Truth, Faith and Hope in Life of Pi – A Philosophical Review
The Life of Pi – as both a novel and a recent Oscar winning 3D film – opens up the fascinating dialogue between the worldviews of Secular Humanists, Hindus and Christians. This article compares and contrasts how these three worldviews deal with the inter-related concepts of truth, faith and hope.
When it comes to defining 'truth', Christians have generally endorsed the classical philosophical tradition of the Greco-Roman word, in which 'truth' has two meanings. One refers to the accurate saying of things about reality. The other refers to the reality about which things may be accurately or inaccurately said.
That is, Christians distinguish between: a) true beliefs about reality and b) the truth of reality that true beliefs accurately represent. For example, if the cat's on the mat, this is a truth of reality. That's one sense of the 'truth': what reality is. If the cat's on the mat and I believe that the cat's on the mat, then the truth of my belief is another sense of the term 'truth'. My belief is true to the truth of reality (it accurately represents the way things are). As Thomas Aquinas observed: "it is from the fact that a thing is or is not, that our thought or word is true or false, as [Aristotle] teaches."
Aristotle's definition of the primary meaning of truth can be given in words of one syllable: "If one says of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, he speaks the truth; but if one says of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, he does not speak the truth." This 'correspondence' meaning of truth refers to a quality of beliefs. It's not a quality of all beliefs, but only of those that correspond to the truth of reality: "truth in the mind ... isn't determined by how the mind sees things but by how things are: for statements – and the understanding they embody – are called true or false inasmuch as things are or are not so..." As Aristotle wrote: "it is by the facts of the case, by their being or not being so, that a statement is called true or false."
The facts of the case (like the cat either being or not being on the mat) are the truth of reality, and it's the truth of reality that determines whether or not our beliefs about reality are true to reality. Reality calls the shots: "We may be entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts. Believing a statement is one thing; that statement being true is another."
We may be entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts
- Douglas Groothuis
Many Secular Humanists accept the correspondence theory of truth, whilst often restricting the means of access to truth to empirical and / or 'scientific' ways of knowing. They would hold with Mr. Kumar from Life of Pi that: "There are no grounds for going beyond a scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experience." (Life of Pi, p.27.) Some Secular Humanists have advocated alternative definitions of truth, such as the pragmatist idea that truth is whatever works (a claim that contradicts itself if it claims to be more than 'a working definition').
For Hinduism, there is One Ultimate Truth of Reality:
The ultimate reality is 'Brahman', the one infinite impersonal existence. Brahman is all that exists, and anything else that appears to exist is maya, and does not truly exist at all. Ultimate reality is beyond distinction, it merely is. There is therefore a unity of all things.
However, if there's "a unity of all things" the conceptual distinction between 'true' and 'false' must itself be maya, which means that statements such as "there is a unity of all things" and "Brahman is all that exists" cannot be advanced as being true rather than false. When Pi defines Brahman as "That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language" (Life of Pi, pp.48-49.) he uses both thought and language to make a specific truth-claim concerning the nature of something he claims to neither know the nature of nor to be able to communicate the nature of. No wonder he also says that "language founders in such seas" (Life of Pi, p.15). As James W. Sire observes:
Knowledge … demands duality – a knower and a known. But the One is beyond duality; it is sheer unity … as the Mandukya Upanishad says, "He is Atman, the Spirit himself … above all distinction, beyond thought and ineffable." … reality is one; language requires duality; several dualities in fact (speaker and listener, subject and predicate); ergo, language cannot convey truth about reality.
And yet this claim is made using language. Again, according to the Hindu definition of Brahman: "The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond knowledge." But if something is 'beyond knowledge' it is by definition impossible to know of it that it is beyond knowledge. As philosopher Norman L. Geisler argues:
The very claim that 'God is unknowable in an intellectual way' seems to be either meaningless or self-defeating. For if the claim itself cannot be understood in an intellectual way, then it is a meaningless claim. If the claim can be understood in an intellectual way, then it is self-defeating, since it affirms that nothing can be understood about God in an intellectual way. In other words, the pantheist expects us to know intellectually that God cannot be understood intellectually.
"Now we see … why Eastern pantheistic monism is non-doctrinal", writes Sire, "No doctrine can be true. Perhaps some can be more useful than others in getting a subject to achieve unity with the cosmos, but that is different. In fact, a lie or a myth might even be more useful." On the subject of truth Hinduism bears a similarity to those Secular Humanists who reject the correspondence theory of truth for a pragmatic definition. Of course, the pragmatist can't coherently claim that one doctrine truly is more useful than another, or to make any claims about what it is useful for truly achieving.
It is precisely because Hinduism rejects the classical distinction between truth and falsehood that Pi believes he can think of himself as "a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim" (Life of Pi, p.64.) despite the fact that all three religions contradict each other. Pi can report: "Bapu Ghandi said, 'All religions are true.'" (Life of Pi, p.69), but Ghandi's claim is self-contradictory because every religion contradicts all the others. Indeed, the idea of jettisoning truth as an important category is the key to understanding Life of Pi: "if we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams." (Life of Pi, p.xii.)
On the other hand, if we don't support the classical concept of truth, we necessarily end up believing that nothing it true and being unable to differentiate between fact and fantasy, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness. Isn't truth essential for imagination? Christians and the majority of Secular Humanists thus find themselves in mutual opposition to the Hindu obfuscation of truth. As Pi's father says: "Believing in everything, is the same as not believing in anything."
The authorial voice within Life of Pi recognizes the importance of trust: "Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane… But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transport." (Life of Pi, p.28.) When the New Testament talks positively about trust, or 'faith': "it only uses words derived from the Greek root [pistis] which means 'to be persuaded.'"
To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transport
- Life of Pi
As Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland affirm: "the modern view of faith as something unrelated or even hostile to reason is a departure from traditional Christianity and not a genuine expression of it." In other words, the Christian understanding of 'faith' is of placing personal trust in someone that one is rationally convinced is trustworthy. Moreland thus defines faith as "a trust in and commitment to what we have reason to believe is true", and explains:
The essence of faith – biblical or otherwise – is confidence or trust, and one can have faith in a thing (such as a chair) or a person (such as a parent, the president, or God), and one can have faith in the truth of a proposition... When trust is directed toward a person / thing, it is called 'faith in'; when it is directed toward the truth of a proposition, it is called 'faith that'.... It is a great misunderstanding of faith to oppose it to reason or knowledge. Nothing could be further from the truth. In actual fact, faith – confidence, trust – is rooted in knowledge.
C.S. Lewis defined faith as: "the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods." For moods change whatever view your reason takes:
Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable ... unless you teach your moods 'where to get off,' you can never be a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion… When we exhort people to Faith as a virtue, to the settled intention of continuing to believe certain things, we are not exhorting them to fight against reason... If we wish to be rational, not now and then, but constantly, we must pray for the gift of Faith, for the power to go on believing not in the teeth of reason but in the teeth of lust and terror and jealousy and boredom and indifference that which reason, authority, or experience, or all three, have once delivered to us for truth.
According to Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami (writing in Hinduism Today), faith (astikya in Sanskrit) is a process of moving from "blind faith to conviction bolstered by philosophy, and finally to certainty forged in the fires of personal experience." He writes:
The cultivation of faith can be compared to the growth of a tree. As a young sapling, it can easily be uprooted, just as faith based solely on belief can easily be shaken or destroyed. Faith bolstered with philosophical knowledge is like a medium-size tree, strong and not easily disturbed. Faith matured by personal experience of God and the Gods is like a full-grown tree which can withstand external forces.
Some Secular Humanists (e.g. those of a 'neo-atheist' persuasion) equate faith with 'blind faith' in order to portray all religious believers as anti-intellectual. According to A.C. Grayling: "Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason..." Likewise, Richard Dawkins definesreligiousfaith as: "blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence." However, Secular Humanist Richard Norman cautions that "faith means different things to different religious believers, and from the fact that they claim to have faith you can't infer that they are all irrationalists who believe things on 'blind faith' without any evidence..." On the meaning of 'faith', then, it would seem that there's a degree of commonality between Christians, Hindus and many Secular Humanists; a commonality upset primarily by the blind rhetorical stance of certain 'new atheist' writers.
Secular Humanism has an ambiguous relationship with the concept of hope. On the one hand Richard Norman explains that:"Humanism is more than atheism, it is about putting humanist beliefs and values into practice and trying to make the world a better place." According to the Humanist Manifesto III: "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfilment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."
On the other hand, the naturalistic worldview that undergirds Secular Humanism provides no foundation for hope in the long term, as Peter Atkins acknowledges: "We are children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe." Peter Cave muses: "We humanists know we shall cease to exist, yet we believe the world goes on. We build monuments, preserve libraries and save whales, when all will be lost. Vanity, all is vanity."
Moreover, naturalism appears to exclude the freedom of will necessary for the ethical responsibility cherished by secular humanists. According to atheist William Provine:
Humans are comprised only of heredity and environment, both of which are deterministic. There is simply no room for the traditional concepts of human free-will. That is, humans do make decisions and they go through decision-making processes, but all of these are deterministic. So from my perspective as a naturalist, there's not even a possibility that human beings have free will.
Little wonder atheist John Gray concludes: "A truly naturalistic view of the world leaves no room for secular hope."
When your intellect has cleared itself of delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future
For the Hindu, "atman [the 'true self'] seeks to realize Brahman [the impersonal Fundamental Reality with which atman is actually identical], to be united with the Absolute, and it travels in this life on a pilgrimage where it is born and dies, and is born again and dies again, and again, and again [samsara], until it manages to shed the sheaths that imprison it here below [moksha]." (Life of Pi, p.49.) One might be tempted to think that in the idea of moksha (the Hindu term for the liberation of the 'soul' from the wheel of karma) Hinduism provides adherents with a goal to hope for and look forward to. However, the individual cannot hope to reach this goal, nor can they look forward to it, because this goal is precisely the abolition of the (illusory) individual; for the existence of individual persons is Maya, an illusory or provisional reality, in-as-much-as "Atman is Brahman. Brahman is one and impersonal. Therefore, Atman is impersonal… Human beings in their essence – their truest, fullest being – are impersonal."
Contrary to the common western understanding of reincarnation, for the Hindu "no human being in the sense of individual or person survives death. Atman survives, but Atman is impersonal. When Atman is reincarnated, it becomes another person." Likewise, the naturalistic worldview of the Secular Humanist entails that when a person dies, although their matter continues to exist and to be incorporated into new things (even new people), the person is dead and gone.
Anthropologist David Burnett explains that within the Hindu worldview:
Individuality and human consciousness are just a part of the total illusion of Maya. The individual soul, atman, is in fact the divine self, which is identical with 'Brahman'. The focus of human achievement therefore becomes world-denying rather than world-affirming as with the secular worldviews. To realize one's true oneness with the cosmos is to pass beyond personality… Personality demands self-consciousness that requires a distinction between the thinker and the thing thought about.
If long-term hope is an inappropriate category to apply to the Hindu worldview, what about the short term? Like the Secular Humanist, the Hindu can of course have their own subjective hopes for their immediate, worldly future. However, the monistic nature of both Pantheistic Hinduism and Naturalistic Secular Humanism appears to preclude any objective grounding for values, any objective distinction between good and evil. Cave talks about the way in which "Humanists are tempted to think that 'deep down inside' each human is valuable" and ponders: "Is it not utterly ridiculous that things should matter so much to us, when from outside they matter not at all?"
There is nothing that one objectively ought or ought not to hope for within either worldview. The Bhagavad-Gita says: "When your intellect has cleared itself of delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future." Moreover, the Hindu doctrine of karma works itself out in a caste system that precludes any hope of social mobility: "Each caste has its own skills and specialized functions. A person is born into a particular caste and as such, his or her lifestyle, occupation and even the food he or she eats are designated. There is no possibility of social mobility."
The apostle Peter commanded Christians to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have … with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15) For Christianity, then, hope is grounded in truth – especially (a) truth concerning the character and intentions of God and (b) truth concerning Jesus' divinity and resurrection from the dead. If the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact, then the Christian hope is one solidly grounded in reality. If not, then the Christian hope is an illusion.
As the apostle Paul observed: "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1 Corinthians 15:14). At one stage of his journey Pi professes to have "lost all hope" and to have "perked up and felt much better" as a consequence. Be that as it may, it would seem that Christians, Hindus and Secular Humanists all agree that if Christian faith isn't truthfully grounded in reality, we face the absence of any long-term personal hope.
- Pi's father says: "Believing in everything, is the same as not believing in anything." Do you agree? Do we need to believe in anything?
- How do you respond to Pi's three different 'conversions' and his desire to hold all three at once?
- Pi says: "You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better." Do you think it is good for us to have hope? Or to lose it? Or to lose one type of hope and find another?
- Pi suggests that we can choose our own story, and that it is better to choose a good story than a true story. Do you agree?
- What is the difference between faith and blind faith? Is it possible to have blind doubt?
-  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 16, Objection 3.
-  Quoted by Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell, Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1982.
-  Thomas Aquinas, Questiones Disputatae de Veritate, in McDermott (ed.), Aquinas – Selected Philosophical Writings, Oxford University Press, 1998, p.58.
-  Thomas Aquinas, quoted by Norman L. Geisler & Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987, p.247.
-  Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, Nottingham: Apollos, 2011, p.124.
-  David Burnett, Clash of Worlds, London: Monarch, 2002, p.71.
-  James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue, 5th edition, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009, p.155.
-  'Kena,' in The Upanishads, p.31 quoted by Norman L. Geisler & William D. Watkins, Worlds Apart, 2nd edition, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989, p.80.
-  Geisler & Watkins, Worlds Apart, p.104.
-  Sire, op.cit., p.155.
-  Tom Price, 'Faith is about "just trusting" God isn't it?', available at http://www.bethinking.org/truth/faith-is-about-just-trusting-god-isnt-it.
-  Michael J. Wilkins & J.P. Moreland, Jesus Under Fire – Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1996, p.8.
-  J.P. Moreland, 'Living Smart' in Paul Copan & William Lane Craig (eds.), Passionate Conviction, B&H Academic, 2007, p.22.
-  J.P. Moreland, The Kingdom Triangle, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007, pp.130-131.
-  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, available at http://merelewis.com/CSL.mc.3-11.Faith.htm.
-  Ibid.
-  Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami, 'The Three Stages of Faith', available at http://hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=5041.
-  Ibid.
-  A.C. Grayling, Against All Gods, London: Oberon Books, 2007, pp.15-16.
-  Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford Paperbacks, p.198.
-  Richard Norman, 'Holy Communion', New Humanist, November-December 2007, p.18.
-  Norman, Ibid., p.19.
-  Humanist Manifesto III, available at www.americanhumanist.org/Humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_III.
-  Peter Atkins, quoted by Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 2006, p.ix.
-  Peter Cave, Humanism, Oxford: OneWorld, 2009, p.132.
-  William Provine in Russell Stannard (ed.), Science and Wonders, London: BBC / Faber and Faber, 1996.
-  John Gray, Straw Dogs, London: Granta, 2002, p.xii.
-  Sire, op.cit., p.154.
-  Ibid, p.158.
-  Burnett, op.cit., p.72.
-  Cave, p.134, my emphasis.
-  Ibid, p.139.
-  Bhagavad-Gita, translators Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, New York: Mentor, 1972, p.41.
-  Burnett, op.cit., p.75.
© 2013 Peter S. Williams
This article originally appeared in Dialogue Australasia Journal, May Issue 2013.