A Discourse on Empathy

If there is one thing I have learned in the past two years of studying philosophy, it is that the meanings we take words to have are often contestable with even the slightest of scrutiny. I was recently invited to take part in a discourse about ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’ and this learning held true once again.

When I say ‘contestable’, I mean in a specific sense. Broadly, we can look at definitions of these words and  come to a mutual, universal consensus, and that is what we basically do in everyday language and communication (otherwise we wouldn’t get through a sentence!). But when asked to consider these terms, we soon realise how nuanced, and sometimes divergent individual interpretations can be. Empathy, for example, can be defined in the following terms:

                “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.” (“empathy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 26 March 2014.)

This seems a good place to start, however, what the OED description lacks is any subjective account of what the word means. It tells us nothing of ‘how’ we empathise (nor is it intended to), but by striving to objectively define the term, it does offer us some initial insight.

 

There is a more commonly used, metaphorical description that I’m sure you’ve all heard before: ‘Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’.

We often find the use of metaphors in language to describe abstract concepts, perhaps because they tend to offer us a richer, novel, yet accessible way to explore an idea in terms we are more familiar with.  Just the simple idea of ‘walking’ the life of another conjures up sights, sounds, interactions and experiences – the imagination, consideration and appreciation of what it might be like to be somebody else.

But notice that in both the dictionary and folk definition of this term, no ‘normative’ description if offered, i.e. it makes no qualitative assessment of the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the act of empathising: its positive or negative virtues.

In considering this, I am led to thinking that empathy is in its nature a passive, innate ability within us. In my recent discussion I found myself saying  something along the lines of: “empathy just happens to me – I don’t choose it – but it does moderate how I then act”.

As a writer I often try (and actively seek out) the opportunity to empathise with characters and real world ‘like’ examples who I don’t agree with, or have little in common with. This is to help me try and understand their motivations, intentions and world view. Notice how the word ‘understand’ begins to creep in at this point. Of course, we can never fully understand anyone else’s states of mind, but empathy is the best tool we’ve got, and it is also necessarily intertwined with the imagination.

From this, I would propose, that judgement follows, and as a result, emotional states such as ‘compassion’ can be evoked. So although this blog, and my recent discussion, is titled ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’, maybe the order needs to be jigged around a little, (and a few words added):

 

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There may be a case to be made that ‘understanding’ and ‘judgement’ are one and the same thing, however, that needn’t affect the above, given their central positions in this chain of reasoning. The inclusion of ‘experience and imagination’ at the start of this chain is just an acknowledgement that without the sensibilities to experience and the ability of the imagination to ‘re-represent’ ideas in our minds, we could get no further anyway.

* I used ‘anger’ as another example in the ‘emotional state’ parenthesis to try and demonstrate that ‘empathy’ alone is no guarantee of positive outcomes, but I don’t think that this conclusion is in itself a negative one, or in any way lessens the importance of empathy.

Initial Conclusions

Perhaps the more we try and understand others, on an emotional and factual basis, the better judgement’s we will make, and the more apt our emotional responses may be. It seems obvious that empathy stands at the forefront of this process, but it needn’t be one way. If we imagine the above chain as a snake eating its own tail, rather than a straight line with finite ends, then we can ‘feedback’ our own resultant emotional states into our empathy, and come to new and more complex conclusions. (Think of a psychiatrist asking ‘how does that make you feel?’ and then that answer informing a new round of thinking which may shed light on deeper, more subtle emotional states once this is considered; a kind of ‘self-empathy’, if you like).

Similarly, it seems this process works in degree’s of fidelity: it’s quality is dependent on how much information we actively seek out about the subject (the preconditions). It seems obvious that the less know I about someone, the less I am able to empathise, but that will not prevent me from empathising to some degree. So, if we want to empathise better, we need to seek out and experience as much as possible about the subject, or our resultant emotional states may be misjudged, underdeveloped or erroneous. (I would argue that this is the cause of much hatred and misunderstanding in the world – not a lack of empathy, but an underdeveloped and ill-informed empathy – a twisted or broken empathy, if you like).

Maybe, therefore, a project to understand, measure, and even look (in some cases) to repair empathy, would need to consider the range of experiences and information available (and readily accessible) needed for people to build a greater knowledge, and as a result, experience a better quality of empathy and a more apt emotional connection with others in the world.

Authors plea!

Please feel free to dispute, elaborate and comment on this initial exploration of empathy as I have set it out here. I enjoy the use of philosophical methods to explore concepts, but I also get frustrated with some approaches that purport to ‘know’ the answer. The value of an exercise such as this (I believe) is to throw up new considerations, tease out assumptions, and lead to continued discourse about the topic in the hope of shaping ‘real world’ activities and inform considered thinking and outcomes. For example, maybe ‘empathy’ is the process I’ve set out above, not just part of it – or maybe it’s nothing like this at all! There is still a lot to be discussed and explored here – this is barely a scratch on the tip of a massive iceberg (there goes those metaphors again!).

Thank you for reading.

Garry Abbott

 

Web:                     www.garryabbott.co.uk

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In search of the immaterial: A short discourse on the mind.

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Prior to the enlightenment movement of the late 17th and 18th Centuries (a movement towards rationalist logic, usually characterised by empirical research and reasoning) there was a place in philosophy (and science in general) for the concept of ‘immaterial substance’, or the soul if you prefer.

This view dates back to Aristotle (and beyond) and still persists today in some branches of philosophy, but to a much lesser degree than the alternative ‘mind-function identity theories’ that were popularised by scientific rationalists (in which all states of the human mind, our capacity for reason and such like, are equated purely to the physical function which performs them, and nothing else).

To put it in more accessible language, the prevailing theories (that have undoubtedly been of use to science) is that we are merely a bag of bones and matter, nothing more, whereas dualists (as coined by Rene Descartes and following in the Aristotelian tradition) believe there is an unseen, (as yet) immeasurable quality to our being that works in conjunction with the body but is a distinct entity.

One of the features of the enlightenment and subsequent thinking is that it allows for atheism and the absence of a deity, indeed this is a prerequisite for much of the work it achieved. Prior to this it was not only a cultural assumption that had to be built into theories, it was often enforceable by law and punishment.

Due to this there has been a kind of conflation between the notion of the immaterial soul and the existence of deities in subsequent discourse. To believe one, the assumption goes, is to believe the other. Furthermore, to believe in the notion of deity, one is usually assumed to be prescribing to one of the many cultural doctrines that have formed around this concept. So, it follows in our culture for example, to believe in the immaterial, is to believe in a deity (or deities), and to believe in deities is to believe in the ‘God’ from the Christian tradition and to ascribe to the teachings and laws of the Bible.

This makes having a sensible debate on the issue of the immaterial soul rather hard to have, as the existence or otherwise of a God and the cultural implications (perceived or otherwise) that these beliefs have caused are contentious issues.

The trajectory of logical empirical thinking is to ‘reduce’ (reductionism). So for the functions of the mind responsible for high-reasoning and creative thinking (key areas of study for philosophy as these abilities seem to mark us out from other biological life), a reductionist can simply scan a human, ask them to make a series of reasoned or creative decisions, and identify areas of electrical activity in the brain that appear to correspond. The hope of such endeavour is that we can then make statements such as “when the human mind is reasoning about x, the brain state y is evoked, therefore, reasoning about x is the same thing as brain state y” and so on.

As a result, we have the ‘demystification’ of the human condition. Identity matches are catalogued, described and reproduced as reference for further study. As science continues to advance, the ability to trace these states down to smaller and more specific conditions increases. In theory, we should eventually have a blueprint for a human mind and be able to understand from scientific methods alone, all we are thinking, feeling and how we view the world.

The problem is, we haven’t arrived at this unified theory, and many would argue, each layer of reduction reveals such complex interrelations between all the component parts, that in fact, it becomes harder and harder to comprehend the whole in any useful way.

I will try and demonstrate what I mean with a little diagram.

M

/          \

A1                           A2

/\                            /\

A1(a)     A1(b)             A2(a)  A2(b)

/\             /\                    /\         /\

A1(a)x /A1(a)y    A1(b)x /A1(b)y  A2(a)x/A2(a)y  A2(b)x/A2(b)y

Okay, so my mathematic conventions may not be strict here, but hopefully it should follow. If we say M = mind (the thing we are trying to look for a unified theory of), and A1 and A2 represent such a simple binary decision matrix for an action-decision, such as ‘Shall I go for a walk?’.

So it could follow along these lines:

A1 = I will go for a walk. where

A1(a) = Is it cold? And A1(b) = Is it warm?

A1(a)x = Do I need a jacket or A1(a)y = Don’t I need a jacket?

A1(b)x = Do I need sunscreen or A1(b)y = Don’t I need sunscreen?

Where:

A2 =  I won’t go for a walk and

A2(a) = Should I go later today? And A2(b) = Should I cancel the idea?

A2(a)x =  Do I have anything else to do later today? And A2(a)y = Is the rest of the day free?

A2(b)x = Does not going for a walk make me feel good? And A2(b)y = Does not going make me feel bad?

And so on. Now the point of this little diagram is to demonstrate that even with a massive simplification of a basic decision tree like this, it is hard to see how identifying each mind state involved with each variable in isolation is of much use to anyone. If I spent my life studying the part of the mind that is responsible for A2(a)x (Do I have anything else to do today) – I am not going to be much closer to understanding what it is to be ‘M’ having decided to go for a walk.

Okay, so perhaps we don’t want to be looking in isolation then, no, we need to understand how each component relates to those above and below it in the chain of reasoning. But remember that this is a ridiculously simple rendering of a decision that pays no attention to multiple factors that could be considered. For the sake of demonstration I have manufactured a binary example, but in reality, we would be checking (consciously or not) a whole series of considerations, each leading to the unified ‘M’, and each with their own multiple conditions. On top of all that, our decisions seem to be modified by moods and emotions, which can alter states of thinking for none rational reasons and lead to unexpected outcomes – where do they come into the picture?

Now the purpose of this isn’t to ‘set the bar’ or turn away in defeat from nature’s complexity. This approach (as I mentioned) has led to some broad and specific advancements in science and psychology. What I am attempting to demonstrate it that as an absolute approach to understanding what it is to be mindful, to be of a mind, it is inadequate.

It strikes me that when considering the mind, we need to be expansive rather than reductive, in order to make sense of it, find out it’s limitations and abilities, and appreciate the holistic functions it has so brilliantly evolved. If we compare this to something that we do understand fully, like a television (because we invented it), it might make more sense. After all, a TV is nothing more than a series of lights being triggered in a particular pattern and order, repeatedly, to give the impression of a unified set of images. The show on the TV may be the most informative and life changing documentary ever to be broadcast. I am unlikely to get much from it if I am concentrating on one specific diode, relating to one specific pixel, in one corner of the screen. Indeed, learning that that one pixel goes from green to red to blue, isn’t going to tell me anything about the show.

But TVs aren’t like human minds are they, because a TV, without charge or signal, is just a vessel waiting to be activated by a force from somewhere else. To all intents and purposes, a force we can’t usually see, that carries information useless to anything but the device designed to receive it. We would find the notion of a TV operating without the added element of a signal to be ridiculous, and in comparison to the operations of the human mind, it is simple to the point of primitive.

What then if we replace the TV with a computer? Much the same in basics, but with added complex functionality. The reason I mention this is because one of the prevailing reductionist theories of mind is the ‘Computational Theory of Mind’ (CPM) – in which, as per my diagram above, the hope is to find the ‘programme’ behind our mental states in such a way that  is useful to the sciences. But as I have hopefully raised here, there are at least two problems:

1.            The programme of reduction in the time given:

A simple analogy should work here. You sit two people down in front of two identical computers and ask each to make use of it. One (the reductionist), proceeds to dismantle the facia, remove the motherboard and study the component parts. The other, the expansionist, switches it on and starts experimenting with the buttons and functions that have so obviously been presented for such use.

Now, in time, the reductionist may emerge with a detailed knowledge of the machine, down to the last microchip, but in the end, they are still going to have to switch it on and use it as intended to find out the rest. In the time given is important here, because when it comes to the human mind, the most complex computer we know of, if we give too much time over to the reductionist and neglect the expansionist, we may be missing valuable insight.

2. The implication of outside force.

What strikes me about the CPM and the whole notion of an ‘inner-language’ of thought, is that it leads logically to an agent, capable of using the mind in the way we would use the computer. Yes we can explain where the energy comes from to power it (we are after all, just walking furnaces of sorts), but that wouldn’t be enough to explain a computer. A power source is just one thing, we also need a useful functionality and an operator for it to mean anything. Now, I’m not going into design theory here, I’m sure the brain has evolved, but we do end up with a causal circularity between what is the programme, what is the programmer, and who is using it.

I’m not saying that proves anything, but if the reductionist programme is going to insist on using the computer analogy as a basis for theories, does it not have to solve this problem?

Dualism on the other hand, could explain this problem. As I said before, we would find it absurd for a TV to work without having a signal to contextualise the functions. And for the computer, if the programmer is evolution, the agent using this programme could be the immaterial substance. Drop a TV on an island isolated from the rest of humanity but within range of a transmission tower. Give it an incorporated power source and make it constantly ‘on’. Would we believe that the inhabitants of this island (presuming they don’t yet understand about frequency transmissions or TVs) would be wrong or stupid  to come up with the theory of a designer and a source substance? The fact that we don’t yet understand the spatial-temporal (or even dimensional) source of this agent, doesn’t imply it isn’t there.

Neither does it prove it is there, but the point of all this is to open up some more ideas and thoughts on the subject. I am not one for absolutism in theory, and I find that assumptions against dualism have crept in to modern philosophy and culture to a degree where we may be in danger of ‘taking the computer apart’ without even switching it on.

As with all things a balanced approach is preferable. We should perhaps give as much credence to those looking to expand our minds by exploring its functions (through meditation and spiritual practice for example) as those looking to reduce it to component parts. In the end it is all part of our thirst for knowledge and each is useful.

Thanks for reading. I would be happy to respond to any arguments or thoughts on these ideas.

Some thoughts on emotions – Friday Philosophy!

So, for the last four weeks or so I’ve been working my way through my Open University course material on the philosophy of emotions. It’s heavy-going stuff, and I definitely will need to revise the multitude of philosophers and theories covered, but as a revision exercise, and something I thought you might find interesting, here are some initial thoughts – based on a revision question posed at the end of the course-book.

Now, I’m not going for an academic essay here, these are my instinctive opinions, quickly formed. So no references or quotes; I want to see what comes out when I start writing my answers. Philosophy is often about the testing of intuitive response, and so, if you are interested in this, see how you think and feel about the topics and my answers.

Does it make sense to describe someone as being justified in feeling sad, jealous or loving a particular person?

Here we are talking about ‘justification’ when it comes to rational thought versus emotion. Much of this topic revolves around whether rational thought requires or is inhibited by emotion. To that ends: what does the emotion serve? What does it do that pure rationality cannot? (if anything).

Strategically, maybe feeling sad or jealous has a long term rationality. It may not help the immediate situation, and it could be argued that the physiological and psychological effects of sadness/jealousy are not very practical in the short term. i.e. When something bad happens, it would practically make more sense to deal with arising issues in a very ordered calm and measured way – not something that acute depression or seething envy is particularly good at doing. However, the event, the content of the reason you are sad/jealous, is the culmination (presumably) of causal factors, both internally and externally, that have led to the emotional response.

For example, I am jealous of another person’s success – this is linked to my beliefs about what I feel I am worth, the opportunities I’ve encountered, my abilities and so on. So, if I get passed up for promotion, and I believe it is unjust somehow (whether true or not), I may experience jealousy. In the short term, that doesn’t serve me well. It is an unpleasant emotion, it is likely to negatively affect how I interact with and think about that person and situation, and usually not in a very constructive fashion (being jealous about something rarely enables you to do anything about it – it can lead to resolve, but resolve doesn’t have to follow jealously, it can be independent and born of ambition, so jealousy seems an unnecessary step).

However, if we are creatures that learn from experience, if we are ‘in touch’ with our emotional responses, the unpleasantness of a jealous reaction to a situation may help us with future desires. After all, not to be jealous, implies an understanding of what jealousy is in the first place. If I go for future promotions and remember how my attitudes towards the last attempt led to a terrible envy, I will try and avoid those triggers this time. I will make sure I am as prepared as I can be, I will make sure my beliefs about the situation are well founded, and I will mentally prepare reasons why, if unsuccessful, either the situation or my abilities are the problem, not some negative paranoia or favouritism (I may well conclude that there is a negative element, but if so, logically I should want to avoid being in that situation in the first place).

So, to look at the alternative, what if jealousy is all bad? If you believe this then the logical ideal would be to not get that ‘shock’ of jealously when we encounter a situation like described. What would the result of that be? I would propose that not to feel jealous in certain situations would result in us fruitlessly repeating negative decisions and becoming dogmatic in our attitudes. There is perhaps a certain positive conditioning that arises from negative emotions. This doesn’t mean that it only takes one bout to be ‘cured’ of negative emotions and behaviours, just that each exposure should help us to learn something new and tailor our beliefs and attitudes to prevent, or reduce the severity of, a reoccurrence if possible.

We are multi-faceted beings, and I like the idea that we respond to all perceptions and thoughts with every emotion, it is just that some are so slight we don’t even register them most of the time, conditioned as we are to expect a surge in one over the other in less complex situations. This could explain why ambiguous events lead us to ambivalence, because more than one emotion is competing for our attention – leading us to make choices and take gambles on which may serve us best. But emotions, or logic, can never actually know which choice is right (epistemology shows us that there is no such thing as true future knowledge) and therefore all must hold court with our judgements to some degree.

So those are some initial thoughts on ‘negative emotions’ (feeling sad, jealous) – but what about loving someone? Can it be cognitively justified to love someone? This may seem a counter intuitive question (it seems obvious really) – but think about the judgements people make for love, the personal sacrifices etc… and then think about how that stands against rationality (if you imagine rationality to mean a practical and logical response) and it does a pose an interesting question. However, I still think the answer to this is yes, it is justifiable, and rightly so. Some philosophers completely take ‘love’ out of the category of ‘emotions’ as it has such unique properties, and requires a fair amount of classification (you can love your friends, family and spouse, even your car! But though we linguistically use the same term to describe these, they are qualitatively different) – so it can be argued it deserves its own category.

I’m not so sure about the categorisation of ‘love’ at this point, but I certainly think it is a justified response. It tends to (ultimately) lead to positive outcomes for the majority of people (stability, companionship, children, cooperation, comfort etc…) and any negative effects we might associate are probably either due to the mistaken belief that love exists when it doesn’t, or a categorisation mistake (mistaking the acts of lust for acts of love for example). So, yes, it seems cognitively justified to me.

In conclusion, I suppose my overriding feeling from just this small inspection is that emotions do play an important part in our reasoning, though I am not yet down to the finer details or whether or not they are actually part of or the same thing as our reasoning (I’ll save that for my proper essay next week!). But I also think that our emotions are not just simply evolutionary ‘left-over’s’ (a kind or pre-vocal language) that get in the way of justified reasoning and that we would be better without. Quite the opposite – I do believe they came first and led to stronger ‘base’ behaviours (fight or flight), but only when that was reflective of our evolutionary requirements at the time. As we have become socially and intellectually more complex, our emotions have evolved also, and perhaps when we feel that they are not serving us well in the modern world (who wouldn’t want to not be angry in a traffic jam?), it has more to say about the modern world than it does our emotions being ‘throw-backs to a simpler time’. If more of us made emotionally led choices, or were allowed to make emotionally led choices, perhaps we would see less anger, stress, frustration and depression as a result. But this is not because our emotions are not suited to the modern world, it is because many aspects of the modern world are not suited to our emotions.