Wednesday, 16 July 2008

A Letter on Love

Love is a human universal. It cuts across all cultures, all times and all places. Many cultures isolated from one another have independently evolved understandings of the concepts and experiences of love. Both ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese’s have unique expressions for differing ideas of what love is. The world today is vastly different from the one Aristotle and Plato inhabited millennia’s ago, their (Greek) conceptions of love however is as useful now as it was then.

They of course have a term for that notorious state of sexual lust eros which is sensual pleasure and desire allied with mania which is obsession. Consider though agape, self sacrificing, altruistic and thoughtful love. ludus- affection of children. Or philia covering a range of non-sexual love, between parent and child, brothers in arms, travelling companions and business partners.

It is of course sexual or romantic love that writes books, makes songs of lost love and longing, paintings and poetry. It is this love that we hunger for, search, sacrifice, die and ultimately even kill for. The paring and bond of loving men and women is something that fundamentally underwrites our very existence. The eros that frequently brings children into the world and the pragma needed to bring them up in a loving and caring environment.

We all consider ourselves experts and philosophers on this subject. We can ask our grannies on questions about love and romance in a way we don’t ask them questions about particle physics or molecular biology. The experts have stayed largely silent on love and human emotion up until know, even psychology for large swathes of the 20th century remained silent on the subject. The monsters from planet explanation I am talking about are of course the men and women in white coats we call scientists.

Oh dear! You may say. We are going to have to hear about boring explanations and lines about bodily process and chemical change. I’ll take my Shakespeare sonnets any day of the week and your mechanical explanations of serotonin and dopamine can go up your you know what. The purpose of this essay is to show why certain fears of science are misplaced and that much of the conflict between science and the humanities is a non-starter. I intend to show that much of our supposed conflict comes from a confusion of categories, between understanding and knowledge on the one hand and experience and experiencing on the other.

It seems in the West we have an almost culturally ingrained antipathy to science and its promethean ability to unravel the mysteries of the universe and everything in it. This is of course paradoxical to the point of hilarity. We in the West in 2008 enjoy a tremendous standard of living much of which is denied to the rest of the world. These tender fruits are from the tree of knowledge and progress of which science is the mainstay. We have eradicated much of the terrible diseases that have plagued us throughout history, measles, smallpox and rubella. We have cut infant death mortality, we have prolonged life to almost double or triple the age of which millions of our ancestors lived. We have developed life saving drugs, techniques such as blood transfusion which have saved countless souls. We even have the ability to control our means of reproduction thereby freeing women from their historic role of being nothing better than livestock for the bearing of male children. To say nothing of the sheer delight and utility in modern communication, the internet and air travel. The aesthetic and architectural elegance of something like the Golden Gate bridge or the Empire state building. Surely the laptop, In vitro fertilization and a Space Shuttle are masterpieces of human effort, imagination and creativity the same way renaissance painting is or the writing of Shakespeare or the music of Mozart.

At this point you may wish to interject with some damming counterexamples. Firstly we have Einstein’s monsters which allow us the capacity to destroy every single person on the planet, this is of course the atomic bomb. The development of the lethally poisonous Zyklon B allowed the Nazis to streamline their genocide of Jews during the second world war. Following the train of association we have the closely linked development of science, technology and weapons development. From this we have horrors such as napalm, white phosphors grenades and Sarin gas. I could go on……

These abominations though say less about the “evils” of science than they do about the dark chasms of human nature. Science is morally neutral. Stephen Jay Gould the American palaeontologist had this to say “Science shows us how the heavens go not how to get to heaven” Science is our greatest tool at apprehending reality, it explains how things work and how they came to be. We look to things like moral philosophy or ethics or religion for guidance on how to behave.

Is it not baffling when many men and women who can be very well educated are leery and fearful when science comes anywhere near human nature? This attitude cuts across the political and socio/economic spectrum. The culture wars in America have the near comical spectacle of the religious/conservative right joining forces with the extreme left (who share almost no common ground whatsoever) to batter back Science and its discoveries.

Its worth the trouble pondering where these hostilities arose from. For Religion the matter is easy. The creation myth of Genesis has God forbid man to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Right at the core of the Abrahamic faiths we have a taboo about learning and knowledge. Jesus himself said that we should be as little children. The Catholic church has continually opposed nearly every kind of scientific and ethical progress in human history, only absolving Galileo of heresy as early as 1992. Martin Luther the pillar of Protestantism had this to say- “Reason is the devils harlot, who can do nought but slander and harm whatever God says and does”

If this all sounds piddling and an abstraction then consider the real world consequence of unreason. Consider Bush and his bioethics council. Bush a member of the United Methodist Church-a Protestant staffed his committee mostly with hard-line Catholic intellectuals (it would seem there was a shortage of “intellectual” Protestant men and women) This council which advises Bush on topics such as genetic manipulation of animals and humans, cognitive enhancing drugs and stem cell research. The Bush presidency has of course blocked funding for stem cell research clearly on the back of the dogma that ensoulment begins at the moment of conception. His councils report which was their justification and argument for the refusal to fund federal dollars for stem cell research was littered with biblical passages and vague conceptions of human “dignity”. Much of the passages were added uncritically without thought to either their accuracy or relevance. Needless to say none of the contributors were people with relevant backgrounds to the subject such as a life scientist or a psychologist, neither was a sociologist or a historian present.

America the most technologically advanced nation and among the most brightest has allowed superstition to stifle one of the most potentially promising scientific and medical advances in history. The belief that somehow the “dignity” of a collection of human cells in a Petri dish should trump a little girl wasting away with leukaemia is simply obscene. It is tirelessly pointed out though that “Judaeo-Christian” values underwrite our “civilisation”

The academic left, the arts and humanities have their pet dogmas as well. Perhaps a large figure looms in the presence of Keats. Keats accused Newton of destroying the poetry of the rainbow. This was of course in response to Newton’s discovery of using a prism to decompose white light into a visible spectrum. In his poem he writes “conquer all mysteries by rule and line, empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine-unweave a rainbow…

Keats wrote in the romantic tradition but this antipathy to science-that it is cold and sterile and un-imaginative has carried through to two of the major art movements of the 20th century. Modernism and Post-Modernism. Although the romantics it seems never challenged the veracity of science, simply labelling it as empty and sterile. The Modernists and Post-Modernists though attacked not just enlightenment ideas such as progress and its marriage to science but its authority on truth. This of course is the schoolyard chant that there is no such things as facts or truth. The American anthropologist Matt Cartmill wrote on this dogma

Anybody who claims to have objective knowledge about anything is trying to control and dominate the rest of us…there are no objective facts. All supposed “facts” are contaminated with theories, and all theories are infested with moral and political doctrines.

This is a good approximation of the kind of sub Marxist paranoid conspiracy theorising that can take place. Its funny don’t you think that no one says that gravity is not a “objective fact” while flying at thirty thousand feet in the air? And for the life of me I cant see how the Copernican revolution with its removal of earth as the centre of the universe is “infested with moral and political doctrines” can you?

Coming back to Keats and to my main point. Understanding something and experiencing something is not the same thing. Newton unravelled the mystery of the rainbow but even with this knowledge can we really say that it is any less beautiful to look at? I don’t have enough room to refute the charge that science is incapable of producing states of awe and reverence and that it is sterile and cold. My purpose here is to illustrate how understanding and knowledge do not lessen our personal experiences any less.

My favourite food is homemade Spaghetti Bolognese, for years my mum made it out of a ready made jar. Around four years ago I purchased an Italian cookery book since then my mum makes the recipe from scratch. I have myself learned to make it, though more emphasis is placed on chilli powder when I make it for myself.(I am a fanatic when it comes to hot stuff!) Here is the recipe-

30ml ½ tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

5ml 1/1 tsp dried mixed herbs

1.25ml ¼ tsp cayenne pepper

350-450g/ 12oz-1lb minced beef

400g/ 14oz can chopped Italian plum tomatoes

45ml1/3 tbsp tomato ketchup

15ml/1 tbsp sun dried tomato ketchup

15ml/1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

5ml/ tsp dried oregano

450ml/ ¾ pint/¾ cups beef stock

45ml1/3 tbsp red wine

400-450g/ 14oz 1lb dried spaghetti (Fresh is better- my emphasis)

Salt and ground pepper

Freshly grated parmesan cheese to serve

(for kicks I would use red pepper and fresh bird eye chillies and copious hot chilli powder, its also good to have some fresh baguettes to eat along with it-)

When I was sixteen all I knew that was in spaghetti bolognese was spaghetti, mince and tomatoes and It was my favourite meal. I’m now 22 and I know the ingredients and know how to make it and its still my favourite meal.

We could subject this to all manner of analysis. Study the chemical properties of parmesan cheese. Follow diligently the process of slaughtered cows to meat processing plants to supermarket displays to its cooking. We could investigate the ingredients and see if they have any welcome health benefits such as tomatoes which have been linked to reducing cardiovascular disease. We could even I’m sure study the effect of heat and the chemical interactions that are taking place in my stove. If we wanted we could hook up my brain to nodes and see how and where my brain lights up when I take a forkful of my favourite nosh.

I could go on ad nausea but ask yourself the question does knowing all this make my experience of when I eat any less pleasurable or important? You may see where I am going with this and if you find this analogy a little too facile- let me offer something more substantial.

Consider cancer, this disease is a killer that does not discriminate. You could be a neurosurgeon or a gardener and still fall prey. Now no one in their right mind would say we should not study or explore cancer least it leave the sufferer or potential sufferer a robot or empty or somehow robbed of humanity. Indeed we actively welcome research on this topic and any knowledge can be put to use combating it. As you read this there is a very high possibility that a person is wasting away from this disease who holds a degree in medicine, who fully understands the history, nature and composition of the disease yet still they live in abject pain and suffering. Their knowledge does not diminish their suffering and experience in any shape or form.

It is the same of love or any other human experience. Cancer and love are of course very different but they are rooted within our bodies they have a physical nature. There is no ghost in the machine that turns on love. Love is real, it has both physical and chemical properties. Consider some of the recipe for romantic sexual attraction.

Male signs of attraction

Enlarged pupils

Flushed face

Brushing back hair etc

Gazing into the eyes of beloved

Female signs of attraction


Nervous laughing

Pupils dilating

Touching face and or hair playfully

Caressing a cylindrical object

Physiological responses regarding sexual attraction

Males experience swelling of the testes.

Males will experience penile tumescence and erection

Females will experience increase in breast size

Females will experience erection of the clitoris and labia

Females will experience vaginal lubrication and enlarging of the vagina

Brain Chemistry in association with love and sexual attraction

Elevated levels of testosterone and estrogen present when men and women respectively become romantically attracted to each other.

During the initial phases of love, when monogamous bonding has occurred raised levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin are present.

Oxytocin- which has been linked to long term bonding and marriage. Oxytocin has been linked with empathy and trust.

Every single person in the world could learn this and then safely place it back on the shelf when experiencing the bliss of romantic love. A man may hold his wife in a loving embrace, smelling the summer fruit scent of her hair and feel absolutely euphoric. He may even attribute such states to elevated levels of serotonin and dopamine. But does that diminish his love for her and his wish to be with her for the rest of his life in any way? Of course not and I can prove it. There is a maxim, I forget who said it- “to question whether or not you are in love means your not” you are either experiencing it or not and when you are, when your under it you know for sure for its unlike anything else. Now of course what is the ultimate guarantor of this observation? Our own experience, our self report of what it feels like to be in such a state, and these reports can be checked against others who have experienced it.

Having knowledge, even scientific knowledge of human emotions does not stop or diminish or trivialise them or make people zombies. To say otherwise is like claiming that understanding of the human digestive system stops you from having a shit or trivialise what you “feel” on the pot or that knowing this makes you any more “robotic” or “deterministic” during your daily sit-down on the john.


Michael Faulkner


I recommend reading the work of American Anthropologist Helen E Fisher who has researched and published findings and theories of love and sexual romantic attraction.

Anatomy of Love – a Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray

Here also is a exciting talk she gave to TED

For a fuller discussion on Keats and his quarrel with science I recommend Richard Dawkins Unweaving the Rainbow, Science, Delusion and the appetite for wonder.

For the Academic Left--

Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science By Paul Gross and Norman Levitt.

For a critique of Bush’s bioethics committee and its pernicious ideas of dignity- Stephen Pinker’s article from the New Republic

No comments: