Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Love: 10 Myths You’ll Be Relieved To Debunk

A life scientist suggests that love is not the answer; it’s the question.

Myth 1. Love is connecting: We generally think of love as analogous to a chemical or magnetic bond. It’s not, and for reasons that give us a window into the fundamental difference between living and non-living systems.  Living systems do active, dedicated, ongoing work striving to maintain whatever they depend upon. Non-livings like chemicals or magnets connect and disconnect never striving to maintain anything.

Love is living effort, that dedicated work we do to maintain the things that keep ourselves in good working order, and we love in ways we’re not likely to notice.  You love food, working to maintain access to it, since it keeps you going. You love food in that if it disappeared you wouldn’t keep working. Your lungs love your heart, and the love is mutual. Your lungs do dedicated work to keep your heart supplied with oxygen. Your heart reciprocates, keeping blood pumping to your lungs.  Not all love is reciprocated of course. You love nutrients enough to work to get them, even though they don’t love you back.

You’re not just chemically or magnetically bonded to the things you love. You work actively to maintain everything without which you would be at a loss, your ability to continue doing your life’s dedicated work impaired.

This ability to do dedicated work to maintain that which enables you to continue doing dedicated work is the distinctive feature of all living systems down to the first and simplest organisms. Love is what life does that non-living systems don’t do. To live is to love; to love is to live. The origin of life is the origin of love. What dies when you die is your ability to do this active ongoing dedicated work to maintain your ability to keep doing dedicated work. 

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Myth 2. You can love it all:  Our energy and time is limited, and therefore so too is our love, our ability to dedicated work to maintain the things we depend upon. You can have lip-service high regard for everything in an abstract sense, but you can’t love everything, because love takes work.  You have to choose what to love, and what to ignore.  Furthermore, loving one thing means not loving something else.  When you’re married, you actively resist come-ons from other people. The more you love your family, your tribe, your country, the more you’re willing to do fierce battle against any force you think would undermine them. That’s the dedication: your focused effort on particular things at the expense of others. Of all the things you could dedicate your work to, you dedicate it to particular things.

Myth 3. Love and addiction are apples and oranges: We think of love as good; addiction as bad, and the two as entirely distinct.  Actually, our attraction to love, and aversion to addiction is the only difference between them. We call loving, any dedicated work that we think is healthy in the long run, and addicted, any dedicated work that we think is unhealthy in the long run. Love and addiction are both names for doing dedicated work to maintain something that if it weren’t maintained would, in the short run, impair our ability to continue doing dedicated work. Deprive a lover of his mate, an addict of his drug, an animal of its food, a TV-addict of his TV, and all would feel an immediate loss of something that they had come to depend upon, at least in the short run. We debate what’s a good allocation of our limited capacity to do dedicated work and what’s a reliably sustainable thing to depend upon. You may love something that someone else thinks you’re just addicted to, and visa versa.

Myth 4. We love more things than we don’t love: Do you love more than you don’t love?  In answering that question you’re very likely to fall prey to availability bias, the strong tendency for the most available or salient instances to come to mind. You’ll think of the people and things you love, that you think about, appreciate and do active work to maintain. You won’t think of the bazillions of people and things you don’t think about. Why? Because you don’t think about them. Your dedicated work is a laser light in a vast dark expanse. You can’t shine your love light on everything, and by definition what it’s not shining on is not going to come to mind. You will notice things at the edge of your laser light, the things toward which you think maybe you should be devoting more loving effort, but that doesn’t begin to touch the vast expanses you ignore. 

Generally, to love one thing is to not love its opposite. The more you love someone the more you’d hate for something to happen to him or her. The more you dedicate yourself to a particular form of success, the more you don’t love a failure at it. The Tao says “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad,” which is often misinterpreted as an argument that we should stop preferring one thing to another and just accept everything as what is. We can’t stop preference. Even preferring not to have preferences is a preference. Our dedicated work will be allocated to something, but, as the Tao suggests, we should notice the reciprocal nature of love:  The more you want one thing, the less you want its opposite. 

Myth 5. You’re more loving than most people: You might think you’re more loving than others because you experience your own love more viscerally and vividly than you experience other people’s, or because you’re acutely aware of the ways other people fail to love what you love, and especially the ways other people don’t love you the way you feel they should. But, realistically, that’s not a measure of who loves more.  Since love is dedicated work and effort, the people who love more are the people who are most productive, have lots of energy and leverage, their loving attention maintaining more people and things.

Myth 6. Good people are loving; bad people are unloving: Loving lots is not necessarily a good thing.  Hitler was more loving than average by a lot. He had tons of energy and leverage that he dedicated to loving himself, his third Reich and his ideology. His leverage came from convincing many people to love what he loved, the Third Reich, the restoration of the master race to its former glory.  We would call it an addiction, a very, very bad love, but in terms of dedicated leveraged loving work to maintain things, Hitler had lots.  What matters most is what and how you love; rather than whether you love.

Myth 7. Religion, from the Latin for re-binding, re-unites us in love:  What do you get when you cross life with a capacity for language?  A creature like us, looking to leverage its dedicated work by recruiting others to love what we love through the power of persuasive language, often by telling each other that what we love is the one true, original love, and that all we’re asking them to do is restore it to its original priority position. 

The history of religion is a history of people campaigning to re-bind us to some imagined One True Original Purpose, some version of God, truth, purity, right-minded community, in other words, to reverse the fall from grace and get back to whatever we claim was our original connectedness. 

There was no original love. The universe is roughly 14 billion years old and for the first 10 billion years, nothing loved anything. Love originates with life, roughly four billion years ago. There’s no returning to some former perfect love. Life is not a treasure hunt for one true perfect unchanging focus of our dedicated work. 

That’s bound to be disappointing news to anyone who thinks he’s found the treasure, but it’s actually good news overall. It means that we can evolve and learn new loves adaptively, learning new ways to leverage our work by turning it toward new focuses. Think of how many times your love has changed focus just over your lifetime. Think of how life’s dedicated focuses have changed over the course of evolution.

Indeed, if you want a good definition of free will, you can’t do much better than our evolvable re-orientable love. We can switch our dedicated work from one focus to another, never autonomously, but still, in ways that yield new work in the world. We can switch our focus from one job to another, from one person to another, from one belief system to another.

All of life is adaptable but human life is extraordinarily so, given the power of language and ideas, the power to persuade ourselves and others to let go of one love for another. It makes our loves less certain than the religious are confident that they should be. It makes it hard to tell what’s a loving groove and what’s an addictive rut. But it makes nature wondrously incomplete, not just a re-discoverable formula. Life is a work in progress, a changeable road we build as we travel it.

Myth 8. Love is the opposite of cold economic thinking:  Economics in its pure, theoretical form, is an attempt to understand value dynamics, how preference or love manifests itself in living systems. Economists talk of demand and supply. Your demand for something isn’t just a declared preference, but a practical commitment of effort, how much dedicated work you would invest in maintaining something. And supply is how much dedicated work or effort it takes to maintain that something.

Economists talk of goods as fungible meaning that we can often find functional substitutes for the things we depend upon. If your partner leaves, maybe you can find another partner. If your grocery store disappears you can go to a different one. If your heart fails maybe you can stay alive with an artificial heart or heart transplant. Economics, in practice is often cold, but at heart it’s about how love really works, where you’re going to dedicate your work and effort to maintain the people and things that maintain your ability to work.

Myth 9. People who promote love are virtuous: More often than not, when people promote love as an abstract universal virtue, they have particular loves in mind. They are appealing to some abstract moral absolute as their way of getting you to love what they love. They call you “uncaring” if you don’t care for them. They declare you a narcissist, not because you only love yourself but because you don’t love them as much as they want you to. They exploit availability bias claiming to love everything by ignoring all the things they don’t love. They may be right, that you’ll do better in the long run by loving whatever they think you should love.  Or they may be wrong. Chances are good though, that in promoting universal love, they’re oblivious to how non-universal their love is. They’re ignoring the amount of effort love takes, how impossible it love everything given our finite energy and time, and how much care it takes to bet well on what to love.  Often when people claim that love is the answer, they’re elevating their own status, their sense of superiority, out of self-love.

Myth 10. Love is the answer:  Love is not the answer, it’s the question:  What and whom to love, given that you can’t love everyone and everything.  Since the beginning life has been dealing with the challenge of figuring out what to join and not join, where to be as one and where not to be. United we stand, but divided we often can get further.  We can’t be we with everything.

To we or not to we: That is the question.  It has been since the origin of life and it is for you to this day and beyond.  So love not more, but more carefully.  Dedicate some effort to placing good bets on what’s worthy of your dedicated effort. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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