On… Empathy

A long time ago, in an Athenian republic far, far away* Plato wrote his allegory of the shadows on the cave wall. One of the early examples of a thought experiment, this contemplated a group of prisoners who had lived their entire lives chained in a cave, unable to move and staring at a wall. Behind them was a fire, and in front of this was carried out a series of puppetry displays that had the effect of producing shadows dancing across the cave wall. To the prisoners, who knew naught else, this was the extent of reality. There was only themselves and the shadows on the wall.

Whenever people speak of empathy or sympathy, it makes me think of this. If you catch yourself saying something along the lines of ‘I know how you feel’ then you’re wrong: you don’t. The nature of Man is that we’re doomed – or blessed, perhaps, depending on your perspective – to live solely inside our own heads. In much the same way as I have no idea what the colour red looks like to anybody else, I have no true concept of how you feel internally when, for instance, your pet dies or someone undermines you at work. Brain scans might be able to determine which neurons are firing at the time, but this doesn’t indicate what you’re thinking. I might be able to see you crying, but this – like a shadow on the cave wall – is a external effect of an internal cause. Like a bruise on your knee, it shows you that something hurts but not how it hurts.

All of this is why I find the concept of empathy such an intriguing one. Given that, to all intents and purposes, each of us has as much true knowledge about how somebody else is feeling as we have about the state of existence of a table, the fact that we can empathise with others at all is a fascinating leap. Like opposable thumbs and the invention of the internal combustion engine, it’s something that sets us aside from animals. A cat might know that scratching another makes them back off, but does it really have a concept that it is making them hurt and feel the same guilt that we might do if we hurt another person?

Those who suffer from psychosis, particularly where this crosses into the definition of sociopathy, are said to suffer from a lack of empathy. Their inability to comprehend the effects their actions may have on others means that one of the blocks that stops ‘normal’ (whatever that means) people from performing acts that could cause harm is gone. Empathy is thus really, really important for the continuity of society, which just makes the intangibility of it so fascinating.

So, the next time somebody tells you that they know how you’re feeling, make sure to put out to them that they don’t. And then talk about shadows and cave walls. Then they’ll look at you like a lunatic.

*: Unless you live in Athens.

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