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Can Love Be Measured?

The face of true love?
The face of true love?

Today I want to offer two observations about the non-human, love, and home.

Yesterday I watched a boy walk his dog. The boy must have been about eleven, and the dog roughly two. The human, and the dog, seemed very much in love, a thought that would have occurred to me, I think, even if it had not been Valentines' Day. But because it was the holiday of love, the thought lingered longer than it otherwise might have.

The dog was exuberant, elated, extremely energetic and bouncy. His attention was tied to the boy and his every gesture. He took a special interest in the tennis ball the boy carried and that he would throw off in random directions. But it was not only the fixity of interest that seemed to express the dog's love for the boy, it was also a certain freedom from expectation about the dog. True, he hung on every motion, evidently hoping that this movement, or that one, or now this one, would send the ball rocketing forward and the dog himself on his happy chase. But there was no judgment implied in the dog's attendance. He seemed content whatever the boy chose to do. He seemed delighted and accepting. It looked like true love to me. Love beyond and before any negotiation. I wondered, is this love better than our human love? Even babies cry as a natural expression of their need. This dog — a golden retriever — seemed settled in the shared moment with his beloved.

Not so the boy's feelings for the dog. He was parental. I detected the pride of ownership and responsibility, and also, on his part, an unrivaled interest in the dog. But his caring love accommodated obligation — he picked up after the dog, he paid attention to where he tossed the ball. He was playing with the dog. But he was walking the dog in the early morning, giving the dog the exercise and fresh air, the attention and room to roam, that the animal required for its well-being.

Now, you might object that I read an awful lot into what, really, in truth, is just brute, habitual, instinctual behavior. Why do I speak of contentment and hope, why do I speak of love to describe what, surely, is something like, on the dog's part at least, a biological cliche?

Is there a truer, more accurate way of describing what was going on out there on the rain-soaked field at our local park? Would the standpoint of the animal behavior scholar expert be better, more accurate, less sentimental, more truthful? I offer the thought that it would not be. The view of the person in the white coat, whatever insights it might provide, cannot gainsay the recognition that this is a loving, feeling friendship. So much the worse for the standpoint of science if it lacks the vocabulary to describe this happening as what it is.

Let us turn our attention, next, to the snail. The snail carries about a shell. From a scientific standpoint we might be tempted to think of the relationship between snail and its shell as roughly that of containment. Physical. Spatial. And functional. But the snail does not merely find itself located inside the shell. It resides there. The shell is its house, its home, and the relationship of individual to home is not merely that of spatial containment or shelter. It isn't like water inside the glass, or like that of the bench bolted to the ground. It is more like the dog, and the boy, in the setting of their relationship. We need more than physics, to be sure, but also, in a way, more than biology, if we think think of biology as a kind of extended chemistry, to make sense of the humble.

To acknowledge the snail and its shell, we need to appreciate that the snail is a living being, who plays the leading role in its life. And to make science of the boy and his dog we need to appeal to the idea of love.

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.