Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Life of Pi’s Argument for Theism

The story in the novel The Life of Pi (LP) is framed as an argument for God’s existence. The argument is made explicit near the novel’s end and it can be paraphrased as follows. In our postmodern time, we’re properly skeptical of appeals to absolute truth; instead of grand theories or systematic treatises, we’re left with stories. With regard to philosophical as opposed to scientific matters, at least, reason is not the final arbiter. The question of whether God exists is such a philosophical matter, and atheism and theism tell us different stories. Theism is the better story and so we postmodernists should be theists.

This argument is a postmodernist mix of William James’ pragmatic argument about the will to believe, Kierkegaard’s argument about the need for an irrational leap of faith, and Pascal’s Wager. I’ll outline these prior arguments here. James assumes a pragmatic theory of truth, according to which truth is what’s useful to believe, given a conceptual scheme. James then argues that some beliefs are more useful than others; in particular, theistic belief would be useful in that, according to the belief, sufficient evidence in its favour is granted only to those who first accept the belief without that evidence. On pragmatic grounds, then, theism would be epistemically justified. One problem with this argument is that it doesn’t discount the possibility of self-reinforcing delusion. Once you entertain certain dangerous beliefs, you change your conceptual scheme until you acquire the ability to interpret all conceivable countervailing evidence in a way that favours your new way of thinking. Thus, instead of finding evidence that really points to God’s existence, after you choose to believe, you might gain instead an invincible hermeneutic facility, a sort of infinite creativity in interpreting evidence, so that you read theism into everything with which you’re confronted.

Kierkegaard emphasized the need for passion in theistic faith. Contrary to the philosopher Hegel, who thought we could reason our way to theism by means of an elaborate metaphysical system, Kierkegaard took a more mystical position, according to which God, as far as atheists and theists alike are concerned, is the possibility of a transcendent mystery at the heart of reality. The Christian God, at least, is the absurdity and the paradox of God made into a human or of the deity that commanded Abraham to kill his son. The theistic argument that’s implicit in Kierkegaard’s writings is that we ought to be existentially authentic, and that an authentic Christian who has blind theistic faith exhibits virtues of an inner struggle, indicated by bouts of angst and dread. Likewise, Pascal assumed the mystical premise that God is rationally unknowable, or infinite. Thus, reason won’t settle the issue since the evidence and the arguments will be ambiguous. Nevertheless, because the question of theism is so philosophically important, we must choose what to believe, and since we can gain more by choosing theism than we can by choosing atheism, and we can lose more by choosing atheism than we can by choosing theism, we should choose theism.

The LP argument for theism also assumes that atheistic naturalism and theism both can account for the facts at hand, for life, the universe, and everything, as it were, and that reason alone doesn’t dictate which worldview is best. Thus, these worldviews become mere stories and we need to evaluate them in aesthetic terms. Given that theism is the better story, or as LP says, that theism surprises us, makes us see higher, further, and differently, as opposed to being a flat, dry story of mere factuality (336), we should prefer theism to atheism on aesthetic grounds--which are the only remaining grounds. In this respect, LP avoids the crassness of Pascal’s Wager, since LP equates religion with the enjoyment of literature rather than with a selfish calculation. Of course, the novel illustrates LP’s argument by contrasting two narratives of how a boy survives disaster at sea. On the one hand, there’s the horrendous story of the mere facts, which are that after his ship sinks, the boy, Pi, winds up in a lifeboat with his mother, a sailor, and an evil chef, and the chef kills his mother, Pi kills the chef and survives alone in the lifeboat, facing starvation and despair of never being rescued, of being eaten alive by sharks, and so forth. But then there’s the fantastic and uplifting story, that Pi gets stuck in the lifeboat instead with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger, eventually befriends the tiger, and the pair survive against all odds.

There are many technical objections that can be raised against this argument. For one thing, there’s the matter of a story’s coherence as opposed to its correspondence with the facts. Even if theism and atheistic naturalism were indistinguishable with respect to their ability to explain all of the empirical evidence, one story’s explanation might be superior in light of epistemic values: theism might be less fruitful or logically consistent; for example, the definition of “God” might be self-contradictory and semantically empty. Moreover, far from expanding our minds, theism “explains” the world by appealing to a miracle. For these sorts of reasons, a theory can be distinguished from a story, postmodern relativism notwithstanding.

But these objections miss the point. Granted, scientific theories are not mere stories when applied to everyday practical matters; even Pi relies on his understanding of tigers to tame the one in his lifeboat. But scientific theories are ambiguous when applied to the philosophical question of whether ultimate reality is personal or impersonal. Theism appeals to a miracle, but so does the Big Bang. Even though theism doesn’t enlighten us regarding how the universe would have been created by God, science-centered epistemic values beg the question in favour of atheism, by presupposing methodological naturalism.

Philosophy and Religion as Fiction

In any case, I’m not interested in a technical assessment of that argument’s merit. Instead, I’d like to address two questions. First, what would it even mean to speak of entertaining a philosophy or a religion as a mere story, letting aesthetic standards govern our preference? Second, is theism aesthetically superior to atheism, as LP contends?

So what could be involved in accepting a worldview as a mere story? In some ways, treating philosophy as fiction would be a step up for philosophy, since fiction can matter more than a dry, abstract philosophical argument. Scientistic philosophy, which needs to appear as rigorous as physics to earn respect within the Ivory Tower, has ceded the traditional philosophical problems, of how to find meaning in life and of what sort of person we should be, to such ghouls as self-help gurus, televangelists, New Age whitewashers, and happy-talking psychiatrists who are funded by pharmaceutical companies. Even when we know a story is just fiction, the story can shape our character by giving us a model (the protagonist) and a warning (the antagonist). So were an answer to a philosophical question regarded as a “mere fiction,” the answer might then be more widely understood and easily applied.

But wouldn’t the philosophy then be just a game, an entertainment? In the back of your mind, you’d know that were theism just a story, you wouldn’t believe that God is real; you’d just be pretending, suspending disbelief for the sake of enjoying the narrative. However, we can see the more serious role fiction might have if we look at another kind of art, such as music. Many people keep music on in the background, while they’re driving or taking the bus, while they’re at work or eating or having sex. Music consists of sounds that have metaphorical significance and so can trigger our emotions and affect our mood. Music thus has an implicit narrative, in the highs and lows of the rhythm, in the pregnant pauses between the sounds, and so on, and this narrative can be made explicit if the music has lyrics. Chanting of mantras can alter your state of consciousness, producing hallucinations or deep meditation. And so art more generally can be used as an instrument to achieve a certain goal. Note that tools can be very serious business. In war, weapons are hardly taken lightly, the Mars rover shows us the surface of another planet, and oil refineries and nuclear power plants produce the energy that’s the lifeblood of modern civilization. Likewise, one goal that fiction used to serve for children was to scare the daylights out of them, to warn them that the world is a dangerous place. Catholic religion still has this effect in its private schools, when nuns teach children about hell and God’s bloody death on the cross.

So what’s it like to accept a philosophy as a mere story? Well, it could be a matter of keeping a story in mind, to brainwash yourself, as it were, or to affect your mood to achieve a certain goal. This seems to have been William James’ point. Whether the story is factual or not is irrelevant if the story is used as a tool to get a job done; instead, the issue is whether the story is effective. Music can calm your nerves, inspire your painting, or give you courage before battle. Likewise, theism or atheistic naturalism can serve as a metaphor that teaches us about ourselves or establishes a cultural mindset, standing by in our memory of first encountering the worldview, as a continuing source of inspiration or fear. Stories can offer powerful models that we try to emulate or ideals that we want to achieve.

The main reason many atheists and theists alike will scoff at the notion that their philosophy may best be understood as a powerful story, which is to say as a myth, is that postmodern culture is frankly scientistic. We think art is dead, because we’re too busy enjoying the fruits of science to notice that we’ve become Philistines. Even when science is put to use in technology, we contrast the colossal institutions of capitalism and of applied science with the humble, private use of art to change your life, and we can’t help but dismiss the latter as relatively insignificant. This in turn I take to be our animalistic response to a display of overwhelming power. We’re cowed and mesmerized by technoscience, and so we settle for the low-brow, mainstream culture, time and again preferring mass-produced consumer kitsch and hackneyed excretions of corporate cynicism.

A corporation is, in fact, a system that squeezes the humanity out of its members and transmogrifies that humanity into forces of cynicism and misanthropy; this is achieved when the members of the corporate body are forced to see themselves as functionaries playing a role or “just doing their job,” as the meme would have it. Put differently, a corporation provides legal cover for its members to set aside their altruistic impulses and to regress to a precivilized state of animal narrow-mindedness; the corporate system functions, then, as a smokescreen that allows its members to betray their principles and to escape unscathed by pangs of conscience. When you enter the corporate world, you lose sight of the humanity not just of your competitors or of your target consumers, but of yourself. You get lost in something akin to the fog of war and so blindly oppose any elevation of cultural standards. You become antihuman in your subservience to the corporate collective, which collective itself is a fiction, the proverbial curtain behind which sits the overwhelming beneficiary of free enterprise, the oligarch. And that power which corporations (oligarchs) now wield over democratic and dictatorial governments and over the global economy flows from technological applications of science. We increase our power by learning how things work and science discovers those mechanisms. Thus, like deer frozen in the headlights, we witness corporate and other technoscientific displays of superhuman power, and we naturally dismiss anything that would seek to challenge them. The only valid role of art, we presume, is as a means of corporate control of our mindset. Art becomes serious and respectable only when it’s blessed by corporations and by their zombie functionaries, as indicated by that art’s mainstream status, or else when art is used cleverly in postmodernist cons.

But the prospect of philosophy or of religion serving as art, as an instrument of self-improvement or of social evolution, threatens that social order because the Socratic and esoteric mystical traditions present rival forms of psychological and social subversion. That is to say, the use of scientific knowledge in a “free,” naturally oligarchic society subverts our potential for spiritual/existential advancement; corporate art, the dreck that slithers and slimes its way out of mainstream TV, movie, music, and publishing studios preoccupies us with fantasies. To take an obvious example, the American corporate media present democratic politics as a conflict between democrats and conservatives, whereas the true political conflict, between the American oligarchs and the rest of the population, ended in the 1970s after Ralph Nader’s consumer advocacy sparked the corporate takeover of the US government by means of lobbying power. (See the terrific TVO documentary, Park Avenue.) Socratic philosophy threatens that corporate abuse of technoscience--polling, marketing, public relations, infotainment, and other forms of media manipulation--by offering the ideal of obsessive self-knowledge; were we to think more like Socrates, taking him as our model protagonist, we’d be compelled to watch ourselves as we consume corporate media, to recognize how mainstream messages distract or numb us, exploiting our sex instinct, for example, to sell everything. With its cosmicist implications, mystical religion, too, challenges the delusions that tend to hold societies together, such as the ideal of personal happiness.

My point, then, is that were a philosophical argument or religious creed treated as a story, which is to say as an instrument that has practical relevance as opposed to being merely academic, the science-centered institutions would have rivals. To the extent that our culture is scientistic, we dismiss the very possibility of such a rivalry, and so we oversimplify the postmodern reduction of philosophy and of religion to art. We assume that any piece of art is as good as any other, that art must be dead because artists tend to be impoverished and thus can pose no threat to the established order. And we say this even as we consume the very-much-alive art that serves those ruling powers. The fact that dehumanizing, corporate art--advertisements, infotainment, and various mainstream spectacles and diversions--is mass-produced by Serious businesspeople proves that art has the potential to modulate our consciousness and character. We forget, too, that Socrates and the character Jesus were hardly wealthy when they inspired their revolutionaries.  

As a philosophical viewpoint, atheistic naturalism, then, would be a myth to the extent that the viewpoint engages our emotions, moving us to act, as an artwork that illustrates its message with a narrative of struggling, concrete characters (protagonists and antagonists). The practical aspect of this viewpoint is better known as secular humanism, although it’s been corrupted now for mass consumption, in New Atheism, becoming the scientism I’ve described in this section and elsewhere. The atheistic naturalist’s implicit protagonists are the scientist, the engineer, and the businessperson (especially the oligarch, as Ayn Rand appreciated), who are agents of progress, while the antagonists are the ignorant, superstitious savage and the dogmatic, armchair philosopher or theologian who arrogantly presumes to tell us what to think without first doing the hard scientific work to discover what’s what.  

Atheism’s Aesthetic Virtue

So much for the preliminary question of what it could mean to speak of theism and atheism as mere stories. Which is the better story, then? LP implies that the deciding factor is theism’s optimism compared to atheism’s pessimism. Theism is uplifting with its fantastic characters of gods, angels, demons, and even human immortal souls, while atheism is depressing with its sober, fact-confined view of reality as the series of accidents that form patterns within the impersonal dimensions of space and time. Theism affords us the satisfaction of believing that, despite the inevitability of biological death, ultimately people win since deep reality for the theist is personal. But this shouldn’t be the deciding factor, since many great stories are tragic. Another basis for deciding would be to compare the richness of the characters in the two stories. Theism has extremely colourful antagonists and protagonists, such as God and the devil; indeed, these characters have influenced most Western art. Meanwhile, atheistic naturalism has, at best, the implicit and mere mortal heroes and villains I referred to above. How can even Newton, Einstein, or Tesla compare to God, and how can a prescientific tribesperson, a religious fundamentalist or an upstart academic philosopher compare to a demon, even assuming you’re in the throes of scientism? Moreover, this second worldview can be construed as having no explicit characters to speak of, since science reduces subjects to objects. Assuming a good story requires characters in the first place, not to mention compelling ones, theism would be aesthetically superior to the alternative.

But this raises what to me is a crucial meta question about the nature of fiction. Classically, fiction’s role is to give the reader or viewer the experience of catharsis, which requires that she identify with the hero and live vicariously through that character. In effect, fiction appeals to our social predilection, by introducing a virtual social network which we can negotiate and in which we can enhance our status. The more fiction we consume, the more characters we become acquainted with, the larger our circle of virtual friends and enemies. We feel we come to know those characters, admiring some and condemning others. To this extent, fiction can be compared to comedy: both reinforce our comforting anthropocentrism which shields us from the alien wilderness. The wider our social circle, the less alone we feel and the more we can occupy our minds with thoughts of personal matters, of our real or virtual friends’ choices, deeds, physical appearance, and so forth. Fiction thus has social utility, in that a good story helps unify society by adding more characters with whom we can mentally interact. Luckily, our hunger for social interaction and for discerning mental patterns is so boundless that we can be just as emotionally affected by tales of unreal characters as by those of nonfictional ones.

Again, to this extent, theism may well have an aesthetic advantage over atheism. But perhaps we need a new kind of fiction after the Scientific Revolution, just as we might now require a grimmer, genuinely subversive kind of comedy. Perhaps the most authentic kind of postmodern fiction belongs to the horror genre, since a story should address the cosmicist implications of what we now know scientifically about our natural position. Instead of reinforcing our social instincts, fiction can challenge them and drive us to become transhuman, something that has a chance of thriving in our newly perceived environment. One way this new fiction might work is by following the existentialist’s advice and forcing us to look into the void, to accept reality as it is instead of hiding in the alternate, artificial reality that we substitute for nature. Only when we’ve first wrestled with the dire philosophical implications of science can our cultural creations be existentially authentic, since only then can they express our virtues rather than our vices. Mental projections aren’t always bad, but anthropocentric ones that depend on our preoccupation with personal or social matters at the expense of our understanding what the cosmos is really like seem to me detrimental. As Thomas Homer-Dixon says in his book, The Ingenuity Gap, technology is advancing much more rapidly than society, so that we become less and less able to solve the problems in our increasingly fast-paced, technological environment. I’d add that one such hindrance is a vestige of theism, which is the sort of art that preserves a personal mindset and a culture that distract us from our existential obligation to confront the cosmic reality in which such distractions are pitifully absurd. At any rate, to show that atheistic naturalism is aesthetically superior to theism, we may first have to question fiction’s traditional role. You see, if we should tell stories to reinforce anthropocentrism and to maintain widespread ignorance of science’s cosmicist implications, then of course theism will make for the better story. But if anthropocentrism is obsolete, so is traditional fiction and thus so may be the aesthetic judgment in theism’s favour.

I should add that this is so only for those born into theistic as opposed to cosmicist societies. What I mean is that when theism rather than cosmicism is socially taken for granted, theism contributes to existential inauthenticity since that default culture prevents a sober assessment of cosmic reality. And yet imagine what life must have been like for prehumans many thousands of years ago, prior to the advent of religion. Those ancestors would have faced cosmic horror at every turn. Granted, they wouldn’t have known how impersonal nature is, since they wouldn’t have thought about the size of the universe or about the lack of our centrality in it. But neither would those prehumans have had the comfort of living in an animistic world, which is to say a world animated by their imagination. Life would have been nasty, brutish, and short, with some pleasure and wonder mixed in. Now, after those millennia of facing nature as it is, without its being clothed to look like a camouflaged person, the invention of religion may initially have been a virtuous creation of our species, an existentially valid way of overcoming the ugly facts of life, with honour and grace. In the early part of religion’s history, religious people could still be said to have come to religion without having taken a shortcut to escape from their existential predicament. But now, even after science has rediscovered the basis for cosmic horror, when we Westerners have an extensive track record of religious decadence and dogmatism, religious people no longer have ownership of what was likely some such primordial horror in our prehistoric ancestors’ confrontation with wild nature. So in our postmodern time, certainly, theism would be aesthetically inferior to atheistic, cosmicist naturalism, given what should be the new function of fiction. This would be because theism now doesn’t deal nobly with cosmicism, whereas theistic myths may once, long ago indeed have been ethically respectable acts of existential rebellion.  


  1. Heard you making a guest post over at three pound brain!

    Not sure I understand the post, but religion to me seems almost an amphibian mid stage, something that help elevate thought to perhaps engage with fire, for example, rather than fall to animal instinct to run from it. With all the energy benefits of fire. But now that religious optimism, for example, makes us wander toward nuclear fire*, without much consideration of our history of incompetence, because of that optimism. The amphibian was a step, but in the environment it itself created, the step is short.

    I think that alot of fiction, and the perspective it engenders, is helpful. It's helpful to think of things as if one were, perhaps, superman, instead of being trapped not only physically but mentally in the limitations of a mortal frame. We shirk from violence potentially inflicted upon us, but what if bullets bounced off us? Now we think at a different level, think further, perhaps not giving up certain liberties for security, in doing so (granted, we have supermans security in thinking this, but none the less!). On the other hand, with religion, we think we actually are supermen!

    It was a long post, I don't know if I'm on topic! :)

    * some of the new systems they have seem to use things that prevent out and out meltdown, but nuclear waste is still an issue.

    1. Thanks for checking out my blog. Yeah, my guest post at TPB is an introductory one, in that it summarizes much of my blog, so I think a reader would have an easier time getting my perspective in any of my blog posts after reading that guest post. Look for some more of our writings on each other's blogs, including a debate we're having on his Blind Brain Theory.

      I think we should distinguish between religion and theism. Atheists can have a religious attitude and lifestyle towards that which they ultimately value. Moreover, many of the Eastern religions are atheistic. So theism tends to be optimistic, at least in the long run, but some religions are pessimistic. In particular, I think postmodern atheists could use a pessimistic religion.

      Existentialism is in fact the backbone of such a religion, in that this philosophy spells out the meaning of life even in hopeless situations. One way to cope with the absurd tragedy of natural life, with what I call our existential predicament, is with a good story, with a myth you can believe in. Postmodernists are skeptical of all myths--and for good reason, but I agree with Nietzsche that everyone could use a good myth.

      This particular post is on the relevance of The Life of Pi to these issues.

      I think you make a good point about how some theists takes their myths/fictions literally, attributing to themselves immortal souls, as though they were superheroes. But the question remains whether we should have as our ideal a plan for becoming such heroes. This was, in fact, the modern esoteric agenda of technoscience, as laid out in alchemy and in secret societies like Freemasonry. Alchemy was a forerunner of psychiatry, the self-help movement, and transhumanism, its goal being to perfect the human self. Transhumanism is a philosophy or perhaps a myth that's explicitly about the role of technoscience in making us superhuman.

  2. There seems a certain indiscriminancy in just 'a good story'? Granted, the more you descriminate about which story, the less good the eventual story gets.

    On your last paragraph, it depends - is that ideal from a world where natural threat swarmed all around us? What is perfecting the human self, when the threat is human sourced? A dreadful feedback loop? Escalation for no other reason than confusing a threat as something external, rather than self inflicted? How often in history do people demonise some other countries people - see an external threat from nature - rather than seeing a self inflicted threat?

    Anyway, superhuman or transhumanism? Heh, get your dueling foil out, you'll have a great amount of exercise over at TPB! Mostly revolves around blind brain theory as well!

    Thanks for your reply! :)

  3. I think the alchemist regards the perfected self in more or less the Jungian and Hindu/Buddhist ways. I don't know much about this, but I think it's curious that modern scientists like Newton were really into this transhumanist, alchemical stuff, whereas hyper-rational New Atheists think all myths and religious ideals are unnecessary or foolhardy.

    Scott and I are currently debating BBT by email. Hopefully, we'll be able to post it on our blogs. Where we differ is that I don't yet see how cognitive science undermines meaning and value altogether.

  4. Depends what you mean by meaning *cough*! For example, if some person in a wheelchair is stuck on a railtrack with an oncoming train and it's possible for you to push them off (at no risk, let's say, the train wont hit you, you've got plenty of time), and you do push them off the tracks, whether you mean cognitive science undermines that that action happens, or whether congnitive science undermines that it's actually a bad and awful thing if the guy were to be hit by the train.

    Or replace bad and awful with whatever negative sense you might have about such occuring, I don't want to use inapplicable names.

    However it's negative for you, what's the source of that? It just is? I guess Scott is trying to tie BBT into that. I'm not super hot on BBT myself, so it's a guess.

    Also it used to be BBH. He totally skipped right to T, missing the Q!

    1. The question is how how radically opposed cognitive science will be to folk intuitions about the mind. We think we have commonsense self-knowledge through introspection; for example, we think we have conscious mental states, which we call beliefs and desires, mental states that represent the world outside of us. BBT pushes the idea that this folk psychology is entirely wrong, that it's based on illusions that naturally arise because of introspection's inability to access much information in the brain. So what we think of as a symbol's meaning or value, its being about something else or its being important to us, may be wrongheaded, like a children's view of the world compared to what science will teach us about ourselves.

  5. I think so. I think it'll also be the discrepancy between how much corporations embrace the knowledge in the way they manipulate through advertising (or atleast embrace in their actions - the advertising guru's might not believe it all, even as they enact it!) and how much they'll be able to make themselves as religions with fanatical followers. They might even be able to make people actually pay to advertise their product on clothing the people wear! Oh wait...

  6. You wrote so much, not inclined to read sorry, but will offer succinctly, an intriguing book was ended disgustingly as I realised its surreptitious attempts at arguments for religiosity based on the thesis 'it is more palatable'.

    1. The Life of Pi does indeed end with a sort of postmodern argument for God's existence. The question is whether the argument's strong or weak. Does it all come down to our aesthetic preference for some story or other, whether it's that of the bare facts of atheistic naturalism or the happier fairytale of theism?