Steven Meglitsch

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Are we capable of creating the global empathetic civilization?

I was fascinated a year or so ago to watch a YouTube vid from the The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) called «The Empathetic Civilization» (link: ) featuring a lecture by American economist Jeremy Rifkin. The gist of the message seemed to be that the human brain is softwired to be empathetic, and that history has been gradually expanding the scope of human empaty as civilization develops from close blood ties via regious groups to national identities, and even beyond.

What seems to be the problem? We have the knowledge and technology to communicate, identify and empathize with the whole of humanity, or even with the entire Biosphere – why can't we take the next step?

  • Nov 27 2012: Yes. The better off our contemporaries are, the better off we and our futurity are. (Positive cause/Positive effect)
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    Nov 26 2012: Yes indeed Steven, I absolutely believe that we are capable of creating a global empathetic community. The first step to creating anything, is to believe that it is possible:>)

    The human brain is growing, evolving, and we humans are realizing that we can think, feel, and make informed decisions. This evolution will make it more difficult to have control and power over other human beings, and it will serve as incentive for us to work together. As you insightfully mention, we have the knowledge and technology to communicate, identify and empathize with the whole of humanity.

    You ask..."why can't we take the next step"? Some of us ARE taking the next step, and some folks are locked in an old paradigm, which holds them hostage. Change is difficult for some people, and it seems like those who believe they have some power or control over others are less willing to take the next step toward contributing to a global community.
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    Gail .

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    Dec 15 2012: The answer is $$$$$$$$$$$$.

    The globe's fiscal model is a war-based model. It rewards the wealthy who profit from war and threatens the poor who are victimized by the global military industrial complex.

    Those who are threatened live in fear. Fear blocks empathy in the name of survival.

    Get rid of our current fiscal model OR legally end the possibility of a huge disparity of wealth and things will change. But that's a hard one to do because politicians who have the power to fix what is broken are "bought" by those who profit from keeping things broken.
  • Dec 1 2012: ...we have more technology less humanity...we are more nationalist than global...we are more religious than compassionate...the only step is talk to self, next to family, next to neighbour and flow more...crossing borders through technology is added advantage but waste without touching the above first...The Mindfood Chef
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    Nov 29 2012: We can; if the right message is preached with perseverance and determination.
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    Nov 27 2012: Hi Steven.

    The problem lies in the very structure of our brains - paradoxically in the empathetic mechanism itself.
    Empathy is the seed basis of language - it provides the bedrock commonality from which language can grow.

    For the development of extrinsic symbols (words, alphabets, numbers), we needed the mechanism of the autobiographical self (that part which tells stories of our experience and objectives). Th autobiographical self is needed to refine behavioral matching needed for language and teh tight social coupling that binds human community.

    However, there is a physical limit.

    For the purpose of understanding another human to a high degree of accuracy, we generate "models" of our "self" and the "other" in each relationship. These models evolve and converge through the mechanism of empathy. From this we get the words "stranger" and "friend" - a stranger is a new set of models that has not been refined to acuracy, while a "friend" is a set of models that are fully converged.
    Then there is "enemy". And enemy is the same as a friend - you understand him well, but he is known to be hostile. we generally cast all those outside our relationship sets as "enemy" - the false-positive bias ensures this.

    Each relationship pair model we create in our autobiographical zone, takes up a physical number of neurons. The work of Desmond Morris suggests that we have brain capacity for about 200 such sets - to exceed this might exceed the cranial size limited by the pelvic birth canal of our mothers. Morris suggests that the further development of pelvic size stopped with the advent of agriculture and stable agricultural tribe-size - 200 individuals.

    From that you can see a physiological limit to the application of global empathy.
    The gap between our 200-person tribe community and the 7 billion world community is not physiologically supported - intellectual devices are employed, but they have no physiological backstop.
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      Nov 27 2012: A very thought provoking response, Mitch. You are obviously astute on the subject of human neurology.

      I am absolutely sure that our neurology is made for social behavior. and that all of the basic byproducts of that neurology like family, society. culture, language etc. do so in the way they do because our brains (and the rest of our biology) work as they do.

      But even assuming that Morris is right about the number of relation sets we can cope with, the question is still open. Now you're an Aussie, and even though you couldn't concievably relate personally to 23 million other Aussies, you probably already have a relationship set that includes everyone else who's an Austrailian.

      Everyone has no doubt experienced the meeting of otherwise unacquainted people of the same nationaliy somewhere far from home, and quckly bonding temporarily even though they would never have liked each other at home. We can have quite a large number of identity pegs for use in a wide array of social situations. Some of my pegs are American, Norwegian, Spanish, European, Expatriot, emmigrant, immigrant, refugee, atheist,, etc.etc.etc. I see no problem with having identity pegs like Male, Human, or even "living being" that make it possible to identify with billions or even trillions of others.

      Remember the Haiti earthquake in 2010? Literally within hours of the disaster people (individuals) all over the world were responding. And you have seen how local populations respond when, say an oil spill threatens sea birds, or a whale is beached. There seems to be some kind of humanitarian reflex response that can kick in even though Desmond Morris thinks we aren't capable of it. And note that this empaty reflex doesn't seem to be limited to others of our own species.
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        Nov 27 2012: Hi Steven,

        For fully converged relashionship sets, the limit is a hard limit.
        There is obviously a tribal marker for group dynamics. But I would argue that such markers are modified by the false-positive fight/flight bias. (See the work done by Jane Elliot).
        The phenomenon we see of international empathy, such as in disaster scenarios, is an intellectual device supported by technology. The mirror neurons will respond to all perceptions of harm (danger, joy, happiness etc) presented to them through media.
        Although there is a limit for fully converged relationship sets, the abstraction which forms the model of autobiographical relationship sets is always operative in the short timeframe - but it is incapable of delivering a fully matured convergence which requires a significant body of memory.
        The phenomenon of the "away from home" bonding you observe indicates the degree of mapping required for creating a map of "other". The formation of self and other maps is a delta (difference map) which contains a portion you could call "customs" These are not empathy maps - they are causal maps - we are more comfortable with our tribe because the customs mapping is a body of assumed behavioural patterns - which become sublimated in world-view. Such delta maps are not expensive in neuronal mass - and several may be formed and applied to a limited number of what we call "cultures".
        Since these short-timeframe mappings are not available to full relationship convergence, this allows for some significant opportunities to exploit the process through intellectual manipulations.
        For instance, we can artificially induce empathic response with images of harm - particularly to those which invoke nurture - such as children or breeding-age females. One can just as easily invoke fight/flight by images of military threat (such as is being done with Iran). It is all artificial with no physiological backstop. And therefore no inbuilt checks and balances.
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      Nov 28 2012: Well, if what you're saying is right, Mitch, there would appear to be no point of trying to change things by creating grassroot organizations, political movements etc. because human mentality isn't capable of acting collectively by extending shared convictions like fairness, solidarity,.social justice, or other humanitarian, ideas to a global arena.

      In which case Ayn Rand and the Tea-Party people are right ... humans are made for societies in which egoism rather than empathy are the driving force. Wheras our capacity for egoisme is unlimited, our capacity for empathy is neurologically limited.

      I have problems accepting that to be fact.
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        Nov 28 2012: I do not accept that either! It is proven that we are NOT neurologically limited, and that we create new neurological pathways all the time...especially if we are mindfully aware of that possibility!

        "The person who says it cannot be done, should not interrupt the person doing it"
        (Chinese Proverb)

        Edit to Mitch regarding your comment below.
        I've noticed that I do not "attack" anyone or anything. This comment, which you label an "attack" is about neurological pathways...did you notice that? It appears that whenever anyone disagrees with you, you interpret it as an "attack"?
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          Nov 28 2012: You always attack the person - never the arguement - have you noticed that?
          I have, perhaps others have also.
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          Nov 28 2012: Q E D
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        Nov 28 2012: Ayn Rand is a hard read. She was onto something, but the obvious scars of an abusive childhood prevented her from talking the final steps.

        What I observe is that exploitation is a simple thing to do with creatures who are limited as we are.
        We are vulnerable to fashion - we create drugs at a faster rate than food and the platform of civillisation is crowded with idle chess players who produce nothing.

        The Marchers of peace soon find their plackards turned to weapons - and you will do it - as your forebares did. I saw you do it on 9/11 everyone with their mouths unable to say the plain truth before your eyes. All of you crushing anyone who dared proclaim the nakedness of your king - all of you lookig the other way and singing the eulogies for your sacrificial soldiers marching to rape the planet.
        Well, my arrogant friends, the stain of reality is moving in your midst. The taste of what empathy really is will turn bitter in our mouths. Look up - can you hear those drums of war?

        Empathy is to know your enemy just as well as to know your friend. Beyond that is dreams.

        Intellect will get us somewhere, but not with these kind of numbers.

        In the smoke of the passing of fashoin, a true law will be passed in the negotiation of tribes - that we never again climb the tower of Babel, not until the day that we can stand at the top.

        I live in hope that this is the time.

        Am I saying something cannot be done? No I am describing what is happening now - what IS being done - and why.

        The principle of nurture is known - but it's expression is false - we do and say what gets us through the next day.

        For myself, I am resolved to have no blood on my hands, and the spaces between the fashions of humanity are enough - for those prepared for sacrifice.
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          Nov 28 2012: Mitch,
          Please, please, please don't take over this thread, as you sometimes do, with your gloom and doom philosophizing.....please?

          We are only as limited as we think and feel that we are.

          Mitch, this is not an "attack". I am BEGGING you!
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    Nov 26 2012: To answer you in one phrase: Because their is no money in it.

    Social change/global awareness we see in our current world is thanks to a very low percentage of people who have courage and humanity to think beyond themselves.

    I am a business student myself and believe me it is disgusting what they teach us- basically it is all bout bottom line.
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      Nov 26 2012: Dear Kareem,
      As an insightful student, you are in a prime position to change the paradigm. I totally agree with takes courage and humanity to think beyond ourselves. It seems like you have already started to do so. I appreciate your forward thinking, and I'm sure you will do well in our world, because you ARE thinking and feeling beyond yourself and the bottom line...kudos to you my friend:>)
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      Nov 26 2012: One of the biggest barriers we face is our blind trust in money as the solution to everything.

      A friend of mine (French) who was going through business school (in Norway) at the time (he found out brutally, in the '80s, that his degrees in literature, history and philosophy didn't provide him any career options) told me after his first year: "Oh, there's nothing difficult about it, you don't need to use your brain. I have now been a student here for a year and nobody on campus, neither the students ror the professors has engaged me in any high-level discussion about theory. Everybody reads the textbooks and accepts that economy and finance follow irrefutable laws of nature."

      I agree with you both, Kareem and Colleen, With Kareem for pointing out one of the biggest obstacles to reaching the next level of human empathy - our addiction to money and profit, and with Colleen for pointing out that virtually anyone is capable of changing their way of thinking and start walking in a new, better direction.
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    Nov 27 2012: I believe:

    Humans have to go either to worldwide empathetic civilization or to self-extinction, just because of the same high tech and knowledge. No other ways.
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      Nov 27 2012: I am unsure, Ying, but I lean towards the same belief.
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    Nov 26 2012: In my view humanity is going in the opoosite direction. The rapidly developing technology and the whole culture of making all things easy has a rather dehumanizing effect on people.
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      Nov 26 2012: Dear Jedrek,
      It has the effect we ALLOW it to have on us. Technology is a tool, that we can use to advance, or we can use it to take us in another direction. Which do you, as an individual choose?