The Philosophy of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
Written by: Thomas Ambrosini
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Sean Rowe
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Beto Ruiz
Production Assistant: Samuel McCoy
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – Wisecrack Edition
What’s up, everybody? Jared, again. Today, we’re talking about anime’s most powerful pipsqueak. Sorry, Edward. Now, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has all the trappings of an instant classic. High-concept science-fiction? Check. Awesome fight scenes? Definitely. Strong philosophical core? Well, that’s why we’re here. Throughout Edward and Alphonse’s journey to restore their bodies, the two are confronted with various discourses on the efficacy and application of science — or in their case, alchemy. Sure, it’s through alchemy that they hope to recover their bodies, but they also see it used for some pretty awful things.
So, what is Brotherhood saying about science and the way it’s applied to this world? And how does faith fit into this discussion? Well, let’s find out. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. And of course – spoilers ahead. But first — a quick primer. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is set in Amestris, a country reminiscent of pre-WWII Europe whose defining feature is the success of alchemy, or the manipulation and altering of matter using natural energy. Alchemy is essentially treated as a science, one that combines chemistry and biology with its own unique laws and principles. Alchemy’s most important law? The Law Equivalent Exchange.
Or, ya know, the law that means if you get the right materials and draw a circle, you can do this. The show establishes a push and pull dynamic between science and faith almost immediately. In Episode 3, Ed and Al travel to the desert town of Liore to investigate Father Cornelo, a holy figure who has gained control of the people by awing them with miracles and indoctrinating them in the faith of “Letoism.” The second they arrive, though, the Brothers make their views abundantly clear to the faithful. And their skepticism toward the divine is justified. As it turns out, Cornelo’s “miracles” are just cleverly veiled applications of alchemy that he uses to attract followers willing to die for him. Ed and Al expose Cornelo as a fraud and liberate the people of Liore from his ideological tyranny. So, science rules, faith drools – right? Well, not so fast.
In the following episode, the brothers are sent to study under the Sewing Life Alchemist, Shou Tucker. Tucker was the first alchemist to successfully create a talking chimera, and tries to repeat his success in order to retain his State Alchemist Certification. The Elrics’ fascination quickly turns to horror, and in one of the biggest gut punches in anime history, we see this: Yeah, that’s right, Tucker actually used his family dog and his own daughter as components to create his chimera. But far from feeling remorse, Tucker claims he was only doing what science demands. In the face of such an atrocity, science no longer seems so innocent, does it? So, where does this conflict between science and faith lead us?
Tucker – the amoral alchemist in search of scientific knowledge at any cost – largely sets the tone for rest of the show. Over its 64 episodes, Brotherhood forces us to question the value of single-mindedly clinging to science, and the consequences of reducing all knowledge to scientific terms – a mode of thought loosely known in the real world as “scientism.” Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Jared, doubting science is what people in a cult do.” But just humor me. When philosophers critique scientism, they’re not saying science is a lie. What they’re criticizing is how we put “scientific” knowledge above all other knowledge, and how we try to reduce other forms of knowledge into it. According to philosopher Paul Feyerabend, science is just one of many competing explanatory frameworks, one which is neither as rational nor consistent as it pretends to be.
Feyerabend’s favorite example is Copernicus, whose heliocentric model of the universe was actually rejected by scientists of his day. To them, Aristotle’s idea of Celestial Spheres offered a fuller explanation of why the planets moved in the sky. While Copernicus’ model could correctly calculate the movement of the planets, it couldn’t explain why they moved as they did until Newton’s theory on gravity was published over a century later. Science, in this case, wasn’t interested in the truth so much as self-preservation. Like any ideology, Feyerabend worries that an unquestioning acceptance of it – like with Liore and Letoism – can lead to some potentially disastrous results. In his book “Against Method and Science in a Free Society,” Feyerabend asks, “Is it not possible that science as we know it today, or a ‘search for the truth’ in the style of traditional philosophy, will create a monster?” And monsters are exactly what science creates in the world of Brotherhood; such as manmade chimeras that are referred to as ungodly experiments.
This impersonal, dehumanizing aspect of alchemy is enshrined in the law of Equivalent Exchange, which inherently reduces objects, animals, and even people to their physical components. The Elric Brothers’ entire journey starts because the two believe they can bring their mother back to life by simply transmuting the basic ingredients of a human being. This dehumanizing nature is furthered by one of alchemy’s most sought after creations, the Philosopher’s Stone. When Ed and Al decode Dr. Marcoh’s notes, they realize the key ingredient to the Stone is human life. The Stone is the ultimate product of alchemy, allowing its users to ignore the law of Equivalent Exchange. But even though the Stone can restore Ed and Al’s bodies, the two are reluctant, if not just plain unwilling, to use the Stone. In contrast, The Homunculi, artificial humans powered by Philosopher’s Stones, regurgitate scientismic philosophy, reducing the souls trapped within the Stones to mere alchemic principles. While Ed and Al both use the power of the Stones on one occasion each, they do so while respecting the autonomy of those souls.
This distinguishes the brothers as moral according to philosopher Immanuel Kant, who famously stated that you must “treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” For Kant, people are never meant to be used or reduced to calculations, but rather are always a goal in themselves. But Ed and Al’s problem with alchemy is larger than its impersonal nature, but also its subservience to the military. Alchemy is so under the control of the Amestrian government that there are actually “three state-appointed tenets of Alchemy,” the first of which is literally “obey the military”. In fact, State Alchemists are generally referred to as “dogs of the military,” and even as human weapons. In his book “Science Wars,” sociologist Stanley Arnowitz argues that scientists often view themselves as “vehicles facilitating the advancement of learning and, by application, the progress of mankind”. Yet scientists’ funding must come from somewhere, and often it’s from corporations or the state. As such, scientists don’t really “own” their discoveries and have little say about their application. Throughout the anime, Ed constantly clashes with this militarization of science by the state and his own complicity with it. As Alex Armstrong succinctly puts it:
We even see this military influence distort the basic principles of science.
When Ed and Al reminisce about being trained on a desert island as children, they come to the epiphany that alchemy is all about understanding the natural flow of energy – both deconstructing and reconstructing it. But this principle is later twisted in the mouths of the military. In justifying destroying the whole country and slaughtering its population, one general even goes so far as to rephrase it as alchemic rebirth. As tools of the government, alchemists have become the very instruments of the series’ chief antagonist, Father, who controls the Amestrian state. Father desires nothing more than to assume the mantle of God, a goal in which he’s used alchemy, countless military conflicts, and millions of innocent lives to prepare for.
In fact, Amestris’s most brutal and heartless war, the Ishvalan War of Extermination, was fought just to further Father’s plan. And it’s this war where the State Alchemists made their largest military impact. What’s shocking about Ishval isn’t just the devastating force that alchemy wrecked on it, but the scientific language used to explain it.
Even the good guys, here, can’t help but couch what’s essentially genocide in these sterile, scientific terms. In fact, this sanitizing nature of scientific language is what escalated the Ishvalan war to new heights. As Führer King Bradley told the High Priest of Ishvala when he offered himself up in exchange for a ceasefire, the law of equivalent exchange won’t allow it. Hell, the Führer even considers his wife to be nothing more than an expendable pawn for his greater scheme. Now, if the title of Führer is raising eyebrows among you, there’s good reason for that: the country of Amestris is reminiscent of pre-WWII Germany – a militant nation expanding beyond its borders, and a blonde-haired, blue-eyed army whose uniforms look a lot like that of the SS. Even the “might is right” motivation behind Nazi Germany bubbles to the surface in Amestris, as General Raven invokes Social Darwinism to justify mass extermination.
And if that’s not enough to convince you, then you only have to compare Amestris’s human experiments to that of Auschwitz’s lead doctor, Josef Mengele.
Whether it’s raising babies in underground laboratories, stitching together people and animals, or ripping souls from bodies – it’s hard to say that Amestris lacks the same wanton cruelty and morbid scientific curiosity that defined Mengele’s operations. Mengele established a kindergarten at Auschwitz for his younger experiments, allegedly stitching two gypsy girls together, and if he could have gotten hands on a literal soul, he probably would have mutilated it. Oh yeah — did we mention that Feyerabend actually fought as a Lieutenant in WWII, even earning an Iron Cross in the process? Witnessing firsthand the scientific arguments made by a dictatorship for war and genocide, it’s no surprise that Feyerabend would one day propose a separation between science and state, with ultimate power resting in democracy. In his lecture, “How to Defend Society from Science,” he argued, “There must be a formal separation between state and science just as there is now a formal separation between state and church… Scientists may be consulted on important projects but the final judgement must be left to the democratically elected consulting bodies.”
So, it’s safe to say that Fullmetal Alchemist presents a cautionary tale about the blind adherence to science, but what does it say about faith? Well, throughout its 64 episode run, faith is often portrayed as another explanatory model – another source of truth and power. In fact, for a show populated almost entirely by scientists, the characters make a number of appeals to faith. In the episode “The Miracle of Rush Valley”, Ed and Al witness the delivery of a baby, become awestruck, and point out the limitations of alchemy. Dr. Marcoh, the alchemist largely responsible for the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone during the Ishval Civil War, calls it “fate” that he met the Ishvalan Scar, before the two set out together to challenge the government.
Similarly, Knox, who worked as a doctor during the War and was subsequently estranged from his family, invokes God when they returned to him. Even Bradley, a homunculus, wonders if his own death at the hand of Scar was providence. Bradley, who mercilessly killed the Ishvalan people during the war, was told that God would strike him down one day. And it was the sun looking like a crescent moon – which together symbolize God in alchemy – that blinded him and allowed Scar to strike the finishing blow. So, is that the thematic takeaway of the show? Science is bad, faith is good, so keep on praying? Well, not quite. See, the problem with scientism isn’t that science is bad, and that non-science is good. Feyerabend isn’t giving the middle finger to vaccines and posting about chemtrails on Twitter. No, instead his main contention is that, “Science is just one of many ideas that propel society and should be treated thus.” What Feyerabend opposes is an unreflective veneration of any ideology because it inhibits free thought. As it turns out, the blind following of science as the arbiter of truth is just as harmful as the blind following of faith as the arbiter of truth. Whether it’s Father Cornelo and the Homunculi using the Letoists to incite violence against their enemies. Or Scar using his God Ishvala to justify his vengeance against the alchemists.
Faith alone can be every bit just as scary as science. Characters grow in Brotherhood when they realize the limitations of adhering to any one ideology. Edward and Alphonse, for example, begin to question the foundations of Western alchemy, which supposedly takes its energy from the tectonic movements of the earth’s mantle – when Father manages to cancel it out. It’s their quest for an explanation that leads them to science’s Eastern equivalent, Alkahestry, which uses life energy from the planet. It’s ultimately bridging the gap between these two ideologies that allows our heroes to eventually triumph; the two different sciences come together to make a “reverse transmutation circle” that saves the lives of all Amestris. Perhaps no character embodies this development more than Scar. A survivor of the Ishvalan War of Extinction, Scar targets State Alchemists out of revenge.
To him, not only are alchemists weapons, but they transgress against God, who alone possesses the right to create. But as Scar learns more about Amestris, he realizes how wrong he was to seek vengeance. Scar, who once cloaked his actions in the words of God, finally understands that no ideology can justify murder. Scar even breaks from the strict laws that govern his faith, making use of the very alchemy that his God abhors in order to save the country he once hated. Scar’s transformation stands in stark contrast to the show’s main antagonist, Father, who clings to his single-minded belief in science. Father becomes obsessed with the power of alchemy, and takes this obsession to the logical extreme, viewing mankind as little more than materials for him to use in becoming God.
Blinded by scientism, Father can’t understand the value of human emotions and discards them in his attempt to become to become more perfect. He literally rips the Seven Deadly Sins from himself – Lust, Greed, Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Envy, Wrath, and Pride – who in turn become the other Homunculi. Ultimately, it’s this conviction in the absolute supremacy of science, and the ability to achieve perfection through it, that undoes Father. The souls trapped in the Philosopher’s Stone, which he dismissed as mere energy, begin to assert their wills and rebel against him. Father’s conception of a soul as a mere ingredient fails to account for the autonomy of these individuals. After an epic punch to the gut, Father is finally killed and dragged back into the void from whence he came, where he meets the real God, a being called Truth. Still desperately clinging to scientism, Father demands to know what he did wrong. But unlike Scar and others, Father refused to recognize any kind of human wisdom beyond alchemy. All of this goes to show what makes Ed and Al particularly special throughout the series: their humble rejection of a single ideology.
From the show’s outset, the two grapple with what alchemy is and what it means to be a state alchemist. It’s this questioning that both makes the Brothers seem both naïve and likeable. At the brothers’ core is a strong desire to discover their own truth. When psychopath extraordinaire, Solf J. Kimblee, has Alphonse cornered, he wonders why our hero doesn’t just take the Philosopher’s Stone and get his body back. Sure, the country would face certain destruction from Father, but that’s just Equivalent Exchange in action — in order to get their bodies back, they’d have to give up the world’s safety. But Al rejects that alchemic world view, reaffirming their desire to find their own truth.
It’s this search for other possibilities that distinguishes the brothers and allows Ed to make his final transmutation. After Al sacrifices himself in order to give Ed his arm back, Ed follow his brother into the Portal to bring him back. When asked by the Truth what price he’ll pay, Ed smiles and offers his ability to perform alchemy. Ed recognizes the arrogance in thinking that alchemy could explain everything, let alone solve all his problems. Unlike Father, who couldn’t accept his place in the universe and equated alchemy with power, Ed knows the truth.
With their bodies back and the day saved, what’s left for our heroes to do? In typical Elric fashion, it’s to keep searching for truth and new methods to discover it. As Alfonse puts it, they want to give back to the people who helped them all along their journey.
But it’s not a simple give and take – not a cold formula like the Law of Equivalent Exchange. To that end, Al is traveling east, and Ed west, in hopes of gathering all the knowledge to make this principle a reality. Of course, old habits tend to die hard. And when Ed finally confesses his feelings to Winry, it comes out like this:
Of course, maybe Ed didn’t need to go so far from home to realize that science alone can’t explain everything. We waited 64 episodes for that moment, and it was damn worth it. So, what do you think, Wisecrack? Will pure devotion to science lead us down a dark path? Do we need to inject a little — I don’t know, maybe, philosophy — into how we look at the world? Let us know what you think in the comments.
As always, thanks for watching. Peace.