tl; dr: FMA:B does not criticize science, nor scientism, it criticizes taking something that is not deserved, the greatest sin committed by the homunculus. The core of the series is truth and value. A similar sin would be proselytism on ideas worth nothing or with a negative value, bullshit vending, which seems to be the main occupation of too many philosophers nowadays. Be skeptical on ideas, and loving on people, nothing is more valuable, as people are the ends that provide value to any means.
FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood may be my favorite series of all time, e.g. I took my Twitter avatar from it. [Spoilers in the whole post]. The series explains how wrong the concept of “human resources” is as well as concepts like anti-fragility in simple and beautiful ways.
As a consequence of my reflection on that last link, I was considering to go (in some far future, i.e. never) through the series commenting each episode or scene, and the “truth behind the truth” in each of them. I saw much truth and value in the series, maybe because there are apt and consistent metaphors for real phenomena, or maybe because of my interpretation. To find out which one of the two could be the case, I decided to check what other people had done. I found an analysis on the eyes and their meaning, quite right and partial (to the eyes part) IMHO, and an analysis of the philosophy in the series, and my reply to it as a comment became so long that it is now this blog post [probably only] you are reading.
There are two problems with the latter video:
- The lesser problem: it does not accurately describe the series, numerous references to Feyerabend clearly indicate an epistemological anarchism bias, opposed with the series.
- The greater problem: it masks criticism towards science through scientism from epistemological anarchism. While verificationism has great flaws, they have been interpreted as a blank cheque by all kinds of bullshit vendors to promote relativism and get rid of the so uncomfortable truth.
In the remainder of this post, I will go through both of them.
About the series
There are two main concepts in the series: truth and value. The main truth is the law of equivalent exchange (especially highlighted in the previous series), and Truth is even a character of the series.
The law of equivalent exchange resembles conservation of mass and conservation of energy laws, but it refers to value, it is therefore directly linked to economics. Equivalent exchange means zero sum games, breaking it as the homunculus means negative sum, and the final proposal from Alphonse Elric is the creation of positive sum games. Red, blue, (and possibly green) are associated with this meaning in general culture, like the Western stock markets, the Jedi lightsabers, and the colors of transmutation energy.
The only way to meet Truth is through the portal of Truth, composed by the knowledge in alchemy. This frontally opposes to epistemological anarchism. In the end, Edward Elric exchanges his portal for his brother, this does not mean that there are alternative paths to reach to the truth, but that there are some things that are more valuable for Edward Elric than truth and alchemy, e.g. his brother. Friendship being more valuable than knowledge, and similarly medicine (main focus of von Hohenheim) being more valuable than epistemology (main focus of Father).
The philosopher stones allow “ignoring” the law of equivalent exchange. In fact, they are exchanging human lives for something. This is something that science does not usually do, but economy exchanges time for money (is that equivalent exchange?) and gets things done through the use of men-month. It is very clear in the reference of humans as resources, something that does not concern science, but is the core to economy, capitalism, and businesses. Similarly, Tucker is not pushed by science, but by economy.
Godwin is right in this one, though, and coincidentally the greatest force stopping the Third Reich was Communism (on the other side of Briggs). Nevertheless, associating Nazism with scientism is a bit shallow. Nazism and wars in general are often associated to economic causes, like hyperinflation, and the oil that we would find in Ishbal if it was not for the location for the transmutation circle. Father even has the monopoly of alchemy in Central, being able to block it.
By focusing so much on truth and value, the series focus mostly on axiology, ethics, and economy. Criticizing faith is a bit out of place when God (as Truth) appears in the second episode and then some more. What we find is mostly a critique of bullshit vendors that will get something valuable from people (their time, effort, money, or something else) in exchange for something delusional in nature. Nevertheless, when asking for a philosophical perspective, it is easy to find some criticism to science and any other competing epistemological approach that there could be, more on that in the remainder of the post.
About science and philosophy
Mad people committing atrocities in the name of science is not what science is. Epistemological anarchism is an easy position to defend, as it is solipsism, nihilism, and in general any denial. We can also say that, from the perspective of pragmatism or functionalism, lies may work just as well as truths. But in the end, there can only be one truth, and we try our knowledge to get as close as possible to such truth, then falsifiability, verifiability, and in general any check of the verisimilitude of a particular claim is required to accept something as true. Doing otherwise means failing, and while different speculative bubbles may last for different periods of time, the price of errors does similarly increase over time. It is not possible to escape the truth for ever, but it is possible to deny it for long periods of time, always with awful consequences.
There are some things that we do not know how to measure or observe (directly or indirectly), but we can do so and we must strive to do so, as the only things that cannot be observed indirectly have no effect in our world, and either they do not exist or are irrelevant, innocuous.
There are many problems in the knowledge acquired with science, mostly because it relies on humans, errare humanum est. But science is more than a body of knowledge, it is a mindset, and a very positive one. No other discipline has achieved such a great success and improved human life quality as much as science. While science has been corrupted by capitalism, this is not a problem of science itself, but of lack of science to apply in areas like economy, ethics, axiology, game theory, politics, and utility theory.
The scientific method has been defined in such rigid ways that not even scientists follow it. Many variations and new methods emerged to deal with problems in more scientific ways, and they should be recognized as such. Ultimately, it is a form of reinforcement learning, that tries to make predictions about observable outcomes, if the predictions are right, then we say that it works; and if they do not, then we have to revise the theory or model. Even if all models are wrong, some are useful, and not all are equally useful. For example, consider a person that is blind. Philosophy may help that person to accept it and deal with it, while science may help that person to see. Among the two options, I think that one is infinitely more useful than the other.
Finally, nothing among what is relevant and philosophy or any other discipline does cannot be done with science. The only property that philosophy has over science is the capability of accumulating bullshit that does not go through the hard scrutiny and skepticism of science, i.e. discuss what is not observable and verifiable. That is why science works, and others cannot say the same. In fact, I would go as far as to assert that, if it works, then it is science, because being able to observe that it works (so as to assert it) is enough to apply science to its study, and check how it works, when it works, and in which ways it works best.
PS: In retrospective, after spending so many hours to write this post, I will certainly not comment on each episode separately. In addition, I plan on sticking with 500 words posts. There are many points that could have been elaborated further, but that would mean doing three or more posts. This is just too much, for me and for you (someone got this far? Please comment to confirm).