95. Can Science Master Sex?


One of the issues the Showtime show Masters of Sex explores is whether science can master sex, that is, give a comprehensive account of how it works on all levels in accordance with the principles and laws of the various sciences. Now perhaps most people involved in using science to explain human sexuality don’t want to “master” anything. Nonetheless, I would like to offer a few thoughts suggesting that such mastery may not be possible. These thoughts revolve around connecting love to sex. Clearly, there can be sex without love. Many of the experiments done by Masters and Johnson included strangers having sex with no prior emotional bonds and no emotional ties afterwards. But certainly in many cases sex and love are closely connected, sometimes inseparable. And this inseparability may present a stumbling block to any science of sex. But why? Can’t we scientifically study sex that occurs in the context of falling in love? Certainly. For example, Helen Fisher of Rutgers University argues we fall in love in three stages, each of which involved certain chemicals:

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 the BBC article go here.

Fisher’s work clearly shows that science can say something important about specific chemical compounds and measurable quantities when it comes to sex that occurs as people fall in love. And it can, to be sure, make certain predictions based on this data. But while this general approach can be helpful, it may be overlooking a great deal. For we need to ask the general and fundamental  philosophical question: what is love? Science can tell us certain chemicals involved in the process of love. It can tell us some factors that may give rise to, or facilitate the end of, love. But it is unclear that is what love is. Perhaps love simply is a word that denotes those chemical and behavioral functions that Fisher outlines. But there are other ways of thinking about love that are far more elusive. So let’s take a brief look at a few and see how they pose problems for a comprehensive science of sex.


According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

“‘Agape’ has come, primarily through the Christian tradition, to mean the sort of love God has for us persons, as well as our love for God and, by extension, of our love for each other—a kind of brotherly love. In the paradigm case of God’s love for us, agape is “spontaneous and unmotivated,” revealing not that we merit that love but that God’s nature is love. Rather than responding to antecedent value in its object, agape instead is supposed to create value in its object and therefore to initiate our fellowship with God”.

When Agape is present in a relationship that includes sex then there is something supernatural, God’s grace, that can’t be quantified, measured, or reduced to material chemicals. And the creation of value poses a problem for science insofar as science is not about establishing values but facts. The notion that agape is about personal relations will also pose a stumbling block to science as we will see below.


Erotic love is best understood as a purposeful energy driving us towards something we desire, something we lack. Plato, in his dialogue Symposium, has his character Aristophanes say this: “And the reason people seek each other is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called eros.” Eros is intentionally directed at what we lack, namely wholeness. We have an insatiable need for those things we think will make us whole. As Plato points out, erotic energy may lead us to pursue the beauty in bodies, souls, a redeemed social condition, truth, and even The Beautiful Itself. Whatever the case may be, we are intentionally seeking something we think is valuable that will complete us. But when we study things scientifically we do not consider purposes. We only concern ourselves with how something works in accordance with the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. For example, we might study how the processes of 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 towards which they are moving and, while there are causes for motions, there are no reasons justifying any choices that are made by them or for them. Likewise, physical energy has no purpose unlike erotic love that is clearly directed towards something with a purpose. So if we take erotic love to be real then, as a purposeful experience of intentionally seeking a good we think will make us whole, the sexuality associated with it will have a component falling outside the realm of scientific explanation. Moreover, many of the objects of erotic intentionality, like eternal truth, a just society, wisdom, and individual persons, may prove elusive to scientific analysis.

Moral Love

Moral love is often deontological in nature. By deontological we mean it includes relations of duty that create obligations to the ones we love. We make promises to each other, recognize each other as persons with freedom and rights, and seek forgiveness when we fail in our duties. By granting others promises and forgiveness we become profoundly human and avoid treating others as mere animals or objects to be used for our selfish purposes. The duties we hold in marriage, in vows, and in the acts of promising and forgiving are all ways in which we are morally bound to the ones we love.

But if this is the case then we immediately see that any sexual relation inseparable from moral love will unfold in accordance with moral prescriptions between persons who are capable of freely defying or acting in accordance these prescriptions. Can science, which offers descriptions of facts, adequately explain this prescriptive dimension of moral love? Indeed, it is hard to see how science could account for the prescriptions of persons at all since science recognizes objects that move in accordance with the laws of nature rather than free subjects who choose in accordance with their values.  Roger 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.” (see An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy, p. 109).

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).

Now these are not the only views of love. For example, there is also romantic love, love as power, and philia or friendship. But these forms of love, too, will introduce things science may find problematic. Of course, science is a method and need not be absolutely 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 persons and purposes. 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, intentionality, and subjectivity from nature. If this alliance continues, then we have a plethora of plausible ideas about love that may prevent science from having a comprehensive mastery of sex. And we might go a step further here and note that science is itself a form of purposeful intentionality, perhaps erotic in nature, that includes values, prescriptions of inquiry, and even cosmic feelings of wholeness. But then a love of science would make science more than science: science couldn’t possibly explain itself in a comprehensive manner either.




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