One of the most important and difficult questions for a human being to consider was posed by the great Trinidadian-German philosopher Haddaway in the year 1993 with a hit dance single that swept the nation: “What is Love?” The question was the third most searched query on Google in 2014, and it is a question with which we are all intimately connected. When one is confronted with Nihilism, however, love can become a very difficult thing to grasp. Upon the realization that one’s conception of love is arbitrary, culturally and politically policed, and dogmatic, it can be much more crushing than losing, say, one’s religion or political affiliation. A recognition that one’s religion is meaningless might mean a shift in family dynamic and a rejection of tradition, but a recognition that something so seemingly human as love is meaningless can quickly send you into an existential nosedive. It is with this in mind that I suggest a manner in which one might find a way to reconcile nihilism and love.
I hate to break it to you, but what people call “love” is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. – Rick Sanchez (Rick and Morty, Rick Potion #9)
The brand of nihilism I’m referring to here is existential nihilism, the notion that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. Inevitably, this leads one to the conclusion that one’s actions are meaningless and leaves life cold and absurd. It’s a convincing philosophy, but also one of the most corrosive and poisonous philosophies for the human psyche. Great minds, most notably Albert Camus (though no doubt many others) have attempted to weasel their way out of nihilism and its effects in myriad creative ways, though none of them feel very convincing. The brand of absurdism championed by Albert Camus, according to this article, stated that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning.
Most nihilists find this resolution by Camus rather unsettling, and for good reason. It seems that Camus is insisting on some kind of strange cognitive dissonance, in which we reasonably accept that there is no meaning to the universe and yet try to find some anyway. It would be akin to understanding that unicorns and bigfoot don’t exist, and yet expending vast amounts of time and resources hunting them down. The nihilist seems to have the upper hand until one realizes that all of us already do what Camus suggests, through the act of play.
Play and Meaning
Alan Watts does a great bit on The Joker (these days probably better stylized as The Jester or The Fool, to avoid unintentional references to a certain Batman villain) a character often used as a wise narrator in literary works including those of Shakespeare. His view is that everything done by anyone – or any living thing, for that matter – is nothing more than a game:
The Fool’s standpoint is that all social institutions are games. He sees the whole world as game playing. That’s why, when people take their games seriously and take on stern and pious expressions the Fool gets the giggles because he knows that it is all a game.
By looking at life as a series of games, we can begin to understand what Camus was talking about when he said that we should try to find meaning even when there isn’t any. By looking at life, the universe, the systems that make it up… By looking at all of these as a series of games, we can enjoy them without having to attribute the systems themselves any inherent meaning.
Games are by nature arbitrary. Take, as two wildly different examples, the games of chess and football (soccer, to my American readers. Yes, I’m American too, but I’m joining the rest of the world on this one. Also, metric is better than imperial. Deal with it). The two games are immediately distinguishable, but more than that, there are almost no similarities which can be drawn between the two games. One might describe similarities in broad strokes – that they both involve strategy, say, or that they are both competitive – but the games are otherwise entirely distinct. Good chess players don’t make good football players. One wouldn’t, for example, yell at a football player for making many passes in a row because the rules (of chess) stipulate that players take turns. Similarly, one would not give a chess player a yellow card for moving her pieces with her hands rather than her feet because the rules (of football) dictate it. In other words, there is no reason to prefer one set of rules over another, and there are no rules that are common to all games.
When it is said that rules are arbitrary, then, what is meant is that there is no reason to prefer one set of rules to another – one could conceivably make a game out of any non-contradictory set of rules – and that no one rule is consistent across all games. This does, in a sense, make all games meaningless. The rules of football, for instance, are indeed absurd. Why would you for any rational reason create a system in which the use of one’s hands and forearms is not allowed? It only makes things more complicated. Doesn’t rugby, conceivably, make more sense than football because it allows for the use of arguably more useful appendages? Despite this glaringly strange rule, however, football remains the most popular sport in the world and has billions of followers worldwide.
What I mean to say is that meaninglessness, even intrinsic meaninglessness, does not necessarily correspond with meaninglessness within the human psyche, even when it is well understood on an intellectual level that the thing in question is indeed meaningless. Nobody actually believes, for example, that the Colorado Rapids are the greatest team in the world and that anyone who likes the LA Galaxy is a terrible person with bad taste (well, some of us might, but that’s a failure of the intellect, not a proof that the Galaxy are terrible); there is a general understanding that one’s favoring a particular team has something to do with the location in which one grew up, or perhaps with one’s parents’ preference in team. This arbitrarity rarely has any bearing on one’s love for the team, however. People can become infatuated with the statistics of every player, learning all of their names and watching all of the games, even going so far as to have very real emotional connections to the outcomes of the games, all while understanding intellectually that the whole sport is an arbitrary mishmash of a bunch of random rules that happened to become popular, and that one’s choice of team has no real meaning in the grand scheme.
Meaning Within Systems
I’ve said a whole lot about nihilism and football, but I haven’t really said much about love. I apologize for all the setup, but I promise it’s important in arriving at the conclusion. After reading the previous section, you may have been tempted to generalize what I’ve said about games to other systems. I encourage this behavior, and in fact believe that thoughts like this can indeed be generalized to all systems. This is something that the existential nihilist will have difficulty arguing. Indeed, by stating that all systems are arbitrary I am in essence stating they have no intrinsic meaning, which is precisely what existential nihilism posits. There can, however, be meaning within systems – that is, facts can have contingent meaning based on a system’s rules – as I have shown in the previous section. A true nihilist might reject this, claiming that even within a system it is impossible to find meaning because all systems rely on at least some level of reasonable inference-making, but the vast majority of existential nihilists should be able to grant that there is meaning within systems. It seems that to deny meaning within systems is to deny that inferences can be drawn from a set of rules and logic, which quickly devolves into solipsism and irrationalism.
Take, for example, the game of chess. The game of chess can be said to have a set of certain rules, some of which are as follows:
- Pawns may move forward onto an empty space, diagonally one space if they are to capture another piece by doing so, or forward 2 spaces if they have never been moved from their original location
- One may only move pieces when it is one’s turn, and after moving a piece or choosing to end one’s turn, play passes to one’s opponent.
- Rooks may only move horizontally or vertically, and may not move over any other piece that is in the way (unless it is moving to capture that piece)
and so on and so forth. It also has many implicit rules, many of which are shared by other (though not all) systems:
- One must play to the best of one’s ability and make a reasonable effort to win
- One must not use outside sources in an effort to win the game, such as computer programs or books, unless it is done on one’s own time outside of a match
and so on and so forth.
By stipulating these and the other rules of chess, we create a full system within which certain things can have meaning intrinsic to the system, but not intrinsic in their own right. For example, it can be said truly that “A man has the ability to move a Knight two squares up and one square to the right onto a space occupying a pawn and to subsequently remove the pawn from the board.” Indeed, with or without the rules of chess, this is possible. Anyone could, without knowledge of the rules of chess, perform the actions necessary to move a knight two spaces up and one space to the right and remove the pawn occupying that space from the board. And indeed, outside the system of chess, this action would be meaningless. Within the system of chess, however, the action does have meaning. A value claim can be made intrinsic to the system about moving one’s knight to capture a pawn. For example, the move can be said to be legal, because it does not contradict the rules. It can also be said to be good, because capturing pieces generally enhances one’s chance of winning (and making a reasonable effort to win is one of the arbitrary stipulations made when creating the system).
A person acting within a system, then, can be said to be (contingently) acting meaningfully. This might not be a great consolation considering the system itself is entirely arbitrary, but it does mean that, at very least, we can act meaningfully in some sense. Which brings us to the topic of love.
Love as an Evolving System
When we ask “what is love?” What we are really asking is “what should love be?” That is, what axioms should define a system worth calling love? It seems that since everything is arbitrary, the word love could conceivably reference any system. Let me explain what I mean. If the rules of football were ever changed (for example, to disallow the use of the chest to touch the ball) we might still refer to the new system as “football,” but it would in fact be an entirely new system. In reality, we have simply been lazy and have placed the moniker “football” on something extremely similar to the system we previously labeled with the moniker “football.” We have changed nothing about the original system, we have simply cloned that system, changed one of its axioms, and conveniently taken the world “football” and pointed it at this new system instead of the old system. What appears to be a change in the system of football is actually just a change in the reference of the term football to some entirely new system.
The same could be said for any system. When we, for example, passed reforms to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, we didn’t change the marriage system. We created a new system that was just like the old one, except we removed the axioms that stipulated gay and lesbian couples could not marry, and added axioms that said they could. We created an entirely new system of marriage, and pointed the word marriage at it because we already had the word and we were too lazy to come up with a new one. This happens throughout history. Words are constantly repurposed to reference systems that are different from old systems. This can become rather cumbersome and even problematic. Take, for example, the word “Republican” which now references a completely different set of ideals and systems than it did in, say, the 1860s.
So when we ask the question “what is love?” we are really asking “what is the system of axioms which the term love should reference?” and unfortunately the system culturally agreed upon is going to change wildly alongside our human evolution. But that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as love, or that there is no way for us to maintain meaningful relationships with others.
Love, it seems, is simply any set of axioms agreed upon by any number of people within which they all agree to interact. For example, if my partner and I decided that one of the axioms of our system of love should be that we are not allowed to have any sexual contact with anyone else, and I brought home another girl to have sex with, then it could be argued that I was acting incorrectly according to that system, and therefore not lovingly. However, if my partner and I decided that one of the axioms of our system of love is that we should actively seek out other partners to bring home for our mutual enjoyment, then I would be acting correctly if I brought another girl home to have sex with, provided my partner was allowed to join in. This might seem a little too open-ended, especially to the romantics among my readership. Shouldn’t there be at least some way to discern which axioms should be absent from an understanding of love, and which should be necessary? Surely there is no way to justify, say, the requirement of fishing pole ownership, or an agreement that pistachio ice cream is delicious, or some other oddity in a conception of love? It does not seem so strange, however, when you consider different conceptions of love throughout the ages, in different cultures, and on a person to person basis.
A few hundred years ago, for example, it was atypical for people to love outside of an arranged marriage, and it was thought that the system of love required things like marriage, parental consent, and similarity in economic stature. It is only in recent times that the idea of romantic love has come into vogue. Or take, for example, the vast differences in the systems of love between monogamous and polyamorous subcultures, or the ideas of love found within the BDSM and alt communities. The idea that love could somehow involve the physical restraint of one’s partner with rope seems abhorrent to some, and necessary to others, and as such love is indeed a very fluid concept.
With that in mind, it seems the only requirement that sets love apart from other systems is that its axioms be defined and agreed upon by all parties involved. And while you may be forced to admit to your partner that love is an entirely arbitrary system, it doesn’t seem quite so bad when you agree on that arbitrary system together. No love is the same, no love is “true,” and no definition of love can be given because it is not the kind of thing that can be defined. But just like football, it can be filled with emotion, and once the system is agreed upon, it can fill your actions with meaning. Take comfort in the fact that you have created something with someone else. Take comfort in the fact that it is yours. Take comfort in the fact that your system is different from everybody else’s. In the case of love, it seems more meaningful that it doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning aside from that which you’ve created with another. That’s what makes it so special. It has no boundaries aside from those you willingly create with another. Love is arbitrary, and that’s what makes it free.