“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery … It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.” — Carl Sagan
SUMMARY: I reject the notion that the sciences rob love of beauty and mystery.
(About a 4 minute read)
Love is probably the best thing most of us will ever experience in life. This fact is made even more astonishing when you consider that life also includes blogging, and yet love amazingly edges out blogging even in the minds of otherwise sensible people when it comes to the best things in life.
But what is love?
There seem upon examination to be so many kinds of love that it would be perfectly understandable if the question, “what is love”, made us all go off into a corner, suck our thumbs, and whimper. At least, I think it would be perfectly understandable. But then, going off into a corner, sucking my thumb, and whimpering is what I do with about a quarter of my day, especially after reading the news headlines.
Some folks try to deal with the confusing number of different kinds of love by deciding that only one of them is “true” love and all the others are false versions of it. I myself, however, no more buy into that than I would the alarming notion there is only one true blog and it’s not mine. To me, all kinds of love are true in the same sense that all blogs are true blogs, even if they’re not my blog.
When it comes to love, then, I recognize — among other kinds of love — parent/child love, erotic love, romantic love, and attached love (Attached love being commonly experienced by long-term couples).
Here, I am singling out those four kinds of love from the rest because the four have been the subject of much scientific study dating all the way back to the 1970s. It was in the 70s that scientists began
to date and marry the chemicals they were studying to discover human emotions were linked to chemicals.
For instance, erotic love is associated with testosterone, romantic love is associated with a group or set of chemicals dominated by dopamine, and attached love is associated with oxytocin. But — as it happens — parent/child love is associated with oxytocin too. Which means the same chemical can be associated with two different kinds of love. So what exactly is the role of the chemicals of love?
Apparently, their main function is to create the actual physical feelings we associate with love. In the case of erotic love, that would mainly be horniness
which is one of the four known emotions experienced by teenage boys, along with hunger, a desire to drive fast, and flatulence, assuming flatulence is an emotion. In the case of romantic love, that would be everything from intense pleasure and light-hearted giddiness in the company of our beloved to intense longing in their absence. In the case of attached love, that would be the “warm and fuzzies”, as they’re called. And the same warm and fuzzy feelings seem present in parent/child love.
The feelings are powerful motivators. You not only feel intense pleasure in the presence of your beloved, but you crave staying in his or her presence.
So is that it? Is that all there is to love, then?
Of course not. The different kinds of love also seem to be based on different ways the brain is wired. Brain scans of people in love show that different areas of the brain are used for erotic, romantic, and attached love. Presumably, this is also true of parent/child love. So, at the very least, the different kinds of love seem to involve both chemical and neural components.
Beyond that, it seems that the different kinds of love are emergent properties of their physiological bases. An emergent property of something is a property or trait of a thing that is greater than the sum of its parts.
For instance, your favorite sweater might be comprised of yarn and various food stains, but it is obviously more than just yarn and food stains. If it was only yarn and food stains, then any old random collection of yarn and food stains would be a sweater.
In the same way, it appears that the various loves are more than the mere sum of their chemical and neural parts.
Some folks seem to feel that, as the sciences discover more about love, love is somehow debased or devalued. I myself don’t buy into that view. To me, it’s like saying if we know how a sweater is made, it cannot become our favorite.
X-rays have shown that the Mona Lisa is built up of over 200 exceedingly thin layers of paint. Now that we know how the Mona Lisa was made, is it any less beautiful? I don’t think the sciences distract at all from the beauty of love.
As for the mystery of love, I think the sciences tend to replace ignorance — and ignorant opinions — about love with genuine mysteries. The two things are often confused. If, in my ignorance of knitting, I think sweaters are made by fairies and declare it a mystery how they make sweaters, is there any real value to a “mystery” based on such ignorance?
But if I know a little bit about yarn and wonder precisely why the thin fibers hold together as strings without glue, am I not onto a real mystery? And if I learn the answer is “friction”, then does not that prompt me to wonder exactly what causes friction? And so forth, until I am pondering the very nature of the universe.
To me, the fact that love is based on chemicals and neural connections makes me wonder — among many other things — how we can possibly be aware of it? That in turn raises the problem of consciousness, which I define as normal, day to day, awareness. But how consciousness comes about turns out to be a huge mystery.
In sum, the notion that the sciences rob love — or anything else — of its beauty and mystery makes little or no sense to me. Then again, neither do most things.