Love Beyond the Brain

by Peter Blair | 1/28/09 4:36am

In her recent piece about the questionable scientific basis for love ("The Love Doctor," Jan. 27), Emily Johnson '12 argues, "I don't think the knowledge that oxytocin is a big part of the reason two people can look at one another with eyes full of love on their 50th wedding anniversary can lessen the beauty of their bond, nor detract from the meaning that bond gave their lives." After spending most of her article degrading love by attempting to convince us that it is reducible to physical processes, Johnson then tries to rescue love from the grave she has dug for it. However, it is clear that if there is nothing more to love than chemical reactions, then the logical conclusion, which Johnson tries hard to avoid, is that love has lost all its beauty and meaning.

Fortunately, I don't think we are left with this conclusion. On its face, the science that Johnson appeals to seems tenuous. I don't deny that oxytocin exists, or that it influences our behavior. But, even if it does, chemicals still would not be able to fully account for the experience of love. Johnson tells us that oxytocin and vasopressan cause our feelings of love. These hormones are also triggered by sex. How then, do we account for loving engaged couples who have not yet had sex with each other (yes, they do exist), or for couples who have had a lot of sex with each other but don't have a very loving or lasting relationship? And, assuming married couples have sex, if these hormones were really the only basis for love, then there would be a great deal fewer divorces than there are presently. Indeed if these hormones really were as important as Johnson suggests, than we would see a lot more teenagers getting married.

Johnson uses the love example to make a larger point about science and reality, suggesting that evolutionary science will eventually explain everything, and that we'll just have to learn to deal with such a reduction by ignoring the logical conclusions evolutionary science entails. I don't think people can have things both ways. If one wants to believe that everything is reducible to physical processes, then he should accept the nihilistic implications of that worldview. If he, on the other hand, believes from his experience of the world that meaning and beauty exist, then he should reject Johnson's reductionism.

Happily, there are good reasons for rejecting her conclusions. Johnson's statements run right up against a classic debate in philosophy that has been going on since at least the time of Plato: the mind-body problem. The problem lies in trying to answer the question, "What is the relationship between the mind (the non-physical) and the body (the physical)?" Different philosophers have answered this question in different ways. Certainly some have taken Johnson's position, arguing that there just isn't anything non-physical (an argument called materialism). The debate, however, is far from settled, and there are many good arguments for the other positions, namely idealism (there is no physical) and dualism (there exists both physical and non-physical). Johnson assumes that the materialistic answer is the correct one. She may be right, but she offers no proof for her conclusion, and she directly contradicts many of history's greatest philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and Leibniz.

A dualistic thinker might respond to the idea of a love potion by, for example, asking you to consider the possibility that scientists discover the chemical that makes people feel full. If you injected somebody who had not eaten any food with that chemical, that person would feel full. But isn't it clear that if the person kept taking the chemical instead of the food, he would starve to death? Just as the fullness hormone is not the same as experiencing food, so too might oxytocin not be the same thing as experiencing love.

And, anyway, I'd like to see anyone try to live as if everything were purely physical. It is really quite impossible to do, because our experience of life tells us otherwise. I think the assumption that everything is physical should be rejected. Otherwise we're left with the conclusion that we can't learn anything on a date this weekend that we didn't already learn in Orgo last term.