Weddings are always special occasions, but a few months ago, two friends of mine celebrated their union in a less-than-usual fashion. The ceremony took place inside a local planetarium, with stars and planets revolving overhead, as guests were constantly reminded of the greatness of the cosmos. A philosophically and altruistically motivated couple, they had asked a few of their friends to write and deliver speeches on the past, present and future challenges of the human race including the greatest vision for humanity to aspire to.
The link between love and the ‘greatest vision that humanity could aspire to’ has been something I’ve considered for a long time, as I watch myself and others go in and out of relationships, or spend time with children, families or friends. The concept of ‘love’ has challenged me for many years. A word I put in the same box of annoyance as ‘consciousness’ and ‘singularity’, these words have become so clearly subjective depending on the individual who utters them, that it seemed mutual semantic understanding was predominantly unattainable. It’s one of those words that’s so poorly defined. It’s become an answer for everything, as we mold the word to whatever meaning we want to fit our intentions. I remembered all those plots in sci-fi movies, when the future tech just falls short, or comes with some huge unknown negative, and somehow some version of human love is there to save the day.
Last year I had read the public directory of the last words of prisoners on death row in Texas and noticed how the themes had been dominated by religion or love. A concept stuck in my head, perhaps love was, in Marx’s terms, the ‘meta-opiate’ of the people. We transcend our mortal limitations and mistakes by loving others. For some, we devote our love to a God who loves us all, for others we love our partners, friends and family. But still the human need to love something drives us. And yet, what drives us to love? Some would argue that love is a neurological condition, much like any other, fuelled by biology and chemistry. With love the brain can release a whole set of chemicals: pheromones, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin and vasopressin. And lust, in reductionist terms, is simply the embodiment of an evolutionary drive for the species. Bonding between individual humans allow us to create mutual defences- protective families, tribes, groups, religions and countries. Love provides us with safety and security instead of individual isolation. From an evolutionary viewpoint, it makes total sense. Love is a biological and psychological narrative that spurs humanity through time, generation by generation.
Yet, love still stays in my box of annoying subjective words. Rarely do we hear love being discussed of in the evolutionary or instinctive terms, in fact this reductionist viewpoint can offend many. The idea that ‘love’ is outside our scope of rational agency, driven by hormones and chemicals and important evolutionary themes, takes away much of the magic written in love stories and poetry. Rarely do we hear people talking about those they are attracted to in scientific terms, or why Tinder falls short of offering people to experience a person’s pheromones. A 90s study showed that women preferred the scents of men whose immune systems were most different from their own immune-system genes. Evolutionarily this makes sense as, children should be healthier if their parents’ genes vary, protecting them from more pathogens. Yet when we’re describing someone we’re attracted to, the ‘genes’ we mention are more likely to be of the blue variety that we find on someone’s legs.
We don’t consciously experience all those fine details that cause us to love others, so attempting to analyse the biological experience may be tricky, although I can’t help but think it should fascinate people more. In the style of Richard Feynman, science or reductionism should not subtract from beautiful things or ideas, in fact there’s a value-add that stems from these levels of complexity. It shouldn’t be that understanding the true natures of experiences should devalue them in any way. Understanding the true nature of the solar system should be more beautiful than the false yet aesthetic idea of a Sun God rising each morning and sleeping at night.
As a philosophy student at University College London, I submitted two final papers, a political philosophy paper that justified a minimum state, the other an unexpected paper debating the philosophical definition of love. Having been inspired by Plato’s Symposium, it seemed relevant to question the idea of love that humanity currently appears to aspire to. To aspire to lifetime of devotion to one person, despite how much each we expect each individual may change. An idea of there being a one to look for, to spend your life with. I had somehow missed my much-feared teenage hormonal dose, spending most of my time fancifully daydreaming about books and not the captain of the neighbouring school’s football team. By the time I came to write my wildcard philosophy paper, I had spent many years questioning the idea of what Rational Love may look like, and if it was even possible.
We seek the ying to the yang
Ayn Rand stated in The Fountainhead that to say “I love you” one must know first how to say the “I”. The notion of this struck me whilst listening to my teenage counterparts, those who claimed to love or be loved, whilst still at an age that limited them from understanding their true nature. As I got older I realized nothing really changed. I did not actively see people attempting to work out who they were first, or what they wanted from themselves or for life. It appeared that, if anything, most relationships were a psychological narrative that distracted them from potentially understanding their true nature- an introspection that is both terrifying and challenging. We seek those who compliment us, the ying to our yang, the other half of some sort of idealized conceptual whole. We don’t question why we seek those other characteristics, or whether we can achieve or learn those traits ourselves. Humans naturally have very poor and limited skills of introspection. The world is this big terrifying complex web of beauty and pain that causes us to live in fear, a fear that can be subsidized by the solace of another.
In the same way, love steals away much of our awareness of death, our salience of mortality. We live on through the children that our raised on our ideals, we leave behind memories in those that love us after we have gone. The idea of not wanting to have children horrifies people, as if you’re willing to just stand alone and die without continuation, without contribution to an evolutionary paradigm. But is love really just about immediate interpersonal relationships and continuing evolution? What would the most effective use of our love instincts look like? Would it only allow for us to love those close to us, or would it allow us to love people unknown, or even people who are yet to exist? Can we love those of distant lands, or distant futures, or of distant embodiments like artificial intelligence? If we were to channel our instincts for love into the most effective channels, would we try to maximise the effective positive output to be received by as many people as possible? The question here is more about love for all people, than in the specific case of polyamory. Should we be spending our time loving and raising one or two children, or should some of us be channeling our time and maternal and paternal instincts into building better school systems that affect thousands and feel the rewards from that? I feel a love and genuine care from each author of a book I read. Authors who want to affect my consciousness, to inspire me, to give me a gift of thought. Sometimes I question why we allow ourselves to be so obsessed with the continuation of our gene-lines. What about all those children who lie on this planet, unloved? What would effective, rational love look like if we really had full agency over it?
To test your relationships, a good place to start is to follow Rand and question how well you truly understand your “I”. The benefits of this extend out of our romantic endeavours. To ask what we hope to achieve in our finite lives, our little time-slice of cosmic significance. And then to use this to test out our actions. Do our jobs contribute to our aspirational end goal states? Do our relationships help us achieve our end state? How much do we even think about what we want to achieve in our lives? I’ve reframed relationships in my mind after considering goal factoring. It made more sense to me that rational love would encourage individuals to aid each other in figuring out and achieving their goals, in helping them understand the true nature of their “I” and fulfilling that. Love doesn’t need to be selfless, perhaps it can be a harmony of well-understood rational self-interest. Perhaps a fundamental part of love is having the confidence to say ‘go do whatever it takes to be your “I”’.
The issue is, that as we individually learn how better to define ourselves, the more we realize how much of what we do is affected by genes and memes. We live in noisy ecosystems, some that we’re aware of and some that we’re not. And we’re all, in some sense, deeply insecure. Our partners become our stability, and we demand it from them. So few of us respect other people over and above our insecure demands. If we care about another person, and they don’t want to be with us, why would we get angry? In the new reframed love paradigm, we should give others the respect to achieve whatever goal they need to achieve, with or without us- an idea counterintuitive to many.
The problem with this way of thinking means that the amount of interpersonal ties we interact with may dramatically reduce. To evaluate a person on the question ‘Does this person contribute towards and enjoy helping me achieve the best version of myself?’
Sometimes I think of all the lovers who have ever loved and I wonder if it is possible for person to experience love that doesn’t depend on a specific time, person or location. To feel a humanitarian instinct that drives us to use our time as effectively as possible to maximise the impact of our best personal self. Does this specifically always need a concrete receiver? What about if we can scale to the entire universe, past, present and future, to achieve it’s best version? With or without us as individuals. Would the most rational love, from the universal standpoint, simply be humans encouraging each other to be their best version of themselves whilst considering their goals in line with universal flourishing? Maybe love is the desire to understand another person’s goals and to help them achieve them, whilst also remembering universal goals, so that each person’s life enable others also. This secondary stipulation prevents us from supporting people that disable others. We should be a species of enablers. To encourage each other to create impact. To live lives with fire, to burn so brightly that with every individual human death we consider the loss of a star. Each human is an “I” as well as someone else’s “you” in the phrase I love you. And yet we live in a world where we don’t fight for them. We lose 150,000 of them to unnecessary aging-related deaths every day.
And so this takes me back to the wedding speech. The right unions will bring together people who over time through their relationships will become more defined and refined individuals, individually and collectively achieving their goals. If the end goal of all humanity is universal flourishing, then the right unions will directly contribute to that. So how do we achieve the greatest vision for humanity? Well perhaps the responsibility lies with us as individuals and in unions all aspiring to be as great as we can.
Read more in this column Riva-Melissa Tez: Thinking inside the box