Does Love Exist?

A few months ago a reader, Roofwoofer, posted a question in response to my Love questionnaire:

Many atheists state that one of their primary objections to the existence of God is that there is no evidence for it that would stand up to the scientific method.

So the question is, are there things that are real but that reality isn’t supported by results of scientific testing.

So, in what sense is love real? Does it exist? If you believe someone loves you, what would you say if someone asked you to prove it?

I was recently asked this same question by my mother, and I’ll admit I hadn’t thought it through very well and was feeling defensive at the time, so I didn’t have a good answer for her. In fact, this comment sounds so creepily similar to the words my mother said to me that I wonder if Roofwoofer is my mother or if they get their debating points from the same source. Maybe this is a more common argument than I realized?

How would the atheist community answer questions like this one?

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29 Comments


  1. Believers often trot this out as if it were a clever objection, but it never seems like it to me. Evidence is what it is. I know my wife/mother/dog loves me because I can see the evidence of it in their behavior. Ask yourself this: if your wife/mother/dog did NOT love you, how would you know? It might be difficult to tell (not so much with the dog, but people can dissemble when they wish), but not impossible. If your wife is screwing the plumber, your mom won’t tell you you can’t sing before you embarrass yourself on American Idol, and the dog bites your hand when you feed him, well….

  2. Not everything requires the same standard of proof. In fact, when we believe that someone loves us, most of us have different criteria on which we base that. We may even have different criteria for different people. The reasons I believe my boyfriend loves me are not necessarily the same reasons I believe my brother loves me.

    But why do I believe that my boyfriend loves me and not that a god exists? For one thing, my bf has made some effort to convince me that he loves me that cannot be construed as uncorrelated behavior. My bf saying to me “I love you” is far more convincing an argument for his love than the existence of life is for the existence of a deity. The fact that he says it to me himself (rather than via third party alà the Bible) is also stronger evidence.

    But ultimately, the reality of his feelings aren’t as big a factor as my interpretation of his feelings. He may hate me. He acts like he loves me (aka, fits my criteria of love) and I choose to interpret these behaviors as love. He could act like he hated me and I could still choose to interpret that as love. In the objective, measurable sense, I would say that love does not exist. Individual feelings happen, which are, as the Buddhists say, impermanent. Behaviors exist. We interpret those behaviors and make decisions based upon them.

    Love is an impulse that impels us toward certain behaviors. Which is not to say that it’s not useful or enjoyable. Our individual experiences are certainly real to us, which is why I will not deny anyone their feelings when they say they have felt a supernatural presence or experience. But just because we experience it, does not mean it exists in the world of other people and doesn’t give them any reason to convert to your belief.

    I don’t care if other people think my love is real, so long as I and the object of my affections are in mutual belief. This affects no one but us. But if you want to posit the existence of a deity and further posit that this necessitates an alteration in behaviors, you’re going to have to offer up some kind of proof.

    • Well, very, very well put Playerer….very well said. I whole heart agree with you. Love is not an object, inanimate, or other wise. Nor is it an Emotion. It is a Feeling, brought upon by actions, given or taken, between two people, persons with their pets….etc. A experience where as there has to be interaction. not a third party interaction, that would be manipulation. or A Lie. Plus there are different levels of Love. They say that God loves us, God is here for us……..blah, blah, blah….but all this is third party manipulation. A Story, told long ago, to give the people hope, something to believe in because there were no answers as to where we came from, how we got here, people need something to believe in, to have faith. and to keep control of. The God story was a good start for way back then, but now, with science, and all of the finds from long ago, sort of make the bible now just a Book in the fiction section of the library. Besides, a book that has as many contradictions as the bible does could only be of fiction and not truth. The Ten Commandments is by far the best guide lines for any human race to follow, but to me that is the only thing real. The rest is just a way for Government to control the masses.

  3. My take on how we can measure love: http://bit.ly/dJrFlj

    • yeah we could use computers-fMRI shows how love affects the brain-and it’s a lot like heroin addiction. withdrawal, highs, lows, the whole thing. love is ultimately physically observable phenomena. it’s nice to think of it as some mystical thing, but I’d argue that no matter how mystical it might feel, knowing how it works doesn’t detract from whatever ‘magic’ it has for you.

  4. Well, my husband can tell me he loves me by actually saying it, hugging me, making love to me – among many other things. If god loves me, I sure don’t know it.

  5. Love is basically a behavior and a mindset, like loyalty, friendship, recklessness and greed. You test behaviors by examining the actions they result in, not by handling some physical substance representing that behavior. Science can measure love in the same way that any person could tell whether their partner loved them, by observing their actions under circumstances which tests that love.

    That being said, there are hormones that are triggered by being in love, parts of the brain that light up. We can test for those. But most of the time in the social sciences you’ll be measuring patterns of action, not directly testing a physical substance.

    The God Hypothesis doesn’t get to hide behind this because it makes claims not just about human behavior but about physical reality itself. The behavior patterns of those people who are faithful is NOT proof that their faith is in any way justified.

  6. Does love exist as an abstract concept that is defined by the manifestation of predictable behaviors caused by the production of specific neurotransmitters, hormones, and biochemical responses in the human body?

    Absolutely.

    Does love exist as some kind of magical, intangible, metaphysical, objective energy or force that is somehow independent of human biological processes?

    Absolutely not.

  7. NotSoMightyGod

    BF Skinner, behavioral psychologist: “Love is mutual affirmation.”

    Whether it’s fleeting, interpersonal, deep or not doesn’t matter. You can never read someone else’s mind and all you can judge upon is your experience. The real answer is formed in the following question “Are you behaving in a manner that I can consider genuine (right now)?”

    I have ways of percieving behaviour that can be considered ‘love’; making it existent and verifiable. The conceptual becomes real.

    ‘God is Love’ is a deep sounding, but hollow statement for a theist to rest upon. How do you interpret God’s love? Drawing theistic conclusions from life’s experiences can disconnect cause and effect and threatens to nullify the theists argument.

    Don’t think I did a very good job of stating the concept, but I’ll hit submit anyway.. :-(

  8. Funny you posted this…Helen Fisher is actually scientifically studying love. It has a physical basis in the brain…cascades of hormones and other feel good chemicals flood the brain when we are “in love”. Google her and the phrase “science of love”. She is also one of the founders of chemistry.com. She even delivered a TED talk on it:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/helen_fisher_studies_the_brain_in_love.html

    So, yes, my husband and children and prove it by their actions…but that can also be proven that they are driven by chemicals cascades in the brain. ;-) SO THERE! :-D

  9. Whenever I hear this argument, I point them to a fantastic book, “A General Theory of Love” by Lewis, Amini, and Lannon. It provides an unambiguous definition of love and an overview of our current level of scientific understanding of it.

    As for “proving” that a given individual loves another…first I ask, what do you mean by “prove”? If it means establishing a high degree of confidence, I think it comes down to observing loving behavior over time. But even that is not completely incontrovertible proof…I’m sure there are people who know how to fake loving behavior who do not feel love for someone. After all, how many of us have been surprised to hear from your partner they don’t love you? (C’mon! Really? Just me? Ug…)

    But that is not the same thing as suggesting that people do not, in fact, love others. Some specific data in the world will always be cloaked in mystery…for instance, just because we can’t ever say the exact number of lobsters living in the Atlantic Ocean at any given moment doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer to that question, or that maybe there aren’t any lobsters down there. I don’t think it’s a matter of faith on my part to claim with high confidence that lobsters are down there, even though I only have indirect evidence. The same goes for the love I believe my wife feels for me.

  10. This is an attempt to say that love is not detectable by science. It’s not true. Or more to the point, it is only true if you define love in such a way as to make it so.

    This is an old article, but it shows fmri models of two different kinds of love. http://www.forbes.com/maserati/singles2004/cx_mh_0624love_04single.html

  11. love is a mix of chemicals and compatible immune system and has been measured. After a while it’s protection and the need for comfort/security. the explanation just isn’t “romantic” enough.

  12. Love is no different from any other emotion; such as, love, hate, fear, contentment, annoyance, etc. As previous readers have already stated, love is the direct result of the chemical reactions of specific hormones to elicit very real physiological responses.

    This can be “felt” or sensed in the individual in a number of ways (depending on the type of love). For example, the love that you feel for your dog or cat is very different from the love for a parent or sibling. And that can be felt in an even more different sense for a spouse or partner.

    As Mark said in the very first reply, this can be evidenced to others by actions and behaviors. Someone can easily “profess” love to us with mere words but we don’t necessarily believe them unless they demonstrate behaviors that allow us to trust in (and even reciprocate) their professed love.

    I realize that nothing I said was new but I did want to weigh in on the question. I honestly don’t understand how theists can constantly try to equate their god to simply abstract concepts that virtually every human can easily understand without the baggage of an unseen creator. If god is just love than lets forget about all the god talk and just talk about love.

    Thank, Godless Girl, for a great blog!

  13. There have been several excellent answers, especially the ones referring to published science. But I feel compelled to point out something not yet stated.

    When one person asks another the question “how do you prove that love is real”, they are already presupposing two things: that love really is real, and that the other person has essentially the same beliefs about love. The question is entirely rhetorical, except for the notion of whether “scientific proof” applies.

    Science makes observations, and then develops models or theories to explain those observations. But it is not just science that does this. Our brains do it too. For many people, this is not consciously understood, because they don’t even have a coherent picture of what a model or theory is. But in the questioner’s brain they already have their own model of what love is, and they have another model that predicts that other people’s brains have essentially the same model. One person’s model of love is built from from their own subjective observations. They remember various experiences of feeling strong love. They remember others showing their love. These experiences are unique for that person. But each person knows that everyone else has had similar experiences, and that they’ve built up the same model.

    In modern times, we now understand a great deal more about the brain & body. So we know about hormones and particular hormones that are correlated with love. So our theories of love can be supplemented by our theories of hormones. I haven’t read any of the works about the science of love, but I expect it includes MRI studies showing what parts of the brain are active when experiencing love, and that different people experience love in the same parts of the brain.

    So, when someone sincerely asks this kind of question, it may seem that they are doing it because they don’t understand science, but actually they are doing it because they don’t understand the workings of their own brains. It may not be possible to give them a satisfactory answer without first talking about how brains work. Very religious people might resist this, because they are already convinced that our minds are separate from our brains.

  14. I have heard this argument brought up many times before, using abstract concepts like “love,” “justice,” “freedom” and the like. The idea behind it is, I suppose, that because you cannot empirically observe these concepts with the five senses, then you must accept that they exist on faith, so why not accept God on faith as well. Aside from the fact that the existence of a god is not dependant on the existence of these other abstract concepts, this argument falls apart when you consider that these concepts can be coherently defined, while I have yet to hear any definition of a god that is even capable of existing, let alone actually does exist.

    Love is an emotion felt toward someone or something that compells one to be loyal and mindful of that other being when taking any action. Justice is the acknowledgement of wrongdoing and holding those responsible for it accountable. Freedom is living without undue restrictions. Individuals may quibble over the finer points of these concepts, but it doesn’t mean the concepts themselves are empty or meaningless. The concept of God, lacking a coherent definition, is meaningless.

  15. apples and oranges. prove to me that apples exist. now prove to me that love exists. since you cannot produce “love”, it doesn’t exits.

    ridiculous argument.

  16. Love exists because we feel it, and agree upon general definitions of it. There’s chemical/physical scientific explainations that I can’t explain, as well. The argument that usually follows this isn’t so much an argument as a statement of dislike. Some people seem to want love to be a magical entity unto itself, something solid and all but tangible. These people usually argue that the scientific explaination is cold, unfeeling, and cheapens the ideal of Love.
    But hey, we’re people, and we have the power to decide for ourselves that love is important. Or not.

  17. Love is something you feel. Perhaps God is also something people “feel” (if so, I am not one of them).

    One difference is that there isn’t an infallible book that claims to know what love is and what love wants and what love expects us to do, that we have to follow to the letter. Love doesn’t claim to have created itself, nor does it demand us to follow a ritual or a ritual leader (priests, etc.) on a specified schedule.

    If you love the “wrong” way, you are not condemned to an infinity of torture and suffering. Oh sure, when you get your first broken heart, it feels like that at first, but time heals. Also, if you are gay in some societies, it probably seems that way. Fortunately we have Savage’s It Gets Better project to help end that pain.

    You can have more than one love.
    Love is something you feel for a person that you can see, touch, hear etc. I do not know of a God that is physically present to sit with on a beach and gaze into his/her/its eyes. It may be an abstract feeling, but it is not for an abstract object. The one we love is there, real.

    Sure, sexual love can be caused by chemical transmitters. Perhaps a perception of God can also be attributed to a chemical imbalance as well. I’ll give that one a tie score.

    In general, I do not try to telepathically contact my love with wishes, wants, or whatever else it is that people pray about. Then again, I just do not get praying. It never worked for me as a kid, and I have not done it in decades. Are there religious people who do not pray to their God?

    I guess I have not made any scientific claims here. At the moment I am not in love, but I have experienced it. I have not experienced God.

    Peace and good music to ya.

  18. We cannot directly perceive forces that act upon us, like gravity and magnetism, we observe these forces by studying their effect on things rather than the forces themselves. We study how heavy objects are attracted; how magnets and metals interact.

    So, we prove Love exists, as a concept, in the same way: we observe it’s reaction on others. We observe how someone treats the object of their love — be it a car, a pet, a person, a TV show; whatever.

    Now, Christianity struggles with that idea precisely because the Bible tells us God loves us, yet fails so miserably at providing the evidence. The Biblical God’s familial love is dysfunctional on so many levels.

  19. “Of course I have evidence for love. Love without evidence is just stalking.” – Tim Minchin

  20. I’ve worn out my copy of “Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind” by Johanson and Edey, but that has a wonderful discussion of “epigamic differentiation” by scientist Own Lovejoy; the beginnings of love among members of a species as part of its survival strategy. Previews of the book are available at your nearby search engine.

  21. Jeez, proofread everything except Lovejoy’s name, it’s “Owen”.

  22. Wikipedia has a section on the chemical basis of love. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_basis_for_love . Not a lot of actual definitive answers, but it’s annotated and says impressive things like:

    “Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are more commonly found during the attraction phase of a relationship. Oxytocin and vasopressin seemed to be more closely linked to long term bonding and relationships characterized by strong attachments.”

    The answer to the question of whether love exists is: Yes, and it is confirmed by scientific testing. We can even take pictures of it. Other examples that they might give (“honor”, “justice”, whatever) exist in that they are concepts which were given rise to by human minds, which operate through chemical and electrical processes which we can observe and study.

    The answer to the question of “whether there are things which exist but can’t be confirmed by scientific testing” is “no… sorta”. While it may be possible that things exist which are literally impossible to test for within the constraints of the universe we live in, if something affects our universe in any way it becomes measurable. In order for something to be impossible to test for, it would have to exist without interacting with our universe in any way. Since we cannot prove the existence of such an object, and since such an object cannot affect us in any way, its’ existence or nonexistence is meaningless.

    If we redefine “object” as “god” then we can conclude that either god can be proven to exist through science (signs point to no, so far); or that if god exists, it does not interact with the universe and is therefore meaningless.

    ‘course, this is all very idealized. If god decided to, say, only communicate with our universe through dreams, that would be really hard to test for… at least until we get better science.

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