Love, pain and chemistry

by Neil Rickert

We sometimes hear people saying that love is just chemistry.  Apparently Zach Weinersmith, the SMBC cartoonist, doesn’t agree.  He gives his ironic reaction in one of his cartoons.  I agree with the cartoonist, though I would not react in the suggested way.

Jerry Coyne thinks the cartoonist is profoundly misguided.  So I’ll have to disagree with Coyne.

Computation as an analogy

I’ll use computation as an analogy, to illustrate why I disagree with Coyne.

If you see somebody doing computation, you may see them making pencil marks on paper.  But it would be a serious mistake to say that computation is just making pencil marks on paper.

What characterizes computation, is the rule based manipulation of abstract symbols.  That’s pretty much the Turing machine definition that is used to characterize computation.  As a mathematical fictionalist, I consider the abstract symbols to be useful fictions.  The pencil marks on paper are used to represent those fictional symbols.  To say it differently, the symbols are conceptual entities, rather than physical entities.  We define computation in terms of how we conceptually operate on those conceptual entities.  The use of pencil marks on paper is merely an implementation detail.

With computation, we have alternative implementations.  We often implement computation with computers, so that the computation uses changing electrical charges and currents.  It would be a mistake to say that computation is just changing electrical charges, just as it would be a mistake to say that computation is making pencil marks on paper.  This is the kind of thing that Gilbert Ryle described as a category mistake.

Love and chemistry

Back to the question of love and pain.  Analogously with the example of computation, I suggest that the chemical reactions are implementation details.  They are not what characterizes love or pain.  If we are ever able to create an artificial person, maybe we will have different implementations of love and of pain.

Materialism

Presumably, Jerry Coyne’s objection to the cartoon is because he is an avowed materialist.  So he wants to say that everything is material.

I am not a materialist, largely because there are too many things such as mathematics, love, pain, beauty, which do not seem to be material.  It may well be that these things all supervene on the material.  I don’t have any reason to doubt that they supervene on the material.  But saying that they supervene tells us almost nothing of what we want to know about love, pain, computation.  That’s why materialism does not seem useful.

 

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12 Comments to “Love, pain and chemistry”

  1. I am not a materialist, largely because there are too many things such as mathematics, love, pain, beauty, which do not seem to be material. It may well be that these things all supervene on the material. I don’t have any reason to doubt that they supervene on the material. But saying that they supervene tells us almost nothing of what we want to know about love, pain, computation. That’s why materialism does not seem useful.

    Hey Neil – this statement you made resonates with me quite a bit. I also have a hard time with the materialist worldview for the same reasons. I can’t see how our subjective experiences (qualia) can be material, yet they exist. It seems likely they are somehow generated and dependent on material things, but equated with materials doesn’t seem right.

    I also find it interesting how common it is for theists to think that they have successfully proved theism by simply talking about the shortcomings of materialism. I think they do this because materialism seems to be the most prevalent worldview among scientists, and they figure that if they punch holes in that view then the only alternative people have is supernaturalism and theism. But this seems very wrong to me.

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  2. I don’t think that the computation analogy holds very well. Sure computation can be accomplished through the medium of making pencil marks on paper, but there are mental processes going on that make use of those manipulation of symbols (and those mental processes are produced by chemical reactions). Love (just like the conscious experience of computation) is a mental experience as well that results from chemical reactions so I suppose a new analogy can be drawn there. Whereas we may use an external medium in an arbitrary language as an extension of our minds to help with computation, we also use external mediums that have an interplay with the experience of love (such as writing and reading poems to or from someone we love). Does this mean that love is just writing or reading poems? I would say no, and that is why I don’t think your analogy logically follows. Instead both external mediums (pencil marks for computation and poems for love) are just that, external mediums or objects that are somehow related to the experience of computation or love (which are both governed by chemical reactions).

    I don’t think that Coyne rejects that abstract concepts exist (such as “love”) in at least some sense, but he likely thinks that those concepts are based on and thus dependent on experiences that result from chemical reactions (unless one is arguing for dualism which is fairly untenable). My two cents anyway. By the way, I’m glad to hear that your feeling better from the appendectomy and after effects! That sucks that you had to go through that, so I’m glad to hear that your continuing to improve Neil! Peace.

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    • I would say no, and that is why I don’t think your analogy logically follows.

      I’m not sure of the point. Analogies are not logic. They are illustrations. I don’t know what it would even mean to say that an analogy logically follows.

      Apart from that, I am not surprised that you disagree. You hold to a materialism similar to the materialism of Coyne that I was criticizing.

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      • An analogy can be logically sound or not. Your premise seems to be that the claim that “love is nothing more than chemical reactions” is in some way equivalent to saying that “computation is nothing more than making pencil marks on paper” such that if the latter claim is false, then the first claim is also false. Your second premise is that the claim that “computation is nothing more than making pencil marks on paper” is false. Your conclusion is that therefore the claim described in the first premise is also false (by analogy).

        So while it is true that analogies are not logic per se (as you say they are also illustrations which I agree with), nevertheless valid analogies used to support an argument or claim should possess at least one valid logical syllogistic form and the premises must all be true if the analogy is to hold up. I reject your first premise. Whereas love is ultimately an experience that we also describe using various abstract concepts, and whereas that experience as well as the development of concepts describing it are both ultimately mental processes produced by chemical reactions occurring in the brain (thus adding credence to claim one in the first premise), it is not the case that computation is adequately described or causally produced by making pencil marks on paper. So by rejecting the second claim (which has poor evidence to support it as you and I both agree), it does not logically follow that you should reject the first claim. There is not the kind of required equivalence between the two claims to warrant your rejecting one of them simply based on rejecting the other. That is, the analogy doesn’t seem to logically follow from the similarities that those two claims do actually share.

        Don’t get me wrong, I still agree with you in some sense that love isn’t simply chemical reactions, because I accept that we consider abstract concepts to be ontological entities of some kind (supervenient on physical/chemical processes). But love is ultimately produced by chemical reactions and so the statement that “love is nothing more than chemical reactions” is much more accurate (even if not entirely accurate depending on one’s ontology) than the claim that “computation is nothing more than making pencil marks on paper”.

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        • Your premise seems to be that the claim that “love is nothing more than chemical reactions” is in some way equivalent to saying that “computation is nothing more than making pencil marks on paper” such that if the latter claim is false, then the first claim is also false.

          No, there’s no such premise.

          There isn’t any possible logical argument as to whether love is a chemical reaction. It is a question of how we conceptualize those. And without an accepted formal account of what it means to conceptualize, there’s no way of addressing it with logic.

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          • So if you didn’t think that the two claims I mentioned were equivalent in some way, then how do you expect your analogy to hold?

            Any analogy can be formalized into a logical argument, though that doesn’t mean that one can prove the premises are true. And that is the problem I see with your analogy. Comparing what Coyne said to your example about computation and pencil marks is (I believe) a false analogy, for the reasons I stated. If you disagree, then you must defend your analogy to move forward here. You made some kind of equivalence between the two in order to analogize it at all, and to show that the first claim was wrong. Do you have any rebuttal to my response that your analogy fails? Or not?

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          • You are repeating yourself.

            As I have already said, I used the analogy to illustrate a conceptual point.

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  3. Hi Neil,

    I think I am fundamentally a materialist but I dislike the term because it immediately leads to the kinds of criticisms that you illustrate. How could it be that love is ‘just’ a set of chemical reactions or a certain pattern of neuronal activation? It seems so reductionist and impoverished. But, to be anything other than a materialist would require that there be a non-material component to our existential experiences – which would make one a spiritualist or a dualist? To call ourselves ‘stuffists’ would be even worse. Still, it seems that everything, both objective and subjective, represents some arrangement of stuff.

    That “materialism does not seem useful” is true when one tries to think about love, beauty, virtue and evil – the ‘stuff’ of our culture, society and all other quaiia. There are no limits in these domains and so all isms that attempt to draw limits are bound to run into problems with boundaries.

    Materialism, however, has been extremely useful when we think about the external world. Science and mathematics have had extraordinary success. Even philosophy has had difficulty keeping up. I expect however, that materialists are running into conceptual problems in their own domain. Matter is not what we have always intuitively thought that it was. At its most fundamental level it still seems indescribably complex, subtle and ‘intelligent’.

    The moral of the story seems to be that we will find ultimate reality wherever we look, for ultimate reality is everywhere. Panpsychists, theists, mystics, realists and idealists all are onto something. An almost universal mistake is not to realize that our best efforts, as individuals or communities, are still just parts of the truth. Ultimate reality seems to hide behind a mirror.

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  4. “Analogously with the example of computation, I suggest that the chemical reactions are implementation details. They are not what characterizes love or pain. If we are ever able to create an artificial person, maybe we will have different implementations of love and of pain.”

    I’ve thought this for a long time: we have drilled-down with science to find out what happens to underlie love in ourselves as biological beings, but I think it’s a bad idea to operationalize the idea of love in terms of that physiology. It’s a common “reductivist” mistake that a lot of people make when they are enamored of the old-fashioned idea that everything is really just atoms whirling around and the rest is epiphenomenal. 🙂

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  5. Hmmmmm

    “I am not a materialist, largely because there are too many things such as mathematics, love, pain, beauty, which do not seem to be material.” — not sure I follow.
    Mind states can be caused by material events, while the perception may be non-material, it doesn’t mean it isn’t.

    Your intuitions don’t seem enough of a counter to a materialist theory. I can’t begin to understand what is NOT materialist. That is, if “materialist” = matter, energy and their relations, what else would their be? Of course that is allowing all sorts of new matters, energies and relations awaiting discovery.

    So the argument of the cartoonist seems cheap, albeit funny — but maybe that is just my nonmaterialist self laughing. 😉

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    • That is, if “materialist” = matter, energy and their relations, what else would their be?

      Behavior (or action).

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      • Sorry, too terse for me Neil. Don’t follow.
        Atoms move (actions), Chemicals move in Neurons (actions), Facial muscles move (actions), bacteria and humans copulate (action). behavior is action based on a materialist world.

        But I am sure the arguments are all generic on both sides . Blogs are filled with these.

        I guess I am a materials but it is not a name I identify with. I know what at spookist is, they aren’t materialist. I am not sure why behavior needs to be called non-materialist if you define “materialist” as I have. I think this is a nuance, definition issue and nothing to do with important difference — but just guessing.

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