“The Weight of Empathy” – author Lucas Spiegel – Sentientism Episode 107

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

Lucas studied and practiced architecture in the U.S., Canada, and India before leaving it all behind in an effort to rethink what it is to live a meaningful life. Since then he’s traveled the world, started a philanthropic enterprise, Haven Hearts, and written a beautiful, compassionate book. Along the way he enjoys playing frisbee, making things with his hands, and befriending every dog who crosses his path.

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.” In addition to the video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple and here elsewhere.

We discuss:
00:00 Welcome

01:15 Lucas’ Intro – author & social enterprise entrepreneur

  • Architecture, travelling, volunteering, writing “The Weight of Empathy”, benefitting the world

03:28 What’s Real?

  • Non-religious parents, “recovering Catholic” mother, father from a Jewish family
  • Raised as a child on a “hippy” commune
  • “From the moment I knew the word I probably identified as an atheist”, but not anti-theist
  • Some “woo-woo” spirituality. Tarot cards, divination, magic
  • Open minded, rational, scientific way of thinking
  • Experimenting w/levitation & telekinesis “It was not very successful”
  • Religious inspiration in art/culture. Community & separation
  • Where people turn to for explanations of the unexplainable
  • Alan Watts & Daoism
  • Hallucinogenics & mushrooms
  • A “hybrid rationalist spiritual view”
  • Carl Sagan
  • “There’s an inherent quality in matter… that is self-organising”
  • From interstellar dust to stars to elements to life to sentience
  • “Sentient beings are a way for the universe to observe itself”
  • “Maybe if you took mushrooms you’d describe the same things in a different way”
  • Teleology, fine tuning argument & the anthropic principle
  • Multiple worlds

29:34 What & Who Matters?

  • Sensitive, pacifistic tendencies
  • Communism (Russian family history), justice, equality
  • An affinity with non-human animals (dogs, cats & wild animal)
  • Loving the family chickens, but eating them. “These were chickens I knew”
  • Inventing a justifying narrative as a child that humans need to eat the meat of animals because “we’re made of meat”
  • Previous guest Frans de Waal on empathy
  • “Even most serial killers love their mothers”
  • Raised with universal human consideration
  • Reading Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation”
  • Vegetarian at 13/14, vegan at 16 yrs old
  • “Over time I’ve come to associate eggs less with nice food… & more with chickens & the experience those chickens go through”
  • “If my primary association with an animal product is the animal themself then it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice not to eat them”.
  • “I’m a Sentientist but probably not as strictly as you are” Broader value?
  • Do beauty/complexity have value independently of the minds of sentient beings?
  • Sentientism as “ethical guard rails”?
  • Would you destroy a galaxy teeming with insentient life to avoid stubbing your toe?
  • Challenges of assessing sentience
  • Is thinking of sentience as binary like a religious belief in souls?
  • Grading, multi-dimensional sentience?
  • Jonathan Safran Foer & generosity & prudence
  • Plant behaviour & communications
  • Insect sentience
  • Ahimsa & visiting the vegetarian city of Palitana
  • The Jain approach of assessing sentience by the number of senses
  • Danger of judging sentience by “how like humans?”
  • Adrian Tchaikovsky’s sci-fi & octopus/spider/AI/alien sentience
  • Peter Watt’s Blindsight (previous guest)

01:09:27 How Can We Make a Better World?

  • The “Carnage” documentary as a vision for the future @Simon Amstell
  • Volunteering on a nudist banana farm
  • Acceptance of veganism
  • Alternative products & cultivated meat
  • “The landscape is shifting very quickly”
  • Making friends with a Thai water buffalo
  • Mum going plant-based, then being freed to go vegan “an awakening”
  • “She left the butcher’s store & wept on the sidewalk”
  • The need for moral clarity (vs. incidental environmental/health arguments) & “coming to terms with that reality”
  • Animals’ perspectives as victims are ignored
  • “People don’t know how to talk about it [ethics & animal farming]”
  • The self-righteous, militant vegan trope
  • “We can’t just run away from the conversation”
  • Wild & farmed animal sanctuaries “How transformed I was”
  • Learning to understand pigs’ vocalisations “a contented squeak”
  • Peepal sanctuary & our “suffering footprint”
  • Leaving architecture to try to do more good in the world
  • “If others suffer for me to live then my life is not mine alone”
  • Toxic masculinity & patriarchy “it’s mostly men who are doing these things”
  • “Real Men”… seeing “empathy & kindness as forms of weakness”
  • “For the first time since I was an idealistic teenager I’m starting to have some hope that it’s within our grasp to make the world a much better place”

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

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Thanks Graham for the post-production.

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