by Oliver Young

Having the responsibility to make decisions is daunting. Whether in a professional or personal environment, every decision bears costs and benefits, and as we evolve as a species we increasingly delegate these responsibilities to technology and artificial intelligence. We have submitted to algorithms and analytics in order to offset the psychological burden of making decisions. Such decisions include applying for jobs, finding restaurants, buying clothes, choosing a movie to watch, and, most fascinatingly, finding love. Behind the two leading motivations for human decisions–hunger and fatigue–love is certainly the most complicated. We can eat until we are full and sleep until we are no longer tired, but there is something insatiable about love. Certainly eating and sleeping disorders exist, but love involves something that makes it unique: someone else.

This complication is articulated well by Jean-Paul Sartre in his most famous work Being and Nothingness. This French existentialist philosopher’s main thesis is that at the center of human existence is nothingness, and it is our decisions that give us being: “[…] man being condemned to be free carries the whole weight of the world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being.” [1] Sartre argues that in order to feel animate we must be recognized by others, thus giving being to our nothingness.

In love, this translates as a never-ending oscillation between wanting to recognize the other’s freedom to love (which is to say their nothingness) and wanting to control them and see them as just a beingor an object that we can control. This oscillation is felt simultaneously with our own desire to be chosen–or objectified–and loved, given gifts, attention, etc. Meanwhile we also want the person we love to choose us willingly, or without coercion. This torturous process results in an agony that we experience fairly regularly: “I wish he would ask me out already,” or “she better pick me to spend Friday night with and not her friends.” We need the other person to see us in order to feel that we exist, but we are also insecure and fear that we will lose that attention if we come on too strong. In this fear we resort to what is at our core: nothingness. For true love to exist, we feel that we must be the primary cause of the other’s freedom. To be their entire world, and to be the purpose of existence itself.

This movement back and forth between objectifying another and wanting to feel objectified is evident in all relationships. The anxiety that accompanies it is a natural feeling that gives love its tormenting qualities. But what happens when we forego this emotional tug of war in order to avoid such distressing situations? Would this cease to be defined as love? When we get accustomed to giving away our freedom to make decisions and trusting algorithms to produce a consistent stream of satisfying experiences, why not trust some code on the internet which promises to find you true love? How can we call something love when–by using apps or sites to help us find a partner–we have destroyed the very essence of what gives it definition?

As I was sitting with my girlfriend’s mother this past Thanksgiving break, reading the The New York Times, she told me that she enjoys reading the wedding announcements because they are a happy, deserved break from trying to follow stories printed on the front page. She pointed out to me that many of the marriage announcements had recently cited an online dating site such as eHarmony, JDate, or OKCupid for the reason behind their first date. Despite her skepticism that this was a successful strategy for finding love, she surmised that if everyone is doing it, then you’re bound to find someone.

Her initial skepticism, however, intrigued me. As a millennial, I grew up with the impression that such sites were finding love for people left and right. If you were striking out in search of love, why not try the Internet? You can find a good restaurant nearby to try and a shop to purchase the kinds of clothes you wear, so why not try to find a person that you can fall in love with and be off on your way to happiness?

Yet to me, and perhaps to Mr. Sartre, this is not genuine love. By outsourcing your ability to give yourself being, as defined by your actions, you are nothingness. And in that nothingness, you are no longer able to pair it with another’s being, which also does not exist, for they outsourced their ability to make decisions, and are likewise stuck in their nothingness. By using online dating services, you still live in nothingness, even with a match. You may see that person’s profile and acknowledge them, but you were given that profile by an algorithm. You could not possibly have being if your match is created artificially. Human faculties are necessary for existence; to have being one must be seen, experienced, and acknowledged through the flawed thinking and emotional processes through which we fall in love. For the point of being in love is to have a breakdown of reason and emotion, and to agonize over wishing that another person would choose you freely, without coercion, or influence of any kind, and to be the reason for which you have being in the first place. You want them to quite literally act as if you are the only thing in their life, and the purpose for which they live and choose. But freely.

If you fill out an online profile, list your likes, dislikes, favorite vacation spots, a few interesting facts, etc., you are promised matches in a matter of minutes. However, this process will not genuinely effect the all-important subjective vs. objective desires of love. For one, there is hardly an incentive to be completely honest about yourself on your profile, because you want to maximize the amount of matches. Your perception of what will result in more matches is the driving force behind your decisions to disclose or conceal your worst qualities. Second, the corporatization of love has eradicated the very essence of what it means to be in love. The process of using online programs to find love resorts to a sort of law of averages, where you are bound to find someone. This fails to allow individuals to foster the necessary anxiety that comes with wanting to control what another feels toward you, while also hoping that they will reciprocate your desire.

In resorting to apps and sites to find love, what is lost is the anxiety of the emotions and feelings that accompany love. The process becomes about replacing fundamental motivations to act as humans with computer code, thus eroding at what defines love in the first place: an awful journey where we hope to constantly give existence to and be given existence by those we love. A match with another person is not a product of them freely choosing you, and you freely choosing them. The only thing you are choosing is the algorithm you trust to accomplish whatever the company advertises its services as providing. You may choose a match to engage with online–under the premise that you are compatible because of an arbitrary coding process–but you are missing out on an essential human experience with another individual. A website or app can tell you where to find a place to eat or to sleep, but it cannot replicate the process of being in love. Technology might help us learn how to love better, but it should not be the means by which we find love. To fully understand and value love is to allow for the experience of anxiety about another person’s ability to freely and willingly love you unconditionally, not to freely and willingly be chosen out of hundreds of other matches because their favorite book is also The Great Gatsby.

Oliver Young is a senior at Miami University studying political science and philosophy. 

Notes:

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/tom-butler-bowdon/sartre-on-love_b_2956649.html