Love Is Not An Illusion. Rebutting Nihilism and Other Superstitions of Disembodied Atheism

Sometimes when atheists dismiss the value of historically religious techniques for forming communities, identities, values, and beliefs, and react viscerally against ever adopting anything that resembles such techniques for themselves, I fear that a superstition, one eerily and ironically related to characteristically religious ones, is implicitly in play. In a strange sort of way, anti-religious atheists, like the religionists they oppose, can be susceptible to treating human minds as capable of magically functioning in a disembodied way.

When many religious and superstitious people talk about “spirituality” or about how they are personally “spiritual”, they mistakenly describe their supposed spirit as something curiously non-physical and immaterial. Ironically, even though they are insistent that it must be non-physical and radically different than the “crudely material stuff” that comprises the world of inanimate physical things, they implicitly seem to think of it as some sort of a “stuff” nonetheless. The “spirit” or the “soul” is misconceived as some sort of a ghostly ethereal intangible substance different and separable from hard tangible physical substance. But it is nonetheless a substantial thing which they imagine. So even though they feel like their conscious experience must be of a different kind of being than the material, they are still, in spite of themselves, quite often still materialists of a sort–just ones who believe in at least two different kinds of material existence. One natural, inanimate, perceptible to the senses, hard, and governed by mathematically understandable laws, and another one supernatural, ethereal, ungoverned by laws, ultimately untethered to this universe and known only introspectively and qualitatively.

In responding to these superstitions and philosophically confused reifications, there are several mistakes I think materialistic atheists are prone towards. When confronted with claims about immaterial spiritual souls or spiritual lives or practices, the first mistake is to imply that people’s experiences that they call “spiritual” are not “real”. “Spiritual” experiences are real events that happen in the real world. Superstitious reifications are just hastily (and with all sorts of cultural and religious encouragement) naively misinterpreting them as somehow evidence for something otherworldly or something which puts them in touch with otherworldly things. It is useless and sounds woefully psychologically ignorant to question whether they refer to something real when they talk about spiritual experiences. We do much better to engage them about what their real experience really indicates.

The parallel superstition among some atheists is a tendency to conceive of people as minds that respond to reason alone and that can only reason well if they are not being influenced bodily. The overly skeptical atheist mistakenly thinks that if she can understand the physiological processes that make an experience happen that somehow that experience is not only demystified as not supernatural, but is even proven to be an “illusion”. So if oxytocin is the chemical that causes me to feel trust then my feeling of trust is an illusion; it’s not really trust but a chemical tricking my brain! If participating in a ritualistic behavior in a group creates a feeling of psychological bond between me and my group then this feeling of closeness is an illusion. If lovers staring into each others’ eyes feel closer, they are tricking themselves into feeling an illusory closeness, etc., etc.

The problem with these lines of inference are that they all assume a false dichotomy between a mental experience being real and its not having a physical explanation. It assumes that the mechanistic physical account of what causes an experience makes it unreal in its internal logic or its phenomenological, qualitative, “what-it’s-like” experience. But just as understanding the parts of a car and how they are interacting to make “driving” happen does not make driving any less occur, so understanding the physiological mechanisms by which our emotions happen does not make them any less real. Knowing the chemicals that correlate with feelings of love does not make love any less love. It’s still the same feeling. It’s still the same set of dispositions to behave in some particular sets of ways. It is still the same attachment and ability to commit. What it is in experiential, moral, and social terms does not change just because we understand the material dynamics that let it happen.

What I think upsets people and makes them feel like love would not be love were it traceable to chemical sources is that it would be like a drug that forces you to feel something inauthentic. So, if someone could inject you with certain hormones you will be induced to feel things not because of anything true about the world or true about your emotions but because of the change in the chemical balance in your brain owed to your drugger’s intervention. So, if how we feel in any number of circumstances is chemically regulated, then the fear is that we are not having authentic experiences but rather we are meat robots being programmed by natural drugs that tell us to go here and go there. Then the fear is that our emotional feelings themselves are not the real causes of themselves or are not stimulated directly by meaningful events in the world that make rational sense of them, but rather are dictated by the chemical flow like any other unconscious chemical interactions in nature cause any other meaningless physical events.

The problem with this eliminativist view of emotions is that it takes the exception case being drugged against one’s will and induced to act and feel in ways contrary to one’s normal desired behaviors and emotions, and then reinterprets normal feeling and behaving as though it has all the insidious aspects of being drugged if only it has any chemical determination at all.

But the case of the drugging is upsetting precisely for how it differs from normal feeling and acting, and it cannot be paradigmatic for those cases and reveal us “really” to be just like slaves to others’ druggings. And there is a key reason for this. When we’re responding to our brains’ normal, untampered with natural chemical interactions and the attitudes, beliefs, and values that it generates in rational interactions in a meaningfully understood world, we are responding to what is constitutive of us ourselves as we most truly are. This is drastically different than being manipulated by an outside agent introducing a foreign drug against our will for his purposes rather than for our own. Our normal chemical inducements to feel this way or that are not driven simply by meaningless fluctuations of chemicals. They do not result in a series of meaningless thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They interact in rational ways with genuinely socially meaningful engagements with other people. They are responsive to actual rational apprehensions about the world (including about other people) through perception and through logical thinking and understanding, etc.

Our emotions and moods are sometimes influenced in ways that not wholly rational of course. People suffering from clinical depression are susceptible to experiencing overwhelming and defeating sadness, pessimism, self-loathing, suicidal ideation, and lethargy without rational reasons that would justify such sorrow, apathy, defeatism, and/or negative judgments or courses of action. Sometimes, less dramatically, the heat and our resultant sweating may simply make our skin feel irritated and our brains, to try to make sense of its discomfort, might look for more rationally meaningful explanations for our emotions and start prejudicially assuming that, say, another person is irritating us. So, sometimes our emotions are due to physiological, “chemical” causes rather than logical ones that would justify them. For this reason, and many others, we must be vigilant about inspecting our emotions and making sure that we feel them in ways that track truths about reality and that they motivate us in productive ways in life.

But emotional experiences are not “really” meaningless “illusions” like the worst nihilists think. When they can be correlated logically with circumstances that merit them, both as ways of feeling a thing in a way that correlates with its truth and as ways of motivating the appropriate action given the realization of a truth, then they are quite meaningful and not deceptive in any important way. If fear is a way of processing that something is threatening not just intellectually but viscerally and in feeling form, then it is still a true and valuable way to process the event and no less so if we understand what neurochemical and physiological processes are operative to make the feeling happen as part of the sequence of causal events.

All that matters is that we feel fear towards things that are in fact threatening and that our fear only be so much as to be helpfully motivating. Misfiring or exaggerated or paralyzing fear are irrational and “illusory” insofar as they misrepresent the scope of a threat or they are counter-productive to helping us think and clearly with respect to it. But if our fear is refined and our brain is trained to release the chemicals associated with it in the right measures and times and not in the wrong ones, then fear can be a qualitative feeling indicator in the mind of the truth about something’s threatening character and how seriously to take it and how much to focus, etc.

Love is not just a chemical or set of chemicals that brainwash us. While we might get mired in painful, futile attachments of unrequited love or overestimate how much we are compatible with someone or committed to them under the chemical rush of infatuated new love, etc., nonetheless insofar as we do like someone, are viscerally attached to them, are committed to them, do desire them, and are disposed behaviorally to act on their behalf, etc., etc. then our feelings of affection correlate with very real (and even measurable) things. Our feelings’ truths can be born out, at least with actions. Our feelings of love are also in many ways responsive to cognitive truths that are highly rational, rather than just some arbitrary meaningless chemical concoction. And our feelings, again, motivationally reinforce the things they represent. Feeling love not only registers dispositions to behave lovingly but redoubles them.

In cases of naturally occurring love, it’s not like being drugged with some foreign substance. It’s the brain’s naturally occurring way of responding to the prospect of a very good thing with a very good emotion and the cycles of feelings are regulated chemically in ways that probably serve various good purposes, even as we might have to work rationally to adjust these emotional rhythms to circumstances. Our biology is imperfect, but again, can be worked with to be increasingly rational.

Finally, some irreligious atheists (including me) can be wary of rousing speech, or shared ritual motions among people grouped together, or other techniques that the religious use to create strong value feelings or feelings of community between people. They think these are irrational ways of creating attachments between people or between people and their ideas. But things can go the other way. Without an emotional oomph various truths are harder for our brains to realize and internalize. Sometimes we need to communicate to our brains through our bodies because they’re bodily. Talking to them through bodily cues and training them through training our bodies to feel and move in different ways is working with the non-dualistic, naturalistic truths that we are our bodies and that our minds are functions of our entirely physical brains. These are truths that atheists should know and embrace better than anyone.

So, if it is true that we are all meaningfully connected and should learn to identify with one another and have community for the greater good and our individual goods (as I think), and if it is true that bonding rituals cement this feeling of association and unity in the brain for people, then bonding rituals with some particular sets of people are going to be rationally, ethically the best things for us to do sometimes. Engaging in common rituals which teach our subconscious brains to associate ourselves as one with others is a matter of respecting our physical brains’ physiological mechanisms for learning.

Irreligious atheists are very right to fear rituals and various forms of emotional manipulation that attempt to bypass and undermine people’s reasoning capacities and make them immune to rational correction. Religions have long, guilty,  terrible histories of brainwashing and authoritarianism and anti-rationalism, that is extremely difficult to root out. But if one uses the emotional mechanisms to teach the brain rational truths on a more visceral level that it can understand in ways that the cognitive consciousness is insufficient to teach or influence action with, then one is aiding people feeling and acting rightly about the world.

And it very well could be that physically cutting oneself off to emotions or to “spiritual” experiences or ritual training or meditations, etc. which would have the benefit of teaching people true things, could lead oneself to be unduly prejudiced by what their bodies are not doing to believe false things that would be corrected were only they to use their bodies correctly to open themselves up to them.

Your Thoughts?

More on Love:

How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count The Ways
Conceptual Problems for the Ideal of Unconditional Love
Call It Volitional Love, Rather Than Unconditional Love

More on Nihilism

Of Nihilists Mourning Their Christian Soul Mates
Thinking According to Scale
On the Meaning of Meaning
Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?
The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?
A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism
Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory
Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist
If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

Authentic Self in a Physically Determined Universe

Free Will and the Real World
What it means to me to be free
Why Bother Blaming People At All, Isn’t That Judgmental?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Rosie

    I think I’ve been trying to express this for years. More than a decade ago, a new acquaintance asked what I thought of the supernatural, and I replied, “I think there are a lot of perfectly natural things that are called supernatural”. I hesitated to call myself “atheist” for a long time, because the term was equated with “materialist” in my head.

    Now I say I believe atheist and practice Wicca. Because one doesn’t have to believe in deities or even energy for ritual to “work”. And I like (solitary) Wicca, because it hands you tools and you get to decide what you want to know bodily. Buddhism has some useful tools for this as well.

    • watcher_b

      I have not read up into Wicca at all, am I understanding you correctly that you are an “atheist” in that you do not believe in a god/s, but you do not identify as a “materialist” because you believe in more than just the material (things like a spirit/soul)?

    • Rosie

      I don’t really think I believe in much of anything, watcher_b, at least as I understand “belief” to be generally defined. I have had quite a few “spiritual” experiences, but I don’t think that means there are “spirits” necessarily. To me, it makes no difference at all if it’s actual spirits or brain chemistry; I’ll keep practicing and seeking out those experiences because they improve my life here and now. My experiences and inner life may not say much of anything about the world at large but they are important to me. And I’m rather under the impression that materialists think they should not be, which is why I don’t call myself a materialist.

      A lot of Wiccans (especially those who write books on the topic) would disagree with me on the (lack of) existence of spirits and deities, but I’ve talked to a few Wiccans in person who think much as I do.

    • watcher_b

      I like it!

      Thank you for sharing, Rosie.

    • mmer

      “I think there are a lot of perfectly natural things that are called supernatural”

      Check out Oliver Sacks’ great book, Hallucinations.

  • watcher_b

    I think the concern about emotions being just a chemical process is not the fact that those emotions could be produced from nefarious reasons (ie drugs), but that they can be produced from said nefarious reasons and we would not be able to distinguish between this manufactured state and our natural state.

    I appreciate all the more what you have to say here:
    “…we must be vigilant about inspecting our emotions and making sure that
    we feel them in ways that track truths about reality and that they
    motivate us in productive ways in life.”

  • Shira Coffee

    I think that hyper-rationalists can end up committing a species of spiritualism. Reason in the real world is never disconnected from embodied sensation and emotion. “Pure” (i.e., disembodied) reason smacks of God.

  • Lane

    But if one uses the emotional mechanisms to teach the brain rational truths on a more visceral level that it can understand in ways that the cognitive consciousness is insufficient to teach or influence action with, then one is aiding people feeling and acting rightly about the world.

    So are you saying that its only a matter of motive – wrong if used by a theistic organization, but right if used by an atheistic organization? The atheistic group, of course having the better motives. Because I’m sure that, say a Christian group, who is (unintentionally?) using these same techniques of ritual also have similiar goals: “aiding people feeling and acting rightly about the world”, “teaching people true things”. Where would you draw the distinction?

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      The rational and ethical defensibility of what is being taught with the non-rational means makes all the difference and is how I would judge the relative goodness or badness of any religion, be it theistic, atheistic, or somewhere between.

  • Michael Harrison

    After a while, the comparison between love and chocolate started bugging me. After all, there was an obvious difference: love has a focus. No, my problem with love is that it describes different emotions which, it seems to me, are only superficially similar.

  • Paul So

    I think one main problem is that people (both supernaturalists and some atheists) confuse reductionism with eliminativism. Reductionism is to exhaustively explain one phenomena in terms of more fundamental phenomena such that both of them are actually identical. So, the statement “Water = H2O” is to say that there is this familiar fluid liquid that we call water that is essentially made out of more basic elements called H2O; properties that we observe from water can be explained in terms of more fundamental properties of H2O.

    So, a reductionist of mental phenomena is claiming that in an analogous manner, we can explain mental phenomena in terms of more fundamental neural phenomena (brain). Furthermore, a reductionist can accept an existence of emergent properties, basically properties emerge from complex interactions from lower level phenomena such that they become sufficiently distinguishable and distinctive. This means that mental phenomena are probably emergent properties that arises from more basic properties + complex interactions among those basic properties.[1] Overall, Reductionists believe that mental phenomena (i.e. emotions, consciousness, beliefs, memories, etc) do exist, but like water they can be explained in terms of more fundamental physical phenomena.

    Eliminativism or Eliminative Materialism [2], on the other hand, believes that only the neural processes of the brain exist, whereas concepts that we ordinarily use to describe or denote mental phenomena (i.e. beliefs, memories, consciousness, pain, self-awareness, etc.) are incoherent or incompetent in the light of neuroscience. For example, the term “remembering is often use to denote a single monolithic mental phenomena of “memory”, whereas neuroscience shows that there are so many different types of memory whose respective functions distribute across different parts of the brain (this is just an example). Consequently, someone might be an eliminativist of “memory” since it looks nothing like how it is described in neuroscience. An eliminitavist will argue that mental concepts (or concepts about mental phenomena) do not make sense in the light of neuroscience, so we should eliminate those mental concepts in the long-run because in the future neuroscience will render these mental concepts as obsolete superstition. Just as Chemists no longer believe in Elixir of Life from Alchemy, Neuroscientists wouldn’t have to believe in mental concepts. Overall, an eliminitave materialist will argue that a mind doesn’t exist because the mental concepts we use do not correspond to neuroscientific description of the brain, it would, so to speak, “eliminate” the mind in favor of the brain.

    A reductionist would argue that mental concepts can be understood in more neuroscientific terms by understanding neural processes/activities, an eliminative materialist on the other hand would argue that on the contrary we wouldn’t understand mental concepts in the light of neuroscience but rather they would be rendered incoherent and nonsensical as we develop better understanding of the brain. Consequently, both reductionist and eliminative materialists would disagree with each other.

    What relevant this distinction has to this article is that some atheists as well as many theists (including other believers) somehow think that if you explain mental phenomena (love) in terms of brain processes, then somehow that mental phenomena would disappear. However, this isn’t the same as reductionism. Reductionist would claim that love is *identical* to Oxytocin (as well as other chemical processes of the brain) under certain conditions (which preclude coercive use of drugs) since love can be explained in terms of neural and bio-chemical processes that transmits Oxytocin. This is analogous to how water is identical to H2O. It may be counter-intuitive, but that doesn’t mean that love somehow disappears when we find out what it really is.

    Someone can argue for eliminative materialism, that’s fine, although I don’t think it would succeed, but this isn’t the same as reductionism.



    Additional comment: I would also like to add that most likely “love” would be described in more complex yet diverse model that doesn’t just consider things from neuroscience but also our culture and environment. Nonetheless, this is consistent with reductionism, since love would just be a very complex interaction of Oxytocin, social interaction with someone special, and our cultural values of romantic relationships, etc.

  • John Kruger

    I have never been very distressed by the notion that all the parts of me that I consider as part of my identity could be the result of purely physical and deterministic processes. Even if “memory” or “love” are too loosely defined to be pinned down in specific brain chemistry, it just means that the concepts are only really useful in a certain context. I use the simplification of the earth being fixed and motionless when navigating around in my car, even though I know the earth is spinning and revolving around the sun. I only need to invoke the more complex model of the solar system when it is helpful, like considering eclipses or seasons. Likewise, I need not worry too much about neurons or brain chemistry when interacting with people, unless I get into special cases like addiction or brain damage. Throwing out the concepts of emotion altogether is a foolish endeavor, they work quite well in many ordinary situations.

  • stanz2reason

    Nice entry Dan.

  • Arnold Halperin

    I think it’s possible to have an emotional reaction to the rational, physical processes that drive the universe. When I consider evolution as the mechanism which has driven biological life (over hundreds of millions of years, no less), I am in awe. It’s something of beauty. In addition, the fact the human beings can examine the world and out fellow human beings and use that to develop ethical standards with recourse to spiritual ideas — that’s a thing of beauty.
    While I don’t want to completely dismiss the religious domain, much of it leads in a depressing direction, where your thought and behavior is blocked by a distant, abstract deity. That’s not much of a life. I really haven’t considered it before, but that is really why I am not a religious believer.

  • jeffj900

    Of course oxytocin and the feelings we have are not illusions. The are real. Neither is love an illusion. The idea that our feelings are “mere chemicals” is the one that religious people love to scoff at when they claim the atheist’s materialist view is meaningless.

    The illusion is that God is involved. The illusion is that supernatural forces are involved. Clearly the illusion is that our biological experiences represent a divine connection of some sort.

    And the point of view that chemicals are somehow a disappointing meaningless let down is the real cognitive error here. It totally misses the point of the beauty of natural reality. It is in fact a miracle in the true sense of the word, which only means “object of wonder,” that we feel and experience what we do via biochemical processes. A real reason for joy and gladness when one understands this.

  • GordonHide

    It seems to me that this article is stating the obvious. Our emotions and instincts must have brought our animal ancestors through an extremely long school of very hard knocks else we wouldn’t be here today. During this time there would have been very little rational ability available to negotiate life’s hazards. Even today most of our decisions are made without much conscious thought so our instincts, whether evolutionary in origin or culturally impressed must do a reasonable job. (At least in those societies that function reasonably well).

  • Mark Green

    I’m an atheist, and I don’t contend that love is an “illusion” any more than any other material phenomenon. Love is the perceived experience of certain brain states which involve particular levels of particular hormones and neurotransmitters. That’s as “real” as anything else in the Universe.

  • Mark Green

    The core dispute in this discussion is that there are many who are so enthralled with the coolness of mysterious or supernatural explanations for phenomena that they are disappointed when more prosaic causalities are identified, and so they resist these explanations even when they are eminently more reasonable, demonstrable, and grounded in what is known about the nature of the Universe and humanity.