Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

"Good Chemistry"

Valentines is a perfect time to meditate on the difference between life and physics. What we romantically analogize to physical chemistry isn't that. Living attractions are different from physio-chemical attractions. Here's how. Read More

My Opinion

My opinion is that your article is spot on and so accurate that most people just won't get it. Or at least they will get it and just choose to lie to themselves about it.

"dedicated work to maintain

"dedicated work to maintain access to that which we depend upon—this is the distinguishing feature of life, a feature not found in chemistry. It’s also what distinguishes love."

You mean lust, not love.

Nice theory, but here's some reality check. I love my daughter. A few months ago she moved out of town. Guess what? I don't need her around me in order to love her.

Other than that, on love, I don't have words. Only feelings.

Here's to love!

If my definition is too

If my definition is too broad, you're calling it lust is too narrow. You can't find a harder word to define than love. Many researchers I respect would argue my definition is too broad. Human love is a mess to explain, because you can have, for example loving memories of someone not present, not even still alive.

I love my daughter as you love yours. She moved away a few years ago. My loving feelings compel me to do dedicated work to keep her present in my mind, and to stay in touch with her. Even though she's moved away I'm still dependent upon her and she on me. We would miss the heck out of each other if either of us died.

Your calling it lust though, suggests that you think my definition treats love as short-term, self-interested greed, like it's all about what's directly in it for me today, or kind of "what have you done for me lately?" approach to love. I mean something broader than that. The things we love can have a very indirect effect on maintaining us, or some small aspect of us.

Purists dream of unconditional love, as though even if what you love turned out to be horrible for you, you not only wouldn't stop loving, you wouldn't even notice the change. No conditions would alter the love at all. At the other end is your lust, like I'm in this for how it pays out immediately and if it doesn't benefit me in the next five minutes I'm out of here. Most love is somewhere in between. And unconditional love is only obtainable under restricted conditions. Yes the couple stayed together for 60 years through thick and thin. That doesn't mean they would have for 1000 years and thinner thins than they experienced.

I think questions like "do you love me?" are largely requests for a prediction: Am I safe doing this dedicated work to maintain what I get out of this relationship, or are you going to pull the rug out from under me?" Yes, love is a feeling but not just. To me it's a feeling that motivates that dedicated work.

And yes like a great many, you're welcome to say that love is just a mysterious feeling. In which case you have permission to drop out of conversation exploring it in an effort to define it by scientific standards. You wouldn't be alone in that. The guy who wrote the recently popular book "Love and Math" implies that he can find a formula for what love is. when I asked him for a mathematical definition of love, he went all dewey eyed and said it can't be defined. Cool, but if you feel that way then don't pretend you can treat it mathematically, I said.



So I guess what you want is

So I guess what you want is seeing someone's behavior and knowing for sure that there is clearly love behind that behavior. Is that it?

Say, Anna wants to stay in touch with a Peter. She depends on him. So, according to you, Anna is clearly in love with Peter. Me, I can easily see how Anna may depend on Peter and may want to stay in touch with him and at the same time not being in love with him. But then again, what do I (or anyone) know about Anna's feelings?

What I do know, from experience, is that I can't possibly know anything about a person's feelings. I also know from my experience that love is a feeling.

I don't believe love can be defined by scientific standards.

Here is quote that I like from Einstein:

“It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”

Thanks for writing back.

Thanks for writing back.

I'm telling you my working definition for love. My research colleague at Berkeley has a much narrower definition of love than mine. I'm happy to work with any definition.

I'm happy too to honor anyone who claims it can't be defined.

The Einstein quote touches on what me and that colleague address that Einstein and most scientists don't. What's the difference between energy (for example variation in wave pressure) and significance, meaning, or function? I'd argue that we value (by my broad definition love) some things and not others. Some creatures too.

Now half of science deals with this all the time. A psychologist for example is happy to talk about meaning as behaviorally causal. Anna pulls on the vending machine lever because she values potato chips. Anna pulls Peter to her breast because she loves him.

But down the hall if a physicist talked about the moon pulling on the tides because it values something, we'd think he were nuts.

Indeed most social scientists and life scientists seem content in trying to explain living behavior as just variations on pressure and energy. You love because these chemicals pull on receptors, etc.

And then there are those like you who might say "Steer clear of any scientific definition of love, meaning, pull, yearning, feeling, emotion, aesthetic appreciation of Beethoven because it will make no sense. There you would be joining many "mysterians" including those who say these things can't be defined scientifically and then define em anyway for example saying love is a feeling.

Unlike most, including perhaps Einstein, my colleague and I believe it is possible to say useful true scientific things about mattering, value purpose, intention, yearning, and not by reducing it to chemistry or wave pressure. It's from that work with my colleague Terrence Deacon that I derive my broad scientific definition of love, one that by the way he argues treats love more broadly than he would. He would say love begins with pair bonding, which is fine with me if we want to define it that narrowly. It's OK to disagree with fellow researchers. It's even OK to disagree with Einstein!

It's even OK to drop out of the research for example saying "love can't be researched."

Thanks for writing.


Love is something we all feel

Love is something we all feel strong about, don't we? ...

Science does a good job pointing out repeatable things. The rest is speculation, hypotheses, theories, etc. Which are OK, as you like to put it. We all need to believe things that we can't verify. Working theories are useful.

So far, it looks to me like the rhetoric of science is badly suited to capture something as elusive as love. Or at least that's my explanation for why science hasn't nailed it yet. Maybe one day. That day, I will admit that I believed wrong. At this moment, I think poetry deals better with this particular subject. At least poetry is suggestive.

I liked what you said that in the research process one can touch things that might be useful. For example, Anna loving Peter and potato chips. That's very useful in the sense that it offers a suggestion on what love might be: self-gratification. So suggestive, it's almost poetical.

I always wandered how would Einstein describe a Beethoven symphony. I like to think he would have used poetical terms. Imagine a poem by Einstein... Or even more, imagine Einstein talking about love...

I'm guessing this might be

I'm guessing this might be sarcastic: That's very useful in the sense that it offers a suggestion on what love might be: self-gratification. So suggestive, it's almost poetical.

Some love the romantic poets, the poets who eschew self-gratification as beneath them. I prefer the realists, poets who like me are romantiskeptics, aware that love isn't divorced from no exclusively about self-gratification.

Anyway, we are on different pages. Enjoy yours.



Mine include yours, which I

Mine include yours, which I really enjoy. What I don't enjoy is the inconsiderate/dismissive way you treat opposite views. But it's alright.

Wishing you well,

Interesting. So Nick, you're

Interesting. So Nick, you're saying your view is the broader one, encompassing the scientific treatment of love? And there was no sarcasm in your line about self-gratification? I'm really trying to understand.

Text isn't the best for clear signaling. I didn't mean any offense by saying we're on different pages. That might not have come through. See I work in fields where we can be on different pages and still love each other. "Disagreements among friends" as Hume called it, with no reduction in friendship arising from the disagreement. I really did mean I wished you well with yours, which seemed to me to be a strong leaning toward love being beyond scientific analysis.


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


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