The Empathy Problem


How do we manage to feel empathy for fictional characters? How can the plight of beings that don’t exist affect us emotionally? The question isn’t whether or not we feel empathy for fictional characters: patently we do. The question is how? What is the mechanism that makes such empathy possible? This is a genuine philosophical problem that still hasn’t really been solved.

Say hello to Sea Tiger and Ramphastos! Here you see them in a variety of situations. They are fictional characters. Do you already have empathy for them? Unlikely: you don’t know enough about them yet. As it happens, I doubt you’ll ever have empathy for this particular pair of non-existent beings, for the simple reason that the story they are scheduled to appear in won’t have much emotional depth. I plan to create a narrative that consists entirely of (captioned) photographs similar to those featured here. ‘The Adventures of Sea Tiger and Ramphastos’ will be one of those fictions that don’t require any empathic connection to be complete (for the best examples of such fictions consult any volume of Borges’ or Barthelme’s short stories).

But that’s not the point. The point is that I could make Sea Tiger and Ramphastos into characters that a reader might have empathy for if I wanted to; or at least I could try to do so. And in such a case, and if the reader did indeed end up feeling empathy for them, what exactly would be going on? There is a mystery here that has intrigued me for a long time. Sea Tiger and Ramphastos don’t exist. That’s unarguable. And it’s impossible to feel empathy for beings that don’t exist.

When I made that statement on an internet forum recently, I was told that my basic premise was faulty. But I honestly don’t see how. It’s impossible to feel empathy for beings that don’t exist. Where’s the fault in that statement? Surely the proof is in the definition of the word ’empathy’ itself? To have empathy means to identify with some other individual, to put yourself in their shoes, to see the world from their point of view. But fictional characters don’t exist and something that doesn’t exist is a void, a nullity. So when you empathise with a fictional character, you are logically identifying with a void. The same critic went on to state that we develop empathy with fictional characters as we read about their lives, but that’s begging the question, presupposing the existence of the very thing that hasn’t yet been proved to exist. Fictional characters don’t have lives, for the simple reason that they don’t exist.

To restate the problem again: fictional characters don’t exist and it’s impossible to empathise with beings that don’t exist (can you have empathy with the number 0 or with a cubic metre of vacuum?). Stop for a moment and try to imagine what would happen if you did manage to successfully empathise with a being that doesn’t exist! By empathising and therefore identifying with a void, you would become that void, and the only way back out would be to empathise with something else quickly, but this would be impossible because to empathise you need a brain and a void doesn’t have one, so you would be stuck in that condition forever, an empty space where your body had once been, a black shapeless non-mass like one of the characters in Jack London’s ‘The Shadow and the Flash’. Briefly stated, turning into a void is a one-way trip.

And yet we do empathise with certain fictional characters. Secretly, I often identify with Jack Vance’s protagonists: they are often individualists trying to surmount social obstacles and make their mark on the cultures they live in. I feel empathy for those imperfect heroes, but how? What is the mechanism by which I do so? What is the mechanism by which you identity with your own favourite fictional characters? Whenever I posit this question I never get a straight answer. I mostly get a grumpy reaction that seems to consist of variations of the response, “Well, I’m capable of empathising with fictional characters even if you aren’t.” And yet, at no point have I said that I don’t empathise with fictional characters. What I’m asking is simply HOW do I empathise with them?

It was pointed out to me that Anne Frank doesn’t exist and yet we can’t fail to be moved by her diary; and that Bertie Wooster also doesn’t exist but that we feel an emotional resonance with him too. But these examples don’t belong in the same category. To put them together is a category mistake. Anne Frank doesn’t exist now, true, but she did once exist, and we must bear in mind that although her internal ego has vanished, her external ego persists (the concept of the external ego is less well-known than it deserves to be; simply put, what we are is not just what we think we are, but also the effect we have had on our environment). Proof that Anne Frank’s external ego exists is demonstrated in the fact that you know whom I’m talking about and know that she was a real person. Bertie Wooster, on the other hand, has neither an internal ego nor an authentic external ego. And yet it’s true that we can empathise with both of them. But the mechanism must be different, at least if we accept that Bertie Wooster is a fictional character and Anne Frank isn’t.

Suspension of disbelief may be cited as a mechanism to enable us to feel empathy for beings that don’t exist. We simply stop believing that they don’t exist. But this doesn’t change the basic fact that they don’t exist. I can believe in a wide variety of things, that the moon is made of glass, that unicorns work in pubs, that a dandrum’s favourite hobby is to forestall a bugaboo, but that doesn’t make any of those things true. Even if I convince myself that Bertie Wooster really lives, the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t. It would seem that the most we can really feel for him is quasi-empathy. And quasi-empathy isn’t empathy, in the same way that a quasar (a quasi-stellar object) isn’t a star.

So is all empathy for fictional characters really just quasi-empathy? Is the whole process of feeling empathy for a fictional character some sort of mistake or unsolvable paradox? I don’t think so. I have a feeling that the empathy we feel for fictional characters is real empathy; and yet if that is so, a viable mechanism is needed to explain it. I would like to suggest such a mechanism, namely the ‘many worlds interpretation’ first developed by Hugh Everett in 1957 as a solution to the quantum mechanics problem of what act of observation could collapse the wave function of the entire universe, a problem that Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation was unable to resolve satisfactorily.

In plain language, Everett’s theory allows for the coexistence of a vast number of parallel alternative realities in which every possible outcome of every potential action is real. So in trillions upon trillions upon trillions of universes, Bertie Wooster doesn’t exist, just as he doesn’t exist in this universe; but somewhere, in at least one parallel reality, he does exist, he’s real, a living person with an internal and external ego and therefore someone we can empathise with without violating logic.

This seems to me to be the most plausible and satisfying solution to the problem of how we manage to empathise with fictional characters. The answer is that, yes, they are fictional in our universe, but elsewhere they exist. So when we feel empathy for them and identify with them, we aren’t identifying with a void (which could be dangerous) but with beings that have substance, life and purpose. It just happens that those beings exist in another dimension. The logical outcome of this happy reasoning is that Sea Tiger and Ramphastos are also real, somewhere, and so I hope I do the pair justice when I finally relate their fictional and absurd (but also true and sensible) adventures.

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