Love and Matter


Vic Stenger

More than once I have been called upon to explain Love. I must say the challenge puts me out a bit. Why should I, a physicist, have to explain love when nobody else has done so? Poets are simply asked to count the ways of love. Philosophers only attempt to define the word. Why should an expert on quarks and neutrinos be expected to do more?

The challenge usually occurs after I have described how science finds no evidence for any component in the universe beyond matter. I explain how our most powerful instruments reveal no sign of what people have termed the "spiritual" world, and that this includes both the outer world of our senses and the so-called inner world of our minds. At this point, even humanists will blurt out, "What about love?"

Spiritual terminology is so deeply imbedded in our language that people assume spiritual concepts are meaningful. In fact, they fail to meet any reasonable standard of evidence or logic. Still, many feel compelled to define the part of our being concerned with emotions, such as love and hate, as spiritual, that is, non-material, in nature.

Maybe they are. But my point, which is usually missed, is that we currently have no reason for believing this is so. Two competing theories are presented: One holds that everything is matter; the other holds that the universe is both matter an spirit. (I will not discuss here the Shirley MacLaine theory that everything is spirit.)

Clearly the all-matter theory is more economical, requiring just one component to the universe while the matter-spirit theory involves two components. According to the rules of reason, the burden of proof lies with the proponents of the less economical theory. Thus, as a proponent of All Matter, I am not compelled to explain anything, including love, as long as no data force me to adopt the more complicated picture of the universe asserted by spiritualists.

Nevertheless, out of the goodness of my heart (well, properly aligned brain-cells), I am willing the help the other side in their quest for proof of spirit. I will tell them how to prove me wrong!
The material world is characterized by the fact that all its components obey certain rules: the laws of physics. All the spiritualist needs to do is demonstrate a miracle, a violation of the laws of physics, brought about by spiritual means.

This, of course, is precisely their claim. Spiritualists insist that miracles happen by the intervention of external spirits, or by spiritual powers within individual minds. Faith healers profess to cure illness. Psychics say they can bend spoons with their minds. Love, too, is supposed to work miracles.

Well, show me the evidence. But, let me again remind you that the burden of proof is yours, not mine. To prove that a miracle did indeed occur, you must rule out all natural explanations with a high degree of certainty. To successfully dispute your conclusion, all I must do is find a plausible natural explanation. I am not required to prove my explanation according to the same rules you must apply to prove your less economical alternative. That may sound unfair, but that's the way it is.

For example, an anecdote about how your mother recovered from cancer as a result of all the love that enveloped her must be weighed against all the equally-enveloped mothers who nonetheless die of cancer. When the survivor of a plane crash says that love pulled him through, you must not forget the equally-loved who died in the crash. You have the responsibility, not me, to demonstrate that your evidence is more than a statistical fluke.

People have been trying to prove miracles for thousands of years, and have failed in every attempt. Perhaps somebody will succeed in the future, but I find that exceedingly unlikely after all this time. I bet my mortal remains that no one ever will.

None of this implies a denial of love as a real, meaningful human experience. Humans are complex material systems who have evolved marvelous intellectual, creative, and emotional abilities. Recognizing the truth of this will move us much farther along the path of understanding and appreciating love than attributing the phenomenon to some imaginary, supernatural force that very likely does not exist.