Where Does Love Come From?

What does science have to say about the origins of love in the scheme of things? Not a lot. In fact, it is still virtually a taboo subject, just as consciousness was until very recently. However, since feelings are a major component of consciousness, it seems likely that the ontology of love is now likely to emerge as a significant question in science.

Within Christian culture, as in many other religious traditions, love has its origin as a primal quality of God and so is co-eternal with Him. His creation is an outpouring of this love in shared relationship with beings that participate in the essential creativity of the cosmos. As in the world of Shakespeare and the Renaissance Magi, it is love that makes the world go round and animates all relationships.

This magical view of the world did not satisfy the emerging perspective of Galilean science, which saw relationships in nature as law-like, obeying self-consistent logical principles of order. God may well have created the world, but he did so according to intelligible principles. It is the job of the scientist to identify these and describe them in mathematical form. And so with Newton, love turned into gravity. The rotation of the earth around the sun, and the moon around the earth, was a result of the inverse square law of gravitational attraction. It was not a manifestation of love as an attractive principle between animated beings, however much humanity remained attached to romantic feelings about the full moon. Love was henceforth banished from scientific discourse and the mechanical world-view took over.

Now science itself is changing and mechanical principles are being replaced by more subtle notions of interaction and relationships. Quantum mechanics was the first harbinger of a new holistic world of non-local connectedness in which causality operates in a much more intricate way than conventional mechanism. We now have complexity theory as well, which seeks to understand how emergent properties arise in complex systems such as developing organisms, colonies of social insects, and human brains. Often these properties are not reducible to the behavior of their component parts and their interactions, though there is always consistency between levels: that is, there are no contradictions between the properties of the parts of a complex system and the order that emerges from them. Consciousness appears to be one of these emergent properties. With this recognition, science enters a new realm.

Consciousness involves feelings, or more generally what are called qualia, the experience of qualities such as pain, pleasure, beauty, and ŠŠ. love. This presents us with a major challenge. The scientific principle of consistency between levels in systems requires that feelings emerge from some property of the component parts (e.g., neurones) that is consistent with feeling, experience. But if matter is 'dead', without any feeling, and neurones are just made of this dead matter, even though organized in a complex way, then where do feelings come from ? This is the crunch question which presents us with a hard choice. We can either say that feelings are epiphenomena, illusions that evolution has invented because they are useful for survival. Or we can change our view of matter and ascribe to the basic stuff of reality some elementary component of feeling, sentience, however rudimentary. Of course, we could also take the view that nature is not self-consistent and that miracles are possible; that something can come from nothing, such as feeling from dead, insentient matter, thus returning to the magical world-view of the early renaissance. But if we are to remain scientific, then the choice is between the other two alternatives.

The notion that evolution has invented feelings because they are useful for survival is not a scientific explanation, because it gives no account of how feelings are possible as properties that emerge in the complex systems we call organisms (i.e., consistent emergent properties of life). So we are left with the other hard choice: matter must have some rudimentary property of sentience. This is the conclusion that the mathematician/philosopher A.N. Whitehead came to in his classic, Process and Reality, and it is being proposed as a solution to the Cartesian separation of mind and matter by some contemporary philosophers and scientists. It involves a radical reappraisal of what we call 'reality'. But it does suggest a world in which love exists as something real, in accord with most peoples' experience. And goodness knows, we could do with a little more of it in our fragmented world.

BRIAN GOODWIN is a professor of biology at the Schumacher College, Milton Keynes, and the author of Temporal Organization in Cells and Analytical Physiology, How The Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, and (with Gerry Webster) Form and Transformation: Generative and Relational Principles in Biology. Dr. Goodwin is a member of the Board of Directors of the Sante Fe Institute.