Love: Head or Heart?

Edited by: Vlada Taits

Love and Academia

Love is universal. And it is messy. This may be why humans throughout history -- from Aristotelian philosophers to 21st century mathematicians -- have been so engrossed in the attempt to delineate theories and formulae that translate the essence and experience of Love into something definable and, presumably, therefore knowable. We share a common sense of compulsion to intellectualize, to transcribe using an academic language the arbitrary, mysterious phenomena of humanity that are typically only felt.

Some view Mathematics and Philosophy as polarized perspectives that interpret the world through mutually exclusive lenses. This view is perhaps restrictive and deficient, if not entirely inaccurate and dangerous. Upon closer inspection, we may observe that Math and Philosophy, although distinctive in their methodology, both represent efforts to make sense of grand notions about the world (and beyond), many of which are as simultaneously universal and ambiguous as Love.

Mathematics and Love

Math is categorical and neat in a way feelings and emotions are not. This does not suggest, however, that the discipline does not offer valuable insights for our understanding of Love. Math derives empirical patterns from behavioral representations of Love and, through analyses of these patterns, defines order that often goes unnoticed; its approach suggests there may be universality to even the most personal and intangible of human experiences.

The Optimal Stopping Theory

Consider this. I am a 20-year-old heterosexual female who will date at most 20 men in my lifetime; among them, I must select one with whom I permanently settle. Some additional rules are that

  1. I cannot omnisciently “foreknow” the candidates;
  2. Once I break up with someone and move on to the next person, there is no turning back;
  3. If I have not settled after Man 19, I must marry Man 20.

How should I approach this scenario?

I could cross my fingers and marry Man 1, which gives me a 1/20 chance of ending up with “the best option”, whatever that may entail. Alternatively, I could pick the first person with whom I am decently compatible, or I may break up with person after person due to commitment issues until I realize my options are swiftly running out and rashly pick the next individual.

The Optimal-Stopping Theory provides a framework with which one may approach similar scenarios. Simply put, the formula states that rejecting the first ~37% of candidates (sorry, Men 1 to 8!) and picking the next individual better than most, if not all, the previous partners significantly heightens the chances of “success”. This theory can also be applied temporally; instead of a 20-person pool, I am now governed by a 10-year maximum dating window. The Theory states, then, that I should reject everyone until I am approximately 24 (or 23.7), then select the best person I next meet.

The Gale-Shapley Algorithm

The Gale-Shapley algorithm is a mathematical proof developed in the 1960s that solves the aptly named Stable Marriage Problem (SMP). In the (unrealistic) SMP, n heterosexual males and n heterosexual females rank every member of the opposite sex in order of preference. It is assumed the subjects have not been interacting or “dating”, and there is, therefore, no pre-existing, implicit arrangement or mutual inclination. How should these n pairs of couples be matched so as to guarantee “marriage stability” -- that no two people would reciprocally rather be with each other than with their assigned partners?

I have neither the space nor mathematical expertise to detail the proofs of the above algorithms. Still, it is clear that behavioral representations and patterns, in conjunction with mathematical reasoning and expression, allow us to derive elements of constancy from even the most introspective and complex phenomena.

Nonetheless, the empiricism and categoricity central to Math may leave little accommodation for the more idiosyncratic and less tangible aspects of Love, and, consequently, something to be desired. The Mathematics of Love necessitates the logically behaviorist externalization and translation of internal feelings and mental states, and in the process -- as many would contest -- leaves out crucial parts of the full picture.

Philosophy and Love

Love has enthralled philosophers since the time of the Ancient Greeks, and for obvious reasons, too; Aristotle thought that Philosophy begins in wonder, and there is little as universally wonderful as Love. The study of Love transcends a multitude of philosophical sub-disciplines: epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics, among others.

The Epistemology and Metaphysics of Love

The epistemology of Love is concerned with the theory of knowledge. It asks how we may come to know or understand Love; can we truly make statements about (being in) Love? There certainly has been no dearth of effort; Love has been likened -- by the most spectacular musicians this world has had to offer -- to a losing game, a rose, a battlefield, and yes, an open door. But what does the fact they all seem to inevitably turn to metaphors suggest about Love? May it be a private phenomenon only ever intuited and incapable of being accessed by others, and one which renders the language we use in the attempt to bridge this gap ultimately rudimentary and reductive?

Metaphysics, on the other hand, examines the fundaments and nature of reality. How do we distinguish Love from other kinds of feelings and emotions? Are synonymous patterns of behavioral indicators necessary for us to realize we are falling (or have fallen), or do they only serve to confirm what we simply intrinsically know and -- should you share the King’s sentiments -- just “can’t help”? Some may be inclined to think specific conditions must be satisfied for Love to be present, but others disagree. There is surely little dispute about the multifariousness of how different people display or perceive Love, but there is less consensus on whether the feeling or sensation itself (i.e. what it feels like to love or be loved) differs from individual to individual. These are questions to which there are no simple answers and for which there is no easy means of empirical verification; this, however, far from undermines the meaningfulness of their contemplation.

The Ethics of Love

The ethical aspects of Love involve, for instance, the form it should (or should not) take and its relationship with moral duty. Many presume Love and morality to be fundamentally different. Moral perspectives are commonly understood, particularly by staunch deontologists, to be impartial, which seems to contradict the very essence of Love; after all, does loving someone not in itself entail a special type of attitude? Do these two points of view, then, place conflicting demands on our consciousness and force us to sacrifice one to do justice to the other? Some philosophers think that one among the two is inevitably surrendered -- such that a loving person always abandons some aspects of their moral duty, and a fully dutiful person never attains Love in its entirety -- while others find this dichotomy faulty and contend that we can in fact pass between these perspectives and do justice to both.

Philosophy poses big questions which some have sought to analyze, and which others have contently left in the domain of the ineffable. The previous paragraphs represent a water molecule of the tip of the iceberg; what is indisputable amidst this, however, is that to many, Love infuses our world and lives with meaning, and philosophy uniquely shapes both the perimeter around and interconnection between these significances.

Final Note

Centuries and millennia of academic insights and intellectual acumen have provided an ever-growing bank of vocabulary and algorithms with which to articulate human mysteries. Few would think of this as a deficiency, but we must also be wary of becoming so preoccupied within bubbles of academic jargon and intellectual technicalities that we finally become fenced off from our intuitions. The value we assign to the systematic study of the world should bolster the reconciliation between intellect and instinct; alas, this does not realistically and consistently seem to be the case, and we sometimes find ourselves more inclined to theorize about experiences than to live them.

Also, the exponentially-increasing extent of academic specialization and the way modern educational institutions are commonly structured create impenetrable fences and chasms between “fields of study”. When we dichotomize knowledge, it becomes all too easy to overlook the intricate networks essential to the fabric of academia and to which much of human civilization is attributed. As such, we lose sight of how these “fields”, while unequivocally and valuably divergent, are also often derived from and tethered to the same curiosities about our humanity and world.  

Perhaps the disintegrations of the pervasively-subscribed-to false dichotomies between academic fields, and between intellect and instinct, also offer insights into how we should reformulate our attitudes towards another common polarization (that is especially pertinent to the evaluation of Love): Head or Heart?

(Sincerest thanks to Alexandra, Hailey, Melissa and Zainab for sharing with me their mathematical/ philosophical wisdoms; I have thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated every conversation we have had (and every paper sent my way)!)