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On Empathy, Science and Religion

Mar 13, 2012

One of the things we all have in common is the experience of difficult moments. Almost all of us have suffered difficult times in grade school or early family life, a broken heart in romance, disappointment in work. People that were important in our lives have passed away, or will in the future.

We have happy experiences in common too. But the universal moments of sadness fill our stream of empathy. I think we often forget how much we have in common, and it ought to make us treat others gently and kindly.

But just as a thought experiment, let's imagine speaking of this in the language of neuroscience, and describing how difficult life situations trigger the release of neurochemicals. Those neurochemicals act within particular brain regions and give rise to sadness. Could I give a satisfactory description of why we should feel connected to one another on account of these neurochemical events we’ve all experienced? Something’s lost in translation, or at least nothing very much is gained.

We could speak of sociobiology, and speculate on how empathy and the altruistic behavior that flows from it can have indirect benefits on the propagation of our common genes.  We could even search for empathy-related genes and reveal the proteins that they code for, and how these proteins give rise to neural circuits whose activity gives rise to empathy.

But all of this would be like describing the beauty of Beethoven’s 7th symphony in terms of the harmonies employed, the chord structures that give rise to the harmony, the notes that make up the chords, the sound waves making up the notes, the human auditory nervous system that interprets these sound waves as auditory experience, and the ways in which particular types of auditory experience produce activity in brain pleasure circuits. Something has been left out. Descriptions of experience at lower levels of analyses aren’t a substitute for the experience itself. These types of descriptions don’t capture the idea that we share deep experiences, and are connected in meaningful ways. In the very process of analysis, the thing in itself slips away from us.

How about approaching it from a religious perspective? Empathy and kindness toward others may please God and bring us rewards in heaven. But do I need to be rewarded for treating others with empathy?

I may identify with your plight because I see the Christ within you. But do I need to look for the Christ within you in order to find a point of connection? Isn’t it enough that we’re all people doing our best to make it through the life situations that confront us?

Neither science nor religion provide the language that captures our point of deep contact with one another. Looking into a microscope or up at the heavens can, I think, be a distraction from what stands directly in front of us: other people.