Brian is a theoretical physicist, mathematician and string theorist. He is a professor at Columbia University and has been chairman of the World Science Festival since co-founding it in 2008. Brian has become known to a wider audience through his books for the general public, The Elegant Universe, Icarus at the Edge of Time, The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Hidden Reality, and related PBS television specials. He also appeared on The Big Bang Theory episode "The Herb Garden Germination", as well as the films Frequency and The Last Mimzy. He is currently a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Brian is an atheist and has a naturalistic worldivew. He is vegan, implying he has a sentiocentric moral scope.
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?”
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”
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.”
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?
#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
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
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…
“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”