with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 065: Utopia on earth and morality without guilt (with Joe Carlsmith)

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August 12, 2021

What are some of the challenges of defining utopia? What should a utopia look like? What are concrete versus sublime utopias? What are some of the failure modes related to various conceptions of utopia? Is it really that hard to create a shared, positive vision of the future? What is the value (or disvalue) of creating new people, especially in relation to the utopic or dystopic state of the world? What is "whole-hearted morality" versus "morality-as-taxes"? How can we encourage people to be more moral without harming them psychologically (e.g., by loading them down with guilt)? Which sorts of worldview changes are reversible? Where does clinging fit into the constellation of concepts like valuing, caring, envying, etc.? How does non-attachment differ from indifference? Is clinging always bad? Is philosophy making tangible progress as a field? Is philosophy's primary function to show us how our questions are confused rather than to give us direct answers to our questions? Has philosophy given us a clearer picture of what consciousness is or isn't?

Joe Carlsmith is a research analyst at Open Philanthropy and a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on risks to humanity's long-term future. He has a BPhil from Oxford and a BA from Yale, both in philosophy. His website is, his blog is, and his Twitter handle is @jkcarlsmith.

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Joe Carlsmith about categories of utopia, animal ethics, emotional attachment, and consciousness.

SPENCER: Joe, welcome. It's great to have you on.

JOE: Great to be here. So just a short disclaimer, I'm speaking solely on behalf of myself and not on behalf of my employer.

SPENCER: So the first topic I want to discuss with you is utopia, and some of the challenges of defining utopia, and what you think utopia should look like. So join us give us a little background on that.

JOE: Sure. So utopia, at least as I'll use the term refers to a future that expresses and makes real just how good life can be. And I like to think of two categories of utopia or two ways humans kind of envision utopia: concrete and sublime. So, concrete utopias are imagined in kind of human scale specific terms. Whereas sublime utopias are imagined in a way that foregrounds their incomprehensibility. So an example in the context of heaven, which is a kind of analog of utopia would be concrete, heaven is something like, you sing songs, and you float on fluffy clouds and you meet your family. Whereas a sublime version of heaven would be something like you are unified in perfect love with God for eternity in a way that you can't comprehend but trust me, it's awesome. And I think we kind of oscillate between these two ways of conceiving of the kind of best possible outcome for our species in our civilization. I think they have corresponding failure modes.

SPENCER: Yeah, that's really interesting. I remember Holden Karnofsky did some research on utopias, just running some studies and getting people's impressions and so on. And one of the things I remember about it is that as soon as he started providing really specific details about what's in the utopia, people would have objections to it. You know, like, for example, let's say he says, "Well, in this utopia, people can do whatever they want." And then some people like, "Do whatever you want? That's terrible." I wish people should just do whatever they want. You know, whereas there was a lot more agreement around things we don't want in a utopia, like we don't want suffering, or at least we want less suffering. We don't want disease. We don't want poverty, right? So there's a lot of consensus around that. But as soon as you start adding details, people start objecting to it.

JOE: Yeah, I think there's a whole genre of human thought devoted to kind of objecting to supposedly good visions of sometimes this comes up actually, in the context of heaven to people be like, I don't want to sing hymns. But that sounds so boring. And people say the same thing about utopia. And I think that's understandable for a lot of reasons. Maybe I'll just give a quick example that I think of in this respect, I have a friend who his vision of utopia or what he wants to do in Utopia is sit on a giant pile of pizza, and play video games all day. I think this is somewhat tongue in cheek, but I think it illustrates one person's Utopia might not be another's.

SPENCER: There reminds me of this Nick Bostrom quote that you have in one of your blog posts related to this, which I really like, I'll just read it real quick. He says, "What if the great apes had asked whether they should evolve into Homo sapiens, pros and cons, and they had listed on the pro side, oh, we could have a lot of bananas if we became human." Well, we can have unlimited bananas now. But there's more of the human condition than that. And sort of like, if we, as they're sort of limited, human beings are imagining utopia, we don't want to fall into just "Oh, wow, we could have lots of bananas utopia," because that's what we happen to want right now.

JOE: That's a very salient way of underestimating utopia. And I think, I think Bostrom's example brings it out really nicely.

SPENCER: So I think utopia is really important because it can give us theoretically, a shared vision of like what we as a species are aiming for in the distant future, right? Like, what are we driving at? What if everything goes really, really well, for our species? What do we want to happen? I think that's really exciting, motivating, inspiring. And yet, almost all science fiction seems to be about dystopias, not utopia, it seems really, really hard to create the shared visions of the future. So I'm curious if you have a reaction to that.

JOE: So I think I'm less worried about this than many people. Yeah, many people take it as sort of a very deep truth that it's kind of hard to come up with a picture of utopia that sounds appealing, especially on scrutiny, or to lots of people. And yeah, thinking about dystopias is a lot easier. I'm not sure we should expect to be able to come up with a concrete vision of utopia from our current vantage point. I mean, you might use the apes analogy, again, kind of how much evidence suppose the apes are sitting around and they're saying, are bananas that great? You know, if we had all these bananas about, would that be boring? Or how are we going to bananas or maybe maybe too many bananas is sort of indulgent and we become slothful, and we're just eating bananas all day. And all of this, it's not clear that this is really making contact with what kind of potential for life in civilization is at stake in the choice. I expect something similar is true of humans currently debating in these sort of limited abstract contexts often is sort of literary, it's maybe politically framed it in various ways. I don't see that as very strong evidence for sort of, actually how good could utopia be if we put a sustained, mature kind of serious effort into trying to build it, which is different from doing that now. I think building utopia as a sort of giant generational project kind of bet that we, in our current vantage point shouldn't either expect to be able to do or actually attempt.

SPENCER: I suspect that the reason why science fiction tends to have these dystopias rather than utopias, it's just that it actually fits stories much better. A dystopia has a sort of built in conflict element and in a perfect world, you don't have conflict, it's kind of harder to read a story about that.

JOE: I think that might play a role. Another possibility that I think might be in play is that often people's depictions of both dystopia and Utopia are meant as commentaries on the contemporary world on some desired change or some threat. You know, often dystopias will sort of take an existing tendency of human civilization and exaggerate it to a point where you can see how it might be really awful. And correspondingly, sometimes utopias will be an attempt to imagine a certain type of political ideology and its fulfillment. And sometimes they're sort of subtly depicted as dystopias, or it just seems dystopic. So I think it could be the sense in which these visions are often kind of caught up with our current political debates and uncertainties, that gives them the sort of unappealing vibe.

SPENCER: That makes sense. So going back to this idea of concrete utopia, and sublime utopia, do you want us to be sort of more sublime in our utopian vision? Or what do you take away from that characterization?

JOE: I tend to think that we should be more sublime we should be more conscious of just how radically different the best world we could create could be. And that's a really important step. I think there are failure modes to the sublime mode, as well. So basically, if you go too far in the direction of sublimity, and incomprehensibility, then you can lose all contact with what's actually appealing in human terms about utopia. So I think that the heaven example might illustrate this. When you talk about seeing your family, again, in some sense, that's kind of small and parochial, but it's also something we really deeply want, and we're really familiar with, and that connects with us and in a direct way. Whereas if you talk about eternal union with God, you know, that can kind of wash out into this haze of blankness and kind of white light. And it's sort of stated to be appealing, but it doesn't actually connect with that. So I think there are failure modes into sublime mode, too.

SPENCER: Right. It doesn't get our emotion of like, hey, I really want that going. Right?

JOE: Yes, exactly.

SPENCER: Yeah, that's really interesting. So I think one point that you make in your essay, titled "Actually Possible Thoughts in Utopia", it's awesome check it out, it'll be in the show notes, is that when we talk about these things, it could seem like a sort of abstract exercise. But if civilization continues for long enough, like we might actually be able to build a utopia, like it may actually be on the table as a possibility, do you want to comment on that?

JOE: I think it's an important and sometimes mundane fact about our situation, that life collectively and individually could be profoundly good and profoundly better than it is today. And I think that can get lost in the discourse about utopia as it plays into a kind of symbolic or political or other other sorts of abstract discourse that we use, it's often a kind of site of debate about our ideals and our values and about anything that is such that it can feel kind of like a fantasy or an empty symbol. And it's just true in a kind of mundane sense that if we play our cards right, we could do something profound and extraordinary with this chance to be alive.

SPENCER: So if someone's not excited about utopia, what would you say to them?

JOE: My preferred mode is, it's more in the sublime vein, but it proceeds by extrapolating from the best that we've touched in our own lives. So I think experiences are one example though it doesn't need to be kind of personal. This can also be a kind of collective or relational shift. But basically, when you notice, sometimes life shifts in a direction that we are kind of startled by its goodness and importance, where something you know, there's maybe it's a moment of kind of raw, joy, love, beauty, energy, or immensity, something that really makes us sit up straight, and we just tend to sort of say, "Whoa, this is the real deal." This is, in some sense, pointing at something I wasn't realizing was possible or that is kind of beyond a kind of mundane or everyday conception of what's at stake in life. And so my preferred mode of thinking about utopia is to kind of extrapolate from that trajectory. So watch the direction that your mind or your relationships or your communities moved in these shifts into something that's kind of better. So some shift along a dimension we really, really care about. And then kind of imagine going much, much further in that direction, kind of looking down that direction, and kind of seeing the distance it could go and thinking of utopia via that type of extrapolation.

SPENCER: Got it. So the way you felt when you watch the most beautiful sunset of your life with the people you love most and then like, multiply that by 100, both in intensity and how frequently you feel about these deeply meaningful, profound seeming emotions and that kind of idea.

JOE: That's the kind of idea. I'm a little hesitant to get too specific about it. Because if you say something like, "Oh, you know, remember that awesome time, and you're gonna have that all the time. And then it can come to like all the time," it's so I think mostly, I want to use that as a pointer sort of, look, this is really possible. And we basically know that it's possible, because we see our minds, our relationships, and our communities move in dramatic ways along these trajectories, with kind of a relatively mundane shifts in your brain chemistry, or just like what's going on in a social group, or kind of like a certain type of vibe, all of which are kind of really, in some sense, underpowered modes of intervention on how good things are. So I think that gives us just a really substantive form of evidence about what's possible, and also kind of how little, we've dipped our toe into the ocean.

SPENCER: It seems like psychedelic shows are kind of existence proof where sometimes people have a psychedelic experience that they're just like, wow, that's like reality times 1000, in terms of the sense of meaning I have with it, or the sense of happiness to have something like that. And not that people would want that feeling all the time, but just sort of shows that even our current architecture of our minds, even if we're not talking about a future scenario, where we like, change our minds into computers, or hacker mindset, or even if we just have the same neural architecture that supports some kind of incredible mental states that are possible, but you know, that we rarely end up in.

JOE: I think for some people, psychedelics are kind of really important existence proof in this respect, I don't actually think it's necessary, I think, people's experience of love, or beauty, or music, or kind of connection with other humans or dance, I mean, there's just all sorts of peak experiences, or, I mean, maybe we could try to be subtler, we can imagine kind of non-peak, non-dramatic experiences, but they're still somehow precious and kind of luminous. What is that dimension that you're moving along there, where even if it's not sort of fireworks is still something that you experienced as as profound in some way. I'm hesitant to rely too much on these sort of exotic experiences, like psychedelics have all sorts of connotations for people, they bring up questions about, oh, is that authentic? Is it sort of fake? Are you just sort of juicing yourself? And in some sense, you're kind of being taken out of reality? I think there's a lot of connotations that come up with that same with sort of mystical experiences, I don't think we need to look to that I think we can look at just the everyday love and joy that for many people is central to what gives their life purpose and meaning.

SPENCER: Is there any more concrete utopia that gets you really inspired or or sublime for that matter that they even have you think about?

JOE: Well, I find myself I'm subject much less than others to the feeling even when I encounter a concrete utopia, that it's sort of bad to me that the issue is more than it feels small and parochial and kind of too controlled and comprehensible. So I don't know even for heaven, I, sometimes I'll imagine people like, oh, you know, I don't even like hymns. Heaven is just like church, and church is boring. And they're sort of imagining these dry hymns as sort of like, man, the hymns in heaven could be so good. Yeah, it could be these these sort of intricate, lush stories, I have some visions, I actually haven't read this, I think toking his kind of cosmology begins with some sort of song, there's, there's sort of all these beings that are like singing the universe. So I think music is an example for me, when I think about things as in some sense, infused with music, that to me brings a kind of utopian, or it gives me some sense of what I might imagine and Utopia sort of music or something akin to music.

SPENCER: Yeah, it's interesting to think about just take any experience that might be like, somewhat enjoyable now, and then like, what is the version of that, that you could, you know, listen to every day and find it deeply enjoyable and profound, and you'd never get tired of it. And that kind of thing because it's so complex, or are so beautiful, or whatever.

JOE: I think there are visions of heaven, for example, where you are imagining an infinite journey deeper and deeper into relationship with God, where they're kind of journey, quality is an important part. It's not I think part of what's hard about some of these ideas is that they feel kind of static, when you said, or you listened to it every day, somehow the idea of doing something every day, I think it can bring up in a sense, every day, and it's like, it's better be pretty good.

SPENCER: And it can feel kind of joy drinking tea every day. I don't get bored of it. Imagine music and heaven dreadfully much better than tea.

JOE: That's fair. That's true. But I guess I think sometimes bringing in a kind of dynamic quality of like, this is something that will be increasing in its intensity and its beauty and your understanding. It's sort of it's not a stable state. It's something it's sort of an ever deepening journey into into something. I think that to me is very compelling. An issue is that I think that's actually not going to be true. I think that's actually just a salient difference between utopia and heaven. That utopia, unlike heaven is actually it's going to have a number of kind of new be gritty. Sorry, if we build it. Obviously, it'll still have a number of kind of nitty gritty constraints on resources. And how do we resolve conflicts? How do we do all sorts of stuff? It's not going to be kind of perfect or unlimited. So you can't have a kind of infinite journey, though, you might have a long one.

SPENCER: There's a really fun study where they ping people at random moments in their day. This is done at Yohannes, Gutenberg University. And they basically for each moment, they asked people suppose that you had this playlist of life experiences they would they would play forever after you died? Would you want this moment you're choosing right now to be in the playlist? And about 70% of the time they said no, but about but then the rest? They would typically say yes. And it's kind of a interesting thought of like, how many of our moments in our life would we like, want to be in the Infinite Playlist if we just had to rewatch our life forever after he died? And you can imagine, I mean, this is kind of a funny operationalization of utopias, like, could we get that number of moments that we bought in the playlist much higher than 30%?

JOE: Yeah, that's a really interesting thought experiment, I guess, when it comes up for me here and that I'm kind of like, what is this playlist on shuffle? Is it your normal life? But you've kind of are you just skipping the parts that didn't get included? I mean, it's very similar to I don't know if there's this thought experiment, I think Nisha is associated with the chair, I'm not sure who first came up with it of kind of the the notion of an eternal return, where you live your life, such that you would be okay with reliving it eternally over and over. I know the playoffs sounds almost like an edited version of that.

SPENCER: Interesting. Yeah. Well, you know, thinking about utopia, one question that comes up is, how many beings would we want there, right? Like, would it be better if we just made more people are more conscious beings. If the lives of people are really good, maybe we want more lives, because then that's even more good. But then I think a lot of philosophers and lay people as well have this intuition that, I think as a famous saying goes, it's good to make people happy. It's not so good to make happy people that is create new people from scratch. They're happy. And so I'm curious to hear your kind of reactions and thoughts on that.

JOE: Yeah, so a lot of people have an intuition in that vein, that it's just sort of, there's no other regarding reason to create new happy people. So say you're having kids, you might have kids, because you think it'll make you happy. And maybe you're concerned about your financial situation. But you might not be thinking about the fact that you're doing something for someone or you're in some sense giving, you have reason to do this that isn't about its effect on you, it's about its effect on the person you're creating. My intuition is the is the opposite. My intuition is that there's something profoundly significant and important and good about creating new people who will live wonderful lives. And I think that basically comes from reflecting on how much my own life means to me, and how precious my own kind of experiences and relationships and projects seem. And then so when I imagine someone in a position to to create me, who can kind of see what sort of life they would be creating, and then I can look in and see the full richness of everything I've experienced and done everything I love and care about, and then they choose to crave me or let's say they don't, let's say they can go to get a sandwich or have a nice walk in the park. You know what I imagine that person tune in to create me I feel this kind of intense type of gratitude. And it seems clear that they've done something of profound significance for me. And so when I think about them, the reverse, where I'm choosing to create someone whose life will mean as much to them as mine means to me, you know, I sort of remember that significance, and there's almost a kind of golden rule energy about it. I don't want people to be neutral about creating me, so I shouldn't be neutral about creating them.

SPENCER: Interesting. So what are some of the reasons that you think people resist this intuition? Why they feel like it's not good to create new people?

JOE: So I think one is that they often it's just a brute intuition. People just feel like, Nope, it doesn't seem like that to me, it seems like it's kind of neutral. Another, I think, has to do with kind of metaphysical concerns that come up in the context of, this is in philosophy, a reason people give for resisting this is some sort of hesitation about the sense in which it can be better for you to exist rather than not exist. And there's somewhere that if it's not better for you to exist, rather than not exist, then in what sense? Is this a kind of good thing to do? If it's not better for someone?

SPENCER: It can't be better for you. Because if you don't exist, then there is no utility better for?

JOE: Yes, exactly.

SPENCER: Interesting. Any other kind of objections people raise?

JOE: So I think a third category would have more to do with the kind of practical implications of different views in this respect. So you might say, Oh, does this mean I'm kind of obligated to have as many kids as possible? Or what does this mean about overpopulation? Or what does this mean about human extinction or all sorts of other issues? And I think those are serious concerns. It's not obvious, though, that those implicate the neutrality piece in particular, as opposed to the weight that we give to the reasons to create these new people. So I do think it's a substantively additional question granted that we have some reason to create new people, how should that feed into our practical decision making and everyday actual life and how does it weigh against other considerations? Those seem to me like your complicated questions. But I think people, it's at least possible to confuse the question of whether there's any reason to create new people with wonderful lives with sort of concrete implications that involve creating new people and seeing that as good.

SPENCER: So you keep this caveat, when you were talking about this, that if a person has a wonderful life, you have a strong intuition that their life is worth creating. What if they have a life that just sort of barely worth living or if we imagine zeros, the neutral point, completely neutral life sort of indifferent, it's hard to define the neutral point, is it like zero happiness? Or is it just like an average of zero happiness? Or is it just the person's in different delivering or dying, but we have a way to find neutral? What about life is just above neutral?

JOE: This sort of just barely cases can be somewhat misleading to dwell on a lot, I just have to say, but this is kind of from a theoretical perspective. And I would say they're just barely worth creating if they're just barely worth living.

SPENCER: Okay, so this is still worth creating, but like, not very much.

JOE: Yes.

SPENCER: That's interesting thing about. So I like to do this experiment when it comes to thinking about animal effects sometimes where I say, okay, so yeah, I'm just looking at some numbers here. Seems like a chicken is about five pounds of meat, and it's life for about 3000 calories, right? Let's say it takes me 25 minutes to eat a chicken or something like this. Or maybe you'd have a chicken, let's say, would I be willing to spend half a chicken's life in a factory farm in order to then get to experience the the benefit of the 25 minutes of eating chicken. And when you think that way, it seems kind of pretty preposterous that that's a worthwhile trade off, right? Like spitting out for chickens life in a factory farm to get to enjoy that experience of eating chicken.

JOE: I like that thought experiment a lot. I think that's very evocative.

SPENCER: Now, of course, we don't really know what it's like to be a chicken. And there's sort of a cheating here a bit, because all I can do is imagine myself as a chicken, I can't really imagine what it's like to be the chicken.

JOE: I mean, I think that is a very important source of uncertainty there. So certainly, you shouldn't be imagining Spencer crammed into a battery cage, there's a lot of open question in terms of what is it actually really like to be a chicken for that time. But I think it doesn't lose all of its power for all of that.

SPENCER: Right? I try to imagine the parts of me that are most I want to move around, and I want to like eat food, and that kind of thing. And there are parts of me would be pretty upset still about being in a cage, you know? So going back to the question about creating happy lives. Suppose that it turned out that the way to maximize happiness was just to make extremely simple organisms that had like barely happy lives. But you could just cram more of the men or something like that. So I wonder where if that starts to kind of create a little bit of like a tension with with this view, that it's good to create them? The philosophers have thought about this a lot. And so curious to hear your reaction on that.

JOE: Yeah, I mean, so this is definitely one of the most serious objections to this kind of view. And in fact, to give it its due, I think you can actually go further and say, so this objection is often labeled the repugnant conclusion, namely, that for any population of people who are sort of extremely, extremely happy, there's a better population consisting entirely of lives that are just barely worth living. For example, let's say they're kind of lizards basking in the sun, or the lukewarm sun, it's not even that good. They're not even that happy. But I think it's actually worse. So actually, there's this really repugnant conclusion, which is that for any happy population, there's a population with us a hell of any size, and then the lizards. And that's better.

SPENCER: Do you think increasing, because even though some people are in hell, which is like, pretty much the worst thing you can imagine, there's so many of these lizards like basking in this slightly good sun, the net sum balances out and makes it a good world.

JOE: Yes. I mean, if we're playing the game of kind of constructing the worst objections to a given view, you can pile in a bunch of different objections. So yeah, that one kind of draws on our especially strong kind of just like of suffering, and then you can bring in oh, maybe you create the hell and then you have some tiny probability of creating the lizards. And you should do that. And so you could keep going, but it sometimes we're just totally

SPENCER: Like a one in a million chance of creating like a quadrillion, suddenly, happy lizards or something like this.

JOE: Yep. And you take the hell guaranteed.

SPENCER: Wow, you're really getting these wicked examples.

JOE: Yeah, but I should say, I mean, I think it can feel like we're getting additional information from bringing these things, but really, we're layering on objections. It's not. So that's a different objection, which is about just sort of problems and thinking about very small probabilities of very high importance payoffs. So we're just sort of bundling all the objections into one single example. We can even go further you can imagine it sort of the lizards are kind of their pleasure is in some sense, vicious, like they're taking pleasure in hurting something else. Or anyway, you could keep piling it on. So probably I don't know if I have a ton original or my own to say about these kinds of cases. I tend to think these are serious worries. And I think they're reasons to be cautious about thinking about cases in this vicinity. If you can get yourself into the mindset that the lizards are good, then you can kind of feel the tension of these sorts of cases more. So I think often these sort of draw on people rounding the lizards down to nothing. But I think it's at least instructive to first, as a motive kind of charity towards these sort of cases. First, find a kind of lizard equivalent, that you at least feel some pole to create. So you know, I don't know, do a puppy like a puppy frolicking in the grass, or something like that, and then see how you think about, okay, a zillion puppies versus, you know, a utopia of humans, so that you can at least kind of feel the pole towards the puppy creation policy. I don't think that's going to take care of everything. But I think it's important first, to kind of get into the frame of mind where the lizards could seem worth creating it all and then ask how much can they outweigh?

SPENCER: Right. Well, I think another sort of objection to the creating happy people view is that imagine someone's like, well, it's better to exist and be like, at least somewhat happy to not exist. So I'm going to create people and I'm going to put them into some horrible situation, but their life is still gonna be a little bit worth living. So I'm like, I'm not doing wrong to them. Because I wouldn't bother creating them, if I couldn't put them this horrible situation, maybe they're gonna extract money from them by making work from the coal mine. So just 20 years of their life and then let them out or something, right? What do you think of those kind of cases?

JOE: So I think this is another kind of important category of worry about this, this sort of view, I think, importantly, that you want to create a being to kind of work for you, and you're going to give it a kind of net positive life or something, then once it's created, if you have the option of actually given you a better life, then it's wrong not to do that.

SPENCER: Right. So unless you can pre commit to that make it impossible for you to then do the right thing. And your you should then just let them go anyway.

JOE: Exactly. So I think it gets complicated to bring in these pre-commitments, that you have to start to wonder, but I think in everyday cases, often you just do, in fact, have the option to treat this being much better than you are and so it's going to be kind of easily explicable what you're doing is wrong.

SPENCER: One intuition that pushes me towards your view, the thinking that future people, like non-existent beings have to matter is situations where someone kind of concrete, hypothetical harms, like hypothetical beings in the future, setting a bomb that might blow up people that like definitely don't exist right now. And that just seems really, really wrong to do. Obviously, I'm just using my intuitions there. But that's kind of as an intuition pump for me to say like, "Well, yeah, it's like, if saying a bomb that's gonna kill future people that don't exist yet is bad, then we have to care to some extent about non existent beings."

JOE: I see those types of cases as basically decisive, and sometimes the view that future people just literally don't matter at all. And you can kind of do whatever. I don't actually know of anyone who endorses that, at least in philosophy.

SPENCER: But they see that as a symmetric with creating beings, right?

JOE: So there are a number of issues here that gets sort of complicated to simplify things. Let's suppose that the people in the future who would be affected by the bomb, their identities aren't contingent on your choice. It's going to be Bob, who's fine or Bob, who's crippled by the bomb, let's say, in that case, the choice is not whether to create Bob, the choice is conditional on Bob existing Is it okay to kind of harm him for no reason, let's say, no one is currently coming to mind to me who actually thinks it's like fine to do whatever you want to Bob in the future, just because he's in the future. Once we start talking about cases where say, it's gonna be Bob, or if you plant the bottom since it bomb, it's instead going to be Sally who gets hit, and Sally's life will still be net positive, or we can get more complicated, so then those cases get somewhat more tricky.


SPENCER: So Joe, we've been talking about the sort of moral questions about like should we create new happy beings and things like that? I know that you have a sort of different way of looking at morality generally than some people do, where you like to use what you call the wholehearted approach morality versus morality in taxes. So could you talk to us about like, what are those two views and then why do you prefer one of them?

JOE: So, this is a distinction that is most salient to me in the context of moral discourse related to thought experiments associated with the philosopher Peter Singer. So, notably this famous case where Singer imagines that there's a child drowning in a pond who you can save, but only by ruining your expensive clothes, where the thought is that A, you are obligated to save this file than to ruin your clothes, and B that many people are in a morally analogous relationship to the world's need. And I encountered these thought experiments kind of early on in my life, and they made a big impact on me. And I think they're really compelling and important in lots of ways. But I think they can also leave you with a kind of adversarial and reluctant relationship with the moral stakes of that situation. So this metaphor, I have in mind, sort of morality as taxes, I think you can kind of experience the demands that sort of possibility of helping other people as something that kind of invades your personal space and kind of demands that you give up something you care about, for the sake of something else. You know, if people can get into this frame of mind, where they're kind of asking, How much do I have to give? What is enough for me to not be breaking kind of the rules? I think it's akin to taxes in that way. So that's the kind of morality is taxes concept.

SPENCER: Right. And it seems like that could come with a lot of guilt or feeling like you just never do enough is a very obligatory frame of morality, right?

JOE: Yeah. And in fact, I think I have some hypothesis, I don't know if this is true, but that there's a kind of subtle, almost Peter Singer rightous, that a lot of people who are exposed to these thought experiments early on, end up taking on board where it's easy to conclude from this, basically, that you're just acting in kind of horrifically wrong ways just all the time. And in some sense, you're not changing. I think a lot of people internalize this thought experiment based in some sense, recognize that like, oh, that's kind of right. But what they're left with is a kind of despair, subtle form of despair of ever living up to some standard that these experiments suggests, and I have some feelings that can be really harmful in people's lives and their relationship to looking at what's really happening in the world directly.

SPENCER: Right, it seems like the trade-off because you're on the one hand, if it compels people to take more more actions, that's great. On the other hand, better people don't feel wracked with guilt, especially if they're not gonna do anything, it's just gonna change their behavior, what's the point of just feeling bad, but if it could be, maybe that's worth it, but there's trade-off there. But you have this kind of other way of conceptualizing this that you feel like is maybe more positive?

JOE: Yeah, so a way of bringing this alternative out, and I should say I think both of these really have their place. So I think the Singer thought experiment is just very powerful. And that this is a real, it's pointing to real stuff, I don't want to kind of invalidate that. I do think there's an alternative perspective though, which I think is important to have in mind. One way of getting at this. So let's imagine a kind of alternative version, where you say you're going on a walk in the forest, you're head about, you've been looking forward to this all week, it's gonna be really beautiful. And you see it is off in the distance, off of your walking path, some sort of commotion happening at the river, you can't really see what's going on, you consider should I go check this out, and but the light is fading, and you decide to just keep going on your walk. And so you go, and it's wonderful. And then later, you learn that someone was drowning at that river, and they were pinned under some machinery, people were trying to pull them out, their family was there watching but they couldn't do it, and one extra person helping might have made the difference in this person might have flipped. So when I imagine learning that the intuition I have is something this feeling of, I wish I'd gone to the river, I would trade this walk to kind of save that person's life. That's something that I care about this person living, and I care much more about that than I care about my happiness walk. And so there's a clear sense in which I want to cancel the walk and for the person to live. So in some sense, these cases are very, very similar. The second one lands for me it's more in a space, a kind of bypasses some of these feelings of this question of was it wrong for me to go on the walk? Instead of going to the river, we can still ask that question. But it's not the point of focus. And it feels like the focus is more on this feeling of almost of regret, and sadness and things that add up animate, you just cared directly for things in the world. So that's the kind of contrast I want to point to is you can just ask yourself the question, if I really understood the situation, what would I care about most? And for me, it feels possible to ask that question with a type of wholeheartedness and kind of be on board with the answer in a way that framing things as this sort of like I need to give up something that I care about for the sake of morality was coming at me from the outside. It's a kind of different, it lands in a different register in my mind.

SPENCER: Right, whereas the drowning child example, you're a total asshole if you don't go save this child more than total asshole. So if you prioritize your clothes over the child's life, whereas in the reverse scenario, you described, you didn't know that this person was going to drown. So you didn't have any moral obligation. But upon realizing later, "Oh, wait, if I go into the river, I curse his life, you're like, I wish I got the river that would have been much more important and more meaningful and worth doing than taking a walk even though the walk was nice." Is that right?

JOE: Yeah, I think it's basically a kind of mechanism of bypassing, I think, a certain type of defensiveness that can come up in the context of the Singer case, where as you say, the singer case is basically calling you an asshole. And kind of it's monstrous to not save this child for the sake of your clothes. And so very quickly, people are like, Oh, my God, this thought experiment calling me a monster, what do I have to do what's enough to not be a monster account, and somehow, the threat and defensiveness of that violating some norm of that kind is really activated, I think that can obscure a sort of deeper reaction, which is just actually I really care about this person living. And so the hope is, the second thought experiment allows more direct access to that, even though in some sense, these are very similar situations.

SPENCER: Yeah. And this relates more generally to this idea of an obligation frame for morality, like morality is about what wemshould do versus an opportunity frame, like morality is an opportunity to benefit people. Do you see this kind of thing to those kind of two frames as well?

JOE: I do, though, I think the wholehearted frame that I have in mind, I want to distinguish somewhat from the opportunity framing. So there is this discourse of, "Oh, you have to help people, or Oh, isn't it great that I have this chance to help people? Isn't that amazing?" I guess I would see the kind of wholehearted framing as encompassing the opportunity thing, but it's broader. it doesn't need to be kind of exciting and positive. It can be profoundly sad. And it's still, in some sense, an expression of something that you really care about deeply. And that sort of matters to you directly, as opposed to something that is coming from the outside and imposing something on you. And to be clear, as I say, I think there's room for both of these. I don't reject the sort of obligation. For me, I think there's important questions about what things might constrain us regardless of what we care about, but I think keeping in mind that a lot of this traditionally altruistic action can be understood just as an expression of what you would really care about, if you really understood what was going on. I think it can bypass some of that defensiveness.

SPENCER: This gets me thinking about the incredible importance of set points in human psychology, where there's a huge difference between comparing yourself to what the perfectly moral being would do, right. And you could use the child drowning in a pond thought experiment and say, well, children are drowning in ponds, metaphorically speaking all the time. And every time I go buy anything I could have been giving it to help save a child's life. And so I'm a monster. And so there's if your setpoint is moral perfection, then you get to feel like a monster all the time. On the other hand, you could have a completely different set point, which is how your typical person behaves. And you can say, Well, if the average person only thinks about charity a little bit, and they don't really devote their lives to meaningfully improve the world, etc. As long as they get over that bar, I should feel good about myself, I should feel positive. And then there's a third step on you could use, which is, well, I could compare myself to my past, I could say, well, how was I a year ago? Like, I'm taking more steps to be ethical today. And I should feel good about that. So my point is, it doesn't feel like there's a right answer. This seems like a psychological phenomenon that we can honestly have control over the setpoint we use, but the setpoint does seem psychological nature, and maybe we can nudge it in one direction or another. I'm curious how you see that is related, if you do.

JOE: Psychologically, I think what sort of set point we have in mind possibly makes a very big difference to how we're relating to ourselves in these sorts of contexts. I think I'm more hesitant to say there's no right answer here. Partly because I often think there are right answers, in some sense to the question of, what would I really care about most? Or what would I see as most important here if I really understood, and that's the frame that I return to most often, where I do think it's really possible to make mistakes, to choose something that you care about less over something you care about more? Because in some sense, you aren't rightly in touch with the reality of the two or in some sense, you're not understanding the situation fully. You know, and I think we see that not just in the context of morality, but in the context of prudence all the time, and other things too. So, yeah, I think I agree. I think set points play a big difference, but I think I wouldn't want to go so far as to say, it's kind of pick whatever you want. I do think it's possible to make mistakes, but mistakes of the type that aren't kind of imposed on you is sort of the type that you yourself don't want to make some sense.

SPENCER: Because you're sort of misunderstanding your own values or you're misunderstanding things about the world and which values would be promoted by taking different actions.

JOE: Yeah, exactly. The obligation framing doesn't often just focus on a sense in which often these actions are just mistakes by your own lights, the focuses more on their mistakes according to some kind of set of external norms as opposed to something that you yourself endorse.

SPENCER: There's an interesting question in me about how do you help people be more altruistic without creating too much psychological burden? Because I do know people where things like the child drowning upon thought experiment seemed to cause them like, great psychological distress. You know, I think a lot of people, they share it, and they're like, that's interesting. Mmm hmm. And then it brushed aside and then some people, it seemed to compel them to action in a way that like not to psychological harmful, but does seem like other people, they take it really to heart in a way that very self-destructive, and maybe it actually does motivate them to action. That's good. But also, I like the idea that maybe that there's another way to get some of the same altruistic benefits, but with loss, psychological damage.

JOE: I really agree that there's a lot of risk of different types of psychological harm and kind of self destructive responses to this sort of stuff. And I think it's often a kind of pragmatic and empirical and complex question for a given person, what sorts of orientations towards these issues are going to be most healthy and most appropriate. And I think there's a lot of risk, as I say, I mean, I sometimes wonder about whether there's a low level of trauma that a lot of the generation exposed to Peter Singer type thought experiments are sort of carrying out and maybe trauma is too extreme of a word, but some sort of some way in which this is sort of disturbing at a level that isn't always grappled with directly.

SPENCER: But yeah, and as you point out, there's a lot of individual differences, like I said, think some people that experience, actually really useful for them, and they deal with it in a way that seems healthy to them. But then, the people that actually find it disturbing, like, we didn't need his way of thinking about it, to get by. And I think, having lots of sort of internal psychological friction, does it make people unhappy, but it also just doesn't necessarily make you effective, either. I mean it can also lead to burnout and difficulty helping the world, I think feeling the crushing weight of morality is not necessarily in line with being a peak performance.

JOE: Absolutely. And I think often, another dimension here is that it's possible to overestimate how much you've really digested and how much you really kind of believe these different thought experiments, I think sometimes people construe their resistance to you know, say, someone brings up a Peter Singer talks to him, and they're like, therefore, you should donate all your money. You know, all the time, give up everything you care about now and go do it. Go do it. Why aren't you is because you're a monster. And I think people can internalize that. And they'll say, Yeah, I guess the explanation of why I'm not doing that is because I'm a monster, instead of understanding is sort of richer array of heuristics and kind of forms of doubt, and skepticism, and kind of healthy balance, and other all sorts of other things are in play in that scenario, there's sort of really good reasons not to just grab the first kind of totalizing ideology that like presents itself to you and just make extreme sacrifices on its behalf, which I think people, it can be harder to have those explicitly articulated. And so people can kind of mistake their hesitations as sort of signs of moral defect when actually it's something else.

SPENCER: Yeah, that's a really good point. Yeah, I don't think there are too many people go around calling people monsters for this. But maybe there's a sort of sin as an implication, it's like, well, but you're not helping the world enough. If someone makes an argument to you that says, usually go radically alter your life, like, yeah, there are a lot of reasons for skepticism. And you should be careful about following those arguments. And certainly, a bunch of those arguments will lead you in very bad directions, like, towards some kind of really radical ideology that's not in line with the truth. And you have to kind of carefully filter and read them and make sure they stand up to scrutiny. I mean, I think sometimes about seven worldviews seem to sort of be more reversible, or like some changes, your belief systems seem reversible, like some seem like you're falling off a cliff. And hopefully, the step down the bamboo cliff is good, and it's not falling into something we don't want to be in, because it's kind of hard to come back from. Do you have any reaction to that?

JOE: I'm actually curious about maybe you could give an example of kind of a reversible and irreversible case.

SPENCER: Well, like, just as example, like joining a cult, it's not that it's literally irreversible, it's just that we know people tend to get stuck in that, right. If you're like, okay, I'm gonna sell all my possessions, give them money to my cult leader, and go live on the commune, that's a very, very difficult to reverse decision, right? And if you leave your new cut-off from everyone that you are friends with there, and you're going to raise money anymore, and so on, and so forth. And I think these kind of totalizing worldviews tend to have more of that flavor where because they really alter your life, they alter your social world, a lot of times, they alter what you're aiming at, that can be hard to reverse, because no mass disarrayed your life, but also your system values and meaning and your motivational structure if you try to come back for them.

JOE: Yeah, I really agree. And I think we have built in heuristics, and forms of resistance to different things in that band that I think are worth taking very seriously. And I think we can suffer from a lack of tools for articulating those explicitly, people will sometimes hazard encode hesitations about something but not know how to kind of bring them into a sort of discourse that will validate them.

SPENCER: Yeah. And you know, I don't want to be too hard on religious ideology in particular, which cults usually are at an extreme but I think that this happens with lots of different groups, like whenever you have a group of people that sees the world through like one particular lens and cuts itself off from other people. And views everyone else's having the wrong viewpoint or having a flawed way of looking at things, whether it's extreme socialist or you know, extreme animal advocacy or all these different viewpoints. And that to say that they're all wrong just to say that they pose this search, same sort of risks of this difficulty of reversing your course, once you kind of go down that rabbit hole.

JOE: I agree. Many things we do in life are irreversible, in some sense, we make commitments, we make choices. And it does feel like there's a real dance of how much you trust a person or a community or an institution or an idea, or yourself. And doing that right is, I don't know, it's such of a substance of so much. And it's possible to do it wrong in both directions. Here, it is possible to hesitate too much, almost, and I have to be kind of too cool to believe in something. And then it's also possible to believe in something as it were kind of way too hard.


SPENCER: To jump to a new topic, I know you've spent really a tremendous amount of time meditating, at least compared to most people, maybe not compared to Buddhist monks but really, I know you've really gotten deep in meditation. And there's this idea of clinging in meditation, which I think is really core to a bunch of the serve the ideas there. But I think most people aren't that familiar with it, do you want to tell us a little bit about like your views on what is clinging? And I think you also some interesting thoughts on like, how that relates this idea of carrying?

JOE: Sure. So clinging, as I think of it is a certain flavor of experience. It feels contracted and tight and kind of clench and narrow. It has a kind of grabiness or a pushing-awayness a kind of not okayness. An example, you know, if you think about the the emotion of jealousy, and contrast, the experience of being jealous of your partner interacting with with someone else, or something like that, versus the experience of kind of hoping that your partner doesn't leave you. Both of these, in some sense, express a kind of investment in your partner's behavior and your relationship with your partner. But jealousy contains much more of this feeling of clinging, as I'm thinking about it, or at least as much more suggestive of that, whereas hope somehow feels more kind of open, and it still cares, you still care, but you don't have the same sense of kind of tightness and contraction.

SPENCER: So it's like there's something in our life that we really like, or we want to continue to be there. And one way to relate to it is to cling to it. Another way to relate to it is what how would you describe this sort of alternative more broadly?

JOE: I think a lot of it is about the kind of flavor of the relationship. So there's a certain kind of openness and receptivity and kind of, it's a little hard to characterize. In some senses, just the absence of this clinging feeling has itself a kind of contrasting sense of kind of freedom, and a kind of willingness to relate directly to the world as it is, even if it's hard. So different emotions that don't obviously involve clinging but that are still kind of carrying relationship and sometimes even a negative one are things like hope, but also things like sadness or disappointment, aspiration. You know, we contrast those with things like kind of greed, or bitterness, or resentment or entitlement. Those last ones have more of the clinging flavor.

SPENCER: How does this come up kind of moment to moment when you're meditating?

JOE: So I think a lot of meditative practice especially in the Buddhist tradition, which is where I've spent the most time is oriented towards noticing and kind of practicing letting go of this clinging flavor, or at least that's how I think of it. I think people vary in their interpretations and traditions, very inner emphases. But I found it helpful to think of meditation as as really kind of building that mental muscle of noticing that this clinging thing has kind of arisen and learning to let go of it either directly or through other forms of ways of orienting towards your experience that help promote a kind of more open, fluid relationship with what's happening.

SPENCER: So let's break this down, imagine you're meditating, what kind of thing would happen that would start to cause clinging? And then what mental maneuver move would you do at that point?

JOE: So an example might be, suppose you are meditating, and you start to feel a pain in your knee. This is pretty common, people often have kind of painful sensations while meditating. And you notice that with this pain comes a question, am I going to permanently damage my knee? What if I break my knee? You know, I've heard of a guy who broke his knee one time, and you notice in response to that sort of thought, your mind contracts and you have a sort of, uh-oh, and there's this kind of sensation of tightness and fear and kind of pushing away that possibility. So ideally, you sort of notice, okay, so that's the kind of clinging attitude towards as possibilities come up. And then I think, to a certain extent, there's a kind of the hope is, you can learn to feel into a kind of alternative, where I don't know maybe one way of putting it would be you sort of say, it's possible that I'm going to hurt my knee, I'm not sure exactly how likely it is, it seems pretty unlikely. But for now, I'm just going to return to my practice and keep going. It's sort of hard to communicate, because it's more about the kind of flavor of mental attitude that you're bringing. But maybe that starts to point at it.

SPENCER: Does it relate to sort of viewing this sensation for what it is like just noticing what exactly it feels like, and adding less sort of cognitions around the meaning of it?

JOE: I think that can be one angle. But part of the reason I care about this distinction between clinging and other forms of valuing or caring is that I think, sometimes the way people initially think about Buddhist practice is you're kind of deconstructing everything, or letting go of everything. So in the context of the previous example, I think it's possible to get a little confused and think what's supposed to happen is you're supposed to sort of stop caring about whether your knee gets broken. So where maybe you notice these thoughts coming up, and you go, that is just a sensation, the desire to not have my knee must be deconstructed, and you sort of, in some sense, it can shift into an almost subtle invalidation of all of your investments in the world, and all of your values and all your cares. And that I think, can lead to confusion, because then people said, "Wait, is this tradition saying I shouldn't care about all the things that really matter to me all that my health or my family or what's going on in the world?" And so the aspiration to stop clinging can look like an aspiration towards a certain type of indifference or blankness? And I think that's really not, at least as I think about it the point.

SPENCER: Yeah, and this idea seemed interesting to me, in part, because as soon as people think, with good Buddhist thought that you want to learn to like, be completely unattached from everything. But then you might wonder, well, what am I going to do that? Am I just going to kind of drift away and just kind of ignore the world? Like, am I going to still want to make the world better if I don't feel attached to it? And it seems like this kind of helps resolve that puzzles? Is that right?

JOE: That's my hope. Yeah. And I think it's a very important puzzle to resolve. These images of sort of indifference or blankness, I think, can be a real stumbling block for people encountering these types of practices.

SPENCER: So when you say the non-attachment, to you is just about losing this clinging to things, but continuing to care, you're gonna continue to try to improve the world and make things better and so on?

JOE: Yes, that's right.

SPENCER: So maybe we hopefully they use like a kind of real world example, for people that don't have this in a meditation context. Like imagine you're a parent. And of course, you love your children, you want to succeed. And maybe your kids are doing things that you don't necessarily approve of, like, they have some friends you think are not the best kids, and maybe they're getting them into stuff you don't want them to get into and so on. So like, can you maybe talk about what would it look like be served to cling to your children versus who have caring for your children?

JOE: Yeah, so I'll mention a few, maybe kind of outward signs we might associate with clinging, but again, I think it is a lot about the kind of flavor and the main thing I think, I'm hoping to point to is a sense of how to sort of clinging versus non-clinging feel internally, and then learning to kind of see that in the world in different ways. So a clinging parent, I guess, intuitively, a cling parent might be one who's like really anxious and controlling about their kids behavior and calling them all the time and maybe staying up late Googling, like, my kid doesn't socialize enough that I'm concerned or my kids on drugs, and there's a kind of brittleness and, yeah, there's something that's kind of hard and tight about their relationship with their kid, whereas maybe we could have some image of like a wise parent, it's not a sort of do-whatever-you-want, someone who cares about their kid, who wants to know what's going on. But who also recognizes I can't control everything that happens with my child, I'm going to try to do my best, I'm going to recognize that there are things they will have to face on their own. Again, I think he's adding the sort of particular things I'm saying aren't essential, it's more, what sort of mental flavor would be associated with those different approaches.

SPENCER: Suppose we have a parent that learns to avoid this clinging, like what do you see as sort of the positive outcomes of that? Is it just that they're going to have greater well-being? Are you gonna find parenting less stressful? Or? Yeah, like, why not cling, right?

JOE: It's a good question. And I think it's worth having some sense of almost respect for clinging, to not be too quick to be like clinging is always bad, one must get rid of clinging, I tend to think clinging is sort of overdone, at least in my life. So I tend to try to reduce it. But I think we should still wonder whether it's always bad. When it's bad, I think, yeah, I think suffering is a big part of it both for yourself and others, right. So in the in the parents case, that parent is suffering more, anxiously trying to control their child's life and Googling all the time and stuff like that. And the child is probably suffering more, because this behavior is somehow restricting them or compromising their relationship with their parent. Whereas I think a non-clinging type of mental space, I think often has more of a flavor of kind of openness and freedom and a kind of engagement with the world kind of an ability to to step into what's real and accepted and to respond to it skillfully, without trying to kind of force it to be one way or another. And I think that can both be intrinsically rewarding, and it can just result in more skillful behavior.

SPENCER: One thing I think about that I really don't have to deal with, and I'm curious, if you have thoughts on it, is it seems like a lot of the important questions in life come down to really difficult philosophical considerations. And yet, it seems like on some level philosophy is too hard for humans, or at least humans, as we know them today. You know, there's a sort of reason why many of these philosophical questions have been debated for hundreds or 1000s of years. And yet questions like, "Well, how do I do the most good?" Or "what should I be striving for? What really matters?" These kinds of questions will seem just incredibly important, like actually seem to hinge in very important ways on these really difficult philosophical problems that I assume I'm not going to solve, people's don't seem to have been able to solve them before. Do you have thoughts about that?

JOE: It's a good point, it feels very real, that, especially some philosophical domains, you really have a sense of wow, we just are kind of flailing around a little bit. I have this most palpably I think with consciousness, when I kind of look at the human discourse about consciousness, including my own thinking about it, I have some feeling of like, "Oh, God, we know not what we do. So how do we go forward? Given that type of ignorance?" I mean, I'm not sure there's a fully general answer to that. I do think one thing that matters a lot to me, is recognizing how much progress there is to be made and a lot of these domains and trying as much as possible to kind of defer to sort of make room for future people to understand this stuff a lot better than we do. And you know exactly what the practical implications of this are, I think of it varries a lot, case-by-case. But in general, I sort of, I think, a lot of philosophy, sort of like, Wait, we want to just kind of make it to a scenario where we understand this stuff a lot better and can kind of act on a lot more wisdom and awareness of what we're really doing. Whereas right now, we're kind of flailing around. And if we take kind of irreversible action in lots of domains, I think that's very likely to be a mistake.

SPENCER: Yeah, because that's where the irreversibility ties in as well. Because insofar as your actions hinge on these incredibly difficult philosophical questions, you don't want to go too far too deep. Assuming you got the right answer, right? When you when you know that you might not have the right answer.

JOE: Yeah. And I think those questions vary somewhat at a personal and at a societal level. So I think, you know, the prospects for kind of how much future philosophical understanding will you have, or you know, it's not just philosophical, just in general, how much will I learn from my life? That's one question. There's a different question. So how much will we as a civilization learn? And how should we plan in light of possible future improvements in our understanding of these issues at collectively? And I think those two can kind of come apart.

SPENCER: Yeah. When I think about the areas of philosophy where I feel like there's just so much uncertainty, but that's actually really important uncertainty in the sense that, like, these are important questions are grappling with, there's consciousness, as you mentioned, which more broadly, just philosophy of mind and identity, which just seems like, so difficult, and there's so many interesting, important questions there. Epistemic as well, how do you build knowledge and how do you come to believe things like even how do you trust induction seems like just just too important, yet difficult and intractable problem. So that's another one. And then morality, of course, where it seems like people have a really hard time agreeing about the important things. And yet, you know, these fields actually seem very important to the future.

JOE: I'm interested in this induction example. Do you feel like you're you have serious personal doubt about whether to kind of expect the sun to rise tomorrow or In the justification for that?

SPENCER: I don't doubt that the sun's gonna rise tomorrow. And I think day-to-day pragmatic level, you kind of just use what works. But I think it's actually really hard to defend a lot of what we do, epistemically. And it's hard to come up with a coherent theory of what to do. I mean, obviously, there's Bayesianism, which I think is a really important insight into this whole topic, which basically as you well know, talks about, if you have a certain probabilistic belief, and you get some evidence, how do you update that belief, but it immediately presents lots of problems, like, if you're doing basis and properly, you have to sort of have every possible hypothesis available. And then you have to sort of update the probabilities and all those hypotheses. And every time you get a piece of evidence, as it's actually immediately off the table. Like, there's just no actual way you can do it. Right. So what should you actually try to be doing right? Like, given that you can't do this thing, just purely hypothetical calculations off the table. And then I think they're sort of at the core of some except there are these deeper problems that don't bother me so much for day-to-day, but like, I actually don't know how to justify induction, like I use it. But I don't know how to explain why it's valid.

JOE: Yeah, I think there's a general issue where there's a kind of philosophical impulse to go to the foundations of things and be able to kind of almost build your worldview out of nothing, or out of some kind of rock solid foundation, that sort of Cartesian project of art, I'm going to strip away everything and build it back up. And I do think that's often a misleading picture of what human kind of philosophical life looks like, it's much more of I think a term people use, you're already in motion, your brain is already doing certain things, inevitably, and you're always using your brain as you go. And so you can never start from scratch. And in any respect, that can feel really unsatisfying. You can be like, No, induction it must have a fundamental answer. And maybe it does. But I think in general, that the project or build yourself out of nothing, philosophically, can be a frustrating one, and maybe not one to kind of expect to work.

SPENCER: Right. I totally agree. And it seems we're at an impasse with regard to that. But that being said, it does seem like over time, we want to be making philosophical progress, right? We want to be able to take these things that are just intuitions and then scrutinize them and come to conclusions about them. And yet, sometimes it feels like we're just kind of swapping intuitions and not getting past that.

JOE: I think I can feel like that. I do think it's possible, though, to just become persuaded of things in philosophy, despite all the uncertainty, or at least persuaded that some views are wrong. So yeah, I do think it sort of depends on the case. And sometimes he's got to dig in. And you're like, Yeah, it's hard. But actually, I still just think this is much more likely than that, to the extent you understand them. I think, often in philosophy, the failure mode is maybe more that you were confused in the fundamentals of your discourse, rather than you sort of picked the wrong view of the kind of menu of views that the discipline made available.

SPENCER: But what do you make of the sort of widespread disagreement on the fundamental questions? Like a consensus in the field doesn't mean it doesn't well, but a lack of consensus makes you wonder like, "Hmm, like, are we making progress here?"

JOE: Some philosophical progress, I think is helpful is kind of laying out the conceptual landscape in a way that really makes kind of crisp and clear what the available positions are. So in population ethics, for example, which is this discipline devoted to kind of figuring out how you compare the goodness of different outcomes with different numbers of people, there are these famous sort of impossibility results where you can show that there are sort of certain attractive claims that you can't hold all together at once they they're incompatible. And and sort of impossibility results of this kind of thing represent a certain type of progress in philosophy, where at least you can kind of say, okay, cool. Well, now we know what options are on the table. It's true, there's still disagreement after that. And maybe that points to a certain type of anti-realism about this, about this discipline, or am I just pointing out this is really hard. And as you say, maybe this is that we're just not up to it at this stage in our development. I will say, at a certain point, if you're really convinced, I think knowing exactly how to be kind of defer to the fact that other people disagree with you can be a pretty complicated question in its own right. And sometimes we do just think other people are wrong and exactly why they're wrong is sort of a further question. But that doesn't mean we sort of have to give up what we think.

SPENCER: You know, I agree with you, it does seem like at least in terms of being able to delineate more distinct views and kind of really clarify them and eliminate some views where basically, we discover there's a flaw in that philosophical view, and certain people stop leaving it like that, that does seem like a form of progress. But it seems still far from the what we hoped for, like we're making fundamental progress, understandings, like what is consciousness? And how do you define when a person is one person versus, a different person and what is moral and on those big questions, it feels like we still have a long way to go. But also, if humanity survives, then we have a long future ahead of ourselves. So maybe we can make progress, I think.

JOE: That's kind of my hope. I'm curious if there's a philosophical issue where you feel like you've changed your mind because I think that can sometimes give a more concrete sense of what is philosophical progress look like is sort of oh, well, I was convinced by one argument that I wasn't aware of, to kind of to a new position.

SPENCER: Would have this sort of meta-things that she remained on is I think that a bunch of philosophical questions that are sometimes discussed, are just not meaningful questions. Like, there's a certain type of philosophical analysis, such as like, well, what is beauty? Or how do you know when someone really knows something? Right? Like, what does it mean to really know something? And I've come to think of these are the questions just being phrased the wrong way, sort of a non-question. And once you kind of disambiguated, and all the different things you could mean by it, it just becomes not that interesting, and not that deep. It's curious if you have a reaction to that.

JOE: Yeah, I think that's a common way for philosophy to help us kind of dissolve a confusion or a question rather than to answer it.

SPENCER: Gotta be interesting, if that's the way we end up going, realizing that most of our philosophical questions were just confused. And we didn't even know what we're asking. And that's why they we had to tell them in progress on them.

JOE: I think that's likely in a lot of cases. I do think, though, that there are ways in which philosophy can be just substantively very helpful. An example of philosophical argument that has mattered to me is sort of some of these arguments about non-naturalist metaphysics where say, you want to be a kind of dualist about consciousness. And you think consciousness is, in some sense, a kind of additional thing over and above the natural world, a philosophical argument that I take seriously is what kind of epistemic contact are you then going to have with this non-natural thing, such that, in some sense, my physical mouth when I'm when it moves, and says, I'm conscious, I checked, how did you get into contact with the consciousness itself, if it's kind of outside of physical world? You know, this may well be confused in lots of ways. But I will say that that's an argument that compels me, and I think, has changed my view in various ways of consciousness. And there's other examples like that, where I at least feel like Oh, thank you philosophy, that you've helped me understand something?

JOE: Well, I feel like I've learned a ton from philosophy. Absolutely. And I'm grateful for the field, no regard. I'm just sort of wondering whether we humans are up for challenges a lot of these questions. But just with regard to the point you just made, there's the idea that thinking about, well, if dualism is true, and sort of conscious, is something different from matter above and beyond matter? Like how can I interact with matter? And that seems to present a conundrum and kind of make that view less likely. Is that they do?

JOE: That's basically the idea, but with a particularly epistemic flavor. So often, people will engage in some introspective act where they sort of check whether they're conscious, they're like, alright, I see that I'm conscious. It's just so clear to me, I'm looking at it. And it's an interesting question, how can that epistemological situation be reliable if the consciousness itself is sort of non-physical, but the apparatus that's detecting it, at least some parts of that apparatus are physical? I think considerations in this range are kind of a powerful argument against kind of non-physicalist conceptions of consciousness.

SPENCER: It's a weird idea because if the non physical part, like let's say, we have a non-physical part is kind of connected the physical part and somewhere where could communicate? Like what does it means that it's non physical, and you start getting fused about what that even is talking about?

JOE: Yeah, I think that's a good point.

SPENCER: Sometimes people argue for illusionism of consciousness that like somehow conscious could be illusion. I've actually spent about two hours listening to philosophers like, explain illusionism. And I have to say, I still really don't get it in a deep sense. Like, I don't get what it would mean, to think you're conscious and not be. I mean, my naive argument is simply that like, at every moment, I experienced being conscious and like, I'm more acutely aware of that, and we're able to directly experience than anything else, like there's nothing else that I can really be more confident than just like the fact that there's experience happening, the fact that I'm experiencing something, or let me get rid of even the "I" part because as soon as you say "I", you're now bringing in weird philosophy of mind stuff, but there is consciousness I'm experiencing directly, how can I be wrong about that? So do you have sympathy for the illusionism view or curious your thoughts?

JOE: I'm at least interested in illusionism. And I spent some time trying to understand it, because like you, I think, unlike many, I sort of encountered this view. And I felt like I could repeat the words that they use, but I couldn't kind of see the world through their eyes. If you could understand illusionism enough to kind of really see what it would be for that to be true, then you're kind of halfway to believing it, in some sense, because it's kind of so hard to conceive of this being the case that it's illusory, that your conscious

SPENCER: Right. I even attempted to like write a steelman argument of illusionism, but I was just totally convinced of it. So I was like, Okay, maybe I'm missing it. But something I'm doing remember, it was like something along the lines of like, well, let's see, imagine you could like remove all the effects of consciousness, right? Like you could. So let's say you're gonna go get really painful surgery. And somehow you could remove all the effects of being conscious, like the pain that you're going to experience and the fear that you might experience during the surgery and so on. Once you kind of like get rid of all these effects. Then is there anything negative about being in the surgery? And so if you had the choice between, you can either temporarily remove your consciousness during that experience, or you can move remove all of these effects like the feeling the pain, and this fear and and so on, which of them would you really want to remove? And then they kind of like use this as an intuition pump that like, Well, why do we even need to have the consciousness thing there at all? Why don't we just, maybe it's just the effects. Maybe all that matters is that we get all the effects as though we're conscious, but then the consciousness does no work or something like that. So that was kind of like, I'm not doing the best job of steelmanning. But that was sort of like, what these positions were gesturing at? And I don't know, do you? Can you make heads or tails to that?

JOE: It's the thought that something like the effects like pain and fear, those are construed in a way that doesn't imply phenomenal consciousness, that the intuition is but yeah, you still care about pain, even if it's, in some sense, not something experienced.

SPENCER: Yeah, like, you know, your heart is still gonna race and the nerve still gonna fire as though you have pain and every single physical thing related to the pain is still gonna happen but the consciousness is not going to be there is really, it's like all the physical things happening that you don't want to happen. It's not the consciousness itself, that's bad. So I don't know, I'd say, Good, I really, I really feel like I can barely steal man, because I just don't quite get it.

JOE: So the best I've done with trying to stealman illusionism, or the shift that I found, at least somewhat helpful was, at least mine I use picture of consciousness is to conceive of consciousness, like a thing. It's kind of a space or a kind of screen, or a kind of people talk about the kind of Cartesian theater and I think that is, at least for me, I find myself, when I introspect on my conscience, I sort of imagine that I'm in contact with a kind of object in the world in some sense. And I think the shift that is helpful for me to getting into an illusionist frame of mind, though I don't know if I can kind of go all the way is to think of consciousness and instead as a kind of story or a representation. So instead of it being kind of the newspaper or the TV screen, it's the kind of content of the news or it's the plot of the movie, your brain is telling you that a certain thing is happening, rather than kind of showing you an object that you're looking at. And then I think that the illusionist of step would be your brain is telling you that there's a certain thing happening called phenomenal consciousness. And the illusionist, I think this is where it often breaks down, because they don't actually have a good characterization of what it is for something to be represented as phenomenal, but no one does. So I don't know. It's not their fault, in some sense. But the idea is sort of your brain is telling you phenomenalness. It's there. And that's part of the story. That's something that was written on the pages of the newspaper. It's not that you're looking at the newspaper, you're looking through the newspaper at the news, and the news is consciousness, it's there, it's certain, and then the illusion his claim is it's not. That's the story your brain tells.

SPENCER: Yeah, I heard one philosopher give an analogy with illusions. And I think the idea was there, you know, imagine there's illusion of an apple, like, what does it really mean to have an illusion of the apple? And one way to conceptualize having that illusion is that your brain is behaving in every way as though the apple was there, even though there's like no physical apple there. So I think that this was used to kind of push the idea that like, well, all that your brain needs to do is like, make you behave. And have you experienced this as though you had consciousness like, but maybe the consciousness itself is doing no work, right? Like maybe the consciousness illusion in the sense that you have all the experiences of having an apple, without an apple being there, we call that illusion of an apple. So you could have like, you acted as though you are conscious, and all these ways without there actually being consciousness.

JOE: I think that is an instructive example. But I think the response people often give to illusionism, as there can be an illusion of an apple in the sense that there can be an experience of an apple with no physical apple. But there can't be a experience of an experience without an experience, therefore, experience can't be an illusion. But I think if you shift from talking about experience to talking about representation, then that argument makes less sense. So if you talk about an illusion of an apple as sort of there's a representation of an apple without an apple being there, then you can similarly conceive of the notion that there's a representation of phenomenal consciousness without a thing that answers to that representation being real. And I think sort of making that shift from seeing a kind of illusion of an apple as sometimes I think people think about there's like a thing, which is the the apple experience, and there's nothing kind of out there causing it. But if you think of that, instead of as a representation, I think it makes more sense how consciousness could be analogous.

SPENCER: Yeah, or you could think about all the effects of the experience of an apple, like, you know, every kind of change, you know, in the neural firing, and so on, that's going on, but there's no actual Apple just kind of another way around, having to have the experience in there and the definition of an illusion.

JOE: I think that might well help. It's a little less clear what, in the case of apples, we sort of know how we act in the presence of real apples. It's not totally clear what kind of how we act in the presence of real phenomenal consciousness. That's true. Yeah. So that's, that's a good example is we do a certain type of philosophy and in some sense, that is what the illusionist is trying to explain this like, "Oh, look at all these people reporting all these intuitions." That's the thing we're saying is sort of representing things falsely.

SPENCER: It is a little bit odd and surprising that illusionists don't think they have conscience yet they talk about him all the time, it's just interesting and surprising that like, let's say illusionists or riot, like we don't actually have consciousness yet. We're spending all this time talking about this thing that we don't have. You go to an alien planet, and there's some kind of experience they lack, and yet they spend all this time talking about having it. I don't know, it just seems odd to me.

JOE: Yeah. I mean, I think I like that image. That is kind of what the illusionist thinks is going on, right is we're just really confused. And we're sitting around and we're kind of like, is there more elan vital in this dog or that dog? And we're kind of like, oh, you know, I could just tell there's more elan vital, it's like, I'm not sure. And we're all just this. We're all really confused. And you'd sort of laugh at this this alien civilization if you could see it.

SPENCER: Exactly. Thank you so much for coming. This is really fun conversation.

JOE: Thanks for having me. It was great.





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