Intervention Profile: Ballot Initiatives 2020-01-13T15:41:06.182Z · score: 81 (23 votes)
Managed Honey Bee Welfare: Problems and Potential Interventions 2019-11-14T19:03:33.709Z · score: 63 (22 votes)
Opinion: Estimating Invertebrate Sentience 2019-11-07T02:38:06.420Z · score: 118 (42 votes)
Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile 2019-07-09T17:28:26.735Z · score: 94 (36 votes)
Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 2019-06-12T14:49:38.772Z · score: 26 (13 votes)
Invertebrate Sentience: A Useful Empirical Resource 2019-06-12T01:15:59.645Z · score: 81 (37 votes)
Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 2019-06-11T15:23:59.244Z · score: 25 (13 votes)
Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 1 2019-06-10T18:00:49.478Z · score: 50 (22 votes)
EA Research Organizations Should Post Jobs on 2019-05-02T19:37:11.592Z · score: 45 (23 votes)
Detecting Morally Significant Pain in Nonhumans: Some Philosophical Difficulties 2018-12-23T17:49:00.750Z · score: 63 (31 votes)


Comment by jason-schukraft on Intervention Profile: Ballot Initiatives · 2020-01-17T17:10:21.949Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Jonas, thanks for the comment. I'll change the main text and accompanying footnote to make clear environmental benefits were not the main aim of the initiatives.

You should correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the proposals were eventually weakened to the point that conservation of resources became the primary (perhaps sole?) focus.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Opinion: Estimating Invertebrate Sentience · 2019-12-13T17:14:51.602Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks! That's helpful way of thinking about the topic and a useful strategy for addressing the problem.

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T16:01:08.925Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

My impression is that I'm considerably less of a consequentialist than the average EA. Mostly I'm just pretty uncertain and so I put some stock in (some forms of) deontology and virtue ethics.

I'm a metaethical realist.

One's obligations are context-sensitive, so I can't say for sure what altruistic obligations others have. But for a person in my circumstances, I believe altruism (in many forms) is a moral obligation, one that I'm continually failing to fulfill.

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T15:53:36.350Z · score: 13 (9 votes) · EA · GW

If I hadn't been hired by RP, I probably would have ended up working for a random tech company in Austin, where I live, or maybe I would have ended up doing admissions counseling remotely (which is lucrative but soul-sucking work). If I left RP now I would try to work for a different EA research org.

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T15:50:18.603Z · score: 10 (8 votes) · EA · GW

My background is in philosophy, so I've been familiar with (and convinced by) Peter Singer's work since roughly 2007. I first heard about EA in early 2015 when Will MacAskill gave a talk at UT Austin, where I was working on my PhD. He and I chatted a bit about Bostrom's Superintelligence, which I happened to be reading at the time for totally unrelated reasons. Talking about AI safety and global poverty (the subject of Will's talk) in the same conversation was kind of a revelatory moment, and all of EA's conceptual pieces just sort of fell into place.

The thing that keeps me motivated is how intrinsically interesting I find my research. Of course I hope to make a difference, but my work is so far removed from immediate measurable impact that I don't really think about that on a day-to-day basis.

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T15:23:02.323Z · score: 14 (10 votes) · EA · GW

I've generally become much more chill about coexisting with invertebrates in and around my house. Mostly I just find them fascinating now rather than scary or repugnant, especially arthropods (the phylum that insects and spiders belong to). That said, I did recently kill a scorpion that had stung my daughter, so I guess there are limits to my tolerance.

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T15:17:32.519Z · score: 31 (12 votes) · EA · GW

I agree that bivalves are probably the least likely to be sentient of the animals that are easily available to eat. I wouldn't necessarily recommend eating them because there may be issues with the way they are collected. (I haven't looked into this at all.) I don't eat them because I don't find it particularly hard not to eat meat, and it's easier to explain my dietary restrictions to people if there aren't too many exceptions.

The research I did for my honey bee report has affected the way I feel about almonds. It hasn't really reduced my almond consumption, but I now feel slightly guilty about eating almonds. Modern almond farming is pretty bad for bees, and bees are super cool and smart. From a bee welfare perspective, I'm pretty confident eating commercially farmed almonds is worse than eating wildflower honey. (Note that most honey is not wildflower honey.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-13T15:08:20.036Z · score: 19 (15 votes) · EA · GW

My research would not be at the same level of quality if I were operating independently. The ability to easily draw on the knowledge, experience, skills, and general expertise of my colleagues at RP greatly improves my work. I can always count on getting high-quality feedback from at least half a dozen people, and if I get stuck in the middle of the project, I can normally count on someone to help me out. There is some loss of independence working at RP versus being funded directly, but I think the research guidance I receive more than makes up for the loss of independence. And RP's research agenda is mostly set collectively, anyway. So, in short, I expect that in most cases researchers at organizations like RP are going to be much more productive than independent researchers. ("Synergy" is the buzzword that comes to mind.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on Opinion: Estimating Invertebrate Sentience · 2019-11-20T02:18:19.697Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Hey Max, good question. I think we need to clearly separate our metaphysics from our epistemology in this area. If an entity is sentient if and only if there is something it is like to be that entity, then it's hard to see how sentience could come in degrees. (There are closely related phenomena that might come in degrees--like the intensity of experience or the grain of sensory input--but those phenomena are distinct from sentience.) There are certainly going to be cases where it's difficult to know if an entity is sentient, but our uncertainty doesn't imply that the entity is only partially sentient. I think it's plausible that this area of epistemic indeterminacy could remain quite large even with all the empirical facts in hand.

However, there are some theories of mind on which it looks like there could be cases of metaphysical indeterminacy. If a certain type of reductive physicalism is true, and sentience doesn't reduce to any one feature of the brain but is instead a cluster concept, and the features that constitute the concept aren't coextensive, then there could be cases in which we don't know if an entity is sentient even with all the empirical and the philosophical facts in hand. (Technically, the fact that it can be metaphysically indeterminate that an entity possesses a property doesn't entail that the property comes in degrees, but it's a natural extension.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on Opinion: Estimating Invertebrate Sentience · 2019-11-09T02:38:00.028Z · score: 8 (6 votes) · EA · GW

I'd also be interest in all of your thoughts on what exactly a percentage probability of valenced experience (or whatever the morally relevant mind-stuff should be called) is - obviously, they aren't the close to the true probabilities these organisms have valenced experience (which, unless the world is very strange, should be 1 or 0 for all things)

I may be an odd person to answer this question, as I chose not to offer probability estimates, but I'll respond anyway.

I agree that sentience, at least as we've defined it, is an all-or-nothing phenomenon (which is a common view in philosophy but not as common in neuroscience). As I understand them, the probabilities we discuss are credences, sometimes called subjective probabilities or degrees of belief, in the proposition "x is sentient." Credence 1 (or 100%) represents certainty that the proposition is true and credence 0 (or 0%) represents certainty that the proposition is false. Since there are very few propositions one should be absolutely certain about, the appropriate credences will fall between 0 and 1. The betting analysis of credence is common, though there are some well known problems.

Thinking of these probabilities as credences is neutral on the question of the best way to develop and refine these credences. Someone might base her/his credences entirely on intuition; another person might completely disregard her/his intuitions. This post details what we take to be the best available methodology to investigate invertebrate sentience.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Opinion: Estimating Invertebrate Sentience · 2019-11-07T13:45:54.012Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA · GW


Comment by jason-schukraft on Linch's Shortform · 2019-09-21T01:31:50.582Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · EA · GW

You might be interested in the following posts on the subject from Daily Nous, an excellent philosophy blog:

"Why Progress Is Slower In Philosophy Than In Science"

"How Philosophy Makes Progress (guest post by Daniel Stoljar)"

"How Philosophy Makes Progress (guest post by Agnes Callard)"

"Whether Philosophical Questions Can Be Answered"

"Convergence as Progress in Philosophy"

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-30T18:59:31.234Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Tobias!

That's a good point. I hadn't really thought about the issue in those terms. I'll bring it up with the rest of the team and see what they think. Thanks!

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-30T01:39:38.675Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Tobias!

Thanks for the comment. You're right. Entomophagy is just one segment of the farmed insect sector. There are huge numbers of insects farmed for animal feed. There are also huge numbers of insects farmed for pollination and huge numbers of insects farmed as biological control agents (e.g., parasitoids that prey on crop pests). Then there's silk, honey, shellac, carmine and a number of other products derived primarily from farmed insects.

All told, there are dozens of different types of insects farmed commercially. (And I'm just counting insects; if you include all invertebrates, the number is probably in the hundreds.) Right now we're working on a project to get a better understanding of the number of insects farmed for various purposes and the conditions in which these insects are reared. Appealing to the "yuck factor" may be a way to put the brakes on one fast-growing segment of the farmed insect industry, but there is a lot more basic research that needs to be completed before we will be in a position to recommend concrete interventions.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-17T19:10:17.744Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Good catch! I had terrestrial gastropods in mind, so I've changed the original post from "class Gastropoda" to "order Stylommatophora" (which includes Helix pomatia, the most commonly consumed snail) to reflect this focus.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-10T14:19:01.038Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Gavin! Thanks for your comment. It raises an important but extremely difficult question. The short answer is that nobody really knows what to say about moral weighting. Slightly longer answer below.

First, on consciousness. Strictly speaking, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about consciousness occurring on a scale. An entity is conscious if and only if there is something it is like to be that entity. If there’s any phenomenology, no matter how faint or weird, the entity is conscious. If there’s no phenomenology, the entity is not conscious.

Nonetheless, there are some aspects of consciousness that admit of gradations, and these gradations are plausibly morally significant. I’m pretty comfortable asserting that human experiences are ‘richer,’ in some sense of the term, than fruit fly experiences, and this difference in ‘richness’ is part of what accounts for differences in the moral value of fruit fly and human experiences. But it’s not clear to me how to spell out the appropriate sense of ‘richness.’ It’s certainly not as simple as number of sensory modalities. (I don’t think Helen Keller’s experiences were worth less than my experiences.) Phenomenal intensity is probably part of the answer but again not the whole of it. Elements of cognitive, emotional, or social complexity may also help determine moral weight. Philosophers are accustomed to talking about the moral value of agency, autonomy, rationality, and self-awareness. Those things might also factor into moral weight.

As for how to determine moral weight in practice, it depends of course on how we resolve the theoretical question, but I think there’s also going to be ample uncertainty here. There are probably some rough characterizations we can make, but in general I think we know too little about most invertebrates to be able to say much about their (relative) cognitive, emotional, and social complexity. I would love to be able to spend a good chunk of my career investigating these questions!

Thanks for the research advice! I can safely say that I never would have specifically targeted German research from the 50s to the 80s on my own initiative. One worry, though: how many of those papers are exclusively in German?

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 · 2019-06-25T19:00:44.141Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Hey Gavin. Once again, thanks for the wealth of insights and references! I have a few thoughts in response, but at this point it might be more valuable if we scheduled a videochat. I'm going to send you a message in a few minutes.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Sentience Table · 2019-06-25T18:55:32.242Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hey Gavin!

Thanks for another fascinating comment. Although we haven’t been framing the subject in this way (the Braitenberg reference is new to me), we’ve been thinking about similar issues for a long time. At an early stage of the project we had a spreadsheet that attempted to judge the extent to which a handful of robots and AI programs exhibited the 53 features we investigated for invertebrates. We de-prioritized the spreadsheet because filling it in required too many subjective judgment calls and we worried that the methodology we used to investigate invertebrate sentience wouldn’t be applicable to non-biological organisms. Ultimately, this is a question we hope to return to. There is ample material to explore: functionalism (and its denial) in philosophy of mind, graded states of consciousness, “evolution” in artificial reinforcement learning, the analogy between nonhuman animals and robots, and many others.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-19T14:11:06.364Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for the references, Gavin! You truly are an inexhaustible resource. The paper on uncertainty monitoring in ants looks particularly impressive and relevant. I hope to give it a full read later this week. The ability of eusocial insects to incorporate diverse streams of information into an integrated decision-making framework is, to my mind, decent evidence that they are conscious.

(Also, I'm getting a session timed out error on the aphid link.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on Invertebrate Sentience Table · 2019-06-19T13:40:48.470Z · score: 7 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Sammy. I’m one of the researchers on Rethink Priorities’ invertebrate sentience team. Thanks for your comment. This is an issue our team has thought a lot about and plans to address explicitly in forthcoming work. I agree that our research would be more digestible if we provided an overall probability of sentience for each taxon. Unfortunately, assigning a “sentience score” is extraordinarily difficult. The 53 features we investigated are not equally important, and the context in which they are displayed often makes a substantial difference to their evidential weight. One would have to have an expert grasp on biology, philosophy, and neuroscience (as well as lots of time on her/his hands) to even justifiably begin such a scoring project. And because subjective experience is, well, subjective, strict calibration in this domain is necessarily impossible.

Despite the above difficulties, Rethink Priorities is considering reporting our best guesses about the probability of sentience for our studied taxa. We are still figuring out the best way to present these preliminary estimates. We want the estimates to be viewed as hypotheses to be further refined (or perhaps completely abandoned) as more evidence comes in rather than hard conclusions that our work definitively supports. One concern is that interested parties might skip straight to our (uncalibrated, somewhat unjustified, extremely speculative) numerical estimates without taking the time to understand the nuance and intricacy of the issue. Personally, I worry that assigning sentience scores sacrifices too much in the name of digestibility.

Nonetheless, it’s not as if our currently published findings are completely silent on the matter. Clearly, there is better evidence for sentience for cephalopods and arthropods than there is for annelids and nematodes. Stay tuned for our invertebrate welfare cause profile (slated to go up in late July) for more on the implications of our research.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-18T18:20:14.489Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks Gavin! I've added Beyond Boundaries to my reading list.

The potential connection between BCI and self-recognition is fascinating. Offhand, do you know any references for insect neural interface studies that might be comparable to the monkey example you describe?

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 · 2019-06-18T18:11:36.907Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Gavin!

(Apologies for the delayed response; I’ve been traveling the last few days.)

Again, thanks so much for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments! My background is in philosophy, where the science of these issues gets handled at a rather superficial level, so it’s a pleasure to be able to correspond with someone with such a deep knowledge of the field.

The distinction between operant conditioning and operant conditioning with an unfamiliar action is somewhat arbitrary. We were trying to capture the fact that some types of learning require more cognitive flexibility than others. Perhaps the distinction between elemental and non-elemental learning is a more important one. There are probably a number of other important distinctions that I’ve either glossed over or just missed completely. I think it would be interesting to see a taxonomy of learning abilities and an analysis of which learning abilities give the strongest evidence for valenced experience. I certainly agree with you that contextual learning provides stronger evidence of cognitive flexibility than many other types of learning.

I’m interested to hear more about why you think novelty-seeking behavior might be evidence for the capacity for valenced experience. I suppose the fact that novelty salience can override innate preference is further evidence of behavioral plasticity. Is that what you had in mind or were you thinking of something more specific?

Definitely interested to hear your thoughts about navigation.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-13T01:07:25.146Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Gavin, if you have the time, I'd love to see references for those abilities. We've got another round of invertebrate posts coming out in mid-to-late July, and most if not all of your examples can be used to bolster the case that arthropods in general and insects in particular deserve a close look from the effective animal advocacy movement. Thanks for your contributions!

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-12T17:52:34.697Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Gavin,

Thanks for the examples; keep them coming! Whether or not they possess the capacity for valenced experience, eusocial insects truly are remarkable creatures. Do you have an easy reference for the cuckoo bumblebee behavior? I’ve got a running list of amazing things different invertebrates do, and I’d love to add it to the list.

(On the subject of videos, check out the video I’ve linked in footnote 53. It always brings a smile to my face.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 1 · 2019-06-11T17:54:34.048Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Gavin,

Thanks for the compliment and especially for the thoughtful reply. I’ll take your comments in turn.

  1. In the third part of the mini-series on features potentially relevant to invertebrate sentience, we discuss a number of learning indicators, including both classical and operant conditioning. That post is going up June 12. I would be interested to hear your take on the relevant sections.

  2. There is certainly not going to be a perfect correlation between lifespan and potential for learning. (Indeed, there might not be any correlation at all.) The claim that we’re defending is that, in general, longer-lived organisms would benefit more from learning abilities than shorter-live organisms. We expect there to be exceptions both ways (i.e., relatively short-lived organisms that would benefit from learning abilities and relatively long-lived organisms that wouldn't). Much depends on context of various kinds. Your point about the learning abilities of monarchs vs. bees is well-taken. In future work (to be published mid-July), we take an especially close look at eusocial insects, which are pretty amazing.

  3. Your question about warning pheromones is a great example of a difficulty that has hounded us for the length of the project. Classifying and assessing complex behaviors is context-sensitive. I think you’re right that warning pheromones could fall into at least three categories. (Or maybe different pheromones fall into different categories?) Assessing the evidential force of these features is often even more context-sensitive. A behavior that looks like good evidence for sentience in one context doesn’t always look like good evidence for sentience in a different context. (e.g., a human reporting “I am in pain” is normally great evidence of painful experience. A very simple robot programmed to utter the same sounds is not great evidence of painful experience.)

Comment by jason-schukraft on EA Research Organizations Should Post Jobs on · 2019-05-04T17:24:37.463Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Unfortunately, I don't have any hard data to back up that claim, just extensive anecdotal evidence from roughly seven years interacting with professional philosophers and philosophy graduate students. And my anecdotal evidence skews heavily toward the US, so I'm not in a position to even hazard a guess about the prevalence of philosophy PhDs with STEM backgrounds in continental Europe. Sorry!

Comment by jason-schukraft on Detecting Morally Significant Pain in Nonhumans: Some Philosophical Difficulties · 2018-12-29T14:28:25.550Z · score: 13 (6 votes) · EA · GW

For the project, we've investigated plants, protists, and prokaryotes, all of which are capable of more interesting "behavior" than I would have anticipated. We began a preliminary investigation into a host of non-organic entities, but we discovered that an investigation of that sort is a bit more complicated than we expected. For many of the features we examined, it's a lot more difficult to ascertain whether a non-organic entity exhibits the feature. Also, many theory-neutral arguments for consciousness in various animal species rely on the species in question having an evolutionary background. It's of course totally possible that a non-organic entity is conscious, but the way you would argue that such an entity is conscious is often different in subtle but important ways from the way you would argue an organic entity is conscious. In future work we hope to examine this issue more thoroughly.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Detecting Morally Significant Pain in Nonhumans: Some Philosophical Difficulties · 2018-12-28T02:13:53.446Z · score: 10 (8 votes) · EA · GW

Ah, I see the worry more clearly now. I agree that, as best we can, we ought to examine not only the strict implicatures of what people write but also the background assumptions that motivate their reasoning. And I agree that at this stage of research, people's reasoning is going to be motivated less by hard evidence and more by pre-theoretic beliefs, although I don't really see a way to avoid this stage and jump straight into a more mature field.

For what it's worth, I personally think there's a significant chance that wild nature is overall positive and that invertebrates have negligible moral standing. But I also think there are plausible arguments on the other side, and if those plausible arguments turn out to be sound arguments, then the issue of invertebrate suffering (or wild animal suffering more generally) could be huge. The only way to get a better handle on the issue is to do more careful research.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Detecting Morally Significant Pain in Nonhumans: Some Philosophical Difficulties · 2018-12-26T21:43:00.617Z · score: 9 (6 votes) · EA · GW

It's true that it doesn't follow from the individuals of some class having moral weight that the overall weight of the class of individuals is going to be any particular size. The examples in the reflective equilibrium section should be read as illustrative, not as exemplifying any particular position. (I see, though, how those examples could be misinterpreted.) The basic idea is: IF your view leads you to believe that, say, plant-suffering is super important, you might want to compare your final theoretical judgments with the intuitions that got the project started. One way to avoid the result that plant suffering is super important is to adjust your moral weighting judgments. I intend the piece to be neutral with respect to views on moral weighting.

The word "pain" appears far more than "pleasure" in the piece, but this was a choice of convenience, not theory. (Again, though, I understand how this choice could be reasonably misconceived.) I intend the piece to be neutral with respect to first-order normative theory, including the question of classical vs negative utilitarianism. I don't intend anything I've written to commit me to a value-asymmetry between invertebrate pain and pleasure. Perhaps, though, framing is as important as strict implicature. If that's the case, I ought to write "pain and pleasure" instead of the shorter "pain."

As for second-order theories, it seems to me I'm implicitly assuming at least a high credence in moral realism rather than anti-realism. It's not really clear to me where I've assumed otherwise (though of course it's possible and I welcome examples from the piece). (Also, your comment doesn't commit you to my piece perpetuating this particular meme; just pieces of this general sort doing so, so maybe your comment was more general than I am taking it.)

Finally, I think it's true that there are some background assumptions about the relevant importance of wild-animal suffering at work in the piece. In (far) future posts, I hope to examine these assumptions more critically.

Comment by jason-schukraft on Detecting Morally Significant Pain in Nonhumans: Some Philosophical Difficulties · 2018-12-26T21:22:23.199Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

It's difficult to get even rough estimates of the number of individual plants in the world; for the purposes of the reflective equilibrium section, it suffices that there are far more plants than ants. In addition to plants, we are also investigating (in broad strokes) the extent to which prokaryotes do and don't exhibit the features traditionally taken to be relevant to assessing consciousness. Finally, as your diction suggests you already know, the phenomenon of sea squirts "eating their own brain" has sometimes been exaggerated in the literature. (In fact, adult sea squirts have perfectly good brains.)