Love is only real to them if it’s a thing

Sastra has a very illuminating comment* on PZ’s The magic of denying reality.

She quotes Colin Tudge’s bad-faith misreading of Dawkins:

Everything else – including things we might think exist, like jealousy and love – derive from that material base and are to a large extent illusory.

And comments

Supernaturalists seem to have a lot of trouble trying to make sense of abstractions and levels of experience: they want to take everything literally, as irreducible substances. Love is only real to them if it’s a thing, a sort of spiritual-substance which is made of neither matter nor energy because it is the immaterial essence of love. Ironically, that makes them super-materialists — spinning material into finer and finer substances until like only comes from like. Love is derived from love. Otherwise, it can only have the same properties that were there in its origin.

Despite their claims to be so comfortable with “higher levels” of reality, supernaturalists are concrete thinkers. They can only make sense of immaterial abstractions by turning them into spirit-things in a spirit-world.

I don’t think I’d thought of that before, and it’s very damn interesting.

*Nothing unusual there.


  1. says

    Yes, I saw that after I did the post (which I did as soon as I read Sastra’s comment). Several people remarked on it. Damn good comment! Sastra won’t blog, so one just has to put her comments into posts.

  2. Jason Dick says

    Interesting insight. It opens up a potential way to maybe get through to some of these people: describe emergent properties.

    For example, wetness. We know that water is wet, but what does that mean? There is nothing about hydrogen and oxygen that we could call “wet”. In fact, in many configurations, collections of hydrogen and oxygen aren’t wet at all. The property of wetness only appears when the hydrogen and oxygen are combined into H20. And even then you don’t get wetness out of just one H20 molecule.

    The property of wetness only appears when you have a large number of them, and that property is about how this collection of molecules behave in those large numbers under the right range of temperature and pressure.

    Emotions are like that. When the right number of neurotransmitters and synapses are doing their thing in the right configuration, we categorize the feeling we experience as a result of that behavior as love or happiness or anger.

    Thus love is every bit as real as wetness is real.

  3. says

    When you look out for it, it becomes apparent that many people lack certain cognitive capabilities. Some people aren’t just wrong, (or even stubbornly wrong), but seem to lack some vital component of intelligence. They may be competent at day-to-day tasks, but when it comes to abstract reasoning, they fail.

    I think that for some people, the distinction between “love doesn’t exist”, and “love doesn’t exist in that sense” is simply beyond them.

    (That said, I don’t think Colin Tudge falls into this category. Some kind of grudge, perhaps at Dawkins being an vastly more successful author, is the more pragmatic explanation.)

  4. says

    Not only that, they also commonly think those are *conserved* quantities. I’ve been asked many times by believers where love or morality could come from if not for God, and I always answer them by asking why they think those would need to be conserved quantities, like energy is (which by the way we know: it comes from time symmetry). They tend to apply this line of reasoning to everything, which leads them to very silly conclusions. For example, they often misunderstand the 2nd law of thermodynamics as a conservation law whereas it’s the exact inverse of that: they think information is a conserved quantity because of it whereas what it says is that disorder will grow with time in an isolated system. They are conservative in every possible way.

  5. Andrew G. says

    Spot on.

    This ties in closely with something I’d noticed, which is the tendency to commit the fallacies of distribution in arguments like these:

    “Atoms aren’t capable of reasoning, but minds are, so minds must be made of something other than atoms”

    This position only makes sense if you treat “reasoning” as some sort of conserved substance rather than as an abstract process. Variations on this fallacy have been committed even by supposedly serious philosophers like Plantinga.

  6. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Bertrand, I agree with the gist of what you said, but your comments on the second law of thermodynamics are not quite true. The time evolution of an isolated system in quantum mechanics is unitary, so its entropy is constant. Increases in entropy only arise in our description of events when we pay attention to what’s going on in one part of the system and ignore what’s happening in the rest. As finite beings, we can’t avoid this, but the increase of entropy is still an emergent property.

  7. Jason Dick says

    The time evolution of a closed system is cyclic, which is not the same as constant in entropy. The time scales for this to occur for any but the most trivial of systems, however, tend to be much longer than the age of our universe.

    The notion of entropy works just fine within a closed system, because entropy isn’t related to the interaction with any external system. Fundamentally, the definition of entropy is that entropy is proportional to the logarithm of the number of microstates that can replicate a given macrostate.

    What does this mean? A microstate is the specific configuration of the system. In classical mechanics, this means knowing the exact position and motion of every particle in the system. In quantum mechanics, it means knowing the exact many-particle wavefunction of the system.

    A macrostate is a description of the large-scale properties of the system, such as density, pressure, and temperature.

    A high-entropy state is one in which the particular distribution of density, pressure, and temperature is described by a large number of individual atomic configurations, while a lower-entropy state is can be produced with fewer configurations.

    So because the description of entropy is entirely internal to the system in question, it just does not need an external system. However, for the second law of thermodynamics to have any application, the system does need to be prepared, from the start, in a low-entropy state. Then, and only then, does the second law of thermodynamics hold. And even then, it holds in a probabilistic manner (though the probabilities are so astronomical that we usually don’t have to ever worry about the second law failing).

  8. says

    Yeah, there is a notion of scale and a choice of what you mean by micro and macro state that is at the heart of the very notion of entropy. If you only look at systems with infinite precision, there isn’t even a useful notion of entropy you can define: you need to decide that there are classes of micro states that are the same macro state. At least that’s what I remember from my statistical mechanics from 20 years ago. It seemed to me that the argument could still be used in this context without specifying all the little details: in any case some people grossly misunderstand the second law by conflating entropy with their naive notion of information that they think is conserved..

  9. badjim says

    Getting back to the original point, theists generally (and Catholics always) insist that we have a non-material mind and credit the existence of autonomous non-material entities such as angels, demons and ghosts.

    Belief in non-physical “energy” is widespread even among those not conventionally religious. Although no one still espouses the phlogiston theory, some very popular beliefs, especially concerning health, are nearly cognate.

  10. fastlane says

    This type of thinking is one of the branches that the Myers-Briggs test for. (I know there are problems with MB tests, but still.)

    I know a number of people like this. They seem to have almost no ability to think in the abstract at all.

  11. David Hart says

    Hot damn, is this the same Colin Tudge that writes interesting books about agriculture and mendelian genetics and fossils? I think I like him a bit less now.


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