Einstein's Watch - An Exploration of Empathy

A post by reddit user, johnnynottoscale, originally found here: 
Quoted here and shared with author’s explicit permission.

em·pa·thy/ˈempəTHē/ : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this.

Einstein maintained a healthy skepticism towards concepts. On the subject of scientific theories he wrote: “Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.” In other words: our ideas about how the universe works are merely ideas, and we ought not confuse them with reality. He follows this with an illuminating analogy:

In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.

Now, dear reader, you may be wondering just how this might relate to empathy, the purported subject of this blog post. There is a parallel to be drawn: We are all Einstein’s watches to one another.

You see, the human condition is rigged so that my subjective reality is not yours to experience, and words are often the flimsiest bridges between people. So essentially, we are mysteries to one another. Like Einstein’s watch, I’m unable to peer inside of your head to see what makes you tick. So like any good scientist, I collect data, and I test various hypotheses. Eventually I build a model in my head that represents you. Its dimensions and contours fit all the data, and I may be tempted to say that it is you–but that would be the terminal point of empathy.

All to often, we confuse others with the ideas we have of them in our heads. Seems innocuous enough; we have evidence to back our ideas up…it’s not like we’re pulling something out of thin air, right? However, if you follow this pseudo-empathy to its extremities, you’ll find the foundation of all the fucked up racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and just about any other other-phobia in the world.

When you become complacent and satisfied that you know someone, you’ve lost your curiosity. You’ve forgotten that the model in your head is just a model in your head, and you’ve mistaken it with reality. A true scientist is never wholly satisfied with his theory–regardless of how many data points he has to corroborate it. Just as science has undergone revolution after revolution–from ‘God pulls all the strings’ to Newtonian physics to Relativity and Quantum Mechanics–our concepts of others should always be open-ended and subject to change, for they are quite capable of undergoing revolutions of their own.

The most exciting aspect of my relationship with my wife has not been the prospect of ever knowing her completely. Rather, it’s been the perpetual fleshing out and revision of my idea of her. Countless times I’ve had to scratch off an adjective or bullshit freudian analysis I’d stuck on her. Countless times I’ve run into uncharted territory, which has thankfully been mostly beautiful and fascinating. Our relationship has had such success because each of us allows the other’s being to speak for itself. We do not invent intentions for one another. I don’t reduce her to a simple sum of forces [genetics + environment + culture + race + personal history] not because I think that the solution to such an equation would be wrong, but because I can’t pretend to know and grasp all of the intricacies and details of all of those variables. For all intents and purposes, she is Einstein’s watch to me.