Wednesday, October 29, 2008

PI (a movie)

I watched this movie "PI" (pronounced as 'pie') a couple of months ago but have wanted to review it at that time. However, as usual, time and other commitments took priority. Darren Aronofsky, the 1998 Sundance Director prize winner, does a skillful job in bringing the viewer into the mind of the main character, Maximillian Cohen, a brilliant mathematician. Right at the beginning of the show, Cohen, in true scientific style states his basic assumptions of life:
  1. Mathematics is the language of nature.
  2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.
  3. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature.
His unique ability to crunch numbers and detect patterns makes him a target for both religious groups as well as investment corporations. A Jewish sect, Kabbalah group seeks him out to find special codes hidden within the Torah. Lenny Meyer, the Jew in the movie assumes that the Torah is a series of numbers for people to decipher. The example used was compelling.
The word for father is (אב) 'ab' which is 2+1 = 3;
The word for mother is (אם) 'am' which is 40+1 = 41
Adding them together, we get 44.
A child is (ילד) 'yeled,' which is 4+30+10 = 44. (similar to adding father and mother)
So Lenny concluded that such patterns can also be found in the rest of the Torah.
As Cohen works with computers, and Lenny works with numerical details in the Torah, they realize their common denominator is mathematics. Both agree that patterns emerge in all of life. Lenny is interested in deciphering the Torah as he is convinced that it is a code sent by God, hidden in the holy scriptures. He desires to use number theory to find out the revelation, in particular the coming of the holy Messiah. Also on Cohen's heels is Marcy Dawson, and her associates of a Wall Street firm who want to manipulate the stock market with Cohen's mathematical prowess. The number '216' figures prominently in the movie, accompanied by Cohen's frequent struggles with his headaches. In a movie that presupposes an orderly pattern, the film progresses in a very chaotic fashion, interrupted by eerie pains and emotional traumas.

My Comments
In one movie, the film brings together science, religion and business, three powerful and pervasive branches of society. The assumption of the film is essentially, 'everything can be quantified,' even spirituality. Somehow, toward the end of the movie, Cohen, the man who believes in understanding life through numbers commits suicide when he could not escape his mental illness. Indeed, when man tries to comprehend life using limited tools, even mathematics, it will be futile. How can a finite person using finite tools ever comprehend an infinite God? The book of Ecclesiastes gives us a special insight into life. When God is excluded, everything is meaningless. Like the movie, math prodigies can become vulnerable to all kinds of exploits. People come to them not because they like them, but because of the skills that they have. Without these skills, they are of not much value. Like Cohen's case, when the Kabbalah sect and the Wall Street firm found out that Cohen has powerful mathematical understanding of numbers, they pursue him relentlessly. They offer him lots of goodies for a part of his mathematical prowess. Cohen gets reduced to a number crunching machine. He becomes something useful. He turns into a means for others to accomplish their ends.

The director of the movie, by filming in strong black and white, brings the suspense a level higher. After-all, black symbolizes (0) and white (1), the exact binary sequence of computers. In digitizing technologies, all images are rendered a series of 1's and 0's. Man, in all his desire to understand life, tries to quantify life in mathematical terms. As the movie turns out, sanity can only return once people realizes that there are many things in life not so easily explained by numbers. Moreover, if one tries, one essentially subjects himself to pressures intolerable to the human mind. The mental strain, headaches and schizophrenia behaviour of Cohen, coupled with the relentless and unscrupulous Wall Street people who desires stock market gains above all things, we have a world that is pitifully devoid of human compassion. Can we truly find true companionship with a robotic dog? Can we feel loved by watching and hugging a TV/Video program, even if it contains a recorded footage of our loved ones? Can we really quantify what we normally refer to as quality of life?

Quantifying Life?

Today, during coffee with my pastor, we talked about the way people tends to quantify life. People generally want to numericize values.
  • How do we know if our work is progressing well?
  • What are the quantifiables in such ventures?
  • How do we know that there is positive developments in this project?
  • How do we measure Church growth? By numbers?

Those in businesses measure success based on their bottom line. Profit = Sales - Expenditure.
Sales personnel measure their achievements on the basis of how close they have reached or exceeded their quota. In medical circles, people measure health according to numbers, like their high/low blood pressure, amount of sugar levels in their blood, how heavy or tall a person is. In the educational arena, success is determined by how many A's or how close one is to the highest GPA level of 4. Sports numbers determine the fate of a team. In hockey, a win during regulation time gives 2 points. Upon reaching overtime, both teams get at least one point. If a team wins in overtime, it gets an additional point.

It is not my goal to disregard the importance of quantifiable numbers. We need to use numbers to have a rough gauge of our progress. There are positive uses for numbers, like measuring our temperature to detect feverish signs, or measuring our blood sugar or harmful cholesterol levels. Having said that, if we were to use quantity as a chief measurement of life, we will be duly disappointed. Does it mean that if I invest $1 and get $100 return, I am a better investor? What about the company that I am investing in? Are there ethical considerations? Can we truly measure kindness? Though the director of the movie did not explicitly say, the way the story concludes speaks volumes. 'Pi' which refers to the [Area/radius squared] or = 22/7 gives us an infinite decimal number.

Lessons to Learn
Perhaps, there are some lessons to learn.
a) Firstly, at a macro-level, we may seem to keep things in our control. However, as we drill deeper, like trying to control the minor details of life, we falter easily. For example, if we try to understand everything before we actually believe, we leave no room for ponder and wonder. I remember admiring the magnificent beauty of nature, how the sun shines its orange ray across the horizon, how the waters flow gently down the river and how wind blows at the trees waving the leaves gently and casually. If life is devoid of mystery, it will no longer be the wonderful nature we have come to enjoy.
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." (Albert Einstein, Scientist)

"Two things fill me with constantly increasing admiration and awe, the longer and more earnestly I reflect on them: the starry heavens without and the moral law within." (Immanuel Kant, Ethicist & Theologian)

"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." (C.S. Lewis)
b) Secondly, Christians do not need to be stymied into one way of seeing life, or the 'numerical way.' They have been set free to take another perspective, from God via the Spirit. Jesus disregards the use of quantity in the story of the poor widow who gave two copper coins, and the rich man with loads of money (Mark 12:41-44). Numerically speaking, the rich man gave more, much more. However, Jesus is not deceived. Our view of the world should not be limited by worldly philosophies.

c) Thirdly, greed remains a potent threat to any of God's gifts. Max Cohen's 'gift' of mathematical skills became exploited due to the greed to others. When we receive anything, the next test is not how we keep it, but how we become good stewards of it.

Pi is a unique show, confusing at first, even disturbing at several moments. Yet, it mirrors the terrible effects of sin in human people; of greed, of selfishness, and of utter dehumanizing use of people. If a person is reducible to a series of numbers, he can then be easily manipulated, divided, multiplied, subtracted or added. No! People have to be treated as a whole person. That means they cannot be simply subdivided into different areas. His entire being has to be respected, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and so forth. The moment we attempt to digitize a human person, we approximate the person unfairly to the nearest denominator. Pi is a movie that warns us against doing that.


No comments:

Latest Posts