Cognition & Reality

Monday, 8 November 2010

“Real” Empathy

Filed under: Emotion,Human Evolution — drtone @ 10:14 am

I suppose it’s a good thing to have someone like Jeremy Rifkin out there promoting  peace and human togetherness. Nevertheless, it does matter what means he uses. If he begins with distortions and confusions, he will end up propagating a confused, distorted view of the world.

In this talk about empathy, Rifkin begins his argument by citing the existence of “mirror neurons,” implying that they are the basis of empathy in higher animals. Notice that there is not a single subsequent point in his argument about the ability of humans to identify with larger and larger social entities that depends on the existence of mirror neurons or their role in producing the phenomenon of empathy. Whether mirror neurons are responsible for it or not, the existence of empathy is not in question. Indeed, Rifkin’s seemingly well-ordered argument has a missing middle: Mirror neurons are near the beginning of the pathway to perception and cognition, but empathy is an affective phenomenon.

Humans everywhere experience empathy all the time. (I am about to go to my office to empathize with clients.) It is as if, just in case there is someone in authority out there who has never experienced empathy, Rifkin must “prove” to that person that empathy is “real” because it is caused by some identifiable physical structure. If you ever wondered whether materialism has triumphed, now you know.

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