All you need is love?

I had an odd experience last week, when I was part of a panel discussion on Islam and Evolution at Hampshire College.

As part of my presentation, I argued that Darwinian evolution counts against the notion of a supernatural designer, even though it does not strictly imply that there is no theistic God. And I made it pretty clear that I was representing a naturalistic, nonreligious point of view.

I didn’t know exactly what to do with one of the questions afterwards. A man from the audience asked me if I had any children. I said I didn’t, upon which he nodded knowingly and said something about “love.” I don’t remember his exact comment, but the implication was I had to be deficient in the love department, and that I was taking an overly analytical approach to religion. If I had children, presumably, I wouldn’t be so skeptical.

I doubt that. But then I would, wouldn’t I? The whole love business is one of those unanswerable objections—not because it makes a good point, but because quite literally, there is no answer I can give that could satisfy the questioner.

I shrugged it off, and in a minute we went on to another question. Still, there’s something odd about the whole experience. This isn’t the first time that a believer responded to my skepticism by suggesting that I must suffer from some emotional deficiency, though this is the most public incident so far. There is something curious about how, knowing practically nothing about me, some people have felt free to jump to conclusions about some personal lack. I don’t know if I can do anything but shrug this sort of thing off.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • M. Tully

    Well how about, "No, I don't have children, but I'm not sure what bearing that has on the evidence that was presented here today. Do you have a reason for asking that question?"

    Make them state the underlying assumptions. They lose all of their power when they are said out loud.

  • Taner Edis

    That's more or less how I responded. But I also think that didn't get at the intuition that was driving the question.

  • Peter

    As M. Tully suggests, ask him if he'd mind expanding. A single, enigmatic word isn't enough. Then you can attempt to answer.

    If he's suggesting YOU are deficient in the love department, then perhaps you can point to people you do love! I'm sure you have plenty.

    You may not have children, but plenty of us do! At the bottom of the pile – me! At the top, Richard Dawkins. Of course we love our kids!

    A few other rejoinders.

    Just because we want to understand things like love doesn't mean we will stop experiencing them! He might just as well suggest that, through attempting to understand the mechanisms of human vision, we will go blind.

    Is love outside the purview of science? Are we wasting our time trying to understand the phenomenon better? Perhaps, from a practical point of view, at the moment it is, simply because we haven't really cracked how qualia arise. But does that mean it is inherently something that can't yield to rational analysis? Not necessarily. We only stumbled upon evolution 150 years ago. The mechanisms through which it works were only brought into focus after 1950. We are just beginning to explore the idea that emotions and other mental processes have evolved in the same way. We may feel a degree of excitement and privilege that we are alive as some of these discoveries are being made, but it would be a bit naive to imagine we're going to be around to see the whole thing cleared up.

    Finally, my own reaction to that question is, succinctly: WTF?

    I would take that as a straight insult. How dare a complete stranger cast aspersions on my character in that way? How would he feel? If the basis of love is or ability to emphathise, then he's not making much of an attempt himself!

  • Hugo

    If you do have some emotional deficiency I think it is not because of your skepticism or lack of kids.
    I completely agree with that statement about evolution so to shrug it off you can point to me, a skeptical, anti theist, anti religion, atheist with 2 kids.
    Having kids made this part of me even more prominent because I want to be independent thinkers but also as probably one of the most important people in their lives I want to be the best role model I can be!

  • Philip

    I think the Love Argument, which can be found in the movie, Contact, as I recall, is supposed to count against an atheist’s methodological case against faith in general. The point is that even an atheist needs faith in something, assuming the atheist is in love with someone, because part of loving someone is trusting in the person in spite of evidence that would justify a lack of trust from an objective viewpoint.

    One response to this is to give up on a methodological case against faith in general, assuming any atheist even says that faith, in the sense of trust in spite of evidence, is always the wrong attitude.

    Another obvious response is to say the Love Argument rests on a weak analogy, since there are many relevant differences between trust in a fellow human and trust in a personal creator of the universe. The former kind of trust rests on plenty of evidence in favour of the person’s existence in the first place, not to mention evidence of a track record of the person’s behavior that warrants the leap of trust that the person will continue to behave in the same way. There’s no such evidence for God; for example, there’s no direct perception of God.

    Still, the response might be that the difference is only one of degree. Technically, there’s no direct perception of a fellow human, since there’s some neural processing and thus interpretation of what’s directly perceived, to arrive at the perception of a whole person. Likewise, a theist could say that God is indirectly perceived, through our perception of God’s handiwork.

    The response then should be that the difference in degree is massive: the amount of interpretation of the perceptual evidence of a beloved human’s existence is minimal compared to the interpretation of such evidence of a personal divinity. So the theistic leap of faith is much more irrational.

    (The theist might say there’s some evidence from cognitive science that theistic, or psychological and teleological, interpretation of God as the Creator is just as hardwired as the interpretation in the perception of a human or of anything else our brains are naturally selected to identify. Some of this evidence is found in the book, Supernatural Agents.)

  • Hugo

    PZ once said to a catholic:

    If you continue to believe in love without evidence you're a stalker.

    And I do think PZ was right ;)

  • Dave

    I can relate to his point. Having children was a powerful experience for me, and it made me much more aware of how tragic our mortality is. When my kids have asked me what happens after we die, I've wished more than anything that I could say that we'll always be together. Some people without children of their own may have the same level of awareness and empathy, but I know that I didn't have it this bad before my first child came along.

    Of course, love doesn't trump truth. I lost my religion after our kids were born. I want to be happy, but I want to be honest and know the truth, even if it makes me less so.

  • baileythebookworm

    It's been suggested to me, as a book reviewer, that I must have no idea what love is since I disliked such-and-such a story or character. In a situation where real life, science and theology are the questions, the idea of love as an argument against a logical viewpoint is even more ludicrous.

  • M. Tully

    "That's more or less how I responded. But I also think that didn't get at the intuition that was driving the question."

    Not surprising. I think sometimes those of us in the evidence based community (myself included) don't want to spell things out in the simplest of terms for fear of offending (condescending).

    There is a line to be drawn somewhere, but insufficient data to decide where. Where are the sociologists when you need them (never thought I would say that)?

    Maybe the best we can do is keep pushing the bar down (or alternately, start it on the floor) and then move it as we go.

  • Sabio Lantz

    I am sure it was not helpful.
    But I must say, I think most of us find philosophies that match and support our dispositions. Few use truth to try and alter themselves.
    (Not trying to be the devil's advocate, but advocate of a principle)

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis said: “ I don't remember his exact comment, but the implication was I had to be deficient in the love department, and that I was taking an overly analytical approach to religion. If I had children, presumably, I wouldn't be so skeptical.

    Perhaps the questioner was kind of rude, but I think there is a point to be made here. Let me start at the beginning:

    According to theism the fundamental structure of reality is personal (indeed that of a perfect personal being, God), and not mechanical as naturalism has it. Therefore according to theism the deepest and most overarching explanations are psychological rather than mathematical. To the degree we can reach such explanations we have to understand God’s experience and values, and this can only be achieved by analogy to our experience and values. Love plays a central role in motivating personal decisions, so to understand God’s love for us goes a long way explaining why God has created us living in the experiential environment we do.

    Now in many peoples’ experience parental love is a special, indeed surprising experience: Parental love is easily selfless and unconditional, precisely the kind of love God is supposed to have for us (for that’s the best kind of love and therefore the kind of love a perfect being would have). Parental love though has another characteristic: It is a tough love, a love that tends to move one not to try to give one’s children the easiest and most pleasurable kind of life, but rather a kind of life where they can in some important sense grow, or to use bishop Spong’s words, “to be all they can be”. One might think that parents feel their love must be tough only because of the way reality is, namely one where one needs interior strength in order to survive. But I think it goes much deeper than this, as can be illustrated by the following thought experiment:

    Imagine that an extraterrestrial from a far more technologically advanced civilization visits and befriends a parent of a few days old child. Suppose further the parent is an atheist and is therefore not influenced by religion’s more exacting implications. Now the extraterrestrial offers the following: That they be allowed to take the child and put its brain (which after all is what produces its experience of life) in a vat of nutrients, plug it into a computer, and give that child the best and most pleasurable possible life according to the characteristics of human psychology. Further the clinical conditions of the set-up would guarantee that the child would have the longest physically possible life span. Would the parent accept the offer? I think not, and the question is why not. If the parent really believed that having a long, easy, pleasurable, and secure life is what’s most worth having, then the parent would have agreed.

    The idea that pleasure is not the greatest good is I think a very deeply felt idea that cuts through all of human civilization. Ancient Greeks thought that to look for pleasure is a good ethical principle for cows but not for people. Kazantzakis wrote that the most important thing in life is to struggle, and it is interesting that the Greek word for “struggle” namely “agon” is the root of the modern word “agony”. It is through the agony of struggle we realize the greatest value of life. Dürrenmatt’s play “Mission to Vega” takes this idea to its most extreme expression.

  • Mark

    I think you may well be right that there was literally nothing you could've said to satisfy the man. If you really did conform to the archetype of the myopic and emotionally stunted rationalist in his mind, then of course it's pointless to try to explain to him the ad hominem fallacy he's making because that's exactly what such a person would say!

  • Jamie Savage

    I have two children and they have reinforced my beliefs on religion. They probably reinforced that mans beliefs also. Our purpose in life is to survive, and since we can't live for ever, we reproduce. This is true across the entire spectrum of life. A single cell organism can stand alone, or trillions of cells can work together with a common purpose. Its like altruism on a microscopic level.

  • Jamie Savage

    We should look at our bodies for evidence of evolution. We have the ability to heal ourselves. Why can't we heal all of our cells? If a neuron in our brain dyes, we can not restore that cell. Trumatic brain injuries would have hamperd our ability to reproduce. Just like injuries to the reproductive organs, many of those cells can not be replaced. If you can't reproduce, you can't evolve. Evolution is a learning process. Life is a learning process.