Thursday 12 April 2012

Explain Love You Atheist Bastard

You’ll be familiar with this situation. Sometime after the event, perhaps whilst on the drive home, you’re mulling over the conversation in your head. At the time you didn’t have a good answer to that unexpected question. You hesitated, you floundered, perhaps you went off on a bit of tangent, but now that you’ve had time to think about it, you now know what you should have said. After five mental iterations of the conversation you have honed your answer. Now you have a clever, profound and witty riposte. If only you had thought at the time to call him a bellend and tell him to fuck off. But the moment has passed. The opportunity is lost.

Three years ago I packed my son and daughter off on a summer camp. Camp Quest was the UK’s first summer camp that openly promoted a rational worldview. In addition to the normal camping activities there were sessions on philosophy and critical thinking. The media jumped on the story, relabelled it as an Atheist Summer Camp and found a way to connect it to the ever popular Richard Dawkins. In addition to deftly fielding the unnecessary and arbitrary media interest herself the camp director also asked if any of the parents would be prepared to talk to the media. I put my best foot forward.

I did a short interview for the BBC World Service, the local BBC TV evening news and a local radio phone-in show with a rather pious Anne Diamond. I also got asked to pop into Broadcasting House to record a piece for the Radio 4 Sunday morning religious slot with Roger Bolton. The interview went quite well, Roger was a very likable host and I think presented a reasonable and balanced overview of the camp. He did however catch me slightly unawares with a perennial poser that I really should have anticipated. I’m not quite sure why I happened to be thinking about it again this morning, but only three years late, I have finally composed my rejoinder.

After establishing my lack of belief and my preference for more rational and scientific explanations I was posed the familiar question of how I explain love. An emotion so overwhelming that its explanation transcends the ability of mere science to explain or even comprehend. Leading to the only possible conclusion that love is evidence of some divine power beyond the realms of human logic. I’m sure there’s also an unspoken implication in the question. By daring me to reduce the appreciation of art or even love itself to a series of mere electrical impulses or chemical reactions I would demean the whole experience. By denying the unexplainable spiritual nature of such experiences I would somehow lessen them. Perhaps it’s even assumed that such cold rational reasoning has rendered me incapable of experiencing love with the same intensity of the faithful. If such an implication exists, I object to it.

Time to wheel in the analogy. I’m sure it must have been made before, but it’s only just occurred to me…

I do like a nice magic trick. When Penn & Teller or Derren Brown perform some inexplicable feat of magic that appears to contradict the fundamental physical laws of the universe, I am suitably impressed. I am suitably impressed despite realising that rather than actually breaking the fundamental physical laws of the universe the magicians have simply tricked me. Indeed appreciating the skilled sleight of hand or the ingenuity, planning, practise and banal ground work that is required in order to achieve an effect that I cannot easily explain, is actually more impressive than a naive belief in magic. Removing the irrational belief in magic has not cheapened the trick, on the contrary it has forced me to consider more complex, fascinating and ultimately, more truthful mechanisms. I invariably fail to conclude the exact method of the trick, but there is no doubt that it is a trick. The more you understand the magician’s techniques, the more impressed you tend to be by a really good trick. Nature can pull of some pretty neat tricks too, and love is certainly one of it’s better ones, trying to understand it in biological terms will inevitably add more awe and wonder to it than indiscriminately crediting it to an supernatural force. I may still have failed to answer what love actually is, but I shan’t be cajoled into thinking that when science eventually works it, it will be in anyway diminished.

So I’ve committed these thoughts to memory just in case. In the unlikely event I am ever asked back on the Ann Diamond show and am posed once more with Roger’s tiresome love quandary, I shall be ready with my prepared retort: “Fuck off Anne, you bellend.”


Kiwiwit said...

I would answer the question by turning it around and asking another question: do you think dogs have a soul? Because many dog owners would say that the love they feel for their pets is reciprocated. If love comes from the religious soul, and animals don't have souls (and theologians have always said they don't), then what pets display must be no more than a simulation of love. Isn't what humans feel just a more elegant version of the same thing?

Marnie said...

Yah, I'm with kiwiwit here, I think that question raises more questions than it answers. Is all love the product of a god or gods? If so, what constitutes love? Caring for one's young? Bonding with a sibling? Pair bonding? These are all found in nature. If it's only humans who have the god-love, what makes it so special? If it's all god love, why do we see varying degrees of it throughout the animal kingdom? Does this god just like some animals more than others?

It's really a silly question at its root, like saying that the eye cannot have evolved because it doesn't work unless all the parts are there, therefore, the Abrahamic god is real.

Kompani said...

I didn't see your final statement coming, excellent. I have no idea what love is and don't care to know. Love is fab, let's leave it at that.

L.Long said...

It can also be said that 'love' does not even exist. It is just lust spelled wrong.
In fact I'd love to see a good definition of 'love' and since there are 3 to 5 types of love good luck on a good definition. And with the very high divorce rate it shows that most people have know good idea on what it is either.

Caesar said...

L'esprit de l'escalier

Joseph JG said...

I just thought about ruins.

If you see a ruined castle you can look at it and think about life and death, decay, the passage of time, the fall of empire and all sorts of stuff. The fact that a guy simply built a castle and now it's battered doesn't actually matter. You can still place meaning and significance on the rubble.

I would say the same of love.

The fact that it's a load of brain chemicals doesn't affect the power of the experience. Indeed, neither does the idea of a "spiritual dimension" to the universe.

You don't need your feelings to exist outside of your mind to be justified in feeling them.

facebookdeveloper said...
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Anonymous said...

Darnit - Caesar beat me to it, but anyway

Stefan said...

Err .. perhaps, just perhaps, ppl shouldn't resort to believing in a divine, even more magical power, just because they can't explain something. I always find it fascinating how people are willing to believe in something even more outrageous just because they can't explain something.

A religious person believes that the universe is so intricate and complex that it can't have been created by anything other than a divine power. With that logic, what created the even more intricate and complex divine power that created the universe?