Empathy, Agency, and Turing Completeness

The ability to simulate other computational systems is incredibly powerful.  When a human mentally simulates a machine, we call it debugging or reasoning.  When a human mentally simulates another human, we call it empathy. Yet in both cases, the process is the same: a computational system (human or machine) models and predicts the behavior of another computational system. Turing completeness ends up looking so much like the ability to empathize that I’m willing to wave my hands a bit and say that Turing completeness is the ability to empathize.

When I think about what someone else feels, I need to use my imagination to simulate the flow of information through their head. For example, suppose I hear about a shooting, and I imagine what someone else must feel when they hear gunshots. As I imagine, my mind performs similar computations to those it would perform if I heard gunshots – “Where are my kids, where are those shots coming from, how can I get to safety?”  The act of doing this mental computation causes me to experience feelings of terror and panic. Those feelings allow me to relate better to the people around me.

I empathize with other people by using my imagination to trick my brain into performing computations that other people’s brains have performed. The act of performing those computations is what triggers my feelings. When I imagine a shooting, I feel panic and fear and anger. When I imagine eating a bowl of chocolate ice cream, I sense the faintest taste of  cold, creamy chocolate. What a person feels is a direct consequence of the information flowing through their brain. By making similar information flow through my brain, I cause myself to experience similar feelings.

The ability to relate to people around me is powerful. My life improved dramatically when I learned that empathy was an important skill and started practicing it. As I got better at empathizing with people around me, my social interactions stopped being so difficult and confusing. I started to understand better why life had been so perplexing before I’d developed this ability. 

Basis for Agency

Empathy won’t just help you interact better with others. It will help you cultivate agency in your life. As you get better at empathizing with yourself, you’ll get better at habitually making choices that serve you.

All social control systems reward some behaviors and threaten others. Individual persons are given “inputs” (i.e. promises of money, positions of status, threats to cut off their money supply or instigate violence against them). People generally respond in ways that the control systems intend. Thus, the systems have control

To cultivate your agency, you need to understand yourself, your motives, and your drives. In other words, you need to be able to empathize with yourself. I often have thoughts like, “Yes, there is a desire to drink this beer now, but I know if I do that, I’ll have trouble sleeping later.”  When I think this way, I cause my agency to overpower my desires. By empathizing with my future self, instead of my present self, I end up being far happier in the long run. In the short run, whenever I turn down something that’s bad for me, I reward myself by remembering how awesome it feels to be in charge of my own life. I make a make a little roar in victory, “YES!”, and enjoy a wicked grin, thus self-administering a shot of dopamine, which feels great and makes this process easier to repeat.

Knowing how other systems think and feel can also be helpful. For example, businesses put sugar in many foods, because sugary foods sell better. Businesses want you to buy more, and they know certain techniques which seem to work. If you know how sugar affects you, and you know businesses add sugar to get you to buy more, then you can make choices that get you outcomes that you actually want. Understanding how the business feels (greed, hope for a specific outcome) can allow you to avoid being controlled by the business.

Note that simply being aware of your actual biological needs may not be enough. It may be the case that you are addicted to sugar and believe it is your own fault, or that you cannot control this addiction. However, if you put yourself in the position of the businesses, you realize that your temporary sugar addiction is something they did. They’re afraid you’ll realize what they’re up to! They want you to feel like you’re addicted can’t can’t change this outcome. They’re totally happy if you say “well, I have no say, as I am merely atoms responding to mathematical laws.” The last thing they want is for you to say “fuck this company, I’m not buying food that’s not good for me.”

If knowing you’ve been controlled by someone else makes you angry, that anger can be used as a fuel. Strong emotions can help break control systems that work against you. Knowing that businesses are trying to use you for their own benefit, you can empower yourself to alter your choices accordingly. Choosing not to buy the sugary food lets you feel the satisfaction of punching a bad guy in the gut – it becomes an act of agency on your part, against the villainous entities that would enslave you for their profit.  Congratulations! You have regained agency. 

There may be no dragons to slay in the modern world, but there are plenty of villains, all of them smiling, with reasonable-sounding justifications for their villainy. You can still beat these villains, not with violence, but by fiercely controlling where you spend your money, time, and attention. Note that having agency still allows you to buy products with sugar. The difference is that the purchases become your choices, instead of the choices of businesses which add sugar in an attempt to control your purchasing decisions.

I’ll bet lots of what you do, day in and day out, isn’t serving you – it’s serving someone else’s bank account. I know this is true of me – but it’s less true than it was. I’ve found that the more I learn about and understand my own drives, the more free I have become from the various baited hooks dangled about by the modern economy. Turning off social media and shutting out the news have allowed me to move more in the directions I’ve wanted, and be less moved in directions that serve people I don’t know or particularly care for.

Empathy and Happiness

The choice to empathize with someone who is upset at you is very difficult — but has improved my life in a huge way. If you get in the habit of regularly thinking from other people’s perspective, I promise your life will improve to a remarkable to degree. You’ll get in arguments less often, and when you do, they’ll bother you less. You’ll be quicker to forgive, and thus less bothered by the hurt people have done to you. You’ll understand people who used to baffle you, and you’ll find that everyone around you suddenly becomes more reasonable, as if by magic. It’s almost as if your ability to accurately predict other people’s responses changes their responses to your behavior.

Even if you are totally alone, empathy is useful. Our brains have a crazy amount of computational power at their disposal. Our brains are also primed to look for danger. When you work on simulating your copy of yourself — when your default mode network is active and your mind wanders — you tend to get unhappy pretty quickly. When you think about other people, you can’t get nearly as far down the recursive call stack, because you don’t know nearly as much about others as you do about yourself. This is why people who routinely think about others are much happier — thinking about yourself all the time is a surefire way to make yourself miserable.

I’d say I do this type of thinking — about myself — maybe 40% of the day. That’s a long drop from the 100% it used to be, and I’m substantially happier for it. When I wrote an early draft of this article, about four years ago, that number was closer to 80%.  I’ve got a long way to go, though. I’m still mostly a meat robot, who occasionally experiences the joy of thinking of others.

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