Love is chemicals, and I am grateful

The problem with a naturalistic world view is that everything is just a bunch of chemicals bouncing around, and nothing means anything. The only way to produce any meaning is if there are a few supernatural spirits bouncing around too.  You know, so they can moan about the meaning of life, the nature consciousness, and objective morality.  Or something like that.

But let’s be real. Chemicals are not “just” chemicals. Quarks and leptons can be quarks and leptons, while at the same time forming chemical structures. Likewise, a chemical can be a chemical, while at the same time forming a person. When we say that love is “just” chemicals, it is not a statement of fact, it is an aesthetic.

A common criticism of naturalism is that it forces us into the “just chemicals” aesthetic. But that’s just one of many aesthetics available to us. If you want to say “love is free yet binds us“, I don’t entirely know what that means, but it seems consistent with reality too. Aesthetics are a matter of preference.

“Love is just chemicals” is an aesthetic I prefer, and I think you should prefer it too. The chief point is that chemicals permit diversity. Love can be experienced in a variety of ways, or not at all, and that’s okay.

Chemistry as metaphor

When we say love is chemicals, this is based on a scientific understanding, but the actual understanding is very shallow. Most people who talk about this understand little of chemistry. Or if they do understand chemistry, they probably don’t understand brain chemistry. The more I think about it, it’s not really about chemistry at all. Chemistry is just a metaphor, onto which we project various associations.

One association is determinism. Chemicals aren’t actually deterministic, but perhaps that’s besides the point. The “determinism” isn’t really about the chemicals themselves, it’s about how we can’t control love. Or alternatively, it’s about how we can’t be blamed for love. (Note that chemicals can in fact do blameworthy things–crimes are chemicals too after all. That’s why I’m advocating this view as applied to love, and not as applied to crimes.)

A second association is chaos and incomprehensibility. Presumably working chemists do not view chemicals as incomprehensible. But in any case, love is unpredictable, difficult to understand, and comes in many forms.

A third association is the annihilation of other aesthetics. If someone says love is the most wonderful emotion that humans can experience, I can say, “Bah! Love is chemicals!” In saying this, I refute nothing, but I effectively expresses distaste for the other aesthetic.

How chemicals permit diversity

I dislike most other aesthetics of love, because they are too celebratory. To give an example, here is the grossest quote I could find with just a bit of searching:

To the Christian, indeed I might say to the sane man, and certainly to all “pre-post-modern” men, love was the highest ideal, the supreme lasting virtue1, that which “moves the sun and the other stars2” even that which is the essence of the All High God.3

-“Is Love Really Just Chemical Reactions in the Brain? Looking at Reductionism with CS Lewis

If love is the highest ideal, or the essence of God, what does that say about people who don’t experience love? Or how about people who aren’t sure they experience love in quite the same way that is endorsed by those Biblical citations? This is not hypothetical, this is real. Aromantics are sick of this shit. I’m gray-romantic and in a relationship, and I am sick of this shit. I am not sure that I experience love in the same way that other people do (comparisons of private experiences are hard), but it feels like people are calling me inhuman. It’s fine if people are fans of love, but when fans think they’re better than everyone else, the fandom is clearly getting out of hand.

That’s why I like the view of love as chemicals, because nobody can be held morally responsible for who they love. If you love someone, or love multiple people, or no one at all, or you’re not sure, it’s just chemicals. I like that chemistry “explains” why people experience love in different ways. They’re chemicals, they’re complicated!

It’s funny how people are so preoccupied with the idea that love is not just chemicals, but are hardly preoccupied with whether humor is just chemicals, whether fear is just chemicals, or whether pride is just chemicals. It’s as if none of this has to do with brain chemistry at all. It’s all an exercise in reinforcing cultural values.

Well I am having none of it. Love is not the only worthwhile thing in this world, and the laws of the universe do not revolve around love.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *