Do you believe in love?

Do you believe in love?

This question was posed to me during a discussion of science by someone who felt that science was just another religion, doling out dogmas to unthinking believers. I knew just where the conversation was heading–downhill.

The argument is that everyone has knowledge of love, even though the notion of love is notoriously difficult to analyse using science. Love can’t be clearly defined, or measured unambiguously. And yet, the concept is ubiquitous in our culture and exists in so many other cultures that it can be considered a fundamental aspect of the human experience.

The question is a trap. If you answer yes, then science is unnecessary because by your own admission, real knowledge can come from somewhere other than careful measurements and critical thinking. If you answer no, then you look like a robot whose ability to feel has been robbed by the monster called science. No matter what you answer, science is painted as boring and useless because it cannot characterize or describe a simple human emotion which (mostly) everyone experiences.

The real problem here is not with science at all. It is with language.

Language allows us to cram a large number of concepts into a single word. ‘Love’ is a word that has been severely overloaded with meanings.


[luhv] Show IPA noun, verb, loved, lov·ing.
a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.
a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, asfor a parent, child, or friend.
sexual passion or desire.
a person toward whom love is felt; beloved person;sweetheart.
(used in direct address as a term of endearment, affection,or the like): Would you like to see a movie, love?
a love affair; an intensely amorous incident; amour.
sexual intercourse; copulation.
( initial capital letter ) a personification of sexual affection,as Eros or Cupid.
affectionate concern for the well-being of others: the love of one’s neighbor.
strong predilection, enthusiasm, or liking for anything: her love of books.
the object or thing so liked: The theater was her great love.
the benevolent affection of god for His creatures, or the reverent affection due from them to God.
Chiefly Tennis . a score of zero; nothing.
a word formerly used in communications to represent the letter L.

When we use an ambiguous word like ‘love’, we are asking that our audience draw on their experiences and the context to imagine what we have meant by using the word. If our audience has had similar experiences with social relationships to what we’ve had, we will probably communicate effectively. However, if we are speaking to a child, it is likely they will not have had much direct experience with romantic love. We might be speaking to someone whose understanding of love that comes from romantic comedies instead of real relationships, in which case we would be badly miscommunicating. We might be speaking to someone whose first language isn’t English and who doesn’t understand all of the ways that ‘love’ can be used in our language.

The reason that science has nothing to say about love, is that ‘love’ is a word which is so vague that it is virtually meaningless. Clearly (to me), we need to agree on a definition of love before the conversation can proceed anywhere useful. Otherwise, we are only going to discuss semantics, while fooling ourselves into thinking we are discussing what is and isn’t true about love.

I proposed that we define ‘love’ by tying it to measurable quantities. After all, this is really the only way to objectively define something. If we can’t both measure it, we can’t both agree on what it is we are talking about.

There are plenty of ways to tie love to measurable quantities. There is a chemical basis for love. There is a neurobiological basis for love. There is a behavioural basis for love. Any of these can be used to create a definition of love that both parties can agree on before we decide if we believe in it or not (i.e. if love is true). Science can tackle problems that are about chemicals, brains, and behaviours!

As you might imagine, I got a response which said “you don’t observe love… you feel it in your soul.”

This is a bit silly, because you can obviously observe love. Why else would it be such a ubiquitous concept across so many different human cultures? Observing love doesn’t necessarily mean measuring it in a lab. It can also mean the informal observations we make about its effects on our moods and behaviours as we share a glass of wine in front of a roaring fire with the object of our love. Certainly, that observation has been made many times.

But, we aren’t even talking about love anymore. With this new definition, love has been defined as something which is unobservable. We are now talking about a love which does not affect anyone’s moods, which does not affect the decisions anyone makes, which does not influence any romantic gestures, which does not make us want to spend time with one another, which does not generate any physical signs of affection between two people.

Love which can’t be observed? What a stale, boring concept that would be. I’m not sure I care that science can’t describe that kind of love.

But, the other kind of love–the kind which leaves an observable signal in the real world, the kind which has real meaning in our culture and our personal lives–can be characterized by measurements. Anything we can observe or experience, we can strive to observe more and more carefully, in better and better conditions. Through this process, we can generate knowledge about it.

And, most importantly, no part of this process robs us of our ability to feel or enjoy love. It is a sad existence to lead if the only things that are meaningful to you are those things which you understand so poorly that they seem magical.


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