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Love is not a math problem
On the hyper-optimization of love and why commitment is underrated.
This dry and rational view of love is a disease that needs to be fully and totally eradicated off the face of the Earth. Love is not some sort of cold, mechanistic math problem that needs to be hyper-optimized.
One common refrain here is that this has been brought about by capitalism and technological progress: what is love but a free market, anyways?
In the perfectly efficient market of love, everyone can find the perfect life partner. That is the goal, one must optimize all of the variables, and thanks to the internet this is now possible for the very first time in all of human history. No longer are you confined geographically or ethnically or in any way whatsoever. Post your photos, set your filters, and start swiping: this is a numbers game and for the first time ever all 7 billion of us are on the same field, in the same arena, playing the same game, fighting the same fight.
But attributing this phenomenon to capitalism or the advent of technology is a gross mischaracterization: an increase in the number of choices does not necessitate the mechanization of the process by which one chooses. It may encourage it (perhaps the paralysis onset by an explosion in optionality is understandable) but this is a cultural problem and thus one that a change in attitude can get us out of. We can choose to navigate this explosion of romantic choice more intentionally.1
Capitalism maximizes choice, but it is our ethical frameworks that help us dictate what we do with these new choices. Rather than pointing to “capitalism” (a largely misunderstood term that people use to group together everything that they hate about modernity), I would argue that a more appropriate culprit to blame for this cold, rational view of love is utilitarianism: the predominant ethical philosophy of today that espouses the mechanization of processes exactly like this. Back to the tweet:
Was settling the norm? Or did everyone just happen to be romantically compatible with the person sitting nearest to them in class?
The concept of “settling” and the obsession with perfect romantic compatibility are both born of the idea that a relationship must maximize utility: there exists a set of variables that together form one’s utility function and the goal is to optimize them.
Line up all of your variables and add them up, one by one: what you are left with is a single neat little number that represents the compression and distillation of the very concept of love. Highest number wins! This is what happens when utilitarian ethics infect love: you are left with a math problem.2
Instead, consider that maybe love is not a math problem. Love is intractable; it requires a small dose of irrationality. The world is not an equation and people are not variables. Or rather, if it was an equation it would be one that takes forever to solve. Life is chock full of vague, ambiguous problems of this very nature.3
Settling does not exist, neither does perfect romantic compatibility, because life and love are not games with perfect information. Nobody in this world has “complete and instantaneous knowledge of all market prices, their own utility, and own cost functions.” In lieu of perfect information, you have to make bets.
From How to build a worldview:
→ Make bets. Chess is a game with perfect information, life is not. Be comfortable with making bets and make them with conviction. Adjust accordingly. A life with zero risk is not a life, it is a very slow death.
Betting is our only alternative. A bet is a commitment in the face of uncertainty and it’s required to do anything meaningful over a long enough time horizon, especially if you will probably die before the naïve brute-force algorithm finishes running.
The predominant ethical philosophy of today has infected our views on love, but it does not stop there: love is dying and the blows are raining down on her from all sides. I’d be remiss if I did not briefly mention the way that Hollywood often (not always, but often) paints us a shoddy picture.
What Hollywood gets wrong
Think about the typical depiction of love in a Hollywood movie. See it in your mind’s eye.
I presume you conjured up some sort of cheap, stereotypical love at first sight high school sweetheart romcom Jimmy Fallon bullshit. Perhaps you came up with something more genuine, but only after wading through a bunch of fake examples, the types of examples that “invoke primal reactions in people”, to quote one of the most provocative tweets of all time.
This is a beautiful picture, for what it’s worth. The only problem with this picture is that it is just that: a picture, a moment in time.
Moments in time are most of what Hollywood sells. It is very hard to fit an entire lifetime into a few hours of film, so what we are left with is but a small window into an imagined life: the story of a 500-day-long relationship with a girl named Summer. My gripe with Hollywood is that love is about so much more than that.4
Love deals with entire lifetimes. It deals with future lifetimes. Love is about growing old and it deals with the mundane, even if you did get your photo taken at the 40-yard line with your helmet in your hand. That is just a photo, what about the rest of your life? What do you when the photo op is over?
Commitment is underrated
Watch this clip, it will take you two minutes.
Žižek is right: true love begins with the patient building of small, daily rituals. It is the unfurling of the day to day into the story of a lifetime.5
It is not about preserving optionality or staying flexible or being absolutely sure to mechanically and rationally maximize “romantic” utility. Again, it is about commitment.
Also from How to build a worldview:
→ Make commitments. Commitment is required to build anything meaningful over a long enough time horizon. Relationships are committed bets. Love is born from a commitment and nurtured in growth and shared experiences. Commitment is the only way for compounding bets to reach escape velocity.
Love is growth. It is the cultivation of context and meaning and aesthetics over time. Like all living things, it requires maintenance. It requires patience.
Of course you need to commit to a compatible partner, but I’d wager that most people today are not failing to be compatible—they are failing to commit. Žižek is right when he characterizes this failure to commit as the dominant ideology of our time, everyone is trying to maximize their utility in the intractable problem space that is romance.
I don’t believe in giving advice on love, but I do believe in sharing what I believe to be true, and what I know so far is that love lasts much longer than a photo of you in high school at the 40-yard line with your helmet in your hand.
There is a whole life left out there for you to build with someone who loves you.6
I have written about this before in a broader context, see I am asking you to want something. In some sense, this is a more specific application of the same problem and the same advice applies: it’s hard to choose because you do not know what you want and you should think hard about that.
You can continue to pull on this thread and come up with a broader indictment of utilitarianism as a whole. See Erik Hoel, subtitled “Morality is not a market.” Neither is love!
Also see Santi Ruiz in Regress Studies with a fascinating take on how some utilitarians view love or “partiality” and its influence on morality: “For MacAskill, loving things is epistemically dangerous. Intrinsically, it clouds your judgment about what is morally valuable, and constrains you to moral reasoning that isn’t very ambitious. It doesn’t seem unfair to say that MacAskill thinks we would be better moral agents if we loved less.”
Consider the known strategies for the generation of prime numbers. Naïve solutions here take a very long time, this is somewhat of an intractable problem. We instead have to rely on various kinds of heuristics and probabilistic tests, much like finding a romantic partner. If this interests you, Algorithms to Live By is a fun little book with more examples of these types of problems and some useful heuristics—just be careful, not everything needs an algorithm.
A small gripe, to be clear: films are some of the best vehicles of love that we have, if not the best, when done well. Also, 500 Days of Summer is a lovely film and highly relevant to this essay.
In 8 months, I will be getting married to my girlfriend of 8 years (9 by the time the wedding rolls around). I met her in high school—what are the odds that she is the “perfect” partner for me? And I for her? My entire life is predicated on the notion that love is not something you hyper-optimize.