Empathy, Aliens, and Others: Confessions of an Empathy Skeptic Richard Warner Chicago-Kent College of Law firstname.lastname@example.org Skepticism I am an empathy skeptic. Not in the sense that I deny empathy is possible. I think: we often think we empathize when we in fact we do not. My goal is not to convince to you to join me in my skeptical vision. My goal is to use skeptical arguments—arguments I perhaps find too persuasive—to illuminate the nature of empathy. To explain my skepticism, I need to explain what I mean by “empathy.” Empathy Defined I mean what the dictionary means. Empathy is “understanding . . . and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another . . . without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Merriam Webster Online, http://www.m-w.com. Alien Twins It illuminates the definition to consider a situation in which empathy is simply impossible. Aliens from outer space finally arrive: The result of a parallel evolution, they are our cosmic twins. The look, act, speak, etc. just as we do; they have their Newton, Kant, Confucius, Keats, and so on. In particular: what causes gratitude, joy, fear, and so on in them is the same as what causes those experiences in us, and the thoughts and actions those experiences causes in them are the same as they causes in us. But: the feeling at the center of the causal nexus is not the same. The aliens’ neurophysiology is fundamentally different, with the result that while, their felt experience is utterly different from ours. We have never felt anything at all like what they feel. Alien Inaccessibility When the alien Keats writes, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” the joy to which he refers feels utterly different than the joy to which our Keats refers. And: We will never know what alien joy feels like. It is inaccessible to us. We will never empathize in the sense of vicariously experiencing what they feel. We will never know what it is like to feel as they do. Human Accessibility We—we human beings—are not inaccessible to each other in this way. We can vicariously experience another’s feelings and thereby know how he or she feels. I think the word “know” is appropriate here If you don’t, substitute “have better reason than not to think.” The point is: we have an epistemic relation to the feeling of other humans which we do not have to the feelings of the aliens. A Skeptical Argument I am going to argue that we do not know how others feel. The point is not to convince you of a conclusion it would be insane to believe. The point is use the argument to show that we do not adequately understand how we know, and to provide insight into what it is we do not understand. A Routine Case of Empathy When my grandmother dies, you imagine my reactions, feel a wrenching sense of loss, and infer that I feel the same where the ground of the inference is your assumption that our felt responses to the death are relevantly similar. My claim: you do not know that we are relevantly similar and hence that you do not know that I feel as you do. Such arguments provoke dismissive responses (and for good reason). But play along for now. An Analogy The argument rests on the following completely uncontroversial observations about evidence and knowledge: As you are walking along a forest path, you see a footprint. Two different species of animal, A’s and B’s, leave exactly that footprint, and it is equally likely that it was left by either (there are an equal number of A’s and B’s in the forest). You do not know which animal left it. To know it is an A, you have to rule out the possibility it is a B, and vice versa. You can do neither on the basis of the footprint alone. Two Equally Likely Hypotheses In the footprint case, you do not know because the totality of your evidence leaves two inconsistent hypotheses equally likely. I will argue that the same is true in the grandmother’s-death-sense-of-loss example. The two hypotheses: I am human being with feelings similar to yours. I am an alien twin with utterly different feelings. The Second Hypothesis To fill out the second--alien twin--hypothesis imagine that: After a nuclear holocaust in 1957, our alien twins (conveniently immune to radiation) froze fertilized eggs from the last survivors (all of whom subsequently died). In 1975, the aliens unthawed one egg as a test--you. Difficulties made them decide to postpone another test until 2020. To avoid the shock of your discovering you are the only human, the aliens let you think they are all human beings too. Conclusion: You Do Not Know The totality of your evidence cannot decide between two hypotheses: I feel what you feel I am an alien with utterly different felt experiences. Note: you have no more reason to think I feel as you do than you have to think I am an alien. It is not as if you had pretty good reason to think I feel as you do but that the reasons somehow rise to the level of “knowledge.” You could know. You could excavate Montana (where the eggs are buried), or dissect me. But you have not done either of these things. Significance Of This Result The result—or better, its solution--is philosophically significant. Indeed, it is just one version of the problem of other minds. The solution may in the future have some scientific significance. Einstein’s critique of Newtonian mechanics was partly based on epistemic principles. It is not implausible to think some future psychophysiology will require similar epistemic guidance. But that day is far away. I will turn to results of more immediate application. Deception As I confessed at the outset: I think we often think we empathize when we in fact we do not. One reason I think this is that I think people deceive us about how they feel. My point: Not convince you of my view of human nature But to understand how we know (if we do) that others do not as a rule deceive us. Method: produce a variant of the alien twin argument which replace the alien twin possibility with a possibility of deception. The Deception Possibility Having observed my behavior after the death of my grandmother, you believe that you know that I feel a sense of loss similar to that which you feel. The following is possible: I do not feel a sense of loss. I pretend to feel a sense of loss because doing so is easier than explaining the lack of feeling which I experience. Therefore: you are mistaken when you infer that I feel as you do on the basis of my behavior and the assumption that you and I are relevantly similar in our felt responses to death. The Argument Proceeds As Before The possibility of deception show you fail to know because the totality of your evidence is consistent with two hypothesis: I really feel a sense of loss I am just pretending This is not deny you could (you could eavesdrop when I voice my true feelings in what I think is my secret Shakespearean soliloquy). But: we often attribute feelings to others on relatively slim evidential bases. Othello Undercover agents and spies Intimates--spouses, lovers, friends The Conclusion and The Question The conclusion is that you have no more reason to think I feel as you do than you have to think I am pretending. This is not our attitude toward others. we think we have good grounds to think the other reveals true feelings, not sham ones. The question: how is it that—on such seemingly inadequate evidence—we are so often rightly confident that we are not deceived? I have some quibbles about the “so often,” but, as I promised, I am putting my skepticism aside. Seemingly Inadequate Evidence It bears emphasis that the evidence on which we ordinarily attribute feelings to others is often seemingly inadequate. It is seemingly inadequate in the sense that the totality of our evidence often appears to leave two hypotheses equally likely: The other feels as we do The other is just pretending. There are just two solutions: Appearances to the contrary, our evidence actually does favor the “really feeling” hypothesis, or we can know without deciding between the hypotheses. The Othello Problem A solution would solve the “Othello problem.” Othello is a disturbing play about systematic deception. The fact that systematic Iago-like deception is obviously possible challenges us to explain and justify the trust in others which underpins our relationships with them. To understand the basis of such trust would be to more deeply understand ourselves. Now Turning to Empathy . . . We have focused on the problem of other minds. Empathy—in the sense of requiring vicarious experience--has played a relatively minor role in the arguments. It does play a role: “I feel this way, so other feel that way too.” So why does vicarious experience seem so important? Important enough that we have a concept of empathy defined in terms of vicarious experience. The following example points the way to an answer. The Prime Minister’s Faux Pas Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell once told residents at a shelter in Vancouver’s Skid Row that she too had felt disappointment. She had once wanted to be a concert cellist. This is just plain silly—at least it is to anyone who imagines the residents’ sense of loss and disappointment having a depth, extent, and intensity unknown in the PM’s experience. The PM has never vicariously experienced that sort of sense of loss and disappointment. Beyond the General Category She knows the genus but not the species. She has felt disappointment, but not the variety the residents have experienced. When all you have seen are gold fish, you do not know what a shark looks like. Empathy takes us—can take us--beyond just knowing that our feelings and the feelings of others belong to the same general category. It can use our feelings to paint a portrait of another’s feelings in a way that allows us to know the specific felt quality of the other’s experience. Are We Like the PM? I think—in my skeptical way—that we are more like the PM than we are inclined to admit. In the sense that we over-generalize, and hence think we successfully empathize when in fact we do not. Not (necessarily) in the sense that we mistakenly think we empathize with the downtrodden. I present my argument, again not to convince you of the conclusion, but as a device for diagnosis. A tool to use to discover the epistemic basis of our attributions of feelings to others. Our Epistemic Situation We often want to grasp how others will feel. Not just the general category, but the specific feeling. We want people to “get” us in this way--friends, lovers, spouses. Typically, all we have to go on is our own felt reactions to imagined situations. We inevitably use them as the basis on which to predict how others will feel. We have no Comprehensive Manual of Human Felt Reactions Categorized by Personality Type and Circumstance to consult. So, we routinely generalize from our own experience. Two Hypotheses In many cases, the totality of our—relatively slim evidence—leaves two hypotheses equally likely: The other’s feelings have the same specific felt quality as ours The other’s feelings belong to the same general category, but have a different specific felt quality. Hence, we do not really know. An Example A chess journalist is watching the future world champion, Mikail Tal, bent in concentration over the chessboard, calculating a possible knight sacrifice in very complicated position. The journalist, who will interview Tal later, wants to prepare by trying himself to feel what Tal must be feeling. Drawing on his own chess experience, the journalist begins to feel a particular combination of elation and anxiety as the branches on “the tree of variations” grow with incredible rapidity in his imagination. He thinks he is feeling just what Tal is feeling. Tal’s Report of the Experience Tal did feel elation and anxiety as he too experienced the proliferation of variations, but also: Suddenly, I remembered the couplet by Chukovsky: Oh, what a difficult job it was To drag out of the marsh the hippopotamus. although the spectators were convinced that I was continuing to study the position, I was trying to work out: just how would you drag a hippopotamus out of a marsh? Eventually, I admitted defeat as an engineer, and thought spitefully: “Well, let it drown! I realized it was not possible to calculate all the variations, and that the knight sacrifice was purely intuitive. Since it promised an interesting game, I could not refrain from making it. Mikail Tal, The Life and Games of Mikail Tal How Often The Hippopotamus? The specific felt quality of Tal’s experience was quite different than what the journalist imagined. How often do we get it right when we try to divine the specific nature of another’s felt experience, and how often do we fail to recognize the hippopotamus? To what extent are our feelings a lens which reveals the specific quality of another’s inner life, and to what extent do we, in fact, confront each other as aliens?