The Chemistry of Love

I saw this image on Facebook recently:

While some object that there aren’t really people who engage in scientism and reductionism, that it is a caricature, clearly whoever made this image thinks that love and oxytocin are equivalent in some respect – although what in fact the heart represents is itself open to discussion, I suppose.

But at any rate, I do think that there is a danger to fail to do justice to different levels of reality. Understanding how a car functions is not the same as driving one from point A to point B. Understanding the physics of music does not mean that it cannot be experienced as beautiful. And the fact that any experience of love is rooted in brain and body chemistry with an evolutionary history, need not be taken to mean that our relationships are reducible to chemical formulas.

The above Sans Science cartoon is a response to the XKCD cartoon purity.

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  • David Evans

    If increased levels of oxytocin can lead to increased levels of love, that does have some troubling consequences:

    Suppose A and B are in a developing relationship. B fears that A will desert him/her, so bribes a doctor (when A is under anaesthetic for minor surgery) to insert an oxytocin pump in A. B controls the pump remotely, and uses it when he/she feels insecure. Does A “really” love B at those times?

    Christians are commanded to love God and to love their neighbour. Should oxytocin be a sacrament?

  • Ian

    The problem is not one of philosophy or science, I think, but of linguistics.

    What does Love mean? Words, I think, just are conventional labels we assign to a bunch of situations or things.

    So a discussion about whether a hormone controls Love is just a discussion about what ‘Love’ ‘really’ means. Which is silly, because no word ‘really’ means anything at all.

    So someone who is determined that Love not be a hormonal activity will simply find a bunch of stuff they’d classify as love that isn’t hormonal (and, if they were scientific enough they could measure oxytocin levels at the appropriate times and show they were not elevated).

    Whereas someone determined to make it so would point to a series of experiences or behaviours that would conventionally be called ‘love’ but are correlated. Which, indeed, is how the oxytocin is a love hormone thing came about in the first place.

    Someone else may point to the fact that love is not an individual thing at all, but a social matrix involving lots of people, cultural norms, legal frameworks and so on, so cannot possibly be a product of individual hormonal response.

    And so on.

    But notice that although these people think they are arguing over whether love is a hormonal reaction, what they are actually arguing over is whether their definition of love should be ‘true’ one.

    Wittgenstein was right, much of what pretends to be philosophical profundity is a pointless argument over the definition of words.

    • arcseconds

      Well, we could call it a semantic argument, I suppose 🙂

      While we might gain some conceptual clarity and avoid some morass by not saying ‘love is really only oxytocin’ but rather something like ‘we should clear up our love-talk by making the word ‘love’ a synonym for the symptoms of heightened oxytocin levels’, there is still a genuine debate here, or at least, there could be. Just because we recognise it’s a debate about what the word should mean, doesn’t stop there being a debate about it. Changing the meaning of a word is no small matter.

      And we do change meanings of words fairly deliberately, sometimes. ‘Fish’ once unproblematically included whales, but we’ve now largely accepted that it does not. Here, as a society, we’ve decided to follow scientific ideas as to what animals belong together with our usage of ‘fish’. We’ve probably gained some conceptual clarity by doing so, but I think this is more evidence of the authority science has in our society (and the fact that we haven’t done so with all our common language terms for living things shows the limits of this — ‘fruit’ and the occasional insistence that it should follow the botanical definition shows us something here, I think).

      So someone asserting a love-oxytocin equivalence is definitely saying something quite distinctive. They want us to follow through with ‘love’ like we did with ‘fish’. They’re probably commiting themselves (and want to commit us) to something like the following:

      *) common language terms should map on to scientific natural kinds when possible

      *) reductionism – scientific natural kinds are to be identified with some kind of arrangement of the most basic constituents, without the loss of anything meaningful.

      *) a certain kind of cynicism regarding love, and probably feelings in general. They’re not the deep, wonderful, important things that people think they are. This needs to be recognised by everyone — away with poets and romantics!

      *) when people talk of ‘love’, they’re largely talking about the feeling. The feeling is largely caused by oxytocin.

      *) any other phenomena currently covered by ‘love’ don’t need to be covered by ‘love’, because they’re not really very important, and may well be meaningless blither-blather that we’re better else without.

      *) in particular, who cares about social matrices and convention. that sounds suspiciously like sociology, and we all know it’s unscientific claptrap. Neurochemistry is where it’s at.

      That all amounts to a pretty substantive position, involving claims about both fact and value, that one could robustly disagree with an argue against. It’s not just some kind of free-floating preference for using ‘love’ to mean certain things and not others.

      Returning to my opening statement, by saying it’s really all just about meanings of words, while I’m not denying that’s an important point in some sense, it seems to me it’s also a rhetorical manuœvre not unlike the one the oxytocin crowd makes. By identifying love with oxytocin they assert the unimportance of love (or certainly the unimportance of anything other than neurochemistry that might be involved) , and by saying this is a semantic debate you’re asserting the unimportance of the discussion.

      One way in which transforming the topic from a discourse concerning love’s identity to a discourse concerning how we want to use the word ‘love’ is an important point is that it dissolves the implicit knowledge claim that people are making when they say things like ‘X is really just Y’. They claim to have knowledge the rest of us don’t have, which is part of the attraction of the position, and they aren’t really entitled to this, at least not in a straightforward sense.

  • My guess is that the cartoonist simply wanted to spur a discussion just like this one.

    My main problem is with the notion that “scientism” or “reductionism” is a danger of any kind. Just because a scientist studies “love” at a hormonal level does not mean that he/she fails to value love at a human level. Studying the mathematics behind harmonies does not lessen our appreciation of music.

    Usually, when I see the accusation of “scientism” or “reductionism” levelled against someone, it’s usually because that person is an atheist (especially an atheist who is vocal and makes arguments for the position of atheism). Such atheists generally experience loving relationships, appreciate good music, and have a meaningful moral system at work in their lives, as do most of us. Whatever they may be “reducing”, they still value the emergent experiences that come with being human.

    The word “scientism” seems to imply that there are those who devalue human experience by reducing it to it’s component parts. Certainly there are those who may devalue religious belief. But that’s not the same thing as devaluing emergent human experiences. Who really practices “scientism”?

  • Incidentally, Jerry Coyne, over at “Why Evolution is True” is a great example of someone frequently accused of “scientism – he is an atheist and argues that free will is an illusion.

    I noticed with interest, two posts he made side by side recently:

    The first is an appreciation for hospital workers who allowed a dying woman to spend time with her cat, while on her deathbed.

    Immediately following is a post explaining why Coyne thinks we should remove the concept of morality from our ethical systems.

    He makes some good arguments (such as an ethical system in which prison is about rehabilitation rather than retribution), but whether or not you agree with him, the accusation of “scientism” doesn’t seem to fit this cat and jazz loving biologist.

    • His love of cats and appreciation of people suggests that he does a good job of being both/and, even if he uses either/or rhetoric.

      • James,

        Sorry that this questions comes about 10 days late, but what do you mean by “either/or rhetoric”?

        • I meant that his language sometimes sounds as though it would render love for cats, jazz, or a nice pair of boots thoroughly devoid of any meaning that is not done justice to by description in scientific terms. As in your example – he seems to be able to appreciate certain choices as morally praiseworthy, and yet to also deny that morality or choice exists.

    • spinkham

      There’s exactly one person I know of who the scientism label seems to fit, and that’s Alex Rosenberg, with his Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Nobody else is quite as consistent as he is about it, which I predict will make him seen as either extremely prescient or laughable in the future, and even though I’m sympathetic to much of his argument, I’m still leaning towards the latter.

  • John Wilkins

    I think you overstate the “danger” here. Sure, some folks want to say that love is “just” this or that, but in the end we all live with the entire range of emotional and physical and social responses attached to the term. Oxytocin is a thing we have learned about emotional attachments. Won’t change the way I feel about my kids or partner, just explicate it.

    The real danger is when people want to assert that this or that aspect of human existence is a Deep Mystery We Were Not Meant To Understand. That is always an invitation to control by those who guard these Mysteries.

    • My own view is not that there are things that we are not meant to understand. I don’t find an understanding of the chemistry in which relationships and bonding are rooted to be incompatible with the experience of human relationships, any more than understanding the physics of sound requires one to no longer consider music beautiful. It is the rhetoric of either/or that I find problematic. I think love is rooted in chemistry and our evolutionary history – and still, on the experiential level, full of mystery and depth and poetry even though we understand so much about the natural processes that undergird it.

  • plectrophenax

    It’s the word ‘actually’ that made me smile. Oh, what a whole world of metaphysics is conjured up by that, or at any rate, a part of a world! Is there an actuality then where love is a diagram? But the diagram ‘actually’ represents something else. So we seem to stagger on, wheels within wheels, or maybe linguistic games within games. Is it semantical-farcical-actual, or maybe tragical-comical-veridical?.