In Breaking the Spell, in a chapter called “Belief in Belief,” Daniel Dennett discusses how our beliefs sometimes are held simply because we don’t know how to not hold them.Some beliefs seem too painful to let go, no matter how much other parts of our brains may see through them. Not only that, there is a kind of superstition that says it is good to believe in something, no matter what it is. In fact most people will express derision about anyone who doesn’t believe in belief. “He’s a nihilist,” they hiss, “he doesn’t believe in anything.” Most people would prefer we profess belief in things we know are untrue, in other words lie, than discuss our rational skepticism.
Our belief in love is kind of like that. It’s not that love is a fraud or that it is not part of the human condition. On the contrary, it is fundamental to our species and it is what makes life worth living. As powerful a force as love is for good, it can turn on a dime and become oppressive when in service of some smarmy agenda or abusive relationship.
When people say “Love is blind,” they mean that we overlook the obvious flaws in our love object. Or we ignore obvious signs the love is unrequited. This sounds suspiciously like what believers do when confronted with the ugly frauds of their faiths. According to Dennett:
It is surely no accident that the language of romantic love and the language of religious devotion are all but indistinguishable, and it is similarly no accident that almost all religions (with a few austere exceptions, such as the Puritans and the Shakers and the Taliban) have given their lovers a cornucopia of beauty to ravish their senses: soaring architecture, with decoration applied to every surface, music, candles, and incense. The inventory of the world’s great works of art is crowned by religious masterpieces. Thanks to Islam, we have the Alhambra, and the exquisite mosques of Isfahan and Istanbul….Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and Handel’s Messiah and those miniature marvels the Christmas carols are among the most rapturous love songs ever composed…
Dennett agrees that love is what makes life worth living. He says, “I am inclined to think that nothing could matter more than what people love.” But he also declares, like the Nine Inch Nails song of the same name, that “Love is not enough.”
We ignore practical considerations at our peril. I propose that we can rid ourselves of the blindness of love and not destroy its essence. We can understand how oxytocin and vasopressin operate, without denying the subjective bliss or longing for the feelings they engender.
Sometimes love also makes us lie to preserve a mood, quoting Steven Pinker:
Murmuring that your lover’s looks, earning power, and IQ meet your minimal standards would probably kill the romantic mood, even though the statement is statistically true. The way to a person’s heart is to declare the opposite–that you’re in love because you can’t help it.
Back to Dennett:
This demonstrated (or at least passionately professed) helplessness is as close as you can muster to a guarantee that you are not still shopping around. Like all communications signals, however, if it can be cheaply faked, your commitment signal will not be effective, and the result, as so often in the world of animal signaling, is the inflationary spiral of costly signaling. It is not just lovestruck young men who shower their beloveds with presents they can barely afford; the bowerbirds’ bowers are costly investments…
So See’s candies, and Fedex, and FTD, and deBeers, and vintners, and growers of flowers in the developing world, and the cargo planes which deliver their product to market are all slaves to human brain chemistry and cultural expectations. So much of this for humans is a recent construct (last 800 years or so).
What I take away from this is that romantic love behavior is basically the result of a chemical addiction. It makes us lose control, do insane things, it makes us ignore warning signs. It is, as Dennett would say, a “good trick,” because the survival of our species is maintained.
Like most illusions, what lies beneath is actually better than the fantasy. Conscious people are not at the mercy of their chemistry. We can feel the flutters and body rushes. We can choose to indulge in a romantic interlude–much as we might watch a film, enjoying it thoroughly, without trying to pretend it is real. We can thoughtfully evaluate each other–is she good for me? Is he good for me? Do we have great sex? Do we have the same goals? Realism is better than fake surrender to romance every time. Because if it’s not real, the romance will fade in any case. If it’s real, it won’t matter if the romance fades.
We can have our mental eyes wide open, even when our eyelids are locked tight, lips pressed together and our arms and legs intertwined. We can come to understand that the feelings we feel about our lovers are really coming from our own brains. We can have all our fun while at the same time shattering the pernicious myths our culture has formed to prevent us from really seeing our loves for what they actually mean to us, but above all–the way they really are.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Hey, the closer we think we are
Well it only got us so far
Now you got anything left to show
No no I didn’t think so
Hey, the sooner we realize
We cover ourselves with lies
But underneath we’re not so tough
And love is not enough
from Love is not Enough by Trent Reznor