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Empathy, love and other delusions

09/05/2013

In Greg Egan’s 1995 novel Distress a brilliant physicist is on the verge of presenting her Theory of Everything before a prestigious international conference.

Her life is endangered by those who hold to a mystery-tautology metaphysics, fearing that when mankind comes to understand the fundamental principles of reality all will be revealed as a play of illusory opposites, which will promptly resolve into each other, bringing the universe to an end.

During a diversion we learn of the ‘Voluntary Autists‘, high functioning autistic people who decline to undergo the recently discovered autism cure.
Their argument is that the sense of social ease and intimacy experienced by neurotypicals is a self-delusional evolutionary adaptation that fools them into thinking it is possible to know another human being.
They don’t want to be forced to conform to the delusional dominant paradigm, even if it means a life of social handicap.

In the end the assassins fail, the physicist publishes her theory and the world ends.

Except it doesn’t.

Because even when everything else has been resolved and explained there is still something inexplicable.
There is still a mystery.
The Other Guy.

It seems the Voluntary Autists were right, it is not possible to really know another being.
Reality persists as the interface between heaven and hell.
Where heaven is complete understanding.
And hell is other people.

Of course Egan wasn’t really proposing a new metaphysics or claiming a special insight into human psychology.
He isn’t afflicted with Hubbardism.

“The intended messages of Distress were (a) even in the most radically subjective metaphysics imaginable, cultural relativism is still trumped by the fact that we all inhabit the same physical world, and (b) autism is closer to reality than solipsism”, is how he modestly puts it.

As it happens, radically subjective metaphysics have always appealed to me.
I’m just a navel gazing kinda guy I guess.
And I see no evidence in our shared physical world for a privileged cultural perspective.

So what if the Voluntary Autists are right?
What sort of cold, empty universe would that imply?

Well there would still be compassion.
In order to feel compassion it is only necessary to recognise there are other beings in the universe, not to think you can understand them.
Solipsists may surrender compassion, but not autists.

But what about empathy?
Empathy rests on the belief that you can, in some way, feel what another person feels.
Autists would reject that.
How can you know how someone else experiences pleasure and pain when you can’t even know how they experience ‘red’?
Why would your imaginings of their perspective bear any relationship to their lived experience?
You don’t die when you imagine someone’s death, why would you believe you could share their suffering by thinking about it?
Empathy would simply be the conceit that you really could walk a mile in another’s shoes.
A delusion.

And romantic love?
How could love begin to be possible?
In order to really love someone you would have to understand them.
To have an almost complete replica of that person in your head.

But how could you possibly hope to replicate even one other person in your head?
All you could really hope for is a roughly sketched caricature based on extremely incomplete observations, myriad assumptions and probably more than a smidgin of wishful thinking.
You would not be falling in love with another person but with the massively simplified image of which you are actually capable of conceiving.
You would be falling in love with part of yourself.
Romantic love would actually be a delusional form of narcissistic love.

If the real world ‘beloved’ shows too many aspects or behaviours inconsistent with the simplistic, idealised image held by the lover then the person would become a threat to the image.
An enemy of the disguised piece of yourself you have actually fallen in love with.

So in such a world, those who are ‘loved’ would be in constant danger of being hated if they threaten the image.
Because the image is actually part of the lover. To destroy it would be to break the lover’s heart.

What do you think?
Is your world like that of Egan’s Voluntary Autists?
How would you know?

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From → books, mysticism

16 Comments
  1. haha read my post named as Love, its the very first post I guess 😀 and i dont know how to post links in comments like you do o.O

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  2. so I am just going to paste one link here per day :p

    http://thankyousiralex.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/love/

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  3. My feeling is that empathy is easily possible, and that not only can we know what it’s like to be other people, we fool ourselves if we think we are NOT like other people. As long as there are other people I can’t be killed, because there are so many other people who see and feel as I do, and have the same sense of self, and the same sense of beingness.

    When we see children injured it’s very easy to identify with them and feel their suffering. Sure, they are not us and they are much younger, but our experience will largely encompass theirs, and so we can understand their suffering. Obviously, it’s much harder to go the other way around. A five year old isn’t going to understand the gloom of a middle-aged person contemplating their mortality while looking at a spreadsheet showing unequivocally that they are financially doomed.

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    • Seems to me there’s some dangerous assumptions built into that.

      If a five year old can’t understand you, how do you know that some people you think you understand don’t see you as a five year old?

      When I was a kid I was pretty sure the adults around me didn’t understand me and I still think I was right.

      I think I have the same sense of beingness as others – though there’s some assumptions there too. But I don’t believe for an instant I have the same sense of self.

      Other people just wouldn’t behave as they do if they had the same sense of self I do.
      It seems to me that a lot of abuse is perpetrated by people who overestimate their own empathy (e.g. those who think major depression in others is the same as indulgent self-pity in themselves).

      Ultimately we all have a complete and unique life path behind us and that is going to condition our perceptions, prejudices and emotions in completely different ways.

      It’s a miracle we can communicate at all.
      If we really can.

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      • OK, I think we are talking about somewhat different things. So, let’s go into it a bit more.

        You wrote, “If a five year old can’t understand you, how do you know that some people you think you understand don’t see you as a five year old?” If a five-year can’t understand someone older (I wasn’t the person in the example), of course there’s the likelihood that people will misperceive each other all over the place. That was just an obvious example. So, we agree on that.

        You wrote, ” If a five year old can’t understand you, how do you know that some people you think you understand don’t see you as a five year old?” That may or may not be the case, I am not talking so much about understanding someone else as essentially being the same underlying being whether you understand that or not. Generally, people don’t think of each other this way, so, as a consequence there is MORE misunderstanding.

        It seems like you are saying everyone might have the same “sense of beingness” but not the “same sense of self”. Here I think we are just talking about different definitions. By “sense of beingness” I mean the “sense of I” that animates each of us. Obviously I don’t mean what we believe about our particular persons, situations, habits and so on. I don’t believe I am Oprah Winfrey, but I believe that our sense of being an “I” in the universe is the same. Call is awareness or core self-awareness.

        You said, “Other people just wouldn’t behave as they do if they had the same sense of self I do.” That seems a really good point. To give an example, someone else might deliberately run over a lizard, but I would never do that because I like them too much, and I don’t want to hurt them. I might say that the person was just ignorant about reptiles or perhaps has a less developed self-awareness, which also means an awareness of the other living things around us… But I would assume that the person was perhaps misguided, or had different values than me, but underneath all of that we are the same, in the same way that two dolphins in a pack of dolphins are on some level intrinsically the same.

        So, I’m talking on a philosophical/spiritual level. Everything is interconnected and nothing is separate and unique unto itself. The idea of separateness is an illusion. So, there is one thing acting on itself. But on the level of personalities, which is a much thinner level, we can be very different.

        You wrote, “It seems to me that a lot of abuse is perpetrated by people who overestimate their own empathy (e.g. those who think major depression in others is the same as indulgent self-pity in themselves).” Perhaps those people are overestimating their “empathy”, which in the case you give sounds more like “sympathy”, and imagining the other people are essentially different from themselves, and assuming in a self-aggrandizing way that the problems and suffering of others are because of inferiority rather than misfortune.

        You wrote, “Ultimately we all have a complete and unique life path behind us and that is going to condition our perceptions, prejudices and emotions in completely different ways.” Why go only for one extreme? Of course there are going to be circumstances that cause people to have polar views and emotional responses, but there are also going to be common experiences that produce nearly identical responses. We can say that there is the full array of similarity and difference”.

        You wrote, “It’s a miracle we can communicate at all. If we really can.”

        That’s where language really comes in handy. If we are not communicating, what’s the point in blogging, or making art, or even watching movies. It would all be opaque or gibberish to us if we didn’t have enough common experience and knowledge to understand each other.

        Finally, only after reading a lot of Advaita, and other Hinduism, as well as Buddhism and other Eastern philosophy did I come to not only to agree on logical grounds with the idea that the “I Am” that animates Nisargadatta Maharaj is the same “I Am” that animates me, and that we are inextricable and interrelates parts of a singular whole, I’ve digested that into my basic assumptions when dealing with others. And I think it’s better for me than thinking others are fundamentally different and separate. For example, let’s say I bump into someone on the street and we are both under stress and pissed off, and soon we are swearing at each other and clenching fists. I will believe that the other person is likely feeling something similar to what I am, and part of me will be aware of how ridiculous the display is. I’ve actually had enough of these situations with traffic in China to go through with the charade of being angry and whatnot, while at the same time knowing I’m acting and that it’s ridiculous. If I assume we are the same at the core, I am more likely to successfully understand or empathize than if I assume we are fundamentally different and alien from one another. But I would never presume to know what someone else has gone through, or think I can understand their sufferings or joys if I haven’t experienced them myself under very similar circumstances.

        So, let me give you an obvious example of how it might be more dangerous to assume people are intrinsically different. When it comes to a bombing campaign, if we assume the people on the ground will suffer as we ourselves would, which would be abominably, we are less likely to go through with it. However, if we assume they are essentially different and alien from ourselves, we won’t think about their pain. We may even, as people have done with animals, convince ourselves that they don’t feel pain as we do.

        Sorry for the long reply.

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        • Most of our disagreement seems to be definitional.

          I’ve got pretty clear ideas of what I mean when I say ‘self’ or ‘ego’ and neither equate with what Hindus refer to as Tat Tvam Asi (or as Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj puts it ‘I am that’).

          There is nothing to understand about us being the same underlying being. There is no separation and nothing to communicate. It is a basis for compassion but not empathy. It does not animate. You cannot ‘deal with others’ from that perspective because there is no self or other (or perspective). It has no attributes whatsoever. Neti, neti …

          Though I feel I am not separate from anything else I have little idea as to how others sense this. Many seem completely oblivious but that just may be that they don’t communicate it in a way I am capable of understanding. Or perhaps my perception of underlying unity is a delusion shared by few.

          When I speak of ’empathy’ I mean the ability to put yourself in the position of another – as opposed to ‘sympathy’ which is to express compassion based on the notion of sameness whether or not you feel empathy (you may simply have faith you are fundamentally the same without imagining you can walk a mile in their shoes).

          I don’t know if empathy is entirely delusional but looking at social interaction around me from an aspie perspective a heck of a lot of it seems fundamentally misguided. In particular the privileged liberal middle classes of the west think they can put themselves in the position of the underprivileged when it is very clear they cannot. It’s the recognition of this problem that leads intersectional feminists (among others) to speak of ‘checking your privilege’.

          It seems safest to me to assume that empathy does not exist and to do your best to let others speak and act from their own position without imagining you can do so for them.

          As I say in the post, I don’t even know if I experience colours as you do. Your perceptual correlates for ‘green’ may be the same as mine for ‘red’ but we have just learned to label them the other way around. I sure can’t imagine how masochists can experience pain as pleasure but I take their word for it that they do.

          I honestly think there are people who just don’t experience what I know as ‘depression’ and it’s that, not lack of sympathy, that underlies some of the hurtful things they say and do. In a sense I’m in that position now. I actually did ‘pull myself together’ and defeated the disabling aspects of my despair. If it wasn’t for the fact I could never have done so before I did – if I’d attained the epiphany aged 15 instead of 51 – I might have spent my whole life convinced that ‘pull yourself together’ was good advice for those suffering major depression.

          Yep, it’s the common experience that forms the basis for ‘communication’, but given the experience is common, what if anything is actually being communicated. We both already know it.

          I think aphorisms and truisms are very interesting in that respect. You don’t have to be very wise to coin an effective desk calendar aphorism – you just have to know a few rhetorical tricks and be sensitive to ambiguity. But people who read them often come to recognise ‘wisdom’ that they already contain but have never articulated before. Nothing has been communicated but the symbol set. Maybe all ‘communications’ (beyond simple facts and basic data) is really of this nature. As a non-representational artist surely this has crossed your mind before.

          Regarding a bombing campaign, I have never been on the receiving end. I have no idea how it feels to others. I just know it feels wrong to me.

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        • Now we are getting into a more philosophical discussion. You say that neither “self” nor “ego” equate with the “I am” Maharaj speaks of. Neither would I equate “self” with “ego”, but “self” is frequently used by Maharaj to mean precisely “I am”. Here’s a quote: “I am only the Self , which is universal and imagines itself to be the outer self, a person. I am not an object in Consciousness but its source, its Witness, pure shapeless Awareness.” Here’s another, “In every body there is a dream, but the dreamer is the same, the one Self, which reflects itself in each body as ‘I am'”. I was using it in the same way as him, which is why I referenced him.

          “There is nothing to understand about us being the same underlying being. There is no separation and nothing to communicate. It is a basis for compassion but not empathy. It does not animate.” I can’t make sense of this. If awareness isn’t animate, than nothing is.

          You wrote, “When I speak of ‘empathy’ I mean the ability to put yourself in the position of another – as opposed to ‘sympathy’ which is to express compassion based on the notion of sameness whether or not you feel empathy (you may simply have faith you are fundamentally the same without imagining you can walk a mile in their shoes).” I don’t see why you are lumping a “notion” of underlying sameness with “sympathy”, when you can easily be sympathetic to, or pity, someone or something you believe is intrinsically different from yourself. Empathy is the “ability” that requires a real appreciation of underlying similarities.

          You wrote: “I don’t know if empathy is entirely delusional but looking at social interaction around me from an aspie perspective a heck of a lot of it seems fundamentally misguided. In particular the privileged liberal middle classes of the west think they can put themselves in the position of the underprivileged…” I wouldn’t assume empathic ability was restricted or prohibited to any designated “class” of people.

          You wrote: “It seems safest to me to assume that empathy does not exist and to do your best to let others speak and act from their own position without imagining you can do so for them.” I got you this time. Let people speak for themselves and don’t presume to know them better than they know themselves. I agree completely.

          You wrote, “As I say in the post, I don’t even know if I experience colours as you do…” You experience them a lot more like I do than like an octopus does. Empathy isn’t expected to be 100%, and how we register or interpret color, or how we feel about a given song or movie does not contradict an underlying core identity between people.

          You wrote, “Yep, it’s the common experience that forms the basis for ‘communication’, but given the experience is common, what if anything is actually being communicated. We both already know it.” People don’t write novels just to communicate what we all already know, and they do so on the correct assumption that the readers can identify and even empathize with the characters and the author. After reading hundreds of pages and using one’s imagination, there’s a pretty good chance that one can see through the eyes of the author. Indeed, that’s a big part of why people read literature. They certainly don’t do it just to have compassion, sympathy, or pity for the author.

          “You don’t have to be very wise to coin an effective desk calendar aphorism – you just have to know a few rhetorical tricks and be sensitive to ambiguity.” Ha, ha, ha, ha. I agree.

          In the end you talk about people exchanging a symbol set, that helps them understand in words what they already know. That may be true for aphorisms, but not novels, or even movies.

          One of my favorite movies is “The Killing Fields”. I saw it when I was 18 or 19, well before I ever came to S.E. Asia. One of it’s strengths is how much it can show a receptive audience what it was like to have been apprehended by the Kmer Rouge, and to glimpse the reality of the Vietnamese reporter who underwent the ordeal. I think the movie was made with the presumption that empathy was possible, that it tried to evoke it, and to a degree succeeded. Of course we can never know, for example, what it’s like to have a baby, but we can empathize to a degree. It doesn’t have to be 100% absolute to be useful, effective, and positive.

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        • I think I just “got” your angle on this whole “empathy” issue. The idea that someone else presumes they can truly understand someone else in their entirety, inside and out, or even know what they are going through at a particular time, is delusional and offensive. I get that, especially if it’s political and happens to be erroneous. Evangelism comes to mind. But I do think people can “identify” with others to a degree, and that’s a positive thing.

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        • Ah, maybe I’m wrong.
          Maybe communication is possible.

          Or did you really know that all along anyway? 😉

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        • I dunno’

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        • If there’s one message from the last comment that I can’t possibly emphasise enough it’s that there is no advantage in the phenomenological universe to realising Tat Tvam Asi. It doesn’t make you richer or wiser or kinder or more empathetic. If it brings you any additional knowledge it is not something you can express to someone who doesn’t already know.

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        • Why would one who realized the unity of everything not be at least a little less driven by selfish greed?

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  4. I’d forgotten that Nisargadatta Maharaj uses the term that way but I find his (or Maurice Frydman’s) choice of the English word most unhelpful.

    ‘Self’ only has meaning as a distinction from ‘other’ and so has no non-dual meaning at all.

    The problem many Westerners have with non-dual concepts is that they equate the transcendent with the superior (the notion of ‘God’ as a superior being has been ground into us from birth) so to then equate the transcendent with their own being, awareness or ego is not only to lose the very non-dualist mindstate that enables its realisation but to reinforce the conceit of separateness that keeps them from finding that realisation again.

    When all is one there is nothing to grasp so the notion of greed or non-greed (generosity?) just don’t come into it. There is no reason the realisation would change any aspect of your ego-self because there is nothing in the realisation that your ego-self can hold onto – for better or worse.

    However it is more than possible that the realisation will cause the ego-self to believe it has somehow achieved something and been improved – thereby reinforcing itself.

    To me the ego is essentially the constructed social being. The thing you imagine yourself to be in relation to other beings. Empathy is a function (or delusion) of the ego.

    The self incorporates the ego but includes awareness and the notion of subject/object. The idea that you are sitting at the centre of a sensory universe taking input from outside yourself. It is possible to extinguish the ego while retaining the self.

    My relationship with Mahakali is one between self and other. She is all in the universe that is not my self. However it is still delusional (as are She and I) in that our beings are contingent upon the mistaken notion that we are separate. If I am to ever attain moksha, Kali and I will reach it together.

    Tat tvam asi or Nirguna Brahman is beyond awareness, subject or object. It’s not just difficult (impossible) to express in words, it cannot be communicated at all because communication itself implies separation.

    With all respect I would suggest that watching the Killing Fields no more made you know what it’s like to be apprehended by the Khmer Rouge than watching dozens of war movies taught me what it was like to come under mortar fire before it happened.

    What it did was allow you to reorder the analogs of things you had already experienced into the narrative outline of the movie, which may have corresponded with the narrative outline of Dith Pran’s life during that period but definitely did not match his experiences. If there had been even a hint of his experiences transmitted through the movie I would suggest that many thousands of theatre goers would still be undergoing therapy.

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