Empathy?

I am a very literal person, that is why I like electronics, it is predictable and deterministic.

I tend to interpret things literally, but that’s just the way I am.  Over the years I have come to the conclusion that my brain works differently to everyone else’s (notice I said differently, not better or worse just different).  There is an abstraction process which goes on in the minds of most people, they automatically see one thing as representing another whereas I have to make that link manually.  For example someone makes a statement and other people automatically think ‘oh she doesn’t really mean that, what she is trying to say is …’ but I just take the statement as a literal representation and then I have to remember to think about what other meanings there might be behind the statement.

This does not mean that I cannot do this kind of abstraction, it is just that for me the abstraction is always explicit and never implicit.  It is just a different way of looking at the world.

I also have a problem with empathy.

My understanding of empathy is that it is the ability to understand another person’s feelings, emotions and position.  To understand what is going on inside another person’s mind, to interpret their facial expression and body language.  According to the psychology textbooks empathy makes the other person feel valued and enables them to see that their thoughts and feelings have been acknowledged.

I am told that empathy allows people to make a close friend and look after that friendship.  Empathy avoids the risk of misunderstanding and miscommunication, because people who have empathy can figure out what the other person intended.

But this is an alien world, closed to me.  I have no idea how I come across to people.  I have read about empathy and analysed it as much as I can but I still cannot empathise with anyone.  I have read books on body language but it is still a foreign language of which I have little understanding.

I have noticed that other people seem to communicate as much through their eyes as through their words and they seem to know what the other person means intuitively.  I haven’t got a clue how to do body language, perhaps this puts me at a disadvantage, I don’t know.  Some people have said that I can be very didactic, that I lecture them rather than having a proper conversation, I don’t know what the characteristics of a proper conversation are, surely if I have a point to make then I must pursue it to it’s logical conclusion.  I admit that sometimes I do lecture people when I forget to try to keep up the illusion that I have some empathy.

I can and do try to emulate what I think the process of empathy might produce but this is an intellectual process it does not come naturally and so I make many mistakes.  I pretend to be normal but I miss subtle clues as to what people think and feel.  Sometimes I don’t understand jokes everyone else finds funny, chatting with people and making small talk is a nightmare, it is exhausting and stressful to keep up this pretence.

Conversations based on the adjudication of an issue where evidence can be examined and judged in favour or against a position are much easier, because then I know where the conversation is going.  I like a conversation which progresses along a logically linked linear path, a series of facts or assertions which follow clearly from from the preceding steps.  I find the desultory ‘small talk’ type of conversation stressful because it is so unpredictable.  People change the subject like a bee flitting from one flower to the next without a care for the overall direction of the conversation, it is so confusing, ‘idle chitchat’ leads nowhere and I have no idea how to do it properly.

If I think something is wrong then my instinct is to say so, but I have learned that this can be fraught with difficulties so most of the time I say nothing even though I would like to, I just don’t know how people will react to what I have to say.  If a conversation is boring for instance people can be offended if you tell them so, but if you don’t tell them then you are stuck listening to a pointless conversation going nowhere.

Other people seem to socialise together effortlessly but I have no idea what to talk to them about.  I have little idea what others are thinking about or how they feel or how to respond to those feelings.  I have learnt to assume what others are thinking and feeling but this is a conscious cognitive exercise, it does not come naturally to me.  I have to stop and think about what people might be feeling, to work out the patterns in people’s behaviour and how this relates to their internal feelings, usually this is after the event and is a very inferior and inaccurate model of what actually happened.

I feel like a prisoner of my self focus.  This is because my self focus is the only thing which is available to me, I cannot perceive other peoples thoughts and feelings.  Peoples facial expressions are difficult to read, I never really know what is expected of me.  I say all the wrong things without anticipating the hurt this will cause, until people react badly.  Usually I just keep quiet.

When I can be alone it is a great relief, I can relax and I no longer have to pretend to be like other people, and yet I become lonely when I am alone too long.

It took me a long time to even realise that I have no empathy, I suppose one of the effects of not having empathy is that it is hard to recognise the fact that you have no empathy.  I only knew that I had no friends either male or female and that all my personal relationships always seem to go disastrously wrong.  There was one colleague at work whom I considered to be a friend for many years but I offended him some time ago and now although he is still superficially friendly our conversations are limited to the most anodyne of subjects and the social interaction we used to have has been curtailed. Sigh …

Eventually I read an article in a psychology journal about relationships and realised what they were describing was not the way my mind works and so I started reading about psychology and trying to understand the nature of the problem.  Unfortunately understanding the nature of the problem does not help to solve the problem.  Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

I decided that psychology could not be classified as a rigorous science but that it does have some value despite it’s shortcomings.

Reflections on Human Proliferation

Growth for the sake of growth is the

philosophy of the cancer cell.”

Edward Abbey

The unease which environmental issues cause governments is obvious.  The science is clear enough and the economic case for tackling climate change is compelling.  To take one figure, according to the Stern report, 1% of Gross Domestic Product spent reducing the world’s carbon output now would prevent damage from climate change of up to 20% of GDP over the next few decades.

Yet governments continue to equivocate.

Global summits from Kyoto onwards have been exercises in ‘too little too late’ and in being more interested in appearing to be tackling the problem than actually doing anything effective about it.  I don’t think this is because they think nothing should be done.  It is just that they are not sure how much they can get away with.  Both in terms of the minimum necessary expenditure required to save the planet and more importantly in the sense of what they think their citizens will tolerate in terms of increased taxes and decreased choices.

So governments concentrate on climate change and CO2 as the problem, but this is not the problem, it is merely a symptom of the problem.  The real problem is our expanding population.  If we could control our population then tackling climate change and CO2 emissions would be easy.

The expectation that things have to grow seems to be deeply embedded in the human psyche, populations have to increase, economic output has to increase, there must be profit and interest and GDP must only go in one direction.

And so governments ignore the main problem faced by our environment and our continued existence within that environment.  We have reduced the problem to one of carbon emissions and not the unsustainable way we live our lives, we are concentrating on the one of the side shows and ignoring the main event.

The main threat to the environment is the huge numbers of human beings on the planet.  Without a reduction in the human population all the other efforts to save the planet are pointless.

But a reduction in human population is not going to happen any time soon, it is against human nature.

Those governments who are unwilling to address the issue of population control are merely re-arranging the deck chairs on the deck of the Titanic as the ship slowly descends into the water.

But democratic governments would rather not discuss the contentious issue of population control because they know it would be political suicide and almost all environmental groups are reluctant to address this issue because if they do so then they will quickly loose support from the general public.

If there is anyone reading this who thinks that we can all just reduce our carbon footprint and all adopt sustainable lifestyles to save the environment just consider for a moment, at the current rate of increase the world’s population doubles every forty years.

Just suppose we were successful in all our efforts to try and save the environment, bear in mind that our best efforts so far have only seen a small reduction in the rate of increase of carbon emissions.  However suppose that we were successful far beyond any reasonable expectations, suppose we cut our carbon emissions by half and that we found more economic ways to use resources so that we only use half the resources we currently use.  Would this implausible level of success be enough to save the planet?

No!

It would only postpone things.  In forty years time we would be back to the same situation as we face today except that there would be twice as many people on the planet.

There was a quote from David Attenborough (although I have not yet located the source or verified it but I do remember hearing it) in one of his programs he said “You cannot have infinite growth within a finite system, and anyone who thinks otherwise is either insane or is an economist.”

So, what can we do to reduce the population?

Not a lot!

Having babies, is so much a part of human life that it is rarely thought even to require a justification.  The majority of people do not even think about whether they should have children or not.  They just have them.  In other words, procreation is usually the consequence of sex rather than the result of a decision to bring more children into a world that already has far too many.

Any measures we introduce to restrict the growth of population will either be voluntary or they will be involuntary, both are ineffective.

Most democratic governments would not seriously consider imposing mandatory restrictions on the number of children their citizens can have, they know it would be political suicide and that they would be out at the next election.  Non democratic governments might introduce restrictions to the number of children its citizens can have but they do so at their own peril because these restrictions are highly unpopular and as we have seen in China they are not particularly effective, especially in the rural areas.

So what about voluntary reductions in the number of children?  We might see public awareness campaigns and offers of free contraception, adverts explaining the problem and urging people to exercise restraint.  These measures would only influence a portion of the population.

Those people who are intelligent enough to recognise the plight of the world would have fewer children.

Those people who are not intelligent enough to realise the peril or who couldn’t care less about it and those who have been inculcated into a religion which proclaims that their followers have the god given right to overpopulate the planet (that covers almost every religion) would go on breeding without restraint.

The result would be that the next generation would have fewer intelligent people who cared about the future of humanity and more people who only focus on their own immediate short term problems.  Evolution only rewards success at procreation.  Those who choose not to have children effectively remove themselves from the gene pool.

In other words, people who care about the state of the planet will be out competed by those who don’t.  In evolutionary terms a trait is only successful if it confers an advantage in terms of numbers of surviving offspring to those individuals who have it, and in this case stupidity confers an advantage and so it would proliferate.

So what is going to happen in the future?

That is very simple.  If we will not or cannot control our population then nature will control it for us.  When we have too many people for our food supply then some or all of them will starve.  When there are too many people for the space we have then disputes will arise and there will be wars.  If we turn our food production into a huge monoculture then sooner or later some disease or parasite will come along and wipe it out for us.

Nature is a huge web of interconnected systems all dependent on each other for their mutual survival.  If we destroy enough of this web then we will end up destroying ourselves.  Nature can survive without humans, it has done so for most of the history of our planet, can humans survive without nature?

I think not!

It’s that simple, overpopulation will eventually lead to a population crash.

We can only hope that we do not succeed in destroying all life on earth, that would be a pity because it is a beautiful place.