Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Can you give a neurological or evolutionary explanation of love without debunking the whole idea of love?

Eric Schwitzgebel talks about his feelings for his young child in this post on The Splintered Mind. He says:

[I]f an evolutionary biologist comes along and tells me: “yes, but these feelings of 'love' are really just a bunch of neurons firing—these feelings have been naturally selected for so that parents would care for offspring long enough for them to pass along their genes,” I’d shrug my shoulders or perhaps ask for more details. But this mechanistic/evolutionary explanation wouldn’t in any way undermine my love for my daughter or debunk my belief that I truly love her. Why? Because I’m a naturalist and never presumed that love wouldn’t have this type of explanation.

However, I know people who don’t feel this way about love—someone named Ashley for example. For Ashley, real love cannot just be neurons firing because it was adaptive for her ancestors to have those neurons firing. Real love must have its source in something completely unrelated to the struggle for survival and reproduction. Naturalistic explanations terrify Ashley precisely because they do undermine her belief that she truly loves her children or partner.

But would/should these explanations debunk her belief that she loves her children? . . . [W]hat, in the end, does/should Ashley think about her belief in the existence of her love—is it (a) false or (b) just in need of revision? . . .

[W]e have no agreed-upon method for determining when a belief has been explained and when it has been explained away.
That last point is hugely consequential. It's something to keep in mind when reading the latest New York Times article about researchers who have conducted some experiment that conveniently solves a philosophical problem that's been debated for centuries. Anytime I see one of those articles, I'm betting the experiment doesn't really solve the philosophy problem — even under the generous assumption that their data have been collected using the best available methodologies and reported with scrupulous impartiality.

I'm an anti-reductionist. In other words, I'm skeptical whenever someone, having described how something works, says, "And that's all there is." Even if this person's description is accurate as far as it goes, it might not have gone far enough. One kind of analysis might reveal certain truths, while other equally valid truths are accessible only through other means.

So I don't feel that the very idea of love is threatened by neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. This isn't because I'm privy to some grand theory that unifies our intuitions about love with a scientific explanation of it. But I assume that one could have such a comprehensive understanding in an ideal world.

I don't know if anyone has done so yet. I certainly haven't. But the fact that there are huge areas of life that people haven't yet fully explained doesn't make me despondent or stop me from living my life as usual.

On AskPhilosophers, someone asks:
Suppose that a neuroscientist is studying love, and she discovers that romantic infatuation is caused by high serotonin levels, while attachment is caused by oxytocin. Has she actually learned anything about love? More generally, what is the significance of discovering neural or hormonal correlates to particular human emotions or behavior?
The philosopher Peter Smith responds, taking a view similar to mine:
Compare: someone who tells us about the chemical composition of the pigments used in Botticelli’s Primavera has told us something about the painting. But again such discoveries don’t help us understand the painting in the way that matters, as a work of art, as part of the human world: understanding that requires something quite different from chemistry....

If Mercutio whispers in Romeo's ear, "It's the serotonin, old chap", will that change his feelings for Juliet? Has his love been rudely unmasked, e.g. as just a desire for cheap chemical thrills?

I don't suppose Romeo is much in the mood to be distracted by such thoughts. But, waiting for Juliet's household to get to bed so he can climb up to her balcony, he might reflect how interesting the chemistry of love must be (and one day, when he has less pressing business to attend to, he must learn more about it).... Romeo is only too glad that he is young, his chemical systems are bursting with vim and vigour, and his brain still gets awash with serotonin at the sight of a pretty girl. He is very happy, so to speak, to go with the chemical flow.

So Romeo’s feelings for Juliet aren’t changed by reflecting on their neural causes any more than my belief that there is a screen in front of me and my desire for chocolate are changed by reflecting on their causes. And he’ll think that the fact that his feelings have a “chemical composition” no more shows that they are just chemistry (in any important sense) than the fact that our scientist showed that Primavera is just a load of old chemicals! His feelings have a role and place in his life and it is that which matters about them.

I'm with Romeo on this.

14 comments:

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

It's axiomatic than everything human beings do, think, say, or feel has a biological substrate. Identifying the substrate doesn't invalidate the act. If a scientist tells me that my typing is accomplished through nerve impulses running from my brain to my fingers, that doesn't mean I'm not typing. Nor does it mean that those nerve impulses are the cause of my typing.

Ann Althouse said...

This seems similar to what a theist would say to a scientist who went on about the big bang and evolution.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Yes, I agree with that analogy and the theist's position.

Jason (the commenter) said...

RLC : Identifying the substrate doesn't invalidate the act.

Yet if you find out how a magician performs a trick, the trick isn't as interesting. If you know the ending to a suspense movie, the movie isn't as interesting. It was even thought in times past that if many people knew a magical spell, the spell would loose its power.

Some things, especially emotional things, do loose value when you dissect them. Who laughs when you explain a joke?

John Althouse Cohen said...

Jason: All of your examples seem to actually support the idea that "identifying the substrate doesn't invalidate the act." Suspense movies have endings ... and they're still suspenseful. Magic tricks have explanations .. and they're still entertaining. Jokes work for one reason or another ... and they still make people laugh.

All you can really say is that the enjoyment of these things can be diminished by hearing the explanation too close in time to the experience itself. But no one is arguing that reading about scientific explanations of love is an enjoyable accompaniment to the actual feelings of love. I've seen a periodical devoted to humor analysis that had a disclaimer that it wasn't intended to be funny at all. The analyses in that periodical are either correct or incorrect on their own objective merits, even if no one finds its contents funny.

Jason (the commenter) said...

JAC : But no one is arguing that...

Yes, but you were all ignoring something important. And I wasn't disagreeing, just giving a different perspective. If I weren't here you'd all be agreeing all day long.

Althouse : This seems similar to what a theist would say to a scientist who went on about the big bang and evolution.

Interesting, but look at the same argument (theist/scientist) from a historical perspective. In the West all sorts of things were once thought to be controlled by God. Natural philosophers have chipped away at them one by one and I think you would have to agree that the nature of religious feeling has changed. Perhaps even it's strength among the general population has decreased over time.

Maybe it is a case where "correlation is not causation", but I think not.

John Althouse Cohen said...

If I weren't here you'd all be agreeing all day long.

Ironically, I agree with everything you said in your above comment. There are a lot of grey areas here.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I disagree with John often, and even with Ann!

Jason, I think your analogies have to do with the idea that life and love are mysteries, but your examples are trivial next to life and love. Trivial and mechanical. The mystery of a mechanical process is often removed by explanation, but to view love as a mechanical process would be the grossest reductionism, a category error.

I wonder if the nature of religious feeling has changed. I doubt it. People's ideas about the nature of the object of religious feeling have changed. To me, that's a side issue, a product of human limitations. The fact that most people can no longer believe in the Old Testament god doesn't invalidate religion any more than the disproving of the Ptolemaic cosmology invalidates science.

Jason (the commenter) said...

RLC : to view love as a mechanical process would be the grossest reductionism, a category error.

If how we experience love is independent of whether we know the mechanism by which it works, nothing should be lost by describing it in a mechanical way.

By objecting to my manner you agree with my point.

The fact that most people can no longer believe in the Old Testament god doesn't invalidate religion

Changing the way people experience religion and religious feelings isn't invalidating.

However, I would say that natural philosophy has invalidated religion. Strange for something that categorically denies the ability, but it happened none the less. Forget all the philosophy involved: they literally have pills to keep you from feeling too religious.

Danielle Pouliot said...

This topic seems very if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods-and-no-one-is-there-to-hear-it ...

"If 'love' is just random biology but no one debunks it ..."

As it is, love is such a subjective concept that any "debunking" that could occur probably would not make much of a ripple for those who believe in a more Shakespearean definition of love.

And, even if love were proven to be nothing more than a neurological hiccup or an evolutionary adaptation designed to help us nurture each other, the mere fact that human culture has made love what it is should say something -- something at least a little poetic ... perhaps in iambic pentameter.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Jason: That's true: nothing is lost by describing the mechanics of love. And something is gained: knowledge. It sentimental to believe that if a scientist explains love, love will be spoiled. Love is stronger than that. What I object to is scientists' (and science fans') attitude that by explaining the mechanism they have cast doubt on the integrity or value of the emotion. Anti-scientists take the same attitude except they take it fearfully or defensively while scientists take it triumphally -- and I object to the attitude, to the assumptions behind the attitude, no matter which side takes it. I'm saying to scientists, Go ahead, study love, understand the biology, but don't be so arrogant as to think it puts you above love. And I'm saying to anti-scientists, What are you afraid of?

"...natural philosophy has invalidated religion..."
It may sound weak for me to reply, "It all depends on how you define religion," but it's a strong truth. And even the word "religion" isn't quite right. What we call religion is a finger pointing at the moon. Look at the moon, not the finger.

"They literally have pills to keep you from feeling too religious."
It just doesn't matter. God doesn't care if you believe in him or not. (He told me so.) His existence or nonexistence doesn't depend on you. They have pills that can kill you. Does that mean life is a delusion?

Jason (the commenter) said...

What I object to is scientists' (and science fans') attitude that by explaining the mechanism they have cast doubt on the integrity or value of the emotion.

Well your objection appears to be one of aesthetics. I would recommend not worrying about the triumphant nature of scientists. Their job is to be as detached and coldly impartial as possible.

They have pills that can kill you. Does that mean life is a delusion?

Killing a person is nothing new. Killing religious feeling is. We don't allow nebiim to exist.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

"Their job is to be as detached and coldly impartial as possible." What a laugh! What self-deception! What arrogance! Imagine acquiescing to being lectured on the meaning of life by such people! Nor do they meet their job description.

"We don't allow nebiim to exist." And that wisecrack doesn't express anti-religious bigotry?

Jason (the commenter) said...

What a laugh! What self-deception! What arrogance! Imagine acquiescing to being lectured on the meaning of life by such people!

How is considering yourself fallible and ignorant arrogance? A scientist wont lecture anyone about the meaning of life. They will try to resolve a question asked with a verifiable experiment. If that fails, they will admit to being unable to answer the question.

"We don't allow nebiim to exist." And that wisecrack doesn't express anti-religious bigotry?

When a modern person sees a filthy man in rags walking down the street screaming about god, they call the police and hope he gets medical treatment. We don't listen to him and use his advice to overthrow the government.

Maybe such behavior is bigotry but it's a change brought about by a change in how people feel about religion.