Weddings are usually 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 where guests were reminded of the vastness of the cosmos. A philosophically and altruistically motivated couple they asked a few of their friends to write speeches on the past, present and future challenges of the human race including assigning me the task of depicting 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 while, as I watch myself and others go in and out of relationships. I find the generalized concept of love to be challenging. It's a term I put in the same annoying box as consciousness and singularity. It’s one of those words that’s so poorly defined. Love has become our answer for everything, as we shape the word to fit our intentions.
If you look at the last words of death row prisoners, you might notice that the themes are dominated by religion or love. Perhaps love is, to borrow 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, for others it could be partners, family and/or friends. But still the human need to love something drives us. And yet, what drives us to love? Scientists would argue that love is a neurological condition, much like any other, fueled 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 individuals allow us to create protective families, groups and tribes. Love provides us with safety and security over 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 in 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, chemicals and evolutionary themes takes away the magic written about in love stories and poetry. Rarely do we hear people talking about love in scientific terms. A 90s study showed that women preferred the scents of men whose immune systems were most different from their own. Evolutionarily this makes sense as children should be healthier if their parents’ genes vary, protecting them from more pathogens. Yet when we’re describing attraction the genes we mention are more likely to be of the blue variety that we find on someone’s legs. Tinder does not yet include a pheromone feature.
We don’t consciously experience all those fine details that cause us to love others, so attempting to analyze the biological experience is tricky. However, it should fascinate people more. To pay tribute to Richard Feynman, science should not subtract from beautiful ideas. There’s a value-add that stems from acknowledging these levels of complexity. Understanding the causal mechanism of experiences shouldn't devalue them. Understanding the true nature of the solar system is more beautiful than the false yet aesthetic idea of a Sun God rising each morning and sleeping at night.
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". This quote struck me whilst listening to my teenage counterparts, those who claimed to be in love whilst still at an age that limited them from introspection. As I got older I realized nothing really changed. I did not actively see people attempting to work out who they were first or even what they wanted from their lives. It appears that, if anything, most relationships serve to distract individuals from potentially understanding their true nature. We seek those who compliment us, the so-called ying to our yang, the other half of an idealized conceptual whole. We don’t question why we seek those other characteristics or whether we can achieve those traits ourselves. Humans naturally have very poor and limited skills of introspection. The world is this terrifying complex web of beauty and pain that causes us to live in fear, a fear that can be negated by the comfort of another.
Love negates the fear of our own mortality. We live on through children raised on our ideals. We leave behind memories in those that love us after we have gone. But is love 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? I feel a love for each author of a book I read. Authors who want to affect my consciousness, to inspire me, to give the 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 truly understood the mechanisms and had control 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 endeavors. To ask what we hope to achieve in our finite lives, our little time-slices 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 goals? How often do we even stop to 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 is presented as being selfless, but perhaps it can also be a harmonious union of rational self-interest.
And so this takes me back to the wedding speech. The right unions will bring together people who through their relationships become more defined and refined individuals. If the end goal of all humanity is universal flourishing, then the right unions should directly contribute to that. So how do we achieve the greatest vision for humanity? Well perhaps the first responsibility lies with us as individuals aspiring to be as great as we can.