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:

43 thoughts on “True love, fungible love, and the Flash

  1. brodix

    Would there be an alternate Barry, for whom he would competing for the alternate Iris? it seems the device has many of the same problems as time travel as a literary device.

    How about if one used “attraction,” rather than love? Then considered the dichotomy of “expert,” versus “generalist.” The more time put into a particular focus, the more completely we know it, versus skimming over many attractions.

    The Romantic idea of “true love” would logically have developed at a time when those considering it, lords and ladies of the late Middle ages, had a particular set of mates to chose from, likely all of whom knew each other and so the option of multiple affairs, with people who otherwise wouldn’t know each other would be much more limited than today. Consequently the practical need to remain loyal to a particular person would be more clear cut.

    Love is a fuzzy concept.


  2. Massimo Post author


    Yes, in that episode of Flash there is, indeed a Barry-2. But while this creates obvious ethical problems for Barry-1, it does not change the fact that he feels love (not just mere attraction) for Iris-2.


  3. Nanocyborgasm

    There is no evidence True Love exists, and much evidence that it doesn’t, such as break-ups and divorce. There seems no mention of it in literature until the 19th century. It’s likely a construct of humanism. Therefore, I reject this entire essay and everything mentioned within.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Massimo Post author


    Considering that both LaBossiere and I clearly reject the idea of True Love, I have to infer that you didn’t read past the title of the essay, and even that one not very carefully…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, thanks. Per my many and various comments on issues of selfhood, you know I like stuff like this, which is also somewhat of a riff on the old transporter issue.

    I agree with the basic version of position 1. There’s no need to find a more complicated version of position 1, and, contra advice columnists, New Agers and others of same ilk, position 2 simply is unreal — not in the psychological sense, but in an actual empirical sense.


    And this? “Ufficio Complicazioni Affari Semplici”? I was first trying to translate it as Complicated Simple Affairs at the (work) Office!


  6. odette

    hi, i tried googling key words to find the exact quote (i really like it!) but to no avail… do you happen to know where he said this & what his exact words were?


  7. SocraticGadfly

    Nano — Something quite akin to that True Love you say didn’t start until the 19th Century was sung about by medieval troubadours and written about by Rumi, among others. And beyond that, the Platonism behind it goes back to Plato himself, of course, and specifically, the myth of male-female cleaved separation told at the Symposium.

    “True Love” may not exist, but the idea that it does is a lot older, and a lot more grounded in human thought, than you claim.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Massimo Post author


    While surely “the heart wants what the heart wants,” it is also possible for reason to step in and veto certain actions. My “heart” really wants to eat French fries, but my brain tells me they are not good for me, so — with some difficulty — I convince myself not to eat them.

    It’s more complicated for relationships, obviously, but of course it is possible to stop oneself from acting on one’s feelings if one recognizes that they are dangerous or misguided or unethical.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. ejwinner

    “It’s more complicated for relationships, obviously, but of course it is possible to stop oneself from acting on one’s feelings if one recognizes that they are dangerous or misguided or unethical.”

    Yeah, but where would there be dramatic conflict in that? Characters on TV shows – or those people who wish they were – can’t control themselves or don’t want to. It’s much more fun to engage in confrontation and spew one’s absolute commitments passionately.


  10. richardwein


    LaBossiere’s question was not whether it’s rational to take some action. It was whether it’s rational “to love” (LaBossiere’s words) or “to be in love” (your paraphrase).


  11. couvent2104

    A small Gedankenexperiment. No multiverses, promised.

    I am in an antiques shop and see two fountain pens. The shop owner tells me one of them is the pen with which Marcel Proust signed the lease for his apartment in Paris, but – hélas! – she doesn’t know which one. I study them carefully, but they are identical.

    Am I rational if I want to buy a pen, but only if it’s the “real” Proust pen?
    Or am I not rational, given that for all “effective purposes” the pens are the same?

    The question is, I think, why I want to buy that pen. I want to buy it because it gives me a certain “closeness” with somebody I admire. The closeness is not in the object itself (both pens are identical). But at the same time, it makes these objects fundamentally different for me. I would be bitterly disappointed if I bought the wrong one.

    I don’t know if this closeness is a metaphysical concept. I guess it is, because physically speaking, there’s no difference between the fountain pens. David Hume’s “bundle of perceptions” gets me nowhere if I want to explain why the pens are fundamentally different for me. (Perhaps Hume could get me somewhere, but I fear it would be extremely banal. Bundle of perceptions, etc.)

    Now, there’s Barry, Iris-2 and Iris-1.
    Iris-2 has never been close to Iris-1. They are merely identical, just like the fountain pens in my Gedankenexperiment.
    Assuming that Iris-1 is Barry’s True Love, I feel it would be normal– although not entirely rational – for him to feel that Iris-2 can’t be the same True Love. Iris-1 and 2 are fundamentally different, just like my fountain pens are.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. Markk

    I find it very hard to imagine what it would be like to be with anyone else but my wife. ( We have been married for 8 years.)

    I know that under other circumstances I would have ended up with someone else. But I also know that if something horrible happened and she died I wouldn’t want anyone else but her, at least not for a time.

    If after she died I met her clone in a parallel universe I wouldn’t love the clone – unless I took the time to build a relationship with the clone. Before that, there wouldn’t be a mutual connection and I don’t see the sense in calling it love until such a connection is built.


  13. brodix

    I’ve never been able to get a certain redhead out of my mind, but it is very safe to say we would not have worked out.


  14. Thomas Jones

    Oh my! And those who’ve seen “Blade Runner” eagerly await “Blade Runner 2049.”

    Enjoyed both Massimo’s and LaBossiere’s discussions (and Mike’s recipe for Cherry Breeze Pie).

    But, I’m surprised neither explored Juliet’s claim: “that which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet.”

    Liked by 1 person

  15. wtc48

    Re: Proust’s pen (Couvent)

    In the absence of fingerprints or DNA evidence, the issue is establishing historical provenance of a (presumably) manufactured object. It seems related to the problem of making correct attributions of paintings, when expert testimony is called in to judge between Vermeer and Dutch Brand X, with millions of dollars hanging in the balance. The objective value of either the painting or the money is certainly questionable, as will be seen in the following example:

    In the late 15th century, after the accession of Henry VII (the first Tudor king), a young man named Perkin Warbeck appeared who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger son of Edward IV, who was thought to have died in the Tower of London along with his brother Edward. His credentials impressed quite a few people (mainly in Scotland), but Henry VII, not surprisingly, declared him a fraud, and after several imprisonments and escaped, had him executed in 1499. Prior to that, he married a Scottish noblewoman and had two daughters, whose further history is unknown, although they were thought to have wound up in Wales. Conceivably, DNA samples could be found which would legitimize Perkin’s claim, potentially rewriting the entire history of England and Europe and establishing some living descendant of Edward IV as the rightful king or queen of England.

    The point is that Proust’s pen, the pseudo-Vermeer, and King Richard IV (aka Perkin), like True Love, are all based on fictions whose status as “truth” is important to one or more people (or a whole nation). Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is pure fiction, but you could probably find at least 10,000 people who know every word he said by heart, while Perkin’s nameless daughters, who actually existed, may be irretrievably lost. “A hair, perhaps, divides the false and true” (Omar/Fitzgerald).

    Liked by 1 person

  16. davidlduffy

    A certain amount of Paul Melko’s series The Walls of the Universe and The Broken Universe is playing around with all these possibilities.

    Lem in Solaris takes a more gloomy view (unknowability of the Other, including one’s love).


  17. saphsin

    You would not love your wife, father, or brother because he turned out to be a bit of a different person? (time travel, parallel universe, alternate setting, went on a trip and came back with a different personality. You name whatever thought experiment.)

    I don’t believe in true love in the kind of sense that the essay attacks but I think there’s more to it than just attraction to their qualities.


  18. couvent2104

    Thomas Jones,

    The point is that Proust’s pen, the pseudo-Vermeer, and King Richard IV (aka Perkin), like True Love, are all based on fictions.

    Maybe true in the case of Perkin, but I don’t agree in the case of Proust.
    In my Gedankenexperiment it’s a fact and not a fiction that Proust used one of the fountain pens. It’s also a fact that closeness with Proust is important for me. But more importantly: the argument doesn’t depend on True Love being a fiction or not. It depends on Iris-1 and 2 being fundamentally different in a certain subtle way (perhaps in a metaphysical way? Maybe somebody can enlighten me). The expression True Love is just a way to talk about these things.
    I personally find closeness an important aspect of love. Iris-2 never has been close to the love of Barry’s life, Iris-1 (I hope I got the numbers right!). Therefore it’s normal – at least for me – to feel that Iris-2 can’t be his true love, or if you wish, True Love.


  19. Robin Herbert

    Maybe those of us who fell in love with the One but whose love was not reciprocated and who eventually found someone else who was the One don’t find much new or surprising in the sentiments expressed by the excellent Mr Minchin.


  20. Massimo Post author


    “LaBossiere’s question was not whether it’s rational to take some action. It was whether it’s rational “to love” (LaBossiere’s words) or “to be in love” (your paraphrase).”

    You are correct, but I do not draw a sharp distinction there. Modern REBT, CBT and similar therapies, not to mention lots of research in cognitive science, tell us that complex emotions like “being in love” are partly cognitive, and can therefore be altered by way of rational-emotive feedbacks. So Barry-1 still has a choice (as hard as it may be to implement) about being or not being in love with Iris-2, not just whether to act on it or not.


    Interesting thought experiment with Proust’s pen. Of course, as you say, the answer there depends on why one cares about the pen. If it is for purely utilitarian reasons, then it is irrelevant whether the pen belonged to Proust or not. But if you are a history and/or literature fan, then it makes all the difference in the world.

    Notice, however, that the pen’s properties are fungible within the first context, but not the second one.

    Analogously, a major difference between Iris-1 and Iris-2 is that Berry-1 has a shared history with the former but not the latter. What complicates the Flash episode, however, is that Iris-2 had a remarkably similar history with Barry-2, which means that the two Irises are far closer to each other than the example of Proust’s pen would hint: even their personal histories with Barry are indistinguishable.


    “The point is that Proust’s pen, the pseudo-Vermeer, and King Richard IV (aka Perkin), like True Love, are all based on fictions whose status as “truth” is important to one or more people (or a whole nation).”

    That’s correct, but the reason I like the Flash scenario is because it makes you think about possible real life situations (such as a twin, or a doppelgänger), but more importantly it makes you think about what is it, exactly, that we love about someone else.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Massimo Post author


    “To be is to be perceived. — Metaphysical Principle.
    For example:
    never can observe anything other than a particular perception.
    David Hume”

    The example does not reflect the metaphysical principle, I think. Hume said that about the nature of the self, which he thought did not truly exist other than as a bundle of perceptions. He didn’t say that about perceptions and existence in general.


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