Jason Schukraft

Dr. Jason Schukraft is a Senior Research Manager at Rethink Priorities. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin.


Invertebrate Sentience


Notes: Stubble Burning in India

Hey Harrison, I think the short answer is that it's just a really messy situation and any potential solution that has a shot at improving on the status quo has to take political reality into account.

Notes: Stubble Burning in India

Hey Harrison,

I'm also not knowledgeable about Indian politics, but it seems pretty clear that Indian farmers wield considerable political influence. (See the reaction to the introduction of three market-friendly farm laws for the most recent demonstration of this power.) I'd like to think political compromise is possible, but it's hard to know which compromises are feasible.

Fortunately, it appears that many of the potential solutions to stubble burning are essentially win-win. Although stubble burning is an effective way to deal with crop residue in the short term, the practice is pretty bad for the soil. Many of the alternatives to stubble burning would probably raise yields in the long-run.

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

Hi Dan,

Thanks for your questions. I'll let Marcus and Peter answer the first two, but I feel qualified to answer the third.

Certainly, the large number of invertebrate animals is an important factor in why we think invertebrate welfare is an area that deserves attention. But I would advise against relying too heavily on numbers alone when assessing the value of promoting invertebrate welfare. There are at least two important considerations worth bearing in mind:

(1) First, among sentient animals, there may be significant differences in capacity for welfare or moral status. If these differences are large enough, they might matter more than the differences in the numbers of different types of animals.

(2) Second, at some point, Pascal's Mugging will rear its ugly head. There may be some point below which we are rationally required to ignore probabilities. It's not clear to me where that point lies. (And it's also not clear that this is the best way to address Pascal's Mugging.) There are about 440 quintillion nematodes alive at any given time, which sounds like a pretty good reason to work on nematode welfare, even if one's credence in their sentience is really low. But nematodes are nothing compared to bacteria. There are something like 5 million trillion trillion bacteria alive at any given time. At some point, it seems as if expected value calculations cease to be appropriately action-guiding, but, again, it's very uncertain where to draw the line.

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

Hi Denis,

Lots of really good questions here. I’ll do my best to answer.

  1. Thinking vs reading: I think it depends on the context. Sometimes it makes sense to lean toward thinking more and sometimes it makes sense to lean toward reading more. (I wouldn’t advise focusing exclusively on one or the other.) Unjustified anchoring is certainly a worry, but I think reinventing the wheel is also a worry. One could waste two weeks groping toward a solution to a problem that could have been solved in afternoon just by reading the right review article.

  2. Self-consciousness: Yep, I am intimately familiar with hopelessly inchoate thoughts and notes. (I’m not sure I’ve ever completed a project without passing through that stage.) For me at least, the best way to overcome this state is to talk to lots of people. One piece of advice I have for young researchers is to come to terms with sharing your work with people you respect before it’s polished. I’m very grateful to have a large network of collaborators willing to listen to and read my confused ramblings. Feedback at an early stage of a project is often much more valuable than feedback at a later stage.

  3. Is there something interesting here?: Yep, this also happens to me. Unfortunately, I don’t have any particular insight. Oftentimes the only way to know whether an idea is interesting is to put in the hard exploratory work. Of course, one shouldn’t be afraid to abandon an idea if it looks increasingly unpromising.

  4. *Survival vs. exploratory mindset: Insofar as I understand the terms, an exploratory mindset is an absolute must. Not sure how to cultivate it, though.

  5. Optimal hours of work per day: I work between 4 and 8 hours a day. I don’t find any difference in my productivity within that range, though I imagine if I pushed myself to work more than 8, I would pretty quickly hit diminishing returns.

  6. Learning a new field: I can’t emphasize enough the value of just talking to existing experts. For me at least, it’s by far the most efficient way to get up-to-speed quickly. For that reason, I really value having a large network of diverse people I can contact with questions. I put a fair amount of effort into cultivating such a network.

  7. Hard problems: I’m fortunate that my work is almost always intrinsically interesting. So even if I don’t make progress on a problem, I continue to be motivated to work on it because the work itself is so very pleasant. That said, as I’ve emphasized above, when I’m stuck, I find it most helpful to talk to lots of people about the problem.

  8. Emotional motivators: When I reflect on my life as a whole, I’m happy that I’m in a career that aims to improve the world. But in terms of what gets me out of bed in the morning and excited to work, it’s almost never the impact I might have. It’s the intrinsically interesting nature of my work. I almost certainly would not be successful if I did not find my research to be so fascinating.

  9. Typing speed: No idea what my typing speed is, but it doesn’t feel particularly fast, and that doesn’t seem to handicap me. I’ve always considered myself a slow thinker, though.

  10. Obvious questions: Yeah, I think there is a general skill of “noticing the obvious.” I don’t think I’m great at it, but one thing I do pretty often is reflect on the sorts of things that appear obvious now that weren’t obvious to smart people ~200 years ago.

  11. Tiredness, focus, etc.: Regular exercise certainly helps. Haven’t tried anything else. Mostly I’ve just acclimated to getting work done even though I’m tired. (Not sure I would recommend that “solution,” though!)

  12. Meta: I’d like to see others answer questions 1, 3, 6, 7, and 10.

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

Hi Roger,

There are different possible scenarios in which invertebrates turn out to be sentient. It might be the case, for instance, that panpsychism is true. So if one comes to believe that invertebrates are sentient because panpsychism is true, one should also come to believe that robots and plants are sentient. Or it could be that some form of information integration theory is true, and invertebrates instantiate enough integration for sentience. In that case, the probability that you assign to the sentience of plants and robots will depend on your assessment of their relevant level of integration.

For what it's worth, here's how I think about the issue: sentience, like other biological properties, has an evolutionary function. I take it as a datum that mammals are sentient. If we can discern the role that sentience is playing in mammals, and it appears there is analogous behavior in other taxa, then, in the absence of defeaters, we are licensed to infer that individuals of those taxa are sentient. In the past few years I've updated toward thinking that arthropods and (coleoid) cephalopods are sentient, but the majority of these updates have been based on learning new empirical information about these animals. (Basically, arthropods and cephalopods engage in way more complex behaviors than I realized.) When we constructed our invertebrate sentience table, we also looked at plants, prokaryotes, protists, and, in an early version of the table, robots and AIs of various sorts. The individuals in these categories did not engage in the sort of behaviors that I take to be evidence of sentience, so I don't feel licensed to infer that they are sentient.

Ask Rethink Priorities Anything (AMA)

Hey Edo,

I definitely receive valuable feedback on my work by posting it on the Forum, and the feedback is often most valuable when it comes from people outside my current network. For me, the best example of this dynamic was when Gavin Taylor left extensive comments on our series of posts about features relevant to invertebrate sentience (here, here, and here) back in June 2019. I had never interacted with Gavin before, but because of his comments, we set up a meeting, and he has become an invaluable collaborator across many different projects. My work is much improved due to his insights. I'm not sure Gavin and I would ever have met (much less collaborated) if not for his comments on the Forum.

EA Forum Prize: Winners for October 2020

Sometimes, they ask us to instead donate the money to a charity on their behalf, which we are also willing to do.

Oh, cool. I didn't realize this was a possibility. I've always claimed the money and then donated the same amount to Rethink Priorities (where I work). If I'm lucky enough to have the opportunity in the future, I'll do this instead.

(I basically get paid to write content for the Forum, so I'm not really comfortable accepting the prize money.)

Research Summary: The Intensity of Valenced Experience across Species

Hey Michael,

Thanks for your comment! The point you raise is a good one. I’ve thought about related issues over the last few months, but my views still aren’t fully settled. And I’ll just reiterate for readers that my tentative conclusions are just that: tentative. More than anything, I want everyone to appreciate how much uncertainty we face here.

We can crudely ask whether motivation is tied to the relative intensity of valenced experience or the absolute intensity of valenced experience. (‘Crudely’ because the actual connection between motivation and valenced experience is likely to be a bit messy and complicated.) If it’s the relative intensity, then, all else equal, a pain at the top end of an animal’s range is going to be very motivating, even if the pain has a phenomenal feel comparable to a human experiencing a very mild muscle spasm. If it’s absolute intensity, then, all else equal, a pain like that won’t be very motivating. I’m not sure what the right view is here, but the relative view that you endorse in the comment is certainly a live option, so let’s go with that.

If it’s relative intensity that matters for motivation, then natural selection needs a reason to generate big differences in absolute intensity. (Setting aside the fact that evolution sometimes goes kinda haywire.) You suggest the fitness benefit of a fine-grained valence scale, especially for animals that face many competing pulls on their attention. I agree that the resolution of an animal’s valence scale probably matters. But it’s unclear to me how much this tells us about differences in absolute intensity.

It seems possible to be better or worse at distinguishing gradations of valenced experience. It might be the case that animals with similar intensity ranges can differ in the number of intensity levels they can distinguish. (It might also be the case that animals with different intensity ranges have a similar number of intensity levels they can distinguish.) So if there were a fitness benefit to having 100 distinguishable gradations rather than 10, evolution could either select for animals with wider ranges or select for animals with better resolutions. (Or some combination thereof.) Considerations like the Weber-Fechner law incline me toward thinking an increase in resolution would be more efficient than an increase in range (though of course there are limits to how much resolution can be increased). But at this point I’m just speculating; there’s a lot more basic research that needs to be done to get a handle on these sorts of questions.

Differences in the Intensity of Valenced Experience across Species

Oh nice, that sounds really cool - definitely keep me updated!

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