This article, The Invisible Hand Illusion, deals with a laboratory testing trick by which psychologists can make people feel as if they have an invisible hand. Ed Yong writes:
Hold your hand up in front of your face. It is patently obvious that the five-fingered thing in front of you is your hand, and the empty space next to it is not. But this ability to recognize your own body is more complicated than it first appears, and can be fooled through a surprisingly simple trick.
[A psychological `trick’ which had become a popular party trick] suggested to [Henrik Ehrsson from the Karolinska Institute] that even though we have a lifetime’s experience of owning our bodies, this seemingly ingrained feeling is actually very fragile. Our brain constructs it all the time using information from our senses.
And so it is that clever psychologists can make you think you have an invisible hand.
It’s odd to those who feel a need to think of a human being, their own self or another, as having some sort of well-formed existence given at conception or maturity or whatever. This is the mistake of thinking of an empirical creature, a human being, as metaphysically grounded, a complete being thought of as perhaps a `person’. I might describe this as `backdoor’ Platonism, a replacement of an ultimately erroneous but plausible and rationally stated understanding of being by mere assumptions, prejudices of a sort guaranteed to decay into superstitions if held too firmly and too consistently.
We are embodied but our individual `selves’ are constructed by our interactions with our own bodies and with a lot of surrounding entities, some of them abstract and not embodied, at least not in a direct way. (Embodiment can be a misleading description of, say, a community but it is a valid description if properly qualified by references, for example, to past and future generations or even the me of last year and the you of ten years from now.)
We are, in some reductionistic but legitimate sense, mappings in our brains, mappings which include both our individual and communal selves. In a book I released for download recently, A More Exact Understanding of Human Being, I wrote:
In the December, 2007 edition of Brain in the News published by Dana Foundation, there was a reprint of an article I Feel Your Pain which was published at Salon. It seems that specific brain-cells have been found which respond to distress on the part of a nearby creature. True pain can be felt when we see others suffering.
Why not? The destruction by fire of cells on the tips of our fingers doesn’t magically lead to pain felt in our brains or in parts of the nervous system between finger and brain. There is no magical, nor metaphysical, foundation to the processes of pain in our bodies. It’s a result of biological selection processes which favored nervous systems which registered damage in such ways as to force the organism to react strongly. There is something real about pain but that reality is mediated by way of nervous system interactions more the result of tinkering than of design of the sort possible to modern engineers.
It seems quite reasonable that we would be made so that those brain-cells registering pain might well react to the pain of others, especially others who might be members of our communities. It’s this simple: if we build drones or other robotic devices to monitor forests for fires, then any reaction tied to direct detection of a fire can also be activated if the robot sees another robot acting as if it detected a fire. In a human being, or another social animal, we can merely add a mapping `module’ in the brain to put ourselves in the place of another and that reaction is experienced as something akin to the pain we would feel if we were actually in that situation ourselves.
Tentatively, we can say that empathy is the response of certain brain-cells to certain sorts of stimuli. That stimuli can be directly provided by the surrounding environment or it can be provided by signaling of various sorts.
Is that really empathy? Is that what ties us together during times of distress and trouble? Is that what motivates some to take in orphans and others to go off to serve in regions just hit by natural disasters? Is that what leads Joe to feel sorry for a man who just lost his beloved wife even when he’s the jerk who cheated Joe out of a promotion? We seem to have a need for some sort of higher explanation, something that would raise our emotions—loves and hates—into a realm more pure than our world of flesh and blood, dirt and rocks. There’s no reason to expect such an explanation exists. Though the entities of this concrete realm be shaped from more abstract stuff, neither concrete entities of this world nor their complex aspects are to be found in some realm of ethereal being and beings.
This world seems to contain various sorts of two-edged swords. It’s hardly surprising that we come into existence as, shall we say, tentative individual persons and communal persons by way of processes which also leave us vulnerable to magician’s tricks and maybe to manipulation by various sorts of human predators.