What is Sentience?
On intellect, intentionality and altered states of consciousness.
To profess to be a philosopher puts one in danger of being asked for a quick, on-the-spot answer to cosmically deep questions for which there exist millennia of nuanced debate. Stock responses have emerged for such situations—such as “42,” “What do you mean by that question?,” some loosely-connected Latin idiom, or “See me after class.”
A common such question is: ‘What is consciousness?’
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I always like to rephrase the question to the broader, “What is Sentience?” for the reasons given below. But before we consider what it is, let us consider why it is such a common question. Ivan Pavlov of dog fame, claimed in his Nobel speech that “Essentially only one thing in life interests us: our psychical constitution.” All our felt pleasures and pains are parts of our psychical, or sentient constitution; the loving embraces of our parents, children, friends; our visions of beautiful seascapes, awe-inducing starscapes; the siren scent of honeysuckle, the sharp taste of an Islay malt; as well as the yawning abyss of deeply depressive moods, and demonic anxieties induced by the dark—all of this and more are aspects of sentience. Further still, the fundamental question of who we are, who you are, is interthread with this inquiry as your sense of self is principally the question of what your sentience is.
So: What is sentience? The response to this question is always problematic, as we shall see. Yet I believe one can gain a general grip on the issue by providing two core responses, namely by presenting: the Contents of Sentience and the Differentiations of Sentience. These two responses to the question of what sentience is compose the structure of this little text. But first, let me briefly say why I like to rephrase the question from that of consciousness to that of sentience.
The noun consciousness comes from the adjective conscious, which in English has the connotations of focused awareness (which in turn comes from being vigilant, wary). As such, it excludes the subconscious and other shadowed aspects of sentience generally. At times the noun consciousness is meant in this specific sense of awareness, sometimes even of self-awareness, and so different questions are intended through the same three words, “What is consciousness?” Replacing, therefore, the question with “What is sentience?” overcomes this ambiguity of everyday language, and it sets the question afresh. By sentience, I mean all forms of mentality, from the conscious to the subconscious and beyond. It’s a more general, encompassing term.
The word sentience is not ideal either, however, as it can trace its origin specifically to feeling, but all current synonyms for sentience have specific etymologies, and all thinkers use these terms in different ways—so there are no absolute definitions. Examples of used synonyms include mentality (from mind), mind (from memory, image, intellect), experience (from trying, experimenting), and subjectivity (from being placed after, below).
What is sentience, then? The first response, the Contents of Sentience, answers by providing a general account of the various kinds of sentience that we have. The second, Differentiations of Sentience, answers by listing how sentience is believed to differ from that which is not sentient. By “That which is not sentient” is generally meant “the physical” (another problematic term). (A third way of answering the question is by distinguishing how sentience relates to, rather than differs from, that which is not sentient. I refer readers interested in this third way—which constitutes the metaphysics of mind—to look at my Metaphysics Matrix (in Sjöstedt-Hughes, 2023).)
As we shall understand, as the question of sentience is highly problematic and generative of further questions, there is no definite answer. Nonetheless, breaking down the problem into constituent parts is a beginning on the path to understanding. That there is little agreement on any answer is that which makes this question so enticing. Moreover, it is a question that not only immediately touches one’s personal sense of self (Who, or What, am “I” in relation to the rest of the cosmos?), but also the limits of language and of science, the mystical, the logical, and the perplexingly paradoxical.
CONTENTS OF SENTIENCE
We humans seem to share somewhat similar contents of sentience, but what it is like to be another creature eludes us. This section will thus be, of necessity, anthropocentric, with the proviso that we are open to the possibility of radically different forms of sentience.
Another proviso is that we bear in mind that the distinctions here offered of a variety of different forms of sentience are merely distinctions in language and not necessarily real distinctions—in reality, many of these forms are fused and interwoven. One needs language to get a grip on an issue, but one must later reject its tendency to chop the world into isolated bits. Worlds are not made of words. But let us begin with words.
One can divide the contents of sentience into three main divisions: qualia, intellect, and mode. These three comprise what one might call prosaic sentience, but one can therefore add a fourth division for those states of sentience that are not prosaic, not common: the altered states of sentience.
‘Qualia’ is a word that is simply generic for types of experience related to the senses, the body, and the imagination: colour, sound, scent, taste, touch, and other bodily sensations such as proprioception, interoception, etc., as well as related emotions and feelings often stemming from desires: hunger, pain, fear, pleasure, etc., but not necessarily therefrom: Schopenhauer considered the aesthetic emotion as not relying on any desire, quite the contrary, in fact. Thus we categorize blueness as a quale, pain as a quale, etc. In this categorical sense, qualia should not be a controversial term. In the early twentieth century, the philosopher C. I. Lewis defined qualia as raw experience, experience that needs not have been conceptualized. Lewis says, “I may cognize a ‘pen’ as a ‘cylinder,’ ‘hard rubber,’ or a ‘poor buy’”—but the raw colours of the pen remain the same regardless of such conceptualization. Such basic qualia may therefore exist in certain simple organisms which lack conceptualization, or, Lewis speculates, they may exist in certain mystical states.
The ability to conceptualize—that is, to throw concepts over raw qualia to make the environment more intelligible and thus navigable—is part of the intellect. Another part of the intellect is the ability to reason: if x, then y, etc. Reason involves relating concepts (x, y, if, then, etc.), and at a highly abstract level, becomes logic, programming, and mathematics. This highly abstract level of intellect need not be its most useful level, of course. The ability to understand others, to socialize when apt, to be diplomatic, and so on involves modes of reasoning that might come more naturally to some than others and contribute to the overall extent of intelligence. Understanding the relations of others and abstract concepts shows a more powerful mind than one that merely masters the latter. (Grasping the principles of aesthetic relations is a step further still.) Concepts are also part of the imagination, though they are essentially not visual, qualial (try to visualize the concept of a fifty-sided shape, or a generic preposition).
Qualia and Intellect are constituent parts of the contents of sentience, but they may exist there in different modes. By “modes of the contents of sentience,” I mean such aspects as focus, time rate, creativity, memory, and veridicality. One can be admiring the beauty of a leaf in a focused or dazed state; time may seem to pass quickly or slowly depending on the situation; one may find oneself in a zone of creativity; one’s visualizations may be neither perceptions, imaginations, dreams nor trips, but memories; or they may be real hallucinations. The point is that qualia and conceptualizations can take place in many varying modes of sentience, and thus we need to take heed of this paradigm when speaking of the contents of sentience generally.
One of the many interesting facets of altered states of sentience—occasioned by psychedelics, breathwork, ritual, etc.—is that the above separations of types of qualia, concepts, and modes, can become interfused in synaesthetic fashion. Furthermore, there can arise forms of sentience completely alien from any of the aforementioned varieties, such as novel qualia, and, beyond qualia and concept, contents that cannot be categorized under any system known to mankind. At times one even questions whether one’s state can be categorized as sentience at all. So I’m told. But for our purposes, let us consider Altered States as a miscellaneous category for the Contents of Sentience, and realize that there is much work to be done in analysing even the potential forms of human sentience.
DIFFERENTIATIONS OF SENTIENCE
What distinguishes sentience from that which is not sentient? Traditionally this has been posed as the question of how mind differs from matter. But there may be other forms of reality that are neither mind nor matter (such as the subsistence of possibilities or transcendent Forms). Regardless, the problem here is that there are a number of responses to this question, and each response has amassed a number of criticisms. One of the initial criticisms is that in posing the very question, one is thereby presupposing that there exists a difference between mind and matter. Let us move forward for now by stating that regardless of whether mind is matter or not, one still has to respond to the issue of why it at least seems that they are different. We shall look at but a few of these proposed differences.
It seems that our own sentience is private, whereas a physical object is public—we can all perceive the chair, but only I can perceive my toothache or the memory of last night’s dream. There are many problems with such a proposed differentiation—such as that one’s subconscious is often private even to oneself, that matter may also have a private aspect, that others may have better knowledge of a person’s mental state than the person does. If such criticisms are overcome, however, it would imply that knowledge of the mind transcends empirical (public), scientific knowledge—the problem of privacy limits the science of sentience. Closely related to privacy are the proposed differentiations of perspective and acquaintance. It seems that sentient entities have a unique perspective unto the world; physical objects have none. With regard to acquaintance, the English incessant pipe smoker (and philosopher) Bertrand Russell asserted the following as that which distinguishes sentience from external objects: “I define a ‘mental’ event ... as one with which someone is acquainted otherwise than by inference.” (Human Knowledge, 1948, ch. 7). Smoke your pipe on that.
This is the view that sentience is always about something, whereas a physical object is not about anything. In love, something is loved; in thought, something is thought about; in fear, something is feared, etc. Whereas a chair is not about anything—it simply exists, oblivious to its sitter, its room, history, design, etc. Again, there are multiple criticisms of this proposed differentiation of mind and matter—such as that moods seem to exist without necessarily being about anything, that certain physical items do actually seem to be about something else (e.g., two particles once together affect each other’s spin), and that in certain mystical states, there is pure experience without any object.
René Descartes famously divided mind from matter by claiming that matter has extension or spatiality (i.e., three dimensions), whereas sentience has no spatiality. At first, this might seem obvious: a chair has a certain height, breadth, and width, whereas my particular fear cannot be described in the paradigm of inches. Even if mind can be reduced to matter, explaining the essence of a certain sentient component, such as the colour red, cannot be done by providing measurements pertaining to how we currently understand matter—we cannot convey the meaning of redness in terms of length, mass, spin, charge, and so on. Yet William James considered Descartes’ distinction as little short of absurd. James pointed out that the sentience that is vision always has spatial properties (imagine two triangles: they will have spatial features such as having three sides each, being to the left or right, or above or under, the other triangle, etc.). Merleau-Ponty emphasised that there is a sentient sense of bodily spatiality alongside such visual spatiality. And for reasons such as this, the differentiation of sentience from physicality via spatiality becomes, to say the least, questionable. There are other dimensions at play.
Another proposed differentiation of sentience from that which is not sentient is that sentient beings act according to reasons, purposes (teloi), whereas physical objects operate according to mechanical causes (ultimately, push and pull). I went down the hill to find a pub, whereas the boulder went down the hill not because it had a purpose but because it was caused to do so by gravity. Plato had proposed such a reason-cause differentiation (Phaedo, 98c–99a), and thousands of years later it is still debated. It relates to the question of mental causation: whether our thoughts and feelings have an influence on our physical activity (top-down), or whether our thoughts and feelings are fully determined by our physical activity (bottom-up). The laws of physics seem to indicate the latter, but the theory of evolution seems to indicate the former (the existence of sentience, including our conscious perception and intelligence, must have evolved and remained in multiple organisms to serve a function)—as Plato says, ‘to exist is to have causal power’ (Sophist, 247d). At any rate, there are many proposed solutions to this causal problem, leading to many altercations—the quest continues.
What then is sentience? It is this: its contents (qualia, intellect, mode, etc.); it is not this (the publicly observable, non-intentional, spatial, non-teleological, etc.). The first, positive, division is perhaps not as criticism-smothered as its second, negative, division—though the first division is necessarily anthropocentric. One can only hope that as our sentience evolves the question of sentience may be sufficiently resolved.
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