Deeper: From Empathy Festival 2016

Decisions Decisions…

I was  fortunate enough to attend the fledgling festival of empathy meeting in Edinburgh in June 2016 which was to consider directions for the next Empathy Festival. But during the discussion I commented that “empathy is at the heart of all decision making”. But what did I really mean by that?


Well I think it is fair to start by saying that decision is also about measurement. The thing about measurement though is disturbingly, it turns out you cannot have an absolute measurement of anything! But how can this be? Well at this point, I am reminded of the conundrum of ‘The Infinite Coast’.

Supposing, you decided that you wanted to measure the actual length of the coast between say, the Scottish coastal village of Cockenzie’s West Harbour and the fishing harbour at Port Seton nearby. Now Scotland is known to have some particularly wiggly coast lines, and the coast between Cockenzie Harbour and Port Seton Harbour is no different. So lets start with say a meter ruler. But straightaway, we run into a problem, because we realise that already we are missing out quite a lot of detail. So, what to do? So we decide to measure the coast with a 50 cm ruler. But here again we don’t get very far before realising -that we still missing out quite a lot of detail.

By the time we get down to measuring by merely a 1 cm, we become dismayed to realise that we’re still missing out -yes still more details of the coast. And all the time as we measure with smaller and smaller measurements the length of the Coast begins to expand and expand. In the end to our horror, we start to realise, that perhaps the coast and its detail may well be infinite! Fortunately a great genius Max Planck, came up with a way of ending this madness! Using equation, Planck came up with a way of determining the smallest meaningful, useful measurements that one can make -the Plank Constant. Now that does not mean, that you can’t go on taking measurements beyond the Planck constant, but to do so, would mean you come up with measurements that were of increasing uselessness and meaninglessness.

Its a bit like the boiling point of water, now that should be pretty straight forward, but it just isn’t. This is because the boiling point of water at the top of Mount Everest is different to the boiling point below sea level -the difference of pressure between the two is considrable. Even if we took our measurement at sea level, the air pressure that directly effects the tempreture at which water boils, would be different in different geographical places. -And even then, we would have to contend with changing air pressure due to weather.-The point is, that we have to decide what we want to call our mean boiling point of water -just as it is for international time and in fact all measurements. Scientists arrive at standard measurements by observation, consultation, and finally yes, by consensus.

But synchrony at some level is also a part of consensus -and empathy. In your body there is only one organ that obviously measures time, it is situated just below the brain and just above the optic nerve, as it runs from the eye to the brain. But its sole function is only to measure if it is light or dark, by signal strength -and that’s it! Apart from this, there is no obvious clock in your brain, even despite the fact every cell in your body does have a clock of sorts in it. -And yet, there is no wiring or obvious connection between any of them in terms of time. Clearly some how, synchrony is happening -as you are alive and not in a heap on the floor! Let me put it to you this way; when you go to pick up your cup of coffee, you don’t have to think about picking up the cup, -because its an entirely empathic synchrony of your cognition, cells, nerves, mussels. Your body does not know about the human measurements notions  of time, but it does know about empathy. It knew about empathy from the beginning -from the empathy you had in the womb with your mothers body, that began that empathic synchrony.

But it also seems I am saying by this, empathy also happens on a subconscious level. Yes empathy is happening on an autonomic level and on an unconscious level in the mind. The thing is, potentiality is so vast that no one consciousness can possibly cope with it all -let alone the ‘infinite coast’ nature of potential. In this regard then, its amazing we manage any decisions at all! Yet we do.

It seems to me at least, with regard to coping with greater masses of potential, that empathy is natures answer to the ‘infinite coast’, that is, how we cope with the vast tidal wave of potential coming at us constantly. Empathy is what makes coping with mass potential manageable and entirely possible. To sum up, Empathy is the intrinsic element at the heart of all consensus. -Just as, we will find that those standard measurements we may find our selves using for our decisions, were themselves arrived at by consensus -who’s intrinsic element is empathy. Which is why I would say, empathy is not only the source of resolution, but as I said at the meeting, that empathy is at the crux of all decision making, – the axle at the heart of all decisions that we’ll ever make. And its degrees of absence is where the trouble starts.

CJB 2016.