Love, Voles & Kant

Español: Intercambio de anillos entre los novios

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In my previous essay I discussed the current theory that love is essentially a mechanical matter. That is, what we regard as love behavior is merely the workings of chemistry, neurons and genetics. This view, as noted in the essay, is supported by Larry Young’s research involving Voles. This mechanistic view of love has some interesting implications and I will consider one of these in this essay. To be specific, I will consider the matter of the virtue of fidelity.

While most of human history has involved polygamous relationships (such as those enjoyed by the famous King Solomon), the idea of romantic fidelity has been praised in song, fiction and in the professed values of contemporary society. Given Young’s research, it could be the case that humans are biochemically inclined to fidelity—at least in the sense of forming pair bonds. Sexual fidelity, as with the voles, is rather another matter.

While fidelity is praised, one important question is whether or not is worthy of praise as a virtue. If humans are like voles and the mechanistic theory of human bonding is correct, then fidelity of the sort that ground pair-bonding would essentially be a form of addiction, as discussed in the previous essay. On the face of it, this would seem to show that such fidelity is not worthy of praise. After all, one does not praise crack heads for their loyalty to crack. Likewise, being addicted to love would hardly make a person worthy of praise.

One obvious counter is that while crack addiction is regarded as bad because of the harms of crack, the addiction that composes pair bonding should be generally regarded as good because of its good consequences. These consequences would be the usual sort of things people praise about pair bonding, such as the benefits to health.  However, this counter misses the point: the question is not whether pair bonding is good (it generally is in terms of consequences) but whether fidelity should be praised.

If fidelity is a matter of chemistry (in the literal sense), then it would not seem to be worthy of praise. After all, if I form a lasting bond because of this process it is merely a matter of a mechanical process, analogous to being chained to a person. If I stick close to a person because I am chained to her, that is hardly worthy of praise—be the chain metal or chemical.

If my fidelity is determined by this process, then I am not actually acting from fidelity but rather merely acting as a physical system in accord with deterministic (or whatever physics says these days) processes.  To steal from Kant, I would not be free in my fidelity—it would be imposed upon me by this process. As such, my fidelity would not be morally right (or wrong) and I would not be worthy of praise for my fidelity. In order for my fidelity to be morally commendable, it would have to be something that I freely chose as a matter of will.

One obvious concern with this sort of view is that it would seem to make fidelity a passionless sort of thing. After all, if I chose to be faithful to a person on the basis of a free and rational choice rather than being locked into fidelity by a chemical stew of passion and emotion, then this seems rather cold and calculating—like how one might select the next move in chess or determine which stock to buy. After all, love is supposed to be something one falls into rather than something that one chooses.

This reply has considerable appeal. After all, a rational choice to be loyal to a person would not be the traditional sort of love that is praised in song, fiction and romantic daydreams. One wants to hear a person gushing about passion, burning emotions, and the ways of the heart—not rational choice.  Of course, an appeal to the idealized version of romantic love might be a poor response—much like any appeal to fiction. That said, there does seem to be a certain appeal in the whole emotional love thing—although the idea that love is merely a chemical romance also seems to rob love of that magic.

A second obvious concern is that it assumes that people are capable of free choice—that is, a person can decide to be faithful or not. The mechanistic view of humans typically does not stop with the emotional aspects (although Descartes did seem to regard emotions, at least in animals, as having a physical basis—while leaving thinking to the immaterial mind). Rather, they tend to extend to all aspects of the human and this includes what we would regard as decision making. For example, Thomas Hobbes argued that we actually do not chose—we simply seem to make decisions but they are purely deterministic. As such, if the choice to be faithful is merely another mechanistic process, then this would be no more praiseworthy than being faithful through a love addiction. In fact, as has long been argued, this sort of mechanistic view would take care of morality by eliminating agency.



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  1. One issue I have with the way you have laid this out is the assumed sharp delineation between “rational choice” and “emotion” as if this delineation is warranted. I think much psychological and philosophical literature begs to differ. It seems plausible that emotions have rational aspects (aboutness, evidence for rational decision-making, etc.). On the other hand, there is much on the emotive aspects of rational thought and the non-cognitive aspects of cognition (attitudes, beliefs, etc.).

    What conclusions might we draw from this, given the way you want to delineate “rational choice” from “emotion”, “passion”, etc.?

  2. David Keith Johnson

    The act of praise, especially in literature, song and other communications, is surely a social behavior. Therefore, I think we are missing a point of analysis in evaluating the praiseworthiness of fidelity. Knowing the emotional and sometimes violent reactions that infidelity can inspire, fidelity would be praiseworthy in a social context if only because it helps to keep the peace among families.

    I am not addressing the question of whether or not choosing fidelity is an illusion. While the arguments for the Hobbesian theory of a mechanistic human are difficult to rebut conclusively, I am sure that a life so conceived is not, in my view, worth living. So, with a slight echo to the pragmatic argument for believing in God – just in case he does exist, (which I do not like at all,) I will believe in my ability to choose because otherwise my life does not fundamentally work.

  3. Physical interaction causes chemical interaction, causes biological interaction, causes neuron interaction, causes brain interaction, causes social interaction. It’s an upward causal relationship. But the models we build of each level give the impression that there is top-down causality.

    Also, physical interaction causes chemical interaction, causes mass interaction, causes gravitational interaction, causes solar system.

    We tend not to look to the physical or chemical detail when calculating orbits.

    Similarly we tend not to worry about chemical influences on relationships – not because chemistry is not a cause of relationships, but rather because we never realised it, had no chemistry science as such in our distant history. As early humans, or even pre-human mammals, we had no science at all; and no understanding of the brain of any consequence.

    But sure enough the biological chemistry that causes hunger drives us to have relationships with prey, and prey have aversion relationships with predators. No matter how we view relationships it comes down to reductionism in the end: brains, biology, chemistry, physics.

    Historically our cultural and social models were necessarily built entirely top-down – ‘holistic’, or even ‘holy-istic’. Our perspective of what is virtuous is entirely determined by this top-down cultural history, influenced in turn by many brains coming up with philosophical and theological explanations for all this inter-personal social stuff.

    One way to consider this is by looking at communication protocols. They are constructed in ‘levels’. Here’s a simplistic explanation of one multi-layered system (I miss out much detail, and take some liberties with how websites actually work).

    You are booking a reservation, and the messages need to go from your computer, the transmission system (T) to the booking system, the receiving system (R).

    On your computer:

    T1) Top level: your screen shows the website, which in turn is showing the hotel, rooms, dates that you selected. Stuff you understand. You hit the Book Now button.

    T2) Package text into XML SOAP protocal

    T3) Wrap the SOAP message in a HTTP message.

    T4) Stuff the HTTP message into TCP/IP packets

    T5) Send packets as electronic signals.

    At the other end (skipping changes of intermediate protocols )

    R5) Receive electronic signals

    R4) Unpack TCP/IP packets to get the HTTP response

    R3) Examine HTTP data extract SOAP message

    R2) Unpack SOAP to extract variables

    R1) Booking systems sees your hotel, rooms, dates data

    This is an end-to-end process, each level packing or unpacking content. This isn’t an exact analogue, but here now is the crucial bit:

    To the customer and the booking system they understand only bookings: hotels, rooms, dates. It’s as if T1 talks directly to R1. And to the programs running the other layers the whole conversation is as if they are talking to their counterparts: T2 to R2, T3 to R3, etc. But this is a false perception, an illusion.

    Under this illusion, to the TCP/IP layers its as if their whole world is TCP/IP – they don’t understand the hotels from higher levels, and they don’t understand electronics of the lower levels.

    The analogue for human interaction is that we feel as though we are communicating in some high level interaction, as if our use of terms like ‘virtue’ has some relationship to some real virtue out there in the galaxy. That’s how we come to build what seem like realistic models of morality, love, spirituality. They are all higher level models built by us, but what we are modelling is caused entirely by low level physical stuff – reality – if only we knew it. Which we do now, thanks to voles and stuff.

    It doesn’t matter how much we dress it up in models of theology or fancy philosophy, or psychology, it’s still all physical stuff going on. A theologian sees the world in his theological protocol, and he tries to understand atheism in those terms, and fails – he can no more see a human relationship without God than a SOAP program can see why TCP/IP doesn’t need XML (anthropomorphism of computer programs understood).

    This is the basis upon which Gould’s ‘Non-overlapping Majesteria’ (NOMA) stands – though Gould may not have seen it in terms of mere protocols. This why Gould was wrong. They are not non-overlapping in a totally independent sense. The protocols of the theologians have a direct impact on the protocols of the rest of us. When a theologian tells us an apostate should be killed, that is not non-overlapping. The protocols we use have direct effects on the efficiency and accuracy of the communication, and the impact.

    The bottom up chemical emotional message coming up to the top level Islamic protocol is resulting in the down message: death to apostates.

    Philosophers, scientists and lay people who get physicalism appreciate what’s going on at lower levels. But contrary th religious and philosophical opinion are not just the the low level mechanisms we describe. We also understand what’s going on at higher levels too – we are humans after all, and we too use human protocols. This is something ‘sophisticated theologians’ and some philosophers don’t get – they often cry that if you haven’t immersed yourself in theology then you can’t understand, or if you don’t think Kant has much to offer on the subject then you really don’t understand. It’s one of their tropes for dismissing critics. But bullshit protocols aren’t difficult to spot – except perhaps if you are committed to using the bullshit protocol.

    Science is a protocol too of course. But it’s one with better error checking than others. That’s why its better. Philosophy in principle has some good error checking methods; it’s just that some philosophers forget to use them, and theologian ‘philosophers’ down right abuse them.

    Our higher level models are models of convenience.

    It is convenient for us that when we book a hotel online we only have to think about hotels, rooms, dates, and not how the message is going to get from us to the booking system. This wasn’t always the case. Flipping mechanical binary switches to boostrap a program is no fun.

    It is convenient for us that when we have the physical stirring that attaches us to another human we think about lust or love, and not about the neuro-chemicals flooding our brains. We don’t want to be dip-sticking our brains to figure out how much we love each other.

    But maybe that would help sometimes. The roles are reversed in this analogy. We understood the detail of computers first, so now we’re trying to make computers more general, trying to hide the detailed stuff. With humans we tried to figure out some general rules first and understood none of the detail, so now we’re trying to fill in the detail.

    The communications analogy is somewhat deceptive in another way, if you miss the point of the analogy. It seems that booking systems tend to work, while human relationships are not so straight forward. Well, humans are a lot more complicated. Even so, …

    I live in the UK. In 2007 I was busy booking a trip to the US, with some internal US flights. I found a good flight price from Continental and made my booking for 6th July 2007 from Newark to Las Vegas, and a 10th July return to Newark. I made to booking in March I think. As we got closer to our trip I checked the itinerary. It appeared I was booked to be in Vegas from 7th June to 7th October. Yes, the Continental UK part of their website correctly took dates as DD-MM-YYYY, but the US booking system at some far end of the internet understood them to be MM-DD-YYYY. I made an incomplete test booking. Sure enough, just before the payment stage one of the pages showed the US dates. I contacted Continental and they dealt with it, though they didn’t take me up on the offer to fix their site. But the moral is, don’t assume that if you’re in a relationship that the superficial psychological signals are representative of what’s getting through – especially if there are cultural differences between you. That applies to human and computer protocols.

    There’s no doubt that humans use higher level protocols when communicating with each other. You could say that in our attempt to understand human nature we’ve invented many many layers of protocols. The philosopher will tell you what love might be, and the theologian will tell you something different, and any number of couples experiencing love will have their own protocols to explain.

    Whatever is found to be compliant with a particular protocol we call ‘virtuous’, or we apply other terms to explain how well, or not, our interactions are going. Some monogamous couples have a very strict visual protocol – you can’t look admiringly at anyone else; while others have a protocol with more freedom – looking and fantasy are fine, but don’t make it real. Yet others have a more flexible ‘monogamous’ relationship: the monogamy extends to the long term partnership, but non-serious casual sex with others is permitted. We all have our own rules, our own protocols. What is cheating to one relationship protocol is a virtue to another.

    Sadly some relationships are using mixed protocols – what is quite reasonable to one partner is cheating to the other.

    Software engineers would make great relationship counsellors.

  4. s. wallerstein

    It seems that whether couples are faithful or not depends on lots of factors besides the above mentioned chemicals.

    For example, some cultures are more faithful than others and have more stable marriages. So culture, upbringing and maybe education seem to play a role in whether couples are faithful or not.

    I assume that people in all cultures have basically the same chemical makeup, by the way.

    Now, as to whether faithfulness is praiseworthy, It all depends on what people value; values differ from culture to culture and from individual to individual. To use Ron Murphy’s eloquent phrase, it depends on the relationship protocol involved.

  5. But all cultures are constructed by brains, and those brains are physically, chemically, interacting with their environment.

    The diversity of human cultures should be expected, given the massive complexity of brains.

  6. s. wallerstein

    Ron, Agreed that cultures are constructed by brains and that
    they influence us through brain mechanisms, but the post compares human fidelity or lack of fidelity with that of the voles. I assume that any vole, with the normal production of the requisite hormone, will be faithful, while with human beings cultural factors (which are mediated through the brain and the hormone system) play a key role and in fact, can over-ride primary hormone influences.

    Jean Paul Sartre most probably had the same level of “fidelity-bonding” hormones as the conservative Jews I grew up among (a community with high levels of fidelity in marriage, as far as I could see), but his culture (or his relationship protocols)
    justified a more flexible approach to sexual partnerships.

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