In response to my very recent blog post about consciousness in animals a follower tweeted/posted the following:
So I thought - great. I will do this. I’ll take the advice and open my mind to alternatives. So it turns out there exists a very popular podcast on Youtube with a slick website and lots of episodes (178 as of writing this today according to the website https://www.philosophizethis.org/, although in other places on the website episode 181 https://www.philosophizethis.org/podcasts and if you go to the feed itself it says episode 187 (like on Youtube)) That might seem pedantic, but it just means things are not synched up and it makes searching for specific recent episodes a little difficult. The host, Stephen, began "Philosophize This!" as a podcast not entirely unlike my own (ToKCast) remains - focussed just on explaining his perspective on ideas and certain thinkers. But he has moved recently more and more into another “interview” style podcast. Which is all fine - but the ones where he just speak are more illuminating about where he, personally comes from. His motto for the podcast is “Thank you for wanting to know more today than you did yesterday.” But, and this will sound terribly arrogant, at no point in over an hour listening to two episodes did I feel I learned a single thing - except about his personal approach to podcasting. Which I admit, and will come to, is interesting. And may explain why he has so many downloads and I do not by comparison. “Philosophize This!” Is hosted by Stephen West and he is even endorsed by a reviewer at University College London (no less) right here https://www.univ.ox.ac.uk/news/philosophize-this/#:~:text=The%20Philosophize%20This!,prior%20experience%20with%20the%20subject.
So that’s amazing. And he won’t be hurt by my saying that in the two episodes I heard it was less Philosophize and more “Misrepresent This” or perhaps “Misunderstand This” I will explain this further so it doesn’t seem I’m just slinging epithets. Misconceptionism after all, everywhere and I think he actually is doing something good here with the podcast. His listeners will find other thinkers - they would surely be led to Harris and some other mainstream podcasters and intellectuals and then maybe they will find David Deutsch. Which is why I say: it’s all to the good. He’s not promoting evil - he’s not out there spouting communism (from what I see) but some anti human pessimism and absolutely some prophecy some creep in. But then he is in good company there. He seems like a really nice guy. He says “Hello everyone. I’m Stephen West.
My only goal in life is to make a podcast that brightens people’s lives a little bit. I want to be the notification on your phone that doesn’t induce any stress. Thank you for making that dream of mine possible.” Which is sweet and nice and that’s great. But all that said it won’t shield him from my criticism. It’s what I do and I do not think criticism is anything but showing respect and taking ideas seriously in their own terms as I explain in many places but for example here: https://youtu.be/_vHAe86isdE?si=1Z3S1qqeJs7cndgg
Ok, let’s get to it. I listened to two episodes. The first was the episode all about the ethics of eating meat. I will come to that soon as that is the main point of my post here. The second episode I listened to was a far more recent one all about AI existential risk which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UO6ZEeH9XNM and is titled “Episode #184 ... Is Artificial Intelligence really an existential threat?” This gave me a good gauge or benchmark of whether I should listen to more of his work. In both cases the episodes made very mainstream arguments of the kind I spend my podcast steel manning (or faithfully representing as Popper admonishes!) And then refuting. Only Stephen West puts those mainstream arguments made by other thinkers through a “Philosophize This!” Filter that extracts out muchof the more sophisticated details that actually make the cases passably work in many cases. So in the one on AI (which I won’t do a full breakdown of here - I’ve already done a breakdown of the steel manned version in many places not least of which is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCInMX7xj7g&list=PLsE51P_yPQCQMuCsxeUWxVWmEixmgnWJD&index=5 and here
Stephen in his episode on AI risk basically takes as read the work of Bostrom, Yudkowsky and especially Harris and rehashes all those arguments with little criticism. I heard nothing new in the entire episode that I have not already refuted as my own listeners will be well aware of. It’s a horse I have flogged not until was it dead but cremated and buried. Yes, I’ve overdone it. So I won’t recapitulate anything here except that the podcaster fails to deal with any of the substantive criticisms of those thinkers on any of this and he comes down on the side of “alignment” and the dangers of AI and compares it to the trope of nuclear weapons and so on. It is Bostrom’s perspective to the core filtered through Harris but, as I say, filtered again through a mechanism that makes it suitable, I guess, for people with almost no interest in philosophy at all. Which I admit is a very good idea. “Philosophize This!” has 125,000 subscribers on Youtube alone. It’s a huge podcast for this kind of material. So he won’t even notice my criticism and is no doubt big enough to take it (or simply ignore me). But he desperately needs to understand universality, personhood, David Deutsch and Karl Popper. We will return to that.
His technique of reducing almost all technical arguments has the effect of straw manning even what Harris, Bostrom and those he seems to be aping are actually saying. Which means he straw mans the opponent argument even worse (as we will see in the present critique on his stuff about the ethics of eating animals). This technique, as I say, will find a large audience who has no time for technical arguments and wants something not merely mainstream but also digestible in very sugary form. This is the other end of the spectrum to people like Sean Carroll or Eric Weinstein whose podcasts at times do not shy away from reminding the listener they are professional physicists and mathematicians and so will pepper episodes with talk of topology and tensor calculus, the wavefuntion, the Dirac Delta Function, manifolds, differential geometry and lots of things only those with a graduate understanding of physics would appreciate. Fair enough - some people like that style too. I try to walk a middle line where when the technical physics and mathematics comes up I always try to explain it in plain, simple English. I try to follow not merely the arguments of Deutsch and Popper but their style. Don’t talk down to the audience but do unpack the technical stuff in a new way that you think helps people you have talked to about this stuff who don’t have a background in science and philosophy. I may fail at this and sometimes get it wrong, but that’s the aim. I don’t avoid the technical stuff but I don’t leave the technical stuff as assumed knowledge either unless in the rare instance I have just talked about it in a previous episode (see my Multiverse series for examples of this where really the 5 or 6 episodes are a sequence where we build towards something quite technical and assume one is familiar with other episodes).
So all of this is to say thankyou to my new follower on Twitter who suggested (quote) “Anyone interested in this should totally watch philosophize this’s video on whether it’s moral to eat them. Search him up on YouTube” - this being my post about animal consciousness. Which actually was not about whether it was “moral to eat them”. And philosophize this did not talk about consciousness so actually there isn’t a close relationship. However there is some crossover.
But I want to thank him for the link. Genuinely it is very useful. 😊 But not for the reasons he might think. Now trigger warning again: this analysis and reflection will sound terribly harsh as perhaps the previous brief analysis of the AI one was. This one will be longer. But I did spend time listening to the entire thing at https://youtu.be/HsZsg3mlsNM?si=AdMtfT_rgbits22k called Episode #071 ... “Is Killing Animals For Food Morally Justifiable?” so unless there is yet another episode he does on this I get the idea of his ideas, his podcast and this issue in particular. And conjoined with his AI episode that I listened to straight after, I get the tone, tenor and methodology of his podcast. I get his worldview not only on these issues but approach to philosophy and epistemology. It is a kind of “Sam Harris Lite” take. I know that sounds terrible! But it’s just to give an indication of how I think he is coming from a mainstream perspective which, as I said, is further refined, so the speak, for an audience who might find even Harris too erudite and hence boring.
Brief Interlude on the thinking behind ToKCast
Perhaps I’d have more subscribers if I employed some of the tactics of those guys with massive audiences. Or not! I may just not be to most people’s taste. And that’s ok! I know precisely where I sit in the “intellectual landscape” and it is to counter mainstream misconceptions and by definition the mainstream is the majority. So I’m appealing, a priori, to a minority. And a minority within a minority. I mean compared to Rogan, Harris is the minority (people interested in the philosophy of science, neuroscience, computation, physics and all the stuff I talk about). But he takes mainstream views on those things and so appeals to a large minority of the “majority” of people interested in long form podcasts. I’m basically over here disagreeing with everyone on lots of things so of course Harris’, Carroll’s, Weinstein’s - and well even Yaron Brook’s audience (which is itself a minority of a minority) won’t like what I have to say. The worldview of Deutsch, Popper and Feynman is a very narrow intersection of refined ideas that forms a robust but sophisticated worldview that actually is coherent. Each part of the web holds together with the other and captures the fabric of reality to serve as a beginning of infinity (did you like that? Tortured, wasn’t it?)
There’s a few things to “get” with my podcast when you come to it especially “mid stream” to a random episode and I can never find the one easy way in for people. Is it conjectural knowledge? Guessing? The woven web? “Guessing knowledge” seems to put people off - they think “relativism”. Is it “people are cosmically significant” is that my “in”? No, rationalists think “religious sounding woo”. Is it quantum computation and universality? They think: technobabble. Optimism? They think glass half full self help. The problem is we use all the regular words…we don’t neologise wherever possible (unlike Weinstein who is a master of this) and try to explain things in common sense terms. Ultimately that works against us as people begin to think “I already know this” or at the other extreme “That is so preposterous and challenges my deeply held assumption none of the rest is even worth listening to”. So, as I say: small audience. But with Naval’s help and David’s increasing popularity we are getting there.
Back to “Philosophize This!”
This is not a post intended to be about me or ToKCast (although I now have an idea for writing about what ToKCast is for those new to it). This is about the "Philosophize This!" podcast and specifically the episode “Is Killing Animals For Food Morally Justifiable?”
I’m posting part of this (what will fit) to Twitter/X and so I’m again breaking my general rule t/here about making long posts on that platform just to get this out. These are my notes as I listened:
First: the misconception of “justificationism” is right there in the title and goes on to be deeply embedded throughout the entire piece. He keeps repeating what is “morally justifiable” over and again (rather than focussing on what is known and unknown and good explanations from science and epistemology) and at one point near the end compares the whole issue to the keeping of slaves and how we changed our opinion on that which is just a common, lazy, mainstream take and trope.
Second: Stephen then moves seamlessly into moral subjectivism (asking about what’s “good for you” not objectively good.) and so litters the entire tone of the thing with what is personally right for you rather than being concerned about objective knowledge and good explanations. It’s not even a “principled” stance where we can talk fundamentals. Instead it is all couched in terms of what is “good” or “right” FOR YOU.
Now, what I thought was *good* in the podcast early on was he says he doesn’t know the answer to whether it’s “justifiable” to eat animals. Ok. So I guess he won’t be judgemental? No. He then goes on to be judgemental of those who do eat animals implying he does indeed know and thus only makes arguments for one side of the issue (all the reasons against ever eating meat). He takes it for granted that the arguments for eating meat are just known by the audience but what he assumes is completely false in his attempt to refute those assumptions. Namely: it’s just not true it’s about about “nutrition” and “taste” (for example) when it comes to the philosophy of this. I’ll come back to that.
The episode is also fixated on how the animal suffers - like so many do. But this *begs the very question I am not*. I am asking: how can we know the animal suffers? What is the philosophical criteria? What even is suffering? He doesn’t say.
So the stuff about taste and nutrition is all irrelevant to the question but he spends a long time on it. Who actually makes that argument?
His argument from who is bigger and stronger? The idea people/humans are higher on food chain. I never actually hear that argument either *philosophically sophisticated* (like Harris or say Singer who is big on refuting arguments from meat-eaters on this) and understandably because it’s so bad. Even they don’t assume their opponents ever make those arguments. Sure, the guy down the pub might, but why are we worried about him here?
He then says, and returns to this, that all these arguments so made so far about eating other animals would also apply to eating other *people* too. This is completely wrong. No, they do not! No one makes that argument. It’s a very weak straw man.
But he makes this because at no point does he ever grapple with the crucial philosophical l question of *personhood*. What is a person? He just says more than once that we have a more “rich and vibrant experience of the world”. Again: who says *merely* that? It’s very weak. He hasn’t read the literature or listened even to someone as mainstream as Harris on this: at all.
So then he talks about aliens being better than us. Ok. So now he mentions an argument people like Harris also make. Which says very little. It’s a weak argument. Aliens would not want to eat us. If they’ve travelled across the galaxy they’re not looking for snacks on Earth and *they* understand universality and the moral qualitative difference between people and all other structures in physical reality. He doesn’t (of course then neither do the AI doomers, vegans, Singer, Harris, Gervais or anyone else pushing the “don’t eat animals” barrow).
Ultimately he comes down on the side of anti-humanism. Who are we to say we are more important than other animals? This is a standard trope. I deal with that at length in various places including directly in that post I made. This is the most obvious way in which Deutsch’s criterion of universality makes all the difference here. He’s not aware of it. Or fallibilism. Or “hard to vary” explanations. Or conjectural knowledge/Popper. Conflates pain and suffering: the main point of my post is to tease this apart. He doesn’t mention consciousness or qualia at all. Those are key.
None of this was at all insightful or made me think anything else he says would be worth listening to, I’m afraid. Again: that sounds a little harsh but we need heuristics in this world and “Philosophize This!” does not seem to have anything interesting on this issue to say in terms of actual, legitimate philosophy. He could change his channel, on the basis of this episode to “Misrepresent this”. That would be closer to the mark.
But as I say: thankyou to my follower for the link as it gives me an important insight into how yet another “type” of thinker goes about reasoning on these issues and representing their opponents and what the standard of discourse in general is. Even on “philosophy” podcasts.
The most valuable thing you can offer to an idea