We Are Empathy

Recall how Ptolemy used epicycles to accurately predict the movements of objects in the sky, yet he had no clue about the actual nature of those movements. We’re still in the Ptolemaic phase of social science.

Paul Bloom had an article come out in the WSJ today, The Perils of Empathy. It’s on the limitations and problems of empathy, a topic he has been writing about for years (it’s not even his first WSJ article about it).

The above quote is from the comments section, a response posted by Anthony Cusano, and it captures my own basic thought. As others noted, Bloom’s understanding of empathy is limited and so it’s unsurprising he comes to the conclusion that is limited. So, the problem is Bloom’s own confusion, based on narrow research and simplistic analysis.

There isn’t much point in analyzing the article itself. But I realize that such articles have immense influence given the platform. I’m always surprised that someone like Bloom, a respected ivy league academic and professor, would have such a superficial grasp. I’d like to think that Bloom realizes it’s more complex and that he is using rhetoric to make a point, not that this generous interpretation makes it any better.

Even though I love social science, this demonstrates a constant danger of trying to make sense of the research produced. Evidence is only as good as the frame used to interpet it.

Bloom is mixing up the rhetoric, perception, and experience of empathy. He treats empathy as something rather simple, maybe confusing it with mere sympathy. And he does this by ignoring most of what empathy consists of, such as cognitive empathy. Along with many of his allies and critics, he never puts it into its largest context. Human civilization would never exist without human empathy. This is because humanity is inseparable from empathy, as we are inherently a social species and there is no sociality without empathy.

There isn’t any grand significance in my writing specifically about Bloom’s article. The main thing wasn’t what was in it but what was left out of it.

The last thing I wrote earlier in the week was about the hive mind in terms of entrainment. There would be no human families, groups, social identities, communities, nations, etc without empathy. None of this is solely or even primarily dependent on empathy as direct emotionality and personal sympathy. An army marching has a shared identity that doesn’t require any given soldier to empathize with any other individual soldier, much less every single soldier. The empathy is with a sense of group identity that transcends all individuality. The soldiers in marching form grok this collective identity as a muscular bonding that, in the moment, is as real as their own bodies.

Empathy is the foundation and essence of everything that is human. It precedes and encompasses every other aspect of our humanity, including rational compassion. Posing empathy as a choice is irrelevant. There is no choice. Empathy just is, whether or not we use it well. We can’t objectively study empathy because we can’t separate ourselves from it. There is no outside perspective.

Let me conclude with some words of wisdom, “We are Groot.”

* * *

I Could Say that Paul Bloom is a Callous Idiot, But I Empathize With Him…
by Nathan J. Robinson, The Navel Observatory

Thinkfluence Man Pretends To Think Empathy Is Bad
by Albert Burneko, The Concourse

Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy and Morality
by Denise Cummins, Psychology Today

The one thing that could save the world: Why we need empathy now more than ever
by Roman Krznaric, Salon

Welcome to the empathy wars
by Roman Krznaric, Transformation

Can You Run Out of Empathy?
by C. Daryl Cameron, Berkeley

Understanding is Inherent to Empathy: On Paul Boom and Empathy
by Jeremiah Stanghini, blog

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and (Empathic) Understanding
by John Payne, EPIC

Outpost of Humanity

There have been certain thoughts on my mind. I’ve been focused on the issue of who I want to be in terms of what I do with my time and how I relate to others. To phrase it in the negative, I don’t want to waste time and promote frustration for myself or others.

I’ve come to the conclusion that we humans tend to consciously focus on that which matters the least. We are easily drawn in and distracted. Those in power understand this and use it to create political conflicts and charades to manipulate us. Sadly, the distance between Hollywood and the District of Columbia is nearly non-existent within the public mind. Americans worry about the division of church and state or business and state when what they should be worried most about is the division of entertainment and state, the nexus of spectacle and propaganda. I’m looking at you, mainstream media.

A notion I’ve had is that maybe politics, as with economics, is more of a result than a cause (until recent times, few would have ever seriously considered politics and economics as the primary cause of much of anything; even as late as the 19th century, public debate about such things was often thought of as unseemly). We focus on what is easy to see, which is to say the paradigm that defines our society and so dominates our minds. Politics and economics are ways of simplistically framing what in reality is complex. We don’t know how to deal with the complex reality, confusing and discomforting as it is, and so we mostly ignore it. Besides, politics and economics makes for a more entertaining narrative that plays well on mass media.

It’s like the joke about the man looking for car keys under a streetlamp. When asked if he lost his car keys by the streetlamp, he explains he lost them elsewhere but the lighting is better there. Still, people will go on looking under that streetlamp, no matter what anybody else says. There is no point in arguing about it. Just wish them well on their fool’s errand. I guess we all have to keep ourselves preoccupied somehow.

Here is an even more basic point. It appears that rationality and facts have almost nothing to do with much of anything that has any significance, outside of the precise constraints of particular activities such as scientific research or philosophical analysis. I’m specifically thinking of the abovementioned frames of politics and economics. Rationality must operate within a frame, but it can’t precede the act of framing. That is as true for the political left as for the political right, as true for me as for the rest of humanity. Critical thinking is not what centrally motivates people and not what, on those rare occasions, allows for genuine change. Our ability to think well based on valid info is important in society and is a useful as a tool, but it isn’t what drives human behavior.

By the time an issue gets framed as politics or economics, it is already beyond the point of much influence and improvement. Arguing about such things won’t change anything. Even activism by itself won’t change anything. They are results and not causes. Or at best, they are tools and not the hand that wields the tool nor the mind that determines its use. I’m no longer in the mood to bash my head against the brick wall of public debate. It’s not about feeling superior. Rather, it’s about focusing on what matters.

I barely know what motivates myself and I’m not likely to figure out what makes other people tick. It’s not a lack of curiosity on my part, not a lack of effort in trying to understand. This isn’t to say I plan on ending my obsessive focus on human nature and society. But I realize that focusing on politics, economics, etc doesn’t make me happy or anyone else happy either, much less making the world a better place. It seems like the wrong way to look at things, distracting us from the possibilities of genuine insight and understanding, the point of leverage where the world might be moved. These dominant frames can’t give us the inspiration and vision that is necessary for profound change, the only game that interests me in these times when profound change is desperately needed.

There is another avenue of thought I’ve been following. To find what intrigues and interests you is one of the most important things in the world. Without it, even the best life can feel without meaning or purpose. And with it, even the worst can be tolerable. It’s having something of value to focus upon, to look toward with hope and excitement, to give life direction.

I doubt politics or economics plays this role for anyone. What we care about is always beyond that superficial level. The inspiring pamphleteers of the American Revolution weren’t offering mere political change and economic ideas but an entirely new vision of humanity and society. Some of the American founders even admitted that their own official activities bored them. They’d rather have pursued other interests—to have read edifying books, done scientific research, invented something of value, contributed to their communities, spent more time with their families, or whatever. Something like politics (or economics) was a means, not an end. But too often it gets portrayed as an end, a purpose it is ill-suited to serve.

We spend too little time getting clear in our hearts and minds what it is we want. We use words and throw out ideals while rarely wrestling with what they mean. To shift our focus would require a soul-searching far beyond any election campaigning, political activism, career development, financial investment strategy, or whatever. That isn’t to argue for apathy and disinterest, much less cynicism and fatalism. Let me point to some real world examples. You can hear the kind of deeper engagement in the words of someone like Martin Luther King jr or, upon his death, the speech given by Robert F. Kennedy jr. Sometime really listen to speeches like that, feel the resonance of emotion beyond words.

When politics matters the most is when it stops being about politics, when our shared humanity peeks through. In brief moments of stark human reality, as in tank man on Tiananmen Square, our minds are brought up short and a space opens up for something new. Then the emptiness of ideological rhetoric and campaign slogans becomes painfully apparent. And we ache for something more.

Yet I realize that what I present here is not what you’ll see on the mainstream media, not what you’ll hear from any politician or pundit, not what your career guidance counselor or financial adviser is going to offer. I suspect most people would understand what I’m saying, at least on some level, but it’s not what we normally talk about in our society. It touches a raw nerve. In writing these words, I might not be telling most people what they want to hear. I’m offering no comforting rationalizations, no easy narrative, no plausible deniability. Instead, I’m suggesting people think for themselves and to do so as honestly as possible.

I’ve only come to this view myself after a lifetime of struggle. It comes easy for no one, to question and wonder this deeply. But once one has come to such a view, what does one do with it? All I know to do is to give voice to it, as best I can, however limited my audience. I have no desire to try to force anyone to understand. This is my view and my voice. Others will understand it, maybe even embrace it and find common bond in it or they won’t. My only purpose is to open up a quiet space amidst the rattling noise and flashing lights. All who can meet me as equals in this understanding are welcome. As for those who see it differently, they are free to go elsewhere on the free market of opinions.

I know that I’m a freak, according to mainstream society. I know there are those who don’t understand my views and don’t agree. That is fine. I’ll leave them alone, if they leave me alone. But here in my space, I will let my freak flag fly. It might even turn out that there are more freaks than some have assumed, which is to say maybe people like me are more normal than those in power would like to let on. One day the silenced majority might find its collective voice. We all might be surprised when we finally hear what they have to say.

Until then, I’ll go on doing my own thing in my own way, here at this outpost of humanity.

Compassionate Conservativism, Where Art Thou?

In talking to those on the political right, I wonder why compassion is such a difficult thing for so many of them. Just basic human decency, it’s not complicated.

They give me endless reasons why not to be compassionate. Imagine if they spent all that effort thinking up reasons to be compassionate.

Anyway, why do they need reasons to act morally, to respond with basic human sympathy and care? If they allowed themselves to treat other people as humans as worthy as themselves, what horrible thing do they fear would happen?

Lem On Humanity, Society And Meaning

Below are two passages from Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, a novel by Stanislaw Lem. It is an odd story, but I enjoyed the weirdness. There is plenty of conversation like the following.

* * * *

But I digress . . . Where were we? My field, yes. What does it mean? Meaning. And so we enter the realm of semantics. One must tread carefully here! Consider: from earliest times man did little else but assign meanings— to the stones, the skulls, the sun, other people, and the meanings required that he create theories— life after death, totems, cults, all sorts of myths and legends, black bile and yellow bile, love of God and country, being and nothingness— and so it went, the meanings shaped and regulated human life, became its substance, its frame and foundation— but also a fatal limitation and a trap! The meanings, you see, grew obsolete in time, were eventually lost, yet how could the following generations discard their heritage, particularly when so many of their worthy ancestors had been crucified for those nonexistent gods, or had labored so long and mightily over the philosopher’s stone, phlogiston , ectoplasm , the ether? It was considered that this layering of new meanings upon old was a natural, organic process, a semantic evolution— yet observe how a phrase like ‘great discovery’ is bled of sense, devalued, made common coin, until now we give it freely to the latest model of bomb . . . But do have some more cognac.”

And he filled my glass.

“And so,” continued Dolt with a thoughtful smile, adjusting his nose. “Where does this lead us? Demisemiotics! It’s quite simple, really, the taking away of meaning . . .”

“Oh?” I said, then bit my lip, ashamed of my own ignorance. He took no notice.

“Yes, meaning must be disposed of!” he said heatedly. “History has crippled us long enough with its endless explanations, ratiocinations, mystifications! In my work, we do not simply falsify atoms and doctor the stars— we proceed very slowly , methodically, with the utmost care, to deprive everything, absolutely everything, of its meaning.”

“But isn’t that really— a kind of destruction?”

He gave me a sharp look. The others whispered and fell silent. The old officer propped up against the wall continued to snore.

“An interesting observation. Destruction, you say? Consider: when you create something, anything, a rocket or a new fork, there are always so many problems, doubts, complications! But if you destroy (let’s use that inaccurate term for the sake of argument ), whatever else one may say about it, it is unquestionably clean and simple.”

“So you advocate destruction?” I asked, unable to suppress an idiotic grin.

“Must be the cognac,” he said, refilling my glass with a smile. We drank.

(Kindle Locations 2035-2053)

* * * *

“You mean, the Building is Nature itself?”

“Heavens, no! They have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are both ineffably perfect. And here you thought you were a prisoner in a labyrinth of evil, where everything was pregnant with meaning, where even the theft of one’s instructions was a ritual, that the Building destroyed only in order to build, to build only in order to destroy the more— and you took this for the wisdom of evil . . . Hence your mental somersaults and contortions. You writhed on the hook of your own question mark to solve that equation of horror. But I tell you there is no solution, no equation, no destruction, no instructions, no evil— there is only the Building —only— the Building—”

“Only the Building?” I echoed, my hair on end.

“Only the Building,” he echoed my echo, shivering. “This is not wisdom, this is a blind and all-encompassing perfection, a perfection not of man’s making but which arose from man, or rather from the community of man. Human evil, you see, is so petty and frail, while here we have something grand and mighty at work . . . An ocean of blood and sweat and urine! One thundering death rattle from a million throats! A great monument of feces, the product of countless generations! Here you can drown in people, choke on them, waste away in a vast wilderness of people! Behold: they will stir their coffee as they calmly tear you to shreds, chat and pick their noses as they outrage your corpse, and brew more coffee as it stiffens, and you will be a hairless, worn-out and abandoned doll, a broken rattle, an old rag yellow and forgotten in the corner . . . That is how perfection operates, not wisdom! Wisdom is you, yourself— or maybe two people! You and someone else, that intimate flash of honesty from eye to eye . . .”

I watched his deathly pale face and wondered where I’d heard all this before, it sounded so familiar. Then I remembered —that sermon, the sermon about choking, evil and the Devil, the sermon which Brother Persuasion told me was intended as provocation . . .

“How can I believe you?” I groaned. He shuddered.

“O sinner !!” he screamed in a whisper. “Dost thou still doubt that what may be a harmless conversation or joke on one level doth constitute , on another, legal action and, on yet another, a battle of wits between Departments? Verily, if thou followest this line of thought, thou shalt end up nowhere, since here anything, hence everything, leadeth everywhere!”

“You’ve lost me.”

“Treason is inevitable. But the Building’s purpose is to make treason impossible. Ergo, we must make the inevitable evitable. But how? Obliterate truth. What’s treason when truth is but another way of lying? That is why there is no place here for any real action, whether legitimate despair or honest crime— anything genuine will weigh you down, drag you to the bottom for good. Listen! Come in with me! We’ll form a secret alliance, a conspiracy of two! This will liberate us!”

(Kindle Locations 2333-2354)

Derrick Jensen (& Henry David Thoreau)

Playing for Keeps
By Derrick Jensen

“PEOPLE WHO READ MY WORK often say, “Okay, so it’s clear you don’t like this culture, but what do you want to replace it?” The answer is that I don’t want any one culture to replace this culture. I want ten thousand cultures to replace this culture, each one arising organically from its own place. That’s how humans inhabited the planet (or, more precisely, their landbases, since each group inhabited a place, and not the whole world, which is precisely the point), before this culture set about reducing all cultures to one.”

Endgame, Volume 1‎ (p 56)
By Derrick Jensen

“It is the BLU-82, also known as the Daisy Cutter. This fifteen-thousand-pound bomb, filled with an aqueous mix of ammonium nitrate, aluminum powder, and polystyrene soap, is so large that it can only be launched by rolling it out the rear door of a cargo aircraft, the MC-130 Hercules. The slowness of the cargo plane means Daisy Cutters can only be dropped when there are no defenses, in other words, only on those who are defenseless. A parachute opens, then the Daisy Cutter floats toward Earth. The parachute slows the descent enough to give the transport plane time to get away before the bomb explodes. The bomb detonates just above ground, producing what are called overpressure of one thousand pounds per square inch (overpressure is air pressure over and above normal air pressure: overpressures of just a few pounds are enough to kill people) disintegrating everything and everyone within hundreds of yards, and killing people (and nonhumans) at a range of up to three miles. General Peter Pace, vice-chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, put the purpose clearly: “As you would expect, they make a heck of a bang when they go off and the intent is to kill people.” Marine Corps General Trainer was even more specific about the effect of Daisy Cutters on the people of Afghanistan: “Besides the physical degradation, these — along with the regular ordinance dropped from B-52s — provide great psychological punishment, as victims begin to bleed from the eyes, nose, and ears, if they aren’t killed outright, of course. It’s a frightening, awesome assault they’re suffering, and there’s no doubt they are feeling our wrath.””

The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals (pp 83-4; April 11, 1852)
By Henry David Thoreau

“If I am too cold for human friendship, I trust I shall not soon be too cold for natural influences. It appears to be a law that you cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature. Those qualities which bring you near to the one estrange you from the other.”

Synesthesia, and Psychedelics, and Civilization! Oh My!

The Coast to Coast AM radio host George Noory just interviewed David Eagleman.  I only heard part of the interview, but what little I gleaned seemed quite interesting. 

Dr. Eagleman spoke of synesthesia.  He said that around four percent of the populartion has synesthesia which is a fairly high number (more common than scientists used to think).  He pointed out that it isn’t considered a neurological disorder because there is no negative consequences for those who have it and in fact there are benefits.  Those with this condition (who are called synesthetes) actually have improved memories because abstract information is grounded in sensory experience (this relates to localized memory which is an ancient mnemonic device).  There are many ways senses and concepts can link together and almost everyone experiences this in mild forms.

I wondered if it might’ve been more common in the past.  Maybe our modern rational ego has helped to compartmentalize the mind and thus created more clear demarcations separating perception and thought.  This possibly could relate to Julian Jaynes theory about the bicameral mind.  Jaynes theorized that a natural function of the human brain was hearing other voices, and that a shift in ealry civilization changed something fundamental in how our brain operates (or rather how we operate our brain).  The theory is that primitives used to hear voices outside of them and the world was experienced animistically.  As such, there was no clearly defined separate sense of self, no inidividual ego with a sense of being in absolute control.  Everyone still hears other voices in their head such as the words of advice from your parents, but we’ve learned to compartmentalize our sense of self and disidentify with these other voices.  Schizophrenics don’t have this ability.

This relates to psychedelics as well.  Psychedelics loosen the constraints that civilization has placed on our brains.  Any normal person under the influence of psychedelics will experience such things as synesthesia, animistic perception, external voices, etc.  Psychedelics are able to to do this because they are processed in our brains like any other neurochemical.  In fact, the most common psychedelic in nature  is DMT and the human brain produces it in small quantities.  Terrence McKenna theorized that psychedelics helped to develop human consciousness.  McKenna’s theory might find support in other theories that synesthesia is common to all humans early in their individual development (which might be a carryover from when humans permanently lived in such a state of mind).  Other theories claim that language itself originated in synesthesia as language began with concrete experiences and vocalizations that then became abstracted.

Further related to all of this are Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types.  People tend towards either thin or thick boundaries which correlate to personality factors, but certain substances can influence our boundaries.  Psychedelics create thinner boundaries and amphetamines create thicker boundaries.  Besides perceptual alterations, thin boundaries also are necessary for the simple ability to sympathize with others.  Interestingly, creative types tend to have thinner boundaries and have an extremely higher rate of synesthesia.

If you want to check out some of my previous analysis of the topic of human experience of the world, then here is a blog post of mine from Gaia.com:

http://benjamindavidsteele.gaia.com/blog/2008/8/enactivism_integral_theory_and_21st_century_spirituality

And here is some interesting info I found around the web:

 

http://www.psych.usyd.edu.au/research/papers/recentPapers/paper090720-2/

The recent surge of scientific investigation into synaesthesia, ably reviewed by Hochel and Milan (2008), is representative of an increasing recognition that our various sensory modalities are intimately interconnected rather than separate. The origin of these interconnections is the subject of an intriguing theory by Maurer and Maurer (1988). They suggest that all of us begin life as synaesthetes, with subsequent neural development reducing the connections among the senses. We present some historical roots of the idea that human life begins with the senses intertwined. The influential 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau described an early theory of child development in his book Emile (1762), hypothesizing that if “a child had at its birth the stature and strength of a man . . . all his sensations would be united in one place, they would exist only in the common ‘sensorium’.” A half-century later, a young Mary Shelley (1818) brought this idea into popular culture with the Frankenstein creature’s recollection of his early experience: “A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses.” William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890) expressed a similar idea. In this context, the assumption of many 20th-century scientists that the senses were largely separate appears to be an historical aberration.

 

http://users.lycaeum.org/~sputnik/McKenna/Evolution/

Perhaps the most intriguing of Terence McKenna’s fascinating theories and observations is his explanation for the origin of the human mind and human culture.

To summarize: McKenna theorizes that as the North African jungles receded toward the end of the most recent ice age, giving way to grasslands, a branch of our tree-dwelling primate ancestors left the branches and took up a life out in the open — following around herds of ungulates, nibbling what they could along the way.

Among the new items in their diet were psilocybin-containing mushrooms growing in the dung of these ungulate herds. The changes caused by the introduction of this drug to the primate diet were many — McKenna theorizes, for instance, that synesthesia (the blurring of boundaries between the senses) caused by psilocybin led to the development of spoken language: the ability to form pictures in another person’s mind through the use of vocal sounds.

About 12,000 years ago, further climate changes removed the mushroom from the human diet, resulting in a new set of profound changes in our species as we reverted to pre-mushroomed and frankly brutal primate social structures that had been modified and/or repressed by frequent consumption of psilocybin.

 

http://livingston.gnn.tv/blogs/29755/Graveyard_of_the_gods

Metaphor is based in the relationship between metaphier and metaphrand, strengthened by paraphier and paraphrand. A metaphor’s effectiveness in conveying meaning is not inherent to the structure of language or the words themselves, but the range of associations and connections between all elements (some of which are mostly unconscious) – the most receptive and accustomed to these elements will be most affected by metaphor. Cross modal abstraction increases the power of metaphor by bolstering the connective elements of the words we choose (the metaphiers and paraphiers) when attempting to express something – this probably why such as high percentage of artists display synesthesia (1 in 7 artists as opposed to 1 in 200 normal population).

 

http://www.gocatgo.com/texts/glob.rom.barfield.pdf

Abram (1996), McLuhan (1964), et al argue that the phonetic alphabet led to a kind of synesthesia, wherethe visual was transformed into written symbols experienced as sounds. Early cultures were auditory cultures, wherelanguage was only spoken. The phonetic alphabet enabled an efficient writing system. It also resulted in thediminution of memory as the sole repository of tradition, and the fixing of standardized and “official” versions inauthoritative text. Following this line of thinking, the spread of the corresponding consciousness tracks the spread ofliteracy and the technology of writing reproduction.