You Are Them
Copyright © 2017 Magnus Vinding
Parts of this book have previously been published in other books by the author.
Tat tvam asi
(That art thou)
Table of Contents
Four Reasons for Being Ethical
Part I: Who Are We?
Exposing Our Common Sense View
Dissolving Our Confusion: Introducing “The Field of You”
The Realness of the Experiences of “Others”
Part II: The Implications
(Dis)Solving Ethics: Just Care About Yourself
Naturalizing Ethics: Good and Bad States of the Field According to the Field Itself (i.e. You)
Caring About the Entire Field
The Suffering of the Field: This Is an Emergency
How Do We Reduce Suffering?
The Field View: Non Sequiturs
The Future of Evolution: Deluded or Guided by Understanding?
“The easiest pain to bear is someone else’s”
Why are you the same person when you wake up in the morning as the “you” who went to sleep the night before? Why don’t you instead wake up as a scared rabbit in a dark forest in the middle of the night?
Well, who says that you don’t?
My claim in this book is that you in fact do. All the time. Every time a scared rabbit wakes up, that’s you. In fact, this is not only true of scared rabbits the moment they wake up. It is true of all beings at all times. You are everyone. Or so I shall argue.
This claim seems absurd and superstitious on its face, like some feel-good New Age thinking that only a brain frying in an indecent amount of acid could entertain. Surely, I am me, not you.
Yet, as we shall see, it is actually our common sense view of personal identity that is the superstitious one, and, unfortunately, the view I shall defend — what I believe to be the obvious truth — is anything but a feel-good one.
The crucial question to ask in relation to the “I am me, not you” sentiment stated above is: what “you”? “You” in what defensible sense? If “you” are different from me now, how are you now not different from the “you” that you claim to have been yesterday? In other words, how are spatial differences more relevant than temporal ones when it comes to what demarcates who “you” are? And are spatial and temporal differences at all relevant in the first place? I shall argue that they are not.
My argument rests only upon a physicalist premise, namely that we are entirely physical beings — nothing over and above.^^1^^ That is, there is just an evolving physical world, and sentient beings are simply different parts of this physical world — not different soul-like entities “riding” different parts of it, as common intuition suggests. This view is not difficult to agree with on an intellectual level, yet it departs radically from our common sense view of personal identity nonetheless. At the level of our intuitions and day-to-day beliefs, we are as hopelessly lost in soul-like notions as the most devout Christian ever was. We have yet to step beyond the grip of the Darwinianly adaptive, yet intellectually unjustifiable, ego-centric delusion of “I am me, and you are something fundamentally different”, and instead embrace a truly naturalistic view of personal identity — a view that is consistent with what we know about the natural world.
This book is an attempt to take that step, in two parts. First, I will present and argue for such a naturalistic account of personal identity, and second, I will examine the implications of this view, particularly the ethical implications; or perhaps the opposite — the “inethical” implications — as one could argue that the view of personal identity I defend really implies the death of ethics, at least in a traditional sense of the word.
Four Reasons for Being Ethical
“Reason shows me that if my happiness is desirable and a good, the equal happiness of any other person must be equally desirable.”
— Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics
As a prelude to the following examination of personal identity, I find it worth conveying what motivates my writing this book. A good point of departure for doing this is to look at our reasons for being ethical. I think we can broadly identify four such reasons:
The first is the emotion of empathy that millions of years of evolution has hammered into us. As the powerful action guiding mechanism that any emotion is, the emotion of empathy compels us to act — in the special case of empathy, to act for another. We see someone hurting, our limbic system starts dancing, and instinctively we try to help. In this way, empathy has enabled us to care for each other and to function together in groups, and today it still seems crucial for most of what we would characterize as moral behavior.
Empathy does have significant drawbacks, however. Being an emotion, it is subject to the biases and limits we should expect emotions to suffer from. For example, we cannot just multiply our emotions of empathy by ten when we see ten beings suffering rather than one. Indeed, as psychologist Paul Slovic has documented, our empathy actually decreases rapidly as the magnitude of disaster grows.^^2^^ We are more willing to help one victim than two who suffer the same ill. Not exactly a sensible position. But then empathy is an emotion. It didn’t emerge in a competition where the main criterion was to make sense.
And it is not only when it comes to numbers that empathy betrays reason. It does the same when we swap the kinds of beings in question. For example, most of us have much empathy for dogs and cats, and are outraged about mistreatment of them, yet when it comes to the mistreatment of equally sentient rats and pigs, tragically few of us will make any effort to object. Emotions like empathy and love seem inherently constrained and biased.
The power of this reason is difficult to overestimate. Again, viewing ourselves in the context of our origin is instructive: we evolved in social groups, and how we were perceived in that group meant everything for our survival and reproductive success. So we should expect human individuals to care a lot about what others think about them, and to act accordingly.
And this is indeed what we see when we look at human actions, including, perhaps especially, human moral behavior. Much of our do-gooding is done at least partly for the purpose of looking good to our peers — public donations by companies and people seem an obvious example. Of course, few of us will have the self-awareness and honesty to realize and admit that this is the case, yet the often less than flattering truth about our motives tends to shine through from our actions.
To be sure, that we try to do good in order to look good need not be a bad thing. Indeed, it can be a great thing if we manage to exploit it efficiently. Making “alleviating the most suffering” the new “most championships won” or “most records sold” would no doubt constitute an enormous step of moral progress.
3) Consistent Reasoning
This reason is arguably more culturally relative and modern. At the very least it seems safe to say that the degree to which consistent reasoning has influenced our moral behavior has been rising over the course of our recent cultural evolution. As psychologist James Flynn has documented, our ability to think in terms of consistency and other abstract concepts appears to have increased rapidly since about 1930, and likely since before that, and these cognitive advances seem to have had a significant effect on our thinking about ethics.^^3^^ Just compare how much more inconsistent we were a couple of hundred years ago compared to today in allowing some arbitrarily privileged humans to own other, arbitrarily underprivileged, humans. Consistent reasoning no doubt played a crucial role in the change of mind that eventually led to a change in the legal status of human slavery.^^4^^ Many similar examples can be mentioned. For example, many of us now accept the same arguments when it comes to non-human animals too: we should not discriminate against sentient beings merely because they belong to a different species.^^5^^ To think that ethical inconsistency is a thing of the past is to be as wrong as one can possibly be.
Consistent reasoning within the realm of morality requires us to ask: if pain and death is bad for me, why is it not equally bad for someone else? To suggest that it is not would seem inconsistent, like saying that two plus two is four for me, but it might be something else for you. This would seem contrary to reason.
As shows from Henry Sidgwick’s quote above — “Reason shows me that if my happiness is desirable and a good, the equal happiness of any other person must be equally desirable” — reason, consistency in particular, was also what animated the utilitarian stance he advocated. Indeed, utilitarianism can be seen as the ultimate corollary of consistent ethical thinking: if minimizing my suffering and maximizing my happiness is good and normative, does mere consistency not imply that minimizing the suffering and maximizing the happiness of everyone is good and normative as well? It would seem so. To suggest otherwise would seem to amount to granting oneself a special ontological status compared to all other beings, which seems hard to defend.
4) They Are Me
This final reason for acting morally is the view that I shall argue for in this book. This reason seems quite a rare one when it comes to motivating ethical behavior, at least at this point, yet this does not imply that it must necessarily remain so. Where consistency asks us to consider: what if that were me?, the view I shall defend in this book simply amounts to the removal of the “what if” — that really is me.
I would thus argue that the theoretical implications of this view are the exact same as the implications of consistent reasoning, which is not, it is important to note, the same as saying that the practical effects of embracing them are the same. I don’t think they are, and therein lies my main motivation for writing this book.
For although our conduct can be influenced by consistent reasoning to a significant extent, it seems a fact about the human mind that such high-minded thinking is all too easily trumped by laziness and rationalizations. The same cannot be said, however, of matters pertaining to “I” — the figmental master notion in our minds that steals all attention, and which we are willing to protect at virtually any prize. Indeed, laziness and rationalizations are themselves mere tools subject to this main mission of the human mind: protecting “I” and keeping it comfortable (crudely speaking).
Thus, if the “I” notion in our minds becomes tied to everyone, this would, I think, make us more motivated to protect everyone than “mere” consistent thinking can (this has certainly been the case for me). And this, in a nutshell, is why I think this fourth reason might hold great potential when it comes to motivating us to act ethically — truly appreciating it high-jacks our “me”-driven minds toward ethical purposes. Indeed, it simply leaves no alternative but for us to try to improve the world.
I should make clear, however, that my purpose in writing this book is not to promote ethical behavior through trickery. That is, I do not merely convey this view because I think it can help make us more ethical. I honestly see it as the truth — and a rather obvious one at that. My goal is to make our “I” notion correspond better with reality, with what we actually are, and I think the general claim that we are better served by having ideas that are matched up with reality happens to hold particularly well when we speak about personal identity.
I should also note that I do not think that this fourth and final motivation for acting ethically provides a replacement for the other motivations outlined above, but rather that it is a strong supplement. These different motivations all serve different crucial functions — they turn on different cognitive systems and styles that enable us to accomplish different things. (For instance, thinking consistently about ethics may get us far and be much needed at this point, but being a nice and socially functioning person probably requires a good deal of empathy too, along with a healthy amount of activity in notional “signalling [how can I impress my peers?] circuits” — and the latter is probably also necessary for most humans in order to lead a productive life. In short, it seems naive to think that we can install new software in our minds that entirely supersedes, as opposed to supplements and guides, our largely signalling and emotion-driven behavior.)
Indeed, I think it would be better if we were more empathetic, if we did more to signal ethical behavior, and if we thought more in terms of ethical consistency. I have tried to promote these, especially thinking consistently about ethics, in my other writings. In this book I aim to present the “they are me” view, and thereby hopefully promote this fourth and final motivation. As Freeman Dyson said of his adoption of this view: “It provided for the first time a firm foundation for ethics. It offered mankind the radical change of heart and mind that was our only hope of peace at a time of desperate danger.”^^6^^
I have similarly high hopes about the potential impact of this view. Hence this book.
Part I: Who Are We?
Exposing Our Common Sense View
“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
— Carl Sagan, Cosmos
What do we refer to when we say “I”? The answer seems so obvious, at an intuitive level at least, that it can be hard to give an answer. If we try, however, it seems we can say that, roughly speaking, who we consider ourselves to be is the one who is born in a certain physical body — our body — and then lives out a life in this body for as long as that body is alive.7 More specifically, it seems that we largely identify the person we are with our brain, as this is where all behavioral quirks and all thinking, the things we usually take to be defining of a person, arise from. For example, most people would consider someone who has an arm amputated to be the same person, yet someone who gets their brain replaced would, in the eyes of most people, be a different person.
Yet the question is whether this makes sense. Can this common sense notion of “same brain, same person” be defended?
What We Are (Not) in Physical Terms
The problem with this suggestion is that the entire body, including the brain, undergoes constant change throughout our lives. According to an estimate from Oak Ridge Atomic Research Center, 98 percent of the atoms that our body is made of are replaced every year,^^8^^ which implies that, as a matter of our constituents, pointing toward our brain or body at large and claiming that this remains the same over time is simply wrong.
Another suggestion has been made, however: it is not the atoms our bodies consist of that make us the same over time — after all, they can be replaced by similar atoms — but rather the way the atoms are put together. So, on this view, it is the specific physical structure of our body, including our brain, that makes us the same over time.
This view also turns out to be deeply problematic, however, because at the level of structure, we also change all the time. Changes occur in the structure of our body and brain every second, at every level. People who refer to our structure as the defining trait of personal identity are right, though, that what remains relatively constant throughout an individual’s life is the structure of the body and brain, and hence they are right that it is this, over time, largely similar and physically continuous structure that is the basis of our common sense notion that different bodies are inhabited by different, fundamentally unchanging “person entities”. The truth, however, is that such person entities do not exist in the first place. In physical terms, there is just a body that undergoes constant change while retaining a largely similar structure, and we have then forced a folk concept down upon this body — the concept of an unchanging person entity that inhabits the body.
A Thought Experiment
The following thought experiment may help make the failure of our common sense notion of personal identity obvious. Imagine we have invented a perfect human teleporter — a machine that can scan a body, dissolve it, and then reconstruct it with the exact same structure somewhere else.^^9^^ We then let this machine scan your body, dissolve it, and make it reappear in the same state right beside where your body just was. You will just feel as if reappearing somewhere else instantaneously, and appear with the exact same structure, and hence have all the same memories, ideas, and emotions as you had before you were dissolved.
According to the common sense “structural” view of personal identity, this freshly assembled “you” is the same person as the one we just dissolved. After all, the state of your body would have been more different from your initial state if you had traveled the old-fashioned continuous way to the new spot.
Now imagine another scenario: we repeat the teleportation above, except this time we do not dissolve your original body, but let it remain so that we end up with two of “you”. On our common sense view of personal identity, however, a person can only be one being — there can only be one “you”. So the question is: which of these two resulting individuals is the same person as before? Which one is “you”? The intuitive response seems to be that you are the one who is in the same place, and not the new one, whom you, as the original person who is physically continuous with the original one, now recognize as merely a different person with almost the same mental state as you. Yet this is not consistent with the conclusion drawn in the first example.^^10^^
There must be a mistake here, and there indeed is. The mistake is the idea of an unchanging person entity. Again, in physical terms, what we usually refer to as a person is just a physical structure that undergoes constant change, while remaining somewhat similar over time, and it is this ever-changing structure of matter that we seem to believe in some sense “contains” a person entity. There is no reason to believe such an entity exists, however. The person we are in this moment is always “a different person with almost the same mental state” as the one we were in the moment before.
The failure of our common sense belief in a persistently identical person entity is also obvious from a closer look at the brain. For there simply is no person entity to be found anywhere in the brain. The brain is a multitude of parts,^^11^^ of neurons connected to each other in a gigantic, complex web of connections, and the traits we identify with a person are a product of activity distributed across this vast net of neurons that the brain is.
This view of ourselves as spatially distributed beings is especially well-supported by the strange case of split-brain patients. These are people whose two brain hemispheres are disconnected because the corpus callosum that otherwise connects them has been cut. The remarkable thing about these patients is that they appear to have two different experiences in their two disconnected hemispheres. One can for instance show the one hemisphere a written word, done by only showing the word to one eye, and this one hemisphere will then understand and be able to show that it has understood this word, for instance, by using the hand it controls to point at or grasp for what the word said. However, the other hemisphere will know nothing of this understanding, and when the hemisphere that did not see the word is asked why the hand pointed or grasped as it did, it will tend to provide a confabulation that it shows every sign of believing itself. So when we surgically disconnect the hemispheres of the brain, we seem to end up with two disconnected systems that both try to navigate in, and make sense of, the world around them on their own. We seem to end up with two different conscious beings inside one skull.^^12^^
Which one of these two seemingly different beings is the same as the original person, then? If I were this patient, which one of the hemispheres would I, the conscious mind, end up in after the procedure? Again, this question is a bad one. The conscious mind has simply been divided. There is no “I” that ends up somewhere. There is just a conscious mind that depends upon, or rather is, a vast multitude of distributed processes, and this is true of all of us, split-brain or not. Different processes in the brain give rise to different aspects of experience — sounds, sights, sensations — and it seems that in the case of the split-brain, some of the aspects of the mind are just disconnected from each other.
In sum, our common sense notion of personal identity is irreconcilable with what we know about ourselves in physical terms. There is no persistent self entity to be identified anywhere. Ultimately, our brains are just ever-changing physical structures that give rise to — or rather, on any monistic physicalist theory of mind, are — ever-changing conscious minds. Persisting, discrete person entities are nowhere to be found, except as illusory ideas within these minds.
What We Are (Not) in Experiential Terms
“[…] personal identity, as ordinarily understood, is presumed in, not revealed in, experience.”
— Daniel Kolak, I Am You
The fact that there is no unchanging self-entity that we are can also be realized from our direct experience, and all it takes is that we notice what our minds are in fact like. Because, in experiential terms, what we are is simply an ever-changing conscious mind. Nothing about our conscious experience remains unchanged throughout our conscious lives, except, of course, for the fact that it is always conscious.^^13^^ The self that we commonly take ourselves to be — which, in subjective terms, seems to be made up of sensations, thoughts, and memories that we, as the conscious mind, identify with and fail to notice as objects in consciousness — is simply a self-representation that arises in our experience. It is yet another appearance in our conscious experience, and it is therefore, in experiential terms, no more what we are than any other appearance in consciousness.
The fact that the only thing that remains the same about our conscious minds over time is the fact that it is conscious implies that we, to the extent that we are the same person over time, are also other conscious beings, as this same fact holds equally true about them: they are also conscious. In this sense, all conscious beings really are fundamentally the same. Only persistent ideas and memories in our minds make it appear otherwise — as though there is something special about the mind we call our own over time beyond the fact that it shares more memories and has more similarities with “its own” past and future states than other minds do.
It may be objected that one’s own present conscious mind does not experience the future states of other conscious minds, and that this is the crucial difference between others and oneself. This is to miss the point, however, and not least to be deluded about consciousness. Because it is surely true that we, as a conscious mind in the present, do not directly experience the future conscious minds of others, but it is false, however, to claim that this constitutes a difference in any way between other minds and the future states of what we consider our own conscious mind. The truth is that our present conscious mind does not experience the future states of “our own” conscious mind either. What we consider “our” future state of consciousness will simply be consciousness in another state, just as much as the conscious experience of what we consider other conscious beings, now and in the future, is consciousness in another state. And, again, it is true that there is a greater similarity — what we consider our future mind will be physically continuous, and will thus tend to share more memories, thoughts, and traits altogether with our present mind than the future minds of others will. Yet that is the only difference.
The truth is that, in one sense, all we ever do is for another: we act so as to ensure the well-being of other states of consciousness, be it the future conscious states of those we consider other beings or the future states of the conscious mind we call our own. It is also true, however, that all we ever do is for ourselves: whenever we do something for anyone, others or ourselves, we act so as to secure the well-being of consciousness — what we are most fundamentally and persistently.^^14^^ There are just different states of consciousness occurring over time and space, and our tying the label “myself” — “that which I should care about more than anything else” — only to the future state of the mind we call our own is simply rooted in biased intuition. This intuition is quite easy to understand in light of our evolutionary history, but it can find no basis in reason, as there is no fundamental sense in which there is an “I” that remains the same over time in what we consider one mind more than there is across different minds. Again, quite uncontroversial to say really, all conscious minds over time and space are different from each other, yet they all share the fact of their consciousness.
Dissolving Our Confusion: Introducing “The Field of You”
“Every particle and every wave in the Universe is simply an excitation of a quantum field that is defined over all space and time. That remarkable assertion is at the heart of quantum field theory.”
— Tomas Lancaster & Stephen J. Blindell, Quantum Field Theory for the Gifted Amateur
What I have done so far has mainly been of a negative character: I have briefly rehashed various arguments that demonstrate the falsity of our common sense view of personal identity, and thereby tried to point out how we should not think about personal identity. What I have yet to do, then, and what I think is ultimately much more interesting and fruitful, is the more constructive project of showing how we instead should think about it. That is what I will try to do now: to present a coherent view of personal identity that not only fits with what we know about the natural world, but one that, I would argue, all but immediately falls out of our modern naturalistic worldview — more specifically, of quantum field theory.
Quantum Field Theory — A Different Way of Seeing the World
Our minds think in terms of objects. When we look out at the world we see a myriad of fundamentally different and separate objects that occupy different parts of space. This is a useful way to think about the world. It is also, ultimately, a wrong way to view the world, at least according to our best, most accurate theory of the physical world: quantum field theory — the theory that Richard Feynman reportedly claimed has an accuracy corresponding to being able to predict “a distance as great as the width of North America to an accuracy of one human hair’s breadth.”^^15^^
Rather than seeing the world as consisting of distinct “things” that occupy different parts of space, quantum field theory understands any particle as an excitation of an all-pervading quantum field. One may think of this field as a fabric, and what we recognize as matter is then a certain vibration of this fabric, not something placed “in it” or in any way different from it. In other words, when you see a person running, what you see is not really a material object (the runner) that moves through a non-material medium (space), but rather a (very complex) state of excitation that is moving through this field,^^16^^ like an intricate wave moving through the ocean. This is a radically different way of viewing the world.^^17^^
One Field or Many?
According to quantum field theory, different kinds of particles can be described as excitations of different quantum fields. This is not, however, to say that they cannot be described in terms of a single field — indeed, this is what the search for a so-called unified field theory is all about. We do not yet know whether a unified field theory exists, yet whether it does is not relevant in this context. For whether the world is comprised of a set of all-pervading fields, or whether it is comprised of a single such field that we just presently describe in terms of many fields, the end conclusion is the same: everything we observe, from electrons to blue whales, are excitations of the same all-pervading “fabric” — the set of the all-pervading field(s) that quantum field theory describes. For the sake of simplicity, I shall from now on refer to this “fabric” as simply ‘the Field’ with a capital F.
The Implications for Personal Identity
Taking this view of the world seriously not only results in the destruction of our common sense view of personal identity, but forces us to replace it with a new, rather specific one. Where we used to think of different persons as being in some sense different objects that emerge and disappear over time, the above-mentioned view of the world implies that the entire world is comprised of the same all-pervading “object” (or the same set of all-pervading objects, a qualification I shall not repeat from this point onward) whose different vibrations in different times and places comprise everything we see in the world, including what we consider different persons. Crudely put, the world is comprised of an all-pervading “substance” that takes on a myriad of different structures; it is not a structure that contains a myriad of substances.
This may all seem a bit abstract, so perhaps it is worth considering the concrete case of birth and death. On our common sense view, when a person is born, a new object (and subject) has in some sense emerged, and when this person dies, this same object disappears. We have a fairly binary view: we go from zero to one (birth) and eventually back to zero again (death). What this thing that emerges and disappears is, we are not so specific about.
On the Field view, however, there are no objects emerging or disappearing. There is just the Field that in some places jiggles itself into the form of a body with a sentient mind as we know it — what some will recognize as a highly complex biological process — and then eventually jiggling out of this state. The Field remains. It merely underwent structural change, not substantial change (understood literally), and it will keep on doing so. This is true over time and space, both about (what we commonly consider) other persons and ourselves: only the structure is different, the substance is the same.
One might think that this sounds much like an endorsement of reincarnation, yet that could not be further from the truth, and I think it is worth making clear how this Field view — indeed any monist view of the world — is in fact the very antithesis of any “reincarnationist” view. The reason being, in short, that belief in reincarnation amounts to an overt failure to move beyond the realm of common sense dualism. Unfortunately, whether we believe in reincarnation or not, this is a common affliction.
For even if we think we are sophisticated physicalists, we still tend to view the world in dualist terms. We do not view ourselves as a physical body, but rather as someone who is in some sense in possession of a body, as a non-physical agent who is riding the body like a vehicle, and we tend to see other beings in the same way. We see sentient beings as placed in a certain part of the physical world, not as a certain part of the physical world.
This suspiciously soul-inspired view is also, I would argue, in large part what underlies our belief that we are substantially different beings from each other. If we truly viewed ourselves as physical and physical only, it seems impossible to conserve any belief in the existence of fundamentally different persons. For if there is just a physical world devoid of “person essences” that undergoes continuous change, why is one part of this world more “you” than any other?
Reincarnation is dualist in the sense that it rests on the above-mentioned vehicle view of sentient beings, and where it departs from Western common sense dualism is simply in its claim that the same agent — the same “driver” — is going to jump from vehicle to vehicle over time, like a clothespin that jumps from one piece of fabric to another. This is not compatible with the Field view expressed above. On this view, there are no clothespins. Only the fabric exists, and what we recognize as a conscious mind is the fabric itself, vibrating in certain states.
Yet it is important to note, again, that even those of us who do not believe in reincarnation are still, most of the time, no less superstitious than those who do, as we also, at least covertly, buy into the clothespin view of sentient minds.^^18^^ The only difference is that we do not think that the clothespin jumps around. Rather, our view seems more akin to the belief that the clothespin simply dissolves as the body it rides around in dies — that something disappears, as opposed to merely changing state.^^19^^
Put simply, on the Field view, there is no “you entity” jumping around or disappearing. There is only the Field changing state, and some of these states are evidently sentient. What we consider different beings is ultimately this same Field in different states.
In more concrete terms: my deceased great grandfather was a pattern of the Field. There was no “him” apart from the Field that emerged or disappeared. The Field just changed, and now it has a different state that includes the mind-brains we call “your mind” and “my mind”. Across time and space, we are the same “object” vibrating in different ways. And this, I submit, is the only naturalistically sound way of thinking about yourself, namely as this Field — “the Field of You”.
The Realness of the Experiences of “Others”
“Others’ consciousness is the best kept secret in the universe, masquerading in the form of physical gestures and sounds.”
— Jonathan Leighton, The Battle for Compassion: Ethics in an Apathetic Universe
An obvious yet significant point worth resting on is the fact that the experiences of those parts of the Field that we consider “other individuals” are real. Truly, really real. This is trivial to say, of course, and nobody would disagree, yet to really appreciate it is, I think, anything but trivial. As philosopher David Pearce has noted, we tend to see others as objects with feelings, not as fellow subjects of experience.^^20^^ And this, I believe, is among the main reasons we are deluded about personal identity.
We know that the experience that resides in the place we call “our own head” is real. We know that it is real now and that it will be real tomorrow.^^21^^ When it comes to the experiences of those we consider “other” sentient minds, however, this fact is somehow less clear, less salient. It is somewhat analogous to our knowledge that there is magma some thousands of meters beneath our feet. Any educated person knows this, yet this knowledge still remains a lot less vivid than, say, the knowledge of what the Earth is like on its surface. The latter fact we are reminded of every day, while the former is only apparent to us upon a bit of recalling and reflecting on what we have been told. And yet, even upon reflection, we probably still only have a rather weak grasp of the realness of the magma beneath us — of the fact that some number of kilometers beneath you, there really is an ocean of melted rocks. We quickly forget all about it and return our gaze to the more relevant and interesting surface environment where we find ourselves.
The experience that resides in what we call “our own head” is much like the surface of the Earth: we are reminded of its realness every day. We continually feel and taste its reality, as well as remember it, and thus we can easily project its reality into the future. The minds of “others”, however, are more akin to the tons of magma beneath us — sure, none of us would deny that they exist, yet to really appreciate their realness is difficult and can feel like a needless distraction for our minds. “After all,” our Darwinian minds mumble, “what is the point of all this ‘really appreciating’”?
“I’m Special” — The Predictable Delusion of a Darwinian Mind
Such mumbling is not surprising. Our minds are not optimized for finding the truth. Rather, the ability to uncover truths evolved because it was useful to our surviving and reproducing. And when the truth is in conflict with surviving and reproducing in an environment ruled by natural selection, the truth loses.
The truth that the experiences of those parts of the Field we consider “other sentient minds” are just as real as the narrow thread of experiences we consider our own is, for the purpose of surviving and propagating one’s genes, an inconvenient and distracting one. Keeping this truth clearly in view is unlikely to be a recipe for gene propagation; stubbornly ignoring it seems a much better strategy. This enables us to be bigoted with abandon, and to concentrate all our focus toward the body we consider our own, the vehicle of our genes. It allows us to turn the suffering of distant others into mere abstractions, faint screams from a distance rather than loud screams from the center of our own being. It allows us to remain ignorant of gene-propagation-inhibiting facts, such as the extent of the pain and horror experienced by a gazelle who is being eaten alive, so that we can instead focus on more important problems, like our own social status and sexual opportunities. More important, that is, for the purpose of gene propagation.
We should of course not expect to see, nor do we see, the same indifference toward those who are closely related to us genetically, or those who may otherwise help us propagate our genes. For although we still tend to see even these beings as, in the words of David Pearce, objects with feelings rather than fellow subjects of experience, we actually do experience what they experience, at least to some extent, through our empathetic understanding. When we see them get hurt, we are hurt too — the screams from the center of their being is heard from the center of our own being as well. In this way, what we should expect, and what we indeed observe, as the default way of ascribing specialness to different beings is not a binary “I’m special and everybody else is irrelevant”, but rather a hierarchy of specialness with ourselves on top and any one of our relatives and friends just below us, those whom we in some sense consider more “us” than others.
In short, our view of ourselves as special and especially real is no mystery in light of our evolutionary origin. Over the course of the evolution of the Field that we are, patterns that emerged in this Field that viewed themselves as especially real have been better able to survive than those that didn’t, which of course doesn’t make such a view any less deluded.
Making Reality Fit Deluded Intuition — The Theology of Personal Identity
So powerful is our Darwinian self delusion that even the philosophy of personal identity more often than not has consisted in the question begging effort of trying to make our common sense notion of personal identity fit with reality rather than to question its sensibility in the first place^^22^^ — an effort to answer questions like:
“What makes you a different person from me?”
“What makes me the same person over time?”
“If we gradually replace your neurons one at a time, when will your brain no longer be ‘you’?”
And such attempts are bound to be futile, as they secretly rest on an essentialist clothespin view. These questions, I submit, really translate into: how is your clothespin different from mine? What really is the clothespin? And at which point does one clothespin become another?
But no matter how stubbornly our Darwinian minds insist on being deluded, the truth remains that there are no clothespins, only “fabric”. To answer the questions above in brief:
“What makes you a different person from me?”
What we call “you” and “me” are different states of the same Field.
“What makes me the same person over time?”
There are no clothespins. There is the Field continually changing state.
“If we gradually replace your neurons one at a time, when will your brain no longer be ‘you’?”
Again, there are no clothespins; the Field has merely undergone change. The essentialist “you” we are speaking of was never there in the first place, whereas you, as the Field, remain.
In sum, we are not what our Darwinian intuitions tell us we are. What we are is the Field in different states of vibration. Or in phenomenological terms: we are consciousness in different states, all of which are equally real, equally experienced by us, the Field. Period. And, as I will argue in the second part of the book, we would be much better off trying to make our view conform to reality rather than going the other way around.
Part II: The Implications
Solving Ethics: Just Care About Yourself
“[…] our behaving badly is a function of ignorance.”
— David Pearce^^23^^
As noted in the introduction, one may argue that this Field view of personal identity implies the death of ethics, at least in a traditional sense of the word, as ethics often is viewed as being all about how we should treat others. And on the Field view, there are no others. There is only ourself, and hence this is the only thing that normative obligations of any sort can pertain to — the Field that we are.
I think the Field view does indeed have significant normative implications, not least when it comes to how we should think about ethics, i.e. ethics in the broader sense of “how we should act”,^^24^^ as it provides us with a truly naturalistic account of it. The goal of the rest of this book is to uncover and dive into the most important of these implications.
I think this is generally missing in examinations of personal identity that draw similar conclusions as those found in the preceding pages. We may conclude that we are not fundamentally different selves, yet we fail to then take the next step that is to derive what follows. Instead, we tend to quickly and unconsciously jump back into the comfortable cave of our Darwinian intuitions, the cave of ignorance, continuing to live our lives as though we were what we just concluded does not exist — a clothespin. In this way, we are much like the smoker who smokes an entire pack of cigarettes within an hour of declaring that they will never smoke again.
This is a fact about the human mind in its current form: just because we declare a given principle or conclusion to ourselves or others does not mean that we will then actually think and act accordingly. To do the latter often requires work. A lot of work. And this is the work that I think New Agers and philosophers still have ahead of them, even as they ecstatically chant “I am you”. As I hope to show, such deeper examination reveals that the appropriate response to our condition is indeed not ecstasy, but rather intensely goal-oriented action.
Naturalizing Ethics: Good and Bad States of the Field According to the Field Itself (i.e. You)
“There is a cavern of value difference between the best feeling and the worst feeling. There are intrinsically bad brain configurations. The experimental evidence is conclusive, and easily replicated.”
“[…] value, and conversely disvalue, are distinctive features literally inherent in the world no less than phenomenal redness; and thus there can be objective, truth-evaluable judgements of value. This property is mind-dependent, hence brain-dependent, hence a natural and objective property of the world.”
— David Pearce, The Naturalization of Value^^26^^
Upon embracing the view that the world is comprised by the Field, we are forced to admit that ethics, to the extent it can be about anything, must relate to the particular states the Field can assume, as there is then ultimately nothing else that ethics can be about. And this, I will argue, is indeed what ethics is all about ultimately: optimizing the state of the Field that we are so as to prevent the worst states from being realized and to bring better ones about instead. This is what we should do.
In fact, this is already what we try to do most of the time, although rather ignorantly, and hence only locally and inefficiently. For example, we listen to music and hang out with friends because it brings our mind in a better state and helps us avoid bad states, or at least we hope it does. It is a local optimization effort. And the grand ethical task before us, I submit, is “merely” to expand this effort into an all-inclusive one, so that we optimize the entire Field that we are rather than a tiny subset. An expansion that should follow naturally from realizing our own identity as the Field.
“That’s Merely What You Want”
The most common objection to such a claim is that there is no such thing as ethics in such a universal “what we should do” sense; there is just what different individuals want, and these individuals sometimes confuse their wants for some sort of “universal” or “objective” ethic. Thus, belief in the existence of universal ethics of any kind is just the predictable product of confused social primate minds that project their own moral intuitions onto the world at large.
I think this common objection gets a number of things wrong, however, which I think are worth going deeper into. As a preliminary note, it is perhaps worth pointing out that the view of ethics laid out above is in fact among the last things one would expect as an intuitive suggestion from a human mind about what we should do. Indeed, what we should expect our human intuition to say — and what it of course constantly does say — is that we should do the opposite: to just care about ourselves in the narrowest sense, and to seek out our greasy gratification.
Yet far more important than resting on what qualifies as “Darwinianly intuitive” is it to ask: what is the nature of wants? What is their place in the world? And what is it that is supposed to make them too “subjective” and not valid enough for us to be able to speak about ethics in universal and “objective” terms?^^27^^
The problem, in my view, is that the objection above is haunted by dualism, in that it rests on a covert separation of “you” and “the natural world”. The separation between “(that is just) your want” or “what is good according to you” on the one hand, and “(not something) ‘universal’, ’naturalistic’, or ‘objective’” on the other, as though sentient minds were not part of the natural world.
But sentient minds are part of the natural world, and hence their properties are properties of the natural world. A sentient mind that finds its own state disvaluable is a local part of the Field that finds its own state disvaluable, not something separate from the Field. Being in that given state is inherently disvaluable, and that disvalue is ultimately a property of the Field. If you take my mind-brain in a state of extreme pain that I want to stop, and instantiate it anywhere in the Field, the Field will, at this particular locality, be in a state of extreme pain and want it to stop. It is a universal property of the Field that that particular brain state will feel bad and unwanted no matter where in the Field it is instantiated. It is not, of course, that there is some kind of dormant will in the Field quietly wanting to avoid certain states, but just that certain states of the Field are inherently painful and worth avoiding.^^28^^
Bad states of sentience are not something that exist over and above the states of the Field itself, and they are not bad and worth avoiding according to some clothespin. Again, they are bad according to the Field itself when in that state — indeed, there is nothing else that could declare their badness than the Field itself. After all, on a modern physicalist view of reality, the Field comprises reality.^^29^^ So what is it, then, that is so problematic about ethical realism?
To say that this “according to the Field itself” cannot constitute ethical realism is, I think, to hold ethical realism to artificially high standards. For what is the higher standard that is required in order for us to be able to speak factually about normativity than what the Field itself finds normative, i.e. good and bad?^^30^^ To restate the question above: how can we reasonably require supra-Field facts in order to ground ethical realism given that the Field comprises reality? Perhaps we are entertaining notions of Platonic realms in the dark.^^31^^ For if there is nothing outside the Field, what could render that which the Field finds normative “not truly normative”?
If we are physicalists who believe that the Field constitutes reality, the only answer that lies open to us is “other parts of the Field”.
“What About Other States of the Field?”
More specifically: what if some part of the Field wants other parts of the Field to suffer?
Is this question the death knell for the naturalization of ethics? Not quite. For the point is that the goodness and badness of any state of the Field — i.e. its normative status — is intrinsic to that state, not extrinsic. In other words, the preferences and preference satisfaction, and more generally the well-being,^^32^^ of any part of the Field is a local phenomenon. What makes a particular state of the Field deem something good or bad, valuable or disvaluable, is not anything external to that particular state, however much it may seem that way to that local state.
For no state of the Field ever experiences any part of the Field external to itself directly; all it ever knows is the external Field according to its own local model of it, its own representation. As philosopher David Pearce notes, we pursue happiness “in the guise of innumerable intentional objects. [Intentionality in philosophy-speak is the ‘aboutness’ or ‘object-directedness’ of thought].”^^33^^ And what our naive realist minds fail to see is that the seemingly external “objects” we chase, along with the joys we may gain from this chase, are all in our heads (which is not to say that the things these “objects” represent do not exist in any sense). We fail to see that any (dis)value and preference satisfaction ever registered by any being is found only in that being and its model of the external world, not the external world itself.
The conflict, therefore, is only apparent: what appears a non-local phenomenon — the state of value and preference satisfaction of some being — is indeed a fact about a local phenomenon, the local state of the Field that is that being itself. Ultimately, all the Field ever knows and finds (dis)valuable directly, if anything, is its own local state.^^34^^
So (dis)value, on this account, is a local and intrinsic property found throughout the Field, which means that one could reasonably describe the ethical value of the Field that we are with a so-called scalar field (see illustration below for a graphic representation of a two-dimensional scalar field) that assigns a numerical value everywhere throughout the Field, a number that represents the (dis)value at any particular point in the Field.
The task of ethics thus ultimately becomes a matter of optimizing the state of the Field that we are according to the values represented by this scalar field.^^35^^ An optimization, it is worth noting, according to the Field itself, throughout the Field, not just according to a single human brain.
“But What About Genuine Conflicts Between Different Parts of the Field?”
That is, what about cases where the intrinsic value found in one part of the Field is in conflict with that of another part? How can we measure different states of (dis)value against each other?
First, it is worth noting that ethics (i.e. Field optimization) need not be all about conflict. We are very inclined to zero-sum thinking, yet there is no reason to think that Field optimization must be a zero-sum game in the sense that the gain in one part of the Field must happen at the equal cost of some other part of it. Indeed, we seem to have every reason to think that it is not.^^36^^
That being said, it must be acknowledged that the answer to this “conflict question” is not a simple one. What we can say, however, is that we can make at least some confident judgments about which states that are better or worse than others. For instance, it is clear that, other things being equal, torture is worse than an ordinary headache, and that such a headache is worse than pure happiness.^^37^^ It is also clear that it is not worth going through torture in order to get nothing but a headache. So we clearly can order different states of being in terms of their (dis)value and measure them against each other to some extent. It is only when we ask where different states of sentience fall on this continuum exactly that the matter becomes unclear.
Yet this lack of clarity by no means negates this notional scalar field account of ethics. The fact that there are questions we are unable to settle concerning the respective (dis)value of different states does not mean that there are no facts about their respective (dis)value, much less that there are no such facts about any states at all; as the above examples show, there clearly are. Just as our inability to answer certain questions in physics does not imply that our basic understanding of physics (e.g. the second law of thermodynamics) is false, much less that facts about physics do not exist, our inability to answer every ethical question does not imply that ethical realism is false, nor that the account of ethics outlined above is wrong.
One may object to such a general notion of ordering because it does not take account of whose suffering and happiness we are talking about. Yet this objection betrays the Field view — the fact that it is all you — and amounts to a jump back into a clothespin view. For upon adopting the Field view, it makes no sense to consider a certain part of the Field particularly special on grounds other than what its particular local state is. That would be like arbitrarily considering one part of physical space more special than any other. In fact, it is not merely “like” that; it is that. The problem is that we are still thinking in terms of different “objects with feelings” rather than consciousness — the same “object”, or rather subject — in different states.
“But What Does ‘Good’, ‘Bad’, and ‘Normative’ Mean?”
Another, far more fundamental objection to the realist account of ethics presented here is that words like ‘bad’, ‘normative’, and ‘(dis)valuable’ do not correspond to anything, and that they even make no sense.
I am afraid that I reach an impasse at this point, as I find these concepts obviously meaningful (and so, I believe, does everybody else, whether they admit it or not, cf. the Shakespeare quote below). To me, this is like saying that one does not know what a point is, or what the color red looks like. Like these, concepts such as ‘badness’ and ’normativity’ are, to my mind, foundational concepts that we cannot communicate, yet we all know what they mean, as our daily use of them reveals. As Shakespeare wrote: “For there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently” [Much Ado About Nothing, Scene Five, Act One (Leonato speaking)]^^38^^ — and, one could add, never yet a philosopher who did not consider their toothache bad, something that should not be.
We know bad when we experience it, as in the case of a serious toothache, just as we know a point when we experience it. In mathematics, we cannot define a point in terms of more foundational concepts, yet this does not render the concept of a point meaningless. The exact same holds, I maintain, in the case of our foundational concepts in ethics, such as ‘bad’ and ‘ought’.
There is a strange double standard in the modern intellectual landscape in this respect. When it comes to the foundations of science and mathematics, we ignore foundational problems in practice, while we consider them devastating in the case of ethics. For example, there is no broadly accepted view of what numbers are, or in what sense claims about them are true, if at all. Indeed, more generally, it is well-known among mathematicians that there is no widely accepted answer to the question of what mathematics is, and whether mathematical claims are even true, and if so, in what sense.^^39^^
In the case of science, the foundational problems appear no smaller, as all science ultimately rests on induction,^^40^^ yet we do not have a non-inductive justification for induction. We can only accept its validity.^^41^^ Yet this is not considered a problem in practice, nor should it. But somehow things are different in the case of foundational “problems” in ethics, the realm of values and ‘oughts’. Yet, as philosopher Hillary Putnam has pointed out, this makes little sense, as science and mathematics themselves rest on ‘oughts’ — for instance, that one ought to be consistent, and that one ought to follow the evidence.^^42^^ As Putnam showed, facts and values are entangled, as facts rest on the assumed validity of certain values, which means that it is not only problematic to claim that only truths about ‘is’ exist while there are no valid normative claims, but actually inconsistent. And the entanglement also goes the other way: all values we hold and could hold are themselves certain facts about the world, respectively about its actual and potential states.
But somehow we have convinced ourselves that an ‘ought’ such as “one ought to prevent extreme suffering” is more suspect than these other ‘oughts’ that we all accept. But why? Does this more “moral”^^43^^ ‘ought’ seem less reasonable? Less meaningful? I don’t think so. But when enough voices say there is a significant difference, we appear to think that the matter is settled.
One might object that the difference is that there is an ‘if’ in front of the epistemic ‘oughts’. If you want to know the truth, then you ought to follow the evidence, but nothing commits you to want to know the truth in the first place. There are two things to say in response to this objection. First, we should be clear that we actually do not play this game when it comes to truth. People who do not care about what the truth is — about the cause of a given disease, for instance — do not pose a deep problem for our pursuit of truth, at least not in theory.^^44^^ We all accept the premise that the truth matters. Why, then, is it more problematic to accept the premise that suffering matters?
It isn’t, which is the second point I would make in response to this objection. For the whole point of the account of ethics outlined above is that the if in this conditional if-then account of the nature of ‘oughts’ is indeed vindicated. It is the case that certain states of the Field are states of pain and suffering, states that are inherently worth avoiding according to the Field in that state. The ‘ought’ is inherent to such states.^^45^^
In sum, I maintain that our core set of normative concepts is no more problematic or meaningless than our mathematical and scientific ones. Indeed, the latter rest upon the former. I think it is a cultural accident that we allow ourselves to admit that two plus two is four, while we fail to admit that we find it truly normative to not endure extreme suffering — more generally, that there are better and worse states of the Field according to the Field itself. We have schooled ourselves to see a whole host of problems in the case of the ethical claim, while ignoring all the similar objections that can be leveled against the mathematical claim with equal force (e.g. “What are you even talking about?”; “What do words like ‘two’ and ‘plus’ even mean?”; “Mathematical [and physical] truth claims are merely our Darwinian intuitions talking”^^46^^). This is a harmful double standard.
Avoiding a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy by Admitting the Truth
If we do not allow ourselves to admit the existence of certain truths, we easily miss them, even if those truths are rather obvious. For example, the fact that heavier objects do not fall faster than lighter objects is an obvious truth, in the sense that it can be verified in a rather straightforward way, yet that does not mean that we will realize it, especially if we embrace an ideology that tells us that we should not systematically explore nature because there is nothing worth knowing about it.
This also holds true of the fact that we find certain states of being truly worth avoiding. Despite its glaring obviousness, we can still fail to realize this fact explicitly, and thus fail to look deeper into it and derive the implications that follow.^^47^^ In this way, saying that we cannot speak factually about ethics can become a self-fulfilling prophecy with disastrous consequences, as it can keep us from having such a factual discourse in practice, in spite of it being possible in theory. This, I believe, is the situation we have brought ourselves in.
Our repudiation of facts concerning ethics keeps us from advancing toward better ethical knowledge and practice by denying the very possibility of such advancement in the first place. If we consider facts concerning value and ethics to be non-existent, we will obviously not seek to uncover such facts, much less (be able to) act on them. This is how big a stumbling block moral relativism is to ethical inquiry and progress. It destroys the foundation for a rational approach to ethics, and gives us the false idea that there is nothing deeper any individual can say about ethics than “I (dis)like that”. But we can say something deeper, namely that there is an entire Field that everywhere can be in a state of (dis)liking — more generally, in truly better and worse, truly more and less normative, states according to itself, ourself. And admitting this fact is crucial in order for us to start systematically optimizing this Field. To move ourself away from states of extreme suffering toward better states. That is what we should do, for no one’s sake but our own.^^48^^
Caring About the Entire Field
“The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?”
— Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation
An obvious implication of the Field view is that we should care about the entire Field, at least all those states of the Field that are sentient. And while it is easy for us to nod along and agree with this in the abstract, we are still, even as we nod, far from actually agreeing in all respects. As mentioned, just because we agree with a given conclusion does not mean that we will then think and act accordingly. Merely saying, and in the most frontal of brain departments agreeing with, the statement that we should care about the entire Field does not magically change the fact that we have extraordinarily biased brains. Our moral sentiments that largely govern our ethical behavior moment-to-moment are built by a complex interplay of genetic and cultural factors, and a nod of agreement to the principle of “concern for all”, however sincere, does not immediately undo this process and recalibrate those sentiments. It is at best the first step toward such recalibration.
And when it comes to caring about the entire Field, there is one bias that is particularly strong, namely our speciesist bias. In this day and age, “caring about everyone” is virtually synonymous with “caring about every human individual”, which is why merely saying that we should “care about everyone” or “care about all sentient states of the Field” is grossly insufficient on its own. We need another cognitive tool in order to prevail against our bias. We need to think in terms of anti-speciesism.
Once we admit that sentience is what matters, we are also forced to admit that our all-pervasive discrimination against sentient beings based on their species membership cannot be justified. In other words: that speciesism is wrong. Just as an individual’s race, sex, or sexual orientation is ethically irrelevant, it is not morally relevant which species a sentient being belongs to.^^49^^
This is an obvious corollary of the statement that we should care about the entire Field, yet it no doubt fits much worse into the collage of ideas most people like to be associated with at this point in time. “We should care about the entire Field” sounds self-evident and eminently acceptable, not least because it barely hints at any concrete implications. “We should reject speciesism” is far from being that weak, and, partly for that reason, most people appear to like it less (to put it mildly).
So how, our biased mind wonders, can we pretend to agree with the former proposition while rejecting the latter, clearly not so cool or convenient one? With a rationalization, of course. Perhaps we can restore our peace of mind by saying that human individuals are more sentient than individuals of other species, and hence that the status quo isn’t that crazy. Sure, we’ll take that one. We’ll take anything.
Yet this is a terrible rationalization. First, even if non-human beings were less sentient than human beings, this obviously does not imply that discrimination against them is justified. After all, if one human individual were somehow shown to be less sentient than another, we would not find it acceptable to give significantly less moral consideration to the former, much less disregard the less sentient individual completely (e.g. accept that we can eat, or let others eat, that individual).
Second, the claim that humans are more sentient than other sentient beings — i.e. that humans experience pain and pleasure more intensely than other beings — is not supported by the evidence; quite the contrary. As philosopher David Pearce notes:
We often find it convenient to act as though the capacity to suffer were somehow inseparably bound up with linguistic ability or ratiocinative prowess. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that this is the case, and a great deal that it isn’t. The functional regions of the brain which subserve physical agony, the “pain centres”, and the mainly limbic substrates of emotion, appear in phylogenetic terms to be remarkably constant in the vertebrate line. The neural pathways involving serotonin, the periaquaductal grey matter, bradykinin, dynorphin, ATP receptors, the major opioid families, substance P etc all existed long before hominids walked the earth. Not merely is the biochemistry of suffering disturbingly similar where not effectively type-identical across a wide spectrum of vertebrate (and even some invertebrate) species. It is at least possible that members of any species whose members have more pain cells exhibiting greater synaptic density than humans sometimes suffer more atrociously than we do, whatever their notional “intelligence”.^^50^^
The possibility that beings of other species may even experience suffering more intensely than humans has been raised by others as well, including zoologist James Serpell who notes that, unlike other animals, humans can rationalize their pain, which to some extent helps to rationalize it away.^^51^^ Richard Dawkins has argued for the possibility, and plausibility, as well, based on an evolutionary argument:
[…] I can see a Darwinian reason why there might even be a negative correlation between intellect and susceptibility to pain. […]
Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? Isn’t it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement?
At very least, I conclude that we have no general reason to think that non-human animals feel pain less acutely than we do, and we should in any case give them the benefit of the doubt.^^52^^
Given the undeniable fact that non-human individuals are sentient, there simply is no way we can justify our speciesist attitudes and practices. Add to this the fact that non-human beings comprise the vast majority of sentient beings on the planet — no doubt more than 99.99 percent of sentient vertebrates are non-human, and that is only counting vertebrates^^53^^ — and it suddenly becomes apparent just how extraordinarily skewed our ethical focus is. How far we are from being aligned with the goal of optimizing the state of the entire Field at the level of our attitudes and practices. Almost all of our moral attention is devoted to (much) less than 0.01 percent of the sentient states of the Field within our reach.
And again, this remains true for most of us even when we accept the proposition that we should care about the entire Field. Our moral sentiments do not immediately catch up with our intellectual insights, if they ever fully do,^^54^^ which is why we must supplement the general ideal of caring about the entire Field with the more specific ideal of anti-speciesism. Indeed, I believe the promotion of anti-speciesism might be among the very best things we can do at this point in order to improve the state of (dis)value of the Field.^^55^^
The Suffering of the Field: This Is an Emergency
“It’s easy to convince oneself that things can’t really be that bad, that the horror invoked is being overblown, that what is going on elsewhere in space-time is somehow less real than this here-and-now, or that the good in the world somehow offsets the bad. Yet however vividly one thinks one can imagine what agony, torture or suicidal despair must be like, the reality is inconceivably worse. Hazy images of Orwell’s ‘Room 101’ barely hint at what I’m talking about. The force of ‘inconceivably’ is itself largely inconceivable here.”
— David Pearce, The Hedonistic Imperative^56^
The idea that extreme suffering has moral priority above anything else seems hard to deny, at least when we are confronted with it directly, either by seeing others endure such suffering or by experiencing it ourselves. Extreme suffering begs for urgent action; the hedonically neutral absence of happiness does not.^^57^^
If we are suffering intensely, we do not hesitate to do something about it, and all talk about ethical obligations and meta ethics does not merely seem overly theoretical in that context; it is wholly unnecessary. The point, however, is that we are, as the Field, enduring such suffering all the time, and at an enormous scale. Yet due to ignorance and normalization of this suffering, we fail to act.
Novelty Bias and Baseline Horror: The Normalization of Disaster
In 1755 an earthquake occurred southwest of the coast of Portugal, the so-called Great Lisbon Earthquake, which led to a tsunami estimated to have killed 10,000 to 100,000 people in Lisbon alone. This tragedy made a great impression on many of the philosophers of the time due to its magnitude and conspicuous lack of meaning. For how, they now had to wonder, can there be a good God in a world where such an enormous and utterly meaningless tragedy occurs? It just seemed too much of a stretch, as Voltaire tried to express in his satire novella Candide, ou l’Optimisme published four years after the tragedy.^^58^^
This reaction makes a lot of sense when we think about the psychological effects of such a tragedy. Our brains process the news of such disasters with strong emotional responses. It hits us hard in our solar plexus, which makes perfect sense in light of our evolutionary history: paying serious attention to an enormous disaster that affects us or our kin is exactly what we should expect an organism like ourselves to do.
The reaction makes less sense, however, when we look at the actual facts of the scale of suffering in the world. For the truth is that, in terms of suffering endured, a disaster on a far greater scale than the Great Lisbon Earthquake takes place every single day on Earth — every single minute even. It is just less concentrated in space, and less unusual.
For example, even in the 1750s Europe, not just thousands but millions of people died every year in ways that were hardly much more pleasant than the deaths caused by the Lisbon Earthquake. Should these deaths and the suffering involved be considered less bad just because they were more distributed over space and time than those that occurred in Lisbon? That seems hard to defend. Yet their dispersion and normality made it harder for these philosophers, indeed for any human, to notice them in the same way — to feel a sense of horror remotely proportional to the scale of the disaster.
The crucial point here of course has nothing to do with philosophers of the past. It is about all of us today, and how we are completely out of touch with the facts of the condition in which we are living. Death and suffering on an enormous scale is not, unfortunately, a thing of the past. It is real today, right now, on a scale far greater than hinted above, and we fail to realize it just the same. For not only do millions of people still suffer and die every year — and more than a million of these deaths are due to readily preventable causes — but humanity now exploits, mistreats, and kills more sentient beings than ever before in history. Tens of billions of non-human individuals are tormented and killed every year at human hands. And if we take seriously the realization that speciesism is no more justified than racism, we have to admit that this contemporary genocide against individuals of other species is in no way less bad than the Holocaust — indeed, its scale is orders of magnitude greater — yet we completely fail to realize this, to feel the proper disgust and horror, because it is normal. As George Bernard Shaw observed: “Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity […]”^^59^^
Yet the incomprehensibly bad horror story that is humanity’s mistreatment and killing of other sentient beings still, most tragically, only comprises a fraction of all the horror that takes place on our planet, since nothing can compare to the number of beings who suffer and die in nature, a number orders of magnitude greater than the number of beings we humans exploit and kill.^^60^^ In nature, innumerable non-human beings suffer and die due to starvation, disease, and being eaten alive, among other causes, and just like human individuals, these beings have an interest in not enduring such suffering.^^61^^ In terms of the scale of suffering, this is by far the biggest disaster on the planet. And we are barely even talking about it.^^62^^
This is the world we are living in. Or rather: this is the state of the Field that we are. Every day, a catastrophe on a scale far greater than those reported in any history book is taking place.^^63^^ And we feel next to nothing about it. In terms of suffering endured, we are in the middle of Holocaust times a million plus — always — and yet what occupies our minds most of the time barely even qualifies as petty. On both an emotional and intellectual level, we are royally out of touch with reality.
There are many reasons for this, of course, but a significant one is that we have a novelty bias. We are addicts to new information, while we find the known and normal boring, almost no matter what it pertains to. Rather than studying books densely packed with important information, we compulsively seek out news sites and blogs to see if they can give us a good hit. That our minds have such a propensity should not be surprising — for the vast majority of the history of our species, new information about the here-and-now was probably the most important information one could get, while accumulated knowledge in books did not even exist. Today, however, this mind architecture has the unfortunate effect of making us preoccupied with things that are not necessarily the most important; they are just new, and hence relevant according to the logic of dopamine squirts. Consequently, if the news reported that humanity killed hundreds of millions of non-human beings today, or that billions of fish have been eaten alive within the last week, we would all get a weird look on our faces, although, in terms of the suffering endured, few things could be more significant.
This is why we cannot see the ongoing catastrophe right before our eyes. It is all baseline horror, so we fail to recognize it as such. And therefore we fail to realize the ever-present importance and urgency of doing something about it. We know that if we found ourselves in Germany in the 1930s, we would have an enormous obligation to do something. We would be in a position to help save lives, like Schindler did, although in a preventive, and therefore likely more efficient, manner (it would have been easier to export Jews from Germany in 1932 than in 1942). What we fail to see is that we are in the same position today. We are in as good a position as ever to save countless lives from pain and suffering.^^64^^
The Wrongness of Inaction
We now recognize that a failure to save Jews from the gas chambers would constitute a colossal moral failure. We have seen pictures of what such a failure meant for the victims, and many of us have walked in the camps and tried — and of course failed — to imagine what it must have been like. More than that, and perhaps most important for the function of our moral sentiments, our culture now widely condemns the atrocity in the strongest of terms. Inaction in that situation was not merely not good. It was extremely bad. This can now be considered a moral no-brainer.
Yet if we realize this much, and if we also realize that suffering on a scale far greater still is found in the baseline horrors that occur today, how can we justify not viewing our present inaction in the face of this baseline horror in a similar way? How can we defend not viewing our condition as one of ongoing maximal moral urgency? We can’t.^^65^^
The rationalizing apologist for moral laziness that is our Darwinian mind would beg to differ, of course, perhaps by claiming that in the case of the Jews, one could readily do something about it, whereas it is much less clear what we can or should do today. Yet this is simply not true. As we shall see in the following chapter, there is much we can do today to improve the state of the world, and, luckily, these things are much easier and far less risky than trying to save Jews in Germany in the 1930s.
The sum of ongoing background catastrophes that occur every moment of every day is immensely greater than any of the specific disasters picked out and reported in the news. Any single disaster, such as 9/11 or the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, sadly only represents a mere drop in the large black sea of suffering in the world. Each moment contains extreme suffering on an incomprehensible scale, and every single instance of such suffering is an urgent scream for help. We find ourselves in the midst of an emergency with not one but billions of children drowning, many of whom are floating past our notional hands every second. Yet our ancient moral intuitions are not finely tuned to comprehend events on such an enormous scale, nor well-adapted to the global interconnected world of today, and therefore our intuitions have a hard time appreciating the reality of our current condition. That reality being that we stand with an enormous opportunity to alleviate suffering, with overwhelming reason to do so, and without a single reason not to. Once we realize our identity as the Field, and once we acknowledge the true horror of extreme suffering, the primacy of reducing suffering throughout the Field becomes self-evident. Inescapable even.
For the truth is this: you are them. And if you are getting eaten alive, boiled alive, or suffer a similarly horrible fate — and you are, in a frightfully real sense — the implications are clear. You do not ignore or rationalize the suffering. You urgently do your best to alleviate it.
How Do We Reduce Suffering?
“We have enormous opportunity to reduce suffering on behalf of sentient creatures.”
Brian Tomasik, Against Wishful Thinking^66^
How can we alleviate and prevent suffering in the world? While it is far from clear how to best do this, and while there will always be uncertainty about the consequences of our actions, there are still many things we can do today that seem highly likely to be beneficial — likely to save countless lives from intense suffering.
Raising Concern for Suffering and Expanding Our Circle of Moral Consideration
The perhaps most obvious of these things is to raise concern for suffering so that we make its reduction a priority. If we make reducing suffering a clear and widely shared goal, it seems much more likely that we will be successful in achieving this goal, both today and in the future. Yet raising concern for suffering in a generic sense is hardly sufficient, as such concern would probably relate mainly to the beings who already inhabit our circle of moral consideration. We also need to expand this circle so that we do not arbitrarily exclude anyone. In concrete terms, this means arguing against discrimination of sentient beings. It means promoting anti-speciesism and sentiocentrism.^^67^^
How to then best raise concern for suffering is an open question, yet it seems that a combination of arguments and direct exposure to the realities of suffering in the form of movies and pictures can be quite effective. Some resources that attempt to raise such concerns are found in the links in the following footnote.^^68^^ As for how we can expand our circle of moral consideration, a similar strategy of showing real-life footage of the beings we currently discriminate against — particularly footage that makes us identify with them as subjects — along with a presentation of the facts and arguments that show why such discrimination is unjustifiable seems a strong bet. Some resources that do one or both are found in this footnote.^^69^^
And it is indeed difficult to overstate how biased and ineffective our altruistic efforts are bound to be as long as we fail to expand this circle. For we are, as mentioned, currently leaving out the vast majority of sentient beings — more than 99.99 percent of them — in virtually all of our moral calculations and deliberations. By analogy, imagine the value and efficacy of an altruistic focus that pertains exclusively to Aryans as opposed to all of humanity. Hardly the focus we would adopt in order to help as many beings as possible, and yet this analogy fails to compare even remotely to the current ratio of the number of beings we are concerned with to the number of beings we should be concerned with.
Consider the concrete example of poverty. In the case of human beings, we rightly recognize that poverty is a problem, and acknowledge the normativity of doing something to help. In the case of non-human beings, however, we completely fail to realize that the same holds true. Like humans who live in conditions of extreme poverty, non-human individuals in nature also succumb to starvation and disease, and, just as human individuals, they have an interest in avoiding such tragic fates. Yet this interest is almost universally, and wholly unjustifiably,^^70^^ missed by humanity at this point in time.
The reason for this discrepancy in these respective levels of concern is clear: we have a deeply ingrained speciesist bias. A bias forcefully perpetuated by a culture that teaches us not only to view individuals of other species as having little moral worth, but to even eat these individuals, even though we have no need to do so. And needless to say, eating a group of beings is just about the last thing to do in order to think clearly about the ethical status of the individuals belonging to that group. This is one of the many reasons why veganism is so important. On top of sparing about 30-200 lives every year (estimates vary^^71^^), going vegan is also, perhaps more importantly, the first step toward having the slightest chance of being able to think about individuals of other species, in ethical terms, in a way that is not completely deluded. Such clearer moral thinking might enable us to spare far more lives in the long run than “mere” hundreds.^^72^^
Dispensing with Delusions of Personal Identity
As noted in the introduction, I believe promotion of the view of personal identity I have argued for here may hold great potential as well, of course in combination with the strategies listed above. Indeed, on this view of personal identity, even psychopaths may become dedicated toward ethics, i.e. dedicated toward optimizing the Field that we are. For as one study found, it is not that psychopaths do not, or cannot, care at all. Rather, it seems that they just do not care about those who are identified as “others”:
Our results demonstrate that while individuals with psychopathy exhibited a strong response in pain-affective brain regions when taking an imagine-self perspective, they failed to recruit the neural circuits that were activated in controls during an imagine-other perspective, and that may contribute to lack of empathic concern.^^73^^
So if psychopaths imagine what they see happening to others as occurring to themselves, it seems that they do feel and care. And how much more might they not care, one may wonder, if they not only imagined that what happens to others is happening to them, but actually fully believed it — that is, fully believed the view of personal identity I have argued for here.
Yet it is not only psychopaths whom I think would become more ethical upon adopting such a view. For whether we are psychopaths or not, it remains true that our minds are highly ego-driven, ruled mostly by a “make the future good for myself” motivation, which would seem to imply that seeing “myself” as the entire Field would make us motivated to make the future good for all its sentient states. At least more so than otherwise.
One may object that this view of personal identity is too weird for it to ever become widespread. To that I would respond that, first, deep concern for extreme suffering, especially for that of non-human individuals, may also remain rare, yet even having relatively few people with such deep concern could still be highly beneficial in terms of its impact. Ditto for a few people embracing this view of personal identity. Second, the claim that this idea is too weird to become widespread is disputable to say the least. After all, quite a few people have arrived at this view independently of each other, which is more than one can say of the tenets of Christianity or Islam, which together have more than half the human population as adherents. The claim that we are the same Field in different states is hardly more weird or unbelievable than the strange claims one finds on just about every page of the Bible and the Quran. And unlike the latter claims, the former claim actually has a firm basis in what we know about the world. If a set of ideas as strange and baseless as Christianity or Islam can become widespread, why should this simple idea, which does have basis in reality, not be able to?
I do not know whether it could, but it seems to me that it might, and it would indeed be a shame if this view of ourself fails to become widespread because those who hold it, and are motivated by it in their altruistic — or rather “broadly selfish” — efforts, keep quiet about it on the dogmatic assumption that others cannot embrace it and be motivated by it too. The number of people who quietly hold, and are motivated by, this view in my own circle of friends suggests to me that it holds much more potential than one would naively expect.
Researching and Reflecting on the Question
There are many open questions before us when it comes to how we can best alleviate and prevent suffering, which suggests that we should make research on such questions a priority. These include questions such as: How do we best raise concern for suffering? How do we best expand our circle of moral consideration? How can we avoid the greatest risks of the worst kinds of suffering? And, crucially, what is the nature of suffering, particularly in terms of its physical signatures?
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these questions. To zoom in on the last one: Everything from how we can best alleviate suffering today to what the deep future of suffering is likely to be depends critically on what the nature of suffering is. Knowing more about this matter therefore could — and I think likely would — shift our priorities in significant ways.
Because if we can understand the nature of suffering, particularly in genetic and neuroscientific terms, we might be able to abolish it entirely from our lives, throughout the Field. Philosopher David Pearce argues that we can and should do exactly this, a project he calls the Abolitionist Project.^^74^^ Others, such as the Foundational Research Institute (FRI),^^75^^ are more skeptical, and rather than focusing primarily on the abolition of suffering based on an understanding of biology, the researchers at FRI are focused on reducing risks of futures containing astronomical amounts of (mainly non-biological) suffering.^^76^^
As this disagreement hints, there is little consensus when it comes to the nature of suffering, and hence much disagreement about what we can and should do about it. A better answer to this question would clearly be of great value, and it seems that the only way we can hope to approach such an answer is through further research, as is true of all the other questions mentioned above.^^77^^ Although our sense of urgency is more tied to acting directly than to doing research on crucial questions, the latter is indeed an urgent necessity as well. The more we know, the more qualified we are to create a better world.
Donating to the Cause
There are many ways to donate to the cause of alleviating and preventing suffering in the world. Dedicating one’s time to one or more of the pursuits outlined above, professionally or otherwise, is one way. Another way is to donate money to the cause, for instance by donating to organizations that do effective activism or research.^^78^^ Unfortunately, as philosopher Adriano Mannino has argued, most of us seem to hold an unreasonably asymmetrical view when it comes to the lives we can save with our own consumer choices versus the lives we can save with donations.^^79^^
For instance, most vegans would be willing to pay a decent amount of money to have a vegan meal over a non-vegan one — say, 10 dollars extra — but if the same amount of money could save several lives (as various estimates suggest it easily could^^80^^), it seems that, if one’s aim is to save lives, one should be at least as willing to make such a donation as buying the vegan meal. Yet this is by no means the current norm among vegans, where consumer choice is generally considered much more important than donations.^^81^^ And this holds true for everyone, vegan or not: we generally seem to care much more about the good we can do — or the bad we can avoid doing — with our consumer choices than the good we could do with donations.
If one didn’t know better, one might suspect that we are mainly acting based on an evolutionarily adaptive intuition that drives us to minimize our own personal “blameworthiness” among peers rather than trying to save the most lives possible. In the unthinkable case this is true, our aim should be to make it clear to ourselves and our peers that, to the extent that a failure to save lives is blameworthy, a failure to make life saving donations when one easily could indeed is blameworthy.
Some people take the arguments about the enormous life saving potential of donations seriously, and dedicate their entire careers to the purpose of earning money that they can donate, what is often referred to as “Earning-to-Give”. This can be a great way to contribute to the cause. Whether it is the best way, however, will depend on how one might otherwise be able to contribute.
In sum, there are many ways in which we can dedicate our time to the alleviation of suffering, and the task that lies before us is to find out which ways that are best for each of us individually, and to act accordingly. With urgency.
The Field View: Non Sequiturs
“As a practical fact, you’re gonna exist again […]”
— Inmendham, Looking at Snowflakes^82^
In this chapter I shall address some of the supposed implications that one may be tempted to think will follow upon accepting the Field view of personal identity and ethics that I have defended here, yet which should be recognized as the non sequiturs they are, and safely steered clear of. The first such non sequitur is that the Field view would imply that one should not put a high priority on taking good care of oneself, in the usual narrow sense.
This claim seems especially likely to come from self-identified Randians who might object that the view I have argued for implies self-destructive altruism. I would argue, however, that the Field view is in fact just the opposite. It is truly Randian, in the sense that it is all about rational self-interest, albeit in a way devoid of delusions about personal identity — Randianism without clothespins or other magical notions of any kind.^^83^^
That being said, it is indeed worth emphasizing the importance of taking good care of oneself in the usual narrow sense, something that is arguably only made more important, not less, by the Field view. For in order to be able to relieve as much suffering as possible throughout the Field, one must have good mental and physical health, which requires quality self-care and self-investment. The choice between a life where one takes good care of oneself — a life with good relationships, healthy self-respect, personal growth, and financial security — or a life where one works to optimize the state of (dis)value throughout the Field is a false one, fortunately. The former is a necessary condition for the latter to be possible in a sustainable way. We have nothing but good reasons to take good care of ourselves, and embracing the Field view only gives us more such reasons.^^84^^
The Sensibility of Distinctions and Respect for “Others”
While it is true that we are the same in a very real sense, it is also true that, in another sense, we are not. And distinctions and differences between different individuals clearly matter. This is not contrary to the Field view, however. For the Field view in no way implies that we cannot meaningfully distinguish between others and ourselves in the ordinary sense, any more than it implies that we cannot distinguish between, say, ourselves at age 18 and 25 respectively, or the left and right hemisphere of the brain. We can indeed, and such a distinction between “you” and “others” is nothing less than indispensable in practice. What the Field view implies is just that distinctions like these — such as that between (what we usually consider) two different persons and between (what we usually consider) ourselves at different ages — are far more similar than our clothespin intuitions will admit, the similarity being that none of these distinctions are distinctions between fundamentally different “things”. More specifically, that there are not different souls riding around inside of any of them.
That being said, there are indeed relevant differences between these two distinctions, and these are of immense practical importance. Michael on Monday clearly stands in a different relation to Michael on Tuesday than he does to others. For one, he knows far more about the experiences and preferences of Michael on Tuesday, and any other day in the future, than anyone else does. Michael has directly felt the good and bad features of his conscious mind and seen what triggers these respective states — others have not — which is one reason why it makes perfect sense that he is the captain of the ship that is his own experience.
This is also why the Field view does not imply that suicide and murder are the same, or, more generally, why it does not imply that we should be free to do to others that which we are free to do to ourselves — e.g. “why, on the Field view, should we not be free to impose pain on others?”
The importance of personal autonomy is by no means diminished by the Field view. Indeed, the practical consequences of the loss of such autonomy alone provides more than adequate justification for the respect of such autonomy. Or to provide a defense of such autonomy based more directly on the Field view itself: a willingness to impose pain on others is not the result of an appreciation of the Field view, but rather the opposite. For the Field view implies that the pain of “others” is really your own pain of which you just happen, locally, to be ignorant, and we are not generally eager to impose pain on ourselves when we understand what it entails. And even if we sometimes do intentionally impose pain on ourselves — which, by the way, is usually either done to prevent a greater pain or the result of some form of pathology we would rather be without — we should still have the humility to acknowledge that the pain that other beings feel may be very different from our own. We do not have a detailed understanding of the experiences of others, and we should therefore be humble about the contents and value of their experiences, and prevent ourselves from acting against the personal autonomy of those other consciousnesses given that ignorance. As the contemplative Mooji put it, we are the same in essence, but we are different in expression.^^85^^ And this sameness in essence, or substance, does not imply that these different expressions that we are should not respect each other and their — our — respective preferences. Quite the contrary.
The Importance of Thinking About Ethics in Different Ways
The necessity of respect for personal autonomy ties into a broader point, namely that the Field view does not imply that we should only think about ethics in terms of a scalar field that represents intrinsic value. For even if we think such a scalar field view is a reasonable account of what ethics is ultimately all about, this by no means implies that we are always best served by thinking in these terms. By analogy, even if all of physics is ultimately reducible to a few fundamental equations, this does not imply that these equations are all we will ever need for the purpose of physical description and navigation. It is clear that our thinking about physics is bound to consist of a multitude of models that deal with different phenomena at different levels of abstraction. Ditto for our thinking about ethics.
Thinking about ethics in terms of a scalar field of intrinsic value is, I think, a valuable addition to our toolbox of moral reasoning, but, as argued in the discussion about anti-speciesism, it is far from sufficient on its own. For instance, such a scalar field view does not, in itself, say anything about the utility of virtues, strict rules, or prosocial feelings, or indeed about the instrumental value of anything in the world. And these instrumentally valuable things are crucial to keep track of and foster as well if we are to successfully shape the world into a better state in terms of its intrinsic value.^^86^^
The scalar field view of intrinsic value is simple, which makes it extremely useful. Yet this simplicity also means that one can easily draw misguided, over-reductionistic conclusions from it. For example, upon embracing this field view of ethics, it may be tempting to conclude that we should not have deeper emotional connections with some beings than we do with others.^^87^^ Yet this is a non sequitur, and a rather dangerous one at that.^^88^^ For when we look a little closer, we see that the scope of our emotional connections is in fact not as sub-optimal as it may seem at first sight. Deep emotional connections with those closest to us is indispensable for our ability to function, both individually and collectively. They are the lubrication that makes our social life work and keeps our minds healthy. Without such connections, human minds such as our own simply do not work optimally. But the problem hinted at above is of course not that we have deep emotional connections at all, but rather that we are not emotionally connected with all beings. So the real question is whether we should have deep emotional connections with everyone rather than just a few?
Intuitively, it seems obvious that the answer should be “yes”. Yet deeper reflection upon the realities of our condition reveals that this intuition is naive. It would in fact not be better if we had deep emotional connections with everyone; it would be catastrophic. Because if we did, we would be brought to our knees in tears, continually and without break, due to the catastrophes that befall sentient beings every second of every day. If we felt the same way about every sentient individual as we do about a close friend, disaster would never allow us to get anything done. This is a cynical statement. But it is also true — a truth that reveals that our limitations in this respect are in fact, at least in some sense, normative. Of course, in some ideal sense, it would be better if our minds were different and we were able to feel deeply connected with everyone, and not get destroyed by their suffering and demise. But then it would also be better if we were living in paradise. Unfortunately, we are not, the point here being that we have to take the realities of the world into account when we think about how things should be and how we can improve the world. And in light of these realities, I would argue that what we need most urgently at this point — what we can and should push for the hardest — is moral consideration and respect for all sentient beings; not deep emotional connections with them.
Death and the Hereafter
Finally, it is worth clarifying what the Field view implies — and does not imply — about death and “the afterlife”, another set of subjects where it is tempting to draw simplistic and misguided conclusions. As mentioned already, the Field view does not imply reincarnation in any traditional sense, but is in fact the very anti-thesis of it. Yet that is not to say that all notions of an afterlife are incompatible with the Field view. Indeed, in one sense, the reality of an afterlife is a direct corollary of the Field view, that sense being that the physical Field that we are will keep on manifesting as sentient minds after (what we usually consider) our own mind is no more. Consciousness will play on after this particular conscious mind has dropped, only with different dispositions, quirks, and memories; its substance will be consciousness just the same. Again, our clothespin intuition is struggling, as such a different state of consciousness does not intuitively feel like it will be “me” — because it will be, well, different. What we miss, however, is that the same is true of the stream of conscious states that we usually consider “me”. As author John Updike aptly noted: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.”^^89^^ In other words, our state of consciousness always changes, and the only difference, then, between the future states of consciousness we consider “our own” and “those of others” is the degree of similarity of the conscious states in question. But ultimately, they are all you. That is, they are all the substance of you — consciousness. And in this sense, as the Field, you will indeed keep on being reborn. You just won’t remember your past.^^90^^
Upon accepting this view, it can be easy to let the pendulum swing in the opposite direction and throw away all one’s intuitions about death — to believe that death is not bad and that survival does not matter. That would be yet another non sequitur, however. For, as I have argued elsewhere,^^91^^ death is indeed bad and harmful, in many ways, and the Field view in no way undoes this fact. Again, saying that every individual is of the same substance is not to say that the state of specific individuals, including their continued existence, does not matter. Indeed, the core of the ethical view I have argued for in this book is just the opposite: what matters is the specific states of the Field. And this of course includes states that involve dying and death, which, other things being equal, are usually painful states worth avoiding, both for the dying and their closest ones. Considering the instrumental value of individuals reveals the same conclusion: individuals know a lot and tend to provide a lot of value, not just to themselves, but also to the entire community in which they exist. And when an individual dies, the unwritten knowledge they possessed and the value they provided ceases to exist as well. Also in this sense is death a very bad thing.
As should be clear at this point, we must be careful not to draw false implications from the Field view, and not be too quick to throw out all the tools and practices we have in place already, many of which are both hard-won and indispensable. The Field view differs radically from common sense in many ways, and sure changes many things. Yet there is also a lot it does not change, such as the innate dispositions and limitations of humans. And it is essential that we factor in these realities that cannot readily be altered so that we avoid making claims about the normativity of things that are, in fact, not practically possible — or perhaps possible, yet not truly normative upon a closer look. Deeper reflection and a closer look at reality is called for.
The Future of Evolution: Deluded or Guided by Understanding?
“Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us. […] Evolution, including genetic progress in human nature and human capacity, will be from now on increasingly the domain of science and technology, tempered by ethics and political choice. […] Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.”
— E. O. Wilson, Consilience
Nobody knows what our future will be like. Given the history of life over the last four billion odd years, it seems natural to assume that life will keep on evolving by means of natural selection — to assume a continuation of life as the product of the (imperfect) replication of “selfish” genes. Yet there is reason to doubt this assumption, the main reason being the emergence of understanding.
For until recently, gene replication was simply the only thing life could do. Yet today, this is no longer the case. Biological evolution functioning in this crude manner for four billion years, supplemented by cultural evolution playing out over thousands of years, has now built an organism, or rather a group of organisms, that is able to understand the effects of various genes, and select for genes that it does not itself possess. In this way, our genes can be the first ones to actively select other genes than themselves, and do so based on an understanding of the likely effects of those genes. Evolution by informed selection.
Such selection would represent a radical change in the history of life. Of course, it would not be the genes themselves that would make the choice, but rather “us” in our entirety, as individuals guided by the understanding that our entire culture has built through exploration and discovery. In effect, such a selection revolution would turn our understanding of the world into a main driving force in the future evolution of life — perhaps even the driving force.
This seems a real possibility. Indeed, our understanding of the world is already a main driver of what we do and how we structure the world, even though it is not yet a main driver in the construction of the genome of the next generation. Ultimately, it seems that we could eventually reach a state where we primarily guide our actions and structure the world based on a deep understanding of the world — an understanding of ourself as the Field, and of the experiential properties of different states of the Field, including their (dis)value and significance.
Unfortunately, we are clearly a long way from having internalized, much less acting on, such an understanding at this point. We are still all too Darwinian structures of the Field, structures almost exclusively concerned with other similar such structures — those that share a significant fraction of “our” DNA — and with a culture that still does little else than reinforce that bias.^^92^^ Rather than primarily seeking and acting on a deep understanding of the facts of the world, we act based on Darwinian intuitions — “oh, this seems pleasant!” — that lead us to be caught up in a chase for satisfaction of crude drives; for gossip, status, sex, etc. Yet, fortunately, we seem to at least have the capacity to not always be caught up like this, and to at least sometimes enquire into what is in fact true of the world, and to even gradually accumulate an ever greater understanding of the answer to that question.
That, I propose, is what we should aspire for going forward: to continually build a greater understanding of the world, and to let our future actions be guided by such understanding rather than our hardwired blindspots and delusions, such as deluded clothespin intuitions about what we are, tribal notions of “us versus them”, and a failure to appreciate the realness of the experiences occurring elsewhere in the Field. As noted above, our actions are already guided by a deep understanding of the world in many ways. For instance, we have acquired a sophisticated understanding of physics with which we have built everything that surrounds us: buildings, electronics, vehicles — none of which could have been built merely with our intuitive understanding of physics. Thus, understanding, even of an unintuitive kind, clearly can become widespread and have a strong influence in the world. The question, then, is why an understanding of the fact that we are not non-physical souls, but a physical Field grown into sentience, could not be widely shared and action guiding as well? Why should we not be able to understand ourself as the Field, and organize the state of this Field based on an advanced understanding of its properties? I wrote this book because I think we can. If we try.
My deepest thanks go to David Pearce for being an inexhaustible source of intellectual inspiration and profundity. I feel lucky and grateful to not only be a contemporary of this great mind, but to also be able to have discussions with him, and to even have him save me from myself occasionally. David also went over a draft and provided input that the book benefitted greatly from.
I also want to thank my friends Joe and Jess, and Ailin, Magnus, and Joachim for their friendship and support. I admire you all more than you realize.
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1 I shall not argue for this premise here. I think basic scientific literacy provides a satisfying case for physicalism.
2 See for instance Slovic, 2007.
3 See for instance Flynn’s book Are We Getting Smarter?.
4 When it comes to whether this change was caused by more empathy, signalling, or consistent reasoning, it is hardly a matter of either-or. Empathy, reason, and signalling most likely worked in tandem, paving the way for each other. A consistently reasoning intellect will ask: “Why should they be property when we should not?”, which then invites us to engage in other perspectives, perhaps thereby increasing our empathy, and it likely also prompts us to act consistently in order to signal our consistent character. Conversely, empathy for the condition of others can also motivate one to formulate and convey the reasons why other beings should not be kept as property.
5 For an elaborate case against speciesism, see Speciesism: Why It Is Wrong, And the Implications of Rejecting It.
6 Quoted in Kolak, 2004, p. xiii.
7 Daniel Kolak has dubbed this common sense view ‘closed individualism’.
8 This estimate was reportedly made by physicist Paul C. Aebersold, but I fail to find a direct link to it. The best I have been able to find is Time Magazine reporting on it:
9 Such a hypothetical machine is commonly invoked in discussions of the problem of personal identity, which is hardly a coincidence since the mere thought of using such a machine immediately begs for such discussions. Rigorous use of such thought experiments can, for example, be found in Parfit, 1984.
10 A similar thought experiment is found in Parfit, 1984 and Kurzweil, 2012.
11 In classical terms, at least.
12 For a short review of research on split-brain patients, see .
13 One could argue that, subjectively, we are not our conscious experience, but rather the non-phenomenal witness of our conscious experience. In my view, both views are valid. In subjective terms, we are both the totality of our conscious experience (surely not any part of it more than any other, as all aspects of our experience equally are appearances in consciousness) and also the witness of it.
14 These two “senses” are identical to empty and open individualism respectively (cf. ). I think these “positions” are really just two different ways of expressing the same truth. They merely define the label of “same person” in different ways.
15 As quoted in Joot, 2012. What Feynman was talking about, in more concrete terms, was quantum electrodynamics, the quantum field theory of electromagnetism where relativistic effects are taken into account.
16 Or perhaps rather fields, cf. the brief remark that follows on the unicity or multiplicity of the quantum field(s).
17 “But”, one may ask, “is this worldview really true?”
There are certainly phenomena that we have not been able to explain in terms of quantum field theory so far, gravity being one of them (physicists are working on it). Yet the fact that there are phenomena that are not explained by a theory does not falsify that theory. By analogy, the theory of evolution is no doubt true, and is the fundamental theory about the origin of species, yet that does not imply that no unexplained phenomena remain within evolutionary biology.
And quantum field theory stands at least as well-tested as the theory of evolution, while also being unsurpassed in terms of the precision of its predictions in particle physics. So the short answer I would give is that quantum field theory indeed does seem to represent our best, most thoroughly tested understanding of the natural world at this point. And I believe this — our best understanding of the natural world — should form the basis of our view of personal identity.
18 Indeed, even the common apparently humble and rational claim that “we simply do not know what happens to us when we die” secretly contains this premise that there is a “we” that is somehow different from the body — that there is someone riding around inside the body whose fate we do not know, as opposed to the “us” simply being the physical, in which case there is no mystery. What happens to “us” is what happens to the Field, i.e. our state undergoes continual change.
19 Interestingly, Erwin Schrödinger appeared to say the same in his conclusion of ‘What is Life’:
Are we not inclining to much greater nonsense, if in discarding their gross superstitions we retain their naive idea of plurality of souls, but ‘remedy’ it by declaring the souls to be perishable, to be annihilated with the respective bodies? The only possible alternative is simply to keep to the immediate experience that consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown; that there is only one thing and that what seems to be a plurality is merely a series of different personality aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception (the Indian MAJA); the same illusion is produced in a gallery of mirrors, and in the same way Gaurisankar and Mt Everest turned out to be the same peak seen from different valleys. There are, of course, elaborate ghost-stories fixed in our minds to hamper our acceptance of such simple recognition.
32 in .
20 Personal communication.
21 Even though, as mentioned, from the perspective of our present experience, the experience of “ourself tomorrow” is really also, in one sense at least, “another”, as we do not experience them right now either. Yet due to our covertly entertaining the vehicle view of mind, we think that “we” are going to stay along for this ride and experience this movie, not other movies, at least not while this one is playing.
22As philosopher James Giles put it:
The problem of personal identity is often said to be one of accounting for what it is that gives persons their identity over time. However, once the problem has been construed in these terms, it is plain that too much has already been assumed.
23 Quoted from the following longer explanation of Pearce’s ethically realist view: . A similar quote is often attributed to Socrates: “Nobody does wrong knowingly.”
24 This is what I will refer to with the word “ethics” throughout the book, and it is arguably also the most common definition.
27 There is much confusion about the terms “subjective” and “objective”. For an attempt at clearing up this confusion, see:
28 “But if the Field were in another state it would want something else.”
Yes, and such a difference is again a fact about the Field. For example, if we consider a state of the Field that finds good the intentional object that another state finds bad (e.g. the latter is horrified by dark rooms while the former enjoys them) this is also a fact about the Field. The fact remains that the first state in question is felt as good, no matter where in the Field it emerges, whereas the latter finds it bad everywhere. The intrinsic qualitative nature of a given state is not a matter of choice. If we are in a state of extreme suffering, we cannot choose to not care about it.
29 This view, indeed physicalism of any kind, also has significant implications for the nature of mathematics. For if everything that exists is physical structures, mathematics must ultimately exist as such structures as well. Indeed, one can even argue that there is an identity between mathematics and physics, in the following way: Let P be the ultimate equation(s) governing all of physical reality and let M be all of mathematics. If 1) physicalism is true, and 2) there indeed are such equations that describe all of physical reality (i.e. that P exists), then M must be a (not necessarily proper) subset of P. That is, all of mathematics that could ever exist in the world must ultimately be a product of the “playing out” of these equations. On the other hand, if 2) is indeed true — more generally, if the widely held assumption that all of physics is, at least in principle, describable in mathematical terms — then P is a (not necessarily proper) subset of M. In combination, this seems to imply that P and M must indeed be proper subsets of each other. That mathematics and physics are in some sense identical.
Interestingly, the two assumptions that this conclusion follows from — 1) physicalism and 2) that physical reality is ultimately describable in mathematical terms — are about as mainstream as anything could be in scientific circles.
30 I maintain that normativity is inherent to these properties of sentient states.
31 Notice that the account of ethics outlined here, and the modern scientific worldview in general, is firmly Aristotelian in the sense of it being all about the immanent, not the transcendent world of Plato (and supra-Field standards of truth) [cf. Plato’s and Aristotle’s respective hand gestures in Raphael’s The School of Athens]. Fortunately, we have rejected Platonism in the realm of physics. We don’t tend to hear educated people say things like “well, those are just the properties of carbon atoms according to the Field, they are not real (Platonic?) properties of the world”. It strikes me as a double standard that we still seem to entertain such a senseless truth criterion in the realm of ethics.
32 I would argue that preferences are ultimately nested in well-being/hedonic tone. That is, we are confused to view “wanting” or “caring” as something separate from qualia; they are just another aspect of qualia.
34 For more elaboration on this point, see: .
35 More specifically, what we should optimize is the net value of the entire Field, or rather the parts of the Field that we can influence, over all of time.
37 And whatever specific disagreements we may have about ethics, particularly about the respective value of states of happiness and suffering, none of them question the more fundamental insight that suffering feels intrinsically bad and worth avoiding, while pure happiness does not.
38 Quoted from
39 Here’s Jean Dieudonné:
On foundations we believe in the reality of mathematics, but of course when philosophers attack us with their paradoxes we rush to hide behind formalism and say, ”Mathematics is just a combination of meaningless symbols,” and then we bring out Chapter 1 and 2 on set theory. Finally we are left in peace to go back to our mathematics and do it as we have always done, with the feeling each mathematician has that he is working with something real. This sensation is probably an illusion, but it is very convenient. That is Bourbaki’s attitude toward foundation.
145 in ’The Work of Nicholas Bourbaki’:
And Reuben Hersh: “Nevertheless, of course, we do not give up mathematics. We simply stop thinking about it. Just do it. That, more or the less, is the present situation in the philosophy of mathematics.” p. 35 in Hersh, 1979.
Why exactly does this “just do it” get a pass in the case of mathematics, yet not in ethics? Because there is more disagreement in the case of ethics? This does not seem to be the case, at least not in the easy cases, such as whether the experience of extreme suffering is bad and worth avoiding. Yes, there are difficult questions in ethics that we do not have answers to, but the same is true in the realm of mathematics. Indeed, we know that there are some questions we cannot answer in mathematics (the continuum hypothesis given ZFC, for instance — something that is conveniently analogous to the problem of ordering the value of experiences: the fact that some ordering is impossible does not mean that all ordering is impossible). So if the fact that certain questions cannot be answered within mathematics does not destroy mathematics as a domain of facts — and an utmost respected and authoritative one at that — why should a similar possibility when it comes to ethical questions destroy ethics as a domain of facts?
One may of course claim that the difference is that in mathematics, we can carefully go through the proofs of theorems, and thereby gain confidence in their truth, while we have no equivalent in ethics. I would have to disagree with such a claim, however. For who is to say that we could not indeed gain the same confidence about ethical questions if we, by analogy to going through the steps of a mathematical proof, actually went through all the experiences of the beings in question and contemplated their value? True, this might not be possible in practice, but we can still do something that comes close enough much of the time. (And it should also be noted that virtually no mathematical proof starts from the axioms and argues wholly rigorously from them either; we here see a similar divergence between “proof in the ideal” and “proof in practice” — see for instance ‘How Mathematicians Obtain Conviction’: [+ http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00461520.2013.865527+].)
40 Indeed, I have argued that this is true of all knowledge, including mathematical knowledge. See .
41 For justification for this claim, see .
42 See Putnam 2002 and Harris 2010. As Harris notes: “Scientific “is” statements rest on implicit “oughts” all the way down.” p. 219. A presentation on the issue by Putnam can be found here:
43 That is, something we would categorize as an ethical ‘ought’ as opposed to, say, an epistemic one, although I would argue they are both equally normative claims.
44 And I would say the same about the denial of ethical truths: it does not in the least pose a problem for ethics in theory, but it does in practice.
45 As David Pearce put it: “[…] let’s say I find myself in agony because my hand is on a hot stove. That agony is intrinsically motivating, even if my conviction that I ought to withdraw my hand doesn’t follow the formal canons of logical inference.”
46 Although people will often say such a thing, this nonetheless does not keep them from speaking about physics and mathematics in factual terms, while it does in the case of ethics. Why?
The “it’s just biological intuition” objection is yet another one of those that we take to be devastating when it comes to ethical claims we agree on, but not when it comes to physics (e.g. that physicists merely believe in the same theories because of their genetics and their upbringing — something that is of course largely true, but this fact in no way renders their theories false; that would be a non sequitur). An indefensible inconsistency, in my view.
47 Again, the reason we fail to admit it is not entirely clear to me. Apart from the seductive pull of accepting majority opinion, it may also reflect a genuine, although in my view misguided, attempt at being humble — “this just feels bad and disvaluable according to me”, as though that were not a fact about the world, a fact about a given state of the Field.
48 Further elaboration on, and defense of, my account of moral realism can be found in the book Moral Truths: The Foundation of Ethics.
49 See also [+ https://sentience-politics.org/philosophy/the-case-against-speciesism/+
++]For a longer argument for why speciesism is wrong, see Speciesism: Why It Is Wrong, And the Implications of Rejecting It.
51 See about ten minutes into the movie Speciesism: The Movie.
52 Dawkins, 2011.
53 [+ http://reducing-suffering.org/how-many-wild-animals-are-there/+]
54 It seems that our genes and culture shape our moral emotions so that these are exercised much more strongly when we see wrongs done to human individuals compared to when we see them done to non-human individuals. And while the intellectual insight that speciesism is unjustified can do a lot to change our emotional responses, it seems hard to calibrate these responses fully. For instance, it is probably impossible for most anti-speciesists to feel as strong emotions when seeing a truck with pigs on their way to getting killed as they would have upon seeing a train wagon filled with Jews on their way to the same fate. Similarly, seeing a wildebeest getting eaten by lions just does not feel as bad as seeing a human individual suffering the same fate. We tend to be more numb to the suffering of non-human individuals, probably for both biological and cultural reasons, and this numbness is probably not going away any time soon. Our emotional responses will likely remain speciesist, and this is worth keeping in mind when we think about ethics and our obligations toward other sentient beings. Our emotions cannot be fully trusted; our intellect must supplement them strongly.
55 The following essay provides some of the reasons why I believe this: [+ https://sentience-politics.org/animal-advocates-focus-antispeciesism-not-veganism/+
++]For a fuller treatment of anti-speciesism and its implications, I again refer to Speciesism: Why It Is Wrong, And the Implications of Rejecting It.
57 For more elaborate arguments for the ethical primacy of suffering, I recommend the following:
58 A book that was of course widely banned due to its blasphemous content.
59 He wrote this in the preface of Killing for Sport edited by Henry Stephens Salt.
60 See [+ http://reducing-suffering.org/how-many-wild-animals-are-there/+]
61 For examples of such suffering, and a brilliant talk on the importance of addressing it, see the following (Contains disturbing images):
62 A good survey of some of the reasons why we don’t seem to care about this problem can be found in the following piece:
63 The fact that the Field that we are is in a hellish state in countless places does not, to be sure, imply that it is not in a pleasant state in many bubbles too; it sure is. But this latter fact simply does not in any way undo the former.
64 And taking offense over my comparing our condition to the Holocaust is, I submit, an expression of a complete failure to appreciate the truth of our condition, a total blindness to the magnitude of the baseline horror. Such blindness can only be overcome by trying to follow the facts about our condition rather than what our emotions or culture at large tell us about it.
65 The following are also valuable resources for helping us question our biased view on the status of inaction (acts of omission):
66 [+ https://foundational-research.org/against-wishful-thinking/+]
68 Resources that try to raise concern for suffering:
69 Resources that attempt to expand our circle of moral consideration:
Speciesism: The Movie by Mark Devries
++]The most elaborate of my own attempts at promoting such an expansion are found in the books A Copernican Revolution in Ethics (Part I) and Speciesism: Why It Is Wrong, And The Implications of Rejecting It.
70 See Speciesism: Why It Is Wrong, And the Implications of Rejecting It.
71 Here is one rough estimate from PETA: [+ http://www.peta.org/blog/vegans-save-185-animals-year/+]
72 For a short argument for veganism, see .
For a longer case, see Why We Should Go Vegan and Why “Happy Meat” Is Always Wrong.
73 Decety et al., 2013:
74 See [
++]A more elaborate case:
76 See for instance the following:
77 For more on the importance of this “what” question, see
78 Such as Animal Ethics () and Sentience Politics ().
80 See for instance
81 To be clear, I am not saying that a consistent dedication to veganism is not important; I think it is very important indeed, cf. Speciesism: Why It Is Wrong, And the Implications of Rejecting It.
83 And even if one assigns a low probability to the claim that a clothespin-free view of personal identity is true, one could argue that expected value calculations suggest that focusing on the well-being of “others” is likely still the best way to help “oneself” in expectation given the enormous number of these supposed “others”, since it implies that “the probability I am them” times “the number of them” becomes a high number even for relatively low values of said probability. Similarly, one can also say that even if one values one’s own life, in the narrow sense, a million times more than that of other beings, the number of other beings on the planet, which is orders of magnitude greater than a mere million, implies that even on such an incredibly high relative evaluation of one’s life’s relative worth, virtually all of the mass of intrinsic moral value is still found in other beings.
84 Yet it is of course true that, no matter how much we may have internalized the Field view, we should always be on guard about our Darwinian mind’s hardwired urge to rationalize narrow self-interest and convenience. Yet there need not be a conflict between being on guard like this and taking good care of ourselves.
85 See for instance: . I should make clear that I do not endorse everything said in this video. I think it is profoundly naive to think that we will act ethically without doing intense thinking and reflecting, as the Ramana quote suggests we could.
86 Indeed, even suffering itself can be of instrumental value — to the extent it can lead us to prevent future suffering.
87 Such an objection can indeed be leveled against utilitarianism of any kind.
88 To be sure, I think all the non sequiturs addressed here are dangerous.
89 Quoted from Popova, 2013.
90 Again, this is not reincarnation in any traditional sense, as there are no spirits, non-physical souls, or preserved memories here; just physics. We might find such a claim highly suspect and woo-like nonetheless, yet to such an intuition it is worth scrutinizing the common sense view that “’you’ die and then ‘you’ are gone” with the question: what exactly is it that disappears when “you” die? It’s just a structural change.
91 The following essay presents a brief case for why, even from a negative hedonistic utilitarian perspective, death is a harm: [+ https://www.utilitarianism.com/magnus-vinding/harm-death.html+]. From preference-based perspectives and less negative perspectives, the case only becomes stronger still.
92 Although we recently have moved in the direction of caring for all humans rather than just our closest kin, this still amounts to an absence of concern for virtually all sentient beings on the planet.
What follows if we reject belief in any kind of non-physical soul and instead fully embrace what we know about the world? The main implication, this book argues, is a naturalization of personal identity and ethics. A radically different way of thinking about ourself. “A precondition of rational behaviour is a basic understanding of the nature of oneself and the world. Any fusion of ethical and decision-theoretic rationality into a seamless package runs counter to some our deepest intuitions. But "You Are Them" makes a powerful case. Magnus Vinding's best book to date. Highly recommended.” — David Pearce, co-founder of The Neuroethics Foundation, co-founder of World Transhumanist Association / Humanity+, and author of 'The Hedonistic Imperative' and 'The Anti-Speciesist Revolution'.