What Makes A Being Sentient?
Having conversations with nature is actually common, its just that we don’t know all the languages.
Most people assume that only mammals, out of all the animals that live on this planet, are truly sentient, because they have a nervous system with a brain just like us.
Some people will allow that birds and fish, and perhaps reptiles, are also sentient, mostly because their pain receptors and overall bicameral body shape is similar to ours.
Once we enter into the world of the invertebrates, which comprises most of the animal mass on the planet, we find a surprising indifference to their possible sentience.
Is this because of our own pragmatic nature? If we considered invertebrates sentient, how would it be possible for us to kill them by the trillions every year?
If the definition of sentience is simply “an organism that experiences life through its senses,” is not all life sentient, in which case why even coin such a term?
At what trophic level do we consider organisms to be sentient?
Are the decomposers, such as bacteria and fungi, sentient? Don’t they activate and operate via stimulis, such as the presence of moisture or sugar?
What the hell is sentience, and why should we care?
Sentience is the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience life subjectively.
It seems that most people ascribe sentience to animals that they like, but not to the vast majority of animals that seem alien to them. Thus an arachnophile believes their pet spiders are waving “good morning”, while an arachnophobe believes the spider in the corner of the bathroom is threatening to kill them.
In general the idea of sentience is a value judgement that we create out of our own preferences, which are not strictly objective or rational.
Sentience is not a specific and scientific term.
Most people don’t assume plants have sentience, even though they do experience and react to the world around them through complex chemical signals in the soil and the air.
But, watching a plant grow, there is obvious intelligence there. It grows up and around objects, using the power of its senses, which utilize photons and molecules as the medium of plant communication.
As human beings, we are all in constant communication with the plants, animals, wind, and water all around us via a multitude of sensory pathways, including scent, which is the direct interchange of molecules from one limbic system to another.
Having conversations with nature is actually common, its just that we don’t know all the languages.
Instead of sentience as a narrow category for one type of consciousness, I believe it is a wide variety of “ways of being”, from the way that a worm interacts with and navigates through the soil, to the way that seaweed grows from the depths of the ocean toward the sunlit surface.
As humans we like to believe that there is a static reality, something that remains in one place in time and which is completely immutable. Physicists have discovered that this is really not the case, and yogis have known this all along.
Life is changing all the time. We are never in one spot for long. Nothing is. All is movement.
The same goes for sentience.
It is not one thing, it is a set of changing perceptions that indicate that a living thing is aware of its surroundings. We can call this awareness intelligence, and when we acknowledge the intelligence of a living being we can realize that all living things are essentially the same.
We are all the product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.
And yet, for some pathological reason, we don’t seem to respect that.
We feel the need to turn living things into commodities. Trees, kittens, algae, tuna fish — as humans we like to claim a monopoly on all life, and to manage the planet as owners. Religion, politics, science — they all tend to treat the natural world as something to be dominated, owned, used, abused, and discarded.
We have proven, at least to ourselves, that we are actually quite bad at managing the planet, and our best efforts tend to have far-reaching negative consequences. Global climate change is affecting our atmosphere in a big way, and industrial farming is making a mess out of things here on the planets surface as well.
We are sentient, but we may be less intelligent than every other living creature out there.
In order to create a commodity out of a sentient being we need to ignore its sentience. By acknowledging our shared experience with another living being comes our own responsibility to treat that being with respect. But instead of embracing that responsibility, we have set it aside in order to pursue personal profit and gain.
We have been slowly but inexorably shirking our duties as stewards of the planet in order to enjoy the ephemeral pleasures of pop-culture profanity and the pornographic excesses of cheap oil.
With the advent of easy petrol, our lives became extremely safe and convenient and we became distanced from a visceral life lived under the auspices of Nature with a capital N. The rise of factory farming coincided with an increase in vegetarianism and veganism, a gentrified but reasonable response to the commodification of sentient creatures.
Although they seem to be polar opposites, both factory farming and veganism live in a paradigm that is powered by cheap fossil fuels, and without the fountain of youth petroleum pump, they would both die out.
If we lost our cheap oil we would have to turn our fearful eyes back to our old partners, all the sentient beings that we worked with before the 1900s, in order to carve out our little human lives on this gargantuan planet.
Before skidsteers and tractors, we had to train horses and oxen to haul our wagons and plow into our fields to collect the harvest. Both herbivores were living, breathing sentient creatures that were absolutely integral to our day to day life, as any of our modern day petrol-powered equipment is now.
With the introduction of the machine-based steel and chemical cultural revolution, we didn’t need to get our hands dirty and work with animals, and now we’ve come to prefer washing grease off of our hands instead of shit.
Instead of relying on a corporation for parts and service, we had to nurse our own animals to health when they fell ill or were injured. Instead of producing dirty oil and noxious fumes, our partner animals fertilized our fields with copious amounts of their manure.
They breathed like we breathed. They procreated and pooped and farted and broke fences and ate our salad greens.
But they were sentient partners. Not mechanical slaves.
Without oil, choosing to be a farmer or homesteader who works with livestock is not just an option, it is a necessity.
In the viewpoint of some of those who believe sentience is sacred, it is not ethical to cause pain and suffering to other sentient beings. And yet, we do end up causing suffering as we plow a field or cut down a tree. We end up creating suffering when we pave a road or construct a foundation for a house.
We install a desert-scape of corn and soybean fields and replace the wildlife habitat of birds and bees, gophers and spiders, with beans and broccoli. We mow our lawns to look “well-kept” and reduce the habitat of all those creepy crawling things that are not like us, that we don’t consider sentient, but are absolutely crucial in the web of soil life.
“Sacred” comes from the Latin “sacer”, or “holy”. We make something holy by saying it is so, by agreeing with eachother that it is so.
It is our habit as humans to differentiate between all the parts of the universe and assign meaning and value to each part, according to our own individual pathologies and moralities. Then we spread those ideas out amongst the populace like a virus, and see which things stick.
The idea that Oil is God has stuck.
In the case of sentience, we assign it to those animals that are like us, and ignore the vast majority of animals that are not like us. A bear, pig, cow, or dog is sentient to us, but underneath our feet in the dark soil the invertebrates are considered alien and unreachable. Birds and fish, covered in scales and feathers, are considered sentient or not sentient depending on our own personal feelings. Trees, flower, fungi, and lichen are all considered simply mechanistic creations evolved to end up as feed.
But in the viewpoint of the indigenous, those humans who lived, and live now in pockets, in and on the land for tens of thousands of years before us civilized folk drilled our first oil well, All Life Is Sacred.
Perhaps our skewed viewpoints on the sacredness of some life over other life is just a macroscopic reflection of our skewed viewpoints on the sacredness of some humans over other humans.
Those we love and those closest to us are the ones we care about, and those we don’t know and those that may look different than us we are not concerned with.
“I choose these, but not these.”
With our complex brains we have the ability to come up with convoluted and imaginative reasoning to choose one thing over another, and in many ways that has been the key to our survival up until modern times. Our tribe was everything to us, it protected us and nurtured us. But now, as we retreat into our Amazon and Netflix induced technological comas, we don’t have the same need for these types of tribes. We find people of likemind on the internet and call them our tribes, even if we have never met in person.
The simple reality is that we have more in common with all sentient beings than we would like to admit. Our internet tribes and social media friends are just a fiction reinforced by a megalomaniac tech corporations invested in our addiction to screentime.
We all share this intensely brilliant experience of living our lives here on the Planet Earth; being born, growing up, falling in love, eating, fucking, fighting, frolicking, fainting, and eventually, at some point down the yellow brick road, dying.
We all experience this emotional journey though the wonderland of our senses, whether that be through nerve endings and a cerebellum, or through chemical molecules and a flower.
In the end, sentience can and should be ascribed to all living things. And how we interact with our fellow sentient creatures is the key to creating a good life or a bad one.