Against Quantifying Love

June 8, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 11:13 am   Category: Life

One of my favorite bloggers, HP, took a friendly dig at me the other day, and it set my mind in motion and first reminded me that the word “love” is problematic, but then that my conception of love is perhaps vastly different than others. This post represents a meandering look at “love.”

We live in a capitalist society of consumerism, which is based on the laws of supply and demand. This means that we often have a concept of scarcity ingrained upon us, and we are typically unable to think in terms of abundance in many areas. This concept of scarcity works in time, where we only have so much time to give. It works in money, where once it’s all spent it’s gone. It works in cars, and clothes, and slices of pumpkin pie.

But for me, it is a fallacy to apply the concept of scarcity to love (caring for and about others). If I love my wife, it does not mean I have less love to give to my children, my neighbor, or to God. My role may be different with each, but this does not need to affect my love for them. My capacity to love is infinite, Like God.

Of course, it can be empirically proven pretty quickly that the actual state of love and the capacity to love are not equal. There are several ways we limit our love:

1. We limit our love based on lack of intimacy (I don’t know anyone in Sri Lanka, so I love them less than my MIL or I spend more time with my in laws than my parents, so I must love my in laws more (illogical)).

2. We limit our love based on lack of trust. (I don’t trust that Geoff won’t hurt me if I care about him and treat him as an equal, so I refuse to care about him.)

3. We limit our love based on our perception of others. (I see you doing or saying things I don’t like, so I don’t love you.)

4. We limit our love based on our perception of ourselves. (I am a good LDS person, and good LDS people can’t love Rob Zombie, thus I do not love Rob Zombie.)

5. We limit our love based on our perception of love. (You can’t really love someone fully if they aren’t your wife. My Sister is not my wife, so I don’t love her fully. Or there’s that old Harry Connick Jr. tune, “when a body loves two people, he can’t love either one.” )

In short, in love, our limitations are only created by ourselves. (That is not to say these limitations may not be legitimately reasoned out, but we are still the origin of them.) But do we need to be limited in these ways? Are these limitations more based on our relationship with someone else and whether we like them, or are they based on our capacity to love them? Can we not fully tap into infinite love even with these limitations in place?

Pratt described breaking the barriers to infinite love:

“I had loved before, but I knew not why. But now I loved—with a pureness—an intensity of elevated, exalted feeling, which would lift my soul from the transitory things of this grovelling sphere and expand it as the ocean. I felt that God was my heavenly Father indeed; that Jesus was my brother, and that the wife of my bosom was an immortal, eternal companion. . . . In short, I could now love with the spirit and with the understanding also”

(Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979], 260).

He elsewhere attributes this to the power of the Holy Ghost in his life:

“The gift of the Holy Ghost . . . quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands, and purifies all the natural passions and affections, and adapts them, by the gift of wisdom, to their lawful use”

(Key to the Science of Theology, Classics in Mormon Literature Series [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978], 61)

Put another way:

“Soul blends with soul, in all the raptures of mutual, pure and eternal love”

(Key to the Science of Theology As quoted by Truman Madsen here )

So to me this says that the spirit allows us to transcend ourselves and love deeper, even infinitely so.


  1. Some say that love is a verb. If this is an aspect of love, then love can be limited because of time and effort and energy. I might say I love the people of Australia. But what difference does that make? One might say ‘whoop-de-do mate’.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — June 8, 2007 @ 11:43 am

  2. Eric,

    Time is infinite. Energy is infinite. Love is infinite.

    When the people in Australia have a major disaster and need that love, one might still say “whoop-de-do mate.”, but it won’t be me as I reach out because of my love…

    Comment by Matt W. — June 8, 2007 @ 11:50 am

  3. Matt,
    Time and energy may be infinite, as you say, but Eric has a point—I only have finite access to time and energy. As such, while I can profess that I love all, practically, I’m limited to demonstrating that love to some finite group of people. Plus, of course, my dog.

    Comment by Sam B — June 8, 2007 @ 12:05 pm

  4. It’s nice to talk about in the abstract. The problem is, love hurts. People you love hurt you. Or hurt themselves. Or hurt others. It all hurts. You get hurt enough, you learn to shy away from pain. So how do you get past that?

    Comment by Susan M — June 8, 2007 @ 12:10 pm

  5. Sam B: We may only get to express our infinite love across a finite group, but we can love each person in that finite group infinitely. More to the point. I don’t need to compare my love of my wife to the love I have for God or my Children. I love all of them, and my capacity for loving them is infinite.

    Susan M: Love does hurt, and so it is legitimately reasonable to limit our exposure to those that love us. However, many do get past that and love despite the pain. Christ loving with forgiveness from the cross comes to mind. Charity is pure love and all that…
    (BTW, I don’t think loving someone means either accepting or allowing negative behaviour. ) As to how we get past the pain, I think that is one of the fundamental things the Gospel and having the Holy Ghost is all about.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 8, 2007 @ 12:32 pm

  6. Matt, first, you need a definition of love, because I am fairly certain that you don’t mean romantic love. Second, I believe that you are saying we can choose to love or not to love. I simply disagree. I think we can make choices that will effect whether or not we love but not determine it.

    Your insistence on eternal nature of love, in this life, simply isn’t real. We don’t have infinite capacity in this life, in fact, we all likely have different capacities in this life.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 8, 2007 @ 1:18 pm

  7. I think Stapley has hit the problem here. Matt is defining love as something that is infinite. Sort of the charity version of love. It is a sort of “goodwill toward all of creation” type of love. In other words, I can easily love all of humanity in the sense that I wish them nothing but peace and joy and hope they will sow only that which will allow them to reap lasting peace and joy. But the truth is that there is really very little risk in that sort of “infinite love”.

    But loving people in the goodwill/charity sense is a very different thing than entering into a personal relationship with them. There are loads of people with whom I won’t enter a personal relationship with right now because there are loads of dangerous people in the world (murderers, rapists, etc.) So I can wish those people repentance and the peace and joy that comes from righteous living but I won’t be hanging out with them in my free time. Then again God isn’t spending a ton of time with unrepentant either. His arms are always open to receive them upon repentance but they can’t always have his spirit to be with them (an intimate and ongoing personal relationship) until they do meet the standards he has set.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 8, 2007 @ 1:40 pm

  8. J.- I’d define love as our willingness to have the thoughts, feelings, and cares of another be as valid and important to us as if they were our own. My Question to you is how do you define Romantic Love?

    I guess I do believe we can choose to love or not to love, based on my definition of love, and my belief in agency. What sort of love do you refer to? Are you referring merely to physical attraction?

    I think we can make choices that will effect whether or not we love but not determine it.

    I find this intriguing. I believe we do not determine who we “fall in love” with (who we are attracted to). I do believe we do determine who we “stay in love” with. (Who we choose to abide with and be dedicated to)

    Your insistence on eternal nature of love, in this life, simply isn’t real. We don’t have infinite capacity in this life, in fact, we all likely have different capacities in this life.

    I simply don’t agree in the case of love. It seems to me that loving my daughter doesn’t diminish my love for my wife.(In fact, it may “increase” that love.) Doing things with my daughter may diminish the time I have to do things with my wife, but that doesn’t diminish the actuality of my love.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 8, 2007 @ 1:43 pm

  9. Geoff J: I say I do have the capacity to love everyone on a personal relationship level, but not the opportunity, due to the limits of time, space, and sin (either their sins or my own sins.) We do live in a fallen world. That doesn’t eliminate my innate infinite capacity to love them, which I believe is determined by the spirit extending my own personal capacity.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 8, 2007 @ 1:51 pm

  10. Matt, the loving your daughter and your wife does not prove eternal love. It proves dual love. You can’t love someone unless you know someone. Knowing someone requires resources. We don’t have infinite resources. Eternal love is not possible in this life. QED

    It seems to me that you are trying to talk about God-like love, i.e., the type of love that God has for us. I believe that we can grow in love, but to truly have that love, we would need to be God, something that isn’t part of mortality. Consequently this type of love isn’t a matter of simple agency, though it is, as I said, effected by it.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 8, 2007 @ 1:53 pm

  11. J: By my definition love does not require you know someone to have what you call God-like love for them. (If knowing them were a requirement, by the way, you would love your parents more than your spouse, since you’ve known them longer…) As I said, Love is related to our “willingness” Willingness is actually binary. We are either willing or we aren’t.

    The God-like love we can have via the Spirit, which is infinite, is possible because the the Spirit is a member of the Godhead.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 8, 2007 @ 2:07 pm

  12. It seems to me the differences in this conversation are largely semantic. Instead of using the word love, what if we used eros, philia and agape?

    The love that is limited by resources, that of which Stapley speaks of, I believe is philia. But I think Matt correctly identifies agape. Agape is, essentially, pure selflessness. And the only limitations on it are those we place upon ourselves. And I’m not sure why eros is even part of the conversation here.

    Comment by Eric Russell — June 8, 2007 @ 2:13 pm

  13. Actually, it is correct that the more you know someone, the greater you can love them. This is why God can love so perfectly. Being willing has no basis here. I can want to believe in God. I can want to love someone. However, that wanting really doesn’t determine anything.

    To Eric’s semantics, agape isn’t God-like love without knowledge of the individual.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 8, 2007 @ 2:36 pm

  14. Matt: I say I do have the capacity to love everyone on a personal relationship level, but not the opportunity

    As I said, loving everyone on earth is not dificult to imagine — at least not in the “peace on earth good will toward men” sense. Having a personal relationship with everyone on earth is physically impossible. So I don’t think your claim that we can love everyone is in the least bit controversial when we understand what that means. It becomes problematic if one assumes we must have a personal relationship with someone in any way to love them.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 8, 2007 @ 2:44 pm

  15. I should also reiterate that there is very little personal risk in having the generic “peace on earth goodwill toward men” kind of love for billions of strangers. Entering personal relationships with people does entail risk and vulnerability though (as Susan mentioned in #4). And of course having overall good will toward people is not the same as actually sacrificing of ourselves on their behalf.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 8, 2007 @ 3:21 pm

  16. The human use of the word “love”, IMO, is overused. It reminds me of the new-age Christian “saved”. My immediate response is “yeah, so what”. Saying “I Love you” or “I’m saved” is meaningless without actions. I don’t believe the person that says “I love Austrailians” or “I’m saved” unless their words are backed up with actions. Once their actions are expressed there is no need to say “I love you” or “I’m saved”.

    Comment by Daylan — June 8, 2007 @ 3:33 pm

  17. It is a general principle of pragmatic philosophy that two beliefs that lead to exactly the same actions in every case are identical. We might likewise evaluate the degree of love that one has for others by considering the actions that he would take in a given situation.

    The problem is though a person might express a sincere regard for the well being of all of humanity, in actual practice one is almost inevitably going to be concerned more about an injury to his little finger than the fate of thousands in a distant country (apologies to Adam Smith).

    In one form or another, such concern is quantifiable. I would say that in general an emotion that is not quantifiable, in one form or another, is not real.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 8, 2007 @ 9:38 pm

  18. Literary illustrations of love are far more effective at bringing a better common understanding. One of my favorites is Shakespeare’s “King Lear”.


    I yet beseech your majesty,–
    If for I want that glib and oily art,
    To speak and purpose not; since what I well intend,
    I’ll do’t before I speak,–that you make known
    It is no vicious blot, murder, or foulness,
    No unchaste action, or dishonour’d step,
    That hath deprived me of your grace and favour;
    But even for want of that for which I am richer,
    A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue
    As I am glad I have not, though not to have it
    Hath lost me in your liking.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — June 10, 2007 @ 8:05 pm

  19. Jim C.,

    Oh, I agree – quantification of many things is relatively pointless. My position is simply that something that cannot be quantified, even in principle, is likely not to exist.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 10, 2007 @ 8:49 pm

  20. Perhaps Quantified is the wrong word Mark. Anything that is infinite can’t be quantified, from my perspective. Time is infinite, the lifespan of eternal man and God is infinite. I believe available space is infinite and the number of spirits is infinite. Do none of these things exist to you.

    My view of love is that our capacity to love can always increase. Thus our capacity to love is infinite.

    There are problems inherent in my reasoning on this, of course, as love can not be binary and infinite. I am still working through that.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 11, 2007 @ 1:02 pm

  21. My view of love is that our capacity to love can always increase. Thus our capacity to love is infinite.

    A couple of questions for you Matt..

    First, how can something that is infinite increase?

    Also, I think Eric’s point about “whoop-dee-doo, mate” is a good one. Why should an Australian person you’ll never meet in this life care right now if you have “infinite love” and thus he gets included under that umbrella? What good does that do him?

    Comment by Geoff J — June 11, 2007 @ 1:12 pm

  22. Good Questions Geoff. The more I think about this, the more entangled I become in my words.

    Let me try to rephrase.

    Our Potential Capacity to love is infinite. The amount of love we can have for others seems like it can always increase. Our Potential can not increase because it is infinite, but our current state can always increase.

    And back to Eric’s “Whoop-de-doo, mate” I guess I can only plead that I perhaps naively believe in the ripple effect, and that my attitude of love with the sphere of influence that I have has the potential to affect spheres around me, which in turn can affect the whole system… Something like the movie “Pay it forward.” I guess…

    Comment by Matt W. — June 11, 2007 @ 1:44 pm

  23. Matt,

    Time and space are special cases that if not absolutely quantifiable are at least differentially quantifiable – i.e. you can measure the difference between two points and so on.

    I do not think that ordinary individuals have the capacity to express or feel an infinite degree of an emotion at any given time. The future consequences of an action may be infinite when integrated over all future times, but the time snapshot of the degree of emotion must be finite to be considered a real quantity without serious problems.

    One might sincerely claim to love everyone in existence, but that is more or less an abstraction until reduced to the capacity to carry out that sentiment. A person deals with the difficulties of interacting with a finite number of individuals and cannot deal with all of them at once. Even a spiritual glow no doubt requires energy and drops off with the inverse squared of the distance.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 11, 2007 @ 2:15 pm

  24. Mark, up until reading your comment, I’d completely forgotten that love is commonly considered an emotion. I do not intend love in this sense.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 11, 2007 @ 3:16 pm

  25. What sense did you mean it in Matt? Certainly not as a behavior/action based on this infinite thing…

    Comment by Geoff J — June 11, 2007 @ 3:21 pm

  26. I dunno Geoff, as in my mind we can always love more fully and more completely. I do see love as a doing/being sort of thing, and not a feeling type of thing.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 11, 2007 @ 8:03 pm

  27. Matt,

    I do not mean to imply that love is nothing but an emotion – far from it. However, I would say that emotion (or rather the preferable, but underused term sentiment) is a necessary component of anything that can reasonably be called love.

    I can imagine the waxing and waning of the complex of attitudes, sentiments, and actions we associate with love. But the idea of a person having infinite love is not the sort of concept susceptible to rational discourse. One might well suppose given the evil in the world that infinite love implies infinite action.

    But barring a more mysterious hands off strategy than we can comprehend, the whole course of human history makes little sense unless the actual capacity of God to exercise love on behalf of his children is at all times finite, if ever increasing. Unlike John Calvin, I cannot regard the fact that a child is going hungry tonight as a testament to the greater glory of God.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 11, 2007 @ 8:46 pm

  28. I guess I am going to not worry about specifically what love is, and go back to trying to make the point I am trying to make.

    I give love to my wife. Yet giving love to my wife does not diminish my capacity to give love to my daughter. Other factors may diminish that capacity, but the giving of love to my wife itself does not. How much I love my wife and how much I love my daughter are not related in that since. Further, I give love to God by giving love to my wife and daughter.

    I do not need to be challenged by statements of whether I love my wife or daughter or God more. The love I give to all three is the same love and is not diminished in capacity by giving it to any of the three. In fact, by giving my Love to God, as Pratt notes, it actually increases the love I have to give to my wife and child.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 12, 2007 @ 6:21 am

  29. Daughters?

    Comment by Mondo Cool — June 12, 2007 @ 10:35 am

  30. Yes Of Course Mondo, don’t be such a quibbler!

    Comment by Matt W. — June 12, 2007 @ 10:48 am