Love, Good Chemistry And How They're Different

And how love and addiction are similar

Posted Feb 14, 2016

Love isn’t “good chemistry.” Nor is it magnetism, a positive force or positive energy. Chemistry, magnetism, force and energy are terms from the physical sciences. The life sciences are different.

The difference between love and chemistry corners us with one of the greatest mysteries remaining in science, the relationship between what inanimate objects and living beings do, We often ignore this difference, not just in everyday life but in professional psychology.

Psychologists tolerate a surprising amount of ambiguity about the difference between appetites and physical properties. They can talk about love as reducible to neuro-chemical interaction or “hardwiring,” or treat it like a physical force pulling people into “bonds,” a word we use in chemistry – love no different from glue.

I do research on how to bridge from chemistry to life, on how physiochemical matter became the kind of mattering we see in living systems. From this work I’ve come to broad, yet unambiguous definition of love.

Life scientists restrict love to higher organisms. My definition is more inclusive, though I readily agree that the love expressed by higher organisms is different. Still I’d argue the distinction between chemical bonds and love emerges at the origin of life in a kind of proto-love.

To survive and reproduce all organisms do dedicated work to maintain access to whatever they depend upon. Dedication and dependency are central to my definition of love. Love is doing dedicated work to maintain access to what one depends upon. Chemicals don't do this kind of work. Organisms do and have since the beginning of life.

My definition is broad enough to include the dedicated work a bacterium does to maintain access to the sugar it depends upon, and the dedicated work you do to keep your partner present and committed. By my definition, a bacterium loves sugar and you love your partner. We can tell by the way you and the bacterium work to maintain access to them and by how diminished the bacterium and you become if you lose access to them.

Obviously there are huge differences between how you and a bacterium love. For one thing, the bacterium dies without sugar. You don’t die without your partner, though you may feel like you might for a few weeks or months

Love, by my definition is partiality and I mean that in three different ways.

1. Love: the colloquial meaning, “I’m partial to you,” meaning I love you.

2. Dependency: The bacterium depends on sugar. It is incomplete without it. You depend on your partner. As a “part-ner, ”you are a part of the couple, a large whole. Should you lose access to your “other half” you feel incomplete. You might catch yourself singing along with Paul McCartney, “I’m not half the man I used to be.”

3. Dedication:  Partial in the sense of bias, as in “He's an impartial judge." We know love by the dedicated and therefore highly biased work a living being does. Of all the work a bacterium could do, it does a narrow, dedicated, biased subset of what’s possible, for example, the work that maintain its access to sugar. Likewise of all the things you could do, you do things biased to keep your partner happy.

Since loving or being partial requires dedicated work, we can’t be partial to everything. Being partial means being picky about whom and what we love.

We also debate what’s worthy of love. Partiality defines love, but also addiction. After all, if you’re addicted to a substance, you do dedicated work to maintain access to it. So what’s the difference between love and addition?

I’d argue that the only difference is in our predictions about whether a dedicated dependency will turn out well. If we think it will, we call it love or something equally positive. If we think it won’t, we call it addiction or something equally negative.

Debates about love bring us back to why we would ever call love good chemistry. We use "good chemistry as a way to stop debates about what's worth loving. 

People tend to blur the difference between miraculous magic and dry science’s latest discoveries. In new age spirituality for example, starting with hippy talk, our deepest expressions of magical experiences were analogized to the latest high-tech non-magical physical phenomena: Good vibes, higher powers, feeling the energy, digging the electricity, feeling powerful forces and fields.

We confuse physical matter with heartfelt mattering to reach for what feels newest and most magical, even if it originates in the sciences, our most anti-magical approach to understanding things. We’ve done that throughout the scientific revolution. For example, when radium and x-rays were discovered, manufacturers of everyday products leapt on that whiz-bang scientific bandwagon. 

We’re doing it now with quantum consciousness and quantum spiritual nonsense, as though the whiz-bang science of quantum mechanics brings us full circle to the miraculous magic of consciousness and spirit.

Why do we “gravitate” toward appeals to science, magic and sometimes the combination? I’d argue for the same reasons we “gravitate” toward determinism.

I know we claim that we don’t love determinism but I don’t believe it. I think we have a love/hate relationship with determinism. We love it when it helps us and hate it when it hurts us. We’d consider it glorious news if we were told we were guaranteed success, in other words, if our good luck was determined by fate. We love the positive unexpected but hate the negative unexpected. We do not welcome miracles, breaks from determinism that ruin our lives.

We also love determinism when it gets us off the hook, for example when we can bow out of partnership with someone we don’t find attractive by saying “Yeah, sorry, there’s just no chemistry.”

Most people don’t understand chemistry. It’s seems both magic and deterministic. "Sorry no chemistry" is like saying "the fates destined us not to be partners." Likewise saying "we've got great chemistry is like saying "fate destines us to be partners." Fate is our friend as long as we get to choose when to appeal to it.

This article barely scratches the surface on the difference between physics and life. It’s more about the symptoms and confusions than about explanations for the difference. I haven’t written articles for two months because I’ve been writing a book on the research, tentatively called “Neither Ghost Nor Machine: A Science Of Aims In an Aimless Universe.” Now that the book is close to done, I'll have more to say on the subject here.