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Sentience is a capacity for basic consciousness -- the ability to feel or perceive, not necessarily including the faculty of self-awareness. The word sentient is often confused with the word sapient, which can connotate knowledge, higher consciousness, or apperception. The root of the confusion is that the word conscious has a number of different meanings in English. The two words can be distinguished by looking at their Latin root : sentire, "to feel"; and sapere, "to know".
Philosophy and sentience
Many philosophers, notably Colin McGinn, believe that sentience cannot ever be understood, no matter how much progress is made in neuroscience in understanding the brain. Holders of this position are called New Mysterians. They do not deny that most other aspects of consciousness are subject to scientific investigation, from creativity to sapience, to self-awareness. New Mysterians believe that only sentience cannot be comprehensively understood by science. This is called the hard problem of consciousness. There continues to be much debate among philosophers, with many adamant that there is no really hard problem with sentience whatsoever.
Animal rights and sentience
In the philosophy of animal rights, sentience is commonly seen as the ability to experience suffering. The 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham raised the issue of animal suffering and sadism in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:
- The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor... What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but, "Can they suffer?"
Intelligence and sentience are quite distinct, so the question arises as to whether computers with artificial intelligence will become sentient.
Eastern religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism recognize nonhuman beings as sentient beings. In Jainism and Hinduism, this is closely related to the concept of ahimsa, nonviolence toward other beings. In Mahayana Buddhism, which includes Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, the concept is related to the Bodhisattva, an enlightened being devoted to the liberation of others. The first vow of a Bodhisattva states: "Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to free them."
- Book about A Theory of Sentience Readership: Philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists interested in sensation and perception. Authors, Austen Clark, Professor of Philosophy, University of Connecticut, Storrs
- D. Cole: Sense and Sentience SENSE5 8/18/90; rev. 1-19-98. (original 1983) copyright David Cole University of Minnesota, Duluth
- fr:Sens (physiologie)
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