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The Argument from love is an argument for the existence of God, as against materialism and reductionist forms of physicalism.


Outline of argument

The deep relationship of theism in general, and Christianity in particular, and love goes back to the foundational documents.[1] In cultures where theism was taken for granted, the primacy and quality of love was used as an argument for the truth of Christianity.[2] However in modern times the (suggested) reality of love has become seen as an argument for the existence of God, as against materialism and reductionist forms of physicalism.

Tom Wright suggests that:

  1. Materialist philosophy and scepticism has "paved our world with concrete, making people ashamed to admit that they have had profound and powerful 'religious' experiences".[3]
  2. The reality of Love in particular ("that mutual and fruitful knowing, trusting and loving which was the creator's intention" but which "we often find so difficult") and the whole area of human relationships in general, are another signpost pointing away from this philosophy to the central elements of the Christian story.[4]

Wright contends both that the real existence of love is a compelling reason for the truth of theism and that the ambivalent experience of love, ("marriages apparently made in heaven sometimes end not far from hell") resonates particularly with the Christian account of fall and redemption.[5]

Paul Tillich suggested (in 1954) even Spinoza "elevates love out of the emotional into the ontological realm. And it is well known that from Empedocles and Plato to Augustine and Pico, to Hegel and Schelling, to Existentialism and depth psychology, love has played a central ontological role."[6] and that "love is being in actuality and love is the moving power of life"[7] and that an understanding of this should lead us to "turn from the naive nominalism in which the modern world lives".[8]

The theologian Michael Lloyd suggests that "In the end there are basically only two possible sets of views about the universe in which we live. It must, at heart, be either personal or impersonal... arbitrary and temporary[9] [or emerging] from relationship, creativity, delight, love".[10]


Main premise

The arguments Wright, Tillich and others are making essentially rest on the following premise: there are compelling reasons for considering love to exist in a way that transcends its physical manifestations. Wright evidences primarily the human experience of love, Tillich the philosophical and ontological primacy of love.

If materialism (or reductionist physicalism) is true, nothing exists in a way that transcends its physical manifestations. However, if classical theism is true, love is a quality of God and exists in a way that transcends its physical manifestations. Therefore, to the extent that the premise is accepted, this increases the plausibility of theism by comparison with materialism (or reductionist physicalism).[11]

Suggested reasons for accepting the premise

The principal arguments for the premise are:

  1. We have a strong intuition, especially when contemplating someone we love, that love is real and transcends its physical manifestations.[12][13] Although such intuitions are not always correct, they are strong enough prima facie evidence that very compelling arguments to the contrary would be needed to cancel them out.[14]
  2. Although one can make plausible evolutionary explanations for loving potential sexual partners, ancestors and children, the experience of love is wider than these categories and is more experienced as more intense and fundamental than sexual desire or a propagation of ones genes.
  3. It is possible to conceive of love as the most fundamental principle, or one of the most fundamental principles, of the universe, and thinking about the universe in this way appears more coherent with human experience.[15]
  4. It is very difficult to speak of love in a coherent way without assuming its objective existence, albeit mediated by highly subjective and cultural factors.
  5. People act in practice as if love is real and transcends its physical manifestations, even if they claim to believe that it is a matter of neurons and chemistry.

Suggested reasons for disputing the premise

  1. Our intuitions may be mistaken and based on limited knowledge. For example, the idea that life processes, such as metabolism and growth, are biochemical, and hence merely physical, was far from widely accepted before the twentieth century.[16]
  2. The evolutionary mechanisms favouring altruism — of which love is arguably a special case — are more pervasive and subtle than might be supposed.[17]
  3. This way of thinking about the universe may be wishful thinking.[18][19]
  4. Ordinary language is not always a reliable guide to objective reality.
  5. Scientific theories of love might explain the neurological basis of deep emotions in such a way as to make their reduction to physicalism more plausible. For example, Spindle cells allow humans to experience love and emotions and encourage the development of social interaction. These spindle cells also appear in great apes and, more recently, have been discovered in some whales.[20][21]

Relation to other philosophical approaches

Relation to Idealism

The argument as stated is for theism against materialism. It is possible to be an atheist without being a materialist. According to Midgley "Atheistic Idealism like Hume's is a perfectly possible option, and may be a more coherent one. At the end of the 19th century many serious sceptics thought it a clearer choice (Russell's liflelong ambivalence is quite interesting here)"[22] The classic view of Christian Neo-Platonists was that God is the perfection of the Idea/Form of Love, and that if an Idealist was philosophically committed to the existence of the Form of Love it was reasonable for them to accept the existence of the perfection of that Form in God.[23]

Relation to Physicalism

To the extent that physicalism entails the proposition that "nothing exists in a way that transcends its physical manifestations" the argument works against physicalism as well as materialism. However a physicalist need not be a reductionist in a metaphysical sense[24] so some versions of physicalism appear to be compatible with the existence of love "in a way that transcends its physical manifestations": the argument would only work against reductionist physicalism.

Relation to Postmodernism

According to Graham Ward, postmodern theology portrays how religious questions are opened up (not closed down or annihilated) by postmodern thought. The postmodern God is emphatically the God of love, and the economy of love is kenotic.[25]


Comparative rationality of belief in God and Love

A variant on the argument is a defence of the rationality of theism by comparing faith in God with love, and to suggest that if it isn't irrational to love someone then it shouldn't be seen as irrational to believe in God[26]. The philosopher Roger Scruton suggests: "Rational argument can get us just so far...It can help us to understand the real difference between a faith that commands us to forgive our enemies, and one that commands us to slaughter them. But the leap of faith itself — this placing of your life at God's service — is a leap over reason's edge. This does not make it irrational, any more than falling in love is irrational."[27]

Suggested compelling nature of God's Love

Another variant of the argument is that the evidence for God's love is sufficiently compelling that people can reasonably believe in it, and hence a fortiori believe in God.[28] This approach is criticised by Richard Dawkins who suggests that it is an "Argument from emotional blackmail".[29]

Notes and references

  1. ^ The Old Testament speaks repeatedly of God's love, and the commandments to Love God and Love your Neighbour as yourself are found there. They are strongly re-asserted in the New Testament, which also asserts e.g. that "God is Love" and Christian writers repeatedly insist on the primacy of God's love and the unity of love of God and love of neighbour
  2. ^ This goes back at least to Tertullian Apologeticum ch. 39, 7
  3. ^ Tom Wright Simply Christian p 16
  4. ^ Tom Wright Simply Christian pp 25–33
  5. ^ Tom Wright Simply Christian p 33
  6. ^ Paul Tillich Love, Power and Justice Oxford University Press 1954 p4
  7. ^ Paul Tillich, Love, Power and Justice, Oxford University Press, 1954, p25
  8. ^ Paul Tillich, Love, Power and Justice, Oxford University Press, 1954, p19
  9. ^ Lloyd cites Quentin Smith
  10. ^ Michael Lloyd Cafe Theology (2005) ISBN 1904074766 p 14
  11. ^ Note that this argument only supports Theism as against Materialism or reductionist physicalism — other philosophical approaches like Idealism or Critical Realism would not find the premise difficult.
  12. ^ E.g. Roger Scruton is his An Intelligent Person's guide to Philosophy (Duckworth, 1996 ISBN 0715627899) makes a central part of the chapter entitled "God" "the self which I try to capture in love... and which always eludes me" (p89)
  13. ^ Tom Wright Simply Christian Ch 3 "Made for each other"
  14. ^ E.g. Mary Midgley suggests that the assumption that "In general we can trust our faculties" is an essential pre-requisite to any rational thought" Consciousness and Human Identity p 169–170 OUP 1998 ISBN 0198503237
  15. ^ von Balthasar's short(!) book Love Alone: the way of Revelation (1969 ISBN 0722077289) explores this in depth, discussing at the whole book the "absolute love, which in revealing itself comes to meet man, berings him back, invites him in and raises him to an inconceivable intimacy" (p48) pointing out that "this essay contains nothing new. It seeks to be faithful to the theological tradition of the great saints: Augustine, Bernard, Anselm, Ignatius, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Theresa of Lisieux" (p10)
  16. ^ Andrew Melnyk. "A Case for Physicalism about the Human Mind"
  17. ^ These mechanisms are discussed in depth by Martin Nowak see e.g. his Evolutionary Dynamics especially Chapters 5–9.
  18. ^ Freud takes essentially this line, see e.g. The Future of an Illusion p30 — a 1961 translation of Die Zukunft einer Illusion (1927)
  19. ^ This is discussed (though not supported) by Thomas J Ord in "Love makes the cosmos go ’round", Science and Theology News (March 1, 2003), reviewing On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics by Nancey Murphy and George Ellis
  20. ^ Whales in love: Like humans, their brains are wired for romance
  21. ^ Whales boast the brain cells that 'make us human'
  22. ^ Mary Midgley The Myths We Live By Routledge 2004 ISBN 0415340772 p40
  23. ^ see e.g. the special introduction by Prof Maurice Francis Egan of The Catholic University of America to the Dialogues of Plato published by the Colonial Press 1900 "God and the highest good are the same; the highest idea is good. [Plato] believes in the living soul and in the Deity who pervades the universe" (p vii)
  24. ^ According to Daniel Stoljar in the SEP
  25. ^ The Modern Theologians 3rd ed p 335
  26. ^ This type of argument was made by Alvin Plantinga in God and Other Minds
  27. ^ Roger Scruton. Dawkins is wrong about God reproduced from The Spectator
  28. ^ See e.g. Michael Welker in The Work of Love p131 "in this love God's identity and power are made known" (italics in original). He cites e.g. John 17:26
  29. ^ The God Delusion p83

Further reading


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