“A Philosophy for the Science of Animal Consciousness” – Walter Veit – Sentientism Ep:158

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

Walter is an interdisciplinary scientist, philosopher and writer focusing on biology, minds and ethics. He publishes the ‘Science and Philosophy‘ series on Psychology Today and Medium. Much of his recent work has focused on animal minds, welfare, and ethics, as well as evolution. His new book ‘⁠A Philosophy for the Science of Animal Consciousness⁠‘ integrates this research into a coherent whole.

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 Taster clips!

01:02 Welcome

02:22 Book Launch: A Philosophy for the Science of Animal Consciousness

03:40 Walter’s Intro

– Peter Godfrey-Smith & Paul Griffiths

– Heather Browning (previous guest!)

– “An evolutionary, non-anthropocentric approach”

– “A lot of the denial of pain [e.g. fish, crustaceans, octopuses] has rested on a very #anthropocentric position”

– Some animals have different eyes vs. humans but that doesn’t mean they can’t see. The same applies re: the architectures underpinning consciousness

– “what animal lives are like… what kinds of subjective experiences would be useful for them to have from a #Darwinian perspective”

– Studying consciousness “as a natural phenomenon… rather than… as a human phenomenon”

– Did human social contexts (barter, trade, co-operation, agreements) lead to us having more abstract cognitive facilities?

– Modern discoveries re: advanced cognitive and social capabilities in non-human animals (e.g. corvids, octopuses)

10:53 A Darwinian Perspective

– #DanielDennett “Complexity matters – but what kind of complexity”

– IIT & Higher Order Theory

– Brain hemispheres operating more independently. Two separate streams of experience?

– Theories of consciousness that are untestable or fail to make predictions

– #Panpsychism, #illusionism 

– “The Darwinian bottleneck”

– “Philosophers very rarely ask the question ‘where does the mind come from?'”

– “In order to understand how it works we’ll need to understand why it evolved”

– “We can only understand what consciousness is by understanding how it evolved”

– Evolution & development processes

– #Epiphenomena

– Marian Dawkins

– “This attitude that anything goes in the literature… it doesn’t seem like we’re making any progress… we’re just creating new outlandish views without having any means of trying to filter them out… like panpsychism”

– JW: “It’s very common for people to say ‘we know nothing about consciousness’ which I find a bizarre statement”

– “We’ve made so much scientific progress”

– “There are some mental properties that are unique to humans but it’s very unclear those are the ones that matter for moral purposes”

20:31 The Origins of Sentience & Consciousness

– “It is adaptationist… very complex phenomena don’t just appear out of nowhere… They almost always have a functional role. They’re not just spandrels…”

– “Consciousness is just far to complex and evolutionarily fine tuned for that to happen”

– “In our own experience we can see how well it helps us… even if it sometimes can misfire”

– The mistaken view that consciousness must be sharp-edged & binary, on or off

– “If you can’t explain how it can gradually come into existence you must believe that it has always been there” #panpsychism

– Quasi-consciousness & Dennett’s hemi-demi-semi minds “what might be in between”

– Wanting to apply crisp well bounded concepts (baldness, life, health, consciousness) to a messy reality

– “Philosophy suffers from this ambition… clear cut concepts that capture nature at its joints & can just carve it neatly”

– “When you look at sciences like biology, cognitive science, the boundaries are just far too messy… nature itself has unclear boundaries… there are gradations”

– Life histories, k and r species (reproductive strategies)

– Conceptual engineering “use the sciences to recover what makes sense about these folk concepts… but also revise them in light of the science just how we might have changed our  understanding of what matter or gravity means in light of modern physics”

– “Biologists have meaningful concepts like ‘species’ that aren’t perfectly clear cut – they’re still useful, real categories and we need them to understand the real world”

– “It makes more sense to have these fuzzy boundary concepts”

– The challenges of comparing the welfare or sentience of different species

– “I’ve argued that the origins of this minimal consciousness probably arose at the beginnings of the Cambrian 541 million years ago… this explosion of different animal forms of life – much more complex body plans”

– “Sentience – as a kind of capacity for evaluation – enabled organisms to have an efficient means to deal with action selection… a common currency for valuation that is akin to fitness.”

– “Once we have that you can add more legs, arms, more complex sensory organs… they can almost immediately pay off… fitness benefits… it’s nicely integrated in this way”

– “A teleonomic direction of function”

– Plant sentience? “They have this developmental plasticity but they’re not really engaging with action in this sense… there’s not really something like a decider”

– Animal life history strategies “Sentience as a tool for agents to make better decisions”

33:02 Pathological Complexity

– The Pathological Complexity thesis “consciousness evolved to help organisations deal with the complexity they’re faced with

– State-based behavioural life history theory, trade-offs and problem solving

– “When you think about utility as something that helps organisms to solve decision problems in their own lives in each and every moment then you can see how… we got from these basic Darwinian design trade-offs to organisms themselves requiring something like a proximate common currency which they themselves use to make decisions… agency gradually becoming more complex… organisms become less object like – more like subjects”

– Getting rid of the explanatory gap between objects and subjects

35:28 Panpsychism & Philosophy of Mind

– JW: The “But why does it have to feel like something?” challenge

– “Consciousness is just what it feels like from the inside to have these very complex evaluative mechanisms that require this common currency”

– “It’s in principle possible to have similar mechanisms that could do a similar thing without sentience – it’s just a matter of fact that sentience evolved”

– Walter & Heather’s wedding plans!

38:50 Welfare ranges and comparing animal species

– “Maybe across evolutionary time humans will become less hedonic and become more abstract”

– “In many of the dimensions of consciousness humans are way worse [than other species]… perhaps some animals have greater hedonic capacities… maybe an elephant can experience greater extent of pleasure and pain.”

– Rejecting the “scala natura” with humans at the top

– “That gives us even more reasons to protect animals – their hedonic capacities are not that far off from humans’”

– Assessing welfare ranges based on how complex the economic decision problems are that different animals face

– “This capacity [sentience/consciousness] costs something”

– From simple sentience to more-complex, representational, multi-dimensional sentience

– Walter’s appearance on the “Do Explain” podcast debating someone who thinks only “knowledge producing” humans are sentient

– Consciousness can be very basic. It doesn’t require rich memory, self-awareness…

– Akrasia and weakness of will “for animals perhaps this conflict doesn’t occur so much”

47:55 The 5 Dimensions of Consciousness

– Birch/Clayton/Schnell paper “study – the different components of experience”

– 5 dimensions: Evaluative / sensory / selfhood (e.g. embodied cognition) / synchronic unity / temporal unity

– Selfhood: “You wouldn’t want to eat your leg because it tastes so good”

– Fishes / reptiles / birds & lateralised brains & split brain human patients

– Could there be multiple consciousnesses inside our brains? “It’s at least conceptually possible…” but our brains have evolved to be fairly unified

– Aphantasia, memory and post-traumatic stress disorder “they wouldn’t be able to re-live those experiences”

– “It’s a big mistake to think about human consciousness as ‘the perfect way consciousness could be organised’”

– Neurodiversity

– “I sometimes feel like I am less connected to my past selves” [due to aphantasia]

– Getting rid of the “lights on or off” view of consciousness

– Unity features (synchrony and temporal) are “latecomers” to consciousness

1:00:29 Artificial Sentience & Consciousness

– Could the characteristics of biological “wetware” (water based transports, electrical storms…) mean we can’t get conscious machines?

– “I think it would be entirely possible to build these kinds of robots”

– Substrate neutrality and universal computation

– Pathological complexity “it needs to be connected to biology… the goal-directed teleonomic complexity organisms are facing.” But more broadly it’s about trade-offs and goals regardless of substrate

– “In a machine case… we have at least one advantage – we clearly know what their ultimate goal is and how they’re designed to achieve that” (although deep learning systems are more opaque!)

– Moravec’s paradox “what we thought would be really hard for AI to solve (e.g. chess)… they would be the most difficult tasks… it turns out they were really easy… however we still struggle to build robots that can walk”

– “Those abilities that natural selection fine-tuned oved much longer timescales are actually the much harder ones to solve”

– AI researchers not realising how complex animal action is

– JW: Universal computability and Turing machines “can compute anything”

– JW: “Ultimately even embodiment is just different streams of information inputs that arguably you could simulate even in an artificial environment”

– “Creating the kind of body that’s similar to the bodies that animals have to deal with will be integral to get to the kind of experience… similar to animals… We might create minds that are very different from how any living systems experience the world”

– Potential future book: “A Philosophy for the Science of AI Consciousness”

– “For the tasks we typically want to use AI for I think subjective experience wouldn’t add anything”

– Mind uploading & digital replica people

– “A lot of different kinds of minding in this multi-dimensional space… where machines might occupy spaces extremely far away from the human mind… it might not even make sense to think of the same concept any more… but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t require moral protection or moral rights”

– “In order to build sentient machines we would have to require this hedonic common currency… as we can say in the human case this capacity is actually pretty bad to deal with long term problems”

– AI systems “are designed to provide the best solutions no matter how long it takes to compute them… which is very different from the animal problem of coming up with a solution as quickly as possible in order not to be killed…”

– JW: “You can have goals without sentience, you can solve problems without sentience, you can be intelligent without sentience”

– JW: Not accidentally or deliberately “putting sentience into these artificial minds until we understand how to ensure they have good lives & experiences”

– A sentient system that only experiences degrees of positive valenced experience?

– An AI welfare science field? Similar to animal welfare science?

1:17:25 Other Evolutionary Views of Consciousness

– Ginsburg, Jablonka’s UAL (Unlimited Associative Learning) vs. Pathological Complexity “they think of consciousness as too rich… I focus on evaluative experience”

– Mark Solms (previous guest ep 112) & Friston’s Free Energy Principle “I don’t really see how it does anything to explain why sentience is here… it’s this very general framework… the free energy principle is so abstract it doesn’t really tell us anything about the neural architecture of consciousness… it deliberately tries to abstract from that. Organisms don’t just try to minimise their predictive error (dark caves)… organisms are fundamentally interested in pursuing fitness maximisation… the FEP is almost like a rival to Darwinism… another very abstract principle… I don’t see why we should move away [from Darwinism]”

– “My approach here is most closely associated with Michel Cabanac… argued that pleasure would constitute a kind of common currency of evaluation… a kind of abstraction… that attached values to different things”

– Underwater life, like flying, may be more complex than land based life (up and down dimension!)

– “We might find some interesting parallels between swimming animals and flying animals…” (e.g. dolphins & sea birds that travel over long distances with brain hemispheres taking turns sleeping)

– The risk of “Just So” stories in evolutionary psychology and biology vs. “real evidence” from life histories

– Peter Godfrey-Smith “focused too much on interaction and the sensory side… don’t recognise how complex action itself is – it’s almost taken for granted”

– “Perhaps the reason we don’t have robots that can engage with the world flexibly is because they don’t have a common currency”

1:25:51 Science & Philosophy & Minds & Humanity

– Philosophy: theories, intuitions, consistency

– Natural science: empirical investigations & scientific accounts

– Status quo bias re : animal agriculture, enslavement “we want to seem to ourselves like the good guy in the story” vs. questioning everything we do

Peter Singer episode

– Disregarding activists as extreme/irrational

– “In virtue of studying animal consciousness… we can raise more empathy”

– Understanding positive mental states not just negative. Doing more than just mitigating suffering

– The suffering of calf separation “if it’s even remotely close to that [the human experience] it seems like a terrible thing to do”

– “Factory farming will probably be illegal – at least in some countries… stronger and stronger welfare constraints”

– The possibility of “happy farms” where animals may live better lives than in the wild?

– The importance of freedom and “natural lifestyles” to animals vs. suffering/flourishing experiences?

– JW: Genuinely taking the other’s perspective, vs. allowing a positive welfare / happy farm story to justify continued farming & killing of animals that want to live with their families

– Welfare improvements as a tactic towards abolition vs. becoming dead ends (e.g. rebranding animal farming as “humane” and “sustainable”)

– JW: “There is no imperative to continue doing these things [animal farming] at all – there just is an alternative [plant food systems]”

– “We just have to try to create more empathy for animals – move away from this humanist perspective”

– “Morality not just being about humans – but about any systems that have interests”

– October conference re: “Ethics, Animals & AI”

– Could AI be used to exploit animals even further or to help them?

– Speciesist biases could be removed in AI “such that they come to care about the animal case”

– JW: “I’m not sure we’re setting a great example to powerful AI about how to treat less powerful sentient beings”

– JW: Science, philosophy and common sense views (despite inertia of social norms) seem to be converging re: animal sentience and seeing needless harm/killing as wrong “who would want to needlessly cause harm?”

– Experimental philosophy. Volk notions of sentience and consciousness

– Getting to know a pig as a child, then realising its flesh had been served for a family meal “In retrospect – that’s a bit horrific… if you were to tell kids…”

– “For humans that have eaten meat for decades it’s much harder to switch… but for children”

– Showing farming processes to kids “is it better to traumatise someone than have someone kill animals”

– JW: “If it’s too horrific to show to children it’s probably too horrific to do”

– Nicola Clayton’s corvid lab

– Combining science and philosophy “there’s far too little of that”

– “Philosophers can do probably the most good by trying to look at these different scientific disciplines that don’t really talk to each other”

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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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