Thursday, January 12, 2006

I empathize with your lack of empathy

Hector's father dies in a car accident. His friend, Anita, says "I know how you feel." Hector responds, You don’t know how I feel!"

Ramsey McNabb argues that "You don't know how I feel!" is an inherently contradictory statement: You would have to know how the other person feels in order to know that they could not know how you feel. If you can know how someone else feels, it is possible that they would know how you feel. If you can not know how someone else feels, it is possible that they are feeling what you are feeling and you wouldn't be able to know either way.

I think he is wrong for two reasons:

I. Empathy is not necessary to determine if humans can be empathetic in a particular situation.
It does not necessarily take empathy to know that people have different experiences, nor does it take empathy to see how different people possess different neural networks in their minds, that they react differently to similar events, with different mental responses to sensory input. Some of these things can be tested physically, rather than simply relying on philosophical conjecture. For example, as a real-world empathy test, you could run a CAT scan or MRI of three groups: those whose father just died; those whose parents are alive, but imagining that their own father just died; and a third group whose fathers died some years ago and ask them to imagine the time when their father died and feel like they once felt. I suspect, akin to other experiments that have been performed, when people imagine an event the mental response looks very similar to actually experiencing the event. But, if there is a difference between the categories, or -- just as important -- significant differences within each categories, you could then make a very plausible claim that a person does not understand how you are feeling when your father dies. Even if there is overlap between the groups, you can make the claim it is unlikely that any one person knows how you feel. While either Hector and Anita could be wrong, you could say that one is much more likely to be wrong than the other.

II. Empathy does not have to be all or nothing.
As a basis for believing that we can guess how other people feel, we assume that everyone has a similar mind, with similar responses to similar experiences. Then, we can make an educated guess that people that are relatively similar and have similar responses to experiences have the ability to empathize about those experiences. However, if a person knows that they could not comprehend a feeling before the event happened to them, they have reason to believe that other people cannot comprehend their feelings. Here, you are able to empathize to a limited extent, to being able to empathize with some feelings or experiences but not others. Thus, Hector can empathize with inability of Anita to empathize about his father's death.

For example: being sick. I am not sick. I talk to a friend on the phone who has the flu. I say "That's awful. I know how you feel," having had the flu last year. Then two weeks later, I come down with the flu again. I realize then that I was not truly understanding how bad my friend felt. Even though I had the flu two years ago, I could not properly remember how truly awful the feeling of having the flu is. A week after I recover, I remember that I could not properly empathize with my friend about a month ago, and soon I will again be unable to empathize with another person with the flu. However, I will be able to remember that I was unable to empathize. Thus, I know that I cannot know how another person is feeling when they are sick, and if they are like me, they cannot know how I am feeling during such an event.

In order to defeat your argument that denial of empathy presents a paradox, Hector only needs to believe that one can only empathize with the inability to express empathy.

No comments: