The will to love that makes a difference

Autor: Marciano Escutia
Publicado en: Scientia et Fides 2017; 5(2): ahead of print

Abstract: This essay deals with the question of what really makes human beings exceptional. It is argued that it is a special kind of love that ultimately distinguishes humans from other animals. Although other kinds of considerations, preferably cognitive ones, have most often been invoked to make such a distinction, these might eventually be found to be, at least in part, a matter of degree and not something qualitatively different, as argued here with respect to this type of love. Arguments from both scientific and philosophical sources are brought to bear on the question.

A special kind of love

I have a fifty-eight year old friend who has ten natural children, already grown up, with three teenagers still at home. This would not make headlines –not that it is necessary- if, besides, he had not adopted three other younger ones, two with Down syndrome and one with another neurological disorder, who he and his wife will have to care for until their old age when they could live in a well-deserved, more peaceful and comfortable situation. This doesn't need to make the headlines either in spite of its extraordinariness and the underlying depth of … what precisely? Because this is the key thing here, both difficult to put one's finger on and characterize, at least from a purely naturalistic view of things1.

There are instances of non-human animals which show unexpected feeling toward other (non) human creatures (I trust the latter word will reveal where I stand from the beginning): a dog toward a cat, of all animals; an orangutan befriending a dog; a lion licking and caressing a woman; a grizzly bear playfully fighting with a man; not to mention many examples of dolphins and humans, all of them of animals with a certain level of intelligence, either kept in captivity or accustomed to frequent and progressive human contact. All of these are instances of something akin to what CS Lewis characterized as "Storge"2. There is even the example of the video gone viral in the internet of a dog befriending a restless little boy with Down syndrome and pouring affection all over him. Yes, one of those human individuals that we all get very tender and compassionate about on running into, but who are aborted in the West in 90% of cases before reaching their ninth month of existence since their conception. We even give them awards at movie ceremonies, as it happened recently in Spain, or see them make headlines when modelling clothes on a catwalk platform (those lucky enough to survive).

The examples of the above two paragraphs are not exactly of the same kind. I think the former shows a qualitative leap over the others, apart from all the differences that go with being and living in a world of human beings. This is not a "purely natural" love, for those of one's kin, with no "selfish gene" involved and no apparent evolutionary advantage to be had from it. Let us not forget that, in nature, where selection and the survival of the fittest reign at large, its weakest members are often left to die by their own parents or even be eaten by them (those same lions who were so tender with their human caretaker). Furthermore, adopting those children does not seem to be the response of a dopamine-driven brain seeking new experiences either. Neither of high oxytocin levels inducing increased generosity to connect with strangers in a blind search for happiness; hardly the result of a neurotransmitter addiction. Perhaps one should put this couple under an fMRI machine to see what lights up in their brains in order to find an answer to our perplexity regarding such unusual behavior (though not that infrequent in kind if we think of the whole human world at large, even of some well-known actor). I wonder what they would answer if they were asked how their brains took that decision.

I don't expect they would consider the whole thing as somehow predetermined by their genomes and their interaction with their environment, education, upbringing, family situation, historical circumstances and cultural surroundings, though these must have played their part as well (I suspect most people tend to be unconscious of their "real", brain-produced, subconscious or atavistic evolutionary motives). However, I know how they would verbalize it because I have asked them. It is something they have phenomenologically experienced, that they are conscious of, in terms such as "whole family decision". They believe that their human motives are such as "sharing their well-being with less fortunate ones", "a chance to do specific good to others" –typical "reasons of the heart", although they also think they are supernaturally oriented, in that they see the will of God there. These are all terms which may have their own spot in the brain and one might suppose that rescuer dolphins or compassionate dogs would also utter... if only they could.

And scientists could not contradict them: first because they cannot even tell us physically what a decision is: they only know that decisions take place in the brain, that they seem to result from its activity and that they are arrived at after a preceding unconscious period; secondly, because decisions are taken in a brain that is governed by quantum physics, as the synapses between neurons conduct signals using parts of atoms called ions, subject to Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle. This says that subatomic particles do not occupy definite positions in space or time and we can find out where they are only as a series of probabilities about where they might be. It really does away with determinism and leaves room for the decisions of a free will3, which in its turn may both choose to be "determined" by that higher love, whatever its physical concomitants.

My friend's is a kind of love not explainable by a combination of chemicals originated in certain parts of the body –although it might have its organic reflection as well. Even if a natural compassion, probably felt as well by certain animals like some of those mentioned above, may be part of it, that is not the whole story. In fact, many weaklings in the animal kingdom, whose mothers seem to feel pity for them at first, end up all alone and are eventually killed by others.

No doubt natural compassion is also involved here, but there is more to it: this is a love that looks at people with affection from the inside, with good will, not as replaceable biological units. A love which treats everyone as an end in itself, someone who cannot be sacrificed at the whim or for the sake of a majority. This love must have its natural basis in human nature, in a probably innate belief that everyone has intrinsic value no matter what their material characteristics may be (beauty, class, position, prestige, standing of any kind...). Innate does not necessarily mean wholly genetic in this case; in fact it does not look like it at all.

Human intrinsic value

The sense of believing that everyone has intrinsic value is inscribed in most (sane) human individuals. Experimental proof of it is a variant of the Trolley problem4, in which a great majority of people tested worldwide would not push an imaginary obese man off a bridge and onto some rails to sidetrack an upcoming train, thus killing him directly, in order to save five people ignorant of what is coming at them. I am not aware that the test has been done using a non-human animal, let's say a cow, instead, but I am quite sure that the results would be radically different with the same comprehensive type of sample. Perhaps the owner (mark the word) of that cow might react differently, especially if it were his pet as well, but his would be an affection he has put there, not (mostly) something directly inspired by the animal itself to lead anyone to the point of comparing it to a human individual.

The problem is that nowadays many people treat other individuals, especially their children, as if they owned them and gave them their value, thinking that they may bring them into the world when they want to and through any means they deem proper. Thus, their children's intrinsic value is the loser for it and the whole matter becomes clouded in the bud. Many of us have witnessed the kind of traumas that such a mentality can produce in many of those "owners" when their precious possessions may not respond later in life as they would have wanted to and are left alone by them.

Admittedly, in some societies, where children have been raised in an atmosphere in which a human individual life's intrinsic worth has been erased, apparently through violence (there is always something more and deeper to it), the results of the above experiment might be different. The terms of the test might not even make sense at all, as, no doubt, an upbringing component is always there encompassing most human instincts. Still, we think of that intrinsic value not as something we put there ourselves, as with the cow above, but rather as a reality we just discover and should acknowledge somehow.

Personal dignity

Some people, at least in western culture, may even verbalize that intrinsic value by saying something like "you can't do that to a person" and that is probably the key to it. The concept of person is a controversial one since it is not deemed to be intuitively universal but rather just an old western philosophical construct; still, if preferable, one could talk about a human individual instead. However, going from acknowledging the intrinsic worth of an individual to loving him/her is a big leap, since there is a good will (latin bene-volere, where benevolence comes from) that has to precede. There is a presupposed intermediate step, though, called reverence, which, again, all sane individuals experience toward other fellow humans, whatever their individual value or lack of it, position, capacities, virtues or accomplishments, which are not the source of it. The latter must be part of the essence of being a person/human being, providing justification for the phrase "all men are (created) equal", meaning equally men. But, just what is it precisely?

There is a concept which has traditionally been called, human dignity, not to be confused with other ideas such as composure, elegance, cleanliness or maturity, let alone physical attractiveness or pride, as done by Pinker in his invective against it5. This notion, of the essence of humanity, taken to be the source of the above reverence and a derived consequence of being a person, presupposes considering mankind as, potentially at least, the only species with intelligence, will and confirmed consciousness about being conscious; and, as a result, with complete freedom, even from instinct, and, concomitantly, a moral sense and responsibility. Otherwise one is bound to believe that all these properties are mere illusion, epiphenomena or artifacts of brain evolution with some genetic basis. Not that a person's dignity depends upon these factors but they are presuppositions to understanding it; however, there are human individuals who, through no fault of their own, have lost them or never had them and still possess dignity.

Those who reject this notion tend to supplant it by autonomy and so are likely to think of intrinsic worth in terms of capacities, like the capacity to self-government. Thus, the number of those accepted as human is restricted, with some handicapped individuals being deprived of their dignity for lack of autonomy, such as the three adopted ones above. That is the reason why so few of them come to fruition nowadays in our "autonomous" west. This implies that in order to be considered a person, one must have an advanced level of brain function, a completely developed and normally functioning cerebral cortex. Thus, many human beings would not be persons and one might choose to abort them, for example, once their genetic condition is established. This should logically go also for children in general since it is possible to conclude that infants do not develop a sense of self-awareness, until about one year of age, let alone being autonomous. As the neo-natologist John Wyatt points out6, non-persons would include fetuses, newborn babies and infants who lack self-awareness, and a large group of children and adults with congenital brain abnormalities, severe brain injury, dementia and major psychiatric illnesses.

Wyatt quotes Princeton Moral Philosopher Peter Singer7: ‘only a person can want to go on living, or have plans for the future, because only a person can understand the possibility of a future existence for herself or himself. This means that to end the lives of people against their will is different from ending the lives of beings who are not people…killing a person against his or her will is a much more serious wrong than killing a being who is not a person.' Following this line of reasoning, not just a neonate or young infant might qualify as non-persons, but also an elderly human with Alzheimer's, a human with profound brain damage or learning difficulties, and an individual with severe and untreatable psychiatric illness.

However, as pointed out and mentioned before by Wyatt, many neuroscientists would argue that our conscious awareness is merely an epiphenomenon of brain functioning. Consciousness, Wyatt goes on, which would seem to make us aware of that autonomous self, has no causal importance, "it is merely part of the froth on the surface of unconscious brain activity". In fact they argue that our sense of a "single continuing self" is an artifact created by our brains to help our evolutionary survival. In reality, Wyatt concludes, "there is no self at all, there is no ghost in the machine, there is just the machine". I suppose a machine has neither dignity nor deserves reverence.

Only when there is reverence, with its foundation on being a person, with human dignity, understood as a human being no matter what their self-awareness and autonomy may be, can one foster good-will toward others in "one's froth". Otherwise, benevolence would be impossible or merely the accompanying result of well-being, a nice digestion, comfortableness or self-satisfaction, nothing to do with real love, which resides in the will –no doubt with some frontal lobe correlate- and, as such, can be commanded. It follows intelligence, acknowledging the intrinsic value or dignity of each human individual, even the most depraved ones, who may have made themselves subjectively unworthy of it.

Spiritual love

However, this belief can only be true if its reason is not found in this world of things practical, calculable, replaceable, material or biological. Neither would it be in a different universe part of a possible multiverse but still with some form of material energy as its basis. The intrinsic dignity of any human being or person, no matter at which stage or condition in their life (i.e. an unborn or Down syndrome child, a paraplegic or an adult with Alzheimer's disease) can only rest on the fact of having been created by God in his own image, on who one is, not on what one can accomplish autonomously. Besides, if we do not think of persons as creatures endowed with a co-substantial embodied immortal spirit and wanted individually by God, not mere accidents of a biological chain, we run the risk –also pointed out by Wyatt- of falling into an undesired dualism separating body (which may be there in its integrity at the disposal of the inner self) and conscious awareness (the inner self), which may be absent because of brain damage or just sleep8.

One's personhood is not "cortical": it does not disappear if the cerebral cortex starts to malfunction. In Christian thinking, as Wyatt also remarks, whatever happens to us in the future, whatever disease or accident may befall our central nervous system, even if we are struck down by dementia or enter a persistent vegetative state, we remain the same person, with the same immortal spirit, perhaps without conscious awareness, but uniquely wanted by God. There may be no autonomy then but some kind of dependence is part and parcel of human life from the beginning of our conception: were we not ourselves then when clinging to our mother's endometrium, depending on her benevolence? And what about later on, in the continuum of our life, when we may have to take care of her or we have to be taken care of by others? A universe made up of completely independent beings would be a selfish, elitist and horrible autistic nightmare, a kind of futuristic robotic singularity some are already predicting. Perhaps that would have been Nietzsche's paradise.

This dignity-based reverence makes it possible to love someone not because of their lovableness, or their human category or a good turn they have done to us but because they are someone created in the image of the Creator, a person, with or without autonomy or intact cognitive capacities. This love is the gift of giving oneself for the good of others - it is wholly other-oriented and directed to the welfare and benefit of others. A love rooted in pleasing oneself is self-centered and possessive - it is a selfish love that takes from others rather than giving to them. It is possessive of one's children, unconsciously thought of as if they wereours rather than a gift we have been entrusted with and, as such, "planned and obtained" when and how we choose and not in the way in which they have the right to come into this world (and also "let go", as in the English euphemism for sacking someone, of their clinging to us for continued existence).

This love is similar to what Lewis, already referred to, calls agape, a love purified of all self-seeking dross, which may be concomitant with likings or fondness for particular people but doesn't depend on them. It has nothing to do with feelings although it doesn't exclude them. What is more, it leads one to encourage the latter in oneself and even triggers them when they are not naturally present by acting on it, because this is a love with deeds, not necessarily with feelings. These deeds have a feedback effect on those natural affections, increasing them. The opposite is also true: acting on natural dislikes instead produces increasing psychological distance from those people so disliked9. As he puts it: "the more cruel you are, the more you will hate; and the more you hate, the more cruel you will become—and so on in a vicious circle for ever".

It is very difficult to conceive how a love like this, which may be heroic, far beyond our own natural capabilities, even reaching out to one's enemies, as we all know or have learned about real examples of 10, could spring up just as part of the activity of a material brain and encompassing hormones. Nor is it easy to imagine what evolutionary advantage it might have towards spreading an impossible mutation which could have given rise to such quirk in an ancestral brain11. There is something here away and above emotions, natural affections or mere rationality, which points to something different from the result of material evolution, to some kind of spiritual principle not susceptible of evolving into being. It is comparable, in another field, to what Chomsky thinks about the origin of language. He conceives of it not as an evolution from previous skills or abilities, though it may recruit some of them, but rather as something that comes into being as such, probably along with our mathematical ability, with no predecessors. The difference here is that the latter responds, according to the famous linguist, to a sudden genetic mutation in an individual and the love we are describing seems more like an infused gift from outside our own realm, though capable of becoming incarnate in humanity. An individual may or may not be conscious of this capacity, not develop it or even forfeit it temporally before coming to fruition because of their upbringing. Still the capacity remains, unlike one of those biological instincts subject to critical or sensitive periods. In any case, it would really be rare in someone who had not refined his spirit before by previous acts of generosity or dedication to others in their lives.

As humans, then, we are all capable of both giving and receiving this type of love, no matter what our other capacities may be: giving, provided we have not degraded our humanity; receiving, if there is someone around us with some spiritual life. This kind of love makes us similar to the God of the New Testament, who is Love (1 Io 4, 16). Without going into its deeper theological consequences, this means that God's essence is that kind of disinterested love which doesn't depend on satisfying a need or feeling. It is a pure outpouring for the sake of the persons so loved, capable of giving one's life for them, with nothing material entering into it.

If, as the Bible says, we are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1,27), because God infused his spirit in man (Gen 2, 7) and God's essence is Love, our inmost core then is made up of the spirit of God, that is, of love, and a love of the kind described. Therefore, what is most specifically human is that interchange of unselfish, disinterested love, and living by and growing in it is what humanizes us most, much more than being experts in neurology, physics, linguistics or evolutionary psychology; or having accomplished all kinds of career goals, let alone displaying a beautiful or voluptuous body. And this is rather encouraging, something we are all endowed with and are capable of even if confined to a wheel-chair or slowly losing our mind12. This may smack to some of "slave morality", the sort Nietzsche so loathed, since he was the champion of the famous autonomy (though he may have felt happy that his sister did not act upon it during in his final bed-ridden days).

Thus, this spiritual love, and the spiritual life in us, is what really sets us apart from other non-human animals13. We are the only ones capable of it; even those with a poor intellectual life for lack of exposure to an education or an environment which might have facilitated it. Still, whoever may have that lack are capable of a disinterested, heroic love and of addressing their creator, something other animals will never be able to do14.

We may once reach that stage of singularity mentioned before, with the human era at an end once super-intelligent robots are made, which in turn may build even better machines with the intelligence of man left far behind, at the mercy of large computer networks. Those who think that robots may get to have the same faculties and emotions of a human being are going to be wrong about one thing at least: the type of love described here, whose substance cannot be programmed or recreated because it cannot be analyzed into components, as is the essence of spirit, even if incarnate. I just hope they don't come to be regarded as persons with all their self-awareness and autonomy. In any case, I doubt they will ever adopt dependent, handicapped robots and care for them, a clear sign of the loss of humanity at heart15.


(1) In fact some of our educated contemporaries, in a very enlightened fashion, might even proclaim the deed "irresponsible", probably even the whole family situation, while they talk about it at table over their glasses of high quality wine and healthy food dishes.

(2) Lewis, C. S. (1960). The four loves. Geoffrey Bles Publishers.

(3) Touching on a related matter Thomas Nagel puts it in a more general way: "If we continue to assume that we are parts of the physical world and that the evolutionary process that brought us into existence is part of its history, then something must be added to the physical conception of the natural order that allows us to explain how it can give rise to organisms that are more than physical. The resources of physical science are not adequate for this purpose, because those resources were developed to account for data of a completely different kind." (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, 2013).

(4) Judith Jarvis Thomson, Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem, 59 The Monist 204-17 (1976).

(5) Pinker, S. (2008). The Stupidity of Dignity. The New Republic.

(6) Wyatt, J. (2009). Matters of Life and Death. IVP Books: Nothingham, England.

(7) Singer, P. (1985). "Persons and non-persons", in Peter Singer (ed.), In Defense of Animals. Basil Blackwell, pp. 52-62

(8) In that sense, the functional distinction between body and mind, the natural self, on the one hand, and spirit, the supernatural one, on the other, reveals itself as very useful.

(9) This is an example of something widely attested: the capacity of the mind to change the brain (cf. The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz), which works both ways.

(10) Like that of the woman who not only forgives the man, on death row at present, who killed her daughter and grand-daughter but gives him support in his life-time prison, as described in the film Human (2015) by Arthus-Bertrand. This film contains many examples of the type of love we are addressing here –along with painful (in)human experiences of which mankind is also capable- and of the yearning for it of people from all cultures and walks of life.

(11) To quote some pop evolutionary psychology, one of the Kryptonites in the movie Man of Steel (2013), played by actor Antje Traue, who fights Superman, explains to him, how they, a people more evolved than humans, have learned that evolution is incompatible with a sense of morality.

(12) Like Woody, the demented main character of the film Nebraska (2013), interpreted by Bruce Dern, who won an Oscar, and whose strong and constant heart does not fail him when the life of his son is at stake.

(13Especially when nowadays some deny the commonsensical observation that human rationality is qualitatively different in its reach (i.e. abstraction and spatio-temporal diverse hypothetical states or events) and depth (i.e. degrees of theory of mind) to that of the most intelligent non-human animals.

(14) As Josemaría Escrivá put it: "religion is the greatest rebellion of men, who refuse to live like animals, who are dissatisfied and restless until they know their Creator and are on intimate terms with him" (Friends of God n. 38).

(15) Something already present in our most primitive ancestors. The Homo Heildebergensis, one of the hominids found in Atapuerca (600,000 to 200,000 thousand years old), buried some subjects who were seriously ill and physically or mentally handicapped. Those individuals had not only not been abandoned but had been taken care of in their life time and even fed by others. As concluded by one of the researchers there, what those remains and their ailments show is that those hominids were already very human because they buried their dead, cared for others and cooperated with them. Not a bad summary to characterize humanity. (