“Are Panpsychism, Veganism and Sentientism Compatible?” – A Sentientist Conversation with Philosopher Luke Roelofs

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

Luke ( & Majestic Equality) is a philosopher of mind at the Centre for Mind, Brain & Consciousness at New York University. Although Luke works primarily on philosophy of mind & metaphysics, their areas of interest include ethics, social & political philosophy, early modern philosophy and philosophy of gender & sexuality. Their book, “Reason, Empathy, and the Minds of Others” is under contract with Oxford University Press.

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.” As well as the video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple and here on the other platforms​​​​​​.

We discuss:
0:00 Welcome

1:32 Luke’s Intro – Philosophy of Mind

  • Linking epistemology (how can we know) and ethics
  • Empathy
  • Consciousness as “the state that we’re in whenever we’re aware of anything… and any possible variation… of states like that”

3:41 What’s Real?

  • Growing up fairly non-religious, but not anti-religious
  • Talking to “modern” Christians who focused on “the spirit of Jesus’ ethos”
  • Seeking out more forthright religious perspectives
  • Being a fairly convinced atheist since 14 yrs
  • “There’s very little evidential weight in the specific claims of religious revelation”
  • The idea the universe was contrived by a benevolent being… doesn’t seem supported by the very morally mixed character of existence
  • “The great majority of existence is neither good nor bad – it’s just dust in space”
  • Mysterious ways & ineffability
  • Theodicies as reminiscent of the excuses humans make for abuse
  • The “Just World” bias leads us to make excuses for suffering
  • Faith as belief without evidence or faith as trust in & loyalty to your group

14:00 What (and Who) Matters?

  • Going vegetarian. “There was something weird about eating animals”
  • Going vegan at 13-14 to spite an annoying person who pointed out the logical inconsistency of being vegetarian
  • “Fine… just to spite you I’m going to be vegan”
  • Most potential changes in my beliefs wouldn’t change my moral beliefs
  • Morality as a somewhat autonomous domain of reasoning
  • The epistemology of imagination (of our own future states, or those of other sentient beings) as the link to ethics
  • “Any argument will fail against someone who says ‘what if I don’t care about logical consistency'”
  • The evolution of morality. The explosion of human intelligence, maybe through social needs?
  • Empathy as a side-effect of the value of being able to predict the actions of other agents and maternal commitment
  • “I don’t think there’s any clear line that can be drawn that will separate humans from animals in a way that seems like it ought to be morally compelling”
  • More “advanced” human capabilities don’t unseat or supercede the more basic question about suffering or flourishing
  • “I don’t want to say that a human life and a mosquito life have equal value”
  • Degrees of sentience and degrees of moral value
  • Sentientism’s focus on the boundary of moral consideration
  • The potential convergence between ecocentric, biocentric and sentiocetric perspectives (e.g. re: animal farming and the environment)
  • “I had philosophy books instead of social skills”
  • “Arguments led to behaviour changes… I get the impression that’s not all that common among more normal people”

34:15 Panpsychism & Metaphysics

  • “All things are conscious in the exact proportion to their physical complexity – down to even the simplest physical things which have some unimaginably simple conscious state.”
  • Broad Sentientism (consciousness of any sort – pervasive) & Narrow Sentientism (capacity to experience suffering/flourishing – generally animals)
  • “We may have a better intuitive grip on which things can have pleasure and suffering than on which things are conscious per se”
  • “I understand other minds by reference to my own mind”
  • Suffering, pleasure or desire?
  • Plant sentience? “There doesn’t seem to be anywhere in a tree that puts everything together”
  • Workspace integration & attention. Plants don’t seem to have either. They just have stimulus-reponse pairing
  • If there is some type of plant experience it’s importantly different to that of animals
  • Animals do have pleasure & displeasure because they have a nervous system that centralises & compares & integrates sensory input because they have a body that moves
  • Sentient wholes & parts
  • A system could be conscious but also have sub-systems that are in themselves conscious
  • Micro-minds and the combination problem. Luke’s “Combining Minds” book
  • Some non-materialists claim “the mind can’t have parts.” An indivisible and immaterial soul?
  • “Trying to have my cake and eat it too” – seeing value in the integration of a system as well as it’s constituent parts
  • Is too much ecocentrism and environmentalism a veneer over anthropocentrism? Maybe that’s unfair as many people do seem to have a genuine environmental concern
  • “Maybe I love the biosphere because on some level I was always recognising its structure as an expression of some sort of sentience that I value.”
  • “Philosophy is always playing catch up”
  • “The cold light of day is not always the best light”
  • Illusionism, Keith Frankish and Daniel Dennett
  • Consciousness and sentience as biologically evolved classes of information processing?
  • “Dennettian Panpsychism” and the convergences between panpsychism and materialist monisms (together against dualism)
  • “There’s no consciousness but information processing” vs. “Consciousness is just what information processing is”
  • The challenges of terminology re: consciousness
  • “Illusionism feels like it’s left something out re: my experience”
  • “If I weren’t a panpsychist I might well be a materialist of some fairly aggressive sort.” Other panpsychists prefer dualism as a second option
  • “Woo” vs. more materialistic versions of panpsychism

1:01:36 Philosophy and The Future

  • Human psychology
  • Supernaturalism and anthropocentrism as “kryptonite” for otherwise careful thinkers
  • “There are a lot of vegan philosophers”
  • Intellectual workers need to be able to disconnect from real-life implications. That can be valuable but it can also block positive behaviour changes
  • “The history of progressive movements is full of people who endorse high-sounding ideas but that need a push when it comes to acting”
  • Animal liberation is really hard because there’s no one who both can advocate and has a self-interested stake – that makes progress slower
  • Justice, solidarity and co-operation – facilitated by tech progress and higher standards of living and interpersonal connection
  • Optimistic about the long-run, but we might not have a “long-run”
  • If humans manage to get it to get to solve collective action problems (e.g. climate change) in time…
  • Otherwise, environmental and resource pressure could dangerously undercut co-operation
  • Populism, authoritarianism, nationalism, Trump and Netanyahu. Are we re-playing a lot of early 20th century history? Capitalist over-optimism leads to a collapse and reacitonary, even fascist movements?
  • Capitalism is in some ways an improvement – but it also has a potential for global control and subsuming our social functions within it
  • The danger of becoming too enamoured with the idea of progress per se. We need to see the real risks of new scientific ideologies. E.g. Eugenics was conceived as a positive idea, then used for horrific ends
  • We need to struggle for empathy, equality and liberation
  • Listen to those who are being oppressed, often through the intersections of different oppressions
  • The need for a combination of naturalism and sentiocentric compassion
  • “Majestic Equality” – “High ideals can easily be very empty if they’re not informed by attention to people’s concrete social position.”

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at​​​​​​​​​​​​​. Join Luke on our “I’m a Sentientist” wall using this simple form​.

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Thanks Graham for the post-production.

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