Although I don’t think trees feel, I share your feelings about trees, Simon.

And whether or not they are feeling, plants are certainly living; and treating them like inert materials feels wanton.

Not to mention the dependence on them of all life — sentient and insentient.

Life is a product of evolution — Dawkins’s “Blind Watchmaker” — who is blind not just in the sense of lacking foresight and design, but in lacking moral sense (or any sense).

Evolution is merciless, psychopathic. Life feeds on itself, literally.

And although no one knows what the causal function of sentience is (the very query has been dubbed “the hard problem.” it is indisputable that sentience evolved, hence it must have conferred adaptive advantages.

The advent of sentience was also the advent of suffering.

But the advent also of compassion, at least in some sentient species — chiefly, I think, the mammals and birds and other species that did not just split in order to reproduce, like microbes, or lay and leave countless eggs, like turtles, but spawned only a few helpless (“altricial”) young that had to be cared for to survive. Thus was empathy born — and that “mind-reading” ability that is perhaps the most acute in our own species, paradoxically the most monstrous as well as the most merciful of them all.

So it’s a complex problem on which you are embarking, Simon, in pleading for mercy for trees. Not the “hard problem,” but a heart-rending one, coupled as it is with the fate of all living creatures, suffering or not.

Moral Necessity

“gastronomically necessary”? 
On Tom Nagel’s review of Christine Kosgaard’s book, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals.
Philosophers’ make commendable (but unavailing) efforts to rationalize (and even formalize) morality.
It’s all much simpler than all this, but I haven’t the time to sketch it long-hand.
The only biological necessity (vital interest) is survival and freedom from suffering.
it is sentient living organisms who have vital interests.
There can be conflicts between the vital interests of different sentients (e.g, predator and prey).
The only moral imperative is to not cause unnecessary suffering.
Taste is not a vital interest.


When I was 9 or 10, I used to feel sorry for bus transfers and candy-wrappers. I felt it was wrong to throw them in the garbage as if — as if they were just objects. So my mother kept a drawer in her office in which I could put them. They grew for several years, until I realized what I had really been feeling. I became a vegetarian when I turned 17, and told my mother she could empty that drawer now. But it was only in 2012, when I was 67, that I became a vegan and realized what I should be doing — and what I should really have been doing, all along.
Anthropomorphism — natural in children — is what makes humans humane. Easily cultivated, easily ignored, easily snuffed out.

Trump’s Korean Kaklomacy

One finds oneself almost — but not quite — wishing that Trump’s Korean kaklomacy fizzles. But one must suppose, I suppose, that nuclear war is a greater menace than the metastasis of Trump’s vulgar, ignorant, infantile, egocentric, amoral and anarchic buffoonery.


Explaining Feeling

All we have to do… is to define ‘consciousness’ explicitly to mean what you call ‘feeling’ (I usually use the word ‘experience’ to avoid ‘conscious’, and define ‘experience’ accordingly). We know what we mean!

A conscious/mental/experiential/phenomenological/subjective state is a state that it feels like something to be in. Hence I prefer to stick to feeling: its much the simplest, most direct and face-valid descriptor.

I think [stones] may be constituted of experientiality.

It feels like something to be a stone? (Or a part of a stone?)

I can even accept ‘decorative’. I understand this to mean that classical zombies are logically possible even though Kirk zombies aren’t.

I think leptons, stones, toasters — and probably also microbes and plants — are zombies. But I can’t explain how and why we (sometimes) aren’t. (It never feels like anything to be them, but it [sometimes] feels like something to be us.) (“Decorative” because we cannot explain feeling’s function.)

Mistake to think [feeling] is a theoretical ‘cost’, for [1] radical emergence is a greater theoretical cost, [2] non-feeling reality is already a cost, because it’s a unwarranted theoretical posit.

I have no problem with molecules and stones and toasters and microbes and plants being zombies. Nothing to explain. Their states are unfelt. I have enormous problems explaining how or why other organisms are not zombies too. But they’re not. Having (genetically coded) traits is surely more costly than not having them.

the biologist doesn’t need an explanation for the very existence of feeling, and has an excellent explanation for the existence of feeling tuned to serve adaptive purposes.

I have yet to hear that adaptive explanation; if (as I believe) feeling is a biological trait, it does need a causal (adaptive) explanation.

One useful terminological option here is to define ‘mind’ in such a way that feeling doesn’t entail mind (see e.g. Russell, perhaps also Damasio) … feeling is v low-level, mind is essentially useful in some way

Hi or lo, I see no causal explanation of this “usefulness.” It’s doings, and the capacity for doing them, that are useful. And if a state is not felt, I have no idea what is meant by calling it mental (and vice versa).

[feeling is physicists’] problem insofar as they propose to offer a general theory of concrete reality

It seems to me feeling’s just biologists’ problem, just as, say, digestion or photosynthesis is. No new physics there.

[functing, ordinary causal explanation, whether in physics or in biology] doesn’t explain the existence of non-feeling matter … to explain that, one would need to answer the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing’?

Here I show my non-metaphysicians’ pedestrianism: Try as I might, I can’t help but feel that that sort of onticism is otiose.

the view that consciousness is everywhere but isn’t all there is) is [1] independently motivated and [2] explains this for free. Biological evolution sometimes produces an organism O that is not simply made of feeling stuff, in such a way that it (O) isn’t itself a subject of experience, but is also itself a subject of experience, be it is adaptive.

Unfortunately, to my naive realists’ ears this sounds more speculative (and complicated) than explicative. Shouldn’t the explanans be simpler than the explanandum? All I wanted was to know how and why (some) organisms (sometimes) feel rather than just funct!

Aesthetics and Adaptation

It’s not really adaptationist selection vs (female) aesthetic selection. The best way to understand it is to set aside birds and birdsong and plumage and vision and hearing and sexual selection and just consider (gustatory) taste:

What is an organism, and what is “environment”? We feel like eating because we feel hungry. It feels like something to be hungry, and it feels like something to slake your hunger on food you can consume. (These are called the proximal stimuli.) So we have a taste for the nutritious and an aversion for the toxic. But things come in degrees and variety. So an organism’s taste co-evolves with what’s available in the environment, and that co-evolution includes Baldwinian evolution (evolved propensity to learn and do things that did us good): we discover fire and cooking, we accidentally burn some food, it tastes good to our current (evolved) taste-detectors; then this opens up many new targets for eating that would not have been edible if raw; we start to experiment with cooking them, and even cultivating them, and we manage to feed ourselves better and more, and our tastes change because of this change, to adapt to the new landscape we’ve created. But there’s no adaptive advantage to the (vegan) lentil soup I happen to prefer over fried tofu. Nor to Beethoven over Spohr (at least until Trump de-funds and stigmatizes Beethoven and subsidizes social events and performances featuring Spohr, and his successor dynasty of presidents, Ivanka, Barron, et al., keep following suit, promoting and rewarding the preference…)

With birdsong and plumage, it’s two genders doing the tango. The “environment” for the male is the female’s current preference mechanism; the “environment” for the female is the male’s current anatomical and performance resources. Of course they keep co-evolving. But it’s not adaptationist pragmatics versus arbitrary subjective aesthetics. The current “tastes” are just a rough, provisional (evolved) preference mechanism, grounded in its adaptiveness, but leaving lots of degrees of freedom, flexibility for evolution and co-evolution. (Including learned taste preferences — which can then go on to become inborn dispositions, by Baldwinian evolution…)

Two principles I’ve noticed with evolution: Natural selection does not like to make behavior too rigid, nor even to pre-encode much of it. If anything can be off-loaded on predictable environmental cues rather than being inflexibly encoded in the genes, it will be. That means that at any particular time there is a lot of variety, genetically and behaviorally. This is evident already in the huge genetic variance among individuals (and its ultimate advantages, in the long run); recombinant DNA itself. It’s evident in neoteny, where evolution, rather than being driven only or mainly by mutations, often just capitalizes on the existing variation, for example, accelerating or slowing existing developmental patterns if they prove useful.

So there’s an adaptive bottom line, but a lot of the actual action is in the available run-time degrees of freedom.

The key is to remember that female tastes are not sui generis: They were shaped (roughly) by adaptive consequences, but with a lot of wiggle room. The wiggle room we call, among other things, aesthetics.

Michael Ryan and Sarah Wooley might be touching on some of this at The other minds problem: animal sentience and cognition

The Unpardonable: Can You Face It?

Is there anything on earth that could justify this monstrous cruelty? that could excuse doing this to countless innocent, terrified creatures every single day? for the taste? for the taste? shame. shame and horror.

A short life of relentless misery, deprivation, fear and pain, followed by a cramped 2-day transport nightmare of starvation, thirst, cold, injury and terror, to face a final paroxysm of horror and pain as the price for release from the man-made hell inflicted on them from birth — because we must have our bacon, our ham, our rib, our pork chop.

By scale, this is already humanity’s greatest crime. 10,000 per day at Fearman’s alone, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Global Information and Disinformation in the Online Era

<img width=’300′ height=’225′ border=’0′ hspace=’5′ align=’right’ src=’/~totl/skywritings/uploads/chomsky2.jpg’ alt=” /><blockquote>Re: <a href=”″>The West’s Leftist Male ‘Intellectuals’ Who Traffic in Genocide Denial, From Srebrenica to Syria</a> (Oz Katerji, <i>Haaretz</i>)</blockquote>I have no idea about all this. Although I am suspicious about journalists’ (sometimes unconscious yet systematic) complicity in state agendas (which Chomsky has repeatedly exposed), the Serbian genocides have all the hallmarks of having been real (though I suspect all sides would have done likewise, if they had had a chance).

I think the attributions of “conspiracy theory” to Chomsky sound suspiciously shrill. It sounds like there’s an agenda at work here (in this Haaretz article) too.

I do agree that some (perhaps a lot) of Chomsky’s following is cult-like. But that may be true of all activism. (I see it in the animal movement too.)

And I never understood how Chomsky managed to be so well-informed about US/UK crimes, but he was. It would be a disappointment if his uncanny spider-like global vigilance had fallen prey to misinformation (together with wishful thinking) but it may occasionally have happened. He has admitted other errors (such as endorsing the work of a Nazi holocaust denier) so I don’t think he himself is in the grip of a cult — but he is by now 88 and statistics suggest cognitive decline is increasing in likelihood just as the the global plot is increasing in complexity and subterfuge in an unprecedented era of mass networked rumor and disinformation, including state disinformation.

I just don’t know; perhaps one no longer can.

Animal Suffering: The Elephant in the Room

Prominent cognitive scientist (name deleted):
Infuriating panel! I have a question for Marian Dawkins (and maybe for you, Stevan….). What does she do when a mosquito lands on her arm? A wasp? When a rat chews through the basket in her garage and eats her expensive, heritage seeds for next year’s garden? When a deer eats all her greens? When a coyote kills her pet cat?”

Your question is not for Marian Dawkins, who is a steady, nonconfrontational welfarist, focussed on reducing some of the suffering of the victims of animal production by trying to appeal to its possible benefits for the producers and consumers (rather than for the victims). That’s why Marian says she is not trying to claim animals are (or are not) conscious: because that approach is unconvincing to skeptics and it has not led (by Marian’s lights) to much progress in improving animals’ lot, either in production or in the wild.

(Marian attributes this to the problem of trying and failing to solve — to the satisfaction of consciousness-skeptics — what has been dubbed the “hard problem” of consciousness. But what Marian really meant was solving the other-minds problem to the satisfaction of other-minds-skeptics.)

(Although Dave Chalmers did baptize the “hard problem,” giving it a name, he did not, of course, invent the problem and his own comment — that Marian was right to cite the “hard problem” because the other-minds problem in fact follows from the hard-problem — was just Dave’s opinion. And in my opinion, this is easily shown to be wrong: Because even if we had a highly reliable “cerebroscope” for diagnosing which organisms are sentient, and when, the “hard problem” (of explaining, causally, how and why biological tissue generates feeling, rather than just generating function), would still remain unsolved, and would still remain just as hard.)

The “hard problem” is neither an ethical problem nor an animal-welfare problem. It is a problem of causal explanation. The problem for ethics and welfare is the other-minds problem. And solving it, by determining which organisms are sentient, and when, would not solve the ethical/welfare problem, because you still have to convince people that causing animal suffering matters, and needs to be acted upon.

My own answer to the question you raise about mosquitos and wasps — (it came up here during the conference as the question about cockroaches and bedbugs) – was that while there is an elephant in the room (the monstrous suffering inflicted on animals needlessly — for food, fur, and fun — there is no point fretting about cockroaches and bedbugs (or about being attacked by a predator): In a vital conflict of interest between sentient organisms, where life and death or health is at stake, every member of every species can and should protect its own vital life/death/health interests. The cockroach/bedbug/predator “objection” is hence just deflectionary (rather like Trump’s responses to criticism). It’s just an attempt to deflect from the implication that we should stop hurting animals needlessly for food/fur/fun today, and that we should start that stopping in our own comfortable western consumer societies where every living, healthy vegan — like myself — is irrefutable evidence of the fact that the horrors are not necessary; they are not based on life/death/health needs for humans.

So forget about the cockroach/bedbug/predator worry. (Save it for a happier day.) Philosophers would call it sophistry – if it comes from a non-vegan. Coming from a vegan it is premature, like puzzling about Zeno’s Paradox instead of just crossing the room. When the whole world is vegan, only vital conflicts of life/death/health interests with no alternatives will justify hurting or killing another sentient being. But today, while the elephant is in the room, the cockroach question is otiose.

Worse, the whole discussion is focused entirely on WEIRD* people — a lot of the world is not weird.

By wierd you mean the lady who was distributing the pamphlets? She is just good-hearted, and shell-shocked by the unending horrors, rather than a philosopher or a scientist. My own hope is that the majority of human beings are potentially decent, like her, rather than self-interested sociopaths, bent only on holding onto their food/fur/fun perks, with otiose objections, oblivious to the real ongoing cost in needless blood and suffering to their animal victims, come what may.

I might add that nonhuman animals’ only hope is that most human beings, thanks to their mammalian (“K-selected”) heritage, with its evolved darwinian empathy and compassion for their own young, their kin and their kind, supplemented by the cognitive, social and cultural capacity to learn to do the right thing, by inhibiting and outlawing portions of their likewise darwinian legacy, such as infanticide, homicide, rape, slavery, subjugation torture — the hope that most of our kind have evolved the eyes and hearts that can be opened to the unspeakable agony we are inflicting on other species, on a mounting, monstrous scale.

If we are not potentially merciful in the face of the overwhelming evidence (which only ag-gag laws are currently concealing from our eyes and hearts) — if we are, instead, die-hard deplorables, clinging to our own orgasms oblivious to their cost in others’ agony, then of course the animals are lost, and the animal cause is hopeless. And that would perhaps have been the case if human beings, together with all their cognitive and linguistic capacities, rather than having been descendants along the mammalian (K-selected) line, had descended instead along the cold-blooded reptilian (“r-selected”) line from their last common ancestor with Donald Trump (who restored the right to import the trophies from elephant-hunts a few days ago, but has just been forced by the protests from decent mammalians to freeze his order for the time being).

Let me add that the other-minds problem, in this context, is not an abstract problem for philosophers pondering epistemic uncertainties (as we are doing in much of this conference). The other-minds problem is not even our problem. It is the problem of the other minds, the ones that are feeling the agony — while Descartes, wizard-of-oz-like, urges everyone to pay no attention to their screaming and struggles, they are just reflex robots, behaving as if they were feeling pain, but in reality just “nocicepting” without feeling a thing.

*My interlocutor pointed out afterward that by WEIRD he had meant Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic and that most of the world is not WEIRD. My reply: It is the well-off weirdos in the west who can and should take the first step when it comes to the elephant in the room. After all, they are also its biggest producers and consumers.

Singer is bored to death and ignores questions from the floor because he’s on his laptop….”

Since he wrote his book, Animal Liberation, in 1975, Peter Singer has done the most that any human being to date has ever done — especially as quantified by utilitarian calculations — to awaken the potential for human decency and to spur action in generations of human beings.

Although I cannot agree with Peter on everything — utilitarianism is an appeal to just the head, or a computer, rather than to the heart — I think that what is misperceived as “boredom” on Peter’s part is just the difference between the cerebral and the visceral — dare one call it the sentient? — approach to safeguarding the sentience of others.

The Other Minds Problem: Animal Sentience and Cognition

Institute for Cognitive Sciences Summer School, June 26 – July 6, 2018
Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada

Since Descartes, philosophers know that there is no way to know for sure what — or whether — others feel (not even if they tell you). Science, however, is not about certainty but about probability and evidence. The 7.5 billion members of the human species can tell us what they are feeling. But there are 9 million other species on the planet, from microbes to mammals, with which humans share biological and cognitive ancestry, but not one other species can speak: Which of them can feel — and what do they feel? Their human spokespersons — the comparative psychologists, ethologists, evolutionists, and cognitive neurobiologists who are the world’s leading experts in “mind-reading” other species — will provide a sweeping panorama of what it feels like to be an elephant, ape, whale, cow, pig, dog, chicken, mouse, fish, lizard, lobster, snail: This growing body of facts about nonhuman sentience has profound implications not only for our understanding of human cognition, but for our treatment of other sentient species.

Partial list of speakers who have accepted and confirmed to date:

Adamatzky, Andrew (UEW) slime mold cognition
Allen. Colin (Indiana) evolution of mind
Andrews, Kristin (York) animal mind
Balcombe, Jonathan (HSUS) fish intelligence
Baluska, Frantisek (Bonn) intelligence (and possibly sentience) in plants
Berns, Gregory (Emory) what it’s like to be a dog
Birch, Jonathan (LSE) the precautionary principle
Brosnan, Sarah (Georgia State) primate sociality
Burghardt, Gordon (Tennesee) reptile cognition
Chang, Steve (Yale) primate preferences
Chapman, Colin (McGill) primate social cognition
Chitka, Lars (Vienna) bee perception
Dukas, Reuven (Mcmaster) insect cognition
Giraldeau, Luc-Alain (UQÀM) dans l’oeil du pigeon
Hendricks, Michael (McGill) perception in c. elegans roundworms
Kelly, Debbie (Manitoba) corvid cognition
Marino, Lori (Whale Sanctuary Project) cetacean cognition
Mather, Jennifer (Lethbridge) cephalopod cognition
Mendl, Michael (Bristol) pig cognition
Ophir, Alexander (Cornell) vole social behavior
Oyama, Tomoko (McGill) sensation and cognition in drosophila
Phelps, Steve (Texas) social cognition across species
Plotnik, Joshua (Hunter) elephant mind
Pravosudov, Vladimir (Nevada) chickadee spatial cognition
Ratcliffe, John (Toronto) bat cognition
Reader, Simon (McGill.Ca) evolution of social learning
Reiss, Diana (Hunter) dolphin mind
Ryan, Mike (Texas.Edu) evolution of communication
Sakata, Jon (McGill) social learning in birdsong
Simmons, Jim (Brown) what is it like to be a bat?
TenCate, Carel (Leiden) avian cognition
Wise, Steven (NhRP) primate and proboscid personhood
Woolley, Sarah (McGill) perception and learning in songbirds
Young, Larry (Emory) prosocial behavior and oxytocin

All videos are here,  starting with Berns: