What Is It to Feel?

Musings Dec 5, 2021

Fair warning. This article contains a slight spoiler to the philosophy driving NieR:Automata, a masterpiece of a video game. However, I insist you read on because I only touch on its philosophy.

If there is one idea that I think NieR:Automata attempts to and partially succeeds at establishing at every turn, it's that machines can feel emotions as we, humans, do, and that they can evolve to feel as we do. It drives home the point that they are alive like us, but in a very different way. Still, aren’t emotions what humans have and machines don't? It separates us from the machines and they can only be 'taught' to understand and empathize with humans, and can never feel emotions of their own. Can this conviction ever be challenged?

The general notion is that machines aren't living. If we do not go into the textbook definition of ‘living’, all that humans can empathize with are said to be living. With the exception of plant life, for something to be termed living, it should feel pain when hurt. And with its pain, we empathize. We may even estimate whether a life is meaningful or not based on how well we can empathize with it and its pain. But what is pain if not simply an unpleasant sensation, one that says something is wrong?

We will return to the topic at hand after a brief digression.

It was the 19th of January this year. I thought it would be just another uneventful day, thanks to the pandemic. It wasn't. It must have been as early as 7 in the morning and my 2-year-old dog was whining for no reason. She rarely whines. We gave her some cough syrup thinking it was a clogged nose. You may be my guest and question my choices. The syrup tasted awful to her, so I had to force her to take the medicine. We waited the whole day but the whining persisted and something else, something I had never seen before, accompanied the whining. My dog started carrying around her favorite toys, whining all the while as she carried them. She would hold onto those toys in her mouth like her life depended on it and take them away from us to spots where she could be alone with her toys. She wouldn't eat. She wouldn't play or interact with us. Unable to come to a conclusion on my own, I called up the vet and gave him a gist of the whole situation. He diagnosed it accurately.

That's what is called a false pregnancy. Those weren't toys anymore but her puppies as she would prefer it.

Female dogs that have just had their heat tend to exhibit motherly feelings towards objects like toys, for example. This is because of the hormones produced by their ovaries prepping their bodies for the pregnancy, regardless of whether they have mated. They can be highly aggressive and exhibit nesting. This explains her carrying the toys to a safe place and guarding them.

It was painful to watch her carry around a lifeless object she considered her baby. This went on for ten days and then gradually she became alright. She realized she wasn't a mother. Or maybe she never knew what any of it was and it was all just the hormones.

That’s where the story ends. It should have brought you to the question of whether any of what we feel is anything but just chemicals racing inside us. Motherly love, and love in a broader sense, hate, rage, pain...are they all just chemicals? If feelings are just chemicals, do they have any meaning at all? And if feelings have no meaning, does anything at all have any meaning? That’s a discussion for later.

But if we have only been conditioned to feel this way through the countless years that 'life' has existed, and if all that we are and all that we feel aren’t unique to us, what meaning does any of this have? How are we any different from machines if we ourselves have only been taught to feel?


Nikhil Siva Narain

His idea of a perfect day is one with a gloomy sky...a book in hand and Karen Carpenter singing on the stereo.