About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Podcast Teaser: Love, a skeptical inquiry

[from guest blogger and podcast co-host Julia Galef]

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!



  1. Massimo, you strangely avoided the bigger shot at philosophy: "I don’t think philosophy is equipped to contribute anything useful to the discussion." I hope you're thinking about a full response already!

    As for love, I think you have to discuss parent-child relationships. Physical sciences alone can't account for love. The social sciences have just as much, if not more at this point, to contribute.

  2. Socrates said the *only* thing he could talk about with any knowledge was love - well, eros, 'erotic things'. Roughly, the argument is that philosophy is about desire - for knowledge, but that erotic desire, the experience of passionate wanting, is importantly akin to the experience of wanting knowledge, as if lovers are all proto-philosophers.
    And here's to correlation not equally causation! At some point, the rational thing to do to vulgar materialists who want to talk of chemicals and such is just to start quoting love poetry.

  3. if we were forced to admit that the concepts of “soulmates” or “true” love are nonsensical, would we love less deeply?

    Well, how deeply do we love anyway? I know how deeply I love my wife, but would I love her less or more if I believed in soulmates/true love? Do I love her just as much as every other skeptic?

    Because love is such a personal matter, it's difficult to answer these questions.

    I think the amount of love you have for someone depends greatly on how emotional you generally are, and not that much on whether you're a skeptic or are skeptical of the concepts of soulmates/true love.

  4. Julia,

    Thanks for the important question! If love is just a matter of bio-chemical reactions, what then is the basis for speaking truth in love, faithfulness in love, integrity and honesty in love, honoring and respecting the other in love. Sometimes we have to act out love, even when we don’t feel love, because there are considerations higher than our bio-chemistry or even pragmatic considerations.

    In fact, leading marriage counselors have gravitated away from the emphasis upon fulfilling one’s own needs to the necessity of putting the other’s needs and respect first. For instance, John Gottman writes:

    “Without the fundamental belief that your spouse is worthy of honor and respect, where is the basis for any kind of rewarding relationship?” (65)

    However, it’s hard to derive these concepts of “honor and respect” from naturalism and materialism alone. Nor will pragmatism take us there!

  5. My evolutionary biologist's perspective: all of the "higher" functions that make us human: love, intelligence, language, poetry, music, art, storytelling, ethics, they all have one thing in common. They are all sexually selected. That is the thing that makes them all interesting and mysterious. Without that, there is no more (and no less) mystery to love than there is to elucidating the function of say, the liver.

  6. I think it's going to be hard to tackle this topic without coming off as cynical killjoys. But also, romantic love as we know it is a fairly new concept less than a 1000 years old. I think that when you analyze it, it inevitably starts to look like little more than a delusion...not that there's anything wrong with that. Some delusions are worth having. And I don't think having a rational understanding of it necessarily diminishes it.

  7. It annoys me when people single out "love" you could say there are limits to the scientific explanation for "red". But we can accurately reproduce colour with technology and understand the phenomenon that allegedly produces redness. What more would you want?

  8. Materialism/naturalism isn’t adequate to support truly and persistently loving relationships. We all want to believe in things like the “Bill of Rights” or even respect and equality. Psycho-therapists have also learned that they must treat their clients with respect and dignity if the therapeutic relationship is going to go anywhere. However, if we regard one another in a materialistic and superficial way, we should grant some respect and some disrespect, according to their contributions. Materialism can’t support concepts of essential equality and dignity of humanity. It can support only distinctions according to the way we see things.

    After all, some people contribute greatly to society and our own lives, while others represent a tremendous expense. Therefore, if we regard the latter from a strictly materialistic perspective, its “truth” would require that we treat them with disdain and disrespect. This conclusion is inevitable, although it might seem strange. However, society takes something like “equal rights for all” for granted because our thinking is still largely conditioned by our Christian heritage – however bad we might be, we are still created in the image of God, and must be treated accordingly.

    However, as we continue to loose this understanding, society will unveil horrors of which we’ve seen only a foretaste in communist/atheist nations.

  9. I bet Mann'sWord is Caliana in disguise...

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  11. @roy you just used a metaphor to explain the true meaning of a metaphor.

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  13. In fact, every concept is a metaphor.

  14. Believe me, Val, I'm not Caliana. The only question that remains is this, "Will you take up this challenge?"

  15. Well, if we could explain love scientifically, perhaps someone would start selling effective love portion.

    Of course, it would change our attitude towards love if it could be explained scientifically. How, I don’t know, and have no fictitious perdition about it either.

    What’s love? What kind of love you are talking about?

  16. The fact that a love potion is conceivable means that it cannot be considered a priori outside the domain of science.

    @roy I am still no closer to understanding why the assertion that science cannot explain love is in-fact not a reference to the human emotion commonly known as love but now applies to all of biology.

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  18. "Finally, what if we could explain love scientifically — would that change our attitude towards it?"

    Even though it can be explained scientifically, I think a salient point to address would be the role of technology in love: yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

    It's probably a bit too broad for some, but I think the culture of science and the technocracy go hand in hand.

    As for the future, all the empirical aspects of love, would be love, but brought to you by...

  19. Some further questions on this line:

    Q- Suppose science can give us a comprehensive explanation of the mechanisms of love, 'romantic obsession caused by neurotransmitter X, long term attachment caused by Y, love of children by Z', Why is it that we tend to lump these disparate phenomena under a single categorical umbrella of 'love'? Is this misguided? If not, why not?

    Q- Barring exotic pharmaceuticals, can love be controlled? Say, by rational deliberative process? If so, how? If not, what do we do about that?

    For the 'suppose science can explain love, then what?' question: personally, whenever I run into a wall (don't ask), I find whatever I know about neuroanatomy and biochemistry to be largely irrelevant to the resulting experience. I suspect most won't care about neurobiology sorting out the 'how'.

    Whatever light evolutionary biology can shed on the 'why' of human relationships (e.g. studies on the relative mass of testis compared to competition in mating in primates, and the curious placement of homo sapiens in the resulting charts) strikes me as another matter altogether.

  20. Define love.

    Define pride.

    Define sadness.

    Define disgust.

    Then do a skeptical inquiry of each in turn. :-D

  21. Eh, in my opinion it is entirely ignorant to think that philosophy doesn't have anything to contribute to the debate when actually every single question Julia raises in this post is philosophically tinged! Someone (perhaps Julia) ought to do some cultural research about why this stigma surrounds philosophy!


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