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Cross-posted from my website.


Brian Tomasik has written a lot of essays on reducing suffering. In this post, I've picked out my favorites. If you're thinking about reading his work, this list could be a good place to start. Note that this is based on what I personally find interesting; it is not a definitive guide. These are listed in no particular order.

Dissolving Confusion about Consciousness

Consciousness is a “cluster in thingspace” comprising physical systems that we consider to be similar in some way. It is a label for systems, not an essence within systems. Also, like defining “tables”, defining “consciousness” may be similarly arbitrary and fuzzy.

The Eliminativist Approach to Consciousness

Instead of thinking in terms of “conscious” and “unconscious” we should directly focus on how physical systems work. Aspects of systems are not merely indicators of pain, but are part of the cluster of things that we call “pain” (attribute the label “pain”). Tomasik also draws parallels between eliminativism and panpsychism and highlights that there is a shared implication of both theories that there is no clear separation of consciousness with physical reality, which may further suggest that we should put more weight to ideas that less complex systems can suffer.

How to Interpret a Physical System as a Mind

Uses the concept of a “sentience classifier” to describe how we might interpret physical systems as minds. Distinct theories offer different approaches to building the classifier. Classification then involves “identifying the traits of the physical system in question” (taking in the data and searching for relevant features) as a first step and “mapping from those traits to high-level emotions and valences” (labeling the data) as a second step. Our brains might already be vaguely implementing the sentience classifier - albeit with more messiness, complexity, and components and processes particular to the brain.

The Many Fallacies of Dualism

This article touches on a common theme underlying Tomasik’s approach to topics like consciousness, free will, moral (anti)realism, and mathematical (anti)realism: rejecting dualism in favor of a simpler physicalist monism.

The Importance of Wild Animal Suffering

A good introduction to the topic. Discusses the extensive suffering experienced by wild animals due to natural causes like disease, predation, and environmental hardships, which may outweigh moments of happiness. Vast numbers and short, brutal lives of wild animals make their suffering a significant ethical issue.

Why Vegans Should Care about Suffering in Nature

A shorter introduction to the topic.

The Horror of Suffering

A vivid reflection on the horror of suffering. Suffering is not merely an abstract concept but a dire reality that demands urgent moral attention. There is a long history of intuitions that prioritize the reduction of suffering.

One Trillion Fish

Short piece on the direct harms caused by large-scale fishing (though note that when taking into account population changes and wild-animal suffering, the sign of this is less clear). Suggests humane slaughter of fish as an intervention that side-steps the uncertainty of net impact of fishing on wild-animal suffering.

How Does Vegetarianism Impact Wild-Animal Suffering?

Note that there are likely more comprehensive analyses now. That animal suffering is increased in some ways because of a vegetarian/vegan diet is counterintuitive but important to recognize. You might still want to be vegetarian/vegan and not eat meat as it might help with becoming more motivated to reduce suffering.

How Rainforest Beef Production Affects Wild-Animal Suffering

Creating cattle pastures prevents the suffering of counterfactual rainforest animals (in particular invertebrates).

Habitat Loss, Not Preservation, Generally Reduces Wild-Animal Suffering

Reducing plant growth/net primary productivity reduces wild-animal suffering - challenging the inclusion of environmentalism in the animal welfare/rights & vegan/vegetarianism memeplexes.

Is There Suffering in Fundamental Physics?

Many theories of consciousness imply some weight on the possibility of suffering in fundamental physics. This especially follows from eliminativism, and of course, theories of consciousness that are explicitly panpsychist. The numerosity of fundamental physical operations may present a wager.

Why Your Laptop May Be Marginally Sentient

Similar article. Laptops too.

Bacteria, Plants, and Graded Sentience

Another similar article that considers the possibility of suffering in systems that are not intuitively capable of suffering. Personally, suffering in microorganisms feels more real than suffering in physics (I suspect feeling might be all we have to go by and we might not have a better solution to understand consciousness).

Fuzzy, Nested Minds Problematize Utilitarian Aggregation

Different ways of counting physical systems as individual minds results in very different numbers and some complications. I possibly-seriously, possibly-jokingly think this implies a moral wager on systems ~half the size of a finite, discrete universe, in such a universe (the most numerous class of systems according to a “sum over all systems” approach). 

How the Simulation Argument Dampens Future Fanaticism

I think this is an original argument of Tomasik’s. This looks at how having simulated copies of yourself changes the relative expected value of long-term vs. near-term interventions. Essentially, as Tomasik puts it, if “there's a non-trivial chance that most of the copies of ourselves are instantiated in relatively short-lived simulations run by superintelligent civilizations … when we act to help others in the short run, our good deeds are duplicated many times over.” The gap in the order of magnitude (OOMs) of expected value between long-term and near-term interventions is narrowed but still significant.

Strategic Considerations for Moral Antinatalists

Antinatalists who are morally-motivated may want to shift focus towards opportunities that have a larger impact on suffering reduction (i.e. wild-animal suffering and the suffering of far-future digital minds).

Omelas and Space Colonization

A good short piece tempering excessive optimism about the value of the future. I like it because it acknowledges the existence of those who may be suffering in the far future.

Two-Envelopes Problem for Uncertainty about Brain-Size Valuation and Other Moral Questions

An introduction to a problem with making comparisons between the dis(value) of experiences in small and large brains. I’m still often confused about this.

Astronomical suffering from slightly misaligned artificial intelligence

Mentions the risk of SignFlip, where an AI maximizes the opposite of its intended utility function. It’s already happened before with GPT-2.

Why Charities Usually Don't Differ Astronomically in Expected Cost-Effectiveness

Pushback against the claims that some charities are >100 times as cost-effective as other charities.

Why Honesty is a Good Policy

Dishonesty is generally a bad idea. We should reduce naive utilitarian tendencies.

Education Matters for Altruism

Learning often isn’t suboptimal. Many of us are probably focused on interventions that we would consider suboptimal or even harmful on reflection simply because we currently don’t know enough about how the world works.

Does the Against Malaria Foundation Reduce Invertebrate Suffering?

I think this could be dated because of malaria vaccines? AMF could also reduce large amounts of invertebrate suffering (more humans, more resources used, fewer invertebrates, less invertebrate suffering).

How Many Wild Animals Are There?

Useful estimates. But likely superseded by other studies that have also made estimates.





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Great summaries/comments!

I think this is an original argument of Tomasik’s.

The specific calculations are probably original, but the basic idea that being in a simulation would probably reduce the importance of long-term outcomes was discussed by others, such as the people mentioned in this section.

This especially follows from eliminativism

My understanding was that eliminativism (qualia are just a kind of physical process, not a different essence or property existing separate from physical reality) is orthogonal to panpsychism (whether particles have qualia), and thus to whether particles suffer. Or is there some connection I'm missing?

I think there's a connection that results from how both theories dissolve the concept of qualia. Eliminativism does this by saying qualia is actually physics and panpsychism (in its most expansive forms) does this by saying all physics has qualia. Both theories effectively make the "suffering" label less exclusive - and more processes would have a higher probability of being correctly associated with that label (unclear whether probability is the right word in the case of eliminativism). With panpsychism, processes are conscious and the only remaining question is whether they also suffer. With eliminativism, the distinction between "what we usually take to be suffering processes" and "other processes" is blurred and we're more permissive of some members of the latter being considered the former, or with a probabilities framing, less certain that some members of the latter is not the former. (Although, I guess alternatively the uncertainty can go the other way and we might be more skeptical of processes being suffering processes. But most people already put zero weight or very little weight on particles suffering so it seems like the uncertainty/blurred distinction should increase it?)

This seems similar to how empty individualism and open individualism are related. They both dissolve the common-sense concept of personal identity featured in closed individualism. Personal identity ceases to be "special": open individualism merges everyone and empty individualism atomizes everyone into individual-moments.

Tomasik also offers an analogy of how the concept of élan vital was dissolved in another article. As I understand it, the concept was eliminated with advances in knowledge of biochemistry. But alternatively people could have also said "actually everything is pretty similar to stuff we consider alive - let's just say everything falls under the term 'alive' then" (while not making any unscientific claims; it just means expanding the definition of "alive" to include everything) and élan vital would be similarly dissolved. The final result seems similar and the concept doesn't distinguish processes from one another in a way previously thought as meaningful.

Thanks for the question. :)

eliminativism (qualia are just a kind of physical process, not a different essence or property existing separate from physical reality)

That sounds like a definition of physicalism in general rather than eliminativism specifically?

I agree with the analogies in Tim's comment. As he says, the idea is that eliminativism says all physical processes are kind of on the same footing as far as not containing (the philosophically laden version of) consciousness. So it's more plausible we'd treat all physical processes as in the same boat rather than drawing sharp dividing lines.

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