Mistake of the Week: Empathy=Sympathy

With this post, I begin an occasional series called Mistake of the Week — in which I’ll explore “obvious” howlers that nevertheless show up in many different contexts, are made by people who should know better, and do real damage in the world. If you like, you can retroactively consider my post But What If? to be part of this series.

(Note that, as in This Week’s Finds by John Baez, the word “week” means there will be at most one installment per week, not at least one.)

This week’s mistake is that empathy — the ability to imagine yourself into someone else’s skin — is basically the same as sympathy. In reality, these concepts are not just subtly different: they’re often directly opposed to each other!

Scam artists, stalkers, abusers, rapists, and serial killers often have tremendous empathy for their victims. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t know how to scope them out, isolate them, and prey on their vulnerabilities. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker discusses research showing that attempts to “cure” psychopaths by teaching them empathy can make them even more dangerous.

Of course, the world champions of empathy are the guys with dozens of nicks on their bedposts. It’s precisely because they understand women that they’re able to exploit them for their own enjoyment.

So that was empathy without sympathy. What about sympathy without empathy?

I was in Berkeley on 9/11, and many students I talked to in the weeks afterward thought that America basically deserved it. In their analysis, if the US had only ratified the Kyoto Protocol, increased its aid to the developing world, etc., it would have had nothing to fear from al Qaeda. It struck me that these students had considerable sympathy for the 9/11 hijackers, but no empathy for them. They couldn’t understand Mohammed Atta on his own terms — only through the lens of their own values and beliefs. (Predictably, America’s homegrown fundamentalists showed much greater empathy. They understood immediately what their Islamic counterparts were up to.)

History is full of bad people who achieved their goals because good people failed to empathize with them. “But surely this Mein Kampf must only be bluster, written for internal political purposes. There’s no way Hitler could actually believe what he wrote — he’d have to be a lunatic!”

Alright, it’s too easy to bring up examples that everyone already knows about. So here’s a different one: have you ever heard of a feminist writer named Valerie Solanas? If you haven’t (say, because you were born after the 60’s, like me), then I invite you to take the following empathy quiz.

In 1967, Solanas wrote a booklet called the S.C.U.M. Manifesto (S.C.U.M. stands for “Society for Cutting Up Men”). In it, she argues that the human male is a “walking abortion” and an “emotional cripple,” and calls for eradicating men and creating an all-female society. Any man who resists is to be killed. Once women rule the world, however, the few remaining men will kindly be permitted to “exist out their puny days dropped out on drugs or strutting around in drag or passively watching the high-powered female in action,” or else to “go off to the nearest friendly suicide center where they will be quietly, quickly, and painlessly gassed to death.”

Solanas is vague about what her female utopia will be like; however, it will definitely be “groovy.” “In a female society,” she writes, “the only Art, the only Culture, will be conceited, kooky, funky females grooving on each other and on everything else in the universe.” There will be no need for a government or even a money system. (Hence, no shoe shopping.) Solanas strikes today’s reader as perhaps too sanguine about technology: after the male scientists have been murdered, she writes, women will be able to build a fully-automated society within weeks, and eliminate death and disease within years.

(Incidentally, curing death is only one way Solanas’s utopia could perpetuate itself after the sperm banks have run dry. Another way, which she doesn’t discuss, is cloning from stem cells.)

In short, the whole thing reads like Rush Limbaugh’s fantasy of what feminists believe. That’s why I was surprised to learn that, far from being universally condemned, the S.C.U.M. Manifesto has been praised by feminist leaders such as Ti-Grace Atkinson, assigned in women’s studies courses, and distributed by government-run women’s shelters in Sweden. What’s going on here? The answer seems to be that, for many readers, Solanas’s “final solution to the male problem” is so outlandish that no one, including Solanas herself, could possibly intend it literally. Instead, her proposal must be interpreted as an ironic critique of patriarchal assumptions, or something like that.

Here, then, is my empathy quiz. Read the S.C.U.M. Manifesto, trying as you do to imagine what it would be like to have written it. Then answer this question: does the author strike you as a clever ironist, or as a sincere psychopath who might actually try to kill someone? You can check your answer here.

54 Responses to “Mistake of the Week: Empathy=Sympathy”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    scott, the implications you make are logically absurd. why does the fact that she attempted to kill a handful of people at a later point in her life give, in any way, validity to the point of view that her earlier book should be taken literally?

    in particular, the attempted murder seems to have involved a property dispute and/or personal feelings, as opposed to a universal vendetta against all men.

  2. Bill Says:

    Um, Anonymous, when you say a “the attempted murder [of Andy Warhol and Warhol’s manager Fred Hughes and apparently art critic Mario Amaya too] seems to have involved a property dispute and/or pesonal feelings” it’s worth noting that, according to the linked Wikipedia article, the “personal feelings” seemed to be of the clinically insane variety:

    —————
    Solanas reportedly considered Warhol a vampire and spray-painted her bullets silver. She had previously experimented with wrapping them in aluminum foil, but the foil made her gun jam.
    —————

    Yes, it’s possible that Ms. Solanas might have been penned the S.C.U.M. Manifesto as some exercise in satire or progpagandistic hyperbole, and yes, the appropriate mental health data point to evaluate the Manifesto would the one for her mental health while she wrote it. Nevertheless, my inner Bayesian thinks it’s highly defensible to say her documented later history of having a pained relation to reality does significantly increase the probability that the Manifesto was not the work of some rationally working satirist or propagandist.

    P.S. Speaking of empathy, while I think I can imagine feeling incoherent homicidal rage, I have trouble imagining that I’d make vampire killing bullets using aluminum foil. But then again years of technical education and of watching Buffy and Angel have given me pretty high standards for what any self-respecting vampire killer should sport (i.e., either the always in-style classic wooden stake & crossbow combo or the functional, but somewhat garish full military getup).

  3. Scott Says:

    Anonymous:

    First, what you refer to as “a later point in [Solanas’s] life” was actually only a year later.

    Second, according to this article, “at her arraignment for the Warhol shootings, she told the crowd of reporters and police: ‘Read my manifesto and it will tell you who I am.'”

    Third, apparently she originally intended to shoot one Maurice Girodias, but he was away that day. So she shot Andy Warhol and Mario Amaya because they happened to be around. (She was angry at Warhol because he lost a movie script that she gave him (!). I don’t think she’d had anything to do with Amaya.) She also tried to shoot the third guy who happened to be around, Fred Hughes, but her gun jammed.

    So I think the facts of the case indicate strongly that her passionately-stated belief that all men should be killed had at least something to do with her actually trying to kill three men.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    She may have been crazy but that doesn’t necessarily mean she took everything she wrote seriously.

    For a mind-trip, or perhaps just a further experiment in empathy, try some more feminist writings (unfortunately available in paper-book form):

    http://www.ingalagringa.com/cunt/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monique_Wittig

  5. Anonymous Says:

    well, this is the problem with trying to reconstruct facts from various news sources; already there is contradictory information.

    how can it be that

    Solanas reportedly considered Warhol a vampire and spray-painted her bullets silver. She had previously experimented with wrapping them in aluminum foil, but the foil made her gun jam.

    and on the other hand

    …apparently she originally intended to shoot one Maurice Girodias, but he was away that day.

    the only consitent interpretation is that she thought they were both vampires, intended to shoot Girodias, but then found Warhol instead and decided, well as long as she has silver bullets already loaded…

    and if we’re going to base conclusions on what Solanas actually said, then the meaning of this

    “Read my manifesto and it will tell you who I am.”

    is somewhat less clear than

    An interview with her was published in the Village Voice in 1977. She denied that the SCUM Manifesto was ever meant to be taken seriously.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    scott should definitely be empathetic, though, as another misunderstood author. I seem to remember some 9/11-collapse-of-the-polynomial-hierarchy parody that some people thought was in bad taste…

  7. Scott Says:

    So after I actually collapse the polynomial hierarchy, people will ask, “why didn’t we see the signs?” :)

  8. Anonymous Says:

    It seems that for normal non-psychopath humans empathy does often lead to sympathy. Indeed, part of the Nazi’s propoganda was to depict jews as non-human so the germans would not have any empathy nor sympathy for them. (This was largely successful.)

    Of course the ability to imagine yourself into someone else’s skin is not the same as the ability to analyze and successfully predict their motives and behavior.

    Fundamentalists from one religion do not see any similarity between them and fundamentalists from another religion. To an atheist all religions may look roughly the same, but to a believer one of them is the absolute truth and the rest are completely false.

    It’s very hard, perhaps impossible, for a sane person can truly empathize with an insane person. It’s probably also hard in the other direction.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    sanity is not a binary-valued map.

  10. Scott Says:

    Anonymous 3:32: You raise some interesting points; thanks!

    part of the Nazi’s propoganda was to depict jews as non-human so the germans would not have any empathy nor sympathy for them.

    That’s true. On the other hand, the Nazis themselves showed enormous psychological insight — for example by appointing “Jewish councils” to organize the deportations, and by demanding ransoms which they then used to finance further deportations. The Nazis predicted (correctly) that the Jews would falsely think they could save themselves by obeying orders, paying bribes, etc., and would therefore follow that route instead of resisting.

    Fundamentalists from one religion do not see any similarity between them and fundamentalists from another religion.

    Duhhhh, really? :)

    I said that American fundamentalists emphathized with al Qaeda, which is very different from their seeing any parallel to themselves. By analogy, I would also say that Churchill empathized with Hitler more than Chamberlain did — that is, he understood better than Chamberlain what it would be like to be Hitler.

    It’s very hard, perhaps impossible, for a sane person can truly empathize with an insane person. It’s probably also hard in the other direction.

    In my view, if your goal is understand and predict another human being’s behavior, you’ll almost always have to imagine yourself into beliefs that strike you as more or less insane.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    I said that American fundamentalists emphathized with al Qaeda, which is very different from their seeing any parallel to themselves.

    I guess your definition of empathy is quite different from mine. While fundamentalist christians (and household cats) might be able to predict fundamentalist muslims’ behavior better than Berkeley students, this doesn’t say they are able to imagine themselves in their skin and understand the other guy’s motivation and thinking. I imagine that to the question “what would you do in their place?” a fundamantalist christian would answer “become Christian”.

    BTW stalkers and molesters often genuinely believe their victims actually want to be molested. This doesn’t show a lot of empathy on their part.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    so..should someone go back in time and rename that old star trek episode the “SYMPATH”?

  13. Anonymous Says:

    a clever ironist, or as a sincere psychopath

    Solanas reportedly considered Warhol a vampire and spray-painted her bullets silver. She had previously experimented with wrapping them in aluminum foil, but the foil made her gun jam.

    From Characteristics of psycopaths:

    – Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking.

    – Untruthfulness and insincerity.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    “Of course, the world champions of empathy are the guys with dozens of nicks on their bedposts. It’s precisely because they understand women that they’re able to exploit them for their own enjoyment.”

    Scott- as a woman, I feel compelled to take you to task for that statement.
    You seem to imply that the “dozens of nicks” (very nicely put, by the way) and generating enjoyment from women automatically implies an exploitation of said women.
    To me, that comes off as a bit patronizing.
    As long as the interaction is conducted in an honest, straight-foward manner, I don’t see where there is any exploitation in the matter.
    Of course, once you get into manipulation, or simply outright deception, be it regarding intentions, past or future actions, or anything else, that would, of course, create an exploitative situation.
    But as long as you have honesty, I’m not convinced that any number of nicks automatically implies exploitative behavior.
    As long as she is presented with an honest “pitch,” I would say that it is the individual woman’s responsibility to ensure that her actions correspond with her aims and wants, and that she is not exploited. I find it hard to see why a man should automatically be condemned as exploitative simply as a result of being attracted (or perhaps choosing to be attracted) precisely to the sort of women he will be likely to enjoy.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    the only consistent interpretation is that she thought they were both vampires, intended to shoot Girodias, but then found Warhol instead and decided, well as long as she has silver bullets already loaded…

    Anonymous: do you have a blog of yours that can be read?

    She was angry at Warhol because he lost a movie script that she gave him (!)

    That movie script must have felt like she had written it with her own blood, and who is to say that she hadn’t? My guess is that she didn’t know herself whether or not she meant what she said, from one day to another. Sad story, both for her and for her victims.

    Has anybody seen What I want my words to do to you? It makes the criminal world look exactly as mundane, insightful, naive and full of vanity as the average blog. (Incidentally it also proposes bounds on empathy, or this is what I thought when I watched it).

  16. Scott Says:

    That movie script must have felt like she had written it with her own blood

    Why didn’t she make a copy? They had Xerox machines in 1967…

  17. Scott Says:

    As long as she is presented with an honest “pitch,” I would say that it is the individual woman’s responsibility to ensure that her actions correspond with her aims and wants, and that she is not exploited.

    anonymous 4:59: That’s well put, and I completely agree with you — thanks!

    I was of course appealing to a stereotype: the type of guy who tells a woman that he’ll love her forever, that she’s the only one for him, etc. etc., then fucks her, sets bedpost_nicks++, and repeats with the next woman.

    Like most stereotypes, this one exists for a reason, but it has plenty of exceptions. You’re right that the moral situation changes if both parties have the same expectations going in.

  18. Theano Says:

    Scott- Thank you for that clarification.

    Although I have trouble seeing why, in a modern Western social setting, a man would ever bother with those pronouncements you refer to, in the first place.

    Consider his position:
    Getting to know a woman well enough that she may in fact believe his professions of love everlasting takes quite a bit of time.
    In order to maximize his bedpost_nicks function, he would surely do better to minimize the time and effort expanded on each individual nick, to allow for maximum nicks per limited free time and energy expanded.

    Not being a man, I suppose I cannot speak with authority on the matter, but it seems to me that rather than bother with the whole protestations-of-love business, our hypothetical man would do far better to simply adjust his target, and simply make direct, honest pitches toward the very women whom he deems most likely to acquiesce.
    This approach, while seeming to generate most nicks/time x effort, also seems rather un-exploitative.

    I think the stereotype in question arose (pardon me) as a result of the assumption that all women are out to a) have undying love professed to them, and/or b) get married, and c) wish to avoid anyone’s bedrooms for as long as possible, while maximizing a) and b). A sort of maximin solution, you might say.

    However, given current American standards, I don’t see why any man would ever bother with such women given our assumption that his only purpose is bedpost-nicks maximizing.

    The only exception I see is if the man in question has, for some reason, a preference for specifically the “wrong” sort of women, given his presumed goals. But that would be rather illogical on his part.

    Also, you mention:
    fucks her, sets bedpost_nicks++, and repeats with the next woman

    I must say that I have yet to come across any man who would both engage in your stated behavior, and refer to it in those terms (sets bedpost_nicks++).
    Perhaps this shows some bias on my part, but I would venture to say that the very fact of this approach renders the man in question instantly far more desirable, and thus renders him automatically far less exploitative. But mayhap that is just me. :-)

  19. Anonymous Says:

    Why didn’t she make a copy? They had Xerox machines in 1967…

    She may have had copies of the script (or else she may have killed more and sooner), but that couldn’t have stopped Warhol from stealing her material if he wanted to (plagiarism is not uncommon, I am told).

    She made Warhol pay for whatever she felt the world owed to her (Warhol did nothing wrong but his actions were harming her, and why would she understand Warhol’s point of view? Who understood hers?). Many victims of abuse make a good life for themselves, but I think nobody has the authority to blame those who cannot.

    If she would have done more harm with a bit of luck, we can never know since she never had that luck.

    How about another empathy quiz (or open problem): assume nobody took Hitler seriously. Would he walk up to a Jew in the street and shoot him?

  20. Anonymous Says:

    I must say that I have yet to come across any man who would both engage in your stated behavior, and refer to it in those terms (sets bedpost_nicks++).

    Theano: Do you have a blog of yours that can be read (preferably one not centered on the man/woman dichotomy, if I am not asking for too much:)?

    Anonanima :)

  21. Cheshire Cat Says:

    I doubt the quiz is to be taken seriously. I mean, clearly the correct answer is the one that reinforces the point of the post…

    So does empathy mean having access to someone else’s code, and sympathy pretending that someone else has the same code as you? Certainly novel. (Great to have this blog – the one place I can talk like this without having to wonder if I’m crazy)

  22. Theano Says:

    Theano: Do you have a blog of yours that can be read (preferably one not centered on the man/woman dichotomy, if I am not asking for too much:)?

    You certainly would not be asking for too much, as this isn’t exactly too common a topic for reflection for me. :-)

    However, I’m sorry, but I don’t run a weblog, even though I do greatly enjoy Scott’s.

    If there’s any particular reason you’re asking, and you’re interested in my thoughts on any other specific matter, by all means respond, and I would be happy to provide them.

  23. Theano Says:

    So does empathy mean having access to someone else’s code, and sympathy pretending that someone else has the same code as you?

    I get the strong sense that in the particular examples given, empathy without sympathy presupposes a great selfishness on the part of the empath as the more important trait than mere access to another’s code.

    If we were to agree with Marcel Jouhandeau (as I happen to)that “To really know someone is to have loved and hated him in turn”, then in those terms, the situtions described basically consist of really knowing someone, and yet not caring about them one whit.
    To my mind, if you truly, really understand another person, know their thoughts, know their mind, and understand their feelings, that should breed a care about those feelings. To grasp all that, and yet continue not to care, must stem from some sort of overarching selfishness on the part of the understanding party. A selfishness that I, for one, find rather impossible to grasp. Or empathize with, I suppose. :-)

  24. Cheshire Cat Says:

    I too get the sense of something narrower than usual – not knowledge of how the other thinks or feels, but simply knowledge of the other’s vulnerabilities. To be used as desired. What complicates the issue is that sympathy has to do with vulnerabilities as well (passively)…

  25. Anonymous Says:

    If there’s any particular reason you’re asking, and you’re interested in my thoughts on any other specific matter, by all means respond, and I would be happy to provide them.

    If I ask somebody whether they keep a blog it is usually because I am curious to read it (for a while or two:)

    It is possible to understand somebody very well and hate their guts (precisely because you understand how they work), it is possible to understand and not have spare resources to care, same as it is possible (and common) to understand, care and be selfish all at the same time, or to not give a damn and still be generous, or and so on (yawn:)

    (Great to have this blog – the one place I can talk like this without having to wonder if I’m crazy)

    I have decided ages ago that I am crazy beyond any doubt. Which is fun: you get to empathize with all sorts of interesting lunatics and you have an excuse for any bad thing you do (on the down side those way crazier than you get to be smart at your expense, which can be a little frustrating before you start shooting them – then it reverts to being fun).

  26. Scott Says:

    So does empathy mean having access to someone else’s code, and sympathy pretending that someone else has the same code as you?

    Yes, that’s one way to put it.

  27. Theano Says:

    it is possible to understand and not have spare resources to care

    How, though?

    Let’s assume for a moment a true, whole, perfect understanding of another person. (I’m not so sure this is ever entirely possible, but let’s assume it anyway).
    To me, that means really grasping and internalizing their past experiences, where they come from, how things have affected them, what they know, what they believe based on what they know, how they think, their values, beliefs, limitations, weaknesses, strengths, and anything else that could have a bearing on their thoughts, feelings or actions. Basically, it is having as much information about them as their amigdala and pre-frontal cortex combined, to the extent of being able to predict how they would respond, on every level, to any given stimulus.
    Since I assume some rationality of emotion, how would it be possible to really grasp why a person might think and feel as they would, and yet fail to feel for them or care? In a sense, to do all that, once has to become this other person, or at least, allow a part of themselves to become them, or hold them inside oneself in a way, so how could concern not follow?
    I can see how one may rationally choose to ignore said concern out of other, more important, personal considerations. But to not have the concern in the first place?

  28. Scott Says:

    theano:

    In order to maximize his bedpost_nicks function, he would surely do better to minimize the time and effort expanded on each individual nick, to allow for maximum nicks per limited free time and energy expanded.

    I like how you think. :)

    As for why your hypothetical man might not decide that honesty is the best policy, let me quote from Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works, p. 470:

    “The psychologists R. D. Clark and Elaine Hatfield hired attractive men and women to approach strangers of the opposite sex on a college campus and say to them, ‘I have been noticing you around campus. I find you very attractive,’ and then ask one of three questions: (a) ‘Would you go out with me tonight?’ (b) ‘Would you come over to my apartment tonight?’ (c) ‘Would you go to bed with me tonight?’ Half the women consented to a date. Half the men consented to a date. Six percent of the women consented to go the stooge’s apartment. Sixty-nine percent of the men consented to go to the stooge’s apartment. None of the women consented to sex. Seventy-five percent of the men consented to sex. Of the remaining twenty-five percent, many were apologetic, asking for a rain check or explaining that they couldn’t because their fiancee was in town.”

    For me, any discussion of male vs. female sexual behavior begins with the “Hatfield-Clark constants”: {50%, 69%, 75%} and {50%, 6%, 0%}.

    Perhaps this shows some bias on my part, but I would venture to say that the very fact of this approach renders the man in question instantly far more desirable, and thus renders him automatically far less exploitative.

    Clarification request: Are you talking about a man who would directly ask for sex, or a man who would refer to “bedpost_nicks++”? :)

  29. Cheshire Cat Says:

    theano: Masochists?

  30. Theano Says:

    theano: Masochists?

    Good point! I hadn’t considered Masochists at all…

    Although I don’t know – would fully taking in another person’s approach make a Masochist not want the pain for the other person, or still want the pain, since it’s their paradigm?

  31. Theano Says:

    Clarification request: Are you talking about a man who would directly ask for sex, or a man who would refer to “bedpost_nicks++”? :)

    You’re right, that does seem unclear.

    I was referring to a man who would think in terms of “bedpost_nicks++” in the first place.

  32. Eldar Says:

    I feel that the empathy/sympathy distinction raised by Scott is right on the money. Let me throw in another thought quiz: How many of you, while in the process of watching “The Silence of the Lambs”, have identified with the main character Hannibal Lecter? And how many of you, when considering a possible real-life Hannibal, would still want him thrown in jail (or perhaps even sent to a BBQ at Old Sparky’s)?

  33. Scott Says:

    I was referring to a man who would think in terms of “bedpost_nicks++” in the first place.

    Then thanks, I suppose!

  34. Theano Says:

    Scott-

    I’m not sure that the Hatfield-Clark results would apply very directly in this case.
    What I would like to see is the result of the following research – assuming said stooges would have gone on their dates, what percentage would have ended up in bed at the end of the night, even though they didn’t agree to it when asked directly?

    I presumed honesty as the factor that creates non-exploitation. Honestly does not, however, imply directness.

    Are you familiar with the idea of signalling in Economic theory? Basically, it’s the idea that says that you do not get an education in order to be better at what you do, but in order to signal certain things to other people (i.e., an ability to jump through hoops, a commitment of a given level, etc.)

    In the same way, the way one asks a question can be used as an indicator of the sort of person one is dealing with, and not only as a statement of the question itself.

    So for example, if a woman is approached in a bar with “Hi, I’m Bob, would you sleep with me tonight?”, she is extremely likely to say no, as Hatfield and Clark demonstrate. However, is she refusing him because she actually would not want to, or because of what he indicates about himself in posing the question in the first place?
    Certainly, he should be given credit for being direct.
    But if we know that a certain etiquette is presumed in posing such questions, then posing the question incorrectly signals that “Bob” is at the very least, ignorant of said etiquette, and is perhaps ignorant of many other social constructs and norms that may be desirable for him to know.

    However, if the same woman is approached with some kind of intelligent conversation starter, ends up talking about music or whatever, and then is invited to come see the said gentleman’s vintage record collection that very evening, she knows precisely what is (most often, though not always) actually intended by said invitation. But she also knows that the person posing the invitation is behaving according to commonly-accepted rules, and can at least feel safe in the knowledge that his behavior is more predictable to her than otherwise.

    So while honestly is, of course, highly desirable, it may make sense to present the query in the socially-acceptable way, to avoid unintended signalling.

    As a total aside, this is often how cultural misunderstandings happen. For instance, in Israel, it is quite common to be asked in both social and professional settings “where you served” (i.e. in which IDF regiment). This sounds pretty odd to an American, but in the cultural context, the person merely means to find out what sort of person you are, and this is his way of doing so.

  35. Theano Says:

    Then thanks, I suppose!

    You’re welcome, I suppose! :-)

    That really was completely unintentional – I had not meant to make any personal comment.
    Although it was perhaps rather silly of me to comment on a man expressing an idea in a certain way when speaking to a man who had, obviously, expressed that very same idea in that very same way, and not realize it…

  36. Anonymous Says:

    To my mind, if you truly, really understand another person, know their thoughts, know their mind, and understand their feelings, that should breed a care about those feelings.

    By shooting Andy Warhol, was Valerie Solanas aiming for personal happiness? To a certain extend, I think she might have known herself well enough, and from a moment t_0 when rational control still prevailed, she might have stopped caring for what she knew.

    You will forgive me, I hope, for not building a complete model of my stance. Personal trajectories are not fully described by one differential equation with constant parameters, plus boundary conditions. You can regret somebody’s choices, but lack the resources to care for what outcome they generate. There are also situations when you have to choose with whom you sympathize, even if you can estimate both sides to an equal precision. You may have to choose how to care for somebody’s feelings, including your own.

    Or perhaps I am giving a more active meaning to caring than you do. Or, even most likely, I am simply overarchingly selfish :-)

  37. Theano Says:

    There are also situations when you have to choose with whom you sympathize, even if you can estimate both sides to an equal precision. You may have to choose how to care for somebody’s feelings, including your own.

    Or perhaps I am giving a more active meaning to caring than you do.

    Yes, it sounds as though that may in fact be the case.

    I meant caring in a rather passive “feel it” or “think it” way, whether or not one chooses to act on such caring.
    I think it is entirely plausable to empathize with someone, feel their pain, care about their pain, and still choose to inflict it, given your other priorities, or other pain that would be caused by any alternative.
    So I did not presume that choosing not to act on caring automatically means there is no caring.
    Perhaps that is where I end up puzzled.

  38. Anonymous Says:

    Question: What is the complexity theorist’s stance on how we measure time: continue gregorian or switch to 13 moon? Linear, Cyclical, Dimensional, Dimensionless? Hope this isn’t too close to “is there a god.”

  39. Scott Says:

    Question: What is the complexity theorist’s stance on how we measure time

    Clearly we should be using multiples of the Planck time (10^{-43} seconds), expressed in binary.

    Until that happens, we’ll have to make do with minutes, days, months, and so on, but mentally convert them into base-2 numbers of Planck times so we can understand them.

  40. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    This blog is excellent! The topics on your blog are rich in variety Scott.

  41. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I think I get it now. If you are Turing-complete, then you are capable of perfect empathy for anyone.

  42. anonymous Says:

    On empathy = sympathy. Quite a while ago, I and two of my friends went uphill. I was struggling to keep pace with one of them, whoapart from being very genial & autistic, is also much taller than me. After commenting to the friend B that friend A has no sense of empathy, friend A smiled and said “I have empathy, I can understand that you suffer”. Friend B said: “He has empathy but no sympathy”.

  43. Anonymous Says:

    I meant caring in a rather passive “feel it” or “think it” way, whether or not one chooses to act on such caring. I think it is entirely plausable to empathize with someone, feel their pain, care about their pain, and still choose to inflict it, given your other priorities, or other pain that would be caused by any alternative. So I did not presume that choosing not to act on caring automatically means there is no caring.

    To feel the pain of others it is irrelevant whether we know them or not, because all living beings feel pain roughly the same way. It is impossible to consistently internalize all the pain that has existed; one needs to find himself a Planet Tralfamadore or another to remain sane (I think).

    In less extreme terms, I may understand Mr Stereotypical Lying Nicks-on-the-Bedpost’s circumstances and motivations well enough, perhaps because they are not very different for mine, yet genuinely dislike him for choosing to cause unnecessary harm. I would not want him to suffer, but my first impulse, knowing him (an impulse which I may or may not override deliberately) is exactly the opposite of caring. Even ourselves, I think we choose, rather than being compelled, to like.

    Unnecessary clarification: if I am searching for other interesting blogs it is not because I don’t enjoy Scott’s. I wouldn’t read it if I didn’t.

  44. anonymous Says:

    About genial. As defined by dictionary:

    1. Having a pleasant or friendly disposition or manner. See Synonyms at gracious.
    2. Conducive to life, growth, or comfort; mild: “the genial sunshine… saturating his miserable body with its warmth” (Jack London).
    3. Obsolete. Relating to or marked by genius.
    4. Obsolete. Of or relating to marriage; nuptial.

    (I wonder if meanings 3 and 4 got obsolete at the same time.)

  45. Anonymous Says:

    This is off topic, but:
    The Arts and Letters Daily has pointed to this essay, which is being blogged about in a positive way (getting reviews like “thoughtful” and “fascinating”). I was wondering if you could respond on your blog. The author seems to think the Turing test is the metric by which AI can be assessed, while I always assumed it just explained functionalism in an uncomplicated and accessible way (and without thinking about Intelligence in this way, a computational science really can’t say anything about it.) I’m curious to see a computer scientist react to the article.

  46. wolfgang Says:

    1) Person X is sympathetic to herself.
    2) Person Y ‘feels empathy’ for X or ‘emulates’ the mindset of X; i.e. Y sees the world from X’s perspective.
    3) It follows that Y is sympathetic to X.

    Your post implies that either 1) is wrong, or I did not understand your definition of empathy, or something else is wrong here …
    Which is it Scott?

  47. wolfgang Says:

    I should add that there is one more loophole.

    It could be that Y is sympathetic to X while Y ‘feels empathy’ (= emulates the mindset of X).
    But once the emulation ends, Y keeps only some results but not the sympathy.

    Is this your point?

  48. Scott Says:

    But once the emulation ends, Y keeps only some results but not the sympathy.

    Is this your point?

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

  49. wolfgang Says:

    >> Is this your point?

    > Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    OK. This opens several interesting questions, e.g. how can Y be sure that the ‘emulation’ has (cleanly) ended?

  50. Anonymous Says:

    You stated that the folks might have been more sympathetic about 9/11 if we had signed the Kyoto Treaty….
    The Unites States didn’t feel it was fair that certain countries (India and China) were labelled as developing countries, and as such their greenhouse gas emissions were not restricted to the extent that the US, and the EU countries were under the agreemenet.
    Add to this the fact that it was roughly guesstimated that the U.S. would have lost 4.9 million jobs.

    Your OLD pal
    Glenn

  51. Anonymous Says:

    Why didn’t she make a copy? They had Xerox machines in 1967…

    How many years was this before you were born, Scott?

    Yes, Xerox machines existed in 1967 but they were expensive and were typically available only to mid-size and larger businesses. There were none of the proliferation of copy centers, etc, that we see regularly today. Writers typically used manual typewriters and carbon paper. Originals were precious. (Higher volumes were created using Gestetner or Ditto machines.) Xerox had a near-monopoly on the market and the desktop copier had not been produced yet.

    One could take a manuscript to large volume print shop that would have Xerox machines but this was far more expensive than copies are today.

  52. Osias Says:

    None of the women consented to sex. Seventy-five percent of the men consented to sex. Of the remaining twenty-five percent, many were apologetic, asking for a rain check or explaining that they couldn’t because their fiancee was in town.

    Man, it totally PROVES I am a woman!

  53. Scott Says:

    How many years was this before you were born, Scott?

    Fourteen.

  54. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Mistake of the Week: The Unknown Unknown Says:

    […] Shtetl-Optimized’s Mistake of the Week series finally resumes today, with what’s arguably the #1 mistake of all time. This one’s been noted by everyone from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to some toga-wearing ancient dude, to the authors of the paper Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties In Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. […]