Unlimited Love – Towards a New Human Science

Unlimited Love – Towards a New Human Science

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


In this presentation, I wish only to more systematically indicate the range of questions that might be studied in order to better understand the possibilities for a human future of unlimited love.

How can we better understand human loving motivations and actions, with a focus on all that these involve evolutionarily, genetically, developmentally, neurologically, socially, emotionally, theologically, and conceptually?  How might such motivations and actions be fostered?  (My thinking here has benefited from frequent discussion with Lynn G. Underwood, Ph.D., of the Fetzer Institute.).

Many of the questions that should be studied will be so fascinating to professionals and to the lay public that research will assuredly receive wide attention.  To what extent is the so-called “selfish” gene compatible with unselfish motivations and behavior on the part of the individual beyond the sphere of reproductive interests?  How does the “tit-for-tat” self-interested model of the evolution of cooperation relate to the phenomenon of human unlimited love?  Is the human capacity for altruistic love really able to embrace all human beings in an unlimited and unconditional manner without the leaven of spiritual experience?  How and why do people experience a sense of healing and restoration in even brief encounters with altruistic and compassionate love?

How can we move beyond in-group insularity?  Can we learn to love our neighbor even when he or she is an enemy?  Can love tame the problem of intergroup conflict?  Can love tame the aggressive aspects of human nature already highlighted by presociobiological ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz?  Can human beings turn their hate and aggression against disease, starvation, poverty, and other assaults on human well-being?  If the inevitable corollary of altruism is aggression, is the capacity for empathy potent enough to overcome the in-group/ out-group barrier, inhibiting aggressive tendencies?  Can the symbols that live in us, and in which we live, contribute to the extensivity of love?  Is empathy so thoroughly the product of in-group evolution that in-group insularity is ineradicable?  Evolutionary debates over the very origin and significance of empathy are crucial, well-grounded, and as yet unresolved.

Empathy is not love, but needs to be understood as one of love’s evolved building blocks.  How can we better understand those who behave non-altruistically?  What are the connections with neural wiring and brain chemistry?  What is the link between empathy and frontal brain function?  Does group selection, if true, necessarily favor between-group insularity and conflict?

The above questions suggest general areas of potential inquiry that will require social scientific research into the quantitative and qualitative nature of altruism and love.  Social scientists have devoted considerable attention to measures of motivational altruism in human experience.  Some of this literature has focused on rescue behavior that places the agent at some risk, generating considerable disagreement as to the authenticity of ostensibly altruistic motives.  But we must also be concerned with altruism and altruistic love on the parent-child axis.  We must identify models of child development that are most likely to give rise to altruistic children who are attentive to all humanity.

All of the biological sciences are potentially relevant, including specialties such as evolutionary biology, neurology, cognitive science, and endocrinology.  While altruistic love seems to exist most obviously on the parent-child or kin selective axis, we do not really know much about the neurological and endocrinological aspects of this universal form of love, and the extent to which it differs in males and females.  Can we learn something about altruistic love on the parent-child axis that sheds light on the more extensive expressions of altruistic love?  We can examine current scientific research in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology regarding the nature and limits of altruism as genetically grounded.  The health sciences can contribute to our knowledge of whether and how compassionate and unlimited love enhances physical and emotional health.

The traditional methods of the humanities can help define the essential features of altruistic love.  Human love cannot be reduced to emotion, since it involves the seeing of value in another, a use of the moral imagination, and a bestowal of worth that is very much a conceptual endeavor.  Where do culture and symbols enter into the distinctly human capacity for universal altruistic love?  How do religious and spiritual practices enhance love for all humanity?  How is unlimited love associated with humility in the agent?

The empirical study of unlimited love can be organized into seven major areas: spirituality/religion; ethics/philosophy; biology; psychology/human development; education; anthropology/sociology/political science/economics; medical. There may be better ways to group these disciplines, and there may be additional disciplines worth listing.

Spirituality/Religion:  On this axis, unlimited love is identified with Divinity.  “God is love and he that dwells in love dwells in God and God in him,” asserts the New Testament.  The Bhagavad-gita, the Dhammapada, and the scriptures of virtually all the great world religions assert this as well in their different terms.  God is believed to be absolute unlimited love, although this need not exclude anger and judgment.  This love is manifested in a way that does not ultimately discriminate against sinners. In many historical accounts, the inspired apostles of love – many great moral lights, founders of all genuine religions, and true sages, seers, and prophets – are also remembered as joyful.  In spiritual and religious traditions, the life of altruistic and agape love has been understood to be a participation in divine love, replete with a sense of joy and universal extensiveness that goes beyond all intergroup conflict.  This participation is shaped by the experience of prayer and meditation.

It would be good to encourage rigorous empirical studies into this phenomenon, as well as studies of the ways in which religious symbols, beliefs, stories, and rituals encourage agape love.

Some specific sample questions are:

*Do spiritual and religious experiences, beliefs, and practices influence behavior in the direction of altruistic, compassionate, and unlimited love? If so, when and how?


*What specific spiritual practices (e.g., types of prayer, meditation, silence, worship) might help to encourage altruistic love?  How do these practices interact with the biological, social and cultural substrate of the person?

Ethics/Philosophy:  On the ethical plane, altruistic and unlimited love are associated with the unselfish affirmation, acceptance, and care of others for their own sake.

Study of this would include foci on the emergence and ascent of altruistic and unlimited love to constitute goodness itself in many significant moral traditions, and on how altruism is analyzed in contemporary philosophy with regard to acceptable degrees of self-sacrifice, competing contractual theories of ethics, and moral psychology.

Some specific sample questions are:

 *What is the place of altruism and unlimited love in philosophical traditions, and what empirical assumptions about human nature and the cosmos have been influential in this?


*How have religious concepts of altruistic, compassionate, and unlimited love shaped later secular conceptions of ethics and of other-regarding attitudes and behaviors?

Biology: Altruistic and unlimited loves are not well understood biologically. Although this love is visible and palpable (e.g., like the tip of an iceberg), we understand very little of what lies under the water line.  It is time to marshal the capacities of biology and all the life sciences to better understand the embodiment of unlimited love, as well as the evolution of these capacities and the emergence of such love.

Studies pertaining to the endocrinological, neurological, immunological, genetic, and all other biological aspects of altruistic or agapic love either as given or as received should be encouraged.  Research on the evolutionary origins of altruistic behavior, on the relationship of received love to emotional memory, and on the impact of received love on child neurological development and thriving.  A specific example would be the study of parental love, the “strong” form of altruism (according to evolutionary biology), which may serve as the biological underpinning of love for those who are not genetically related to the agent.

Some specific sample questions are:

*What are the evolutionary origins and neurological substrates of altruism and unlimited love? How might these interface with cultural, religious, and social factors?


*What are the physiological correlates of altruistic love both given and received?


*What role does attachment, bonding, or empathy play in the expression of altruistic love?

Psychology/Human Development: Altruistic and unlimited loves are experienced psychologically by the recipient in life-transforming ways that are associated with peace and well-being.  Individuals who have never experienced love or compassion may be extremely hostile and abusive in their responses to the world, and eventually reach a state of crisis.  Yet after experiencing even a brief period of love, they may undergo a dramatic transformation in which they migrate from hatred to agape.  We know very little about the transforming power of love, or the inner reorientation of its recipient that turns him/her into its agent.  Psychology and religion both speak of the experience of redemption through an accepting, unlimited, and unconditional form of love that does not discriminate against the recipient, no matter how sordid his or her past.

Studies on the redemptive features of altruistic and agape love should be encouraged.  We need to understand how such love causes change in the recipient, how long must the love be sustained, how lasting this change is, and what the psychological health benefits of this transformation are with regard to sense of worth and self esteem.  We should encourage studies on how receiving such love unleashes the capacity to love, thereby producing a shift from egoism to altruism, and on how hatred, fear, anger, and resentment are reduced.

The psychological study of altruistic love also includes developmental psychology.  Abuse and other forms of domestic violence sometimes rob the developing child of any opportunity to experience and learn altruistic love, care, and compassion.  In the absence of such love, bonding cannot occur.  The child may miss all the nonverbal expressions of love – e.g., through caring touch, affective tone of voice, facial expression, and the like.  A child who has suffered through severe peer rejection during adolescence may also become hostile and even violent.  Children and young people who have not experienced or seen love expressed are unlikely to manifest it themselves.  Some individuals will not manifest altruistic love, if at all, until they face a severe life-threatening illness, or even the imminence of death itself in old age.  Studies should be encouraged on the experiences of giving and receiving altruistic and unlimited love at all points in the human life cycle, including those aspects of each stage of the life cycle that seem to enhance or diminish growth in love.

Some specific sample questions are:

 *What developmental processes foster or hinder altruistic attitudes and behavior in various stages of life from early childhood onwards?  What role does emotional and social learning play in these processes?


*What can cognitive neurosciences and developmental psychology contribute to our understanding of altruistic, compassionate, and unlimited love?  For example, how do narrative, symbol, and various views of reality influence our capacities to respond in love to various situations, and to those who are neither kin nor friend but who are in genuine need?


*How do emotions and altruistic love inter-relate?  Which emotions support altruistic love, and in what circumstances?  Which emotions in what circumstances inhibit altruistic love?

Education: There is much debate about how and whether to teach a life of altruistic and unlimited love.  Historically, this has been the province of spiritual and religious traditions, particularly in their presentation of the lives of the saints (i.e., hagiography).  It is not clear that altruism can be taught in the absence of such images of human fulfillment both secular and sacred.  Research on education and altruism interfaces with psychology and human development, yet constitutes a unique set of concerns.

Some specific sample questions are:

*What are the perennial roles of religious traditions in teaching altruistic and agapic love, as w ll as any other historical means by which such pedagogy has been implemented?


*Does love need to be seen and experienced before it can be learned?


*Does engaging young people in social benevolence efforts tap their altruistic capacities in ways that affect their entire lives?


*How deeply does a culture of violence and hostility adversely impact the emergence of altruistic behavior?


*What is the role of mentoring in altruistic love, and can the study of contemporary altruists – e.g., Jean Vanier, Dame Cicely Saunders, and Millard Fuller, enhance the manifestation of unlimited love?

 Anthropology/Sociology/Political Science/Economics:  Social scientists have long tried to prove or disprove the very existence of motivational altruism through elaborate studies of human behavior in circumstances in which another person, often a perfect stranger, is in dire need of help. Anthropologists have compared more altruistic cultures with less altruistic ones. Economists have, since Adam Smith, attempted to analyze and balance the social sentiments and self-interested rational choice.

Studies should be encouraged on the extent to which human individuals and societies manifest behavior that is motivationally or consequentially altruistic; on what social, and cultural factors influence the emergence of altruism, or counteract it; on how much, if at all, altruists limited by in-group tendencies that may give rise to hostility toward out-groups; on how altruistic love expressed in the spheres of family and friends can be expanded to include all humanity; on what can be learned from cultures in which a remarkable amount of altruistic and unlimited love is manifest; on how can we better understand the link between love and its manifestation in compassion, care, and service.

Some specific sample questions are:

*In what ways might proper self-love and neighbor-love reinforce one another?


*How does altruistic love interact with pro-social motivations?


*What means are available to expand or extend altruism and unlimited love to those thought of as outside one’s social group? How do we define the “outsider” and how does this influence our attitudes and actions?


*What role do the media play in encouraging or discouraging altruism and altruistic love?


*How do particular visions of reality and world views affect attitudes and expressions of altruism and unlimited love?


*What can economic research tell us about the nature and expression of altruism and altruistic love?  How does such love affect our attitudes and behaviors towards money and the use of wealth?  What is the basis of philanthropy and can it be successfully encouraged?


*How might models of human action (e.g., utility maximization and profit maximization in economics, “game theory” in social science and biology) as well as cultural assumptions affect the expression of altruism and altruistic love in human relations and social structures?

Medical: Altruistic and unlimited loves have long been associated with helping in the recovery from various forms of physical and mental illness. Studies should be encouraged on the physiological health impact of altruistic and agape love that is given or received.

Some specific sample questions are:

*How does the giving or receiving of altruistic, compassionate, and unlimited love affect mortality?


*How such love impact persons with mental or physical illnesses, especially in severe cases?


*How does the receiving of such love impact persons with cognitive deficits – e.g., persons with retardation or dementia, or persons with serious mental disorders?


*To what extent are health care professionals motivated by altruistic love, and how does this affect them and their patients?


*How do altruism and altruistic love enter into the context of organ donation, in which the donation of organs is viewed as a “gift of life” for the stranger in need?