On September 4th 2012 I posted the following question on the Freethought Kampala Facebook page:
As freethinkers hasn’t the time finally come for us to debunk the notion of ‘romantic love’? It’s a highly toxic form of woo. It hurts people, and bankrupts them by giving them false hope. Surely, we have a moral obligation to disabuse people of that delusion, do we not? Don’t we need to let people know that ‘love’ is just chemicals playing tricks on our brains, and nothing more? We’d be saving them tons of grief.
I know, I know… its a pretty outrageous and hyperbolic thing to say.
The aim of the question was to kick-start a debate on an issue that I feel is hardly explored, even among skeptic circles – the notion of romantic love. As I had anticipated, the responses I got were very interesting.
One needs only to look at the kind of language typically invoked when discussing this elusive abstraction to notice how woo-ish it tends to be: Soul mate, the ‘one’, fate, destined for each other, eternal, transcendent, spiritual… etc.
Woo refers to:
“…ideas considered irrational or based on extremely flimsy evidence or that appeal to mysterious occult forces or powers.”
Source: The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Many of us talk about romantic love as if it were something deeply mystical or magical. We will often justify otherwise ‘embarrassing’ behaviour by claiming that were overwhelmed by that inexplicable, beautiful and magical thing called romantic love. There is supposedly a mysterious force that a lot of us believe sweeps over people when they find that ‘special’ person, leading them to do things they will regret later (presumably after they’ve ‘returned to their senses’):
Ecstatic expressions of emotions like what we see Tom Cruise doing in the above video can also be found in the more charismatic forms of religious practice:
Believers, of course, will suggest that such experiences are the work of mysterious spiritual forces, or the power of ‘God’.
Believers of romantic love (in a mystical sense) and believers in ‘God’ thus seem to have something in common – that being the propensity to attribute certain emotional states to magical forces.
Those of us that are aware of what science has to say about these matters will attribute these feelings to brain chemistry and psychological factors.
Our brains and bodies are built – through evolution – to predispose us towards seeking bonds with others, and to be sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex (all exceptions to this general trend are duly noted, dear social justice warriors) so that we might attempt to mate with them, and produce and nurture offspring. The collective range of emotions that we normally experience in pursuit of this biological imperative (courtesy of a cocktail of interesting chemicals) is what we normally mean when we talk of ‘romantic love’.
Helen Fisher (PhD Biological Anthropologist) defines romantic love as a ‘basic mating drive’. In the video of her TED talk above (from 2008), she states:
Romantic love enables you to focus your mating energy on just one at a time energy conserve your mating energy, and start the mating process with a single individual.
Fisher makes an interesting point about the ways in which it resembles an addiction by having all of its characteristics:
…you focus on the person, you obsessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality, you’re willingness to take enormous risks to win this person..
I can think of numerous potential problems arising from such an ‘addiction’, and I’m certain many would agree that these problems can be seen all around us. Romantic love leads many people to act in ways that are detrimental to their well-being (depression, suicide, murder). It also makes them open to manipulation by others. People also spend a considerable amount of time and personal resources in search of their elusive ‘true love’ that has been promised to them by those who profit from peddling the notion that such magical experiences await those who diligently seek it. Anecdotes abound about how happy the lucky few who have found it are. The (usually unverifiable) testimonies of these lucky few are then used as proof that a soul mate awaits all of us, and many will search in vain for years and years, leading to much distress and misery. And sometimes its a combination of all of the above problems. Just like woo.
This is not to suggest that I think people shouldn’t experience ‘romantic love’. I consider romantic love to be an illusion (just like free will) – but a beautiful illusion, no doubt. Of course, by enticing us with these alluring sensations, our DNA is simply manipulating us in order to propagate itself. That said, I suppose ‘romantic love’ is a nice little drug that makes life worth living. It can be a great motivator, inspiring us to do many great things. So how about just letting people know exactly what it is, then they can make an informed decision as to how they want to live their lives? I contend that it is more useful than not – to be aware of what might be going on inside your system when you’re going through this particular emotional roller coaster. Here I am reminded of how we, as critical thinkers realise that it is good to be aware of the naturally arising biases that cloud our thinking, so that we might take necessary steps to reduce the chance that those biases will influence our thinking. Similarly, once being made aware of the biological factors underlying these sensations we associate with romantic love, wouldn’t we be in better position to take appropriate steps to reduce the risk of falling victim to many of the pitfalls that come with it? It would seem unkind to keep people in the dark.
Helen Fisher makes another good point, towards the end of her TED talk:
People have often asked me whether what I know about love has spoiled it for me. And I just simply say, ‘Hardly’. You can know every single ingredient in a piece of chocolate cake and then when you sit down and eat that cake you can still feel that joy… and certainly I make all the same mistakes everybody else does too.
But it’s really deepened my understanding and compassion, really, for all human life.
That’s where I’m coming from in asking questions about ‘romantic love’.
Here are some of the comments from the Facebook exchange:
Lilliane Nsk: these chemicals help form a long-lasting bond between the pair which is necessary (at least it used to be) for the survival of the the newborn human offspring. hence the survival of the trait. maybe in a million years, with artifical wombs and store-bought semen, we might eventually mutate the gene out of the species…
Marvin Muganzi: used to wear my ‘heart’ on my sleave til some1 introduced me to reality..she cheated:(.
Dealing with the withdraw from the emotions i was addicted to was the tricky part. How do u plan on convincing our love birds out there that their fluffy feelings are only neurons playing tricks on our minds?
Irene Bileni: love does not lie or hurt..its the people who do and make it ugly
Khayinja Bernard Wegulo IV: Rationalize it all you want people are not going to stop being emotional… chemicals or not human being are predisposed towards being emotionally irrational.
Guxille Tim Okema: love is just one stinking emotional illusion..a mirage of everlasting euphoria only to end in a heartbeat
Stella Nantongo: If a placebo is working, why the need to tell one its just that..a placebo?!
Hassan Higenyi: Come to think of it, since the god debate is almost exhausted in that there’s almost nothing new you can say or write that hasn’t already been said or explored by freethinkers before, and it’s even a boringly tired topic nowadays; romantic love would seems rather a fresh and more intellectually exciting and challenging (controversial) a subject for rational debate by this generation’s freethinkers seeking to advance freethought by remarkably applying it to other aspects of human life/nature like, well, love (of all non-things!), unlike in the past when freethinkers seemingly only concerned and dwelled on religion, politics, and -isms. Interestingly, the arguments for/against “romantic love” and the god debates are strikingly similar with regards to the rationality or irrationality of either, and thus the correlations with the belief and/or unbelief in either, and thus those tending towards for or against. I mean, think about it rationally, or rather comparatively, the notions involved in romantic love, like love at first sight, are like religious superstition, and the feelings are faith. Just saying🙂
Sophie B Alal: If love is a drug, I don’t want rehabilitation. I’ve been transformed as a human by the endorphins, I’m happy, hopeful, talented and aware of my endless potential because of love🙂 Sorry losers, but try loving.
Do you think it is a settled matter? No? Good – because this loser hereby invites you to join us to debate this some more.
The September 2012 Freethinkers’ Night will take place on Thursday, 27th September, at SPICE GARDEN (formerly 4 Points Bar & Restaurant), Centenary Park, Kampala, starting 6PM. Entrance is FREE.
If you are an open minded person whose opinions are formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason and are interested in meeting like-minded individuals – you are more than welcome to join us.