Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Doggerel #85: "You Can't Find an Atom of Love!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.
Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet you act, like there was some sort of rightness in the universe by which it may be judged... -Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
One of the annoying bits of Doggerel that often comes up is that there are supposedly things that can't be reduced to particles, like consciousness, love, life, etcetera, or that materialists are incapable of believing in any of those things because they aren't made of atoms. The problem is, many of these things are not that different from fire:

Despite protests from the early proposers of atomic theory and phlogiston fanatics, you won't find any atoms, molecules, or particles of fire in the universe. That's because fire isn't a distinct object: It's a process. When we look at a burning object, what we see is a series of chemical reactions taking place in a manner that emits light and heat. It may not be as complicated (and I'm willing to defer to any pyrotechnics experts who can describe nuances I may not be aware of) as consciousness, emotion, and so forth, but that's essentially what they are: Chemical processes, not distinct objects.

Of course, whether we feel love by chemical reactions or Cupid's arrow is often irrelevant if the topic is morality. Why supernatural sources of morality would be superior to natural ones is something that never seems to come up: Divine Command Theorists and such simply expect their special pleading to be accepted without question.

What's also annoying is that woos who go on about solved 'mysteries' of consciousness often use this to claim that we don't know what we know, namely why people perform charity and such. Time and again, I wind up explaining that helping other people is an effective, if indirect, means of helping ourselves: If people like you, and know you're going to help them, they'll be more amendable to helping you. Teamwork works. Sometimes our instincts towards helpfulness go further than would be beneficial for selfish ends. Even then, it's often a good thing for families and the species as a whole. And then it turns out to be a hit-and-run troll, or they completely ignore the post, and they eventually go on somewhere else to post about the materialists' alleged inability to answer the question.


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Infophile said...

How much of a nerd does it say I am that I looked at that Love molecule and figured out that the hearts replaced oxygen atoms?

Anonymous said...

As a chemistry major, I'd say it makes you pretty damn cool, but I might be in the minority here... :p

Anonymous said...

I think an example that really drives the point home better than "fire" would be that you also can't find a molecule of Windows XP or "insert game here". I'd say pretty much everyone at least admits that computer programs are material in nature, but can't be broken down into distinct particles due to them also being a process.

Anonymous said...

thank you, thank you, thank you for the ammunition. Love the Doggerel series... i am both happy and sad that you never seem to run out of doggerel to debunk.

Dr G said...

On a similar vein,I've heard the analogy of the three primary colors- that as the combo of basic emotions can produce an infinite range of emotional the sophisticated weave of cognitive constructs (exchange of info between envrons, emotions, perception...)produces a dynamic & complex process- consciousness. The fire analogy though hits the mark squarely.
Thanks for the great Doggerels!

Unknown said...

A true nerd asks how electronegative the hearts are, and how that changes the amide bond angles, and changes the tertiary structure.

Anonymous said...

A true nerd would also comment that Love has sterioisomers... perhaps Hate is its nonsuperimposible mirror image...

On topic: "finding the atom of love" would be like finding a burrito of sorrow. Or something like that. The phrase is meaningless and if someone uses it they ought not to be taken seriously.

Anonymous said...

i've been trying to explain these types of things to people for years. my website has all the discovered truths i find useful to share.

the most imnpotant one regarding people is that "PEOPLE ONLY DO WHAT THE BELIEVE WILL MAKE THEM HAPPIER".
everyone is aiming for the same thing for themselves. to create the best future for themselves and everyone and everything is a resource to achieve it.

David P said...

Basic chemistry (OH bonds much?) Don't feel ashamed. Any reasonable (i.e. non-woo) person could figure it out. As to how many would... well, we're all geeks here probably

Adam C. said...

I just had cause to link to this post - I got celebrity trolled by Dana Ullman, who wrote "There are good reasons that [Citizendium]’s article on homeopathy didn’t discuss the “number of molecules” in a homeopathic medicine because it isn’t the “meat” but the “meat” AND the “motion” that create a homeopathic medicine. How many molecules are there in “love”? By this logic, love doesn’t exist."

I was actually really quite surprised to see it actually used seriously.

(Link, for the record: )