The Emergence of Love

Philosophers speak of what they call “emergent properties,” qualities attributable to combinations of things that cannot be reduced to the component parts. Liquidity is the classic example. It is a quality of water that cannot be reduced to the atomic structure of water molecules. A molecule of water, or of any liquid, does not itself have the property of liquidity. Only a collection of molecules has this property. Liquidity is a property that seems, in effect, to come out of nowhere in that it cannot be found in the molecules that make up the substance. It “emerges,” as philosophers say, from combinations of elements that do not, individually possess it. It’s a phenomenal property of objects and though nearly all, if not absolutely all, of our experience of the world around us consists of an appreciation of such phenomena, they are still, in a sense, profoundly mysterious.

We think of such properties as inhering in objects, but in fact, as Kant showed, there is an important sense in which they are not in the objects as they are in themselves, but in the perceiver. An affection is like that. We think it inheres in its object, but in fact, it inheres in the one whose affection it is. Also, like an emergent property, there is always a “more” to it that cannot be reduced to the individual characteristics of its object. We form affections, we think, based on a person’s characteristics, things such as intelligence, appearance, wit, similarities of tastes and interests, moral outlook. We are forced to admit, however, when we reflect on this, that the affection itself is not reducible to an appreciation of the individual components of the person, but is something that transcends them. That’s why love has so often been viewed as a kind of illness. There is something inexplicable about it.

“Why do you love that person?” someone will ask, knowing even before the question is finished the futility of expecting a satisfactory answer. And you will enumerate all the virtues of the object of your affection, knowing even before the list is finished, that it is insufficient, that even if your interlocutor would agree that the person in question did possess these qualities that he would still not love the person as you did.

There is always a “more” to an affection that is profoundly mysterious even though it is something that in a way we all appreciate and in that sense is very commonplace. It is, in itself, no more mysterious, I suppose, than any other emergent property. What is strange about it though is that it is so subjective. Even if emergent properties, in an important sense, inhere in the perceiver rather than in the object of perception, they appear to inhere in all perceivers equally. Water has liquidity for everyone. A person, in contrast, is ordinarily beloved by only a select few. Just as, contra Kant, we tend to take the phenomenal properties of objects to represent to us their true nature, we tend to think affections represent to us the true nature of their objects. To people who do not share them though, they always seem at least mildly, and sometimes even extremely, delusional. That’s why love has so often been equated not merely with a type of illness in the physical sense, but with a type of madness. It’s sometimes characterized as a kind of “divine madness,” and this, I think, is because the vision it gives us of another is so heartrendingly beautiful.

I like to think that loves allows us to see people, if sometimes briefly and always selectively, the way God sees them. I don’t know why we don’t always see everyone in this way, except that perhaps, as organic creatures, we don’t have the energy to do that. God’s energy, however, is not like our own. It is not exhaustible, so there is really no obstacle, in principle, to God’s loving everyone completely in a way that we can love only a few people selectively.

The “more” of an affection always seems to me something divine, something that makes one grateful, not just for the beloved, but for everything in creation that is beautiful and wonderful. So even though it is, in a sense, very commonplace, the emergence of love is still, in another sense, miraculous.

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