True love, fungible love, and the Flash

Barry Allen (the Flash) kisses Iris West

Is love possible across multiple worlds? Does True Love (TM) exist, metaphysically speaking? These and other fun questions are addressed by Mike LaBossiere in an article that is as much fun to read as it is an example of how philosophy — particularly metaphysics — can seriously miss the point when it comes to crucial aspects of our lives. Let me explain by way of a story concerning one of my favorite superheroes, the Flash.

In season 2, episode 13 of the television series, entitled “Welcome to Earth-2,” Flash — the fastest man on Earth (one) — travels to a parallel Earth in order to figure out how to defeat the supervillain of the season, a guy named Zoom. It doesn’t matter why all this is happening, what matters is that Flash, known to the world as Barry Allen, meets the doppelgänger of the love of his life, Iris West. Barry-1 is perfectly aware that he is in the presence of Iris-2, who is a parallel version of the woman he loves, not the “real” thing. And yet, he simply can’t avoid having the same feelings for Iris-2 that he has for Iris-1 back on Earth Prime.

LaBossiere’s article explores the metaphysics of this situation, considering two possibilities: (i) it is rational for Barry-1 to be in love with Iris-2, on the grounds that Iris-2 is, for all effective purposes, the same woman he fell in love with on Earth-1, meaning that she looks the same, has the same interests, sense of humor, way of speaking, and so forth. Love, in this scenario, is fungible. Or: (ii) it is not rational for Barry-1 to be in love with Iris-2 for the reason that she is not his True Love, even though she looks and acts like it.

LaBossiere defends position (i), pointing out that (ii) stems from a metaphysically Kantian, and highly doubtful, view of the self. I will argue that the real answer is indeed close to LaBossiere’s, but that it makes more sense to arrive at it by way of a very different route. Indeed, this has already been done by one of my favorite philosopher-comedians: Tim Minchin. Let’s parse this out carefully.

I’m going to start from option (ii), the “Kantian” view. As LaBossiere is careful to point out, Kant never actually wrote about True Love. But he famously did reject David Hume’s view of the self as just a “bundle of perceptions,” thinking instead that our experiences happen to a unified, metaphysically “thick,” self. A metaphysical self is necessary in order to talk about True Love, the sort of love that Barry Allen can feel only for Iris West-1, and not for her doppelgänger. This is because if Kant is right, and there is such thing as a metaphysical self, then each of us has one and only one self, and anyone who merely looks or talks like us is still (metaphysically) quite distinct from us.

One way to make sense of this position is to imagine meeting for the first time your loved one’s twin. You might naturally feel attracted by her, especially if the twin has no only the looks, but also the opinions and mannerisms of your love. But, according to LaBossiere’s interpretation of Kant, you would be mistaken: regardless of superficial similarities, the twin is metaphysically, at her core, simply not your love.

This, says LaBossiere, goes well with the Dysneyesque intuition that a lot of people seem to share that there really is such a thing as True Love. The problem, as he acknowledges, is that the notion is both scientifically unfalsifiable and metaphysically suspect, and that Hume’s view of the self is actually far more convincing than Kant’s. Hume’s take both makes fewer arbitrary assumptions and is more congruent with what we actually observe via introspection. Not to mention that it goes better with much modern research in cognitive science. As Hume famously put it:

“When I enter most intimately into what I call myself I always stumble on some particular perception or other….and never can observe anything but the perception.” (Treatise, 1.4.6. para. 3)

If that is the case, let us then consider option (i): love is fungible, as they say. It makes sense to be in love with anyone who shares a substantial number of physical and mental characteristics with your original love, other things being equal.

Here LaBossiere helps himself to the idea of parallel universes, in effect arguing that what Barry Allen finds attractive in, and the reason he falls in love with, Iris West, is just the sum total of Iris’ characteristics, from her physical appearance to her interests, from her mental abilities to her moral character. If this is true, it follows that it is perfectly reasonable for Barry to be in love not just with Iris-1, but with any Iris from any of the infinite parallel Earths (so long as, I suppose, their individual life trajectories don’t actually lead them to become adult human beings that are significantly different in some crucial respect from Iris-1).

As LaBossiere summarizes the point (I changed the specific names he uses to keep with the example from The Flash):

“While this is less romantic than the idea of metaphysical True Love, it is more realistic and intuitively appealing. When one person talks about why they love another, they talk about the qualities of the person. Some dating services also make a big deal about testing people for various qualities and using them to find compatibility and love. Scientists also talk about the emotion of love as being driven by genes in search of suitable genes to combine with. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that when Barry loves Iris, he loves her qualities. As such, if it was rational for Barry-1 to love Iris-1, then it is just as rational for Barry-1 to love Iris-35756. There is, after all, no discernible difference between the Irises.”

LaBossiere’s conclusion strikes me as fundamentally correct, but it is also an example of what Italians sarcastically refer to as the Ufficio Complicazioni Affari Semplici (Office for the Complication of Simple Affairs). I mean, sure, one can invoke the multiverse to make the point, or — far more simply — one can do like the above mentioned Tim Minchin, and simply look at the issue from the point of view of basic statistics and biological-cultural diversity among human beings.

In his “If I didn’t have you,” a song dedicated to his real life wife and long time love, Sarah, Tim says, in part:

“If I didn’t have you [insert a number a good things about Sarah]
You would think I would have somebody else
If I didn’t have you, someone else would do
[more good things about Sarah]
Your love is one in a million, you couldn’t buy it at any price
But out of the other 999,999 possible others
Someone else would be equally nice
Or maybe not nice, but say smarter than you
Or dummer but better at sports
I’m just saying, I would probably have somebody else

It is just mathematically unlikely that I would stumble
On the one woman specifically designed for me

I don’t think you are special. I mean, you are special
But you fall within a Bell curve.”

You get the gist. Minchin has simply and straightforwardly gotten rid of the “Kantian” idea of True Love, as well as endorsed LaBossiere’s point about the fungibility of real love. All without the need for any metaphysical heavy lifting (assuming that metaphysics can, in fact, do any lifting at all). A simple understanding of how life works, a basic appreciation of probability theory, and a good sense of humor will do just fine.

I’ll leave you with the full video of Minchin’s song, well worth watching:

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Categories: Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Social & Political Philosophy

43 replies

  1. In a book called Thoughts (Les Pensées )

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  2. Thug Notes, anyone?

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  3. thank you so much!!!!! i’ve found it—
    “And if one loves me for my judgement, memory, he does not love me, for I can lose these qualities without losing myself. Where, then, is this Ego, if it be neither in the body nor in the soul? And how love the body or the soul, except for these qualities which do not constitute me, since they are perishable? For it is impossible and would be unjust to love the soul of a person in the abstract and whatever qualities might be therein. We never, then, love a person, but only qualities.
    Let us, then, jeer no more at those who are honoured on account of rank and office; for we love a person only on account of borrowed qualities.”

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  4. Per Massimo’s near-the-end comment, no, metaphysics can’t do any heavy lifting, since, on the issue of lifting, it can’t tell us whether or not an omnipotent god can make a stone too heavy for him to lift.

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  5. I do realize my last comment contradicts Hume’s (and Massimo’s) reading of personal identity, which I think makes more sense than Kant’s but I’m sort of wary of. Are there alternative theories anyone here finds convincing?

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  6. Odette,

    I take it you have never seen someone you love, like a parent, suffer and eventually die of dementia. Those qualities are like roots and branches and when they shrivel and die….

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  7. Hi wtc48. Your pen example is a good one, as it raises the same basic point as the original question, without some of the extraneous complications. And I would give basically the same answer.

    Even if the two pens are absolutely identical in the present, they have different histories. You either care about that history or you don’t. Our cares/desires are not something that can be judged as rational or irrational. They just are what they are.

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  8. Sorry, Couvent2104. My last comment should have been addressed to you, not to wtc48.

    Adding to that comment…

    Massimo has raised the point that we have some control over our mental states. If you can only afford the pen not owned by Proust, it might be nice if you could change your cares/desires to be such that you got just as much satisfaction from owning the cheaper pen as you would have from owning Proust’s pen. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that this is a realistic possibility. Your choice whether to take that option can be judged as a matter of instrumental rationality. But instrumental rationality has to be judged with respect to your current desires, and one of those is the desire to own Proust’s pen. However, you probably have a broader desire to be happy, and, if that desire could be furthered by eliminating your desire for Proust’s pen, it might be rational to choose that option.

    Our current cares/desires are just what they are. It’s too late to change them. But changing our future cares/desires may be an available choice that we can judge as rational/irrational given our current cares/desires.

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  9. Richard,

    “Our cares/desires are not something that can be judged as rational or irrational. They just are what they are.”

    That is empirically incorrect. There is a good amount of research in cognitive science that shows that our desires can be molded, both by circumstances and by willful action.

    Moreover, even if one cannot change a given desire, it still makes sense to call it irrational. The desire of someone to take dangerous drugs may be the result of an addiction, but it is still irrational. Which is why we want the person in question to get help.

    I think it is dangerous to simply accept desires as unchangeable, as well as to treat them as a-rational.

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  10. Saph, I can’t really think of any major alternate takes on the self. That said, the Humean angle is one of the reasons I call him the first modern psychologist.

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  11. Odette does raise a distinction that is probably much more evident to the young and vivacious, that has been ground out of some by a certain age; Between the being of consciousness and the doing by which it manifests its presence. It necessarily goes to the core of our being. Even ghosts are presumably sensed by their actions, rather than their presence.

    Science has necessarily come to the conclusion that it is all doing and being arises from this activity.

    Yet, just as a point of supposition, what if that element of conscious being is “real?” What possible conclusions could we draw from the presumption of it as primal?

    First off, how would it manifest? Are we all possessed of an individual “soul,” or is there some broader field, of which we are focal points? Not a panpsychism, in the sense of it being a property of all “matter,” but simply as an essential property of biology, by way of distinguishing biology as sentient, from inert matter.

    Since the concept of a individual soul can potentially being explained as a consequence of our physical individuality and the need for our actions not to be too overtly schizophrenic, given the multitudes of desires and impulses we have to manage and sort, then the other possibility might be interesting to explore. Of some broader field, of which we are concentrations.

    Obviously this could be categorized and dismissed as religion, but since science has not really resolved all issues in the area, just a thought experiment:

    Such communal issues, such as love, attraction, even herd behavior, might be understood in the context of like minds meeting and joining. Sort of like two magnets joining as one. Even interspecies attachments become more than just projection, but the sense of self finding an attachment and entanglement.

    There are darker issues as well. Looking out at the world today, it seems obvious many people are extremely alienated and often can only find their attachments with equally alienated people. Or committing acts those reasonably connected find incomprehensible.

    A certain Stephen Paddock comes to mind. If he was simply someone with serious, ongoing issues, his actions could be explained as part of a trend downward, yet this was an outwardly sane individual. Was something neurologic going on, like a tumor, or was his sense of being and self just that disconnected and hollow, that it could collapse with such intensity? Money certainly didn’t buy him happiness.

    My sense of self is debating bedtime.

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