“What if we saw ourselves as species diplomats?” – David Peña-Guzmán of Overthink – Sentientism Ep:187

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

David specializes in European philosophy, the history and philosophy of science and the philosophy of animal minds. He is interested in the problem of consciousness, the study of lived experience and the value of the humanities. David lives in San Francisco, California and is Associate Professor of Humanities at San Francisco State University. He has previously worked at Johns Hopkins University, Laurentian University, Dillard University, and Emory University (where he received his Ph.D. in 2015). He is the author of “When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness” and co-host, with Ellie Anderson, of the Overthink Podcast. His work has been covered by The New York Times, CNN, ABC, The Atlantic, Le Parisian, El País, and Forbes, among others.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” In addition to the YouTube video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Clips!

01:14 Welcome

– Our two way para-social relationships

– Sharing #naturalistic thinking & an interest in expanding our #moralcircle based on #sentience

04:48 David’s Intro

– Continental philosophy, teaching humanities, animal minds/ethics/politics, the science of consciousness & co-hosting  @OverthinkPodcastPhilosophy 

– “There’s something equally mysterious & fascinating & alluring… about the minds of other creatures.”

– Links between animal academia & animal movements (rights, welfare…) “Most of it is happening beyond the ivory tower of higher education… it’s happening on the ground with people who are committed to the goal of #animalliberation “

08:10 What’s Real?

– “It’s hard to know how much weight to give to those early experiences…”

– Raised #catholic

– A small town in Mexico where “Catholicism was the economic driving force of town life… 5-10 thousand people that would be overrun by a million religious pilgrims 5 times a year”

– Manifestation of the virgin Mary with indigenous roots with a reputed power to do health miracles

– Disenchantment “I really saw the church & faith largely as a story that we the locals told in order to bring in tourists… As a child I never really understood that we were really meant to believe the content of the stories”

– A “great 11 year old awakening” and a “show-down with my mother… I don’t want to go to church… I don’t actually believe any of this… my mother had no problem with that which further just confirmed my suspicion that a lot of this was just surface”

– “Catholics… we tend to be very bad at reading the bible – we usually just get our lessons from the priest… for me it seemed like smoke and mirrors”

– “From my early teen years I leaned towards a naturalistic outlook of the world and the cosmos… I do think the world is composed of matter, of motion, of the fundamental forces of physics… that goes a really long way in explaining the kind of universe that we inhabit”

– “That does not necessarily mean that I am a #rationalist … I don’t think that our human cognitive architecture is necessarily so imperious and mighty that it is poised to uncrack all the mysteries of nature… or to deplete the world in an all-encompassing explanation.”

– “There might be a gap between what our minds can comprehend and the structure of the world… the nature of life… and more specifically consciousness… these are very tricky areas… fundamental questions about the nature of reality”

– Epistemic humility & tragedy “there is a tragic thread to human existence… the recognition of that humility entails that the world was not made for us to understand it… our minds work according to really rough classifications, categorisations, schemas that nature honestly couldn’t care less about”

– “The moment you think you have depleted the world or captured it… is precisely the moment the world throws another surprise at you… a hubris in assuming that somehow the world should bow down… to our human mind”

– JW: Hangovers of religious thinking even in the minds of many non-religious people… “reify ourselves to replace the deity”

– “If you’re made in the image of the divine… that’s a tall order to live up to… it does set us up on a pedestal that nature, as a fact, denies us”

– “Something I thought was folklore – other people expected me to adopt as a metaphysics”

– “I sort of came back culturally to the church… after I moved to the US.”

– Moving to the US “I landed in a very small desert town in the middle of Nevada as a 15 year old queer Mexican kid who didn’t speak English… two really difficult years of social isolation… it was in that context that I rediscovered the church, not religiously but culturally… it was the only place where I could see other latinos… hispanophones… I latched on to the church there existentially”

– “I do have a respectful view of the role that religion plays in people’s lives”

– “I did believe that it was a great open secret that we all shared with one another about our lack of faith about this thing that we profess”

– “When I realised that the contents of the religious faith were beginning to be used to police my behaviour… something didn’t feel right to me”

– Challenges to naturalism from continental philosophy through the focus on the subjective / standpoint epistemology? “It is both a challenge and a complement to it [my naturalism]”

– “A naturalistic understanding of the emergence of subjectivity itself… sentience, consciousness… emerges through evolutionary processes from the physical world… there is no additional substance… the soul or elan vital… but it does then mean we have a challenge of explanation… an explanatory gap”

– Are explanations of life, sentience, consciousness reducible to physical explanations. Taking an anti-reductionist view

– “Physics is really good at explaining structures, at explaining functions… giving us a picture of ‘objective’ nature… but physics just doesn’t really have the language or the tools or the concepts to explain the subjective”

– “Once you introduce mind it does seem to be a phenomenon that requires a different order of explanation”

– Can you be anti-reductionist without reverting to a dualism? Substance dualism (two different types of thing), property dualism “it’s all physical but maybe that physical stuff can have multiple properties that are not always physical”

– “Maybe consciousness and sentience… something else that is also kind of fundamental – like another force of physics?”

– “In many ways I just bypass this problem altogether… what really matters is the fact that consciousness exists… that it exists in the animal kingdom” Focusing instead on what animal experiences might be like and what the implications are of animals being sentient

– The Hard Problem of Consciousness. Why are some brain states conscious and others are not?

– “the thing that I really find shiny… how other animals might experience the world and how we might even know that and what political and ethical and social implications fall from that exercise”

– A middle way between a solipsistic denial of our shared reality and the denial of the subjective? JW: “The subjective is… part of this shared objective reality”

– That middle way both recognises “the great success of the scientific project” but “also does justice to… what we know best and most… precisely that subjective dimension… the first thing we know and all we know… the alpha and the omega of our experience”

– “The thing that I can be most certain of is the fact that I am experiencing things… experience is our starting point… any cosmology, metaphysics, ontology or theory of nature that denies that is already working against what is given first and foremost to us… if it turns that into an illusion or into an epiphenomenal reality I think many of us have this kind of deep seated, knee-jerk aversion to that because in many ways our reality is our subjective experience – but it is embedded in this larger, shared intersubjective and, I want to emphasise, natural world that is common.”

34:59 What Matters?

– “A naturalistic worldview does not entail… a sudden moral cynicism or even fatalism in which nothing matters… there is no right and wrong… I can do whatever I want”

– Darwinian evolution “natural processes and dynamics, even among animals, are pretty good at generating spontaneously social norms without the need for this external top down moment of revelation where moral principles are handed to us from a world that is beyond nature”

– “A problematic theory of nature… nature is red in tooth and claw. As if animals didn’t show us that they have relations of empathy and care and mutual aid on their own”

– “You can have ethics without this top down moment of revelation”

– 2 ethical grounds/principles:

– 1) “A phenomenological account of inter-subjectivity”. Other subjective beings aren’t just objects. “We perceive their minds sort of directly… sui generis… we just grasp the fact that they are minded being from the way in which they behave and the kinds of interactions we have with them… without me having to rationally think about whether or not they are individuals who matter because they have a perspective of their own.

– The “problem of other minds” as a pseudo-problem. “Oh I wonder if the person who is handing me my coffee, deep down, is a robot without an inner life”. “That question really emerges only once you’ve stepped out of the flow of lived experience… in the flow of lived experience what we encounter is in fact a difference between inanimate objects and subjects.”

– “This argument… I simply extend also to other sentient beings… when I interact with a dog I sort of experience their dog-mindedness just from the interaction.” “This is why children are so good at attributing mental states to other sentient beings – to animals… children do this spontaneously. In fact we have to be broken out of that by a culture that is largely speciesist… The fact that many of us don’t do that… an indictment of the kind of cultural norms that we inherit from the past and that we internalise and that lead us to withhold the attribution of mind to beings that we would otherwise ‘mind’”

– Concern for others as a common sense common ground spanning ~all moral systems?

– Recognition based theories re: Hegelianism

– Developmental psychology findings re: child compassion

– Mistakes in mind attribution: robots, toys… “the fact that we make mistakes and over-attribute… just shows how deeply embedded this tendence to attribute mental states to other living beings runs… It’s something that we spontaneously do because of the kind of beings that we are”

– JW: Formal lines of inference vs. “looking into the eyes of a puppy”

– 2) “What is it that we are perceiving…?” when we perceive another. We don’t have some perfect vision. The bible story of Adam being given perfect vision so he can name non-human animals in line with their essence. “I don’t think that is how human perception works”. There’s “a certain opacity… their irreducibility to my own perspective…” and my irreducibility to theirs. “There is this other subjective universe over there that is not mine”.

– “With other beings because of the presence of mind there is an opacity… my vision cannot penetrate”

– “That resistance to us [to the penetration of our vision]… that is what triggers the experience of moral concern”

– “The reason I care about dogs and cats and giraffes and alligators and my neighbour Victoria is because all, in very different ways, are a limit to my subjectivity because they are another subjectivity”

– “… subjectivity emerges out of nature… and the way in which subjectivities relate to one another has this duality of immediate grasp but a grasp of a kind of opacity”

– “If I truly were to become you in many ways the ethical relationship between us would disappear… you would disappear into me”

– “That lack of opacity… I know you inside and out would phenomenologically reduce you to… a more complicated version of my post-it notes… I worry… that would have quite disastrous implications for moral life… if you can reduce a person to another person”

– “I have this fear that what sometimes seems like this optimistic attitude about our scientific future… would only set us up for a really dark form of nihilism when that moment comes… we lost that ‘inter’ of the ‘intersubjective’… I don’t really know what social life means in a world where I have complete understanding of the motivations and desires of every other living being around me. What motivates me to care, to show interest, to start a conversation… it seems like the very motivation for social life would be pulled out from under us.”

– “It would seem like the universe would become just the overflowing of ‘the same’… that ‘same’ here would just be the self… a really dark world for me”

– The risks of moral relativism?

– The analytic “criticism of continental philosophy as relativistic in it’s weak form is largely uninteresting because I do accept a kind of relativism… the existence of multiple perspectives… that may be unable to converge… it’s kind of what science also tells us.”

– Temporal relativism “moral codes change over time.” Historical contingency theory. “What is possible changes across time as our understanding of the world evolves – but also across space when we think about different positions” The Overthink episode with Briana Toole on standpoint epistemology

– “In its stronger form [the criticism of continental philosophy as relativistic] it just seems to me just false… most of the people who are accused of being relativistic or irrationalistic in the continental camp are nothing of the sort”

– “I have tried to pick the poster-children of ‘continental irrationalism’… the criticism… that they reject science and reject reason… showing that in fact the inverse is true… many of these thinkers cared deeply about science… were providing us with immanent critiques of the science of their time… showing… [that it] did not live up to its own standards… of evidentiary support… inference…” e.g. Friedrich Nietzche, Henri Bergson, Simone de Beauvoir’s critique of biology and gender “in fact she really cared about biology – she was just struggling to make sense of the claims biologists were making”

– “I consider myself a continentalist… but I also work in very close relationship with the sciences… often people think that’s bizarre… but many people have done that” e.g. Merleau-Ponty, Husserl, even Heidegger, Deleuze

– “I actually see myself as continuing, rather than rejecting, a certain continental trajectory… that tries to raise questions that go beyond science starting from the science of one’s time” When Animals Dream being an example

57:05 Who Matters?

– “I grew up with a lot of contradictions around animals”

– No “pets” allowed in the childhood house in Mexico except for two canaries kept in small cages “I always thought that was horrendous”

– “I grew up without the positive emotion-building, emotion-bonding connections to domestic companions… but rather with this sense that keeping animals caged and imprisoned was unsettling for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate”

– Grandfather was a rancher (cows, donkeys, horses, dogs, cats) and butcher. Going to the ranch to help “with a sense of unease”

– At 15/16 yrs old in the US having a companion dog “that began this shift in my perspective… in very subtle ways”

– Stumbling on a course in animal philosophy “It triggered in me… a kind of eureka moment…” then “this is mattering more and more… I need to make some decisions… became a vegetarian… specialising in animal philosophy… publishing When Animals Dream”

Mark Solms on Sentientism episode 112

– Why focus on the sleeping brain? It’s been neglected! “Do they [non-human animals] also have an off-line processing that is lived…? That’s dreaming… do they have dreams and what kind of dreams do they have… that’s what prompted me to write this book”

– “There is here an entry point through dreams into a way of thinking about animal consciousness that actually opens up into way more than dreams… memory… attention… imagination… do animals have the capacity to imagine things that are not actually there… we’re talking about what for a lot of philosophers has been the hallmark of humanity… our capacity to mentally travel away from the here and now”

– “I thought it might just be mammals that turn out to be dreamers… that’s not the case… octopuses (very very different from us)”

– “Either dreaming is so ancient that it was already there at the time when vertebrates and invertebrates split or – it’s such an important capacity… that it emerges spontaneously at various moments in the evolution of life… convergent or parallel evolution”

– “Since the book was published there’s been new research… into arthoropods… bees… spiders… whether worms have reverberatory nerve activity during periods of rest… a very very simplified form of dreaming”

– Lessons for the ethics of animal research and agriculture?

– “A connection between dreams and moral significance… dreams are the kind of experience that we should care about when being arbiters of which organisms matter morally”

– “To dream by definition is to have a lived experience of something that manifests itself to you… in which you have a certain kind of affect”

– “A perceptual field that is affectively charged… that’s how I think about sentience… the opening up of a world of experience for an animal independently of how complex or simple that world is… opening a world in which the animal then acts and moves because they develop certain interests… things that feel good or bad for the animal… attractors and repellants that drive the animal to navigate that lived space”

– “It’s impossible, in fact it’s inconceivable to have a dreamer that doesn’t have that basic sentience capacity… that phenomenal consciousness… that really crystallises the moral significance”

– “It clarifies for us… the world-building power of other animals”

– “We don’t just experience the world exactly as it is there is an active construction, an active curation that our minds and bodies are doing”

– “In the waking world… it’s very easy to miss or forget that creative component… but when you turn to dreams, dreams highlight, they underscore that creative dimension… you are creating a world under the most radical conditions… sensory-motor disconnect from the world… it highlights something that is I think going on at all times that makes it very difficult to deny.”

– The poetic, magnetic power of dreams “our minds fly while our bodies are resting… other animals do that too”

01:14:15 How To Make A Better World?

– “There are a lot of things we can do to usher in a better world… giving animals meaningful protection under national & internation law… respecting the natural spaces animals need to thrive… building lived environments with the needs of other animals in mind…” via the animal rights and animal welfare movements

– “A better future will require something like a perceptual shift in our understanding, not just of nature, but also of our nature and our place in nature and our relationship to other animals”

– Baptiste Morizot’s “Ways of Being Alive” and the concept of wild diplomacy “To see ourselves as inter-species diplomats… they go to other places in an effort to show the best that their nation-state represents, to create a good impression for others in an attempt to foster relationships of peaceful coexistence with difference”

– “What if we saw ourselves in our interactions with other animals as species diplomats?… what kind of interaction should I pursue?”

– “Shifting the starting point of our interactions with animals” instead of our typical defensive (how do I avoid or protect myself?) or offensive (how do I exploit or monetise them?)

– “Shifting to a diplomatic framework was exciting… how would I best represent homo sapiens in the presence of this particular animal?… it can potentially guide in practical ways our behaviour”

– “Whatever way forward we choose merely practical reforms are not going to be enough in the absence of a deeper recircuiting and rewiring of our self-understanding in connection to other life-forms and in connection to nature much more generally”

– “Philosophy that is legible to a large and broad audience… writing for a general audience… very effectively by podcasting!”

– The Overthink Podcast “How do we apply philosophical ideas to the every day… this is harder work than it seems!… there we are seeing ourselves as philosophical diplomats”

– Non-philosophers who are already doing philosophical work: “There are these conceptual resources out there… I just need a bridge”

– JW: Could we “radically shift the role humanity has played with respect to sentientity or sentientkind?”

01:22:42 Follow David

David at SFSU

Overthink Podcast

When Animals Dream


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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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