Thursday, October 11, 2007

Love is...

Here it was about ways to destroy of the Earth; but this time it's about what you might think of as the polar opposite. Specifically—and that's hard enough without bringing all the other variations into the discussion—that kind usually labeled 'romantic', 'erotic' or whathaveyou.

As happens often when thinking about such things I find inconsistencies in what you might call 'accepted' explanations. And, no, I'm not talking about the religioid varieties. They may be 'accepted' by some, but...well, so is 'intelligent design'. Any adherents of such notions need to read no further.

But the thing—'love' that is—is complicated, no matter how you look at it; and even more so because, as was brought home to me yet again several times over the last few weeks, even a narrow definition, such as that confined to 'romance' and 'eros', opens up a big can of explanatory worms, all of which are trying to strangle each other as best they can. Yeah, I know: worms strangling each other? Weird image. But there you have it. It's growing on me.

'Accepted explanations' for that phenomenon known as 'romantic love' usually focus on a variation on the 'pair bonding' theme, heavily laced with neurochemistry and evolutionary psychology. Here—1 2 3 4—are a few examples of the kind of thing I'm referring to; and I wouldn't dispute any of them. They make very interesting reading for those inclined to read this kind of material. Still—and, dare I say 'fortunately'?—such analyses may not only not even scratch the surface of the phenomenon, but indeed be the answers to questions that may or may not be relevant to actually 'understanding' it.

Let me approach this from a story-teller's, rather than a scientist's point of view for a moment. Of course, I hear you say that maybe that's not exactly aligning myself with the 'accepted explanations' of the phenomenon. Indeed, since all religion is basically fiction—and badly-written fiction at that, by and large—one might even argue that I'm aiming a machine-pistol squarely at my own feet prior to pulling the trigger. After all, anything that emerges from fiction, and especially from the mouths of fictional characters, can hardly be construed as being evidence for anything but the vagaries of...well, 'fiction'—in its myriad incarnations and with its manifold themes and agendas.


Thing is, it is immaterial whether the point I'm going to raise exists only in the life of a fictitious character. It does, for a fact, exist in the head of the creator of the fictional character. At the very least. Meaning it exists in the head of some real person somewhere, and hence—by extension and based on the assumption that, speaking in broad and general terms, what goes on in the head of one person is quite likely to also occupies the thoughts of others—probably the heads of a number of 'real people'. So, yes, I am comfortable talking about what this or that 'character'—possibly entirely fictitious—in a novel or screenplay says or does or appears to think.

Anyway, after all these preliminaries, what I was wondering about was this: what does someone think, like maybe the 'fallen star' in Stardust, when s/he declares to someone else, possibly in a lengthy soliloquy as was the case here, that s/he realizes that "I love you"?

Clearly, or so you might be inclined to argue, that depends entirely on the situation, context and person in question; and I agree that the specifics do so indeed. But what about the less-than-specifics? When removing all the cultural and individual contextual overhead, what is the distilled essence of a statement like "I love you"? Presuming, that is, that the culture in question does indeed have the terms and concepts available to actually phrase such a statement in a way that is similar to that in which I and most of those reading this blog would understand it.

I'm sure the emotions exist across members of the human species, but I am doubtful whether one can assume safely that therefore the specific emotion associated with someone sitting down with someone else and making a deliberate declaration of 'love' is equally universal. Or whether the word 'love'—in its admittedly broad spectrum of meanings, even if it is confined just to the romantic/erotic variant—or its equivalent actually does have translations into all human languages. We usually glibly assume that it does, but, given that human thought processes are intimately tied up with language and its associated symbolisms, how can we make such an assumption?

Nobody doubts that there's a universal pair-bonding mechanism at work here—but the question is how much more is there to 'love' than that? Or is there more than that? Can there be? And if there is, then what is it? Is there evidence of any kind that might help us to figure out the 'what'?

Of course, the spottmunds of the world, as well as any decent General Semanticist—each for reasons of their own, of which the latter's is by far the most valid one—will tell you that some of these questions make no sense to begin with, because 'love' really just is what you make it out to be; that's all. It's nothing per se, nor does it 'map' onto anything per se. And when someone suddenly realizes that they 'love' someone, all it means is that the complex of mental processes—thoughts, emotions—in one's head that one happens to be conscious or aware of at the time the epiphany strikes matches up with one's expectations and internal definitions of what constitutes 'love' and the things that go with it; in particular the decisions one makes following from the epiphany; which in itself is a decision, a choosing between seeing whatever there is as 'love' or not seeing it that way. Which makes it, at least in significant part, into a cultural decision; for 'culture', and language, is a major part of the context of our thoughts. Meaning that, apart from the basic baggage of species-procreating evolutionary function, anything that's over and above what's absolutely necessary to make males and females pair-bond for the purpose of continuing the species—as well as 'society' and society-formation and bonding—is basically unnecessary and may or may not be different, as long as it doesn't screw around with the basic function of the process.

Of course, 'culture' is something that has generated a huge amount of 'over-and-above'-things, and in many different contexts. As long as it works, such things may continue to flourish. If it even helps the propagation and survival(!) of the species of a particular subset thereof, so much the better.

If this sounds like I'm trying to deconstruct 'love': far from it! On the contrary. I'm saying that 'love', as it is seen, for example, in the cultural context of 'western civilization', is more than 'just' a phenomenon accompanying or required for 'pair bonding' and propagating the species. You can do the latter without any 'love' whatsoever. A gazillion other species do, including primates who live in complex social contexts. But whatever it is they 'feel', it's not 'love' as we know it. I say this as an unapologetic speciesist, of course; so sue me. Personally I am convinced by the available evidence, scientific and contextual, that no ape will ever ponder in any recognizable way their 'feelings' for another ape in the same way that, say, the fallen star from Stardust expressed to...

[BEGINNING of SPOILER! You may want to skip to the end of the section.]

...well, poor Tristan was a mouse right then, but you get the idea.

Yvaine: You know when I said I knew little about love? That wasn't true. I know a lot about love. I've seen it, centuries and centuries of it, and it was the only thing that made watching your world bearable. All those wars. Pain, lies, hate... It made me want to turn away and never look down again. But when I see the way that mankind loves... You could search to the furthest reaches of the universe and never find anything more beautiful. So yes, I know that love is unconditional. But I also know that it can be unpredictable, unexpected, uncontrollable, unbearable and strangely easy to mistake for loathing, and... What I'm trying to say, Tristan is... I think I love you. Is this love, Tristan? I never imagined I'd know it for myself. My heart... It feels like my chest can barely contain it. Like it's trying to escape because it doesn't belong to me any more. It belongs to you. And if you wanted it, I'd wish for nothing in exchange. No fits. No goods. No demonstrations of devotion. Nothing but knowing you loved me too. Just your heart, in exchange for mine.

[END of Spoiler]

'Love' as it's expressed in that soliloquy is not necessary on evolutionary grounds. It's not even safe to claim that it kind-of 'helps' to...facilitate...things. Indeed it may not do so at all in some circumstances. It's neither a necessary nor a sufficient prerequisite for the accomplishment of task for which it's usually dragged into the discussion.

This lack of necessity for 'love'—taking about the 'romantic' kind here—is actually what makes it into something so particular and, if you will, 'special'; it adds 'value' over and above the value of what 'has to be'. And said value is added by virtue of a 'shape' only possible because of the existence of that thing called 'language'—whatever 'language' that happens to be; though I am, of course, talking about the fairly sophisticated 'natural languages' of the human cultures that allow the construction of such complex edifices of thought and emotions.

'Emotions'? Well, yes. The separation between 'thought' and 'emotion' is arbitrary anyway; something that's becoming more obvious with every bit of neurological investigation. Another antiquated concept, a leftover from the bad old days of cognitive ignorance, and by now we actually do know better. It hasn't filtered through into the area of 'general knowledge' yet—and that includes the 'knowledge' of sclerotic cognitive philosophers—but surely it must soon. Or so one would hope.

Am I saying that humans with different linguistic systems will be cognizant of distinctly different versions of 'love'; and that they may actually not be able to fully understand another culture's version of it, if that culture has a significantly different language—just like they don't really 'get' the essence of the language. As someone who speaks, and has had extensive thoughts in, three different languages, I can assure you that this is a significant issue. Ability to 'translate' isn't a sufficient condition for the existence of 'understanding'. I leave it to you to ponder if it is actually a necessary condition though.

Am I also saying that a creature without the complex kind of language humans take for granted will not be able to experience similar kinds of value-added 'love'?

Am I implying that this provides sufficient and valid reasons for being speciesist—and a human speciesist at that?

Food for more thought.

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