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What is Love?

For most of us atheists determined enough to debate theists, I think one of the most frustrating arguments for God goes something like this:

There are some things that are real even though they defy proof and definition.  You can’t “prove love.”  Love exists, but you can’t touch it or feel it or even define it.  But it still exists.  That’s what God is like.

Most of the theists that use this argument are waiting to “trap” us science types when we say that love is chemical.  They want to accuse us of reducing a sublime and powerful thing down to cold hard numbers and missing the beauty of it entirely.   It’s not a good argument, but it’s emotionally satisfying to the theist.  They leave convinced that we are soulless monsters incapable of loving our children or cuddling with puppies.

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on life as a process, I’d like to offer an accessible and easy to explain definition of love that can help undercut the pious grandstanding.  Love, in all its incarnations, is a process.

Love is a chemical process

This is the definition of love that a lot of people hate.  But it’s true.  Love is a feeling that is produced by a coctail of chemicals, most notably oxytocin and vasopressin.  Even kissing can be reduced to chemical reactions!  By this definition, love is hardly a unique thing for humans.  All over the animal kingdom, we see pair bonding, and when we examine the brains and bodies of bonded animals, we find the chemicals responsible for the behavior.  Like the other animals, we are slaves to the chemicals our body unconsciously releases.

In the new pseudo-scientific discipline of “pickup artistry,” men are taught to exploit the unconscious chemical processes in women to create attraction.  Love it or hate it, but it can and does work.  Attraction is not a decision.  It is an emotional and chemical state.

It works in reverse, too.  We’ve all had it happen, haven’t we?   Our friends have met someone they think is just perfect for us.  When we hear all the details, we’re intrigued.  They like the same things as us, and we’re assured that they’re good looking.  Everything’s great, and then we meet and…


Love and attraction are chemical, and there’s no better way to describe either than as chemical processes.  Love and attraction continue over time.  They wax and wane precisely because the level and mix of chemicals in our brains and bodies are changing over time.  This is a process, pure and simple.

Love is a Decision

Anyone who has ever been in a long term committed relationship knows that love is more than attraction and chemicals.  It is also a decision.  When we decide to commit to someone for the long term, whether it’s moving in together, getting married, or just agreeing to not have sex with anyone else, we’re making a conscious commitment to a course of action in the future.  In this sense, love is also a process.

Love is displayed by consistent behavior patterns.  We give displays of affection, physical gifts, sexual gratification, and most importantly, we give our time and energy to things that are important to our partners when we could be doing something for ourselves instead.  Any one of these actions by itself is not love.  Love is the process of combining all of these things into a pattern of behavior over time.  Most importantly, love is the process of doing all of these things consistently in spite of the inconsistency of our chemical state.  The decision of love is the promise to do loving things even when we want to do hateful things.

Love and Love are Contradictory

One of the most profound truths about love is that there are two distinct and mutually exclusive states.  The promise and decision of love hinge on the commitment to do loving things when we don’t want to.  The chemical state of love is the state of wanting to do loving things.  These two states cannot coexist at the same time.  When therapists talk about moving from lust to love, they’re talking about the transition from blind chemical attraction to informed, ingrained, purposeful commitment.  Of course, in any loving relationship, there are innumerable shifts from feeling chemically turned on to feeling less attracted or even turned off.  The smallest thing can trigger a shift in chemical state which triggers a shift in mental state.

But in the end, love really is two completely different things:  On the one hand, it is sexual attraction and desire.  On the other, it is commitment despite the lack of sexual attraction and desire.

Love is Pair Bonding

Love is also the deep feeling of bonding that develops over long periods of time.  When two people have spent enough time together experiencing sexual love and commitment love, they literally become addicted to each other.  This too is a chemical process, but it’s a social process as well.  Human society centers around pair bonding in many ways, and over time, a person’s social status literally becomes married to his pair bonded status.

We’ve all heard stories of widows or widowers who died of loneliness.  It’s not just the stuff of fairy tales.  The very elderly are especially susceptible to detrimental effects from the withdrawal symptoms when a partner dies.   Withdrawal from love chemicals is real, and it’s extremely powerful.  (As an aside, if you haven’t seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall, it’s a pretty funny movie, and has some fine examples of what happens to otherwise healthy people when their love drugs are taken away.)

I’m reminded of a song that is a perfect example of the reality of pair bonding.

Love is Process

When it comes right down to it, “true love,” if we can be so bold as to suggest such a thing, is the process of combining a number of processes.  The chemical process triggers the decision process which triggers the pair bonding process.  Over the course of months and years, each process reinforces the others, so that the grand experience of love is really a combination of passionate physical attraction, consistent patterns of loving behavior, and the gradual growth of chemical addiction.

To bring this all back around to the theist argument, we can see now that from any angle we choose to take, defining love as a process is a simple and elegant refutation.  Any aspect of love can be empirically observed and explained as something that occurs in predictable ways over time.  And that, friends, makes love as real as life.

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4 thoughts on “What is Love?

  1. By “God” they mean “Flying Spagetti Monster” right?

    I mean he is obviously pasta, but we can’t prove or define him fully either. He is simply al dente.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | March 9, 2010, 9:06 pm
  2. “LOVE IT”! I have not encountered this argument with the theists (True fundies) that I am working with, but maybe they will get to it. They are so stuck on PURPOSE. I told them I create my own and they don’t buy that…*sigh*

    Posted by PaigeB | March 11, 2010, 3:27 pm
  3. I like it!

    “God” is a chemical process as well. Studies have already been done on people’s state changes while meditating or praying.

    God is a chemical process.
    Love is a chemical process.

    Therefore God is love.

    And just because something is a chemical process does not mean it is useless. Certainly there is some practical use for “love” at times.

    Posted by Chemical Goddess | May 7, 2010, 3:36 pm


  1. Pingback: When Game Becomes Love « Life Without a Net - July 14, 2010

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