Age Quod Agendum (Est): Sentience and Causality

I had known about Sapolsky as a neuroendocrinologist and primatologist but had not (and have not) read his popular works. So I just looked at part of his latest podcast interview about the book he’s writing now about free will. It’s a self-help kind of book, as I suspect many of his books are. He writes about how all the genetic and experiential factors that influence what we do leave no room for free will, but that there’s still some “hope for change” because of the way that thinking, even though it is “determined,” can change brain states in ways that are not possible in other animals. I suspect this is wrong (about other animals) but it might well be another way of trying to counter depression about the feeling of helplessness. This is not the aspect of the question of free will that I (personally) find interesting. It’s the usual self-helpy, me-me obsession that not only such pop books are full of, and cater to, but I think it misses the point about what really matters, and that is not about me. 

But that’s just about me. As to free will, I agree with Sapolsky that there is no “independent” causal force – in the brain, or anywhere else – that influences the causal pattern of events. It’s all unfolding mechanically by cause and effect since the Big Bang. That it seems otherwise is probably just due to two things: 

(1) Uncertainty; there are many causal factors we don’t know and that cannot be known and predicted, so there are many “surprises” that can be interpreted as interlopers, including me and my “decisions”. The physicists say that uncertainty is not just that of statistical uncertainty (we can’t predict the weather or who will win the lottery, but not because it is not all causally determined, but just because we don’t know all the causal details); there’s supposedly also “quantum uncertainty” which is not just that we don’t know all the causal details but that some of the causal details are indeterminate: they somehow come out of nothing. (This could be true — or our understanding of quantum mechanics today may be incomplete. But in any case it has nothing to do with free will. It’s the same in all of the inanimate universe, and would have been the same even if there weren’t living, seemingly autonomous organisms — and especially one species that thinks it’s an exception to the causal picture).

(2) More important and relevant (at least in my understanding of the FW question) is the undeniable fact that FW is a feeling: Just as seeing red, hearing a loud sound, or feeling tired feels like something – and feels like something different from seeing green, hearing a faint sound or feeling peppy —  so stumbling because you lost your balance or because someone pushed you feels like something, and something different from doing it deliberately. And that same feeling (of “volition”) applies to everything you do deliberately, rather than inadvertently. That’s why I think the full-scale FW puzzle is already there in just a lowly Libet-style button press: deciding whether and when to do it, and, when you do, feeling as if “I” am the one who made it happen. It’s not a cosmic question, but a very local question, and, under a microscope, either a trivial one or, more likely, a special case of a much bigger unsolved puzzle, which is why do sentient organisms feel anything at all, whether redness, loudness, fatigue or volition? (In fact volition is the biggest puzzle, because the puzzle is a causal one, and sensations just happen to you, whereas voluntary action feels like something you are yourself causing.

The fact that there exist states that it feels like something to be in, is true, and sentient organisms all know what it feels like to feel. (That’s the only substantive part of Descartes’ “Cogito”.)

It’s also true that what has been lately dubbed the “hard problem” (but used to be called the “mind/body problem) is really just the problem of explaining, causally, why and how organisms feel. Darwinian evolution only requires that they be able to do, and be able to learn to do, whatever is needed to survive and reproduce. What is the causal contribution of feeling to the Darwinian capacities to do? What is the causal value-added of feeling? No one knows (though there are lots of silly hypotheses, most of them simply circular).

Well the FW problem (I think) is just a particular case of the hard problem of the causal role of feeling, probably the most salient case.

And it’s not the metaphysical problem of the causal power of sentient organisms’ “will” or “agency” (a misnomer) in the universe.  Organisms are clearly just causal components of the causal unfolding of the universe, not special ringers in the scheme of things.

But the puzzle remains of why they think (or rather feel) that they are – or, more generally, why they feel at all.

And that question is a causal one.

Intelligence and Empathy

“A family of wild boars organized a cage breakout of 2 piglets, demonstrating high levels of intelligence and empathy”

The capture as well as the breeding of other sentient beings for human uses are imprisonment and slavery – involuntary – and contrary to the biological imperatives of the victims. It is anthropocentric arrogance and aggression to presume that humans have a natural (or divine) right to inflict this on other sentient beings (except in cases of vital [not commercial or hedonic] conflict of biological imperatives, such as between biologically obligate carnivores and their prey).

La capture ainsi que l’élevage des autres êtres sentients pour les usages humains sont de l’emprisonnement et de l’esclavage — involontaires — à l’encontre des impératifs biologiques des victimes. C’est une arrogance et une agression anthropocentriques de présumer que les humains ont un droit naturel (ou divin) d’infliger cela à d’autres êtres sensibles (sauf en cas de conflit d’impératifs biologiques [pas les intérêts commerciaux ou hédoniques], comme entre les carnivores biologiquement obligés et leurs proies).

*IF* plants HAD feelings, how WOULD this affect our advocacy for animals?

That plants do feel is about as improbable as it is that animals (including humans) do not feel. (The only real uncertainty is about the very lowest invertebrates and microbes, at the juncture with plants, and evidence suggests that the capacity to feel depends on having a nervous system, and the behavioral capacities the nervous system produces.)

Because animals feel, it is unethical (in fact, monstrous) to harm them, when we have a choice. We don’t need to eat animals to survive and be healthy, so there we have a choice.

Plants almost certainly do not feel, but even if they did feel, we would have no choice but to eat them (until we can synthesize them) because otherwise we die.

Critique of Bobier, Christopher (2021) What Would the Virtuous Person Eat? The Case for Virtuous Omnivorism. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

Critique of What Would the Virtuous Person Eat? The Case for Virtuous Omnivorism

1. Insects and oysters have a nervous system. They are sentient beings and they feel pain.

2. It is not necessary for human health to consume sentient beings — not mammals, birds, reptiles, or invertebrates.

3. It is plants (and microbes) that do not have a nervous system and hence do not feel.

4. What is wrong is to make sentient beings suffer or die other than out of conflict of vital (life-or-death) interest.

5. Morality concerns, among other things, not harming other sentient beings.

The rest of the proposal of Christopher Bobier is unfortunately mere casuistry.

To help the victims of plant agriculture  for human consumption, perhaps strive instead to develop an agriculture that is more ecological and more merciful to the sentient beings who are entangled in mass consumption by the human population.

Instead of fallacies like the call to consume some sentient victims so as to give further sentient victims the opportunity to become victims, it might be more virtuous to consider reducing the rate of growth in the number of human consumers.

De la casuistique d’un «éthicien» concernant la « vertu»

1. Les insectes et les huitres ont un système nerveux. Ils sont des êtres sentients et ils ressentent la douleur.

2. Il n’est pas nécesaire à la santé humaine de consommer les êtres sentients — ni mammifère, ni oiseau, ni réptile, ni invertébré.

3. C’est les plantes (et les microbes) qui n’ont pas de système nerveux et donc ne ressentent pas.

4. Ce qui est mal, c’est de faire souffrir ou mourrir les êtres sentients sans nécessité vitale (conflit d’intérêt de vie ou de mort).

5. La moralité concerne, entre autres, ne pas faire mal aux autres êtres sentients.

Le reste du propos de ce « scientifique » n’est que du casuistique. 

Pour aider aux victimes de l’agriculture des plantes aux fins de la consommation humaine, lutter peut-être plutôt pour développer une agriculture plus écologique et plus miséricordieuse envers les êtres sentients qui sont empétrés dans la consommation de masse par la population humaine. 

Au lieu de sophismes comme l’appel à consommer des de victimes sentientes pour donner l’occasion à davantage de victimes sentientes à devenir victimes, il serait peut-être plus vertueux de songer à réduire le taux de croissance du nombre de consommateurs humains…

World Happiness Report

The Hygge ladder

I think it would be more informative to ask people:

  1. whether they or their loved ones have any (a) mild, (b) moderate, or (c) grave illnesses
  2. whether they or their loved ones do not have enough to eat for the foreseeable future
  3. whether they or their loved ones do not have a place to live for the foreseeable future
  4. whether they  or their loved ones are not free, or in danger of harm

If their reply to 1-4 is no, then they should forget the 10-point Hygge ladder and count themselves as happy (and consider helping those sentient beings whose reply to 1-4 is not no).

What Matters

she is my inner pig, 

the one I consult 

to ask 

whether whatever happens to be troubling me 

at the time

(a paper rejected, a grant application denied, a personal disappointment)


She has just arrived at Fearman’s 

at the end of days of transport,

her first glimpse of light, 

thirsty, frightened, 

after the brief eternity

of her 6-month lifetime, 


in the misery and horror 

of those bolted, shuttered, 

cramped, suffocating,


cylindroid tubes we keep noticing 

in what we had imagined

was an innocent pastoral countryside. 

Now she is 45 minutes 

before being brutally thrust into the CO2 chamber, 

and then the foul sabre

that will sever her larynx,

and the drop

into the scalding water

to disinfect her sullied flesh,

to make it worthy

of our plates and palates.

Her answer is always the same.

No, it does not matter.

None of that matters.

Save me.

My Inner Pig


SH: My provisional criterion for human “use” of nonhuman animals is based on whether something is necessary for (human) survival and health.

Some (but very far from all or even most) animal research may be necessary (the rest is just for curiosity, careerism, profit, incompetence)

 But (apart from the few remaining subsistence cultures (who have no choice). meat, fish, dairy and eggs are no longer necessary. (Just taste and habit)

Anon: ok, let’s provisionally accept that a lot of animal research may not be necessary, and that we could do without eating living sentient beings and be fine. there are still two questions to answer: 

i) who decides whether an animal study is justified, based on your criterion, and how? especially given that the future applications of basic research are often completely unpredictable. I am definitely in favor of guidelines and regulations for ethical choices in animal research, and I believe that most western countries implement such regulations. can you show how specifically these regulations violate your criterion?

SH: Yes I can: (1) the Precautionary Principle  and (2) the judgment of far, far broader and deeper oversight committees for grant proposals and animal research practices, those with strong (human) representation of nonhuman animal interests rather than just human interests. The current “guidelines and regulations for ethical choices in animal research” definitely do not do abide by (1) and (2). — And, yes, if asked, I (and many far more qualified animal advocates) would certainly be able to show how existing regulations – in practice, rather than just on paper – violate the criterion of necessity for (human) survival and health.

Anon: ii) why is eating diary and eggs unethical. this is not eating living sentient beings. I would accept the idea that some methods of farming cattle and chicken to produce milk and eggs may harm the animals. we need to change these. but if the farming is ethical, what is wrong with using these products? 

I am sure you have been asked these questions many times. but I am still curious to hear your opinion. 

SH: Yes, I — and many other animal advocates — have been asked these questions many times, and the two that you ask are natural and reasonable questions. (Some others are far more tendentious, and obviously motivated by cognitive dissonance and defensiveness rather than sincere humanitarian concerns.)

The simple answer about “benign” milk and eggs is that it does not scale. Everyone imagines buying a (rescue) cow or chicken, and providing a sanctuary in which she can live a happy, fulfilled life until the natural end of her days, while providing a little left-over milk or eggs to feed humans. This theoretical approach does not scale in any realistic way to the true global human demand for and use of milk and eggs, and of the animals from whose body they come. It is a self-deluding fantasy in practice.

I myself am guilty of having hidden behind this fantasy for almost fifty years, ever since I became a vegetarian on my 17th birthday (in 1962). And I am very deeply ashamed for it.

Across the years, when people asked me the question you asked, I used to reply with such a hypocritical sophistry that it makes me cringe every time I recall it: “Yes, animals suffer, in practice,  to provide us with their milk and eggs, but in principle they could provide it without suffering, whereas they could not provide us with their flesh without suffering. So I eat milk and eggs, but not meat and fish.”

I practiced this odious sophistry for decades – along with equally shameful quips, in response, at table, to concerned queries from fellow-diners as to whether it “bothers” me that they are eating meat with me: “No, « vive liberté ». Persuasion does not last: everyone has to decide for themselves.”

Then, 11 years ago, on March 10 2010, at a McGill symposium on Animal Law, when David Wolfson began his talk (on the unspeakable horrors of the dairy and egg industry, and their intimate entanglement with the meat industry) by addressing the vegetarians in the audience who imagine that in not eating meat they are not complicit in the horrors: David stated, simply, in a few words, what I had known or suspected all along, but had failed to face. The scales fell from my wide open eyes in 15 seconds, and I became a vegan and activist for the remainder of my life.

Look at these, if you dare: “Dairy Industry” “Egg Industry

And if you do, don’t imagine that these are exceptions. These are inherent in the industry, every second of every minute of every hour of every day, everywhere,


Appeared with:    Harnad, S. (2007). Spare Me the Complements: An Immoderate Proposal for Eliminating the” We/They” Category Boundary. In Social Brain Matters. Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition. Éditions Rodopi, Amsterdam/New York.

Evan had always been aloof, cerebral. He was forever creating theoretical systems — not practical ones that one could build and use, but completely abstract ones, usually social and ethical ones, that one could only contemplate hypothetically. They were “abstract inventions,” such as a “tit-for-tat society” in which people were forced to behave in accordance with the golden rule because whatever they did to others was literally done back to them in return — not in some remote afterlife, but almost immediately. Or a communicative system that would teach everyone to express their every thought clearly, because no one could do anything for themselves: Every wish — even to go to the toilet — had to be effected through “Chinese whispers,” in which the wisher tells it to someone else, who then goes away and tells it to someone else, and so on, through chains of a minimum length of 6, before the wisher’s wish is implemented — IF it has been expressed clearly enough to survive transmission through this chain.

“Why are you so preoccupied with people in theory, Evan? Real people are all around you and you hardly seem to notice them as you build your utopian castles.”

And it is true, that although he was not unattractive, either physically or mentally (people liked to listen to his thought experiments, and he was not at all overbearing about them: they had to be elicited from him, and the telling was invariably impassioned but brief) he tended to keep his own counsel. He had the morphology of a red-haired person — but without the red hair or white skin or freckles, only the poor eye-sight. Yet when he removed his thick lenses, his ash-gray eyes, which always appeared shrunken behind the lenses, magnified and took on the dreamy and distant look that was so characteristic of his abstractions. So people — older women especially — wished, sometimes silently, often aloud, that he were not so aloof and cerebral, that he would forget a little about his “systems” and look at them, look into their eyes, feel something. They all felt that they could teach him how to feel, if only…

If only what? What element was missing, actually? Did they think Evan was deliberately holding himself back from something? That he was arrogant or snobbish or disdainful? Not at all. It was obvious that he was far too lost in his abstractions to feel such earthly pettiness. Was he afraid then, embarrassed, shy? Some felt that was closer to the truth (it was easy to make him turn red and lose his train of thought: sometimes it would be something someone else said, sometimes it would be something that he himself had said or thought). In those moments of confusion he would appear lost, not sure whether to continue with what he had been saying, or to apologize, or to give up. Certain kinds of mild, external criticism had the same effect on him, but because most of his interlocutors were sympathetic, they quickly learned not to say things to hurt his feelings in that way.

So his aloofness was not lack of feelings, and it was not pride. Was it just obsession then? Was “aloofness” the right word to describe it at all? We don’t (to pick an overdramatic example) say that a schizophrenic is “aloof” or “cerebral” when he is listening to his inner voices. Then why should Evan be so described when he is building or describing his inner systems?

Yet it remained a fact that very few felt they could get close to him. His mother, Freda, was very much like him, though less single-mindedly so. She had managed to raise three children, after all, the older sisters not at all aloof, on the contrary; and her devotion to Evan’s father, Theodor — often bed-ridden and on a dialysis machine since almost the day they had met as newly graduated law clerks, both clerking for the American Civil Liberties Union in Brooklyn — could hardly be described by anyone as aloof. But she too had her moments of abstraction and revery. Perhaps the ACLU was an outgrowth of one of them; and linking her fate with a brilliant but much older man — suffering from a still  older-man’s kidney ailment — was another. Theodor had been very uncommunicative about his family and his past, but inspired on any other topic. Rumor had it that he had lived abroad and had done something either heroic or disreputable.

So Evan was close to his mother. And to his father too, although the increasing uremia across the years, as the kidneys failed and transplants did not succeed in reversing the process, made Theodor’s side of the intense bedside conversations he had been having with his son ever since Evan had been old enough to speak, or rather listen, more and more incoherent. Theodor was repeating himself more and more, and making less and less sense. Evan still sat by his bedside (he still lived at home), listening more than speaking, just as he always had, but often the silence would be two-sided now, with Evan lost in a system he was contemplating, and Theodor lost wherever high BNU levels transport you.

The girls were long married, having hastened out of what they found to be the less and less hospitable — because more and more hospital-like — atmosphere of the household, as the dialyses increased from monthly, to weekly, to daily, and the abstractions of their mother and brother grew ever more remote, even as those of their father grew less and less rational.

Some thought it was this medical/mentational atmosphere that kept Evan distant. Freida (not his mother, but a fellow-student, a few years ahead of him, whom Evan had met during his law school studies) thought it was something else. She thought that Evan’s abstractions were not all destined to remain mere distractions. Evan could no more practise law than his father had been able to do so. Theodor, home-bound, had earned money for as long as he could as a free-lance accountant, and Evan now worked for one of his father’s former clients as a full-time chartered accountant. The only one of them who had ever practised law was Freda, and that was only until she had her first daughter; then she typed theses from home until word-processors put her out of business.

Freida, soon seconded by Freda, became increasingly convinced that some of Evan’s ideas were implementable. One in particular, that Evan had told her about early in their relationship (Evan and Freida had become lovers) was something he called “aggregates-in-flux.” It was to be a new way of rearing children, inspired partly by the Kibbutz experiments in Israel, partly by Evan’s ruminations when he had studied divorce and child custody law, and partly by some things he had read about newborn ducklings and Temple rhesus monkeys. His idea was that human selfishness and favoritism — and ultimately racism and xenophobia — all originated from early imprinting: We become attached to our family members, and then we want to favor them, invariably at the expense of others, who are not family members. We versus they.

Now the Kibbutz had tried to enlarge this “we”, but that was all: A bigger we against they. What was needed was a child-rearing system that would never allow the boundary to be formed separating the “we” from the “they.” Children — all children, so there would be no stigma or sense of loss — would be reared in different families, on a monthly, weekly, or even a daily cycle, if necessary. This way, the only thing they could “imprint” on was what was invariant in all that flux, namely, that these were all human beings.

When Evan told this system to outsiders, they were shocked. “It would be like putting everyone in foster care! And we all know how damaging that is to the foster children.” “It would be fascistic to take children away from their parents and force them to be reared by constantly changing strangers.” Evan had always dropped the topic when people said such things, not because he didn’t believe in the idea or could not think of a reply to the objections, but because he always found these expressions of disapproval distressing.

But Freida did not disapprove; and after a while, neither did Freda. So this particular system was nurtured more than the others. They worked out more of its ramifications: How could such a system be implemented? And what would be its long-term effects on society? They concluded that it could only be done in a closed system: In other words, an entire society, out of touch with any other society, must do it, so there are no contrast cases that could give birth to a we/they boundary, or any sense of stigma, deprivation or abnormality. And their prediction was that these children would grow up into an altruistic society, where everything would be shared and no one preferred, rather the way the socialists had hoped a mere change in political system could bring about. No, human nature had to be modified, not genetically, by rearranging our selfish genes, not through behavioral engineering, by rescheduling our rewards and punishments, but by reshaping our brains through universal early experience.

Then an unusual series of things happened. It cannot be said that Freida had the genius to implement this system. It was chance that had thrown her together with a population of disaffected ACLU lawyers and clerks. She singled out a subset of them who were childless, unmarried, and not in especially committed relationships. That was not difficult, because it was the time when “free love” was one of the slogans of the day. But these were not disaffected, drugged free-lovers. These were social activists, and they had like-minded friends, who had like-minded friends. Freida conducted seminars and expounded Evan’s scheme to this growing circle, some of them coming from quite prosperous families. Before long, they felt they had reached critical mass, and were ready to establish a colony that would implement the “aggregates-in-flux.”

Funds were pooled and negotiations were conducted with a slightly dotty English Lord who owned an offshore island near the UK that had legal independent-nation status. The Lord had not had much of an agenda for his little country. He had populated it with his own household servants and hangers-on, but he owned many other properties and was prepared to decamp in favour of this Utopian experiment that went far beyond his expectations for his country (and far beyond his capacity to understand abstractions). So he gave them, for free, a lease-hold for 100 years for the Republic of Huma, as they decided to call it. 

The population of Huma, mostly American, but with recruits from many other countries too, mostly intellectuals, but with a reasonable blend of subsistence skills from the greens among them, was “seeded” with approximately 10,000 individuals, childless and of breeding age, around 50% male and 50% female, with all agreeing that, just as their progeny would be raised in constant flux, their matings and pairings would be in constant flux too. Among them were Freida and Evan. Like all the others, they had bidden their families farewell, explaining that their experiment depended critically on making sure that Huma was a closed system, with no outside influences.

But that was just the beginning of the unusual series of events. The implementation proved successful. The 10,000 members of the founder population had been well chosen. By temperament and ideology, and even by their previous practises, they were very well attuned to this new system. They were comfortable with constantly changing partners, they were ready to give up their own biological offspring, and even any knowledge or trace of the connection (10,000 was large enough so a newborn baby, already passed to someone other than the birth-mother for nursing at birth, would be assimilated into its Human peer cohort with no way to link it to its birth mother). And no one tried to trace the connection, because no one minded, neither the parents, nor the children, as they were raised in their aggregates-in-flux and growing into exactly the kind of humanists that Evan had predicted they would become.

But what became of Evan and Freida? Soon after they arrived, like everyone else, they were to split up and form other bonds, and they did. Or rather they tried. And Freida succeeded. It was not forbidden to contact prior partners, the way it was forbidden to pursue links with biological offspring, but it was discouraged. The assumption was that 10,000 was a large enough founding population to minimize lifetime recouplings if the average coupling duration was of the order of a few months, weeks, or even days. So Evan and Freida ran across one another now and again, but when Evan proposed their third recoupling, Freida said she didn’t think it would be a good idea.

Evan did not protest; he complied with the dictates of the Human system, but for some reason he was not as successful as everyone else. He found that when he chose, or was chosen by, or assigned to, new partners, he kept thinking of Freida. He lost sexual interest in new partners very fast, sometimes before there had been any sexual contact at all. And he lost interest in other things as well. He assumed that among the growing ranks of Human youngsters were some children of his own as well, and he obsessively scrutinized children he encountered to see whether he could detect any family resemblance — and he sometimes thought he could — but those children would just look at him with the same bland, friendly look as all the other children, so he gave up.

Against accepted practice, he kept recontacting Freida. He surprised her by asking her whether she was having any of these feelings he was having (thinking of her, thinking of his parents, wondering about his children). She was surprised, because he had never seemed interested in such matters before, even in the pre-Human days. But she replied, honestly, no, she was not having problems of that kind. She was thinking more about how, now that the experiment had proved so successful, they could spread it to the rest of the world. She suggested that Evan, as the originator of the theory, might now turn his abstract capacities to that task; maybe it would get his mind off these other discomforts he seemed to be feeling.

But Evan was pained by her distance, and by the fact that she did not feel what he felt, but was instead preoccupied with enlarging an experiment that he felt had failed, at least for him. Although it was also contrary to the culture of the Human system, where inhabitants tended to detach themselves from their accomplishments in the same way they detached themselves from their partners and their progeny, Freida proposed informing some, or even all, of the Humans that Evan was the one who had created their system. Perhaps that would raise Evan’s spirits and get him recommitted to his brainchild. Evan acquiesced, but only to please Freida. His own hopes were fixed more on Freida’s feelings for him than on any social acclaim for his contribution.

When the Aggregate-Counsel was convened to which Evan was to be presented as the Founder, Evan found himself feeling worse and worse. He felt he did not understand these Humans. They seemed so distant from him and from one another, so aloof, so cerebral. 

He contemplated leaving Huma, but all he really wanted was Freida, and he knew that if nothing could bring her closer, his leaving could certainly only drive her further. He tried to think of an abstract solution, but abstraction failed him, and he found he could not even recall what had been system-building’s obsessive appeal for all those years. Everything he called to mind seemed meaningless, empty, hopeless.

Huma had some medical facilities. After his breakdown following the Counsel, Freida arranged for him to be checked in for some psychiatric help. They did a routine blood test and found he had very elevated levels of BNU. The x-rays showed that one kidney had already failed and the other was enlarged and near collapse. There was no dialysis unit on Huma, so he was shipped to mainland UK and hospitalized in the Chalybeate hospital. When his two sisters flew to see him, they found that his conversation had already become incoherent.