Electro-chemical responses along habitual synaptic pathways, if you want to be reductionist about it (and, with that preamble, you can tell that I’m not going to be). Everything we experience can be put in those terms, as can the flight of a bat, an amoeba’s avoidance of strong alkali or Beethoven’s composition of the C# minor string quartet. Life is electro-chemical responses.
That doesn’t remove the sincerity, the reality, the authenticity of the emotional response. It puts the response into the mainstream of animal behaviour. And surely, we can’t aim higher than that, can we? Not when humans are part of that continuum of being-an-animal with all that entails.
Love is not unique to humans and it’s a peculiarly human arrogance that makes so many of us assume that it is. Look at the devotion of a swan to its mate, of a dog to its master, of a blackbird to its offspring and try to convince me (as well as yourself) that there is no emotion there. Emotion derives from empathy: the recognition that solipsism is a conceptual dead end, that it is wrong to harm for the sake of entertainment, that a hurt inflicted on another creature is as painful as a hurt inflicted one one’s self.
This is not a romantic point of view. I am not by nature a romantic (except, perhaps in some of my musical tastes) but lean towards a hard-headed scientific view of existence. At the same time, I’m inclined to believe in certain universalities: love, goodness, an inexorable march of culture towards broadly liberal ideals and the interconnectedness of all existence. Yes, it sounds romantic, but it isn’t because I’m not.
Jonathan, who was my best man at my Civil Partnership, once described me as the only optimistic cynic he’d ever met (and, Jonathan, I miss you!). That’s a description I find really flattering. I believe in love; thanks to Bahkti, I know (as in “know from the deepest parts of my being”) that love is real. At the same time, I know (as in “I have heard from other people without experiencing it myself”) that people can be vicious, selfish and utterly lacking in any sense of empathy. As an old-fashioned socialist, I tend to ascribe such behaviour to inadequate socialisation deriving from poverty; in other words, a lack of empathy resulting not from a failure off the individual personality (a psychopathy) but from a failure of the individual’s habitus (if you don’t know the term, read Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice).
Love is real.