Can the Study of Science Expand Our Feelings of Empathy?

Daniel Goldsmith presents a passionate and inspired look at the origins of the universe and the biology of human life to demonstrate the interconnections that define our existence, arguing that science is the key to promoting an ethic of understanding, empathy and nonviolence.

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It’s easy to view the history of science as the progressive conquest of the unknown. Over the centuries, humans have certainly made great strides in understanding the universe; phenomena that were once attributed to divine agency are now described in terms of predictable, physical laws.

This story of increasing illumination, however, is only one perspective. Every new scientific discovery we make opens up new avenues of inquiry (neither atoms nor their components are solid). “Solutions” often raise many more questions than they answer (what happened before the Big Bang?). Total knowledge of the universe seems impossible, something that even quantum physicists in their talk of matter’s “probabilities” and “tendencies” tacitly acknowledge.

It’s right here, on the edge of the known and the unknown, where I sense the most possibility for integrating all our magnificent discoveries to create a more empathic and understanding world. What good is knowing how the universe works if we use that knowledge to more efficiently destroy each other and our planet? Science in our time is like “a razor blade in the hands of a three year old,” as Einstein put it, and the only way to avoid the danger this poses is by collectively going through exactly the same process we all went through as children to reach adulthood.

As we grow, we gradually learn that we are not the center of the world. We see that actions have consequences for the future as well as the present. Our moral consideration expands to take the feelings of others into account. The key mechanism in all this is empathy: the capacity to inhabit another’s perspective, to feel what they’re experiencing, and perhaps be moved to respond to their suffering. And one of the most powerful tools to unlocking empathic understanding (ironically enough) is science itself, both in what it knows and, perhaps more importantly, what still eludes our comprehension.

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 If we start by examining what science has shown us about our world, we find on every level, from the physical to the chemical to the biological, the basic fact of interconnection.  Nothing in this universe exists independently. As John Muir said, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Everything exists in relation to everything else, something as true of quarks as it is of biomes. 

In biology, it is difficult to differentiate where one organism stops and another begins. For example, our bodies contain trillions of bacteria that (among other things) digest our food, without which we would be unable to live. Additionally, all the food we consume also depends on countless bacteria, insects, worms, animals, and humans for its production. Trees, algae, and other photosynthesizing plants exhale the air we breathe. Like every other organism, we are part of one vast, interconnected web of relationships; where we draw the line between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, between ‘ourselves’ and ‘the outside world’ seems quite arbitrary. When John Donne wrote, “No man is an island,” he was speaking literal truth.

The natural expression in our daily lives of this truth would be non-violence, understanding, and empathy for all beings. We are inseparably interconnected with all life, so whenever we harm others, we actually harm ourselves. Of course, it’s one thing to intellectually understand this, but to physically embody it is difficult because it goes against so much of our everyday perception and experience of ourselves as separate from everything else.

There is one technique, however, that’s been scientifically shown to increase empathetic understanding: meditation. Several studies have shown that regular meditators have increased brain activity in the areas linked with empathy. Even the US Marine Corps has taken note of the power of meditation and now offers courses in mindfulness training (“Marines expanding use of meditation training”,  New York Times  5 Dec. 2012). Meditation is a tool to help us align our emotions, perception, and behavior with the subtle, underlying truth that biology has revealed. “It’s all one” might sound a bit new-agey or sentimental, but a deep understanding of biology leads one to the same understanding that countless spiritual masters have reached.

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This understanding is widened even further when we explore what physics has uncovered in the past century. On every level, from the very smallest atomic elements to largest explosions in the universe itself, we see again the reality of interconnection.

 In the past 70 years, physicists have discovered that the violent deaths of massive stars are responsible for the heavier elements (above oxygen) in the universe. A supernova explosion scatters enriched elements like iron, zinc, and phosphorus throughout space, and some of this winds up in planets. And given enough time, some of those planets come alive.

In fact, if you trace the very atoms that make you up in this very moment far back enough, you’d discover their origins in the bellies of exploding stars. In the same way that biology blurs the line between ‘self’ and ‘other’, physics blurs the line between the ‘organic’ and ‘inorganic’, since the very same atoms that compose you as a life form were once parts of rocks, gases, and other ‘unintelligent matter’. This is what physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson calls “The Most Astounding Fact”:

“We are all stardust”- another poetic saying that actually turns out to be literal scientific truth! When you look out at the night sky, then, you’re not looking into some endless, empty void. You’re looking at you! The first thing that comes out of my mouth when I ponder this is, wow! What a precious gift it is to be alive! How marvelous that I am part of the universe that has the ability to marvel at itself and contemplate its workings!

It only takes nine seconds for Carl Sagan to express this:

 

So not only are we interconnected with all life on earth, but all life on earth is inseparable from the larger universe around us. We are not some isolated freak anomaly, but rather an expression of the very nature of the universe itself to come alive when the conditions are right. 

Again, I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that this type of wonder, which is so essential in the practice of science, can also help to bring about peace, understanding, and empathy in the social sphere.  An ontological understanding of the way things are leads naturally to ethical conduct in line with that reality. Looking into the sky and thinking about how all this came to be cannot help but expand our solidarity with other beings, since after all, everyone and everything else is as much a child of the cosmos as you are.

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Physicists have done an amazing job of describing how our universe works, but there’s a caveat: their descriptions are limited to what happened after the universe came into existence. We can describe with great precision the universe’s conditions going back to fractions of a second after the Big Bang. But when it comes to understanding the conditions in that initial moment of creation, or what happened before that, there’s still a great deal we still don’t understand. Carefully observing the universe lead us to understand there was a Big Bang, but we still draw a Big Blank as to how that originated.

Biologists find themselves in a similar position. While we can understand the history and mechanisms of the evolution of life, we’re still at a loss to explain how life originated in the first place. The famous Miller-Urey experiment in 1952 simulated the gases of the early atmosphere and showed that amino acid compounds can spontaneously arise in reaction to a source of energy (lightning). While this experiment showed how the “building blocks” of life might have arisen, we still don’t know how those building blocks managed to organize themselves into proteins and complex life forms. Some scientists estimate that we have up to a million different types of protein in the body, and to produce just one of them (collagen) 1,055 amino acids need to be arranged in exactly the right sequence—a feat that even Francis Crick in Life Itself admitted was nearly impossible to come about by mere chance. So in the past 200 years, we’ve done an amazing job of sketching earth’s tree of life, but we still don’t really know the origins of the seed from which it has grown.

This tends to disconcert people– but it shouldn’t. Instead of rushing in with an answer- it must have been God! or it all came about by mere chance – why not revel in the fact that we really have no clue?  Why not take the unknown in physics and biology to deepen our sense of mystery at how we’ve all been thrown in a boat whose origins, destination, and purpose none of us can claim to truly know?

Not only that, but on this boat of existence, we can’t really explain why some beings are born in luxury cabins and others in the furnace room. If you’re reading this sentence right now, you’re among the richest and most educated people in the world. Millions of other humans, for reasons of poverty, disease, or ignorance, will never have the time or education to contemplate their existence.

When I recognize I didn’t choose to be born in a healthy human body in a wealthy country, it makes me more sensitive to the suffering of those born into poverty or disease, who likewise did not choose their lot in life. I cannot take the right-wing line that poor people are poor because they’re lazy and deserve their poverty. Most of the advantages we have essentially come down to luck. Potentially, remembering that none of us really know how or why we got here would lead us to empathize with other beings who might not be as fortunate as we are, to freely share with them the gifts that have been freely given to us.

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Carl Sagan said, “We are the legacy of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution. We have a choice, we can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us or we can squander our 15 billion year heritage in meaningless self-destruction.” It’s ironic that science can serve as a tool for both the destruction and the enhancement. The people at the levers of the destruction, however, are usually not the scientists who have seen deeply into the nature of reality. Rather, it’s politicians and industrialists who can appreciate the power of science but not the responsibility that comes along with it. We’ve all heard the maxim that “knowledge is power,” but we need to understand that the greatest power comes not from knowing how to bend the outside world to your will, but in knowing yourself.

Any plan for world peace and understanding between people must start by cultivating peace and knowledge of the inner world. When you look down deep, beneath the masks of name, personality, religion, and nationality, to your atomic and biological structure, you discover something so precious, mysterious, and magnificent that it cannot help but bring a smile to your face. Keeping that smile while arguing with your lover or being rudely shoved in the metro, however, is a tall task that requires diligent patience, practice, and the support of others who are doing the same.  In the same way that science is not an individual endeavor, cultivating empathy and compassion requires a community of like-minded individuals as well. We have certain experts we can all look up to- Socrates, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and even Einstein- who can inspire our practice and remind us why empathy is the extension of self-knowledge.

We now live in an age where science has given us unprecedented access to dimensions of wonder and mystery. Let us hope that the experiments that give us knowledge of the outside world can also lead us to undertake the experiment in cultivating empathy as well.

Daniel Goldsmith

Humanities, Dawson College

Daniel’s essay reveals the awe that science can awaken in us. This opens an interesting avenue as new research is suggesting that this powerful emotional reaction might actually help our students develop empathy. Read a short article examining this research by clicking here. 


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