Different Love

When someone tells you they’re in love, how can you possibly convince them that they’re not?

That’s how some atheists explain the intellectual quandary of debating with the faithful about the existence of God.  While the arguments for atheism and agnosticism might be based strictly on evidence and logic, most believers think as they do not because of empirical facts, but rather because of what they feel in their hearts.  And there is no arguing with how one feels.  It is, you might say, a fact in and of itself.

The analogy of belief in God to love is a good one, since the act of being in love does seem to function in a similar way.

Romantic love occurs independent of reason, if not in outright opposition thereto.  It is a matter of the heart, not the mind.  It cannot be explained; it can only be felt.

When someone tells you they’re in love, you cannot question them or reason them out of it.  You must simply accept it, no matter how bizarre or “wrong” their particular attraction might appear to you.

The elusive, inexplicable nature of love is the primary subject of Her, the fascinating and altogether profound new movie by Spike Jonze.

By turns depressing and whimsical, Her takes place in a near-ish future in which the automated voices on our tablets and smart phones—the ones that say, “You have three new e-mails!”—have been made to think and speak for themselves.

From this fanciful premise (which will surely one day become real), the movie imagines a lonely, semi-divorced man who forms an emotional bond with his own such “operating system” voice.  Soon enough, this rapport develops into what you might call a relationship, and the man’s fixation develops into what you might call love.

The implications of this unusual arrangement are addressed by the film in surprising and perceptive ways, and are as provocative as it gets, because they cut to the core of what it means to love and be loved, and by extension, what it means to be human.

In an affair between a man and his computer, perhaps the most important question of all is whether this can really be considered love at all—or, for that matter, a real relationship.

There is agreement by all parties involved—the man, the computer, the man’s friends and the movie itself—that falling for a disembodied voice is unorthodox and more than a little bit strange, even in the context of this fictional future world.  But this fact does not, by itself, mean that the man’s professed affection for the voice in his ear is invalid or less meaningful than a person’s love for a fellow human being.

After all, many corners of the world have spent the better part of several millennia viewing couplings between people of different races, religions, ethnic groups or social classes as perverted, shameful or otherwise “unnatural.”  The same goes for love between people of the same sex.  For a great many folks, to not understand a particular form of emotional attachment is to condemn it and wish that it would go away.

Yet in spite of such visceral resistance, we in the civilized world have nonetheless come to accept so-called “nontraditional” love as real.  We might not approve of it, but we at least recognize that it exists and, to that extent, that it is deserving of our respect.

So when a friend informs you that he has fallen in love with an operating system, who are you to tell him that he is mistaken?  By what objective standard can one thing be considered “real love” and another thing not?

Love is irrational.  It is, as a character in Her postulates, a “form of socially acceptable insanity.”  We talk sometimes about falling for the “wrong” person, but the fact is that right and wrong have nothing to do with it.  Like Woody Allen once said, “The heart wants what it wants,” and that’s that.

Of course, nonbelievers have never let the inherent irrationality of the God proposition prevent them from interrogating those who insist God is real.  Should those who are skeptical about the prospect of falling in love with a computer be similarly stubborn and relentless in their public critique?  Or would that ultimately be a big waste of time?

Salman Rushdie recently mused, “Love feels, more and more, like the only subject.”  He might be right, and we might be stuck talking about it for the rest of our natural lives.

But that does not mean we will ever truly understand it, or be able to assign moral weight to its myriad and disparate forms.

We can’t explain what love is.  We just know it when we feel it.

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