February 3, 2022
How can we encourage people to increase their critical thinking and reliance on evidence in the current information climate? What types of evidence "count" as valid, useful, or demonstrative? And what are the relative strengths and weaknesses of those types? Could someone reasonably come to believe just about anything, provided that they live through very specific sets of experiences? What does it mean to have a "naturalistic" epistemology? How does a philosophical disorder differ from a moral failure? Historically speaking, where does morality come from? Is moral circle expansion always good or praiseworthy? What sorts of entities deserve moral consideration?
Jamie Woodhouse works on the Sentientism worldview ("evidence, reason, and compassion for all sentient beings") — refining the philosophy, raising awareness of the idea, and building communities and movements around it. After a quarter century in the corporate world he is a now an independent consultant, coach, and volunteer. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @JamieWoodhouse or email him at email@example.com.
Here are a few more links related to Sentientism:
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 Jamie Woodhouse about critical thinking, the existence of God, factory farming and ethical consumption, and sentientism.
SPENCER: Jamie, welcome. It's good to have you here.
JAMIE: Great to talk to you.
SPENCER: So the first topic I want to discuss with you is how we can get people to use evidence and critical thinking in this day and age.
JAMIE: Yeah, it's tricky, and obviously, an old topic but timely, as well. And I think a good place to start is to not fall into the trap of thinking that a naturalistic way of believing is perfect. Sometimes both bias and critics, but too often bias proponents, an approach that uses evidence and reason to explore reality and build evidence about it, can come across as arrogant or overconfident, almost as if we have the perfect answers already. And well, (inaudible) and I. That just opens scientists and people who take a naturalistic worldview up to criticism. So I think that's one thing to avoid, needs some humility,
SPENCER: I see that sometimes when, let's say there's an article saying, the science has already settled on this topic, when in fact, there actually might be a lively debate among scientists, or at least there might be some dissenting voices. And then when you get things like, you know, the replication crisis in social science, where you find that maybe something like 40% of papers and top journals, their main claim doesn't seem to pan out when you try to replicate it. Then it starts to call into question. And it's like you want to say believe the evidence without really causing the question, well, what is the science? What is the evidence? What do we what are we supposed to believe exactly?
JAMIE: Yeah. And if you give the impression your position or your stance, your belief is perfect, then you deserve to be criticized when it's shown that it isn't.
SPENCER: Yeah. And I think that these are also really tough problems. Because I mean, I'm a believer that science is one of the most powerful tools that humanity's ever invented.
SPENCER: But on the other hand, the actual practice of science is often very flawed, and it has many of the normal human foibles that we have no other human endeavors.
JAMIE: Absolutely. And I think that's part of this humility in saying we're committed to using evidence and reason sounds very common sense and straightforward. But there are so many different types of evidence, the quality of that evidence can be disputed, and evidence can sometimes contradicts. Our means of perception, both individually and in scientific pursuits, the tools and techniques we use are by no means perfect. And the same is true of reasoning as well, right? There's no one clear, perfect way of doing the reasoning. So people can use evidence and reason and still disagree. And that's, I think, a point we need to get across is actually the real power of a naturalistic worldview is the opposite of pretending we're perfect. It's actually having that humility, having that skepticism, having that doubt, and always being open-minded, always being open to new evidence. So that means that any belief we hold is probabilistic, you know, so outside of formal systems like maths, we're never really 100% sure of anything. But those beliefs are also provisional, because who knows what we might find out tomorrow. There's also always more research required. I think, if we emotionally explain that humility, and talk about how that humility is actually the central power of science and naturalistic thinking because it's ultimately self-correcting. And now, as many people have said before, it's not about getting it right. It's just about haltingly, slowly, and human fallible, wise, getting less wrong, then maybe people will have a deeper appreciation of the value of science and be a bit more forgiving of its foibles and problems.
SPENCER: Hmm. So I want to unpack a little bit, what do we mean to disagree with you? So you say, "Okay, we should use evidence and critical thinking, and reason to understand the world, right?" And you can imagine one group of people saying, I just don't think that's the right set of tools. Like I think evidence and reasoning are not the right way to arrive at the truth. And there are people like that those people do exist. And I think you have a very genuine disagreement with them. Like maybe they say, I think you should just rely on your intuition to understand the world, or I think that actually most of the useful things to know are based on spiritual systems. And those are outside of evidence, right. So that is one group. And we could talk about that group. But I think there's another group that may be potentially more interesting to talk about, which is a group that says, "Yeah, let's use evidence and critical thinking and reasoning, but they just come to conclusions that you would think are really, really wrong." Like, let's say, they say, "Oh, yeah, I've used evidence and critical thinking. And I've determined that actually, QAnon is probably right," or some other you know, view that you think is just totally wrong. So I imagine they're actually a lot of people like that, who say that they agree with you, but actually, you would say disagree with you. So curious to hear your thoughts on that.
JAMIE: ne starting point is I think it's important not to be too narrow about our definition of what we mean by evidence and reasoning and some people will take quite a sort of scientistic approach where they essentially say that unless your knowledge is developed through a randomized control trial that has no basis, in fact whatsoever, I don't take that sort of narrow approach. I think it's much more healthy to acknowledge a really wide range of different types of evidence and even different types of reasoning, as well.
SPENCER: You just hit on one of my pet peeves, I have to respond, I find it so annoying when scientists come out publicly and say there are no evidence for such a thing, when in fact, really what they mean is there's no randomized control trials.
SPENCER: And there's actually abundant evidence, it's just not in the form of randomized control trials. And while I love randomized control trials, there are other methods in the world. So to say there's no evidence I find very obnoxious.
JAMIE: I agree. And I think you can take that even further interesting conversation with someone the other day on one of my favorite topics about, religion and naturalistic ways of thinking. And their religious belief came from a very direct personal experience, where they experienced something that led them to quite concrete conclusions about the existence of a particular type of garden or a particular series of books that they took to have canonical significance. And it's one thing to say there's no evidence to support that view. But there is evidence right there, personal experience is evidence. Now, you might then go into a conversation about what's the quality and robustness of that evidence, given different hypotheses and different sources and other possible explanations for why you had that experience. But to deny the experience is evidence in the first place, I think is unfair. I think personal experiences are evidences. And you know, I think later on we'll talk about one of my other favorite topics in sentience and consciousness. And my personal experience of sentience and consciousness, in a way is quite fundamental to my thinking there. So it seems churlish of me to deny the personal experience of others and say, that's not even evidence at all.
SPENCER: Yeah, I completely agree. I mean, there are just so many types of evidence.
JAMIE: So I haven't in a way, I didn't really answer your question. I think that's partly, but beyond that, practically, it really is a process of developing and trying to negotiate and agree on standards about the quality of evidence and quality of reasoning that, I guess that's much of what philosophy and science have been trying to do. And there is a difference between people who are willing to go through that process of recognizing a sort of certain basic set of epistemological standards and still disagree with you and people who will say they're following evidence and reason. But in reality, they are just declaring an unfounded belief. There are others who will explicitly and directly decide to turn away from evidence and reason and say, the fact that I hold this belief without evidence is actually something I'm proud of, you know, my faith is independent of evidence, and therefore I held it. So yeah, there's a wide variety of different ways of pushing back on that naturalistic stance.
SPENCER: Yeah. So I'm a huge fan of using evidence, critical thinking and using reasoning, using science. But it seems like so many people now tossed around these words, and it's kind of gotten watered down. I mean, you see, like, all of these different, absolutely ridiculous fake treatments that say they're scientific, right? And maybe they even sound scientific, and maybe even point to a paper. But if you actually look at it, it's clearly not scientific. It's just, you know, it's just dressing up in the clothing of science. And I think the same exact thing happens with reason and evidence. And I just want to give one example of this which I think it's fascinating, which is that a bunch of people who support the flat earth movement. They view themselves as actually using better evidence than other people because their basic argument is, look, you think you're using evidence, but you actually are just doing appeals to authority, like, you've never actually seen the curvature of the earth, all these claims about the earth being round, you're just trusting other people. Whereas, I am actually looking at things with my own eyes. I'm relying on my senses, which are much better than appeals to authority, right? And so I think they're totally mistaken in the way they use evidence. They believe they're using evidence rigorously, at least many of them.
JAMIE: Yeah, I agree. I agree. I think going back to your earlier question about can we persuade people to recommit to a more naturalistic approach, I think another way you can entertain some of those conversations is actually looking for common ground because most people who hold views that you might see as poorly founded, whether it's flat earthers, or QAnon, or religious beliefs, or belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden, or Father Christmas, in their daily life, do actually use a naturalistic approach in most of their decisions when they decide whether to fly a plane, or drive a car, or trust an engineer, or whether the sun will come up in the morning or making a cup of coffee. In practical terms, moment-to-moment, even for people who have deeply supernatural beliefs, the vast majority of their decisions, and the vast majority of their beliefs are actually naturalistically grounded. And I think that could be another way of instead of just fighting with people returning to a common ground about the areas in people's daily lives where they do use a naturalistic approach and just almost teasing out well, why wouldn't we apply that same commonsense approach more broadly?
SPENCER: There's a lot of day-to-day decision-making based on intuitions is essentially your system one intuitive module of your mind just learning things based on experience.
JAMIE: Yeah, I think that's fair, but I think a lot of that intuitive decision-making still ultimately has a naturalistic grounding, and whether that has an evolutionary history or a learned history or muscle memory, it still comes from some sort of sense, experiencing the environment, testing different ways of responding and building up some knowledge base. Now, whether we're consciously mechanically thinking that through and it classically rational process, or whether we're responding intuitively, I think there's still largely a naturalistic basis for most of those decisions.
SPENCER: I'm not sure I like the word naturalism. I worry that like, lumps together too many things, hard to talk about. What do you put into that category, just to make sure I know what you're talking about?
JAMIE: So I've defined it quite broadly in the use of evidence and reason to form provisional and probabilistic beliefs. So you can almost define it by the negative if a belief is supported without an appeal to natural phenomena -- you know, data, information processing, matter, including dark energy, unless something is based on observations and analysis of those types of natural phenomena. So it might be declared, it might be revealed, it might be just unsupported. So I guess that's trying to find in quite a commonsense way. And based on direct engagement with reality as it is versus supernatural, implying that there's something beyond the physical reality we inhabit that somehow, people still use to form beliefs. I don't know if that's still too broad.
SPENCER: It does help, but I worry that I put a bunch of stuff in the natural state camp that you would not base on your description. So for example, let's say someone takes psychedelics, and they have an experience of God talking to them, or they're just meditating or praying, and they have experience of God talking to them, right, which a lot of people report. Is that not sensory information that would fall into that category of naturalistic, but I feel like you want to reject those as naturalistic?
JAMIE: Oh, no, no, no, it absolutely is, right. So those experiences of someone using psychedelic that is having some sort of numinous, transcendent experience, those experiences are absolutely real. I think if you put someone in there for an fMRI scanner, you'd even get some rough outlines of the patterns of information processing, but those experiences are absolutely real.
SPENCER: Real as just as the psychological experience if that's what you mean, right?
JAMIE: In a psychological experience, and because their patterns of information processing in a physical entity that is the person who's taking psychedelics, but what I'm saying is that that individual experiencing those real phenomena, then deciding that it means that there is another entity out there called the God or some transcendent existence, I would suggest that those latter phenomena are not well-supported by the evidence, because it's much simpler and more straightforward to explain the experience that person had, because of the neuro-chemistry of their mind than it is to pose it the fact that there really is some transcendent deity out. Does that make sense? So I think the experience is absolutely valid, it is real, it is absolutely a form of evidence, but to draw conclusions from that, which are locked in and 100% and incontrovertible, is a massive jump when using science understand the massively plastic, and flexible, and unreliable nature of information processing that goes on our brain. So we should be skeptical about much of the pressing our brain and many of our perceptions, whether it's visual illusions, or cognitive biases, right? We're right to be skeptical of those things, even without positing outlandish, supernatural, transcendent deity stuff, but when our minds then posit those types of things, we should remain skeptical, we shouldn't deny those experiences exist or that they are a type of evidence. But when they suggest outlandish things for which there is no other corroborating evidence, yeah, we should remain very skeptical. Does that make sense?
SPENCER: I share the same conclusions as you, but I'm not sure I fully buy that argument. I mean, if someone is, let's say, sitting down to pray, I think psychedelics are actually a little bit too easy of a case because clearly, psychedelics is really causing extreme temporary changes in their brain. But let's say someone's praying, and when they hear the voice of God in their head, which people report. You know, it's not the most common thing, but people report this. This is not that weird report. Is that not evidence for the existence of God? I mean, I don't believe that that proves there's a God. But I do think that is evidenced by the standard definition of evidence.
JAMIE: I think it's evidence as well, but because we should have beliefs that are probabilistic. I would record a very, very low probability of having any validity.
SPENCER: Isn't that just the value of prior, though? I mean, now, are you just saying you saying God is your low prior that okay, sure. That's evidence but doesn't overcome your prior.
JAMIE: Maybe, but I guess my prior is low because I've so far experienced no credible evidence of its existence. So when someone says I've had a mental experience that convinces me it's true. I go, "Yeah, okay." It doesn't shift my prior that much. Because I have an alternative hypothesis about the evolved nature of the human brain and the experiences that can generate that to me seems much more credible. It doesn't mean I set the existence of God at zero and it doesn't mean that those experiences don't have some impact on the probabilities that I assigned. But there are almost an infinite number of things you can believe for which there's no good evidence. So I assign them all very low probabilities.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's interesting, because I think that many people who believe in deities, don't believe in deities for evidence-based reasons or even based on strong arguments. And I think that's true. I think most people who believe in deities, believe in them because they were raised to believe them. And they've passively believed them, they were taught that they were true, by the time that they were old enough to really think about them, they already had the belief. If you asked, remember the time before you believe, like, they wouldn't really be a time they could remember because even in childhood, they would have already kind of adopted the belief because they're told this true. On the other hand, I think it would be perfectly consistent for someone to actually come to the conclusion that a God exists through possible life experiences they could have. In other words, I believe that there are people in this world who believe in God for very reasonable evidence-based reasons that are based on the series of life experiences they had, like, for example, they hear God talk to them, and maybe that voice has shown coherence and maybe seems to know, things that they think it would be difficult to know or whatever. I certainly don't have that experience. But it doesn't seem out of a question that some people have it. Even if they're wrong, even if there is no God, I don't think so.
JAMIE: No, I'm with you. Right. And for them, that experience is visceral as real as anything and compelling. And I still think they're wrong in the same way as if an individual came to me with something that they believed, purely because of an experience in their own minds, that they could not demonstrate to me or any other person in any other way. You know, whatever that belief was, whether it was about a God or something they just dreamed up or felt very seriously, if there's no other way for me to access the information or the evidence they have about that belief, I remain remarkably skeptical. Part of the reason I do again, as you said, is because when you think about the evolutionary history of the human species, and the information processing kit we are bestowed with, and you think about teaching and social norms and culture, and even indoctrination that people go through, and the reality, the breathtaking reality of neuro-chemical processing, the experiences we already know that can generate, there seem much more viable hypotheses to me than the fact that this individual who can find no other way of demonstrating the evidence that they've seen to you is holding a genuine belief. And I think you're right that most people who hold the religious belief hold it because they were taught since birth by teachers, priests, parents, and society at large that was just true. And it seeped in at a very deep level, that happens to all of us in the way we inculcated into society. Many religious people remain culturally religious but actually end up abandoning the supernatural beliefs because they recognize the evidence isn't really there, but they keep a very close rich affinity with their religious group for cultural and community reasons. Others will actually try and double down and there is evidence, you know, the Bible, the Quran, other religious texts, statues, crying blood, other people will try and follow the evidence and reason-based path. And similar to the flat earther is trying to convince you that there is evidence that the dinosaurs were created 6000 years ago by a deity to trick us into thinking the universe is older. But I think you're right that most people will actually get to the point where we've just discussed when they say, look, I don't need evidence and reason. That's not what my belief is about, and that can just be somewhat arbitrary, but it can also be directly connected to a personal experience they've had, it's a fascinating range of different rationales that people follow.
SPENCER: Absolutely. But I also just want to add to be fair to both sides. I actually think also, atheists often don't believe for evidence and reasoning reasons, either. They might be because they were taught to do this by their parents or because actually, another example, I've seen people become atheists because they had some really bad life experience. And it sort of sours them on the God question, but it's like, Well, does that really mean that God doesn't exist? Or you just have it in your religion. And I guess my broader point is that reason and evidence, use carefully is not a common thing by anyone, on any side. I think it's something we should all aspire to do. But yeah, it's just I don't want to be unfair.
JAMIE: That's entirely fair. And many, many atheists hold completely unfounded beliefs in many other areas of their lives, as well. So no one is in some perfect epistemological state where we've got it right, we'll have those biases and things pushing us in different directions. And I think that's part of the humility we talked about, right? Everybody has to have that. As soon as you start to get overconfident in your beliefs or arrogant or assertive or a little too preachy. You're much less likely to persuade other people, you're right. You're more likely to have a fall when it's pointed out how wrong you are.
SPENCER: I just want to go back to the origins of the universe for a second because I feel that in my opinion, there is much stronger evidence against the very specific claims of religions in the world today than there is against, let's say, a God that created the whole universe and then just didn't interact with it or these origin creators that like, Ah, yes, some being created this and we don't really know what is going on besides that, and there seem to be physical laws that they set up, it seems actually pretty hard for me to refute that kind of God. I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on that.
JAMIE: Yeah, I think that's entirely fair. I mean it's described as the God of the gaps. And, you know, people used to think that it was the God that made some couple come up in the morning, and then we worked out what really was. And so God, as we've understood more naturalistically, the role for God has withdrawn. And to some people, as you say, it's now sort of a pre-cosmological inflationary period. And maybe that's where God is because that's the gap. And I'm not too interested in refuting those views. I think a really important thing is we need to get comfortable with say we don't know. And that's another problem. Many people have a sort of scientific or naturalistic view that is even they're too tempted to say, well, we know the answer. Here's the evidence, here's the evidence. And in many cases, it's better just say, we don't know. But let's resist that human temptation to make up an answer to fill a gap, let's just not know, and try and find out. And in the meantime, just don't hold the belief. I'm not really that interested in having an argument about whether God created the Big Bang, or whether it was collapsing the previous universe's bubble or something else. I'm fascinated to find out what it is. But in the meantime, I don't feel the need to hold the belief one way or the other.
SPENCER: Yeah, I'm very sympathetic to what you said. Because it just seems like really in the range of who the heck knows. And the Big Bang also opens just a bunch of other questions that we don't know the answer to, right. It's not like the Big Bang just settles the whole question of why the universe exists. Not at all.
JAMIE: Of course, it just possesses something else that we can't understand. And I think there's an underappreciated concept here as well, which is arbitrariness and had a fascinating conversation with a philosopher called stem brewers recently, he was really focused hard on this, because if you believe something that doesn't have clear evidence to support it, that belief is essentially arbitrary. And what I mean by that is, you could believe anything in its place, right? So in the same way, as you might say, well, there was a God that created the universe, you could say, as a chocolate teapot created the universe or a dinosaur called Boris that created the universe, or you could literally make up absolutely anything, however ridiculous, and would have the same level of evidentiary basis. So that's my concern is that if you hold the belief that doesn't have a decent evidentiary basis, there's a real risk. It's just completely arbitrary.
SPENCER: I don't think I agree with that. I don't think there's an equal probability that a teapot created the universe as a God created the universe, do you actually believe that?
JAMIE: It depends on the definitions, right? Because I guess a teapot is a quite specific thing. And God is quite a broad concept. So maybe I'm being a little unfair. And there's a higher chance of a God having created it than a chocolate teapot. That's probably fair, but I think they're in the same sort of range in terms of quality of evidence to support that belief.
SPENCER: Okay, so I think part of it has to do with how general we want to be about God, right? If God is any powerful being that's actually a huge set of hypotheses, right, maybe it doesn't include the teapot because the teapot is not a powerful being but includes a lot of possibilities. It includes potentially even like simulation type arguments from Nick Bostrom of like just some powerful, some grad students that we think of as gods, but because they're in some higher dimensional plane, and they create our universe, as a side experiment or something. If someone says I think that maybe our universe was made by some powerful being, I actually don't think that's particularly unreasonable, because the other side, which is like our universe has always existed, there's also seems pretty unreasonable to me. So I'm kind of stuck between a bunch of unreasonable hypotheses that I don't have any evidence for one way or the other. So I don't know, maybe at that point, I'm a little more agnostic about the origins of the beginning.
JAMIE: And maybe there's a risk. I'm being a little tautological here because I'm confusing that definition of God as being something that is outside of nature, whereas, to me, the grad student running a simulation is not outside of nature, you know, that grad student exists in some sort of substrate and is running some amazing quantum supercomputer in his basement and on which we're running. That's still a natural phenomenon. But yeah, I think you're right, maybe I'm being a little harsh.
SPENCER: Can I just say, I appreciate so much that you just said that, like, you know, that's exactly what I want to try to do on this podcast is to like, have people actually be, honest about their beliefs and say, hey, you know what, I made a mistake. And you know, maybe it will be too hard. So thank you for that.
JAMIE: It's a pleasure. And I think that's probably the final thing I'd say about this. How can we get people back to evidence and reason is that it may seem a little odd to say, but I think we need to have conversations with compassion. It's very easy to have compassion for people we agree with or in our tribe. The real test of compassion is when you can have extended that caring to people you disagree with, or even people you think might be causing harm. And I think if we can have that compassion, we can understand why someone might hold these beliefs even if we think they're ridiculous, right? And it might be indoctrination or social history or a personal experience have had if we can genuinely understand that and connect with them and identify with it and have emotional compassion for them even while we disagree with them. I think that gives us a much better chance of negotiating together, maybe a stronger epistemological basis and finding that common ground and building on it. So it's a bit of a soft and fluffy response. But all too often that's missing in our engagements. They just tend to pitch battles between two groups who are refusing to acknowledge that there is any common ground when often there is.
SPENCER: Yeah, absolutely. I think a couple of things that are helpful to keep in mind is number one, we're all wrong about some things, right? We may have found out we were wrong about something in the past, but we're certainly also find out we were wrong. But something's in the future. I think that helps me relate to someone I really disagree with. I'm like, Well, I've been really wrong about things. And I think they're really wrong with this thing. But like it makes you kind of relate to that person more. And I think another one is just to realize that a lot of people who you might think to hold harmful views, they're actually like, good people, fundamentally, their friends and family well, and they want what's best for society, and they just might have very different views about what is best, and maybe they're totally wrong about it. But that doesn't mean, they're bad. I think it's easy to conflate, like, this person has views that I think are harmful with this person is bad. And I think they're really different things.
JAMIE: Totally agree. And you can see some very extreme examples of that where otherwise reasonably ordinary people who love their fathers and mothers and wouldn't kick a dog in the street, can do absolutely awful things, because of things they've actually been indoctrinated to believe in. I think that separation of the idea from the individual and their potential is really important. And without that, compassion falls away.
SPENCER: I've done too many podcast episodes, at this point to actually remember what I've spoken about in all my past episodes. So I may be repeating myself here, but I have this idea I refer to as Philosophical Disorders, which is I define as a belief that is both false and is substantially harmful to yourself or to the world. And I think it's very important to differentiate between someone who has a philosophical disorder. And that's why they are causing harm to the world, versus someone who's actually fundamentally a person of low character, for example, someone who like enjoys watching other stuff, which is quite really quite rare. But I think that does exist. That's a very different person than someone who's just actually trying to do good, as he's confused about the nature of good is actually causing harm because of it.
JAMIE: I think it's a really important distinction. And part of the reason why this naturalistic epistemology is really important to me is exactly because of those links. You know, there are some supernatural beliefs people can hold that don't have negative, ethical, or harmful implications for other people, but many of them do. And I think the wrong and the suffering we see in the world isn't really traced back to a failure of compassion. It's actually traced back to false beliefs or wrong beliefs. And that linkage between the two is really interesting. And that's partly why one example is, whenever there's a sort of suggestion that there is something higher or more important, or that should be put above or prioritized above ordinary sentient beings and people, so we think about suffering and flourishing and life and death as important. But as soon as you put something as more important than those things, whether that be an autocratic leader, or a party state, or a deity, or a church, or a priesthood, as soon as you prioritize something as more important than ordinary sentient beings, bad things can happen, I guess. And that's just one example of where I think an epistemological mistake or a belief can actually lead to really bad moral outcomes.
SPENCER: Yeah, I would add that I think a lot of it has to do with extreme overconfidence. It's one thing to believe in the Bible. And it's another thing to think that the Bible is absolutely an errand and every sentence in it has to be completely and fully true and should be obeyed strictly. And you know, I think you just get radically different behaviors. And those two scenarios, I think a lot of the damage is when reading strictly, and it was such overconfidence, that actually causes you to have imparted your will on other people based on your interpretation.
JAMIE: Yeah, I agree. I have so much sympathy and respect for people who are driving that halting, painful process of reforming many religions, to bring them up to date, frankly, with modern humanistic or century artistic ethics. And it's a difficult painful process, and I'm so glad they're doing it. And different religions are moving at different paces. And not all are moving forwards. But it's difficult for them because in the old way the fundamentalists have the stronger argument. You know, the fundamentalists are saying, Look, good and bad isn't about suffering and death of ordinary humans, good and bad is defined by the essence of the deity as written down in the book, because that's what it says. So if God tells you that pushing gay people off a roof is a good thing to do, then that is a good thing to do. And if the Christian God tells you that if you're an unrepentant sinner, you will burn in hell for eternity, then that is a morally good thing because it's really difficult. I really respect people who are part of religious reform movements, because the fundamentalists actually have the books at their back and have the epistemology at their back that says, it's not about you, it's about God and God is good, and that's the answer. So it's, yeah, it's a really tricky dynamic.
SPENCER: It's a kind of weird conditional epistemology because like if you accept all the premises, which, personally, I think they don't have good evidence for those premises, but if you accept those premises, then these conclusions follow, which are really extreme and disturbing, and I think harmful. And then actually, they may be more consistent by, you know, doing this harmful stuff, then the question is like, how do you actually move to a society where people can have these religious views, and not create collateral damage by let's say, taking an ancient book to literally at its word,
JAMIE: That's partly why I think religious movements are evolving is because people are trying to get to a point where they still want the community, they still want some sense of being part of something greater than them, that there is some reassuring power that's looking over them and is on their side. So they want those aspects of the religion, but they are an extra view being drawn by modern culture and humanistic ethics. And just the basic understanding that suffering is bad and flourishing is good. And it's like a magnet, drawing people towards a more rational, naturalistic ethics, but they still want to keep some of the elements of the supernatural, culturally or emotionally feel reassuring to them. And I think that's absolutely fine. I might still believe that someone holding supernatural beliefs is wrong, and I might disagree with them about those beliefs, but I am robustly supportive of total freedom of belief and thought, as long as those beliefs aren't then used to cause harm and suffering to others people. And often they're not, and very often they are. So I think you're right. freedom of belief and thought is really important. We need to understand and respect people's individual autonomy and their choices, the challenges, those can't be used to justify needless harm.
SPENCER: So let's switch to talking about morality more broadly. What is your view matters morally? And why do you believe that?
JAMIE: So an interesting way of answering that is to think about where my view of where morality came from because, in an odd set, I think there was a rudimentary sort of morality even before humans existed. So if you go back, certainly into early animal history, and you think about kin relationships, or pack dynamics, reciprocal relationships, or symbiotic relationships, arguably, there's some sort of rudimentary morality there already that was based off an evolution of cooperation, packing genetic dynamics, leading to cooperation and communication. And I guess humans came into the world with gradually that we have that even pre-human moral rational basis. And whether that was driven by enlightened self-interest in the benefits of cooperation and so on. We've then taken that on and gone from quite small moral circles around ourselves and our family and our tribe, to villages and towns and to nation-states into regions. And partly triggered by the horrors of the two World Wars even got to the point where 200, and something countries signed up to a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that said, "Look, all humans matter morally." That doesn't mean we prioritize them equally. That doesn't mean we don't still have massive challenges 60 years on about actually making those realities but at least conceptually, we've extended our moral circle and said, that person on the other side of the world matters just as much as people around me. So we've taken that enormous step forward towards the universal human compassion, at least in theory, although some people will reject that even now, as we know, whether that's based on race or gender, or sexuality, or nation-state or some other sort of tribal definition authoring. But in concept, that's a massive step forward, I think, for human progress.
SPENCER: I agree. That's it. I just want to add something there. I agree that that's a huge step forward and a really big fan of trying to extend our moral circle. But I do want to push back a little bit and say, suppose someone draws their moral circle narrowly, and they say, "You know what, the only people that matter to me are my family and friends" and that's it. Are they wrong? Or how would you respond to that?
JAMIE: So I don't see myself as a moral realist in the sense that if there were no sentient beings anywhere in the universe, I don't think there would be any morality. I don't think there are platonic moral truths floating out there that we're discovering apply regardless of the situation. So in that sense, you could say, well, is that person wrong or right? Who knows, right? There isn't a perfect objective standard. I do ground on morality, so in a way, I'm a moral realist in a naturalistic sense, because I do think that suffering is a moral negative, needlessly causing it as a moral negative, and flourishing are all the positive experiences, we might have moral positives as well. So I tend to ground my morality in that capacity to experience things, whether human or non-human. But I would challenge how they've drawn that moral circle in that I'd say, your choice really is an arbitrary one, you might justify it based on reciprocity, or some other boundaries or some other distinctions, but you've somewhat arbitrarily excluded a range of other beings that are capable of suffering from that circle. So whether I'd say they're wrong or not, is a different question. But I'd certainly challenge you to know why they should have zero moral consideration from outside. Now, that's slightly different from prioritizing. So if they're saying is, look, I'm going to prioritize my family and my friends and the people around, we had to remind you that what I'm pushing back on is them granting no moral consideration outside of that boundary. So in a thought experiment, if they had a red button on the desk, which would immediately kill everybody else on the planet, they would do that without a moment's thought that would flip a coin, because there's no moral consideration outside of that. Does that make sense? So I don't think having universal compassion for all humans means you can't prioritize within that. But if you're drawing your moral circle, and saying nothing outside that matters at all, such that I would kill or cause extreme harm to anyone outside of that moral circle without a moment's hesitation. Yes, I would say that's wrong.
SPENCER: So what do you think the best argument is in favor of trying to expand the moral circle? Right, let's say someone's not persuaded that like, for example, animals should be part of it. They say, You know what I care about humans, I just don't care about animals, like, sure they might feel suffer, but I don't care about their suffering, because they're not part of us or whatever.
JAMIE: In a way, it comes back to the same point, my argument would be that their exclusion of those beings is arbitrary. They can do it if they like, but hopefully, in a sort of modern developed society, if that exclusion is going to cause harm, you may well find a way of constraining this individual. So I'm not saying technically the individual is wrong, but I do think their drawing of the circle is arbitrary. And I prefer an approach whereby we look at the human moral circle and say, at least, conceptually, every human should be granted moral consideration, and rights, and we shouldn't want to arbitrarily harm or kill them. But logically, when I drill into that, the reason why I extend my moral consideration to all humans is because of their capacity to suffer. And when I look at that characteristic, you might describe it as sentience, the ability to experience things positive or negative. All the evidence to me demonstrates that it's not just humans that have that capacity to suffer. So if our morality is driven by concern for the interests and needs of others, by wanting to avoid needless suffering to them, to my mind, it makes sense that the moral circle should be extended to include all beings that have the capability of experiencing suffering,
SPENCER: I think you just for me hit the nail on the head of like, how I would respond, because actually, while I agree with you, it's arbitrary to draw your moral circle, like, adjust your friends, or just your family or just humans. I also feel like it's arbitrary to draw at every being in the universe like I actually think that all of it's kind of arbitrary. So I think what I would get at is a little bit more of like what you just mentioned, which is that people actually if they really reflect on what they care about, do care about a bunch of things that are universal. Not everyone, but many people. So many people actually just think suffering is bad. Like, it's bad. If a random pig is just tortured for no reason, maybe they don't think that's as bad as like family member being tortured, obviously, or their dog being tortured, but I think most people actually would agree, no, there's something wrong with that. It's like we're living in a better universe. If that doesn't happen. And insofar as they have these principles in their values, which I think most people do, I think a natural extension of those is just to say, "Okay, well, if you reflect on it, you really do care about beings not suffering." So if you try to be consistent with your values, your moral circle is actually much bigger than you might realize.
JAMIE: Exactly, because I think, in a way, it comes back to the sort of pretty human basis of morality and another interesting way of thinking about it is small children, I think, before we're taught things, or go to school or brought up in a particular way, we almost start out one I think having a quite a naturalistic approach, right, we explore, we experience things we use our senses, we build provisional knowledge about things. I don't think there are any toddlers that have a belief in a deity or anything too supernatural before they're taught it. But on this compassion side, I think that's also somewhat built into the way we operate, as well. And while there might be some small children who enjoy pulling the wings off flies, if you put a toddler in a room with a potbelly pig, you know, it won't want to hurt it. So there is that at least some sort of baseline, inbuilt evolutionary predilection to seeing suffering is bad. And that's partly because our own suffering is bad almost by definition, it's almost tautological. So it may seem a little trite, but in a way, part of the foundation for my morality actually comes back to the fact that I just don't like suffering. And because I can look around at other humans, and indeed other sentient beings, and I can say, well, they have a similar evolutionary history to me. They have a similar information processing architecture to me. They seem to behave and communicate in ways that demonstrate to me that they seem to experience things the same way, it's fair enough to infer that they don't like suffering either. Therefore, if you want to cooperate and work together, and if we can do it without causing suffering, that's going to be a good thing. And it is almost tautological, in a way. And I think we've defined the concept of morality if we put supernatural morality to one side. We've almost by definition, says that morality is about our concern for the interests, the needs, and the experiences of others. So in that context, suffering is needless suffering and is a negative thing. And there's no rational reason to exclude any being that is capable of suffering. But to your point, that's where I stop. Right? So that leads to this sort of sentientism idea that I'm developing and has also come out of the animal ethics movement for many years, is that when you go beyond sentience, you're granting moral consideration to entities that really don't care, right? They don't have interest, they don't have needs, they can't experience suffering,
SPENCER: Like a rock or something, you mean.
JAMIE: Yeah. So you know, a rock, or an ecosystem, or habitat or a planet, or those things are to my understanding, not sentient, so it doesn't make sense to include them in our moral consideration. They might well be important instrumentally because of the impact they have on the experiences of other sentient beings, you know, animals and humans, but intrinsically in their own right, no one cares about a rock in a valley on a distant planet, because it has no interest, it cannot experience anything.
SPENCER: It's funny, I had a debate with a friend of mine recently who's an environmentalist on exactly this topic. And she was arguing that she cares about the ecosystem for its own sake, like preserving the ecosystem, not like humans destroy it, which to me seemed like a very strange view, I actually think it's a pretty popular view. I think many people say that way. But I find it a very strange view because especially taking a wider viewpoint on the ecosystem, the ecosystem has always been changing. It's it was radically different. In the distant past, it will be radically different in the future, whether or not humans are on this planet. And it's very hard for me to say that one of those times is better was ecosystem a million years ago, better than it was 50,000 years ago. Like, it just seems like there's no way to even evaluate or compare, because ecosystems are not the sort of thing that has interests or that has any goals that can be thwarted. It's just as you know, a naturally occurring, chaotic system.
JAMIE: Yeah, I agree. And, you know, it's a little trite to say, but Gaia doesn't care, right? Almost by definition, it doesn't care, it doesn't have an interest. And I think there are two potential problems with much environmentalist thinking at the moment. And I'll start by saying, you know, my sort of sentient test view is grounded in moral consideration for all sentient beings, and we're richly dependent on the environment. So I have a very strong conservationist and environmentalist affinity with people who are trying to make our planet safer and a better environment for us to live in. But to me, many environmentalists make one or two mistakes. One is that their concern for the environment isn't really a concern for the environment, it's a concern for human interests in the environment. So you know, because nature is pretty because we enjoy it aesthetically because we're like watching wildlife. And because we want the right air quality, and so on, people will frame that as an environmental concern. But really, it's just a human concern. It's just another anthropocentric reflection of the nature we want to have around us. And that perspective often crushes moral consideration for wild animals and certainly farmed animals. And it's white because really, it's just all about us humans again. The other mistake is when the concern actually really is genuine. And people see, die our ecosystem or nature or habitats or even species as things that have intrinsic moral value. And that links back to the problem we talked about before. We're in the extreme if people see the ecosystem as more important than sentient beings, and even humans that can lead you to really quite troubling movements like eco fascism, where people will use words like humans are the virus and will stop thinking about quite radical and very dangerous ways of limiting human population or radically harming sentient beings. Because we're trying to prioritize Gaia or a wider ecosystem. So I think there are at least a couple of problematic paths that many environmentalists take.
SPENCER: So what would your preferred perspective be?
JAMIE: My preferred perspective I guess it comes back to this term of sentientism which grants moral consideration to all sentient beings. So it's open to debate about what that is, but roughly scientific consensus says that humans and then many non-human animals, so mammals, rabbits, birds, fish, many of the invertebrates, and it would say every single one of those warrants some degree of meaningful moral consideration, which means we should want to try and avoid causing their suffering, we should want to enhance their flourishing. And where that leads you to on an environmental position is that you say, we value the environment, including all the non-sentient bits of the environment, the rocks, and the rivers and the plants, because of their deep importance to all the wild animals, the farmed animals, the human animals that depend on that environment. So when we think about making the environment better, we're doing it because of its impact on sentient beings, not because we want some pristine, perfect green romantic view of a natural planet. So where that leads you to is to temper some parts of the environmental movement and say it needs to be compassionate. So there's a guy called Mark Bekoff, and other people, academics around him who are developing compassionate conservationism, which then we do want to conserve the environment. But we need to do that in a way that's grounded in compassion for sentient beings and doesn't trample on sentient beings in the interest of a non-sentient environment if that makes sense.
SPENCER: So where do you draw the line? Because you could imagine, you've got dogs and cats and cows and rabbits and lizards, you know, minnows and clams, it's like, so how do you think about that?
JAMIE: So the sentientism I talk about is actually quite neutral, which things are sentient, it just says follow the science. But my personal view, and this is where I think the scientific mainstream is that it is largely human and non-human animals. And the way I get there is the one I'm pretty confident that I'm sentient because I'm experiencing it moment-to-moment. So it comes back to our conversation before about the validity of personal experience. I'm pretty confident I'm conscious and sentient. But I think there are three things that lead me to build evidence that, you know, firstly, I think I'm pretty confident you're sentient, Spencer. But extend that out to non-human animals too, one is the common evolutionary history that I think has driven us to develop a class of information processing, that really is a sort of an advanced way of modeling ourselves, as an entity in the environment. I think, really, that's what sentience and consciousness are. The second is the inference from behavior and communications that because of the way I operate implies that there's a subjective experience going on behind the behavior and communications I see, as well. And the third one is architecture. So you know, the physical reality of our brains and our nervous systems and fMRI scans, I think from those three different schools of evidence, that's what's led me to essentially summarize it as human and non-human animals, but I wouldn't extend it to plants or to rocks or to rivers. And I wouldn't extend it to some panpsychist due to subatomic particles or other non-sentient objects.
SPENCER: Do you include insects in there?
JAMIE: So insects are really interesting. And there's fascinating research going on about insects and other invertebrates. And my amateurish summary is that it certainly seems that some invertebrates and insects do appear to be sentient. But there is more research required about some of the much simpler insects and invertebrates.
SPENCER: Insects are a funny category because there's just this ridiculously large number of them. They're so different from each other.
JAMIE: Yeah, and much of our moral calculus would be swayed based on the, you know, on the sheer volume and, and that's partly why, as with everything. I'd go back to that naturalistic stance and say look, everything I'm saying here is a probabilistic belief, right? I'm not 100% confident, even if you're sentience, Spencer, the beliefs are also provisional. So more research is required, we've got to really dig in and understand this in more depth. But I would also suggest that morally, we need some prudence there as well. So personally I give the benefit of the doubt, types of animals where I don't think they're likely to be sanctioned, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and the calculus.
SPENCER: I think we can be much more confident that humans have this kind of conscious experience or sentience, then, let's say an insect, but the way I think about it is there's kind of a, as you were mentioning probabilities like the probability goes up and up and up, the closer the thing gets to humans, mainly just because the only new way we know for sure that that consciousness occurs, right, it doesn't mean that doesn't turn out animals, but the only way we really know for sure because our own personal experience. So you know, a rabbit is less competent than, let's say a dog because I think the dog is probably close to a human than a rabbit. But I still think there's like some chance the rabbit has conscious experience a pretty I personally think it's a quite a good chance. But if I had to choose between, you know, a rabbit suffering or dog suffering, I would choose the rabbit because I'm more confident that the dog suffers. So do you think of it the same way?
JAMIE: I do. Yeah. So some people do ascribe to sort of sentientist or an anti-speciesist view, are also radically quite egalitarian. So they will say, and I think it's a valid concern that will say, look, I understand why you're inferring sentience based on your own personal experience as a human being, but there's a danger of anthropocentrism there that you're misjudging that just because of your frame of reference, which is entirely fair. It's hard to avoid that because I'm not sure where else you'd start from but your own experience, but it's a fair one of caution. So some would say you know as soon as we have a degree of confidence in the sentience of any other being, we should accord equal moral consideration, because who are we to judge the quality and the salience of its experience by chickens experience of suffering, may be less severe than ours, but maybe it's worse than ours because maybe they don't have the cognitive capacity to help them cope with a physically painful experience, as well. So some will take quite a radically egalitarian view. Although I think even they can be extremists. If they had to save either a human baby or a chicken from a burning building, they'd probably still save the human but you know, at least in contacting their egalitarian. I mean, others, including me, do acknowledge that because I see sentience, and consciousness really is just a massively rich class of information processing. It has enormous variety, and therefore, I think it is fair to estimate that different types of sentience might be richer and might have more quality valence, and therefore maybe it is reasonable to grade our moral consideration in various different ways. So that we would prioritize the suffering of a human over a dog over a chicken over a spider, for example. But I think what's important to the people who subscribe to the sentientism is a point of view that I have is that even those who grade degrees of moral consideration would still at least provide some baseline moral consideration, even to a minimally sentient being such that we would see needlessly harming or killing it as morally negative. So that's why certainly for me, that leads me effectively to veganism because I have a prudent broad moral circle. That means if I can avoid it, I want to try and avoid causing harm, even to the simplest sentient beings.
SPENCER: It seems to me that there are more kinds of harm that you can do to a more intelligent being. So imagine a creature that like was conscious, it sort of had experiences or something that was like to be it, but it had no goals. No plans. So you can end its life. So it has no more experiences, but you can't thwart its goals. And it seems, I don't know whether you agree with that or not, but I think too many people, there's something worse about violating a creature's preferences or thwarting its goals than there's an additional bad on top of just ending creature's life.
JAMIE: I think it's valid to consider that because it's absolutely possible. I guess the points of caution are -- one, that there's a danger that that becomes quite a self-serving way of thinking and that we're very quick to try and oversimplify and denigrate the mental capacities, the quality experiences of animals, particularly the ones that we want to keep eating. So people will assume that a pig has no concept of death or plans for the future or a wider concept of being alive for having lost family members. But the more research we do into many new non-human animals, the richer their mental world seems to be. So I think we need to be very prudent about assuming they don't have some of those qualities or types of experience that we do. I think the more we understand the more commonality we'll find. But the other thing I'd say is that, while I do think there are some types of experiences that the center animals just don't have, that we do, the most fundamental ones seem to be the most deeply share. And that makes sense given our common evolutionary past. So when you think about whether you look at Maslow's hierarchy, or some other way of categorizing human experiences, needs, and interests, the ones we see as the most fundamental, are about physical security, freedom from harm, the ability to continue living subsistence. So that's why we see teasing someone is unpleasant. But we see physically torturing someone as deeply awful because those fundamental physical harms or security or continued life harms are the most important to us as humans. Those are the ones that are shared most broadly with all other sentient beings, as well. So while there may be variety, the most important ones seem to be deeply shared yet, they are also the ones that we most often trample upon. And I think there's also an interesting point where sometimes actually having a higher cognitive capability can help you mitigate harm. So if I undergo a medical procedure, because I know it's gonna be good for me in the future, there's a way in which that understand it can mitigate physical harm I'm undergoing, but if you know, a dog or a cat has to undergo a painful medical procedure, maybe their inability to understand the context for that actually makes their suffering worse. So yeah, I think we need real prudence and real caution around reducing our moral consideration for nonhumans on these bases because quite often they are driven by self-serving motivations, rather than a naturalistic understanding of reality.
SPENCER: So do you think it's unethical to eat animals?
JAMIE: I do. Yeah. I mean, the short answer is I do because eating animals needlessly cause suffering and death to sentient beings in most circumstances. Now, of course, there are edge cases around needing to survive even human cannibalism is seen as ethically justifiable in extreme situations, amazing film alive is an interesting example. Right? So, so there are always edge cases where there are competing interests or different things you have to trade-off in extreme situations. But in the vast majority of situations, eating animals is needless and directly causes suffering. And so yeah, I see it as a moral negative.
SPENCER: I suppose that there was there an idealistic case where there was a farm where animals would not have existed if it were not for this farm. You know, these are like experimental animals that are bred on this farm. And the animals live really good lives, let's just hypothesize that they live lives on the special farm, they're better than the natural lives, right? So it's like the natural life, but they're more protected from predators and have less stress and stuff like this. And then let's say they get killed at the end of it, after a couple of years. Let's say they kill them, try to kill them pretty painlessly, and then they sell them to be eaten. In that case, would you view it as unethical?
JAMIE: A would. So there's an interesting thought experiment that I think it's useful to apply whenever you think about non-human animal ethics. And that's just to apply the same model to humans. That doesn't mean you have to think that non-human animals are exactly as valuable as humans. You can still say, a pig or a chicken or a cow is worth less than a human. But as long as you acknowledge that those farmed animals weren't some moral consideration, I think it's an interesting thought experiment. So well, would that logic work for a human, if you think about a situation where we're breeding human toddlers, give them a really lovely, happy environment for a couple of years, they have a wonderful quality of life. And then in their sleep, we anesthetize them and kill them for food. One, most people will have an intuitive horror, about the idea of human toddler farming. And maybe distressing some of you, your listeners now. But I think it's interesting to think about why and because I think the reasons why we find it unethical to do human toxifying are actually the same reasons why I think it's unethical, even in that circumstance to farm animals, even if you think they have a net positive life.
SPENCER: So what are those reasons? Because isn't that a case in both of those scenarios? Right? They're not suffering.
JAMIE: Yeah, exactly. So in a sense, individualism isn't suffering, in a sense that, they're being anesthetized and they have no awareness of their death. But I think the reason why we think it's wrong for a human example, is that, firstly, we've done this deal with ourselves without involving the agents involved, right? So we've said to ourselves, "I have two choices here, I can either breed these beings, give them a net positive life and kill them and eat them at the end, or I can not have them come into existence at all." So I've done a deal with myself to build these two packages of alternatives. And I've decided without them being involved, I'm going to do the net positive life and painless death-to-death route. And you could argue for that on a utilitarian basis and say, Well, there's more flourishing in that world, and there isn't a world where they don't come into existence, and they don't suffer, so that's fine. But as soon as that being comes into existence, and it is a sentient being, which has its own agency, its own experiences, and needs, and its own interest, that individual was not involved in the deal you made. So once you've created it, your moral calculus has to shift. And when you come to the point two years down the line when it's time to anesthetize and then kill that being there for you to eat. At that point, even if you can do it without causing physical suffering, you are removing and taking away the potential for future sentience from that being does exist and has interest and has experiences at that moment. So even if you've done a deal with yourself in advance to package up the breeding, and the like the happy life and the killing. Once that being comes into existence, it has its own interests. And at the point of deciding to push the plunger on the syringe that is still an ethically wrong thing to do in the same way as involuntary euthanasia of a human would be wrong to do because you're removing bare sentient experience from a sentient being.
SPENCER: You're saying that once they're in existence, then now they have interest and you're kind of ending those interests by killing them? But let me ask you a question, though -- which would you choose? Imagine you know reincarnation is the thing and you get to choose either not reincarnated or you're reincarnated, get to live at the age of two living in this like very happy life, and then you get anesthetized in your sleep.
JAMIE: Yes, an interesting question. And this might be annoying, but I'm not sure that there's-. I could feel my brain cogs working.
SPENCER: Fire here, because I'm giving you a tough challenge here.
JAMIE: Yeah. Which shows what a good question is. It's difficult because I think this really cuts to the challenge, and that I'm not that future entity.
SPENCER: Okay, that's the same branch to go the philosophy of mind way out, right?
JAMIE: Yeah. Because another way of framing if I am that same being and you reframe the question as would you want to die now or in two years after having two more happy, happy years? That's a really easy call, right? Because I'll take the extra two years and be nice and be strong in my sleep. But I think that is a different question from this new entity, what would it want to be? And I think that's the difficulty. And when we're doing the net happy life deal, the entity genuinely is not involved in the question at all, and cannot be because it doesn't exist. So we can get into the fascinating field of population ethics, as well. But I don't think that you compare not existing with having a positive life and die, because, in the not existing state, the entity isn't even in that scenario. So I don't think you can even draw a comparison and say, not existing is neutral, to good years of life. And then a painless death is better because the entity only exists in one of those scenarios. It doesn't even exist in the non-existing scenario does. Does that make sense? So I don't know if I'm wriggling out of your question.
SPENCER: We had this guest is definitely the philosopher's debate about how to deal with non-existing beings and experiments is actually there's a lot of hairy complications, that non-existence actually adds to these experiments. But I just wanted to add something that I think is really important here, which is that this idealized form that we're describing has almost nothing to do with real life. Because in real life in the United States, the way that animals are treated in the vast majority of cases is that they live quite bad lives, and in some cases, excruciatingly bad lives, like, my opinion is that the lives of chickens are just incredibly bad. Many of them spend their entire life in like a tiny cage maybe stuffed in there with like, two other chickens or, or even when you get like the free-range, it's often, oh, a giant barn with like, 1000s of chickens in it all crammed together, often pecking at each other and such things. So this idealized farm is really just to push the boundaries of the thought experiment. But I don't think that's the real ethical choice. I think the real ethical choice, in the vast majority of cases, is an animal living a really bad life versus not existing.
JAMIE: Yeah, I agree. And I think that's a really important point to make. Because, you know, whatever your conclusion might be on that thought experiment, we should still end all animal farming. So it is a really important point because it's useful to think through the philosophy but as you say, it has no real relationship to even the least harmful forms of animal farming today.
SPENCER: I don't know if I'd go that far. I think there are a very, very small number of farms that actually do these practices, but I think they really are there.
JAMIE: Yeah. And the reason I push back even on that is, there are some farms where might be the grass-fed, free-range, really high quality of life. Even in those situations, male chicks and lacerated, calves are separated, female cows are forcibly impregnated. And then the process of the slaughter itself is absolutely not without harm, it has trauma for the individual, whether it's electrification or throat-slitting or blunt force trauma, or CO2 gassing, just the process of the killing, these animals are not anesthetized, right, that just doesn't happen even in the most ethical farms. And there's also a second-order impact on the group and the family around them. And again, as we study non-human animals, more and more, it becomes clearer and clearer that cows and pigs and chickens and sheep and birds and fish, even fish actually have familiar relationships, emotional connections, so even if you did euthanize the individual completely, without paying in its sleep, which I maintained, does not happen anywhere on any farm on the planet, there is still a second-order impact on the animals around them, the slaughter does not happen at the end of a happy life. It happens very, very young. So there's a secondary trauma to the family, too. So you know, there are better and worse ways of farming animals. But again, I come back to that thought experiment where if you wouldn't be happy having it done to humans, then you know, we shouldn't call it humane.
SPENCER: I'm tempted to debate you on this. I think we actually disagree. But also I just want to emphasize this is such a weird edge case because it's so not representative of the normal, normal farm is not even close. I think the calculus idea is like, is it a life worth living? And that's a very difficult call. But if even if there are bad elements, it doesn't necessarily make the life not worth living.
JAMIE: It's an interesting wrinkle to that. Right? So, arguably, if an animal is living in an awful existence in the worst factory farm, you could imagine killing that animal may be more morally justifiable than killing an animal that's having a happy life. What do you think?
SPENCER: Well, the problem I have with that way of thinking is that by buying animal products you actually cause more animals to exist. I think actually, I think this is really pretty,
JAMIE: It's absolutely awful, right? Because you're making it continue. But I guess the point is, if you see there's value in an animal having a life worth living. Taking its life away is even more egregious. I mean, I still agree, right? Factory farming is much worse than the free range on the other types. But arguably, taking away a happy life is tougher to justify than taking away the life of an animal that's living in awful suffering.
SPENCER: I think I view that as kind of like stepping outside the thought experiment to some degree because she's ready to make a thought experiment clean, I think I think it's easiest to say, or imagine a world where you really only have two choices, like, you know, you buy the meat from the human farm, or you don't like, and that's it, because I think, to me, that sort of introduces the third choice, which is like, let the animal keep living, which you don't actually in this thought experiment. Like, I agree, that's even better. But like, I'm trying, I'm trying to simplify through the thought experiment.
JAMIE: No, no, I agree. And in the thought experiment between an awful factory farm and a free-range farm, you know, it's clear to me that one causes less harm. Obviously, when we jump out to the real world, we absolutely do have a choice, which is the one I think is breathtakingly obvious, we should all take, but I'm in the minority.
SPENCER: they think sometimes people make the argument like, oh, well, you know, if I buy meat at the supermarket, or I buy eggs in the supermarket, whatever, then animals already dead, that animals already produced the product. So they view it as like, their choice is not relevant. And so I just wanted to point something out about that, which I think is really important, which is that you can think about the supply and demand for animal products. And there's a way of actually calculating, on average, whenever someone buys an animal product, how many further animal products you expect to be produced due to that purchase. In other words, there's a demand effect that you have whenever you buy something. And that actually, on average, causes more things to be produced. Now, it's important to understand that that's not in every case like it's not like literally you buy one egg, and that means they make another egg. It's not the way it works. But there's an average effect. And you can actually do the calculations by looking at the elasticity of demand or the loss of supply, there's a calculation you could do. And my understanding is it usually comes out to something in the range of like, around 0.5, which means that like, if you go buy a pound of meat, on average, that might cause let's say, half a pound of meat to be produced in the future, that wouldn't have been. And again, it's an average. So sometimes it will be zero, sometimes it will be more, but, um, so that's kind of the way I think about that consumer choice.
JAMIE: No, I agree. I mean, people focus a lot on consumption and food and drink. And, you know, that's what a lot of veganism feels like. But the harm is actually in the marketing impulse that you're sending back up the chain, because you're sending a signal with your money, do more of this. And that's how the entire industry operates. Right? That's why we I think it's something like 90 to 100 billion land animals and multiple trillions of fish are constrained and killed every year, because of those little mock marketing impulses that all of us are sending up the chain. So yeah, I agree in a way, you could think about a situation like roadkill or accidental death or even natural death. Is there anything ethically wrong with consuming the flesh of another sentient being that died independently? Not really, I mean, you're not really causing any negative as a result of that. But when you're buying meat from people that force breed and harm and kill sentient beings to produce those products, you're sending a marketing impulse to encourage them to do more. And that's harm.
SPENCER: I also want to add that I think a lot of people don't realize what a big deal chickens are in this whole thing? Yeah. My understanding is that the average person us eats something like 17 or 18 chickens per year. Is that right? Do you have a sense?
JAMIE: I'm not sure what it feels about. Right? Yeah, it's it's certainly one of the most consumed meats.
SPENCER: And is probably because the animals are so small, right? Like, people eat beef a lot. But cows are massive animals. And so you actually don't consume that many cows. Really? In the grand scheme of things. If you're a meat-eater, where's chicken? You eat just a massive number of them if you're the kind of sticking to the average American diet. I think there's an argument to be made there that actually the vast majority of animal suffering might be in chickens, and then potentially fish depending I think people tend to debate more to what extent they're suffering. That's like maybe a more complicated issue. But it seems like chickens have just horrible lives and factory farms and they're consumed in extremely high quantities.
JAMIE: This is a really difficult topic to talk about for people that have come to the conclusion that all animal farming isn't ethical and environmental horror, because it seems like you're sort of running calculations on something that just emotionally and ethically shouldn't exist at all. But it's important to take a deep breath and engage with those facts because they're very visceral and direct. And it can have difficult side effects. Right, so many people now are thinking about reducing their beef consumption because they're worried about the impact on the environment and methane and so on. And they're switching to chicken as a result, and as you say, because of the ratio between the size of a meal and the number of deaths required to create that meal, the density of suffering and fish and chicken, you know, is way, way worse than it is of eating a much larger animal. So, you know, while it's difficult for someone like me who looks from the outside and goes, this whole thing is awful. Actually, you can make radical changes in the suffering density of animal farming, by being careful about not encouraging people to shift in ways that make things actually much worse. All of these trade-offs are really difficult. So another classical trade-off is people will look at factory farming and say, well, it's clearly unethical. You know, the sentience Institute did some fascinating research that shows that a very large number even of meat-eaters think that factory farming is unethical and should be bad. So there's a real latent moral push against factory farms, even though nearly everybody still buys from them. So some people will say, well, let's move away from factory farms towards a more free-range, grass-fed, open-type of farming, the problem you have there, one is, I still think it's ethically unconscionable, but it's actually generally more environmentally damaging, because one of the things about factory farms is that they're driven for efficiency, in terms of water use, and land use and, and even emission. So as, as soon as you try and squeeze the balloon in one way, and say, Let's try and do something that's less or less ethically horrible, you quite often will find you run into real environmental problems, service is difficult, which again, leads me back to like, let's just transition away from the whole thing quickly. These are important calculations to think through,
SPENCER: I was just pulling up some numbers that Julia Galef had done some calculations on the number of calories produced by one animal life. And just to kind of put this in contrast, a chicken according to these calculations, a broiler chicken, you're eating for meat has about 3000 calories per life. Whereas a dairy cow that's producing milk, it's about 17 million calories per life. So it's just like, yeah, it's not even the same order of magnitude. So that's interesting.
JAMIE: Absolutely. And again, that leads to some, counterintuitive challenges, because many people, for example, will think that drinking milk is less ethically and environmentally harmful than eating chicken. And as you just pointed out, it doesn't necessarily work that way.
SPENCER: Yeah. And I think if you do also the calculation to look at, how many days of life does the animal takes to produce different numbers of calories, you get kind of a similar result where chickens maybe it's, I think, it's like 14 days produce 1000 calories. And where are dairy cows? It's like point 08 days of life to produce 1000 calories. So yeah, I mean, I certainly understand the view that we should just abolish all factory farming. If someone's interested in just having a big bang for the buck in terms of just switching your diet a bit. And actually reducing the suffering that you're causing potentially a lot like there actually are some simple changes, like reducing chicken consumption actually could be a really big bang for the buck action to take.
JAMIE: Absolutely massive impact, massive impact environmentally, and ethically.
SPENCER: So before we wrap up, I just want to give you a chance to talk about sentientism, which you've mentioned a few times, but give us your spiel, Travis convinced us to be sentient test And, yeah, what is it? And why should we be it?
JAMIE: When it ties these ties a lot of the things we've discussed together, and in one sentence, it's evidence, reason, and compassion for all sentient beings. So it's trying to answer the two most fundamental questions, what's real? What should we believe? And also what matters morally? So to the first question, it says, let's have a naturalistic approach that engages with reality builds beliefs, provisionally and probabilistically, using evidence and reasoning with humility. So that's the epistemological side if you like about how we should build belief, so that would reject supernatural revealed beliefs and say, Look, we don't believe in things until we have the evidence of reasonable quality. Yeah, that's the epistemology on the other side, what matters morally, again, we've touched on it, and the clue is in the name, its sentience. So there's doesn't feel like there's any rational reason why we should exclude any suffering from our consideration, and therefore, any sentient being any being that can experience suffering from our moral consideration. So we should extend our compassion to all sentient beings. And that's it, right? So it's a very simple pluralistic platform. It's actually neutral on loads of other questions, it's neutral on exactly which beings are sentient. sentient, this will disagree over the where the boundary is, and the nature of that boundary, it's neutral, most of the rest of philosophy so you could take your virtue ethics or a down to logical or consequentialist or utilitarian approach to sent into them. As long as when you're working your morality out you're including all sentient beings in the calculus. So um, yeah, so that's it really, I mean, a good way of thinking about it as if many people will be familiar with the idea of secular humanism, which is a naturalistic commitment to evidence and reason then universal compassion for all humans. So sentientism is just extending that moral circle one step further, saying that we keep the evidence and reason keep a naturalistic basis for our ethics. But our moral circle goes out further to include all beings are capable of suffering that's pretty much it really.
SPENCER: What do you view as the connection between those two things like, should I think of sentientism as just, here two big ideas. They're not necessarily connected. But that's part of the definition or do you view them as intimately connected?
JAMIE: I think they're intimately connected because the moral concern about sentience is grounded in a naturalistic understanding of what sentience is. And you know, personally, my senses scientifically, that sentience is a class of information processing patterns that certain types of entities, so far biological, but in the future, who knows, run that it has a qualitative valence to feel like running that. So the sentience itself is something that is naturalistically understood and needs to be understood. And our assessment of what entities are sentient also needs to be done in a naturalistic way. So in a way, the moral side of sentientism, which says sentience matters, is grounded in naturalistic understanding and epistemology, which builds understanding about what it is to be a sentient being and what that sentient experiences. So to me, they are quite tightly linked together. And if people want to find out more about sentientism, we're also building a sort of nascent global movement around it, too. So we have communities and forums on most of the social media platforms, Facebook is the busiest one, but they're open to anyone interested not just sentientism people are very welcome there. And we also have a YouTube and a podcast and all the usual stuff, just Google loss sentientism.info, but I'd love to hear what people think of the idea.
SPENCER: Jamie, thanks so much for coming on to a lot of fun.
JAMIE: It's been a real pleasure. Thank you.
Click here to return to the list of all episodes.
Sign up to receive one helpful idea and one brand-new podcast episode each week!
Subscribe via RSS or through one of the major podcast platforms:
Apple Podcasts Spotify Stitcher Google Podcasts TuneIn Amazon RSS
Host / Director
Broke for Free
Quiet Music for Tiny Robots
Please note that Clearer Thinking , Mind Ease , and UpLift are all affiliated with this podcast.