95. Can Science Master Sex?



Plato, in his dialogue Symposium, has his character Eryximachus present a speech in praise of love that is really a speech in praise of himself and his abilities as a doctor. As a doctor, he claims to possess an art of Eros, an art whereby he can understand how the god Eros directs everything (186b). With this art he can “effect a reconciliation and establish mutual love between the most basic bodily elements” (186d-e). These bodily elements and their relations can also be discerned in the dynamics of farming, music, astronomy, divination, and even our social and moral relationships. If he is right, there appears to be a scientific way to manipulate matter in motion so various aspects of it work harmoniously together and a good form of eros appears. This way appears to be quantitative: it is a matter of measurable amounts, proportions, mixtures, and so on coming together at the right time in the right way. Eros, according to Plato’s fictional character, can be controlled. But can it be that this vision of the manipulation and mastery of eros is more than fiction?

Well, Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University argues we fall in love in three stages, each of which involved certain chemicals and brain functions:

Stage 1 is lust and it is  driven by the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen.

Stage 2 is attraction or the truly love-struck phase in which a group of neurotransmitters called monoamines play an important role: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.

Stage 3 is attachment where a longer lasting commitment is established. There are two hormones thought to play a role in these long lasting social attachments: oxytocin and vasopressin. For a helpful overview go here.

Fisher’s work clearly shows that science can say something important about specific chemical compounds and measurable quantities when it comes to erotic and other forms of love. And it can, to be sure, make certain predictions based on this data. For example, Fisher has been an influential advisor to Match.com in their efforts to, like Plato’s character Eryximachus, improve matchmaking. But while this general approach can be helpful, it may be overlooking a great deal. Science can tell us about certain chemicals involved in erotic love. It can tell us some factors that may give rise to, or facilitate the end of, this love. But it is unclear we should reduce eros to these chemical events. Perhaps eros involves many factors science cannot grasp. But what would these be? And can we argue in defense of them in a way that poses serious problems for the kind of science of love articulated by Plato and carried out today by so many scientists? Let’s see.


Erotic love is usually understood as a powerful form of desire or energy driving us towards something we lack, something which we think will complete us. In the Symposium, Plato has his character Aristophanes say this: “It’s because, as I said, we used to be complete wholes in our original nature, and now “Love” is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete” (192e). According to this influential view, eros is intentionally directed at what we lack: wholeness. It is a pursuit with a goal. Moreover, according to Plato eros only seeks forms of wholeness taken to be good and beautiful. Plato notes that people seek good and beautiful forms of wholeness in their efforts to unify with bodies, souls, a redeemed social condition, truth, and even The Beautiful Itself. Whatever the case may be, the key is this:

  • Erotic desire seems to entail that we are intentionally seeking something beautiful and good which we think will help complete us.

But if the terms of this proposition are true, then we seem to have some potential problems for a science of eros. Let’s take each in turn.

Eros is intentional or purposeful (teleological); scientific explanations are mechanistic (non-teleological)

According to a widely held view of science, when we study things scientifically we do not consider intentions or purposes at all: teleological explanations (from the Greek word ‘telos’ for purpose or end), or explanations that have recourse to purpose, have been removed in favor of mechanistic explanations that seek to explain things without purpose. In science we only concern ourselves with how something works in accordance with the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. For example, we might study how photosynthesis works or how the shifting of tectonic plates on Earth’s surface has developed. But questions regarding why plants and plates do what they do are not addressed since such actions have no purpose. To be sure, there are causes for various physical motions; but there are no reasons justifying these motions in relation to certain goals whether human or divine. Likewise, physical energy has no purpose unlike erotic love that is clearly directed towards something with a purpose. So if we take erotic love seriously as a purposeful experience of intentionally seeking something then eros will have components falling outside the realm of scientific explanation as currently understood.

Science cannot recognize the moral and aesthetic dimensions of eros

Can science, which typically offers only descriptions of facts, adequately explain the prescriptive dimension—the dimension of should and should not—of eros? If eros is about seeking that which is held to be good, and goodness is a moral category that science cannot recognize, can science master eros? It is hard to see how. Eros seems to be a matter of evaluating various intentional objects rather than simply blindly pursuing them. Indeed, this moral dimension is one way we come to learn so much through our erotic adventures. We come to see that one object or person was not as good as we thought; we might feel shame; we might try and self-correct and go on to fall in love with better things. This process of moral and rational evaluation is profoundly prescriptive rather than descriptive. If this is the case then it is hard to see how we could reduce eros to a set of descriptions about the brain and its chemicals however complex.

Moreover, judgments of the beauty, as philosophers have been pointing out for centuries, are typically understood to be what philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) called “disinterested” (his influential account of beauty is found in his book Critique of Judgment). This means that, while we do experience pleasurable feelings in making the judgment, we make the judgment (1) without concern with whether or not the object exists or not (as is the case in scientific judgments for example); (2) without concern with satisfying our desires or appetites by using the object (as is the case with pornography for example); and (3) without concern with the moral goodness of the object (as is the case with moral objections to a Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will). In an interested judgment, we are concerned with whether the thing exists or not, whether we can realize our desires for it or not, and whether the thing is good or not. But in a disinterested judgment we are interested in the beautiful object for its own sake. Can science handle the disinterestedness that marks judgments of the beautiful? Again, it is hard to see how. Current scientific efforts to grasp beauty try to show how beauty is linked to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Such evolutionary accounts must be functional through and through: they must demonstrate that beauty served a function in the game of survival of the fittest. Beauty must be, like everything else, a means to an end not an end in itself. But beauty, according to Kant’s vision briefly mentioned above, has nothing to do with function: we contemplate and enjoy the beautiful thing not because of what it can do for us but simply because of its inherent worth. Therefore, the beauty involved in eros may, if Kant’s vision is persuasive, include a dimension of contemplation that entails seeing someone or something with inherent worth…a worth science cannot recognize. This leads us to a final and related point:

Many of the objects of erotic intentionality, especially persons, may prove elusive to scientific analysis

Is it not the case that the person we erotically seek is a person we find to be good and beautiful? And if this is the case don’t we see him or her as an inherently valuable person rather than an interchangeable body for spreading our genes? Philosopher Roger Scruton, in his book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy, writes: “A body is an assemblage of parts; an embodied person is a free being revealed in the flesh. When we speak of a beautiful human body we are referring to the beautiful embodiment of a person, and not to a body considered merely as such” (109). But can science recognize persons at all? Indeed, it is hard to see how since science recognizes determined objects that move in accordance with the laws of nature rather than free subjects who choose in accordance with their values. Scruton elaborates:

“But the scientific worldview contains a fatal temptation: it invites us to regard the subject as a myth, and to see the world under one aspect alone, as a world of objects. And this disenchanted world is also a world of alienation….To see human beings as objects is not to see them as they are, but to change what they are, by erasing the appearance through which they relate to one another as persons. It is to create a new kind of creature, a depersonalized human being, in which subject and object drift apart, the first into a world of helpless dreams, the second into destruction. In a very real sense, therefore, there cannot be a science of man: there cannot be science which explores what we are for one another, when we respond to each other as persons.”

For Scruton, this “eclipse of the subject” is clear when it comes to the intentionality of sexual desire which strives for a particular person. In traditional morality, this concern for individual persons gives rise to many prohibitions and feelings of shame, guilt, and jealousy. But it also allows for sacred bonds that can lead to lasting fulfillment and meaning. But “if it is so difficult now to see the point of that morality, it is in part because human sexual conduct has been redescribed by the pseudo-science of sexology, and as a result not only robbed of its interpersonal intentionality, but also profoundly demoralized. In redescribing the human world in this way, we also change it. We introduce new forms of sexual feeling – shaped by the desire for an all-comprehending permission. The sexual sacrament gives way to a sexual market; and the result is a fetishism of the sexual commodity.” (134). 

And this passage hints at the notion of the sacred that tends to be associated with those people and objects which we think are good and beautiful. In his book Beauty (Oxford: 2009) Scruton explains:

Indeed, it is not too fanciful to suggest that the beautiful and the sacred are connected in our emotions, and that both have their origin in the experience of embodiment, which is at its most intense in our sexual desires. So, by another route, we arrive at a thought which we could, without too much anachronism, attribute to Plato: the thought that sexual interest, the sense of beauty and reverence for the sacred are proximate states of mind, which feed into one another and grow from a common root. And if there were to be a real evolutionary psychology of beauty this thought would have to be included among its premises. On the other hand, our path to this point has not proceeded by reducing the human to the animal, or the rational to the instinctual. We have arrived at the connection between sex, beauty, and the sacred by reflecting on the distinctively human nature of our interest in those things, and by situating them firmly in the realm of freedom and rational choice” (47).

We should also note that other objects of erotic intentionality, such as a virtuous soul, a redeemed social condition, truth, and God, may prove extremely elusive to scientific analysis as well. 

Final Thoughts

So it appears that, given science and its commitment to (1) explanations with no purpose; (2) amoral descriptions rather than moral prescriptions; (3) means-end explanations which exclude inherent value and the disinterested judgments of beauty; and (4) determined matter in motion rather than free human persons, we can see how eros, which plausibly includes purpose, morality, beauty, and a deep connection to personhood, cannot be mastered or comprehensively explained by science. Of course, science is a method and need not be committed to any “isms” like materialism, naturalism, or reductionism. Perhaps the “scientific world view” that Scruton warns us against is inaccurate and can be radically revised to include things it currently tends to exclude. But the inclusion of such things is problematic to say the least given the success of aligning science with materialism and naturalism, isms that typically remove morality, purpose, and free persons with inherent value from nature. If this alliance continues, then we have a plethora of plausible ideas about erotic love that may prevent science from having a comprehensive mastery of it. Thus the way is open to consider other philosophical theories that take us past the confines of science. In doing so, we may include science but also include some ideas and arguments that help account for aspects of Eros we would otherwise have to leave unexplained.

For a post that explores love, free will, and God, go here.





One thought on “95. Can Science Master Sex?

  1. Oleg Khaghani on

    But science does have a definitive purpose: To expand man’s base knowledge. True, that it cannot explain anything which does no have a physical basis; for after all physics is the science of explaining the material world, unlike Theology which seeks to find answers to the spiritual realm, and psychology, the science of the mind (which is still an elusive entity somewhere between the physical and the spiritual world). Thus, I agree thaat pure sciences cannot, and never will be able to fully explain the act of sex, since se operates on all three of these spheres (the spirit; the physical; as well as the psychological). However, science, specifically through its branch of biology does have a way of explaining what happens to a person’s inner body [which directly influences their mind, through the actions of the physical neurotransmitters that govern the psychological mind], and that which can influence the psyche, always has the power to directly act upon the spiritual; for the spiritual is the personal thoughts of a being (as far as we humans know it is confined only to mankind).

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