You can’t measure love

A thoroughly odd argument that gets sometimes trotted out falls along the following lines:

    1. Love is a real thing
    2. Science can’t measure love
    3. Therefore [insert nonsense here] is real

This is typically brought to bear by someone whose interlocutor(s) is/are proposing an evidence-based view. While it seems that the “easy” option is to just laugh out loud at the sheer ridiculousness of the argument, this is a mistaken approach: this fails to explain the problem and, at worst, declares to the world that you are unable to assail this position.

While it’s certainly the case that some people are going to be shamed or embarrassed by such an approach, if you’re dealing with someone who is honestly arguing for their position, I’d contend that it’s far better to take them seriously and help them understand the problems with their argument. Hence this blog.

First, we can look at how ill-defined the terms are: are we talking about the emotional state? Are we acting as if Love is a metaphysically real entity, with an existence physically independent of minds? Are we talking about expressions of love? All of these need responding to separately, as they are entirely different arguments.

Love, the emotional state, cannot be measured

Prior to, say, the 20th century, this would have been a reasonably decent position to take. Since knowledge about the biological structure and behaviour of the brain is relatively accessible (not everyone has access to libraries, the internet, or people who can point one in the right direction), this view is becoming less and less reasonable to hold.

We can look at love as the rate of exchange of certain neurotransmitters in our brain. Whether or not we agree about which combinations of what neurotransmitters constitute ‘love’ (and how that varies per person, perhaps due to genetics, or just even neural structure, or how they’ve been socialised to interpret certain neuronal activity), once one accepts that “the mind is what the brain does”. Now, one is (of course) free to reject that, but there is really no reasonable grounds to retreat to if one does. So once we accept that, it necessarily follows that ‘love’ is measurable in principle, as a rate of exchange of neurotransmitters, if not necessarily in practice.

Or we could look at brain activity with fMRI scanners. Granted, this practice is deeply problematic, for a variety of conceptual as well as practical reasons, but tracking ‘which parts of the brain are active’ when one is ‘experiencing love’ seems to me to be one measure of love. The best? Absolutely not. But a measure nonetheless.

Let’s say we’re not sold on the whole ‘brain-scan’ thing, or even basic materialism (I’m not sure that you’re reading the best blog, in that case): we can ask people: do you feel love? Much like people can express pain, not merely in terms of intensity but also in terms of texture, there’s no reason to suppose that people can’t express how they feel love. And yes, “asking people” is science: what makes it science is how the surveys are created, presented, and analysed.

Similarly, we could record the actions of a large quantity of people who self-identify as ‘being in love’ (and, of course, agree to have their actions recorded). We could take the footage of these hundreds and hundreds of people, and present them to yet more and ask them to firstly define what they consider ‘being in love’ looks like, and what kind of behaviour would mark someone as ‘being in love’. Once a rubric has been decided on, that rubric could be applied to the behaviour of all of these other people. Ideally, I’d suggest that this should be merely a criteria for inclusion, and not necessarily exclusion (i.e. the division is “this is definitely behaviour that someone who is in love exhibits”, and “it is unclear that this is the behaviour of someone who is in love”), as love is expressed in a large and diverse variety of ways. But let’s not confuse ‘massively diverse’ with ‘impossible to quantify’. We’re doing fine with insects, I doubt there’s more varieties of expressions of love than there are species of insect in the world.

Now… If you want to assert that there is a Thing called Love that is metaphysically distinct and independent of all other sentient beings: more power to you. And yes, even at this juncture I’d strongly argue against simply mocking someone with this perspective.

Why? Because it’s not new. This is an old position, and it was handily defeated several hundred years ago, when Elizabeth of Bohemia demolished Descartes’s argument for Dualism.

To paraphrase the learned lady: if Love is entirely distinct from humans, the question is raised as to how the person proposing this knows of the existence of love. We are physical beings, limited to the physical world. To propose a non-physical Love is to propose that our senses go far beyond anything that we have evidence for. To declare that Love is undetectable to “Science” is to declare that Love is undetectable to Humans, and therefore completely unknown to the person declaring that it both exists and is undetectable. This position is untenable. It demolishes itself. No mockery needed.

Forgetting all of the above for a final moment, even if it were the case that Love were all but unmeasurable, this would, in no way, validate the lack of evidence for anything else. Ultimately, the goal of this argument is to say that

  1. Love is a real thing
  2. Science can’t measure love
  3. Science is therefore unreliable
  4. The use of an unreliable tool cannot be used to ‘disprove’ the existence of something
  5. Therefore [insert nonsense here] is real.

Even if we were to accept premises 1 through 4, the conclusion (5) does not follow from those premises: in order to demonstrate that something is real, a positive argument in its favour must be put forward. And since the proponent of this position has just discarded all empirical arguments, they’re basically screwed.

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