“How do you find meaning in a universe that’s doomed?” - Astrophysicist Dr. Katie Mack @AstroKatie - Sentientism Episode 144

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.

Katie is a theoretical cosmologist who holds the Hawking Chair in Cosmology and Science Communication at Perimeter Institute. Her academic research investigates dark matter, vacuum decay and the epoch of reionisation. Katie is also a popular science communicator who participates in social media and regularly writes for Scientific American, Slate, Sky & Telescope, Time and Cosmos. She is the author of the book “The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome

01:58 Katie's Intro

- #cosmology  & #astrophysics

- "The study of the universe from beginning to end from the smallest to the largest scales"

- #darkmatter, the beginning of the universe & the end of the universe

- Research & public engagement

03:33 What's Real?

- Growing up going to church & youth group & #bible study

- United Church of Christ... liberal & open-minded #socialjustice #lgbtq rights

- Useful guidelines for life but "I never really understood how faith works... believing things without evidence"

- Exploring different religious traditions e.g. #judaism "attending church on Sunday mornings and synagogue on Friday nights"

- "I always wanted to believe something... there's a fundamental urge most humans have to connect with the divine... #spirituality of some kind... the problem was I didn't believe in anything"

- Connecting with religious songs, prayer, rituals about forgiveness & bettering yourself...

- Being told "just believe"... "I don't know how to do that!"

- "I believe things if I see evidence for them... if I have some reason"

- A scientifically curious kid

- "The way I relate to the world... is through evidence"

- "I don't fundamentally grasp the concept of choosing your perceptions... choosing your beliefs. I don't think I can do that"

- Ontological & epistemological naturalism

- "I haven't had a spiritual experience... I assume I would write it off as something explainable through psychology and physics... but I can't say for certain"

- Enrolling in a #theology seminary school after graduating in physics: "wanting to understand religion... why people believe in things... I dropped out after 6 months"

- "I've done everything... went to every service... went to seminary... I did all the things and still god has not appeared to me in any way... I was a little bit jealous... that certainty, that feeling of peace... you are loved by the most powerful being in the cosmos... that sounds really cool... sign me up"

- "I could follow all the rules... I couldn't believe"

- "If the idea is that you're only saved by belief & not through actions then there's no hope for me at all"

- No hassle at the seminary "everyone was assumed to be on their own spiritual journey... I just didn't have one"

- Talking to Menonites, Fransiscan brothers, Unitarians... "nobody cared that I didn't believe... I just felt out of place"

- Hearing others say "I find astrophysics so spiritual"... "I really don't!"

- "Most of my colleagues have no idea that I studied religion"

- "I totally miss the community stuff... occasionally I think I should start going back to synagogue... the ritual, the mindset, the scholarliness..."

- "The idea that everybody gets together once a week to think about how to be better people"

- Secular people in religious communities "Practising but not believing... religious but not spiritual... now I guess agnostic... (I don't know)"

- "I was very fortunate to be in religious communities... they were very progressive and focused on #socialjustice"

- Having no issues being #bisexual / #queer in those religious communities "I always understood that I would be accepted"

- Mystical traps in gaps & uncertainty: origins and ends of the universe, life, consciousness, free will. #Godofthegaps

- The weirdness of physics "weirdness is in the eye of the beholder"

- "What we're trying to do in physics is create a mathematical model of the universe that best matches what we observe... a model that is useful... describe & predict"

- "Quantum mechanics seems really weird in a lot of ways but mathematically it's extremely clear and simple... the evolution of these wave functions... it matches perfectly"

- The dissonance between our sub-atomic model & our macro models "we think of it as weird"

- "As long as we have a model you don't even have a gap to put god into"

- Aspects of subatomic theory that we don't yet understand

- Attending seminary lecture trying to connect god to quantum physics "it's god who decides... how the wave function will collapse"… “You can do that but I don’t think it’s useful”

- Determinism & probability

- Quantum mechanics interpretations e.g. Many worlds / wave function collapse

- “Because I think of physics as being about creating models that are useful… there’s nothing useful about saying that a supernatural power is making a decision… you can’t use that”

- “It’s outside of what physics is about… I have no need of that hypothesis”

- “It’s not up to me to tell people how to think about the world but what is up to me is to try to make better models of the workings of the universe through physics and mathematics”

35:50 What Matters?

- Nihilism

- “I don’t think I ever saw it as being a question of what god wants me to do” Rejecting divine command theory

- “Commandments or rules in religion were based on not being bad”

- “The most important commandment is to love god… I don’t know what that means but I can not kill people… not lie… not steal… be an honourable person”

- Honour “as core to how I think about the world”

- “I always felt very keenly the suffering of others and not wanting to be part of that… not wanting to harm animals… or people”

- Hating violence in movies and “I can’t watch nature shows”

- The end of the universe: “There will be a point in the future when nothing that we’ve ever done will have mattered”

- Death and the attractive idea of “carry on”… “but if the universe is going to fully end – at some point that argument no longer applies… there will be a point where it will not have mattered if I kill someone tomorrow or not… it doesn’t matter”

- “Those black holes evaporating at the end of the universe are not going to care if I led a good life… if I hurt people… if there is suffering… it doesn’t matter to physics”

- “How do you find meaning in a universe that’s doomed?”

- No rapture or judgement day

- “As humans living in a temporary world… we have to find structures of meaning that apply in the now… that don’t rely on the future at all... that are not outcome based.”

- “I’m not waiting for some judgement… it’s more about ‘am I harming now’… am I making things better or worse… in the moment.”

- JW: “All value is in every moment of sentient experience”

47:12 Who Matters?

- Going vegetarian at 7 yrs old “started to understand where meat comes from and how that works” & being vegan now

- At a restaurant eating a hot dog and seeing a kids menu with a picture of a pig on it “Oh that’s a pig – that’s a hot dog!”

- “I don’t want to hurt that animal and so I shouldn’t be eating this food… I didn’t want to be part of that any more… because I didn’t want to hurt animals”

- “I’ve always been someone who loved animals and wanted to care for animals”

- “The emotional aspect was very automatic and honestly very inconvenient… experiencing the pain of suffering creatures”

- Being teased by middle-school kids for getting upset about them harming & killing snails

- “It’s not about cognitive ability – it’s about does that animal suffer?... I don’t want to cause suffering… it’s not a complicated philosophical argument”

- “By perceiving that suffering I suffered”

- “My family assumed that it was a phase” & health concerns “they tried to trick me into eating chicken” but later supportive

- Awkwardness with friends “I had to remove myself from certain things” & arguments & teasing “I kind of got used to that”

- “I was never somebody who was very susceptible to peer pressure”

- “A lot of the social awkwardness comes from the fact that people do inherently understand it [veganism] to be a social justice cause”

- “The reason people don’t like vegans… because they do see it as a judgement on their own ethical viewpoints”

- “It doesn’t matter to anybody else what I eat unless they take it as a personal attack”

- “It’s the same reason people will sometimes give me trouble about wearing a mask in a public indoor place… because they feel judged that they’re not doing that… I’m reminding them”

- “When I was a kid… I would tell them sentimental reasons… I really didn’t want to get into that conversation… you could use friends that way”

- What are consciousness and sentience? “There’s a grand tradition of theoretical physicists getting really into consciousness… I don’t want to do that… I’ll leave the definition of consciousness to the neuroscientists”

- “I don’t think that consciousness is some important element of the cosmos… it’s something that happens in the brains of organic creatures”

- Spectrums of consciousness & sentience “when I’m half asleep in the morning I’m less conscious”… sleep and anaesthetic

- “There’s nothing very, very specific about the way the human brain works that’s vastly different from the way other animals’ brains work”

- Adrian Tchaikovsky on Sentientist Conversations, spider & octopus & bird consciousnesses “evidence that jumping spiders can dream”

- Graduated evolution & development of cognition and sentience “maybe a baby experiences the world more like a dog or a mouse”

- “We are fundamentally creatures of matter and circuitry… there’s no special spiritual spark that we have that other animals don’t… it’s very strange to put us in a totally different ethical category”

- “The only thing that really matters is can you feel… can you suffer… and they all do”

- Fish feel pain too

- Quantification gets tricky “Is one human worth ten cows”… trolley problems & difficult judgements

- Ethical challenges of any consumption e.g. exploitative supply chains

- Panpsychism

01:10:55 How Can We Make a Better Future?

- “My expertise is in the total destruction of the future not making it better” 😊

- “As human societies evolve we generally expand our idea of who has moral weight… I hope we continue to do that… people who are unlike us…”

- “Trends towards isolationism and fascism… are moves backward”

- “As the worst impacts of climate change become more and more felt – one way humanity can respond to that is to become more isolationist and more aggressive to those trying to escape”

- “I hope we are able to find a path towards justice, climate justice, social justice, decolonialism, being more open & welcoming & more helpful”

- Climate reparations

- “Congruence of climate, decolonisation and animal welfare… part of the same cause”

- “It’s going to be a difficult century… there are ways to solve those problems in humane and positive ways”

- The role of science & science communication

- “The problem of climate change is not that much a science communication problem as a political problem these days”

- Political affiliations & values driving people’s responses

- “The science information is out there… but when it comes up against people’s identities and their values…”

- Prioritising connecting better with people on a values level

- “Just giving information is just never going to be enough”

- “There are groups… who have a very strong vested interest in maintaining certain status quos… ideas that are contrary to progress… they have a lot of money”

- “Not many people have very strong views about dark matter and the big bang… doesn’t tend to threaten people’s personal identities and livelihoods”

- Explaining the process of science (there isn’t a “Big Green Energy” conspiracy!)

- “We love finding mistakes… we prefer it to be other people’s mistakes 😊 – we love finding new answers”

- “All of science progresses through falsifying”

- Make it clear what scientists are like “we really do just want to find the answer… we’re not just trying to push an agenda… we are human beings… curiosity”

- Address legitimate concerns about how science be used to cause harm

- The Epilogue of “The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)”

- On Twitter and Mastodon @astrokatie & TikTok and Instagram

... & much more!

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at

Join our “I’m a Sentientist” wall using this simple form.

Everyone, Sentientist or not, is welcome in our groups. The biggest so far is here on Facebook.

Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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"Just dive in and meet people where they're at" - Ashley Byrne - PETA Outreach Director - Sentientism Episode 153

Ashley Byrne is Director of Outreach for PETA. A conversation about Sentientism's "evidence, reason and compassion for all sentient beings".

"Just dive in and meet people where they're at" - Ashley Byrne - PETA Outreach Director - Sentientism Episode 153

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.

Ashley is Director of Outreach for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). She has led a broad range of PETA’s campaigns and has been interviewed about her work to promote animal rights by the LA Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and in many other publications.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome
01:33 Ashley Intro

  • 16 years at #PETA: public campaigns, celebrities… "enjoying every minute of it"

03:18 What Matters

  • #ChristianScience "there was never a divide… this is science & this is god… a lot of spirituality"
  • (see risks re: prayer vs. medicine)
  • Father "a non-practising Catholic… not a religious person but was very supportive of… that part of my mother's life"
  • Personal relationship with god "connect directly with this spiritual part of your life"
  • More a spiritual, all-pervasive god than a "judgemental, human figure"
  • Rejecting "we judge everything based on a human worldview"
  • Universally accessible rather than in/out-group based
  • "Not telling you what to do"
  • Religious vs. scientific views of reality "It never occurred to me that those things could be incompatible"
  • Spiritual rather than literal interpretation of the #bible
  • "#spiritually I really still do identify with these ideas & these values"
  • "Macro spiritual concepts of love… that bring us out of what's right in front of us"
  • "Isn't so much of science trying to go bigger & deeper"
  • Science that we don't yet understand that can sometimes be anticipated by mystical/spiritual thinking
  • Ontological (what's real?) & epistemological (how should we work it out?) naturalism
  • Risks of wishful thinking
  • #faith vs. #naturalism "I'm the latter… the evidence"
  • Is there evidence that would lead you to reject Christian Science? "it's more of a spiritual practice"
  • "#spirituality … it is a scientific pursuit… our ideas of science are too limited"
  • Risks of dogma / harmful & discriminatory ethics in religious/supernatural worldviews
  • "If you have an ethical question about the world you should be going back & working it out with these spiritual tools"
  • Growing up in #losangeles
  • One 8th grade term in a Southern #Baptist school "pamphlets in the office that told you why every other religion in the world was wrong & sinful - mine was in there"
  • "You're going to hell!"
  • "I was constantly being told 'be quiet, sit down, stop asking questions'… I remember the word 'obey' was used a lot"… "I didn't get it… why can't you answer these questions?"
  • The #trauma caused by religious beliefs (e.g. threat of hell)
  • Secularism & kids learning about multilple worldviews

41:08 What Matters?

  • "My parents really laid the foundation… for my sense of ethics… each coming from their own respective backgrounds… two extremely ethical, thoughtful, kind, intelligent people."
  • You don't need an old book to be a good person… universal goods
  • "Goodness is something more primal than that [#divinecommandtheory]"

45:30 Who Matters?

  • "I grew up in an animal loving household… unquestionably family members"
  • The family dog: "She loved me and I loved her"
  • "There was never any idea that these weren't individuals"
  • At a few years old "why is this called chicken… if the animals are called chicken?"… "There was this pause… like when someone at school said 'Santa Claus isn't real?'"
  • Mum had once been #vegetarian. Dad was "red meat & potatoes"
  • "When they told me that meat was made of animals I was not happy"
  • Thinking as a teen, but then drifting back to the social default
  • Imagining humane farms & "there must be something different about these animals that we're eating"
  • "We [good people] wouldn't be doing this if chickens felt pain… if it was cruel & violent & wrong"
  • Asking a Sunday school teacher about "Thou shalt not kill" vs. eating animals… "take that back… & address it spiritually… figure it out… so I did."
  • Seeing horrific footage in "Faces of Death" that "changed my entire life on the spot"
  • "I knew that the footage of animals was real because I knew that they didn't need to fake that"
  • "The worst thing I had ever seen… the level of devastation"
  • Cultural differences re: #dogmeat vs. other animals
  • “There’s no scientific reason why it’s wrong to eat a dog but OK to eat a chicken – it’s entirely cultural”
  • “I can’t accept that this is OK… I guess that means it’s not OK to kill & eat any of these animals… & that’s when it stopped”
  • “What we do to animals… it’s horrifying”
  • Mum gave Ashley “Diet For a New America” book
  • Learning about eggs, dairy & wider animal exploitation: “Dammit… I’m going to have to go vegan”
  • “The punk scene was integral to educating me about these things.” Vegan bands and animal advocacy zines
  • Previous guests: Nick Pendergrast (not Paul – sorry!), Kristof Dhont
  • “In the punk community it was absolutely supported”
  • Rebelling against classic teenage forms of “rebellion”
  • “Our default should be that everyone matters… to care & to respect”
  • Sentience vs. intelligence
  • “Sentience should help us guide how we can do the least amount of harm”
  • “A rock & a pig are very different”
  • Destroying nature – “you’re in an ecosystem that does impact sentient beings”
  • “There’s this impulse… ‘what can we not care about?’ Shouldn’t the default be the other way?”

01:16:33 How Can We Make A Better Future?

  • “The whole of my work is dedicated to that [making a better world]”
  • “Just caring more… and acting on it… not ‘what’s the most I can get away with?’”
  • We’re not living on a desert island with a chicken… “we’re living in this modern world where we just have an abundance of choices”
  • The power of improving human worldviews
  • Win-wins
  • Changing minds & institutions
  • Many kinds of activism “what brings one person around is not the same as what will bring another person around… PETA is a great example of this”
  • Changing legislation, corporations, cultural change, habits, ideas, thoughts “how people think about animals”
  • “How do you change cultural thought?”
  • Demonstrations that “people cannot walk past”, making headlines, “reaching people where they are”, social media, whistleblowers, veganism, lobbying
  • “You can’t give problems without solutions… here’s the problem & here’s the action”
  • Corporate vegan options
  • Previous guest Ingrid Newkirk (PETA founder & president)
  • Criticisms of PETA: corporatisation of philanthropy (vs. grass roots), feminist critiques, shock tactics
  • “I am absolutely a feminist… Riot Girl is how I entered the punk scene” after experiencing the sexism of the Southern Baptist school
  • “Respecting people’s autonomy… decisions about their bodies & their lives… something humans constantly deny animals”
  • “If I choose to take part in a protest… with my clothes off… that’s entirely my decision… I’m standing up for animals.”
  • “bodily putting myself out there for animals who have no choices about their bodies”
  • “It’s interesting how often the media will take a photo of that protest & cut out the men… & what people choose to share on social media”
  • Animal exploitation industries are marketing to people in this way “it’s very subversive that we take this imagery & we use it to unmarket – to tear down this facade”
  • “Now that we have your attention we are going to debunk”
  • “Meeting people where they are and making use of things that people already respond to – that is what some people need”
  • Dress Vegan: People think that veganism is a diet “so it’s interesting to talk about something that clearly isn’t food”
  • “There is a demand for vegan fashion”… vegan leather shoes, down alternative jackets
  • Smaller brands often have some ethical motivation. The big brands “aren’t doing it to be nice… there’s a demand”
  • “Individual choices do matter… it’s happening because people demanded it, asked for it, bought it, supported it… I think it’s empowering to think about that”
  • “If you’re funding a terrible system unnecessarily, then stop!”
  • Arguments from futility, ineffectiveness
  • “The system wants you to believe you’re powerless… Put more stock in your ability to make a difference”
  • “You just dive in – you get your hands dirty”
  • “It’s almost as if people don’t realise they have the agency to act!… they’re almost waiting for someone to give them permission”
  • Helping free ranging animals in New York
  • “You’re allowed… you don’t need anyone to give you permission to do the right thing”
  • JW: “If everybody sits at home waiting for collective action & systemic change to solve the problem – there isn’t going to be any collective action or systemic change”
  • “The solution is – you act!”

01:44:00 Following Ashley:

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at

Join our “I’m a Sentientist” wall using this simple form.

Everyone, Sentientist or not, is welcome in our groups. The biggest so far is here on Facebook.

Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.


"I went vegan finally when I fell in love with one" - filmmaker & writer Jay Shapiro - Sentientism Episode 151

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.

Jay is an award winning filmmaker, writer, and podcaster. He directed Islam and the Future of Tolerance, a film based around a conversation between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. He produces and creates a wide range of content, writes on his “What Jay Thinks” blog & hosts the Dilemma podcast (some co-hosted with Coleman Hughes). I had the pleasure of being his guest for a Dilemma Hangout on Sentientism back in 2020.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome
01:54 Jay Intro

  • The Essential #samharris series
  • Documentary & narrative film-making
  • "I really want to understand ideas… and transmit those to an audience… even if I totally disagree with the idea"

03:16 What's Real?

  • Growing up in a secular #Jewish household
  • "Post-holocaust American judaism is it's own brand… a very ethical & political tribe more than a religious one"
  • "'Never again' becomes the holiest prayer"
  • Psychologist dad, guidance counsellor mum
  • "I'm a boring naturalist but… I love analogies for what it feels like to exist"
  • Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five "Oh… This is what I like"
  • An over-active imagination as a kid… "my scientists", The Truman Show, solipsism, Philip K Dick & #scifi
  • #Meditation, #psychedelics, religious experiences… "scrambles the dials"
  • Donald Hoffman's "The Case Against Reality"
  • How evolution shapes our construction of experiences of reality
  • Psychedelics help us "catch it in the act" of reality construction
  • "There's much more out there" e.g. non-human sentient experiences
  • "It reminds you of the expansiveness of reality rather than show you a new one"
  • The National High School Ethics Bowl
  • Anil Seth's "How your brain hallucinates reality" @TED
  • Annaka Harris's exploration of consciousness theories re: "The Hard Question"
  • "Reality is awesome enough - who needs magic" (I mis-spoke!)
  • Epistemological tests?: atheism, veganism, spherical earth…
  • Writing about Sam Harris, not for him
  • Object-oriented ontology
  • #psychology "I don't think we're the rational animal… we're the rationalising animal"
  • How people respond to #cognitivedissonance (Leon Festinger) "they really don't like it"
  • Criticising #consequentialism "you can justify anything… wait long enough and the consequences will work out… where do you stop the clock… too easy to find an out"
  • #Virtueethics "Secular virtue" (vs. religious views of virtue)
  • What happens after noticing the cognitive dissonance. More about psychology & values more than epistemology?
  • Coping mechanisms. Consequentialism, capitalism, economics… give people outs to "quiet these voices in their heads"
  • Neil Levy "people are more rational than you think"
  • Qanon, Goop products… everyone selects evidence/sources to suit themselves
  • Believing unfounded things can be a "rational" response to existential crises / the discomfort of cognitive dissonance

37:45 What Matters?

  • "There is no grounding (to ethics)"
  • David Hume's "unbreachable" is-ought chasm
  • "If you hate Sam (Harris) I think you'll like a lot of what I do there" (the Foundations of Morality episode of The Essential Sam Harris
  • There is a relationship between is and ought but "It's up to us to define that relationship"
  • "My bridge": Carl Sagan's "We are a way for the universe to know itself"
  • "I'm super humanistic… I bristle at the efforts… to downgrade the human as just another animal"
  • We have the "moral opportunity" to figure things out & decide what we ought to do
  • "Luckily there's a lot of joy & fun in figuring it out… and some sadness… it's the only game in town… so I'm playing"
  • "I'm trying to champion the human" & David Deutsch re: creation of explanations/knowledge
  • "Experience must be the only way to see the bridge across is-ought"
  • Moral agency & patiency
  • Compassion as a moral opportunity
  • Cultivated meat: Is there a risk of easy solutions that don't require humans to be better? Would we be missing a moral opportunity? What future horrors might we create?
  • A future where everyone is #vegan so "we don't even need the word any more"
  • The value of sacrifice?

58:50 Who Matters?

  • “I went vegan finally when I fell in love with someone who was a vegan – and now she’s my wife”
  • “I know what it feels like to agree with the arguments about animal suffering… I can remember what it feels like… to participate in a system that I now think is incredibly evil and harmful… and it feels like nothing… the banality of evil… but cognitive dissonance sucks.”
  • The “I’m waiting for clean meat” and “I die if I eat vegan” / “I have no choice” responses (e.g. Sam Harris, Paul Bloom) and “it’s normal”
  • The hope in realising people still feel cognitive dissonance
  • Consistency & coherence… eating dogs and babies?
  • How responding to cognitive dissonance can warp ethics (“they don’t matter”) and epistemology (believing things that are wrong)
  • “My wife is the person who saw a video and was like ‘I can’t participate any more this is too horrible’ and changed her behaviour”
  • “Most people are more like me – it’s hard for us – we just don’t face it”
  • “I was living the [meat] paradox – but I do remember it felt like nothing”
  • “The arguments themselves don’t carry the day”… humility
  • Falling in love, going vegan, falling in love with cooking
  • “My veganism was easier than hers – 15 years earlier”
  • Anthropocentrism, sentiocentrism, biocentrism, ecocentrism
  • The social norm determinants of how humans morally evaluate different non-humans (e.g. horrified at eating dogs but OK with eating pigs) “I must have been one of those people!”
  • Jared Piazza, Brock Bastian, Rob Percival re: “The Meat Paradox” and Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”
  • Jay’s experience of his dad’s death: “you don’t have to wait ‘til they die – it was a missed opportunity… don’t wait!”
  • Moral opportunities… finding “better ways to live”
  • “[non-human] animals don’t tend to struggle with cognitive dissonance”
  • The naturalistic fallacy and the “necessary” argument… “A failure to embrace the transcendent nature of human knowledge creation… to question who we are… to engineer ourselves away from, if we want to, evolution.”
  • Jay’s “Two Burgers on a Plate” article
  • Sentientism’s ethical pluralism (deontology, utility, feminist care, virtue…)
  • Philosophy of mind
  • Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?”
  • Solipsism
  • “With your definition of Sentientism – sign me up”
  • Dan Dennett
  • Integrated Information Theory IIT Tononi et al
  • Imagining a consciousness/sentience detector “would people still eat lamb?”
  • Can non-human animals do art? Second order thinking “most people would not want to eat that animal”
  • “I don’t think animals are on the same level… I don’t think a lion… is wondering if it should be going plant-based”
  • Carol Gigliotti’s “The Creative Lives of Animals”… play, love
  • Frans de Waal & animals’ complex inner lives
  • “I’m actually optimistic”

01:50:49 How Can We Make A Better Future?

  • The Direct Action Everywhere right to rescue cases: if rescuing a dog from a hot car is illegal – so should rescuing animals from farms
  • Rescuing Lily and Lizzie from Smithfield farms in Utah and being charged with felony burglary – then being acquitted
  • Jay’s film project about the case & visiting Lily & Lizzie in a sanctuary
  • Luna makes an appearance
  • “given the choice humans don’t want to really do this”
  • Imagining streaming live camera footage from slaughterhouses “My optimism is… it still bothers people”
  • “We all know veganism is getting easier… the argument of necessity will be absurd”
  • The flawed argument that “In the global capitalist consequentialist socioeconomic system… the greater good always works out…”
  • Filming DxE protesting a rodeo… “people were upset… there’s some optimism in the anger… kids were just curious”
  • Jay’s wife “it’s wrong – why don’t they just stop?”… “Most people have trouble just stopping”
  • Sentientism puts intra-human and intra-species ethics “all on the same page”
  • Religion and politics re: intra-human ethics. Re: non-human ethics it’s more culture?
  • “I want to reinvigorate faith in the human capacity for love and compassion and for change”
  • There’s a mismatch between “a better future” (consequentialism?) and “a good individual life” (virtue?) today. 8 billion people can’t live the way that’s currently thought of
  • “We want to think of ourselves as good people… and doing something worthwhile” – integrity
  • “Easy” tech fixes: horseless carts and cultivated meat
  • Personal choices, political campaigns, donating to causes, influencing others, inventing new products, changing the market
  • “Go try to watch an animal cruelty video and see if it bothers you… take an evidence-based approach… ask yourself and wonder… is that integrity?”
  • An examined life. We have the capacity to address our cognitive dissonance
  • “Catch yourself in the act…” of reacting to cognitive dissonance “taking the exit”
  • If you wait for the easy tech fix you’ve missed a moral opportunity “We all face the opportunities that come along”
  • “Believe me, Sam, you can be healthy”
  • “You realise how fun it can be and how lovely it is to feel the integrity grow in yourself… and you can probably do others… that’s human”
  • “Or fall in love with a vegan” 😊

Following Jay:

  • Leaving social media (as has Sam Harris – same deal)
  • The Essential Sam Harris series

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at

Join our “I’m a Sentientist” wall using this simple form.

Everyone, Sentientist or not, is welcome in our groups. The biggest so far is here on Facebook.

Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.


Should Effective Altruism Take Abolitionism More Seriously? - Dhruv Makwana - Sentientism Episode 150

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism podcast.

Dhruv is a PhD student at the Department of Computer Science and Technology, University of Cambridge. He has interests in psychology, philosophy and animal advocacy.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome
01:33 Dhruv Intro
02:25 What's Real?

  • Born in India, moving to Scotland "A mix of two cultures"
  • Hindu temple at home, outside was "classic western materialism, science…"
  • @OfficialDerrenBrown 's "Tricks of the Mind". Magic, charlatanism, #homeopathy , #religion, #GMO scepticism (e.g. Golden Rice)
  • Reading Michael Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things" at 12 yrs old
  • Finding school academically easy but socially hard "immigrant children willl know… feeling like half and half and the halves don't really mix"
  • Culturally universal values: "There was this value of transcendence that was just missing… it would be really nice if god was real… I switched back and forth"
  • Celebrating #diwali when visiting India "I could see the appeal… but I couldn't see any reason or logic"
  • "It's not like the western materialists have any really great answers on how to live…"
  • Experiencing clinical #depression at Cambridge University
  • Discovering #stoicism & #nietzsche "a very positive nihilism"
  • The @philosophizethispodcast and @theschooloflifetv "self-directed, exploratory learning"
  • Existentialism "I couldn't really follow the continental philosophers". Camus' "The Plague" made more sense during #covid19
  • A personal situation "which just did not seem amenable to being logiced out of"
  • A talk by @akalamusic
  • Going back to Indian religion & philosophy "there might be something here"
  • Reading the #mahabharata to understand the context for the #bhagavadgita
  • #arjuna , #krishna roles & responsibilities "why should I act if the fruits of my acts are not my own?"
  • Encountering #buddhism Graham Priest's "Paraconsistent logics"
  • 2 weeks at a Buddhist monastery in Scotland "everyone had their own story… so much suffering… worse than mine"
  • Values of patience, generosity, loving
  • Practising #meditation & #mindfulness
  • "Let me just try things that seem to work"
  • The wisdom of hunter-gatherer cultures
  • Not dismissing or reifying any culture
  • "I accidentally moved to New Zealand"
  • Going #vegan (after growing up #vegetarian ) mainly for environmental reasons
  • Trying vegan pizza "this is fine"
  • @SimonAmstellNumb 's #Carnage documentary
  • @ed.winters Watching #EarthlingEd
  • Ethical & epistemological journeys developing in parallel
  • Meeting an activist community
  • Reading Peter Singer's "The Life You Can Save" and #effectivealtruism
  • Sam Harris' "Waking Up"
  • Identity & Derek Parfit
  • Physicist Carlo Rovelli's "The Order of Time" & intepretations of quantum physics
  • "I have 4 extremely diverse points of view pointing to this very strange thing about notions of identity… the Buddha takes things one step further… this is one of the reasons you're upset"
  • "Being troubled by open metaphysical questions is not because you don't have an answer… it's because you expect the answer"
  • A local #yoga group
  • "I stopped being bothered by these big existential questions"
  • Exploring from the outside & the inside (e.g. via meditation)
  • Cravings & suffering
  • Philosophy of mind: functionalism, materialism, #illusionism , #panpsychism
  • #dualism & non-dualism
  • Are fictional characters "real"?
  • Time as an abstraction of a gradient of #entropy
  • The movie "Tenet"
  • Consciousness as a statistical macro-phenomena?
  • P-zombies
  • #bayesian epistemology vs. Deutschian / Popper #CriticalRationality: putting reasons & explanation at the foundational level
  • St. Petersburg Paradox

53:00 Who & What Matters?

  • Inconsistency arguments re: moral exclusion
  • "Consistency seems like a good thing to aim for"
  • "Clearly animals count"
  • Kinship & transcendence "they are literally related"
  • "I use sentience… a fuzzy line"
  • Artificial or alien sentience
  • Plant sentience?
  • Blamelessness if we're making good faith efforts to attribute sentience
  • Risks of ethical flattening if consciousness is all-pervasive "everything matters so nothing does"
  • Buddhism's "ultimate reality & relative reality"
  • Pain vs. suffering & human capacity to mitigate suffering even when experiencing pain

01:03:03 A Better Future?

  • Criticisms of #effectivealtruism
  • Welfarism vs. abolitionism… end goals and tactics
  • #Greenwashing & #Humanewashing
  • Jeff Sebo and the psychological intuition re: rights
  • Motivated reasoning
  • Ex-vegans: “something leads them to eat some animal products and then their moral opinions change… that seems suspicious”
  • Not just ending animal exploitation but preventing it re-emerging
  • The wild animal suffering imperative
  • Welfarism is “unnecessary… and risky”
  • Logic of the larder, the myth of death without suffering, the intrinsic wrongness of killing?
  • “I believe in person-affecting views but I don’t believe in persons”
  • Individuals as “macro-phenomena”
  • Is existence better than non-existence?
  • “In the EA animal advocacy community it seems like people have said yes to welfarist approaches and no to abolitionist approaches (as tactics) – my conjecture is that… it should be ‘unknown’ to abolitionist approaches rather than ‘no’”
  • The limitations of welfarist tactics: high income countries focus (now changing); cultivated-meat optimism (also changing); over-scepticism about individual change advocacy (esp. elimination / veganism)
  • Reducetarianism: “More people will respond to the ‘reduce’ but they’ll do it by less – whereas fewer people will respond to the ‘eliminate’ but they’ll do it by more”
  • Outdated unfortunate caricatures of abolitionists
  • Risk of excuses & dead ends: reduction, “humane” animal farming…
  • Ideas for effective abolitionism: international rights based approaches to animal law (a Universal Declaration of Sentient Rights?); animal farm transitions;
  • “At some point all the pieces need to come together”
  • #transfarmation “one of my favourite ideas… often farmers are trapped in this industry” “There’s a win-win situation for everyone involved”
  • Economically self-sustaining interventions
  • Institutional land-holdings re: agriculture
  • Measuring human welfare via QUALYs and DALYs “well-intentioned but empirically and philosophically terrible”
  • Objective list theory
  • Biases re: loss and getting used to good or bad changes e.g. returning to hedonic set-points
  • A better approach: “I could ask you”
  • Happier Lives Institute “how bad is death and who is it bad for?”
  • Could helping people cope with suffering be an excuse for not fixing the problems (e.g. poverty, health) causing their suffering?
  • Trauma, stress and growth
  • Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics “Economies that are required to grow regardless of whether or not they make people thrive… we should be aiming for economies that make people thrive whether or not they grow”
  • The risks of environmentalism and degrowth movements “I’m comfortable, now everyone else needs to stop growing and find a different way to be happy”
  • Working with communities
  • Low-cost group therapy as an intervention can be highly cost effective “That’s a very surprising result… so illuminating… something that only the Effective Altruism movement could have produced”
  • The wellbeing and economic arguments for helping people suffering from depression “great if you care about the people but also great if you just care about the money”
  • Population life satisfaction as an indicator of whether a politician will get re-elected
  • Psychedelics and meditation “the science really needs to catch up” “clinicians will need to be able to take an ontologically neutral point of view” (re: seeing fairies, for examples)
  • Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium
  • “I had no idea if that was working… but it did make me feel better”
  • “You need a really finely tuned bullshit detector”
  • The Aurelius Foundation, stoicism and previous guest Massimo Pigliucci

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at

Join our “I’m a Sentientist” wall using this simple form.

Everyone, Sentientist or not, is welcome in our groups. The biggest so far is here on Facebook.

Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.