Saturday, December 25, 2010

Alva Noë - What Is Love?

The Love sculpture at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

A little different post this week from Alva Noë in his column for NPR's 13.7: Culture and Cosmos blog.

Disclaimer: The author has written a great deal about perception, as a philosopher, and as a cognitive scientist; whatever his authority, it is not that he is a better perceiver than others. And so for the topic of today's essay.

Children do not love their parents. They are connected to them. And they need them.

Love, in contrast, is an achievement. It doesn't come for free.

Scientists like to ask: How do we perceive so much, given the impoverished data actually available to the nervous system? But the better question would be: Why do we see so little, given all there is that shows itself to us?

To bring the world into focus for consciousness, we need to do a lot of work. Think of the work a child needs to do to learn to read. But once the child reads, texts have powerful, inescapable meanings.

Learning to read is, in this way, achieving an openness to the world, or at least to a world of ideas and possibilities.

Love, in a similar way, is an achieved openness. Love, I think, is a sustained openness to another person. It's hard to learn to read; in general, although we never notice this, it is very heard to learn to see. The purpose of education is to teach us how to see. It is very hard to be able to see another person. To see someone you must know him or her. Sometimes we just cannot see what is there before us!

They say the hot love of romance is fueled by hormonal events and chemical secretions in the brain. No doubt it is. It may be also fueled by music, wine, food, and tobacco, by fantasy and lust. The stars need to align just right for one to get oneself into a position to look, and so to see

someone else. The brain rush is good. Sex is good. Food is good. But in the end, these are the topography you must traverse, to be able to perceive, and so maybe to find, love.

Love is an emotional condition. (So is seeing.) And love for another person, however wonderful, however pleasurable, is challenging.

If a love is very hot, it can take a long time for the heat to pass. But eventually it does; a transformation must take place. The less burning love of partners — the next condition — is more practical; it is no less an achievement. Openness to the other, over time, requires that one makes arrangements. You’ve got to be with the one you love, and this means you’ve got to make adjustments, adapt, shift, accommodate. Mature love is an achievement of dedication.

The love of a parent for a child has something in common with both of these forms of love. It is passionate and sensual, like one’s first passion for one’s lover. But it is practical above all else; the parent erects a structure in which to understand and guide and know the child.

Love is not only always love for a person.

You can love a work of art. Indeed, a work of art is an invitation to love. For it is offers itself up to be recognitized. Art is an opportunity for openness. Exactly the same is true of philosophy.

(To find out whether something is art, or philosophy, ask yourself: is it possible to love this?)

Can you love the whole world? I suppose this is like the question, Is there a God?

Photo: jmscottIMD/via Flickr

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