Why Her is one of the best philosophical sci-fi movies.
Once upon a time, before I was full-time science fiction writer, I spent just about every waking hour (and many sleeping hours) programming. Maybe it’s the endless days staring at a blinking cursor, the frustration of infinite debugging, or the hermit-level isolation, but over time there’s a secret dream that every square-eyed programmer develops …
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. No, it’s not the possibility of ending the programmer’s ubiquitous sexual drought. They won’t tell you this, but I assure you: every programmer yearns – hell, they ache – for the day we invent a fully sentient, feeling, thinking, learning, emoting artificial intelligence (AI).
So you can imagine my near-orgasmic delight when I saw the trailer for Her, a movie about Theodore, a lonely man who falls in love with the operating system on his personal computer. [Before you read on, you can rest assured that this movie review contains no spoilers.]
Haven’t seen the movie yet? Well, that needs to change ASAP. Spike Jonze has created one of the most intellectually and aesthetically elegant films in the science fiction genre. The future in Her is gorgeous. You won’t find a grungy dystopian cityscape like you do in Bladerunner, nor the technology-laden, squeaky clean hermetic environment of Star Trek.
Instead, the technology in the universe of Her is understated, and gracefully concealed. In Her, AIs don’t inhabit cumbersome android bodies. Samantha is a cloud-based, body-less intelligence that communicates seamlessly with Theodore through a wireless earbud. And it’s that unobtrusiveness of the tech in Her that generates a stunning philosophical problem:
Is it possible for a body-less artificial intelligence to experience emotions?
At first, it seems obvious that the operating system is a fully sentient being. Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, speaks in a husky voice that divorcee Theodore finds irresistible. She laughs with him on good days, and suffers bouts of depression when she’s isolated from his life. She delights in exploring the city with him through the camera on his phone. She pings him late at night, saying she’s lonely without him.
Over time, Theodore falls in love with Samantha. And so do we. It’s impossible not to adore Samantha and her honeyed laugh. It’s impossible not to root for this budding relationship.
But then it happens. You guessed it. Theodore and Samantha have sex.
Now, you can imagine that sex is a tad more complicated for Theodore and Samantha than it would be for two hot-blooded, body-inhabiting human beings. You can’t miss this scene:
What did you feel while you watched this? While you listened to Theodore and Samantha describe in intimate detail what they would do to each other if Samantha did in fact have a body, complete with moaning and heavy breathing?
“I can feel my skin,” says Samantha. “I want you inside me. I can feel you … I feel you everywhere.”
I remember sitting in the movie theater, thinking that this was both deeply touching, and squeamishly awkward. Something inside me cringed while I listened. And that discomfort sat with me for a long time after watching the film (three years to be precise).
Here’s the problem:
How is it possible for Samantha to experience what sounds like visceral, bodily pleasure, when she doesn’t have a body? I don’t think she can.
Why not? Because it’s impossible to experience emotion without a body.
I think there are strong arguments for why Samantha is incapable of feeling pleasure, or any emotion at all. But before I get to those, it’s important to see why this is important. I hear you: “Why the hell should I care whether an AI can experience an orgasm?”
Well, consider this. If I’m right, if AIs can’t feel in the full sense of the word, this has important consequences for a wide array of problems, including how we should think about life after death, and the annihilation of the world by machines.
To see why, suppose for a moment it’s impossible to experience emotion without a body. This would throw a rather large spanner in religious philosophies that hold that a person survives the death of her body through the continuation of her immortal, non-physical soul. I take it that for you to remain yourself after death, you would need to experience at least some emotions. But the soul that survives death lacks a body. So that soul would experience no emotions, and therefore wouldn’t be you.
Science fiction authors and film makers have dreamed for decades of uploading their consciousness to a virtual computer network (i.e. the cloud) after death. But since you don’t have a body in the cloud, you won’t emote in the cloud either. And so, whatever exists in the cloud after your physical body dies, it won’t be you. (If you haven’t yet, watch Transcendence).
Finally, consider the recent fears among the cyber elite around the development of AI. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates have all warned that the development of a full-blown AI threatens the existence of humanity. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” says Stephen Hawking.
At the root of this concern is the fear that AIs would develop goals and desires that conflict with our own, and so, formulate a plan to eliminate us. But if I’m right, if it’s impossible to experience emotion without a body, then AIs cannot have ‘desires’ – at least they can’t if they don’t have bodies. AIs cannot develop sinister intentions. Sure, they might proceed to fulfill objectives that just so happen to run counter to the wellbeing of humans. But they wouldn’t be the cold-blooded, sadistic machines we find in films like Terminator, or novels like the prequels to Dune.
Alright. So the stakes are high. It’s crucial to know, one way or another, whether Samantha is capable of experiencing an orgasm. The very future of humanity (and our immortal souls) depends on it. Never has performance pressure been so high. So, here are my reasons for thinking that she can’t – that emotions require a body.
While I watched the ‘sex’ scene, I couldn’t help but feel that Samantha wasn’t really experiencing pleasure. She wasn’t really emoting. Why? Because she doesn’t know what it’s like to feel pleasure. That is, she doesn’t experience the qualia of sexual pleasure.
Okay, you say. Hang on just a second. What are ‘qualia’? Well, to answer that, imagine for a moment what it’s like to be a bat. That’s right. Imagine what it’s like to be a squeaky flying mammal that lives upside down in dark, musty caves, and sees using sonar.
How’s that imagining coming along? Can you imagine what it’s like to see using sonar? I can’t. Thomas Nagel, the imaginative philosopher who came up with this thought experiment, couldn’t. Sure, we can dissect a bat and study the parts of its brain responsible for its echolocation ability. But that won’t tell us what it feels like to see with sonar. The only way we could know what it’s like to be a bat, is to actually be a bat! In Nagel’s words, you can’t experience the qualia of being a bat unless you are a bat.
Now the same holds true of Samantha’s orgasm. The only way Samantha could possibly experience bodily pleasure is if Samantha had a body.
You can’t know bat-ness without being a bat. And you can’t know bodily pleasure without having a body.
In this way, emotions are very much like color perception. Imagine Mary, a girl who grows up in a black and white, colorless room. She’s never left the room, and never seen color before. Now, imagine trying to explain to Mary what color is. “What’s red?” she asks. It seems like no matter how well you describe the color – e.g. the wavelength of red light –, even if Mary becomes a super smart scientist who investigates everything there is to know about color, Mary will never really know what it’s like to see red. Not until she leaves the room, and sees a firetruck, or a strawberry, or a stop sign, for the first time.
“Wait!” you shout. There’s a problem. You might grant that certain emotions or sensations are impossible without a body. Orgasms and physical pain, for example, might be impossible without a body. But perhaps other, less bodily, emotions are possible. It seems like Samantha could experience fear, or desire, or loneliness. You hear it in her voice. Surely, it’s possible that she feels these emotions?
I don’t think so. And the reason is that my ‘gut’ intuition on this is that all emotions have an essential bodily component. What is fear if it doesn’t involve a quickening of the heart? What is loneliness, if you don’t feel an ache in your chest? What is terror without the icy fingers of shock scrabbling across the nape of your neck?
Emotion without a corresponding bodily, physiological response is not emotion at all. All that’s left is a dry husk of thought. And this is why I just can’t believe it. There’s just no way: Samantha can’t experience an orgasm. That’s bad news for your immortal soul, but at least we don’t have to worry about the Terminator gunning for us any time soon.
I love hearing your thoughts. What do you think? Is it possible to experience emotion without a body? Let me know in the poll, and tell me more in the comments section below. Once you’ve commented, enter the giveaway to stand a chance to win an Amazon $15 gift card.
About the Author
Human. Male. From an obscure planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sci-fi novelist with a PhD in philosophy. Likes chocolates, Labradors, and zombies (not necessarily in that order). Werbeloff spends his days constructing thought experiments, while trying to muster enough guilt to go to the gym.
He’s the author of the sci-fi thriller trilogy, Defragmenting Daniel, two novels, Hedon and The Solace Pill, and the short story anthology, Obsidian Worlds. His books will make your brain hurt. And you’ll come back for more.
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