What is Love?

This is a challenge atheists often get in debates: what is love? Or ‘how do you know love is real?’. I’m not sure whether it is a fair challenge, because the implication that atheists don’t (or shouldn’t) believe in it is clear. However, it should give the atheist the opportunity to make a few key points about evidence (and still come off as a romantic). I suspect is it actually an attempt at ridicule to either make the worldview look bland, or to hear love reduced down to its biochemistry.

There are several types of love, as we know. We don’t love our friends in the same way we love our partners and spouses. Those types of love are different again from the love we have for our genetic (and extended) family. And first love is experiential. You experience love. I love. You can’t feel my experiences* and so my experience is not evidence for you. If I am experiencing love only I get the direct evidence. But if I give you the testimonial that I love, can you test my claim?

*yet. There are a lot of claims that science may be able to upload and transfer experiences. It’s a part of a technological movement called ‘Transhumanism’. It’s currently a science-fiction.

Of course you can. On top of being experiential, ‘love’ also describes certain types of interactions between people. If you have ever said “I think he loves her” or if you have ever observed a mother act motherly to her child then you have witnessed someone experiencing love and expressing itself as an interaction. The people could be faking it. You cannot know with 100% certainty that the interactions you are witnessing actually related to a person experiencing love. But 100% certainty is a red herring (as any philosophy student could tell you). The longer you see two people interacting and the longer the loving behaviour continues the more confident you can be that at least one of those people is experiencing love.

You could call the interactions an act: a misleading behaviour to be socially acceptable (in the example of a mother and child) or secure a sexual partner (in the example of two partners) or because the act is at a theatre**. But at this stage you could investigate the ‘love experience’ at a biochemical level. You could analyse dopamine and serotonin and cortisol levels, and read fMRI scans. Part of love is the biochemical process.

**you should be able to think rationally about the acts you see at a theatre once the show has finished.

But for the record, the biochemical part isn’t the part that matters. I would be happy to do away with the biochemical part and experience love as a supernatural phenomenon separate from any physical reality; a supernatural love. Love would be worth no less (or more) so long as the experience is the same.

8 thoughts on “What is Love?”

  1. I don’t see the problem. Love exists as a feeling in our brains. So what? If religious people only claimed that god exists as a feeling in their brains, everyone would be ok with it. It just doesn’t mean that god exists outside their brains – as the feeling of love does not imply that cupid exists outside my brain 🙂

    1. The broader point I’m trying to get at is that atheists do not live a sentiment-free life. I do hold to certain values, and the importance and wealth of experience is one of them. The fact that a thing can exist at an experiential level is a beautiful thing.
      The other broad point is that your experiences actually can be demonstrated, so it is not impractical to live your life only believing things to which evidence can be apportioned; apportion your beliefs to the evidence.

  2. Hi,
    Robin Claire here. First of all, you know I’m a Christian. I’m the one who asked the question of the Atheist community what their experience of love was. If you have a few minutes, you might read my Pages on my blog regarding my testimony. There are 3 Pages there: “Feeding the Finches”, “The Way I Was Saved” and “My Testimony”. In them, I found love for the first time ever. I had never experienced it before that happened to me. I didn’t look for it, nor did I expect it. I was just at the bottom of my life and didn’t know where else to go. I STILL don’t feel love, or being loved, here on this planet. I never have. But I do get it from heaven now, and that is making all the difference in the world as far as getting along in it is concerned.

    1. Don’t let the tangible truth be mistaken for the emotional truth.

      But to remain vigilant, don’t confuse an emotional truth for anything outside your own head.

  3. What do you think of this video? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NK1Yo6VbRoo

    It’s not spam : ). He argues that experience (e.g. qualia) are a primitive. Maybe there are “love qualia,” a set of raw experiences that are not describable in terms of neurophysiology, though they correlate with some types of neurological events.

    I think of people like Daniel Dennett and Paul and Patricia Churchland when I think of trying to reduce qualia to neurobiology; they say that qualia don’t exist, for though they can be corellated (sometimes) with some types of brain events, they appear to have properties that brain events don’t have.

    Take someone’s brain and magnify it to the size of Los Angeles. Have them think of Margaret Thatcher. Go inside the brain. You won’t find anything like Margaret Thatcher on your trip, no matter how hard you look. The inner experience seems qualitately different than any neurophysiological event. That’s why Paul Churchland would say that they are an illusion.

    Just my quick thoughts.

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