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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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  • CM Stewart

    Thank you David Pearce and Nikola, for discussing veganism and how it relates to animal rights, humanism, and transhumanism.

    Nikola, you are claiming healthful human veganism is somehow difficult to do without supplementation, and therefore, not “natural,” or “optimal.” So shall I assume you do not consume any supplements, GM food, or factory-farmed meat? What about modern medicine? Modern technology? Are modern inventions difficult, and therefore not “natural” or “optimal”? I would think most transhumans strive to transcend base-level survival.

  • I think you got me here Cynthia!

  • CM Stewart

    I believe achieving healthful human veganism is as easy as taking the right supplements, just as healthful human omnivorism is easy with the right supplements. So the choice really is between treating non-human animals as the sentient beings they are, or treating them as meat farms.

  • davidpearce

    CM, yes, for evolutionary reasons, humans have double standards. If someone wants to harm a sentient being of our own species, we normally focus on the interests of the victim rather than the appetites of the abuser. Yet when the victim is an equally sentient being from another species, we perform an ethical somerrsault. We prioritise the appetites of the abuser over the interests of the victim. Won’t I feel frustrated if I can’t eat – or do – whatever I want? Looking ahead, I think becoming posthuman will entail overcoming anthropocentric bias in the same way as we now try to overcome ethnocentric bias. Admirably, the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) expresses our commitment to the well-being of all sentience.
    (cf. http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/)
    But are we willing to follow through what this commitment entails?

  • CM Stewart

    Thank you for your reply, Mr. Pearce. I fully agree that humans have what I consider glaringly obvious double standards for their treatment of sentient life. Pet owners will dote care and affection on their cats and dogs, but also purchase a hamburger which they know was sourced from an abused and slaughtered cow. The cognitive dissonance is astounding, especially in light of the fact that 100% of the necessary nutrition for humans can be obtained through non-animal sources.

    Thank you for the link to the Transhumanist Declaration. I was surprised to see several known animal-eaters listed as authors after reading statement 7: “We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals . . ” Seems hypocritical.

  • CM Stewart

    It seems your initial reply was accidentally deleted, Nikola. I was only able to read an excerpt of it. ?

  • I think I only replied here once and I can see that comment up there…

  • siphersh

    Great interview as always, thank you.

    When David started talking about ending suffering, I assumed he meant optimal circumstances and spiritual health. I was appalled to find that he’s talking about eugenics. And by eugenics I mean an indifferentiated, en masse improvement of the human genome in general.

    I’m always surprised when you say that ordinary humanity will probably not survive. Because I think that a segment of humanity will certainly want to preserve historical humanity, and realize the best possible life within the historical mental and bilological matrix. Some kind of an idealized golden age for historical humans, that will only now become actually possible. And I think it’s obvious that the rest of us will see it as a very strong ethical imperative to make this possible and to preserve this way of life.

    And so I find the possibility of “phasing out the biology of suffering”, and creating “heaven on Earth for _all_ creatures” an ethically disastrous possibility.

    It would be an incredible loss. No conscious design can ever be as deeply dimensioned as our biological history. And that’s simply because our biological history is a molecular computation that’s been running on a planet-sized software for billions of years.

  • Thank you friend, I think you are making a good point here about the incredible loss of diversity and the length of computation before arriving at the current status quo!

  • davidpearce

    CM, thanks again. All transhumanists (without exception, to my knowledge) support the development and commercialisation of in vitro meat. But in the meantime, not everyone feels able or willing to make the transition from today’s regime of factory farming and slaughtering live nonhuman animals.
    [An accident of birth means I’ve never even tasted meat. So I can scarcely claim superior moral virtue. At most, never to have tasted meat reduces the likelihood of self-serving bias. Naturally, vegans can be biased in countless other ways.]

    Clearly, there’s vastly more to transhumanism than protecting the interests of cognitively humble creatures. I suspect some readers/listeners may feel the “balance” of the interview is skewed. But if we were currently doing to human babies and toddlers what we’re doing to beings of comparable sentience in our factory farms and slaughterhouses, then very few listeners would dispute the overriding ethical importance of bringing the horror to an end. To my mind, the well-being of all sentience is the bedrock of any future civilisation, not simply its end.

  • davidpearce

    Siphersh, just as the Soviet experiment polluted the whole language of social justice, likewise the horrors of the Third Reich make the “e” word unusable on account of its connotations. So I can understand your concern. Today the great majority of people would say, if asked, they oppose eugenics. Yet if you ask them whether we should conserve the cystic fibrosis (etc) alleles, they’d mostly say no. These responses are not mutually consistent.

    A critic might respond that there is a world of difference between phasing out terrible genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and weeding out alleles and allelic combinations predisposing to “psychological” conditions like e.g. depression. But depression can be just as devastating in its impact on the quality of life of sufferers as cystic fibrosis. If we are going to bring new life into the world, I think we have an ethical responsibility not to create more suffering too.

  • davidpearce

    Socrates, intuitively, yes, a brave new world of “designer babies” will lead to a loss of genetic diversity. Won’t most prospective parents want more-or-less the same checklist of desirable attributes for their future offspring? However, as the era of preimplantation genetic screening merges into an age of true “designer genomes”, I think this worry may prove misplaced. Not least, genetic engineering (potentially) allows intelligent agents to cross gaps in the fitness landscape otherwise prohibited by natural selection. Thus _more_ genetic diversity, not less, may be the outcome of the reproductive revolution. And even if – contrary to the argument above – invincible physical and psychological health really does lead to reduced genetic diversity, would this loss necessarily be harmful? Invincible physical and psychological health would maximise the opportunities of our children to lead rich, diverse and fulfilling lives. Contrast today’s genetic lottery.

  • davidpearce

    Teresa, many thanks. A quick note on Buddhism. I have an immense respect for Buddhist ethics. Buddhists put overcoming suffering at the heart of our responsibilities. “May all that have life be delivered from suffering” and “Thou shalt not kill” are two admirable precepts of Guatama Buddha.

    Alas Gautama Buddha was not a lawyer. Buddha didn’t think to add the rider, “Nor is it ethically permissible to pay others to do the killing of other sentient beings on one’s behalf.” In consequence, not all Buddhists are vegetarians. I’d like to believe that in future we can all stay true to the spirit of Buddha’s words, not just to the letter.

  • CM Stewart

    “To my mind, the well-being of all sentience is the bedrock of any future civilization, not simply its end.” Exactly! I strongly believe that as long as otherwise forward-thinking humans allow themselves to be entrenched in the cognitive dissonance and hypocriticism of eating animals, they will remain unprepared to critically examine and rationally resolve the larger crucial questions full transhumanism and the Singularity will bring. We must free our minds from outdated paradigms.

  • CM Stewart

    While I am in favor of reducing or eliminating suffering in future generations, I believe people who wish to become parents should first focus on adopting the millions of orphaned and homeless babies and children all over the world, and not focus on creating even more babies. I believe truly compassionate people would want to alleviate the suffering of babies and children *who already exist*. Creating more babies extends the suffering of the babies and children who already need parents. Until we can take care of each other, we need less people, not more. How many millions of children age out of orphanages every year, without the nurturing, growth, and development they need to make a positive impact on the world? Though I do not agree with controlling or restricting human reproduction, I believe people who deliberately reproduce are wasting valuable resources.

  • davidpearce

    CM, I agree with you: adopting is ethically preferable. I wouldn’t choose to father children myself – certainly not with today’s genome. Perhaps the big complication here is selection pressure. A case can be made that compassionate, ethically responsible people are precisely the folk who should be passing on their genes – rather than the feckless, the reckless, and religious fundamentalists who believe they have a sacred duty to “go forth and multiply”. A tough one.

  • siphersh

    David, I too find the many-worlds and similar interpretations scary. Because they mean that we can never eliminate suffering. In such a cosmos all I can do is steer my experience, steer my world according to my ethics and my aesthetics.

    But I think that coming to terms with such a cosmology is necessary for ethically growing up to the future.

    Because even if the many-worlds or many-minds cosmologies are false, the future is still going to be very large, very diverse. People are different already. Imagine how diverse we are going to become in the future!

    It will probably be impossible to control what happens in other peoples’, other communities’ worlds. I hope you wouldn’t want to make wars over ethics.

    But even if the issue of universal ethics over very extreme, alien or perverse communities will be controversial and fraught with conflict, I think that the issue of the natural traditionalists should be ethically very clear. Living as historical, biologically traditional humans is literally our birthright.

    I believe that the transhuman strains of our species will recognize that you can go and be transhuman anywhere, on a space station, on a different planet, in a virtual world, anywhere, and they will see it as their ethical obligation to preserve the historical genome, restore Earth for the traditionalists and protect their way of life. Even if they want to hunt deer.

  • davidpearce

    Siphersh, do you believe cannibalism, waging aggressive war, keeping slaves and other biologically traditional human activities are “literally our birthright”? Should we try to conserve the way of life of tribes of canninbalistic head hunters? No doubt such traditions are “natural”. All were practised in the recent past. Yet we now recognise that treating sentient beings from other ethnic groups so oppressively is ethically indefensible. What in your eyes makes such behaviour ethically acceptable when the victims are members of other species? Both cognitively and ethically, we need to overcome anthropocentric bias just as we have (partially) overcome ethnocentric bias. It’s going to be a long struggle.

  • siphersh

    I don’t think that the traditionalists will want to live a life within the context of the traditional human genome in order to repeat history. Quite the contrary. They will do it to redeem history.

    They will live very happy, very healthy and very rich lives. They will build civilizations that realize and transcend the highest and noblest aspirations of the old civilizations. And they will do it with the help of the new technologies and the new knowledge, as long as those can be integrated without violating the natural, historical human mind-space.

    Maybe none of them will want to hunt deer. I don’t know. But there are many people who believe that hunting deer is not oppressive. And I hope, and I believe, that the transhuman communities of the future will be enlightened enough to recognize, respect and defend other communities’ right to their ethical, genetic and cultural autonomy.

  • Sebastián

    Excellent. Thank you Nikola.

  • You are most welcome Sebastian!

  • davidpearce

    Siphersh, recall that for reasons of evolutionary biology, traditional tribal societies were typically not mutually disposed to “recognize, respect and defend other communities’ right to their ethical, genetic and cultural autonomy”. Instead, a conditionally activated predisposition to wage aggressive territorial war, and to kill or enslave the males of neighbouring tribes and ravish the females, has been genetically adaptive. This is why perhaps one in two hundred men alive today is a descendant of Gengis Khan. (cf. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/02/0214_030214_genghis.html )
    And it shows.

    Sadly, hurting, terrorising and killing other sentient beings for fun (“sport”), so long as they belong to other species, is still considered ethically acceptable behaviour in some sections of our society. But I know of no ethically compelling reason to conserve such cruelties.

  • David Pearce and CM Stewart are both aware I have an article in the pipeline (I am really slow at finishing things) criticising the speciesism viewpoint. Humans are actually superior, there are no “double” standards. I most certainly do not think becoming posthuman will mean we “overcome” our “anthropocentric bias,” which leads me to mention another article I intend to publish regarding subjectivity and AI. Subjectivity is the way forward. Objectivity, the condemnation of our anthropocentric viewpoint, is illusory, it is self-defeating, it is alienated, it is not conducive to intelligence. Condemnation or dismal of “anthropocentric bias” is logically flawed.

    I do however envisage technology entailing all deaths or pain due to food consumption becoming obsolete.

  • davidpearce

    SU, we need to be careful with terminology here. Antispeciesism is not the view that all animals and all species are equal. (cf. http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/pearce20130726 ) Nor does the antispeciesist dispute that most adult humans are cognitively superior, in many respects, to all nonhuman animals. Rather the antispeciesist claims that, other things being equal, the interests of two beings of equivalent sentience deserve equal respect – regardless of race or species. Thus a human prelinguistic toddler and a pig are of comparable sentience. Lovingly nurturing one and abusing, exploiting and killing the other _is_ a manifestation of arbitrary anthropocentric bias. Pigs and toddlers alike deserve love care and respect.

    I look forward to reading your essay on subjectivity and AI. As you know, I argue that classical digital computers will never support subjects of experience. They therefore lack interests. They can be treated purely as tools – even as they increasingly outperform traditional biological minds in multiple cognitive domains.

  • davidpearce

    CM, yes, exactly. Alas as we know, frequently old paradigms wither and die not when their exponents update their conceptual scheme, but when the older generation withers and dies too. I’d like to believe the antispeciesist revolution will be different;. But as is so often the case, most of the best and brightest work here is being done by the young.

  • A not so quick note on Buddhism from a Buddhist:

    “Thou shalt not kill” is not a Buddhist precept, the first precept is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing.” It’s not a commandment handed down from someone or some deity, it’s a personal commitment to refrain from killing others. The precepts are training guides used to assist in one’s brain training practice (commonly known as “meditation”). Obviously things get more strictly codified over time as the spirit of the teachings gets ignored and the realities of maintaining a community become ever more apparent (having rules is practical), but your phrasing the first precept in the most Judeo-Christian-Islamic way possible isn’t the least bit accurate.

    More to the point: If you’re going to make a statement like “I’d like to believe that in future we can all stay true to the spirit of Buddha’s words, not just to the letter.”, it helps if your previous statements don’t reveal a gross ignorance on the subject of the Buddha and what he actually taught.

    A (very tiny) bit of education:

    I won’t go into detail on the intricacies of Buddhist ethical philosophy and the origin of the precepts, but simply put, they’re really just to support the practice because going around murdering people isn’t going to generate positive mental states, and that’s going to detract from the practice. Now, through the practice, compassion (“compassion” =/= “niceness”) often naturally arises as one gains insight into the interdependence and inseparateness of all phenomena, and it’s this understanding that’s the root of ethical action, not an external command.

    While somewhat tangental, it’s also worth pointing out that while Buddhism does deal with very real, tangible and familiar forms of suffering (sickness, aging and death… which is why I’m also a Transhumanist, and even have somewhat Abolitionist leanings at times), what Buddhist practice primarily focuses on is a far more subtle form of suffering that, in plain terms, is rooted in our seeing reality different than it actually is. Awakening (often horribly translated as “Enlightenment”) is just training your brain to the point that a sense of a centre-point dissolves and non-dualistic awareness becomes your default state (which is perfectly doable, with time and practice), and that kind of subtle suffering of the ‘wishes vs. reality’ dissonance goes away…

    …This is all just roundabout way of saying that, while I appreciate that Buddhism is often brought up in Transhumanist discussions on ethics and the elimination of suffering, the general level of understanding of Buddhism (even amongst acknowledged Buddhist Transhumanists like James Hughes and George Dvorsky) is often piss-poor and the focus often falls on these peripheral aspects ‘Buddhism and Suffering’. I’d love to see more discussion in these circles on serious meditation practice and Awakening as the ultimate brain hack, but I’m beginning to rant and get off topic…

    With regards to vegetarianism:

    Speaking as a Buddhist who’s not a vegetarian, there are plenty of very good reasons for not being one; many of which are tied into Buddhist ideas of The Middle Way (in general, Buddhists don’t take the concept of ‘non-violence’ to an absurd and impractical degree like Jains or Utilitarians do) and insight into/understanding of interdependence. ie. You need to look at the bigger picture and see things systemically.

    When you factor in the entire food system, vegetarian and vegan diets kill just as many animals as omnivorous diets… they just don’t end up on your plate. Plowing a field to grow cereal crops like soy (an incredibly unhealthy, yet popular meat-alternative) kills countless animals from insects, arachnids and earthworms, field mice, rats, baby birds, frogs, toads and snakes, all the way up to larger ‘tractor kills’ like groundhogs, prairie dogs, skunks and the occasional stray pet (I’ve seen it happen). Harvesting a field has similar effects, to say nothing of the horrible effects of spraying industrial pesticides and herbicides. To pretend that not eating meat is somehow ethically superior when your soy-burger resulted in an equally appalling holocaust of death is delusional.

    The problem then is not the consumption of meat (which is a ridiculous oversimplification), it’s industrial-scale mono-crop farming which produces unhealthy food for people and for animals raised in industrial farms. The issue is not “eat meat/don’t eat meat”, the issue is that we have an entire food system that’s faulty. A simple boycott of animal products is not going to solve the problem; there need to be very real alternatives proposed and people who care about animals working within the system to change it.

    So where does that leave us? We’re not yet anywhere near the point where in-vitro meat is commercially available, vegetarianism and veganism, as I stated, aren’t any more ethical (not to mention they’re unhealthy and cause harm to human animals, who count too), we’re not close to GMO farm animals without the ability to suffer or who actually desire to be eaten (a la Hitchhiker’s)… so what’s the most ethical thing way to eat that kills the least amount of animals…?

    It may sound odd at first, but it would be eating a diet that’s composed of large, naturally fed, pastured, ruminant animals. Unless we’re going to start farming elephants, that means grass-fed, pastured cattle.

    The average, pastured beef cow produces about 530lbs of useable meat, which means that if one were to eat 1lb of beef every day for a year (which is a lot), that would only result in the deaths of roughly 0.7 animals a year. If you cut out the consumption of unhealthy industrial cereal grains and only eat plant matter from sustainable, organic produce you’re not only going to be eating much, much healthier, you’re going to be killing innumerably less animals than a conventional omnivorous diet or an allegedly more ethical vegetarian or vegan diet.

    It may seem counterintuitive at first, but if you look at things beyond just the shallow, surface of level of whether or not there’s a dead animal on your plate, the most ethical option we have right now until we get in-vitro meat or non-suffering GMO livestock is to eat sustainably raised, pastured, humanely killed livestock.

  • I disagree David, I don’t think a toddler and a pig are of comparable sentience, it is a failing of logic to think pigs have attained a level of sentient deserving of rights. While scarcity persists non-human animals will be eaten. Ironically you apply the anthropocentric bias to yourself when you want to defend the rights of nonhuman animals, your defence is anthropocentric bias, a bias of supposed morality, a bias of your human mind whereby you think pigs are of comparable sentience to toddlers.

    On the issue of AI and subjectivity I don’t delve too deeply into the intricacies, although this may change because my article is unfinished, I explore subjectivity in a subjective way regarding AI creation. I shall refresh my mind regarding your views on this issue, can you please include some links for me.

  • davidpearce

    SU, is there any evidence you can cite that a pig is less sentient than a human prelinguistic toddler? Or are you expressing a strongly felt intuition? There _are_ subtle genetic differences between pigs and young humans, notably the structure and expression of the FOXP2 gene implicated in the development of generative syntax. Yet our core emotions are generated deep within the evolutionarily ancient limbic system. The experimental evidence does confirm that pigs are more _sapient_ than normal human infants and prelinguistic toddlers:


    Measuring sentience is harder. But a convergence of genetic, behavioural and neurological evidence suggests that pigs and young humans alike are intensely conscious. Let’s respect their interests accordingly.

    Digital insentience? See below, perhaps skip to Section 4:


  • dani pettas

    Awesome interview.

  • David, the NY Tims article states nothing about comparative pig-toddler intelligence-sentience. Here however is some info about human babies understanding language at six months: http://www.livescience.com/18469-infants-understand-words.html or one year: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2100540/Infants-start-understanding-meaning-words-months-earlier-thought.html http://io9.com/5867029/babies-understand-grammar-long-before-they-learn-how-to-speak and perhaps babies are actually learning language in the womb: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2256036/Babies-begin-learning-language-mothers-theyre-womb.html

    A subtle genetic difference can entail a massive leap. Bananas share 50% of human DNA but bananas are not 50% human.

  • davidpearce

    SU, the consensus among animal ethologists is that pigs are as sentient and sapient as human prelinguistic toddlers. Pigs are capable of abstract representations and of excelling at e.g. at joystick-controlled video games: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhB948jvKVM Even the cognitively humble chicken can grasp logical relationships such as transitivity (cf. the “pecking order”).

    However, such comparisons are invidious. Ethically, I think they miss the point. If, as transhumanists, we are ethically committed to the well-being of all sentience (cf. http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/) then we can’t simultaneously abuse and kill sentient beings simply on the grounds we enjoy the taste of their flesh. “But I like the taste!” no more justifies animal abuse than child abuse. The way humans treat our fellow subjects of experience is ethically indefensible.

  • CM Stewart

    Here is more information about animals killed in the course of plowing a field: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veganism#Debate_about_animals_killed_in_crop_harvesting

  • siphersh

    I don’t think that the decline in racism and ethnocentrism has been the result of some logical argument. It’s more of an emotionally loaded consciousness expansion. Empathy.

    Like the success of the civil rights movement ultimately cannot be measured in winning an argument or forcefully enforcing rights. It can be measured in consciousness expansion.

    Similarly, logic won’t convince someone to become a vegan. But empathy resulting from a subjective experience, an emotionally charged consciousness expansion will.

    And I think that consciousness expansion looms big in our future. If you actually see other peoples’ perspective, you will become more tolerant and respectful. Ethical pluralism will become a necessity, even more than today, because of the increase in diversity. And as the historical consciousness expansion continues and accelerates, ethical pluralism will become a reality, and ethical monism will be seen on par with ethnocentrism. Especially eugenical monism.

    Our descendants will not be like the European conquerors, who saw it their sacred duty to correct the erroneous ways of the savages.

  • David consensual validation is not logic thus weight of numbers agreeing with a point does not give greater validity to the point. Do you have any links to research where “animal ethologists” state pigs are of equal sentience to “human prelinguistic toddlers?” Furthermore if there are links to appropriate research this does not prove anything, people can be wrong. You may remember for example I reject the Establishment notion of “mental illness” being a disease but the anti-psychiatry viewpoint does not have popular appeal despite from my viewpoint it being certainly true.

    I have asked you elsewhere how you define sentience, and for the record please can you do so here?

    Perhaps the problem here is the bias of my sentience, which could be far beyond normal human sentience, thus I mistakenly think all humans share my utterly profound sentience whereas my deep sentience is utterly abnormal, thus the reality is humans other then myself have a pitiful level of sentience equal to non-human animal sentience, which would tally with my often proclaimed view of humans being incredibly stupid.

    Perhaps unwittingly you make a case for advanced AI exterminating humans if humans are equal in sentience to lesser animals.

    A while ago Hank asked for submissions to provide an alternate updated Transhumanist declaration, thus I accordingly submitted my version which you will find somewhere online via transhumanity.net perhaps, therefore please note 1998 views of the people who composed the H+ declaration do not reflect everyone. Note Nick Bostrom was a contributing author and I seriously question his intelligence due his focus on the nonsensical simulation argument/hypothesis, which is putting it kindly neo-religion.

    A cute pop-sci TV programme does not prove anything.

  • davidpearce

    SU, perhaps read Chris McLaughlin,”The Intelligent Pig: The Smartest Domestic Animal in the World”. 16 December 2008. 20 April 2010. Or for an accessible online essay with references


    [“…other tests also indicate that, in terms of linguistic competence, pigs are more intelligent than an average three-year-old human child. Pigs were taught the meaning of simple words and, three years later, they amazingly remembered the lesson they were previously taught.”]

    I make only the more conservative claim that pigs and prelinguistic toddlers of comparable sentience and sapience.

    But what if the experts are wrong? What if the average pig is no more sentient or sapient than a six-month-old human infant? This revised estimare wouldn’t materially affect the case against factory-farming and killing pigs and other nonhuman animals. Ethically speaking, abusing and killing a six-month-old infant isn’t somehow ethically preferable to abusing and killing toddlers. This is true whether the human infants or toddlers in question are “normal” or have a progressive disease that means, tragically, they will never live to see their third birthday.

    Sentience? Wikipedia’s definition is spot-on: “Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive or to experience subjectivity.”


    Should the Transhumanist Declaration 2.0 (2013) be preferred to the original Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009)?

    Perhaps recall 2.0’s affirmation of abolitionism “as our core ethic”:


    Human extermination? I think a commitment the well-being of all sentience is best construed as a plea for high-tech Jainism rather than genocide.

    Nick Bostrom’s intelligence? Well, we’ve certainly had one or two lively discussions over the years. But never once has it occurred to me to doubt Nick’s intellect. Oxford professorial chairs tend not to be awarded lightly…

  • davidpearce

    “May all that have life be delivered from suffering”, said Gautama Buddha. “I teach one thing and one only: suffering and the end of suffering.” Yes, SuperheroEnthusiast, you are correct: scholars disagree over the precise meaning of “Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami”. But the precept is normally construed as a prohibition on killing other sentient beings – akin to the Jain / Hindu principle of ahimsa. Thus Buddhist monks are forbidden to eat an animal that has been killed on their behalf.

    Of course, a great many Buddhists _are_ faithful to the spirit of Buddha’s teachings, i.e. they are vegetarians. I suspect they might take issue with your suggestion that “Buddhists don’t take the concept of ‘non-violence’ to an absurd and impractical degree like Jains or Utilitarians”.

    Human health? Here at least, I don’t want to enter into the debate over whether meat-based or vegetarian diets are ultimately healthiest for humans. But the fact Western vegetarians tend to be slimmer, longer lived and record higher IQ scores than meat eaters suggests that the health advantages of a meat-based diet, if they exist at all, must be exceedingly subtle. And such blessings are not enjoyed by our victims.

    The suffering caused by agriculture? Undoubtedly innumerable arachnids, earthworms and other small creatures are unintentionally killed in agricultural production. In a future utopian civilisation, I trust the interests of even the smallest and humblest of creatures may be protected. But to compare the systematic and sustained abuse of factory farming methods with the effects of harvesting crops is just fanciful, A pig, for example, is as sentient as a prelinguistic toddler. Yet humans treat pigs in ways that would earn the perpetrator a life-sentence if the victims were members of our own race or species.

  • davidpearce

    siphersh, intuitively you’re right: I’d argue for enhancing empathy too. But we shouldn’t downplay logical argument. Thus consider how in the West, the ratio of female to male vegetarians is roughly 2 to 1, whereas male vegans slightly outnumber female vegans. At the risk of lapsing into pop-psychology, I’d speculate this gender disparity exists not because men are more empathetic than women (unlikely!) but rather because men statistically have greater intolerance of inconsistency and cognitive dissonance. Typically, men record somewhat higher AQ scores (cf. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aqtest.html) than women. Of course there are countless exceptions here. And there are other possible explanations as well.

  • Gautama Buddha himself ate meat, so again, you’re making an unfounded claim about “being faithful to the spirit of Buddha’s teachings”. What you’re doing is essentially using a quote from someone who doesn’t agree with you as evidence of your point and then saying the person you’re quoting didn’t know the ‘true meaning’ of their own quote.

    “Thus Buddhist monks are forbidden to eat an animal that has been killed on their behalf.” This is not true in all Buddhist traditions.

    “But the precept is normally construed as a prohibition on killing other sentient beings” I feel like I pretty clearly explained the philosophical purpose of the precepts as practice aids, which you are either ignoring or just didn’t read, so I won’t bother repeating. Reread my original comment.

    “I suspect they might take issue with your suggestion that “Buddhists don’t take the concept of ‘non-violence’ to an absurd and impractical degree like Jains or Utilitarians”.” That’s irrelevant. Claiming that other Buddhists would disagree isn’t a rebuttal of my point, it’s simply a not-so-subtle attempt to paint me as ‘not a true Buddhist.’ It’s purely ad hominem.

    If other Buddhists would bring this up, I would simply point them to the concept of The Middle Way and suggest they read the early Suttas (which are exhaustively clear on the subject) and the many scholarly and popular works on how Hindu/Brahmanical ethics (which the Buddha rejected) have slowly crept into and altered Buddhism since even very early Pre-Sectarian times.

    “But the fact Western vegetarians tend to be slimmer, longer lived and record higher IQ scores than meat eaters suggests that the health advantages of a meat-based diet, if they exist at all, must be exceedingly subtle.” Correlation does not equal causation. There have been numerous well done, double-blind, peer-reviewed clinical studies (ie. not observational studies or the kind of statistical wizardry vegans tend to try and pass off as science) and late-stage disease interventions that have shown the enormous benefits of high fat and ketogenic diets for improving weight-loss, reversing neurological diseases like epilepsy and Parkinson’s and even reversing hardening of the arteries.

    To be blunt, every study I’ve ever read touted by the “plant-based diet” crowd has been horribly conducted with conclusions drawn that weren’t supported by the study’s results. Frankly, even if the studies didn’t have terrible experimental design and weren’t poorly interpreted, observational studies aren’t something you can hang your hat on, so to speak; they are, as the name suggests, purely observational. The claim that “plant-based diets” are superior for human health (which, as much as you may try to sidestep the issue, you did suggest) is pseudo-science that’s not supported by well done clinical research.

    And while this is purely anecdotal, I personally, have run an N=1 experiment on myself and discovered that a prolonged plant-based diet resulted in extreme fat-gain, muscle loss, persistent brain fog and inability to concentrate, sexual dysfunction, severe depression, adrenal fatigue, narcolepsy and ultimately hospitalization for this test subject. How did I reverse the deleterious effects of this dietary approach? I cut out cereal crops and began eating sustainably raised ruminant animals. Within three weeks all of the above symptoms had disappeared. Now, this is obviously just one case, but I know I personally cannot eat the kind of diet you advocate because if it didn’t outright kill me (which is a very real possibility) it would make it impossible for me to support the people around me, would result in them having to care for me and me becoming a burden to them (which I was once I became ill) and cause them suffering. My point being (and this is a wider flaw of utilitarian ethics in general), there isn’t a single ethical good I need to be concerned about, there are multiple conflicting ones that everyone has to juggle and (to painfully continue this metaphor) you can’t expect everyone to keep all those balls in the air, or expect everyone to rank the importance of the various balls they’re choosing to drop or continue juggling the same way you personally do. Many people struggle to feed themselves and their families period. Wider ethical concerns like animal welfare are simply a luxury most people can’t afford. What you advocate doesn’t scale.

    “But to compare the systematic and sustained abuse of factory farming methods with the effects of harvesting crops is just fanciful” How is it fanciful? How is it ultimately any worse than the systematic and sustained destruction of wildlife in fields that we know are there, or the systematic and sustained destruction of wildlife habitat to make the fields in the first place, or the systematic and sustained destruction of even wider swaths of land to grow the amount of food needed to feed everyone if they were to become vegan, or the systemic and sustained use of immense amounts of fossil fuels needed to fertilize those fields and run the farm equipment and ship the food to the consumer which leads to global climate destabilization and the destruction of even more animal habitat leading to even more animal suffering and even more animal deaths? Why does it matter if the animals we willingly kill in order to eat are killed directly or indirectly? Your argument just doesn’t compute.

    I’m not an advocate of factory farming, I advocated the consumption of sustainably raised, grass-fed, pastured cattle. Nowhere above did I advocate or condone the consumption of pigs or cruelty towards them… you’re beating up a straw man.

    If I understand correctly, the argument you’re actually attempting to make is that in theory we need to respect all life and eat in such a way to minimize harm, but that you recognize it’s currently impossible/impractical to live in such a way as to eliminate all harm (putting aside the entire issue of whether or not harm is actually calculable… there have been much better critiques of utilitarian ethics elsewhere)… meaning the animals that are intentionally killed as the result of plowing and harvesting fields (and yes, if you know they’re in the field and you plow it anyway, that’s intentional) are at least, for the moment, worth less than other animals. If this is indeed what you’re saying, then isn’t this just as speciesist as meat consumption?

    If you’re going to say that insects, arachnids, earthworms and “other small creatures” (funny how you didn’t directly mention any of the reptiles, birds or mammals that die as the result of plowing a field) are acceptable to kill so that you can eat industrial cereal crops for practical reasons while we’re still waiting for in-vitro meat, isn’t drawing the line there somewhat arbitrary? Wouldn’t it be just as useful to draw the line between human and non-human animals in this interim period?

    If you’re going to make an argument from pragmatism, (which is historically the anathema of utilitarian ethics) which is the only argument I think you can really make here, you don’t really have a leg to stand on in the ethical department if you’re claiming all creatures have an equal right to not be killed. My point being: It’s rather convenient that where you personally draw the line when it comes to animal deaths is just short of where it starts to make you personally a hypocrite.

    To reiterate from my original comment: I actually look forward to a day where technology has made farming totally obsolete, and I care very much about animal welfare, but there is simply no evidence to suggest that vegetarianism/veganism lives up to the principle of least harm and is the most ethical dietary approach in the interim until technology gets us over the hurdle of needing to rely on other creatures for sustenance.

    I have much more problems with Utilitarianism and Abolitionism in general, but that goes well beyond the scope of this comment thread and I’ve already spent way too much of my time rebutting you and having you only reply with logical fallacies and half-truths.

    I really don’t enjoy these types of repartees and I don’t expect I’ve changed anyone’s mind, but I felt ethically obligated to speak up and provide a counter-argument and call out the nonsense while trying to balance out Mr. Pearce’s typical vegan silencing technique of responding to nearly every comment on an article with obvious red herrings, appeals to emotion, straw men jiujitsu, and ad hominem attacks in order to drown out any dissenting opinions.

    It’s that kind of stuff (and the moderators who enable it) that ruins debate and makes two comments my ‘internet debate quota’. This is my second so, “so long” and eat some grass-fed, pastured beef. 🙂

  • May I ask where these articles will be posted?

  • siphersh

    Okay, maybe for some people veganism is mostly just an abstract principle, and not really compassionate awareness.

    Maybe the same is true for the principle of pluralism. But the point is that I don’t think that the future is very accomodating to ethical intolerance. Especially when it comes to different approaches to managing our genetics. History will just evacuate all attempts at replacing genetic autonomy with some abstract, universal ethical principle. People are different. And as we take our minds and our genes in our hands, people won’t get any less different at all.

    All I’m trying to say, really, is that the future is probably going to be very diverse.

  • davidpearce

    SuperheroEnthusiast, you propose that “Wider ethical concerns like animal welfare are simply a luxury most people can’t afford.” Concern for nonhuman animals is not the prerogative of rich white Westerners. An ethical vegan lifestyle is embraced by millions of the poorest people on the planet, notably on the Indian subcontinent.

    I’m disconcerted to learn you believe that I’m trying to “drown out any dissenting opinions”. I’d thought I was just trying to respond to (some of) your points to the best of my ability. [Actually, I assumed for the Singularity Weblog I would be answering questions on the Technological Singularity rather than veganism. But I was happy to respond to all Nikola’s questions as posed.]

    As far as I can tell, Wikipedia’s entry on Buddhism and vegetarianism is fair and accurate:


    The interpretation of Buddhist philosophy is not my field of expertise, so I won’t add further. I’d hoped I was endorsing the way Buddhists place overcoming suffering at the heart of our mission.

    Is a vegetarian or vegan diet typically healthier for humans than a meat-based diet? I didn’t make any such claim above. The point of noting how Western vegetarians statistically tend to be slimmer, longer-lived and record higher IQ scores than meat-eaters was rather to undercut the charge that harming other sentient beings is somehow necessary for human flourishing. The lower IQ of meat eaters compared to vegetarians – a seven point gap here in the UK – is more credibly explained by e.g. intelligent children being more likely to become vegetarians in the first instance (cf. “High IQ link to being vegetarian”) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6180753.stm
    The full story is more complicated.

    IMO all strict _vegans_ (as distinct from vegetarians) should prudently read up on basic nutrition. As discussed in the interview, from a purely self-interested perspective, it’s safer to be a lazy meat-eater than a lazy vegan. Nutritional science sounds a deadly dull subject. But human and nonhuman animal health alike would be promoted if nutritional studies were part of the educational core curriculum.

    As an advocate of hi-tech Jainism, I’m all in favour of minimizing the impact of agriculture of insects, mouse nests and the lives of other small creatures. But an insect or a new-born mouse is not of comparable sentience to, say, a factory-farmed pig – or a human toddler. Factory-farming is the greatest source of severe, prolonged and readily avoidable suffering in the world today. So I think our ethical priority should be shutting down factory-farms and slaughterhouses – with the long-term goal of delivering the well-being of all sentience. (cf. http://abolitionist.com)

  • davidpearce

    Siphersh, ideally at any rate, ethical veganism aims to combine compassion with hard-headed calculation. Someone who leaves their ten-million-dollar fortune to their much-loved cat may be exceedingly compassionate and empathetic. S/he is not a rational altruist.

    I’d agree with you about the likelihood of extreme diversity. Likewise, we can agree that some forms of diversity are best avoided. No one should have to suffer cystic fibrosis or Alzheimer’s disease. But what about the biology of involuntary suffering? Even many radical futurists balk a what such a technical ethical revolution entails.

  • siphersh

    Would you like to eventually see suffering eliminated that’s caused by predatory animals to their prey?

    Maximizing happiness and reducing suffering sounds like the three laws of robotics, a reduction of values that would result in the destruction of some other fundamental values if followed through.

    Many people would say, I suppose, that there would be something wrong with eliminating the natural tiger-gazelle relationship and substituting it with something else, that doesn’t have suffering.

    Not as a logical conclusion, but as a fundamental value, a fundamental prohibition against transgressing into realms that don’t belong to us. Like the prime directive in Star Trek.

    Do you think that such anti-utilitarian values will remain? Do you think that humans will need to deal with this diversity of values? Or will we just “avoid” this form of diversity?

  • davidpearce

    Siphersh, yes. If we’re ethically serious about phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering, then predators – human or nonhuman – can’t be conserved in exactly their existing guise.
    (cf. http://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/index.html

    It’s worth stressing that an ethical commitment to phasing out involuntary suffering doesn’t entail sighing up for a utilitarian ethic – whether classical, negative or preference utilitarianism. Thus one can be an ethical pluralist, virtue theorist, deontologist, Buddhist (etc) and still endorse phasing our [involuntary] experience below “hedonic zero”. In short, I’m cautiously optimistic that a few centuries hence there won’t be suffering in our forward light-cone. I could, of course, be hopelessly mistaken.

  • So David a few people have written books regarding the intelligence of pigs but I see no deeply considered comparisons between pig and toddler intelligence, it merely seems to be inference and opinion. Let’s see the scientific study regarding “Intelligence and emotional sensitivity in pigs compared to human toddlers.” Currently there are only incidental inferences.

    I think it is wrong to existentially compare pigs to humans because a pig is not a human. I am sure a human toddler has a far greater sensitivity than a pig could ever hope to attain, I doubt pigs are even capable of hope, but most importantly humans are valued at the earliest age due to their potential whereas pigs have no potential, they have no profound genetic history worthy of respect.

    I don’t see why “sentience” should confer rights to non-human animals. Worms or spiders could easily be sentient according to this definition: “Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive or to experience subjectivity.” All living animals have at least a basic sense of self, subjectivity, they sense pain and pleasure, but importantly they don’t do this in a human modality, which is with extreme perspicaciousness, deep consciousness, self-awareness.

    When I was referring to the updated Transhumanist declaration I was referring to my unsuccessful input, although I cannot remember what I wrote now and I cannot check due to my ISP blocking the Transhumanity site; perhaps I too advocated abolition of needless suffering. I am not wholly insensitive the the pain of non-human animals, I merely think at this stage our focus should be on humans because I think our suffering is far more extreme than the suffering of non-human animals. The death-agony of one billion pigs wouldn’t come close to the pain I personally feel.

    On the issue of Nick’s intelligence and the intelligence other transhumanists perhaps they will transpire to be geniuses, Oxford university certainly does have a good reputation, maybe the simulation augment will be proven to be a very valid area of study, but sadly I think many of these institutions of learning, regarding so-called “intellectuals,” they will transpire to be far from the mark despite the relative good educational institutions do in many areas of science and technology.

    In answering my point about how the similarity of human and pig intelligence could unwittingly allow advanced AI to deem killing humans is OK, if we are not much better than pigs, you have confirmed somewhat my view regarding how all this morality-based thinking arises from a religious foundation, which I also state is so regarding Bostrom’s Simulation leanings (the search for the Simulation creator/s is a search for God). You mention “high-tech Jainism,” which I recognise is likely only a metaphor but the usage of a religious metaphor perhaps indicates a witting or unwitting religious bias. I think violence can only apply to intelligent beings, beings of sufficient intelligence.

  • Your question SuperheroEnthusiast is regarding some draft articles I mentioned? Subject to editorial approval I will publish here on Singularity Weblog my article about AI subjectivity, and I will publish a critique of speciesism regarding the whole notion of “speciesism” being intellectually flawed, the point is humans are superior, there is no species prejudice. I will publish an article via H+ Magazine about the myth of mental illness, my anti-psychiatry viewpoint, which is also subject to editorial approval.

  • Thanks, Singularity Utopia. I look forward them!

  • davidpearce

    SU, we value human infants and toddlers for who they are, not for what they may – or may not – one day become. On diagnosing a human toddler with a terminal genetic disease, we don’t pack her off to a factory-farm or slaughterhouse on the principle that it’s a shame to let good protein go to waste.

    If someone says, “I am sure a white person has a far greater sensitivity than an black African could ever hope to attain”, then no scientific finding from neuroscience is likely to change his mind. Likewise with the claim, “I am sure a human toddler has a far greater sensitivity than a pig could ever hope to attain”.

    In fact, these issues can be scientifically investigated if not conclusively proven Thus verbally competent human subjects can report the effects of microelectrode stimulation of different ares of the brain (the amygdala, periaqueductal grey matter etc) implicated in pain processing. Humans share these anatomical structures with pigs and factory-farmed nonhuman animals – and likewise, humans share essentially the same genes, neurotransmitter systems and behavioural responses to noxious stimuli. Also, self-reported intensities of (un)pleasant experience strongly correlate with how hard behaviourally a human or nonhuman animal will work to avoid or obtain a given stimulus. In other words, suffering can be scientifically “operationalised” even in the absence of sophisticated neuroscanning tools, Recall too that candidate antidepressants are tested by using “animal models”: Nonhuman animals are first made severely depressed by the infliction of uncontrolled stress,. Experimenters then perform tests to see whether the investigational drug reverses the signs of depression. Potential pain-killers are tested in the same way: there is an extremely high concordance between a painkiller’s )(in)effectiveness in humans and its (in)effectiveness in “animal models”. True, some people claim that consciousness is bound up with reflective self-awareness. One’s own experience of raw agony or blind panic does not bear this out. Moreover, recall how during orgasm, for example, much of the neocortex effectively shuts down. Such reduced activity does not appear to make the experience less intense.

    None of this will convince the sceptic who wants to rationalise eating meat or other forms of animal abuse. How do you think we can best minimise the possibility of self-serving bias?

  • David I don’t see why being sure about something is a denial of science. A person can be sure about something then change their mind when greater evidence is acquired. It is an odd associative guilt, or associative irrationality, to compare surety regarding human toddlers being more intelligent than pigs to surety regarding white people being more intelligent than black people. Your comparison is however not surprising considering the typical animal rights propaganda “meat is murder,” “speciesism,” or “all animals are people.”

    Bananas share 50% of human DNA and plants perform quantum calculations, they perform accurate arithmetic division at night. Plants feel pain too, should we stop eating plants. Can you be sure plants are not sentient? Despite the similarities in brain structure and pain reception between humans and lesser animals the slight brain differences create a massive difference in consciousness. Yes humans are similar to lesser animals thus if you whack us both over our heads with a sledgehammer we will both likely die, or similarly we respond to drugs in similar ways, but the slight genetic differences produce an MASSIVE existential difference, it is analogously comparable to walking along the bottom of a cliff and a boulder crashes down one metre in behind you, if you were slightly slower there would have been a massive difference to your life, one meter does not seem a great distance but very small differences can have ENORMOUS consequences.

    It is a logical fallacy to assume similarity equates identicalness, it is similar to thinking petrol is a refreshing drink because water is wet and refreshing thus petrol must also be refreshing because it is wet. If someone sneezed after inhaling pepper it would be wrong to say they had flu despite pepper and flu both causing sneezing. Correlation does not imply causation.

    Consider this “How do you think we can best minimise the possibility of self-serving bias?”

    This is my issue with thinking common in certain circles, this is a flaw of intellectualism, it is a flaw of “thinking.” We should not try to eliminate bias, it is actually impossible to eliminate bias, elimination of bias is elimination OF self, we should encourage bias, we need to enhance our self-hood, intensify our feeling of self, we should encourage self-serving behaviour, but these traits currently seem bad due to a lack of self awareness.

    Self denial (objectivity) is wrongly assumed to be intelligent, it has Christian roots, religious roots, and sadly it taints modern thinking, which reminds me the reputation of Oxford university is not entirely great, note the 1860 Oxford evolution debate where Darwin’s theory received very unsympathetic treatment.

    “Moreover, recall how during orgasm, for example, much of the neocortex effectively shuts down. Such reduced activity does not appear to make the experience less intense.”

    How shut-down exactly? How about if you totally removed the neocortex from a human then let’s see how intense orgasms are.

  • davidpearce

    SU, deliberately killing another sentient being without due cause is as good a definition of murder as I can think of. Naturally, we mostly prefer to use euphemisms.

    Why do you believe plants feel pain? No selection pressure exists on sessile organisms without the capacity for rapid self-propelled motion to evolve anything as energetically expensive as a central nervous system. Moreover, plants cells are each enclosed in cellulose cell-walls whose existence would seem to forbid anything like phenomenal binding – a crucial precondition for a unitary subject of experience.

    You urge that “…we should encourage bias, we need to enhance our self-hood, intensify our feeling of self, we should encourage self-serving behaviour…” 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,: a “God’s-eye-view”. Hence the triumph of the Standard Model in physics. Ethically, we need to “de-bias” ourselves as well. For sure, the world seems centred on me. The robust perception that I am the centre of the universe is a genetic fitness-enhancing illusion born of selfish DNA. But such self-centredness is a unwarranted cognitive and ethical bias that we each need to overcome.

  • 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!

  • 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: https://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.

  • 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.

  • 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


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

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

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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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  • Mark Larkento

    Is there a website that provides clear, thorough, up-to-date information on nutritionally sound vegan diets?

  • Mark Larkento

    Preferably one that does not rely on vat grown meat or processed foods with additives.

  • Hey David, it’s been two months now since I went vegan 😉

  • CM Stewart

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