Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Critical Analysis of "The Human Equation"

This is the rough draft of my philosophy Internal Assessment. If anyone cares to proofread it and make comments, that would be greatly appreciated.

“The Human Equation” is an album by progressive metal musician Arjen Luccasen (under the stage name “Ayreon”) that tells the story of a man who is confronted by his emotions while trapped in a coma. Characters personified as Agony, Fear, Love, Reason, Passion, Rage, and Pride take the man through his past experiences leading up to the accident that put him in a coma and eventually alters his perception of his life and identity. The man’s wife and best friend unsuccessfully attempt to communicate with the man as they sit by his hospital bed. The story ends with the man waking up and realizing that the encounter with his emotions was purely science fiction and only a simulation of “The Human Equation,” an equation that calculates human reasoning and rationale.

The story of “The Human Equation” poses the question “what is the self?” From a philosophical perspective, the album directly brings up two distinct theories to answer that question, both of which work within the context of the album but are flawed when applied to more realistic examples. For much of the album, the main character’s emotions appear to take an existentialist point of view on the self. However, the story’s end relates more towards the theory that the self is nothing but a shell for calculated decision making.

The theory of existentialism is initially the most obvious theory that the album presents to answer the question it poses. Using the examples found in “The Human Equation,” existentialism makes sense. Before the main character went into a coma, he perceives his life to be about nothing more than success. He follows a very generic existence without meaning and he ends up in a coma after attempting suicide. However, his confrontation with his emotions changes his perspective and gives his life a new meaning. From a literal perspective, nothing in his life actually changes. He still has his wife and best friend by his side, and he still works at the same job by the album’s end. The only thing that changes is his perception of life’s purpose. This ties into the existentialist idea that an individual creates the purpose or meaning of life. Only after thought does the man find a reason for living, and that reason is nothing more than a change in perception. It could even be argued that the man’s new reason for living is made intentionally vague in order to support the idea that the essence of life varies from person to person.

The twenty-day period of thought that the man has with his emotions during his coma can also be connected to proof of his existence. Even though the album does not explain whether the man’s emotions are a figment of his imagination or simply a connection with himself during the period that the existentialist theory is presented, it can be assumed that at least some part of himself reached a state of a purpose through thought and rationale. This can be compared to Renee Descartes’ theory of “I think, therefore I am.” In direct contrast with the album’s ending, the man’s encounter with his emotions is proof of his existence within the world that the album takes place. From an existentialist perspective, the fact that the man can rationally give his life meaning is proof that he exists and that he gives his life its own essence. This is once again an example of existence proceeding essence, as well as an example that simply being able to alter perception and meaning suggests that there is no single meaning to life. If there is no specific meaning to live that is common among all individuals, then one could say that there is not a specific self past what is perceived by the individual.

Furthermore, the man’s past is revealed periodically throughout “The Human Equation,” as the events of the man’s past are used heavily in influencing his new found purpose. This yet again ties into existentialism, but it also brings up a question that existentialism cannot answer. To use another example from the album, it is obvious that the main character of the story creates his new meaning through reflecting on his past interactions with the world. However, it was his past experiences that initially caused the man to live the life of meaningless misery that ended with a suicide attempt. Yet his perception changes when he reflects upon his actions. This brings up a dilemma. The theory of existentialism revolves around the events that a person goes through creating perception. In the case of the album’s story, the man behaves far differently with each recollection of the events. As the events are happening, the man becomes suicidal, and yet his life is filled with joy after recalling those same events in his head. What has changed besides the man’s perception? The events he recalled have not changed, which means that perception can change regardless of events. If that’s the case, then do the events a person goes through really matter? If perception can change through nothing but thought, is there something in the thought that changes? In context with the album, it would be the emotions the man uses to recall the events. However, the difference between the album and real life is that the character in the album has a finite number of emotions that confront him. In reality, emotions are not that simple and the sheer complexity of emotions makes it difficult to understand what exactly causes perception or even rational thought.

The complexity of existentialism makes it too difficult to prove, as the theory itself can only be justified through an individual’s perception of perception itself. Thankfully, “The Human Equation” provides another less complicated theory to contrast its previous existentialist perspective. The album’s ending has the characters being written off as purely an experiment of a program that shares the title of the album. The human equation program simulates rational human thought. In comparison to the story of the rest of the album, that means the experiences of the man were nothing more than an experiment of existentialist thought. In comparison to the real world, this questions the science of the human body in comparison to the human mind. Can every mental thought in the human brain be traced back to the function of the human body? The differences from person to person may be nothing more than differences in DNA. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a way of knowing for sure, as this once again depends on perception.

Rational thought is what connects the two aforementioned theories, and defining rational thought may be a question needed to be answered before truly defining the self. If existentialism is true, then rationality is not absolute. If that is the case, then the self is not absolute and it varies over time. If the self is purely a shell, then the self is absolute for each individual, yet still varies from person to person. If that is the case, then rational thought is purely a calculation of the events experienced by each individual shell. The most significant difference between the theories is the one is everything except a human equation, while the other is nothing but.


Tad said...

When you are talking about Rene Descartes' theory are you talking about dualism?
I thought the IA was good, but it is beyond my knowledge to correct your paper. I don't take philosophy.

tad said...

Bryce, the New Black Mages album, Darkness and Starlight came out couple of days ago. I really want to know what you thought about the album.
I thought it was great, but it was lacking something. I think they should add symphonic elements to their style.