IS EMPATHY POSSIBLE ?

I have just viewed a half-hour discussion on empathy, that is very enlightening to me. This post reports my brief reaction to the video, not a crafted explication on:  Is Empathy Possible? , which is the query of their debate.

The “furious debate” is between Edwin Rutsch, founder of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy and Sam Vaknin, a well educated, intellectual, expert on narcissism and psychopathy – also “formally” diagnosed as (borderline) lacking empathy – who is the producer of the video.

To me, they are cross-talking – yet, there is, to me, considerable  “empathy” demonstrated in their dialog.

Is emotional embodiment when experiencing others necessary for “empathy”? How is Sam’s disassociation of his experiencing others without emotion different from Eastern disciplines who claim being able to experience without emotional involvement?

I rephrase the query: Can humankind create a viable humanity even if persons cannot fully share each other’s conscious experiences?

Edwin cites mirror neurons and other physiological correlates to conscious experiences as evidence for shared consciousness, that IMA is correctly refuted by Sam.  However, Sam’s example that we can’t prove we both share the same experience of red, to imply we can’t agree make inter-subjective agreements about a common, “objective reality” is not fully accurate. Different persons can agree on the identity of patterns (e.g. text or diagrams on surfaces, visually perceived), even if they differ on interpretations of the patterns.

It is true, the overall experience of perceiving and comparing patterns will have features which are different between viewers; thus their whole experiences can’t be compared.  But need they be? Is there a positive aspect that humans are limited to being autopoietic systems, capable of structural coupling, having some “privacy” and “uniqueness”?  Might the ultimate consequence of total empathy lead to a bland oneness?

Both Edwin and Sam exhibit the all-to-human trait of believing what they experience to be “real” (with minor imperfections). They assume that humans, at our stage of evolution/emergence can possess (some) ultimate truths.

I am exploring the potentials of a semfield of shared patterns (sems – semiotic structures) to be created as a common empirical foundation for the structural coupling  of humans (and eventually other beings).

This relates to a shift in perspective I think is needed in how humans approach their experiences. For everyday living in our immediate settings we can’t avoid our mammalian predisposition to believe what we experience is of an external reality. This is necessary for eeree functioning. The exception may be when inter-personally relating to other humans.

There is very strong evidence that the content of consciousness, our experientials, are associated with body/brain processes (possibly at levels not yet explored, such as the microtubles within neurons). The “screen” on which these “experientials” are displayed and the “experiencer” remains a mystery, although some claim to “know”. Even if some content may result from “sources beyond perception or body” (e.g., Transcendental Reality, TR), it is obviously (from an analysis of reports of TR) filtered through the contextual “wrld” that emerges during the life of a person.

For topics beyond the experiential immediate, it will often be necessary to distinguish:

1) A common, objective, external WORLD within which all humans live, but who may perceive and interpret differently.  In this reality, a person (teacher) attempts to have the other person look more objectively and experience what is really there (as assumed by the teacher).

2) Objective reality cannot be directly known. Each human autopoietically emerges an internal/woven “wrld” during their lives in structural coupling with Gaia and other humans (and possibly with TR). To change others one must tweak the structural coupling to move the other to change their wrlds.  This is primitive in contemporary humankind, in what I call Adult Stage Development with linear stages as in Spiral Dynamics   and the Objectification model of Robert Kegan. We need new non linear developmental models.


The issue of how to “treat” persons born with structures that would lead to propensities to be dangerous to humanity cannot be avoided. This is not different on how to “treat” situations where a mis-match of nature & nurture may also result in persons dangerous to humanity.

Elsewhere  I have discussed how the lack of emotional empathy in a small percent of the population had positive survival value for tribes. Given the strong empathy within tribes, a “psychopath” may occasionally be needed when some members of the tribe must be sacrificed to save the tribe. Tribes lacked the special hierarchical structures that “psychopaths” use today to “climb to the top”.

Author: nuet

01/24/1935. BS-physics RPI 1956; MS-physics UofChicago 1958; PhD-physics Yale 1965; PhD-Edu Psy Uof MInnesota 1970. Auroral Research Byrd Station, Antarctica 11/1960-02/1962. MINNEMAST curriculum dev 1964-68. Woodstock. faculty Pima Community College, Tucson 1974-1997. Transdisciplinary scientist, philosopher, educator, futurist, activist. PC user since 1982. "Wife". daughter, 2 grandsons. 5 dogs & 7 cats. Lacks mental imagery in all sensory domains.

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