What is Love? Baby Don’t Hurt Me …

James McGrath posted this a few days ago:


James wasn’t impressed, and neither am I. Clearly this is reductionism. I don’t believe that reductionism is the mortal sin that many people seem to believe it is, but doesn’t mean that it’s always useful.

First, remember BF Skinner’s maxim: A change in a theory about a thing does not change the thing being theorized about. So whether you believe that your experience of love comes from a chemical state of the brain or it beamed down to your receiver by angels, the experience itself remains the same. And it is the experience of being in love that we’re concerned about.

Also remember the practical implications of emergence: there is no better way to talk about a phenomena than at the level that it occurs. So, for example, you could try to describe the motion of a river in terms of the water molecules, but this would require massive amounts of processing power and would never be less than awkward. Instead, we use fluid dynamics. While this is probably less precise, it is more efficient, intuitive and practical.

Talking about love – or any emotion – at the level of neurons isn’t practical. There’s simply too much going on, and our brains are such a kludge. There really is no better way of talking about our experiences of emotion than at the level of emotion.

A bit later, McGrath posted this SMBC comic:

This makes another good point. The universe may consist of only molecules and motion. If it does, then it makes no sense to say that anything is “just” material, because everything is “just” material. It becomes much more important to discuss the different ways that the things we observe emerge from that material basis.


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