Hey there, rational readers! I’m honored to be Massimo’s guest blogger and co-host of the upcoming Rationally Speaking podcast for the NYC Skeptics. Since our second episode is scheduled to air the week of Valentine's Day, we couldn’t resist making that show's topic, “The Skeptic’s Guide to Love.”
I do realize that raising this subject risks fueling the widespread and irritating misconception that “skeptic” = “cynical killjoy,” which is the last thing I want to do. So, please let the record show that I am enthusiastically pro-love. (Also pro-kindness, pro-motherhood, and pro-puppies, in case anyone’s keeping track.)
And yet... just like other mysterious and unexplained phenomena (see: “consciousness“), love makes people reach for metaphysical explanations, and that makes me reach for my skep-tools. I've noticed that many people seem to think of love as some sort of immaterial essence that is either present or absent, such as the soul. To them, “love” isn’t just the name we give to a certain set of emotions, it’s another entity altogether, of which the emotions are merely a symptom. That’s why you hear people talk about how they do or don’t “believe in” love, or about whether love exists — again, similar to the way people talk about the soul.
However, as good skeptics, what do we do when faced with a mysterious and unexplained phenomenon? We look for explanations! Science has already found correlations between particular hormones and certain forms or stages of love. Dopamine is associated with romantic obsession, and oxytocin and vasopressin with long-term attachment. Evolutionary biologists also have some theories about why love developed (pair bonding was necessary to raise our helpless human young, for example).
But will science ever really be able to explain love? No matter how many correlations we find between brain activity and love, correlation is not causation. You could even argue that, just like other qualia, the actual experience of being in love is a subjective, private phenomenon that can never be studied scientifically because each occurrence of the phenomenon has only one observer.
An aside: scientists aren’t the only ones who have tried to explain love. Philosophers since the Greeks have also considered it their domain. Personally, I don’t think philosophy is equipped to contribute anything useful to the discussion. (You’re going to disagree with me on this one, aren’t you Massimo? Bring it!)
[Massimo’s note: well, philosophy isn’t suppose to “explain” things in the manner in which science does, it is supposed to reflect on things and analyze their meanings for the human experience.]
Finally, what if we could explain love scientifically — would that change our attitude towards it? Would the knowledge that this transcendent feeling is generated by the presence of a particular chemical in our brain detract from the transcendence? And if we were forced to admit that the concepts of “soulmates” or “true” love are nonsensical, would we love less deeply?
Massimo and I have our own thoughts on the matter, of course, but we want to hear yours. Leave us your comments below, dear readers, and we look forward to discussing them in Episode #2 of Rationally Speaking: The Podcast!