The Horror of the Loving Machines

I recently returned to my beloved pooches in Manila after over five months of travel. Apparently I belong to the “out of sight, out of mind” school of attachment, as opposed to espousing the opposing “absence makes the heart grow fonder” theory – That is, I have to confess I didn’t miss them very much at all while I was off devouring stinky tofu in Taipei night markets and gawking at the opulent marble pedestrian underpasses of Baku.

But upon returning to Manila and settling back into my old life, I quickly realized what a balm it was to be welcomed home each time by hyperactively sweet balls of loving fur. And as I reflected upon how aggressively loving they are, I remembered a term (not original) that a former friend had used to describe dogs: loving machines. And as I turned the term over in my head, it slowly stopped being adorable and gradually became a bit creepy.

After all, if dogs aren’t capable of free will – as even those who would loudly insist upon the existence of free agency among human beings would probably admit – doesn’t that basically make dogs machines in the most literal sense?

Let’s consider this by analogy. If you had magical powers that allowed you to make any person of your choice fall in love with you, would you use them? If you answer yes, then congratulations, you are a creep! And why is that? Well, most people would believe that any resulting feelings of love would be invalidated by the fact that they were not freely given. Any sexual activity you subsequently engage in would be tantamount to rape, as well. So if a dog cannot freely choose to love you, and its mid-sized, highly deterministic brain is merely wired to do so through thousands of selective breeding, isn’t that kind of creepy too? Damn loving machines.

We might argue that dogs are distinct from actual mechanical machines due to their capacity to feel pain. This may be true, and it certainly has some bearing on the rights that we would grant to a dog vis-à-vis a microwave oven, but it does nothing to diminish the inherent creepiness  of a loving machine. (And really, isn’t a machine that can feel pain somehow even creepier?)

But as you might have anticipated, I can break free from this depressing line of thought via an even more depressing escape hatch – my very reluctant but currently unavoidable (ha!) acceptance of the fact that there’s no such thing as free will for human beings, either. If we accept that, then we also accept that our own love (or, just as often for our particular species, hate) is not freely given, and our own capacity to love ends up being no more or less creepy than that of the humble dog.

So, what can we do? Dogs will love us, as is their way. We will love them back, or not, depending on what was preordained during the violent, chaotic birth of the cosmos. We will spoil our dogs rotten, or subject them to unimaginable cruelty and abuse. And through it all, there will be a lot of sadness and joy, pleasure and pain; and unlike the supposed free will behind our actions, the feelings that result from them will be real, tangible, and undeniable. And all of these things will set both us and the dogs apart from the lawnmowers. So let’s eagerly accept the love of our furry little loving machines, and enjoy the wonderful distractions they provide from a heartless cosmos where the only true certainties are scientific determinism and death. Because if the exuberant, completely uncontrollable joy my dogs experience when I come home from running errands for half an hour is creepy, then let me be a connoisseur of creepiness. With all my heart and soul, I do love my furry little pleasure robots – and I don’t care if that sounds creepy, too!

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