The Joshua Cefalu Prize

The Joshua Cefalu Prize (S-Prize) asks: What is the most effective way to phase-out the root biological substrates of suffering? We're awarding prizes for the best neurobiological and population ecology arguments. Sign up to learn more.

*Note, the following text is provisional and subject to change.


The Joshua Cefalu Foundation (JCF), Henry George School of San Francisco (HGS-SF), and Invincible Wellbeing (IW) are hosting the Joshua Cefalu Prize, AKA the S-Prize, a competition to advance therapeutic understanding of the root biological mechanisms underpinning suffering around the world and across species.


We’re seeking entrants with vast knowledge of neurobiology and related subjects, unique outlooks, and the drive to spawn radical advances in the science of wellbeing.



  • IW's mission is to understand and sensibly phase-out the root physical capacity for suffering.

  • We're offering a prize for submitting the best overall strategies toward ending the biology of suffering.

  • Contestants will submit papers arguing for their preferred strategies.

  • Such multi-disciplinary individuals and teams will cooperate and compete for $100,000.

  • Please reach out if you'd like to be a sponsor or a donor.

  • Qualifying submissions do not have to be original research as long as authors cite their sources.

  • We'll be releasing more information as the project unfolds. So, sign up for email notifications above.



All donations are tax deductible. Don't hesitate to contact us:

Payment Options

  • Zelle: This is the fastest and most fuss-free option. Simply, find Zelle within your online banking and enter the phone number: +1(415) 948-4265. Check that the recipient listed is The Henry George School of San Francisco / David Giesen.

  • PayPal: To save on transaction fees: guide to how fees work

  • Bank transfer/electronic bill pay: Email for HGSSF's account and routing numbers. Note, bill pay tends to not carry transaction charges. You'll have to verify with your bank though.

  • Checks may be mailed to: 
    Henry George School of San Francisco
    189 Ellsworth St, San Francisco, CA 94110-5640
    Memo: Joshua Cefalu Prize


A Growing Prize Currently Totaling $100,000.


The prize money received from donations, minus administrative costs of no more than 10%, will go to the winner. Currently, the prize pot is $25,000 and growing. The Joshua Cefalu Foundation will match other donors at a rate of 50%. For example, if you donate $1,000, JCF will donate an additional $500, up to an additional $25,000. This represents an increase of $50,000. We are actively seeking more donors and sponsors to attract the world’s most talented minds. Please reach out if you would like to contribute to the fund; email or


Anybody is welcome to submit (see rules). Even those who do not win the prize will be contributing to an important new area of scientific inquiry and could be responsible for setting historical antecedents that lead to ending suffering globally. Invincible Wellbeing reserves the right to publish or not publish any work submitted as part of this competition. The aim is to showcase a wide-range of viewpoints, regardless of which team or individual wins.


The competition will raise awareness of suffering-focused ethics / biotechnology, and spawn new opportunities for collaboration.

Research Papers 

Key Questions

Entrants will seek to answer 5 primary questions:


  1. What are the root biological substrates of suffering? 

  2. What neurological circuit likely underpins suffering across sentient life?

  3. What is the most sensible way to quantify the distribution of suffering among species? 

  4. What is the most appropriate model organism to carefully study the effects of gene drives and other suffering-focused therapies?

  5. Given the answers to the previous questions, what is the best long-term strategy (scientific, political, business, etc) for safely and effectively phasing out the root biological cause of suffering?


A qualifying submission: 

  • States a claim on the oldest common ancestor possessing a primordial suffering circuit and provides evidence and arguments using properly sourced scientific references.

  • States a claim on which neurological circuit is most essential to suffering and backs it up with sound arguments and properly sourced scientific evidence.

  • States a claim on the model organism best suited to test germline genetic interventions (including gene drives) in controlled environments with the goal of preventing pain / suffering, based on said organism’s likeness to other species, and potential universal benefit in reducing this harm on a global scale. Applicants also back this claim with sound arguments and properly sourced scientific evidence. 

  • Includes compelling and easy to understand quantitative visual models showing the distribution of suffering on Earth.

    • Quantifies the number of individuals likely to suffer in each grouping.

    • Total quantified suffering accounts for differences in reproduction rates and life spans.

    • States a claim on a middle ground between purely quantifying the number of neurons and applying a greater weighting factor for phenomenal binding of those neurons.

    • Provides multiple distribution models based on the variable degrees of weighting of such binding.

  • Includes a thorough examination of competing theories. 

  • Offers claims about the potential of neuron computer chip interfaces to suffer and how to minimize such risk.

  • Accompanying the submission’s abstract will be a clear, succinct, and otherwise perspicuous executive summary, including visual aids created for those without a scientific, technical, or philosophical background.



The Combination Problem

It’s important to note that one’s position on the combination problem — specifically as it relates to hedonia — is critical to this analysis. Is the enteric nervous system of humans a unified subject of hedonic experience, separate from the human brain? One’s answer is critical as there are as many neurons in the human gut as there are in a typical house cat’s brain. Few would argue that the cat is not a unitary subject of hedonic experience. However, perhaps even fewer would argue that one’s stomach is an individual who suffers and deserves consideration separate from that of the brain to which it’s attached. If neurons in the gut and other likely hedonically-inert tissues are counted on equal footing with neurons essential for hedonia, those figures may be used to paint an erroneous picture of Earth’s hedonic distribution. 


Therefore, we propose the following calculation, subject to improvement by applicants:

(# of individuals)(# of neurons with sufficient hedonic binding) = total hedonic mass 


Less Problematic Proxies for Suffering

It is difficult to say with absolute certainty what substrates are critical for hedonia, but participants should not assume that merely adding neurons together is an adequate way of approximating suffering.

Therefore, it’s critical that time is spent liaising with affective neuroscientists to discuss the least problematic proxies for suffering. These and other proxies can be used as multipliers. For example:


# of neurons with sufficient hedonic binding = (# of neurons)(sufficient hedonic binding multiplier)


(# of individuals)(# of neurons)(sufficient hedonic binding multiplier) = total hedonic mass 


Neuron 'Efficiency'

Just because there are fewer neurons in an organism does not mean that it suffers less. Insects accomplish a great deal of computation with far fewer neurons. They may possess fewer neurons simply as a function of limitations on their total body size (probably a result of atmospheric oxygen). They may have had to use fewer neurons more efficiently to accomplish neurological results commensurate with their endoskeletal counterparts.


Lizards’ tails autotomize, i.e. fall off under threat conditions. The severed tail alone may not experience our intuitive notion of pain, given how computationally expensive it may be to support a separate unitary subject of hedonic experience. The tail ganglia may merely be executing automatic responses without actually experiencing pain.

There is an evolutionarily adaptive reason for the organism, as a whole, to experience pain. This would include creatures with relatively simple neurological systems. Pain motivates the organism to avoid noxious stimuli in a more robust manner than non-hedonic reactions do. Whether insects suffer is a different matter, but if hedonia is calorically expensive, there would be no reason to instantiate it in ganglia separated from the rest of the body. If insects, and other creatures, instantiate suffering using fewer neurons, there is no reason to assume that the existence of fewer neurons alone indicates a reduced capacity for suffering. Again, insects do seem to accomplish other neurologically complex tasks with fewer neurons. They may also experience suffering.


Higher Cognitive Functioning
Learning, like the total number of neurons, is probably not a reliable way to determine the difference between an animal who suffers and one who does not. It may be said that animals with short lifespans, like insects, have no need to form memories of aversive stimuli, which would otherwise enable them to avoid harm in the future. Simply responding to these stimuli without encoding memories may still indicate the presence of negative experience, as phenomenological pain and memory are likely to be dissociable processes. Species who have memory likely suffer, but it’s also the case that, even among cognitively complex species like humans, individuals suffer without being able to recall memories. For the same reason, notions of self-awareness are probably insufficient proxies as well. 



It is likely to be the case that the behavioral, neuroanatomical, and functional network data converges upon a common ancestor who suffered. In identifying what circuits are common among species likely to suffer, we may come closer to identifying the fundamental mechanisms underpinning suffering itself. These mechanisms may be controlled by single genes which can be modified without fitness costs.

Drawing the Line

While we are open to diverse metaphysical positions on suffering, this project assumes, unless participants provide convincing arguments otherwise, that: 1) suffering is self-intimatingly bad, 2) current suffering on earth is a biological phenomenon, 3) there is a cut-off between biological creatures who have negative hedonic experiences and those who do not, and 4) we will not attempt to account for potential sources of suffering with astronomically low likelihoods, regardless of whether a thought experiment involving extreme magnitudes of suffering can be conceived of. This is not to say that others should not consider these possibilities, but it is outside the scope of the S-Prize.


Even if non-biological entities may suffer, now or in the future, we believe it is more strategic to focus on understanding what underpins suffering in biological creatures first, and then consider extrapolating these insights into more speculative sources of potential suffering. We believe that such a path is more likely to be fruitful regardless of whether non-biological entities are capable of suffering now or in the future. 


Between now and November 1, 2021, prospective competitors admitted for entry must submit a:

  • General research plan for pre-approval explaining how they will authoritatively address the questions, including how the applicant will attempt to answer those questions,

  • Signed Release & Waiver, 

  • List of personal information, and a

  • Final research paper submission to


  • Qualifying applicants must be eighteen (18) years of age or older at time of entry.

  • Teams and individuals may enter.

  • Participants, sponsors, and members of their immediate families may not be currently or formerly employed or have volunteered at Invincible Wellbeing, the Joshua Cefalu Foundation, or any additional sponsors of the prize who have not come forward yet.

  • All participants, either individually or part of a team, may only submit one final entry each round. If an applicant would like to state multiple mutually exclusive claims, they should include all arguments for and against the additional claims in the same submission. The process of argumentation, not just the advocated claim, are both key to a winning submission. If a participant submits multiple versions of their entry, only the most recent submission will be admissible. The applicant must give multiple versions of the same entry an identical filename + a version number: 'Example Team Name - Example Entry Title -'.  

  • Participants must submit entries via email to, [with the subject line “Joshua Cefalu Prize Submission [Last Name of Registered Application]. Included as attachments must be both the following completed Release & Waiver, and the submission document. Release & Waiver should be in either .doc, or .docx files, shared with Email should also include participant’s name, age, current address, and current research institution if applicable.

  • Upon submission, all entries become the property of IW. IW reserves the right to publish the submission, including any original research, visual modeling, or any personal author information, online or in print form. Materials will not be returned. 



  • Research Plan submissions must be received by 11:59 PM (PDT) on November 1, 2021 to register for the competition. 

  • Final Research Submissions must be received by 11:59 PM (PDT) on December 31, 2021.

  • Panel decisions on winners of the competition will be published by February 1, 2022; and all competitors will be notified via submitting email addresses. 

  • If no winner is chosen, new entry rounds will be announced before June 15, 2022.