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Learning, Cooperation and Avoiding Self-Destruction

April 19, 2011

Here are just a few brief disparate, but not wholly disconnected, thoughts I had the other day. They started with me thinking about one of my recurrent obsessions these days: physical pain. In particular, I was thinking about how it can really upset me, physically so, to see other people experience certain pains or discomforts. It’s like I become sick for a time with their pain; it casts a shadow over me for a while.

This got me thinking about the hypothesis that humans—indeed, probably most other sufficiently neurologically complex animals—have what are somewhat erroneously called “mirror neurons”. I say this terminology is somewhat erroneous in that there is not exactly some proper subset of neurons which are specifically “mirror neurons” and thereby distinct from the rest. It would be more accurate to say that there is a mirror neuron effect which takes place in certain systems of the nervous system. What the effect consists of is the activation of the neurons that would be used in an action but only by seeing someone else performing that action. It follows that when we see someone, say, getting punched in the stomach, we imagine what that is like, which is to say, the same neurons that would be involved in processing that stimuli are activated, even though for us the stimuli is only experienced second-hand.

So I’ve pointed up the fact of the existence of this mirror neuron effect. We could add to this further in calling it mirror neuron learning. That is, the simple evolutionary explanation for this effect is that it broadens the experiences we may have in life while keeping the costs of having those experiences down. A person can learn that fire is hot by observing another’s reaction after coming into contact with it. A person can improve his or her golf swing by watching a professional golfer. Tottlers can quickly pick up new behaviors just by watching others already learned in them. In short, the mirror neuron effect makes learning more efficient.

What I want to say and to emphasize here is that it is impossible to decouple mirror neuron learning from the possibility of empathizing with other people’s suffering. That is, it is impossible to do this and yet retain the same robustness of the learning faculty. If we get rid of the general faculty of empathizing with others’ pain, then to learn that contact with fire is painful it would not be sufficient to watch another person have their unfortunate reaction; rather, we too would have to get burned, thus suffering ourselves even more so. This fact offers us an answer to those who would too hastily curtail the role of what Adam Smith called “sympathetic passion” in grounding morality. For they say, “Sure, I may have a sympathetic pain or discomfort or suffering to another’s, but then why should that impel me to help them? Why should I not just turn away?” Yes, and so why not just turn off the pain empathizing component of our mirror neurons and leave everything else about them intact to suck up all that beneficial learning?

It sounds nice if we take too narrow or short-term a view of what is good for us. But then, as I said, to learn that contact with fire hurts, each one of us would have to relearn that same painful lesson. Everyone would suffer more, including ourselves. That’s the irony of proposing that the most expedient way to deal with empathizing with other people’s suffering is just to turn away or change the channel.

Now, I am not one who says that empathy is the foundation of morality; rather, I say that the existence of empathetic reactions, and their very necessity in such fundamental processes of evolutionary change as learning and the transmission of knowledge, is an expression of the moral law of the universe which is toward mutual cooperation rather than “nature, red in tooth and claw”.

Speaking of a certain form of irony, this leads me into a separate but related line of thought. And that is that the kind of individualism or egoism most famously trumpeted by Ayn Rand and her followers is inherently self-destructive. Even if one’s most important goal is the maximization of one’s own individual satisfaction, one will be thwarted if one aims at it directly or solely. This is not a simple matter of strategy. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s a matter of not holding onto a self-defeating, indeed, a self-contradictory, philosophy.

Interpreted as a philosophy, it is self-contradictory. What Epictetus said of Epicurus over 2000 years ago could apply quite closely: “So too Epicurus, when he wishes to get rid of the natural fellowship of men with one another, makes use of the very principle of which he is getting rid. For what does he say? ‘Men, be not deceived, be not misled or deluded. There is no natural fellowship of rational beings with one another: believe me. Those who state the contrary deceive you and mislead your reason.’” So Rand comes along. Listen to me! I have found the bedrock truth of reason and now I will tell it to you. Do not do anything for others. Do only what’s in your own self-interest.

Interpreted as a way of life, it is self-defeating. As I said above, if one aims to eliminate one’s empathizing with other people’s suffering, then one’s own ability to learn from and extract information from other people’s actions will be impoverished. So making one’s own comfort or happiness the end-all-be-all of one’s life is self-defeating. This is a familiar pattern. When we make such and such our main focus we end up subverting that very thing. I find this to be similar to the fact that science would be hobbled if it too narrowly construed its goal as being that of improving human well-being, or if it did as some people demand of it when bearing witness to some of its more theoretical arcana: be more practical. But much greater things come, including ways of advancing humanity, when science reaches for the stars. To paraphrase Francis Bacon (and many others): Aim large; seek truth for its own sake and the fruits will take care of themselves.

So here’s the didactic summary of this post  (a la George Orwell in his review of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom): “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”

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