Neil is a professor of philosophy with research interests spanning philosophy of mind, psychology, free will, moral responsibility, epistemology, and applied ethics. He is Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and professor of philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. From 2010, he was head of neuroethics at the Florey Institutes of Neuroscience in Melbourne.
Philsophy of applied ethics, free will, epistemology
Neil's episode on #DecodingTheGurus re: intellectual virtue signalling
03:55 What's Real?
Brought up #jewish "very much a cultural thing… synagogue twice a year" in #southafrica Africa
Jewish Saturday school
Moving to #Australia & attending religious school
At 11-12 "This doesn't make much sense to me - this god business. I've been a convinced #atheist ever since"
"Being religious can be perfectly reasonable"
Subjective rationality "how well are you processing your evidence given where you are?"
"People are much more rational than we think… even #QAnon supporters… they're completely wrong… but if they believe what they're saying… they're rational given where they start"
#Trolling & #bullshit
"We've got lots of evidence people don't believe what they're saying"
#Determinism & #freewill & "the epistemic condition on responsibility"… "nobody does have that kind of control over their beliefs… they've done the best they can with the evidence available to them"
"Criticism comes cheap… so does praise"
"Luck explains so much" constitutive & present luck
"It gives us more to do… of the sort of things philosophers aren't good at"
Teaching critical thinking, logic, fallacies "people get better… but they don't get better at using it outside the classroom"
"In the classroom I give you evidence… they stipulate it… you just accept it"… "But in the real world you're faced with the continual problem… should I trust the evidence?"
A key reason people don't update beliefs given new evidence is because "they just don't trust the evidence in the first place… and you can formally model why they shouldn't… given what they already believe"
The "capital punishment views" experiment
"If somebody shows me a prima facie plausible study showing that… all dogs have 5 legs… I'm going to think… that it's bullshit"
Gullibility, dogmatism, #skepticism
#QAnon , #Antivaxx , #homeopathy : JW "The same individual is able to be completely gullible when it comes to one set of propositions… at the other extreme can be completely denialistic about another set of sources"
"I don't like these terms… gullibility, open-mindedness, skepticism,
Climate change denial: "Everyone should dismiss it… except climate change scientists… only if it makes some sort of sense should they engage with it"
"We've got to rely on domain experts… then we've got to take their word for it… that does leave us vulnerable."
Lysenkoism in the USSR causing crop failures "telling farmers to do things that didn't work"
"What we've got to focus on is making sure that the political & social contexts are such that the domain experts can do their stuff"
Risks of the hubris of experts: "They're lay people on everything else"
"Have our own domains of expertise and have warranted relations of trust between domains"
Some sympathy for the antivaxxers & climate change denialists "they can point to reasons why they shouldn't trust… some of those are good reasons"
Even #vegan atheists aren't automatically right about everything else 🙂
"The main reason I believe most of the things I believe is because someone I regard as reliable told me"
"I think I'm right about lots of stuff - but that's not a reflection of my virtue - that's a reflection of my luck"
26:03 What Matters?
"I'm anti-foundationalist generally" & giving up the idea of absolute certainty
"I don't think we can have perfect actions"
“We’re thrown into a world in which things have value for us… we can be sceptical of them… but the scepticism has less power than the value itself”
Moore’s response to solipsism “here’s one hand… here’s another”
“The idea that nothing matters… requires an idea of ultimateness that maybe doesn’t make sense… maybe ultimately nothing matters… the universe will suffer a heat death… That’s kind of sad but it’s not the perspective to ask about… [instead] Is my life going better or worse?… is the world going better or worse from the perspective of the beings in that world?”
Why should we care about others? “I’m not sure that’s a challenge we should be in the business of trying to meet”
Is morality ultimately selfish? “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed”… “That’s a crass confusion of the proximate and the ultimate levels of explanation… the ultimate explanation might be because it’s in our interests to care… but that doesn’t mean we don’t care.” Just as sex might be ultimately about procreation but can also be about pleasure
“You can explain things without explaining them away”
34:02 Who Matters?
Assumed & implicit #Anthropocentrism
“I think of at least some of them [non-human animals] as moral agents as well as moral patients”
Insect & mollusc sentience?
Two different bases for mattering morally: sentience & having a point of view
Converting from continental to analytic philosophy
Peter Singer’s “sentience is what matters for non-human animals… gives you a concern with suffering but not life”
The idea that: “It would be fine… to get a kitten… make it’s life a good kitten life… and then painlessly kill it” and the #Thanos snap
The reason painless killing of a sentient being is itself wrong is if that being has “a unified point of view”
David Chalmer’s P-zombies “doesn’t have the capacity for phenomenality at all but has a point of view… I think would count as a moral agent and a moral patient… at least close to as morally significant as I am – maybe completely”
“I think that phenomenality does less work than philosophers have thought”
“I was at Monash University at a time when the entire philosophy department was convinced by Peter [Singer] that they should be vegetarian but almost none were.”
“They found it difficult – I didn’t”
“I did find it harder to give up cheese – which I did years later”
“I have no lived sympathy with those people who say they find it really hard… these days in particular… At least if you’re living in the UK or Australia”
“What doesn’t make it easy is social pressure… you know that veganism is highly stigmatised” 😊
“Very online atheists are nothing like most atheists… they’re much more aggressive… maybe something like that is going on with veganism too”
The parallels between journeys towards atheism & veganism re: intellectual / ethical thought vs. social norms
How strongly held ethics can lead to warped epistemology
The dangers of motivated reasoning (“veganism cures cancer!”) even if our motives are good
49:07 How Can We Make a Better Future?
Would everyone adopting Sentientism solve all the world’s problems?
“I don’t share your optimism… I’m actually quite deeply pessimistic… because of climate change… vested interests but also the collective action problem”
“We’ve left taking it [climate change] seriously late and we’re now going to have to spend literally trillions on adaptations and, even so, there’s going to be a lot of death”
“Veganism is one of the few things individuals can do that actually make a difference”
“We need to take much better care of the environment… the natural environment… but also the institutional and social environment… and the informational environment”
“Caring about other animals matters not just for their sake but for our own”
Land use, emissions, zoonosis, pollution impacts of animal agriculture
Structuring the informational environment to enable collective action and collaboration
“Peer review in science is hugely flawed but… it has elements that can work… that needs to be rolled out across many different social structures… collective co-operation… that channels conflict”
The airline industry’s safety culture: total transparency re: mistakes and a collective focus on not making them again
Virtue epistemology “good thinking as dependent on character traits which are at once intellectual and ethical… like respect for arguments, respect for people, humility”
“I’m not even sure ethics is a separate subject…”
Free will and the philosophy of action
“The things [epistemology & ethics] leak into each other.. they’re porous… they’re not things we should be trying to have hard and fast boundaries between”
“The criticisms of virtue signalling are often overblown… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with indicating your values… as part of establishing trust relationships with each other”
“It can become a kind of pathology when people build their entire identity around a kind of signalling of their good qualities”
The danger of virtue signalling identity being driven by bad incentives (e.g. maximising the number of Twitter followers)
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”