David Pearce on Singularity 1 on 1: Give Up Eating Meat!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADavid Pearce is a British utilitarian philosopher who promotes what he calls The Hedonistic Imperative. David is also a co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association and a vegan who argues that we (or our future posthuman descendants) have a responsibility not only to avoid cruelty to animals within human society but also to alleviate the suffering of animals in the wild.

During our 85 minute conversation with David Pearce we cover a variety of interesting topics such as: why in his view philosophy is mostly a matter of temperament; Utilitarianism as his choice of flavor; why he decided to be a vegan; defining and measuring sentience; his definition of transhumanism and why philosophy has largely ignored it; The Abolitionist Project; the importance and impact of suffering; The Hedonistic Imperative; whether killing other humans can be permissible under extreme circumstances; Buddhism; his take on the technological singularity, mind uploading and the Hameroff/Penrose model of consciousness

My favorite quotes that I will take away from this interview with David Pearce are his two definitions of transhumanism:

“Technical solution to an ethical problem.”

“The use of technology to overcome biological limitations.”

(You can listen to/download the audio file above or watch the video interview in full. If you want to help me produce more episodes please make a donation!)

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  • davidpearce

    SU, I’m looking forward to reading your critique of (anti-)speciesism.

    Just a couple of points…

    1) Most adult humans are more cognitively competent – on many measures – than all nonhuman animals. Most adult humans are also more sentient than all members of most species of nonhuman animals. But many millions of nonhuman animals are more sentient – and more sapient, for what it’s worth – than some adult humans and all extremely young humans. The antispeciesist claims that, other things being equal, beings of equivalent sentience deserve equivalent care and respect regardless of ethnic group or species membership. Would you disagree?

    2) Only one species on Earth is intellectually capable of editing its own genetic source code and – in principle – phasing out the biology of suffering altogether. One facet of our cognitive superiority is well-developed “mind-reading” skills and a capacity for empathetic understanding. Yes, Homo sapiens could treat its superior cognitive skills as a license to harm, abuse and kill other sentient beings as suits human convenience. Alternatively, we can take our greater ethical responsibilities seriously and try impartially to promote the well-being of all sentience. I hope you’ll be arguing for the latter!

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    David. Do plants feel pain? What is pain? It is the ability to self-detect damage to the organism, which plants can do. Plants have sex organs, they reproduce. They bleed when they are cut and the wounds heal. They move in the direction of light. I have not watched the following video from the Smithsonian Channel so I am unsure if it corroborates my view but the description “Scientists conduct a plant experiment that may make you rethink those veggie burgers,” and title “Amazing Plants : Do Plants Respond to Pain?” indicates it may do: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGLABm7jJ-Y

    On the issue of science and objectivity or subjectivity you wrote: “The success of natural science over the past 300 years is explicable not least by our overcoming egocentric and anthropocentric bias – and acquiring an impartial view-from-no-where…” David you are again making the basic mistake of thinking correlation implies causation. A subjective view of science might of entailed greater progress. I think the problem with academics is an alienated almost autistic outlook, thus their self-denying bias is wrongly assuming to be rational. The self most definitely does not need to be overcome. Self-centredness is the way forward.

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    Suffering should not be totally abolished. Suffering can be instructive. The potential to suffer should be valued. We should create a world where needless suffering is eliminated.

    During this period of scarcity humans should be the priority. Minimising the suffering of lesser animals is good but technologically we are not ready to end the eating of meat or animal research, although we are getting closer each year.

  • davidpearce

    SU, sometimes suffering is pointless. At other times, suffering can be information-signalling and instructive. This is not in dispute. A far more radical claim – I’m not clear if you’re advancing it – would be that the textures of suffering (the “raw feels”) are computationally indispensable to some tasks. This proposal is hard to reconcile with the Church-Turing thesis (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church%E2%80%93Turing_thesis Its truth would be a profound and far-reaching result in computer science and articial intelligence research.

    As it happens, I do (tentatively) predict we’re going to phase out the biology of suffering altogether over the next few centuries. But I advocate only the abolition of involuntary suffering. Do you agree? Or alternatively, when experience of any kind below “hedonic zero” becomes technically optional, do you believe that some sentient beings should still be coerced into suffering against their will?

  • davidpearce

    SU, we should distinguish between phenomenal pain and the function of nociception. They are doubly dissociable. (cf. http://io9.com/5946914/should-we-eliminate-the-human-ability-to-feel-pain) Compare, say, neuropathic pain, where chronic phenomenal pain is experienced without any information-signalling role and nociception in our insentient silicon (etc) robots. Plants lack nociceptors. Nor do they have a brain or central nervous system. So they cannot be unitary subjects of experience (barring a pre-scientific animism!) But despite the inability of plants directly to escape noxious stimuli, they can still respond adaptively to such challenges over time, i.e. they exhibit “induced” as well as “constitutive” defences. Thus plants may synthesise chemicals toxic to herbivores who graze them. This adaptive response is functionally analogous to nociception – but not phenomenal pain – in animals.

    Causations versus correlation? The Copernican revolution in science – and its culmination in post-Everett quantum mechanics and the Landscape of M-theory (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/String_theory_landscape) – is not some incidental feature of our methodology, but fundamental to our understanding of the natural world.

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    David, is a brain really necessary to feel pain? What about jellyfish, do they feel pain? http://www.livescience.com/13929-box-jellyfish-eyes-navigation-brain.html What about the beadlet anemone, Actinia equina? http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20691-zoologger-no-brain-but-at-least-its-got-personality.html#.UmgOPFMxhkg Starfish do not have brains. Silme mold has neither a brain or a central nervous system in the commonly accepted sense http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/2012/10/121008-brainless-slime-goo-spatial-memory-robot-slime-science-reid/ but the slime mold is apparently remarkably intelligent, it has memory. “The findings are the first to identify ‘memory’ in an organism without a brain or central nervous system.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19846365

    editing….

  • davidpearce

    SU, subject to some fairly modest assumptions, a central nervous system is necessary for the existence of a unitary subject of experience in biological organisms. Yes, individual nerve ganglia may well feel aversive experience, as may even – minimally – individual nerve cells. Compare the way your hand may withdraw from a hot stove _before_ you [i.e your central nervous system] feel the searing pain. Or compare how the head of some locusts may continue to feed while the tail segment is being devoured by a predator. If nerve ganglia or individual nociceptors do indeed feel rudimentary phenomenal pain, then the experience is “encapsulated”: not directly accessible to the rest of the nervous system. In a posthuman civilisation blessed with utopian technology, perhaps the well-being of even the humblest ganglion can be safeguarded. I hope so. Until then, we must prioritise.

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    So David do you think it is OK to eat octopus meat, octopus flesh?

  • davidpearce

    SU, I wouldn’t eat a prawn, let alone an octopus. In the absence of compelling reasons to do otherwise, our ethical responsibility is to help other sentient beings, not to exploit or kill them for our own gratification.

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    Yes David I think “..the textures of suffering (the “raw feels”) are computationally indispensable to some tasks.” Pain or suffering is indispensable for self-aware intelligent beings endowed with consciousness. Yes a self-aware intelligent life-form can exist without the ability to feel pain but such expectations if the norm would quickly lead to non-existence. I think attempting to create an artificial life-form which does not have the ability to feel pain will result in a being of significantly reduced intelligence or zero-intelligence.

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    So an octopus is sentient even though it may not feel pain?

  • davidpearce

    The arms of an octopus enjoy a large measure of neurological autonomy. The mind-brain of an octopus has only limited knowledge of what its arms and tentacles are up to; they each seem to support a measure of sentience. Stretching an analogy, compare human “split brain” patients.

  • davidpearce

    If so SU, you will have identified a fundamental asymmetry of Nature. Sadly, there are depressive pain-racked sentient beings who spend their while lives below “hedonic zero”. But so long as they are capable of informational sensitivity to noxious and benign stimuli i.e. as long as they experience gradients of ill-being rather than uniform despair, they can be intelligent and insightful. The opposite syndrome is feasible too (though much rarer today).

    And AI? Well, would “Deep Blue” play better chess if the program experienced phenomenal anxiety if you put its king in check? Would “Alpha Dog” respond more adaptively if it experienced phenomenal agony when someone pours sulfuric acid on one of its appendages.? I’m sceptical.

    Back to my question above. If you don’t mind my asking, are you opposed to all involuntary suffering?

  • http://www.LimitlessMindset.com/ Jonathan Roseland

    I think I agree with Socrates… Eliminating all suffering from the human experience will turn us into indifferent zombies…

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    If Deep Blue experienced phenomenal anxiety playing chess it might realise there is more to life than chess. Perhaps a more intelligent way to spend its time would be discovered? It all depends on how you define intelligence.

  • davidpearce

    Joanthan, yes, if phasing out the biology of suffering were the _only_ thing we did, then perhaps so. But life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss can in principle be orders of magnitude more intense than anything physiologically feasible now. For example, control of mesolimbic dopamine function can allow ramping up [or down] our feeling of urgency: a sense of things-to-be-done. By contrast, “indifference” as we understand it at present is often a sign of masked depression. Either way, we should be free to choose!

  • davidpearce

    I’m with you here SU. But if you’ll forgive me for posing the question again, are you ethically opposed to all involuntary suffering?

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    It depends how you define “involuntary.” I think freedom is the way forward, which means people should be free to suffer and free to inflict suffering on others. “Free will” is the priority. I think all organisms should be able to feel pain they should be able to suffer, but causing suffering should be avoided, furthermore if an organism does not want to feel any pain or suffering I would not oppose their choice providing they don’t want to inflict their choice on others. So I would choose to be able to feel pain-suffering but I would live my life in way where suffering does not happen, although I realise something unexpected could happen (an accident or an attack by a rabid animal for example). I would not consent to the accident or the rabid animal attack thus perhaps that suffering is involuntary because I don’t want it to happen and I am not making it happen, or maybe it is voluntary because I have chosen to have the ability to suffer?

  • davidpearce

    SU, surely freedom cuts both ways? If freedom (rather than, say, happiness) ought to be our overriding value, then why do you give precedence to “free[dom] to inflict suffering on others” over freedom from suffering?

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    Freedom is to be free, if you are not free to inflict or experience suffering you are not free. It is about choice. If you cannot make a choice then you have no freedom. The problem is people often think their viewpoint is right so they want to stop people having alternate views to their own, they want to stop people making choices. I realise I may not be right therefore I don’t want to impose my views on others. I don’t actually want to inflict suffering but I should be free to do so. You David apparently want to inflict the *inability to suffer* on others, you want to take away the ability to suffer, you want to take away the freedom to suffer.

    You are welcome to inflict freedom from suffering, I wouldn’t seek to stop you doing that, thus likewise you shouldn’t seek to stop people inflicting suffering. Why should your viewpoint take precedence over the view of someone else? The fair solution is freedom where people can either inflict suffering or happiness but neither one nor the other has priority, people should be free to do either.

  • davidpearce

    SU, forgive me, but I don’t think you’re facing up to the nature of the libertarian dilemma. On any credible ethical theory, I shouldn’t enjoy the freedom to murder, torture or molest you. For such behaviour would violate your freedom to live your life without being harmed. On some fairly modest assumptions, these two “freedoms” are not on a par. By the same token, if you – or anyone else – choose in future to enjoy a biology of invincible well-being, is anyone really entitled ethically to prevent you exercising that free choice? And if so, why?

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    Let’s backtrack from extreme acts such as murder to consider the ethics of a sexist Islamic ideology, which is supportive of gender inequality. Let’s suppose we deem a sexist and homophobic Islamic pamphlet unethical, but should we censor it, should it be be banned? Some people would say yes, but perhaps those same people would be the one who banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Grapes of Wrath. Consider also the idea of subjectivity regarding ethics. The author of the allegedly unethical Islamic pamphlet might think the ideas are actually very ethical. Consider also if the majority of people held the view advocated in the Islamic pamphlet then we might be considering banning pamphlets supporting supporting women’s rights. The problem with imposing your view on others is the person who is doing to imposing usually thinks they are right, but if we are intelligent we can see how humans can be deluded, we can be wrong, therefore we should not oppress alternate views merely because we disagree with their viewpoint, which means minority views should be respected despite being in opposition to our own views.

    So how does this relate to murder, torture, suffering? I think there should always be the possibility or potential for such pain. Yes we should try to prevent such pain via protecting ourselves but the protections should be without impinging upon the ability to cause such pain. I don’t object to you or anyone else doing whatever you want to your mind of body, the objection is if you want to ensure your happiness by altering the minds or bodies of others.

    I think any protections you take to avoid being killed should not entail interference with the mind of the killer because it may transpire you are a tyrant who needs to be killed. Killing and suffering are valuable aspects of existence, they should not be eradicated.

  • Guest

    NU, isn’t this the nub of the issue? Quite rightly, you say that you “don’t object to you or anyone else doing whatever you want to your mind of body”. But if such a choice involves endowing ourselves with a biology of invincible well-being – in this case, a genetic predisposition to information-sensitive gradients of bliss – then other parties _won’t_ have the freedom to cause us suffering as you’ve been urging. Ultimately, you’re going to need to grasp the nettle. Do you endorse abolitionist bioethics or not?

  • davidpearce

    SU, isn’t this the nub of the issue? Quite rightly, you say that you “don’t object to you or anyone else doing whatever you want to your mind of body”. But if such a choice involves endowing ourselves with a biology of invincible well-being – in this case, a genetic predisposition to information-sensitive gradients of bliss – then other parties _won’t_ have the freedom to cause us suffering as you’ve been urging. Ultimately, you’re going to need to grasp the nettle. Do you endorse abolitionist bioethics or not?

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    Ah, I think I see where our wires were crossed. When I talk about the freedom to cause suffering I don’t advocate making rocks sentient merely so that they can feel pain, although people should be free to make rocks sentient merely for the purpose of torturing rocks. I am not intent upon the ability to actually cause pain, the intent is only regarding being able to do it in people who can feel pain if a sadist so desires, or even to attempt it in people who cannot feel pain if the sadist desires. To put it another way I think people should have the ability to bear arms and the ability to shoot people. You can however wear a 100% bulletproof vest if you desire, and the shooter can attempt to circumvent the bulletproof vest. My concern was you seemed to have a desire to implement total bliss in others, or to interfere with other people who might interfere with your bliss. You can feel bliss for all eternity if you desire providing your bliss does not entail forcing other people to comply with your bliss. If the abolition of suffering entails altering people who do not agree with the abolition of suffering then I do not endorse the abolition of suffering but if the abolition of suffering only applies to the immediately concerned individuals then I have no problem with it and I support you.

  • davidpearce

    SU, even the most “extreme” libertarian today recognises that s/he is not ethically entitled to demand the freedom bodily to harm others. My freedom to live my life as I choose cannot entail freedom to restrict your capacity to do the same. More concretely: mastery of our reward pathways will shortly enable us genetically and / or pharmacologically to determine our own 1) hedonic ceiling, (2) hedonic floor; and (3) normal hedonic set-point. So long as you endorse the freedom of each and every one of us to choose these personal parameters for his or her life, then we are (I hope) in agreement.

  • CM Stewart

    “people should be free to make rocks sentient merely for the purpose of torturing rocks.” That seems to contradict your theories of post-scarcity and super-advanced intelligence, SU. Would you object to someone creating a universe full of billions of people for the sole purpose of torturing those people indefinitely? Would you seek to prevent that person’s freedom to do so? What happens to the freedoms of the billions of people who seek not to be tortured indefinitely?

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    Yes of course I object to any form of torture, torture is incompatible with intelligence, but being free to do something does NOT mean it will be done or should be done. Freedom is about having possibilities but it doesn’t fulling absolutely every possibility, thus for example I people should have the freedom kill themselves but despite having the freedom to commit suicide I don’t think people should commit suicide.

  • http://www.coffeecraftsandclues.com/ Des Malone

    Then again, they could tweak our dopamine serotonin feedback loop to make us happy, feeling satisfied and with higher well being while also being driven to “do” – build, create, explore and not make excuses to not do it :) Most all drugs are all about restoring that balance. Most people who do drugs are either escaping pain with skewed coping mechanisms or they’re enhancing their abilities to do anything at all. Those drugs tweak the dopamine serotonin feedback loop til they crash. An implant that monitors this, maintains that chemical balance and juices us up enough to “do” without overdoing it would rid the world of a lot of laziness, apathy, complacency, as well as settling down our aggressiveness, hostility, anger issues.

    We could be free to choose – whether or not to “get chipped” ;-p

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