to send to your friends and colleagues. Just as I am doing for you, dear Acowlytes.

The app draws from Google’s vast cataloguing of the cyberworld for its images.(i) All you need to do is provide the wisdom. Auto Poster even thoughtfully chooses appropriate text colours for you!

Go now. Waste time. Post your efforts back here and make me laugh.

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Footnotes:

  1. Be warned – the images are selected via Google’s Image Search, and the intellectual property is likely to be reserved. Whatever the crap that actually means in this day and age… []

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