Empathy and What It’s Like to be a Bat

workshop_6933-1_edited-1You could make a meal of a moth, hang upside down and sleep, flap your arms and try to fly, and close your eyes and navigate by sound; but you will never, never really know what it’s like to be a bat.

For starters, even if you were able to choke down a moth and fall asleep while hanging upside down, I don’t think you’ll succeed in flying, and; if you navigated by sound, it would be the sound of you crashing into things. But, even if you could, you still would not know what it’s like to be a bat. The best you could do is know what it’s like for a human to be a bat. That’s not even close to the same thing.

You might think you know something about flying if you’ve ever been in an airplane; but, in reality, you didn’t fly as a bat flies, you were shot through the air by a machine while sitting in a metal tube.

You might think you know something about navigating by sound if you’re a sonar operator; but, you’re not navigating by sound, a machine is doing it for you. That’s very different than being born with the capability and doing it naturally.

What it’s like to be a bat was the subject of an important essay by philosopher, Thomas Nagel. He was interested in refuting reductionism, the philosophical position that a complex system is nothing more than the sum of its parts. We find reductionism all the time, when people say that a thought or a feeling is nothing more than a bunch of nerves firing in the brain. To the neurologist, it may be; but to the person possessing the brain, the experience of, say, smelling a flower is far greater than can be expressed in a chemical equation or a chart of the regions of the brain that had been involved.

When I read Nagel’s essay, I wasn’t so interested in bats, or in reductionism. The essay got me to thinking about empathy. I was interested in knowing what it’s like to be my last client, who wasn’t a bat.

The client was a young woman, anxious about her new job, and worried that she’d never find anyone who would love her. This person’s experience is not entirely foreign to me.  I was young once, although I’m not young now. I know what it’s like to start a new job, and I’ve had my days when I thought I’d always be alone. However, I am not, nor have I ever been a woman; but I can imagine it. I’ve heard enough women talk about how things are for them, that I can put myself in their place and extrapolate what it would be like for me.

I could employ my mirror neurons while talking to this young woman. That might give me some insight into her experience. Employing mirror neurons works like this. You look at the expression on the face of the person you’re talking to and mold your own face to match that expression. Then your own face makes you feel what the other person is feeling. As strange as these operations sound, psychologists say we do it all the time, unconsciously, as a way of connecting with the emotions of others.

The term we have for all these procedures of understanding the experience of another is empathy. We counselors are instructed to use empathy in our counseling, but Nagel’s essay has got me wondering what empathy is, or if it’s even possible.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. To the extent that I’m able to empathize with this young woman, it’s because I thumb through my files and pull out a version of myself that is young again, new to my job, and lonely. That’s not enough, though. I also have to construct a version of myself that is female, according to the specifications of femininity I have heard. Even that’s not enough, for this person is a millennial, while I’m of the boomer generation. Millennials differ from boomers to a small degree in ways we scarcely know. She has a whole history that is different from mine. We had different parents, read different books, have been to different places, etc. Strictly speaking, I can never know exactly what it’s like to be her; I can only know what it would be like for me to imagine I’m her.

With her, at least, I can check out my perceptions, which I can’t do with a bat. I can say, for instance, “You must be scared about the future.” That’s how I would feel if I were her. If she says, “Yes, I’m scared,” I might think I’ve got it right, but is my scared the same experience as her scared?

Let’s say I go ahead on the assumption that she’s scared in the same way I would be scared if I were her. I might set about to try to reassure her that everything is going to be OK because that’s what I would want to hear if I were her. Well, who am I treating here, me or her? I’m treating a fictionalized version of me that’s representing her. Not only could I be not giving her what she needs, but anything I say about her, really tells you more about me.

I’m convinced that these difficulties would be present even if this client was just like me. Even if he were a clone of me, the moment our two parts were created, our inner experiences would be different, and I would have no way of knowing whether I correctly understood his inner life.

To sum it all up: true, accurate empathy is impossible. There’s no way of knowing what it’s like to be another person, much less a bat. Still, it’s better when we try to be empathetic than when we don’t try. At least that brings us closer to getting it right.

You may feel very isolated, hearing that empathy is impossible, I wouldn’t know for sure. But, I think empathy being impossible is what makes your point of view so precious. No one has another point of view just like it. It’s the reason you are deserving of respect.