What Am I Doing Here?
I’m volunteering for an organization called Legal Impact for Chickens. This post is an attempt to distill the issues it’s working to solve and the projects it’s running—as well as to introduce more people to the organization.
An Adjunct Hell
Some thought experiments make you want to roll your eyes or punch the person who first asked them, whether by their overuse or snide reframing of an obvious truth into a paradox. The trolley problem. Zeno’s tortoise. That one about the lost cow. The typewriter monkeys.
But then there’s the ones that actually make you think, like Peter Singer’s drowning child. Maybe the answer is obvious, but they point at important conclusions people aren’t comfortable with. There’s one by neuroscientist Karl Deisseroth that fits well into this second category:
Suppose one could control (as with this new form of single-cell optogenetics) the exact pattern of activity, over some period of time, of every cell in the brain of an animal capable of subjective sensation—say, of a pleasurable, intensely rewarding, internal feeling. And suppose such control could even be precisely guided by first observing and recording those activity patterns in the same animal during natural exposure to a real, rewarding stimulus—just as we already know we can do for simple visual percepts in the visual cortex.
The seemingly trivial question, then, is: would the animal feel the same subjective sensation? We already know that a mouse and its visual cortex will both behave as if it had received and processed the real stimulus—but would the animal also feel the same internal awareness, experiencing its quality beyond the information itself, like natural subjective consciousness except now when the activity pattern is presented artificially? . . .
Saying yes raises equally unsettling questions. If all the cells are actively controlled and a subjective sensation is being felt, then there is no reason the cells all need to be in the head of the animal. They could be spread all around the world, and controlled in the same way with the same relative timing, over as long a time period as was interesting, and the subjective sensation should still somehow be felt, somewhere, somehow, by the animal—an animal no longer existing in any discrete physical form. In a natural brain, neurons are near one another, or connected to one another, only to influence one another. But in this thought experiment, neurons no longer need to influence one another—the exact effect of what that influence would have been, over any period of time, is already being provided by the artificial stimulus.
Let’s take that one step further. If the answer is yes, there’s no reason for the cells spread all around the world to be cells. We’re assuming that sensation arises from a pattern of information in the brain, but if that pattern shows up in a separate medium, it’s still the same pattern. Now look around. Inside every dynamic system—every blanket of dead leaves blowing across the street, every turbulent river, every large gathering of people—there may spontaneously arise an arrangement that encodes the raw sensation of bliss. Alongside our physical world, there may be an adjunct heaven populated by Boltzman brains. It’s a very comforting thought to a utilitarian . . . until—well, there’s nothing about randomness that favors emergent bliss over emergent suffering. Alongside our physical world, there may be an adjunct hell populated by screams we’ll never hear.
Before declaring war on all the dead leaves caught in gusts of wind, it’s worth noting that an adjunct hell is already running on the same substrate as our reality. Inside this realm, intelligent life forms are mutilated with no anesthetics, confined into spaces so tight they can barely move, and never let outside. Via genetic manipulation, they’ve been transformed into sick caricatures of their perfect forms—their bodies sometimes swell with flesh too fast for their legs to keep up, and they stumble around in pain until they fall and become living corpses. If they stay standing, their health will be extinguished in order to produce more resources for their tormentors. By nature of their close confinement and ill health, they are an ideal vector for diseases, which often spread past their prison walls to our world outside.
General farming, though sometimes horrific, is legal. This is because, in the words of many state laws, it’s “customary” (a contentious legal term which can be taken to mean any practice that has been in place for a long time). Humans have been farming animals since the dawn of the agricultural age, so running a farm doesn’t fall under animal cruelty. However, most factory farming practices are new practices, and some of them may constitute cruelty. Going to police officers or prosecutors about animal cruelty is often an inefficient method for incurring change, since law enforcers don’t usually consider defending animals a priority. Activists sometimes get companies to promise to treat their livestock humanely. However, these companies’ behavior often doesn’t align with their words.
Legal Impact for Chickens hopes to use the civil justice system (instead of the criminal justice system) to hold companies accountable for breaking their promises. The organization was founded by a former PETA employee and lawyer. Legal Impact for Chickens applied for last year’s ACX grant opportunity, which it won.