Love Is Not A Choice And Other Tools For Thinking

I’m not much of a romantic. If I wanted to hack romance I’d start with going through all the literature on the mate preferences of chimpanzees, bonobos, and great apes generally. Only after I’d taken in the unfiltered humans-are-big-monkeys view would I turn to something with a more human emphasis. It’d be a few months before I started, you know, dating.

When I do listen to other people speak about passionate love — mostly internet people — it’s surreal. Things like, “Love is always a choice.” What, I wonder, are these people on about? The emotion I would describe as passionate love is not this tame, controlled thing. If love were a mode of transportation, it’d be more like surfing in a hurricane than a leisurely bike ride.

Some Thinking Machinery

Love-as-drug is a cliche. If I told you, with a serious face, that love is like being on drugs and you responded by vomiting all over me, well, I would deserve it. But hang on. Imagine if love were literally a drug — a pill you could take.

Say Pfizer releases a new product tomorrow, Passionil, shaped like a heart, no less. The drug, when consumed, results in the consumer imprinting on and falling in violent love with the next person that they maintain eye contact with. It lasts three to six months. Would you take such a drug?

We can turn all sorts of knobs on this machinery. Maybe the drug comes in different forms: fast-acting, short release, standard release, and extended release. The fast-acting love might last a night, the short release a couple of weeks, and the extended release for a year. Would you take any of these drugs?

What if these drugs prove so popular that Pfizer creates an ever-increasing variety of them: a light edition which provides a gentle buzz — a weak infatuation — the standard strength, and an extra strength version for those who really want to lose their minds.

But maybe the drug frame is too suggestive. We can exchange drugs for a type of tropical island fruit. Maybe it can be brewed like coffee, some cups stronger than other. That sounds more natural and maybe a little more palatable.

All of these scenarios center around something — a drug — fruit — that can be controlled, but love is often not something we intend. We can liken falling in love to catching a cold, or being bit by a love mosquito. How do those scenarios make you feel about love?

What if you think about love as evolution’s way of screaming, “have children, have children!” — not so much the product of our own free will, and more the demands of an alien god. The other side of that coin: falling out of love is evolution’s way of telling you to try your chances with a different mate. Real romantic.

There are still more knobs — reciprocal and unrequited love. We can imagine that the pills don’t last a set amount of time, but instead have a one percent chance of ending each day. If you take the drug with another person, you’re running the risk that one of you will fall out of love much sooner than the other. This would not matter if you could just take another pill, so we can imagine side-effects. Maybe the pill zonks out for a while after use.

Intuition Pumps

What we’ve just done is built what Daniel Dennet calls an intuition pump — or at least gathered the parts for one. These are thought experiments that aid the intuition in grappling with a problem or phenomena. In Dennet’s case, he builds them to deal with the consciousness problem. We built a few to deal with love.

The fun thing about building intuition pumps is that you definitely can try this at home. It’s not too hard to get started. The easiest knob, and one of the most useful, is the more or less knob. Should we have more love or less love? Stronger love or weaker love? And so on.

Try it out. Build some of your own.

You've read this far -- want more? Join the newsletter and I'll e-mail you when new articles are posted, along with the ideas that I don't share anywhere else.

Two e-mails per month. Zero spam. Unsubscribe at any time. I promise to treat your e-mail with respect.