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Unlimited Love - Towards a New Human Science

By Stephen G. Post


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

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

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 well 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 agapelove 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?