What is Skeptical Love?

by Jesse Galef -

What is love?  People often say that they “believe” in love, or swear that there’s more to it than a set of feelings. I was involved in a Q&A a couple years ago in which an audience member asked me whether I had ever been in love. As I was telling him I would discuss private matters over drinks as long as he was buying, he proceeded to rant about how love is a gift from God and not just a chemical process.

But why should we assume a metaphysical explanation? My sister, Julia Galef, is going to be addressing the issue in the Valentine’s episode of a new podcast she’ll be co-hosting with none other than Massimo Pigliucci of Rationally Speaking. Yes, I’m proud of my family.

After trying to avoid the ‘cynical killjoy’ label by going on the record as “enthusiastically pro-love. (Also pro-kindness, pro-motherhood, and pro-puppies, in case anyone’s keeping track.)” she launches in:

However, as good skeptics, what do we do when faced with a mysterious and unexplained phenomenon? We look for explanations! Science has already found correlations between particular hormones and certain forms or stages of love. Dopamine is associated with romantic obsession, and oxytocin and vasopressin with long-term attachment. Evolutionary biologists also have some theories about why love developed (pair bonding was necessary to raise our helpless human young, for example).

There’s good reason to suspect that the word ‘love’ is an ambiguous term which refers to a broad combination of different emotions to different people in different contexts.  When we avoid the word and just address its various component feelings that are associated with the word, science seems to do a fine job of explaining it.

Like the word ‘soul’, ‘love’ is notoriously difficult to define and equally frustrating to discuss.  If we can’t provide a clear idea of what we mean when we each use a word, chances are it’s going to be a fruitless conversation.  We have no way of knowing whether we’re even talking about the same concept!  People take that confusion as a sign that love is somehow transcendent and metaphysical.  They forget that language is an imperfect tool, and assume that it must be difficult to discuss because it’s on a higher plane of existence.  Nope, we’re just apes who sometimes have trouble expressing ourselves.

What are the implications of a skeptical approach to love? Julia poses the question but withholds opinion until the podcast.

Finally, what if we could explain love scientifically — would that change our attitude towards it? Would the knowledge that this transcendent feeling is generated by the presence of a particular chemical in our brain detract from the transcendence? And if we were forced to admit that the concepts of “soulmates” or “true” love are nonsensical, would we love less deeply?

I’ll take a stab at it. Obviously, the physical emotions we feel would be untouched – the chemical reactions would occur and there would be the same attraction, devotion, and commitment. But if people derive extraneous pleasure from the thought that their love was fated, that pleasure could be lost through science.

When we unweave the rainbow and discover what makes its colors, it doesn’t become any less beautiful.  For many people, myself included, there’s an added sense of wonder at nature.  But it might ruin your day if you like the idea of leprechauns.

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • http://spsein.blogspot.com/ Gabriel G.

    One way of clearing up what we mean by loving: having a way of categorizing types of love, like how Robert Sternberg did with his Triangle Theory of Love. Basically, love is made up of three parts (passion, intimacy, and compassion), and there are seven types of love that are each made up of different aspects of love (from nonlove (which has none of the three) to consummate love (which has all three). While this is a simplification of love, I think it helps when talking about love because it serves as a means of clarifying what kind of love you’re talking about, like if you’re talking about love at first sight or the love your grandparents still hold for each other.

  • http://thinkingforfree.blogspot.com Eamon Knight

    Seconded that its important not to mash together several distinct experiences, just because language conventionally uses only one term for them all. Hell, even C.S.Lewis distinguished four species of love, though he had to resort to Greek to do it.

    But I think any thorough-going materialist has to resist treating these grand abstractions as if they were the basic reality. It’s the other way round: Love (and Good and Evil and all of that stuff) is a generalization of concrete particulars — my feelings for my partner, my child, my friend, etc, each instance being some combination of instinctive emotional faculties. I fully realize (especially as a former Christian) that placing one’s experience in a larger context provides a kind of validation — but I find that putting it in the context of actual historical-causal explanation as provided by science is at least as satisfying as any theological context.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Jesse Galef

    @ Gabriel G & Eamon Knight – Wow… both interesting thought-provoking comments. Good stuff! I wonder if there are just those three aspects of what people refer to as “love” or whether there’s more…

    I think you’re right that putting such emotions in the realm of individual, scientifically-explained experience changes things. I think it creates a greater sense of responsibility and ownership. A sense that is sorely missed in overly religious/metaphysical explanations.

  • David D.G.

    I’d say that it isn’t strictly a metaphor to say that people in love with each other have “good chemistry together.” That’s literally at least part of what it is.

    ~David D.G.

  • Angie

    Gabriel and Eamon bring up good points about the multi-faceted nature of love. There are many types of experiences that the English language lumps together under “love” — filial love, infatuation, passion, devotion, comraderie, romantic attraction — and it would be fascinating to study the roots of each.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    …he proceeded to rant about how love is a gift from God and not just a chemical process.

    This attitude really pisses me off, because it ignores the set of people who do not experience romantic love (keywords: aromantic asexual). I don’t think they will appreciate being told that what they’re missing out on is a gift from God. Nor would they appreciate being told that God, in his infinite wisdom, knows exactly who should get his gift and when. Like hell he does. There is absolutely no reason to believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

    Love is only chemistry; it has no intrinsic value. What matters is the value we place on it.

  • billybobbibb

    I ran across a very strange article related to this topic. Recently, a Japanese man “married” his video game girlfriend in a wedding ceremony. Clearly he feels “love” for the computer program that produces those love sensation chemicals in our brains. How can anyone say this some sort of metaphysical process? It appears to me that in this case it’s clear that what we perceive as love is an organic function of the brain, and with the right software it can be triggered on.

    For awhile, I was on a mailing list from so-called experts in getting a woman to become attracted to you. Their techniques are counterintuitive, but when followed carefully, are amazingly effective, even for average looking guys. I think that it’s possible to manipulate our own behavior to induce those love feelings in other people, even when we are not feeling “love” ourselves. The more we learn about the nature of love and attraction on a practical level, the less mystical it becomes.

  • MaleficVTwin

    he proceeded to rant about how love is a gift from God and not just a chemical process.

    Anything nice and happy that makes us feel good, such as love, sex, cookies, etc….part of God’s great plan.

    Anything nasty and unpleasant, such as death, disease, pain. sorrow……we can’t know God’s great plan.

    The cognitive dissonance is blatant, yet utterly lost on them.

  • Casimir

    he proceeded to rant about how love is a gift from God and not just a chemical process.

    And sweetness is a gift from the plum drop fairy, not just some physical process going on in your mouth.

  • CatBallou

    Recognizing the difference between infatuation (“love at first sight”) and the emotions and behaviors associated with long-term relationships—which have more in common with the love you have for your family—has helped me avoid rash behaviors and foolish declarations.
    I still get infatuated, but I know that it’s not a permanent state.

  • Jamie

    What a great starter for a real conversation on this topic! I’d have to add god and morality to the list of the complex and confusing concepts that need thoughtful consideration and not just quick answers.

    For those who see a godlike quality in the vastness of nature, then finding scientific explanations adds to the experience. And once again, “it might ruin your day if you like the idea of leprechauns.” LOL

  • Shannon

    I definitely don’t believe in soul mates or fate when it comes to romantic love. When I heard Tim Minchin’s song to his wife I laughed especially hard because it’s just what I believe.

    My chemically induced, non god ordained love for my husband is still going strong after 12 years of marriage and two unruly kids. Takes all kinds I guess ;)

  • http://1minionsopinion.wordpress.com 1minion

    Just got reminded of something I ran across in high school that I felt compelled to write down (beats me who wrote it first, though):

    A young suitor whose girl had been too completely immersed in her study of science decided to try to defeat this obstacle.

    “Mary, I love you,” he proclaimed. “Love, do you hear me? Love, the most wonderful thing in the world!”

    “Henry,” she replied coldly, “what is love? Just a psychic hypermetamorphosis leading to hypercenesthesia and megalomania resulting in angiopathic neurasthenia.”

    “On second thought, Mary,” he sighed, “the hell with it.”

  • http://onecockerlady.wordpress.com CJ :)

    Maybe it makes me a failure, but I really think it’s possible to over-analyze life.

  • Eliza

    Coincidentally (or…is it??! cue spooky-sounding music) I stayed up wayyyy too late last night learning about a pair of fascinating phenomena suggesting that several factors to which we’re quite oblivious may play a significant role in determining which people we’re attracted to: the “Westermarck effect” and “genetic sexual attraction” (which some have proposed be called instead “genetic attraction” because it’s not always sexual).

    The Westermarck effect is “when two people live in close domestic proximity during the first few years in the life of either one, both are desensitized to later close sexual attraction and bonding.” GSA describes the intense connection reported in ~50% of known reunions between siblings, or parents and offspring, separated at birth – reported to be intense, even when they don’t know at the time of meeting that they’re related. Thought is that each phenomenon may be mediated at least in part by olfactory signals linked to HLA genes/gene products. Really fascinating stuff.

    This article from the Guardian discusses GSA and also summarizes the studies supporting the Westermarck effect. Interesting reading.

    Edited to add: Overanalyzing life, or trying to better understand some of the amazing features of biology? You say po-tah-to, I say po-tay-to…

  • http://agalandherblog.blogspot.com/ Andrea

    That love has a chemical basis doesn’t make it any less special to me. Or in other words, and I think I got this from Richard Carrier, “knowing why something is beautiful doesn’t make it any less beautiful.”

  • muggle

    Hey, I like the idea of leprechauns. Just because I don’t believe it doesn’t mean I don’t like a good tale when I hear it. I don’t believe in 11 year old boys discovering they’re really wizards harboring really, really strong magical talents either but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make a good story.

    That Harry Potter isn’t real doesn’t make precocious children any less charming. Likewise, just because leprechauns aren’t real doesn’t make a rainbow any less astoundingly beautiful. In fact, knowing what makes a rainbow just awes me all the more.

    I love love. Love is just about the most wonderful thing there is — in all it’s forms, even the mildest form is really quite astounding. Knowing that’s it’s rather obviously an evolved emotion because bonding together to protect and strengthen and help one another survive just makes it all the more astounding and beautiful.

    Man’s inhumanity to man gets way too much attention. It really is amazing what we will do for each other not only during a catastrophe but on a day to day basis to strengthen and support one another. I’m not just talking about the big loves like life-long partners or parent-child but just neighbor to neighbor and stranger to stranger. And even amongst species for each’s mutual benefit (as in our attachment and care of our pets and what they’ll do for us in return). Small kindnesses, pleasant exchanges and services such as support groups and clubs and the even more valuable such as police, fire and paramedics provide. A price can’t be put on this things that really are the price for the species’ survival.

    Love is very powerful. Probably one of the best evolutionary tools developed. Knowing and recognizing it for what it is doens’t make it any less so.

    Even if it does rather delegate the fairy tale of “love at first sight” to the realm of leprechauns. A nice, enjoyable story. There’s a reason Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and romantic comedies are so popular. They’re nice stories that really anyone with any sense doesn’t even half buy.

    But, we’ve all given and received love in some form.

  • textjunkie

    I think the plum drop fairy quote is quite a propos –we know a lot about the mechanics of flavor and taste, does that make a really delicious steak or complex combination of sauces any less tasty? You know what the neural pathways are that bring on an orgasm, does that make them any less fun? Etc. Same thing for love.

  • Mister Trickster

    This is an excellent topic of discussion, and I look forward also to Julia’s remarks.

    I recently heard a wonderful, similarly focused Science and the City podcast with Helen Fisher: “Love: What’s science got to do with it” (2/10/06). I believe it’s Fisher who makes the point in that podcast that understanding what chemicals are in chocolate don’t make that chocolate any less sweet. If more people accepted that love was manipulable (and something that needs to be worked on by both partners to really flourish, as well as however many other circumstances coming into play) then there would be a lot less of that dumb “love is fated” business (although I bet that’s less about people thinking it’s being gifted from on high are more that people are just wishful that love is fated because they’re lonely or lazy).

    On a separate note, I think it’s kind of a reductionist tack to say that language needs to describe love accurately in all of its stages and varieties. While such a taxonomy has its uses, there is something also to the benefits of ambiguity. As sometimes our inability to describe or predict the way something behaves affects its very life. (Kind of like the Heisenberg Effect, only with words and people.)

  • CybrgnX

    No one really knows what love is. One point in my research of the witch burnings, one person said that the burner ‘loved’ the burnee and felt obligated to save her from the evil of satan. Or the religious man beating his wife/kids to follow the virtuous path. Or the caring daughter who gives up their personal life to care for sick parent. From one point of view they are hateful delusional losers and from another full of ‘love’.
    At this point my view is boy meets girl is pure chemical driven LUST!!! after 20+ years you have love.
    Heinlein asked this question in ‘Time Enough for Love’. And essentially said there are too many variations to determine a single meaning.

  • Randall

    As much as I wanted to stop reading the scientific explanation in order to keep that from coming up in my mind every time someone less skeptical and rational than myself brought up love (my girlfriend) and thus creating a devastating social disconnect between me and most people, I couldn’t.

  • Christophe Thill

    You paint, basically, with chemicals. They have definite properties. Also, you paint within (or against) a definite tradition, that says what subjects, styles and techniques are suitable. You learn the technique of painting in a school, and you supplement it with creativity, a faculty that has been studied and that we know how to enhance.

    That doesn’t kill the wonder of art for me.

  • Levi

    I am not convinced the comparison with food and art are quite right. First of all, I suspect understanding the nuances of either what makes people enjoy certain types of music and art does decrease the initial pleasure of what most consider amazing. I am thinking music nerds who do not get the same appreciation from a song when they realize that the artists are recycling the same chords from a previous song.

    I definitely get what is being said, that reducing a complex, enjoyable experience to its constituents does not reduce the experience, but love does seems to be of a different sort of experience. Love seems to have a normative quality that the other two do not. Coming from the side of sociobiology, many, many people seem hesitant to accepting some of its discoveries. Try telling someone who proclaims their love for another that they would unlikely be in love with that person if that person were significantly less attractive than they currently are. This tends to offend people as they do not want to admit how shallow typically are. I think that when we are in love, by virtually any operationalization, we think of ourselves as experiencing something that is morally good. When we are reminded of how petty some of the major determinants of this experience are, we feel cognitive dissonance.

    I am not claiming that it is impossible to disconnect the two realms of experience, but I do think it isn’t as easy as the others are claiming. I have to consciously make an effort to ignore things like waist-to-hip ratios, facial symmetry, or simple drum patterns in rap songs if I want to feel the same experience. So to respond to objectors to reductionism that their worries are baseless seems insensitive to real concerns.

    When we unweave the rainbow and discover what makes its colors, it doesn’t become any less beautiful. For many people, myself included, there’s an added sense of wonder at nature.

    I am willing to bet that the scientist that has a extremely in-depth understanding of our visual processing system and how rainbows are formed will have less rich experience of a given rainbow than someone who is entirely ignorant of science. The scientist will still have a fulfilling experience, but I suspect it will be less rich.


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