What is Sentience?

In the previous post (Ineffability of Qualia) we saw that the meaning of a color cannot be expressed objectively, because it is inherently subjective. The same goes for sentience.

What is it like to see orange? What is it like to be sentient?
Let’s try some definitions:

  • Orange is the color of oranges.
  • Orange is the color mid-way between yellow and red.
Let’s try some definitions

  • To be sentient is to have subjective experience.
  • To be sentient is to feel or perceive.
These definitions may be correct, but imagine reading them to someone who has never seen color (i.e. someone who was born blind, or totally color-blind). They cannot convey the meaning of orange to such a person. These definitions may be correct, but imagine reading them to an insentient being. They cannot convey the meaning of sentience to an insentient being.
In fact, a totally color-blind person may even consider himself capable of experiencing orange, after reading these definitions. In fact, an insentient reader may even consider itself sentient after reading these definitions.
This is because the colored words (oranges, yellow, red) carry additional meaning that can be understood only by color-capable people. This is because the italicized terms (subjective experience, feel, perceive) carry additional meaning that can be understood only by sentient beings.
The meaning of orange is derived precisely from this additional meaning. The meaning of sentience is derived precisely from this additional meaning.
A color (e.g. orange) cannot be defined in “uncolored” words; its meaning cannot be “captured” in an objective definition. Sentience cannot be defined in “insentient” terms; its meaning cannot be “captured” in an objective definition.

So, although it is not possible to “force across” a definition of sentience, it is possible for a (sentient) person to understand the meaning of sentience for themselves, just as it is possible to understand the meaning of orange, without being able to communicate it.

Next post: The Dualist’s Dilemma


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