Monthly Archives: September 2015

Limits of Empathy

What sounds more appropriate if one wishes to express solidarity or comfort; “I empathize with you”, or “I sympathize with you” ? I would rather hear sympathize myself, and according to a conversation between Sam Harris and Paul Bloom, one should be aware of those who use the former, as empathy has what Bloom termed as ‘moral limits’

The distinction may be easier to see once we define our terms properly. Sympathy can be described as feelings of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, while empathy is merely comprehending the emotions and mental state someone is in. If we make the assumption that feeling pity on someone else’s behalf requires an understanding of their situation, it follows that sympathy is a special form of empathy. Simply put, all sympathy has a empathetic basis, but empathy is not confined to feelings of compassion.


Bloom asks us to consider the case of the generic high school bully. The reason bullies are good at what they do is precisely because they can accurately comprehend how their actions will affect their victims. They use empathy as a way of prediction, where their intuitions are used in a negative way. Another example of toxic empathy is that of a psychopath. If I were to ask an audience if psychopaths had empathy, they might be tempted to deny that psychopaths could possess such mental capacity. But to execute deception, one needs empathy. Knowing which mental states produce more gullibility than others, and knowing how to identify when those states arise, requires an understanding of mental states and emotions. To manipulate, one needs empathy. Again, certain mental states may create a psyche that is more submissive, and identifying these states requires a comprehension of the victim. For an example that is telling yet entertaining, re-watch The Dark Knight, playing close to how the Joker makes sinister use of empathy.


I think a reminder of the word ‘moral limits’ would be useful to repeat in my conclusion, because empathy is moral neutral, rather than morally evil or kind. Consider by analogy, the science of warfare. War provides incentives for innovation of technology. Computers, for example, were originally an invention for the military. But the science of war also provided us with ICBMs and agent orange. The ethics of the science were determined by the circumstance, and by what kind of software was running in the brains of the scientists.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Morality

moral crocodile-ploverPsychology

The psychology of morality can be viewed in terms of an evolutionary perspective. Evolution has conditioned us to behave morally, because it has a few beneficial products worth putting on the table. First, it aids in our survival. Over 98% of all species that have ever been on this planet have gone extinct, and I attribute some of our success as a species to our ability to form tribes, work in groups, to love one another,  and to act morally. Another positive aspect is that being moral increases our own happiness. The website Digital Journal ponders over a study that claims having no friends has similar effects to smoking 15 cigarettes daily. I would consider moral behavior towards people as an essential component of friendship. One can also look at morality from a utilitarian perspective, which is to say “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.” This is observable in other species besides homo sapiens. Egyptian plovers have been known to fly into the mouths of crocodiles in order to eat the food stuck in between the reptile’s teeth. Instead of eating the bird, the crocodile allows the bird to eat, as he gets his teeth cleaned in the process. So morality can be a means to an end, but heartwarming no less.


The best philosopher I know on the subject of morality is the author Sam Harris. In Sam’s book, The Moral Landscape, he attempts to describe how morality relates to changes in conscious creatures. He uses the example of a universe only constituting rocks. Since rocks are not conscious, there cannot be anything known as a moral decision. If rocks cannot feel joy or pain, there is no basis for morality. So conscious life is needed for morality. But who’s to say which conscious creatures deserves the more attention than others? Harris argues that the complexity of the creature is the answer. The more intricate a creature is in terms of a brain and nervous system, the more pain or happiness it can feel. The larger the delta between the best possible scenario and the worst possible misery, the more careful it should be treated. This would explain why we kill flies without hesitation but are more distressed about killing mammals.



The Psychology of Meditation

Although New Age religions have tried to create a novel monopoly on meditation and spirituality, flaunting their peculiar diets and magic crystals, meditation isn’t a practice without real, physical results. For example, consider the brain’s default mode network, (or DMN) which composes the brain’s midline regions, mostly the medial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex. This chunk of the brain is responsible for, adefault-mode-networkmong other things, our capacity for self representation. When we think about ourselves, the activity in this area increases. Making judgments about yourself also increases activity in the DMN, as opposed to making judgment’s about others. Those who focus on loving kindness meditation, also called metta, have shown decreased activity in the DMN. There are correlations between the years of experience meditating and the decrease of activity in the DMN.

There are other areas of the brain that can also be affected by meditation. The practice is linked to increased gray matter thickness and cortical folding in the brain. Just like with the DMN studies, these changes tend to correlate with years of experience. While these studies can only be associations, and DO NOT imply causations, it seems to explain the kinds of subjective and emotional changes that seasoned meditators tend to speak about.

The Philosophy of Meditation

Most meditation practices have been fostered in either a Hindu or Buddhist context, which explains why meditation novices would rather flock to Nepal as opposed to Rome to learn the secrets behind meditation. The Buddha spoke quite persistently about consciousness and its connections to meditation. What was distinct about the Buddha was the way he viewed consciousness as a selfless vat of stimuli; that we experience, rather than perform. This distinction, he argued, was the cause of mass confusion among the human race. Consider the parable below .

“ A man is struck in the chest with a poison arrow. A surgeon rushes to his side to begin the work of saving his life, but the man resist these ministrations. He first wants to know the name of the fletcher who fashioned the arrow’s shaft, the genus of the wood from which it was cut, the disposition of the man who shot it, the name of the horse upon which he rode, and a thousand other things that have no bearing upon his present suffering or his ultimate survival.”

What the parable is telling us is that the man isn’t focusing on what’s important in the present moment. He’s drifted away by thoughts that aren’t pertinent to the current situation. The Buddha thought our consciousness worked in a similar manner. The practices of Theravada Buddhism (the oldest school of Buddhism) sought to make trainees have a deeper interaction with their thoughts. To notice them, their contents, how they change or fall away, and how new thoughts emerge. Meditation wasn’t necessary to find ways to have this new experience, but the Buddha believed this was the most efficient way to craft our new experiences.


Psychology and Philosophy on Free Will

free_will Free Will

One of the more heated debates in current psychology and philosophy is the existence of free will. The belief that we are the conscious scripter and performer of our thoughts, actions, and mental processes. But are these beliefs set in stone? Other theories have been drafted to challenge free will in intellectual circles. Determinists, for example, maintain that thoughts and actions are determined by prior causes (parents, schooling, country of birth, etc.) or by chance. In this view, we experience thoughts and actions rather than perform them. Another example is fatalism, the belief that everything is already determined by the universe. Fatalists are similar to determinists, because they too belief that our conscious selves experience actions rather than perform them. The slight distinction between determinism and fatalism is that fatalists don’t belief that chance plays a factor, because the future is already determined. In this view, your life is a movie (albeit a lengthy one) that already has a cast, script, and ending in mind. While an overwhelming majority of humans adopt the view of free will, the concept is of major practical importance, and plenty of psychological and philosophical aspects are being considered competent enough to weigh in one such a question. I consider three aspects of psychology below, which are the neuroscientific perspective, the humanistic perspective, and the behaviorist perspective,

The Neuroscience Perspective

New neuroimaging studies done through the use of Electroencephalogram (EEG) machines29171701 cast doubt on free will, as scientists can now predict choices participants will make in simple studies before the test subjects have consciously made up their mind, as shown in the picture above. Other experiments show the ‘firing off’ of motor neurons ( the part of the brain responsible for voluntary movement) 300 milliseconds before subjects become consciously aware of the desire to move. This seems to support the theory that decisions and actions are the result of prior causes. Free will suggests that we tell our brains what to do, and actions follow. Neuroimaging says neurons move, then we tell our brains what to do, and actions follow. So the neurons in this case are the prior cause. Studies like these have led to skeptics of free will, mostly through the neuroscientist community. However, this is not to say that the community is of one mind. Michael Gazzaniga, the lead experimenter on the famous corpus callosum experiment, claims that people are still responsible for their actions, regardless of the outcome of the free will question.

The Humanist  Perspective

Humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers are the group most likely to employ the concept of free will. Their main argument is that free will is necessary for self-actualization and change in one’s behavior. “How can humans change themselves without free will? How can drug addicts become clean? How can people become more compassionate?” Humanists also claim that the difference between voluntary and involuntary actions is clear evidence that free will must be inserted into the clockwork, as to make sense of this distinction. This argument is not as airtight as others. Sam Harris in his book Free Will points out that as long as the voluntary acts are preceded through prior causes or chance, the voluntary/involuntary distinction is a moot question.

The Behaviorist Perspective

Behavior psychology focuses mainly on observing actions, and has no opinion on mental processes. They claim that while consciousness will not be able to be reduced to a blackboard, focusing on actions and decisions that can be studied and quantified is time better spent. The behavioralist community is split on the question of free will. Some look at experiments where people are less likely to help others in need when subjects are in big groups of people, as opposed to being the only one who can lend a hand (known as the diffusion of responsibility effect) . Since the data suggests that people’s decisions can be heavily influenced by their surroundings, it seems to make advocates of free will queasy. Others depend on a simple behaviorist thought experiment. A participant enters a room with two muffins and is asked to choose one. With free will he chooses a muffin. Now imagine the same experiment with a subject without free will. He is given the same test and chooses a muffin. Finally, imagine you are the experimenter that watched both participants from a tv screen in another room. Could you discern the difference between the two? Regardless of free will or not, a choice was still made. That choice, in a sense, is yours whether or not you or your body decides to initiates that choice. Therefore, unless a distinction can be made between the two test subjects, free will (sort of) exists.


Since many aspects of current culture (politics, religion, court systems) rely on the assumption of free will, arguments from multiple directions like these and ones to come have serious practical consequences. And already the results aren’t encouraging. Students are more likely to cheat on exams after reading articles claiming that free will is an illusion.

Many philosophical belief systems take shelter in the assumption of free will. The concept of sin hangs in the balance of this debate. Humans absent of free will would be, by definition, not responsible for their actions. Therefore punishing people for being sinful would make no sense, because humans could therefore be reduced to biological puppets acting upon unknowable factors. This would certainly render beliefs like the Abrahamic religion’s concept of heaven and hell false, with the exception of a few Islamic sects that have a belief in fatalism. People also may be discouraged from acting morally if free will is proven to be false. If they don’t feel in charge, why not just sit back and let whatever is going to happen, happen? Others think it can inspire empathy, as people are less likely to be angry at someone’s poor decision if they realize he the the experiencer, not the performer. Hate of others seemed to be undermined if they’re not in charge of themselves.