Love And God, And What Not To Say

A long one today, but it had to be said.

Over at WWJTD, JT fields one of the classic apologetic arguments from incredulity:

there are things that are undeniably real (like love, ambition, sympathy) but do not stand up to scientific rigor. We live in a world appointed with these things (love, ambition, sympathy) and they would be real even if science did not exist to explain them.

Anyone who has not seen that argument thrown around, welcome to the internet, and how have you enjoyed your first few hours here? A version of that ploy was, for me, among the more annoying scenes in Contact. It’s everywhere, and once you are sensitized to it, it’s like a slap to the face every time you see it.

It is all the more annoying because you can predict precisely what is coming next. And JT follows, right on cue:

[H]e says love “doesn’t stand up to scientific rigor.” This is, of course, horse shit. Science does study love.

Conflating love with god also doesn’t work. Love describes a state of the brain just like the words “sad,” “happy,” and “confused.”
(emphasis mine)

Aaaand there it is. An oversimplification and a framing that leads more to confusion than to clarity. Science does study love, this is true, and very important. But until very recently, the vast majority of science’s exploration of love was not neuroscience, but behavioral—social psychology, personality, developmental, and the odd paper here and there among other branches of psychology and sociology. It really is only with the relatively recent surge in popularity of cognitive neuroscience, and the popular media’s fascination with neuroimaging, that the focus has widened (not shifted) to include brain-centered examinations of love. A recent issue of Clinical Neuropsychiatry was dedicated to “Love and science: an update of latest advancements”, and even here it is clear that this perspective is not the holy grail of love research. From Clark-Polner & Clark’s contribution (pdf, if it opens):

Love is categorically complex—a poster child for a phenomenon (or, more correctly, for phenomena, as this term is used in myriad ways) the study of which must strive for conceptual precision, and make use of multiple, and various, methodological approaches. To the latter end, the field of neuroscience has recently made significant contributions to the literature on love, demonstrating the utility of novel and intriguing approaches including neuroimaging, and neurobiological analyses, to answer perennial questions about the nature of love. The methodological paradigms and theoretical foundations that this recent literature utilizes, however, differ in notable ways from those that underpin the more traditional behavioral research in this realm. The two literatures—the behavioral and the neuroscientific—have remained largely segregated, despite sharing an ultimate goal.

JT describes the gist of the behavioral approach, but begins with a common, reductionist misstep:

How do we generally know when someone’s brain is in a particular state? By clues in their behavior. A sad person might cry, a happy person might smile, etc. Those are words used to describe particular emotions that typically lead to certain behaviors. Similarly, people who love something/someone will behave in certain ways which we can often detect (usually pretty easily).

We most certainly do not know what state that other person’s brain is in. And we really don’t care. We don’t fall in love with brains; we fall in love with whole people. We do not learn what love is by comparing brain states, or even feelings. You have no access to my feelings; you cannot point to a particular feeling, or some frontal lobe or limbic activity, and say “there! That’s love!” What you do have access to, of course, is my behavior. These are not clues; my actions are what defines love. They have to be.

Love, as a concept, long predates any sort of scientific understanding of it; just look at the language—no one (well, few) would tell you “I love you with all of my brain”. Love is the property of the heart, or perhaps the liver. Brain activity is not what love is—at best, it is how love is what love is. It is an important part of the equation, but it is no more love than internal combustion is a car. Love is behavior (behavior, incidentally, is “what you do”, and obviously includes thinking and feeling; there is nothing magical about these things). Love is misunderstood, because it is behavior, and no two people have the same experience with the fuzzy class of behavior we call love. There are those whose examples of love have always been accompanied by abuse; there are those whose examples are idealized past the point of attainment; there are those for whom love is closest to a deep friendship, and those for whom it is closest to insanity. Cultures differ in their view of love, as we should expect—a brain-based view (especially one that naively assumes “love” as some single entity—which I do not see JT as supporting or not) does not predict this. From Clark-Polner & Clark, again:

”Love” means different things to different people. To some it is captured in passionate sexual feelings To others, it is embodied by mutual caring. Some experience love as one-sided; others as reciprocal. Love has been described as exhilarating, but also as involving a sense of calm and security. At times it can be wonderful, but the same relationship may also cause pain, if circumstances change. The Oxford English Dictionary alone lists more than 800 distinct uses of the term, and psychologists themselves have defined love in many different ways. Simply put, a reference to “love” appears to be fuzzy.

This fuzziness has been demonstrated empirically: Fehr (1988) has performed a prototype analysis of the ways in which people use the term “love”, and found not only that there is no one way in which it is used, but also that there is neither a sufficient, nor a necessary, set of attributes for its use. People, it appears, do not define love for themselves in clear ways with clear boundaries. Instead they find a number of attributes that together suggest the presence of love with some of these attributes tending to be more central to their conceptualizations—e.g. trust, caring—and others more peripheral—e.g. butterflies in the stomach.

If love is not “a” thing even to those experiencing it, there is no way it is “a” state of the brain. And always remember, our brains are not generating thoughts and feeling from nothing, but are processing complex situations—the situation, not the brain, is the cause of the feeling.

Love is something that we learn by watching whole people interacting with other whole people, and it is something that we do as whole people interacting with other whole people. Reducing it to brain activity does not explain it, any more than explaining fast-twitch muscle fibers explain why a person is running. The concept is defined at an interpersonal level, and that’s where the best of the science is at this point. Brain activity, as complex as it may be, is a vast oversimplification of love, which typically involves at least two brains, in bodies, in a complex social and physical environment, over an extended period of time—and each of these additional variables adds tremendous complexity to the concept. (But, hey, the popular media love brains—it’s almost a fetish—and jump at the notion of “if we see it in the brain, we’ve explained it.”)

Fortunately, using the appropriate level of analysis helps tremendously. A neurochemical analysis of the vast landscape of love is a bit like a molecular analysis of a hurricane. Sure, a hurricane is simply molecules of air and water… but if you want to study it at that level, you won’t save any lives. The whole, complex system can be studied at a system-wide level with tremendous success, even if we will not be able to predict which particular roofs will be lost, or the precise number of drops of water that will fall on a particular square inch of land. Researchers have, of course, learned a great deal about love at the interpersonal level. Perhaps a better course than asserting that love is “a state of the brain”, and thus is fodder for scientific research, we could point to, just maybe, the actual decades of history of scientific research on love. You could point to a recent article, perhaps Hatfield et al (2012) “A brief history of social scientists’ attempts to measure passionate love”. Hatfield was one of the first researchers to explore this particular aspect of love, decades ago:

What a change has occurred in 40+ years! Today, scholars from a wide variety of theoretical disciplines—anthropologists, clinical psychology, communication studies, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychologists, historians, neurobiologists, neuroscientists, primatologists, social psychologists and sociologists, among others, are attempting to understand the nature of love
(p. 154, grammatical errors in the original)

It’s a bit late in the history of our language to start to refer to love in the plural; colloquially, we see love as one thing—a platonic ideal, if you will—that causes all sorts of behaviors, or “clues” as JT put it. But linguistic fossils surround us—sunrises and sunsets don’t preclude our understanding of a rotating earth orbiting a sun. But we can accept that our language gets it wrong sometimes, and even that popular media get it wrong (where is my fainting couch?!?). Love is not a brain state, nor a chemical reaction in the brain, nor even a complex biochemical state.

It’s far more complicated than that.

And isn’t that wonderful?


  1. Die Anyway says

    > “…arguments from incredulity”

    or God-of-the-gaps. “The state of scientific knowledge in 2012 can’t explain X, therefore God.” So pedestrian. How about the state of scientific knowledge in 2112 or 2312? Or, dare we think it, 3012! Somehow I suspect that there will still be plenty of incredulity hanging around — I have very little faith in mankind, I’ve worked at a help desk — but the gap arguments of today are going to be feeble as the gaps get more and more miniscule.
    Now where did I put my time machine?

  2. Randomfactor says

    Simply put, a reference to “love” appears to be fuzzy.

    And STILL better-defined than “god.”

    I’ll leave “love” and “god” defined as psychological states and be mostly satisfied with both definitions. I suspect the theist won’t want to make the comparison anymore on that basis, though.

  3. Crudely Wrott says

    . . . no one would tell you . . . “I love you with all of my brain”.

    Now, wait a minute. I think that declaration has potential. I think I’ll try it out with my grandsons (11 and 13 years old). Their responses might be illuminating! I’ll get back to you about that.

    This post brought to mind a quote that my seventh grade mathematics teacher had posted across the top of her blackboard. Yes, black board. Here it is:

    We live in a world of symbols and abstractions and many a man dies by his own cliches.

    I cannot remember the author although I think I remember that first and last names might begin with the letter “M”. I could be wrong. I’m going back to 1964 here. If anyone has an attribution I would be so delighted.

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