Monday, March 19, 2012

The Word Box: Sapience vs. Sentience

This morning, let's take a quick look at a frequently misused, or at least misunderstood, set of terms.

Common mistake: Sapience versus Sentience

"Sentience," the noun form of "sentient," frequently heard in science fiction and fantasy, means the ability to perceive individual experiences. According to the Miriam-Webster Dictionary, the exact definition is:

sentient: 1: responsive to or conscious of sense impressions 2: AWARE 3: finely sensitive in perception or feeling

"Sapience," noun of sapient, is the ability to think, and to reason.

sapience: WISDOM, SAGACITY

It may not seem like much a difference, but the ability to reason is tied more closely to sapience than to sentience. Most animals are sentient, (yes, you can correctly say your dog is sentient!) but only humans are sapient.

For further reading on the difference, check out these articles:
Wikipedia Sapience
Wikipedia Sentience
AskDefine Sentience (of particular interest is the user-contributed dictionary)
AskDefine Sapience

Sentience is commonly used in science fiction and fantasy as synonymous with sapience, although the words aren't synonyms. Does applying the proper definitions change your interpretation of the stories? If all the characters in Star Trek (or your favorite Sci-Fi show) know that sentience is the ability to perceive but not to reason, does their use of the word mean they're all mostly vegan?

32 comments:

  1. OK, mussels react with anxiety when a dog whelk enters the vicinity. The snail is carniverous, and eats the muscle by drilling through its shell. But if the snail enters too far into the mussel bed the surrounding mussels attack it by attaching those threads they use to anchor themselves to the snail's shell. The snail eats the mussel it is already on, (it takes several weeks) but then cannot move. It eventually starves to death. Are the mussels sentient? Just asking.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Bart! It seems to me that sentience is tied to the ability to perceive unique experiences, from the articles I've linked. There should be a sense of individual feeling, which I'm not sure a mussel would have. While the mussels might react to an intruder, I'd think the nervous system wouldn't be sufficiently developed to have a central awareness (and thus the ability to have subjective experiences). I could see the attack being a physically triggered response mechanism (like a plant turning to face the sun), instead of a "hey that's a predator, oh shoot, I need to kill it or run away" reaction. The ability to have an "I" or "me" is something I don't think a mussel would have. By my interpretation, that would mean a mussel would not be sentient. Still, I think that very argument you've just made is a valid justification, and used by some animals rights' groups.

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    2. I think sentience is less about conscious awareness and self-concept and more about sensory systems and instinctual responses. A sentient mussel could have a nervous system that functions like a computer expert system, providing responses to inputs with a regulated feedback, without consciousness. An expert system does not have consciousness, its "soft artificial intelligence" as opposed to "hard AI".

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    3. Along those lines...

      Would an expert system be sapient sans sentience?

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    4. I don't know; I'm not sure the terms apply to nonliving entities. But logically, it would make sense.

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    5. Well maybe sentience is conscious awareness. I mean there's a differences between reacting to the heat of the fireand feeling the heat of the fire.

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    6. "Well maybe sentience is conscious awareness."-Written like a true and common moron that is confused with the distinctions of "conscious" and "awareness"...

      "Consciousness" is composed of "awareness" so the common term, the disgusting modern colloquial phrase :"conscious awareness" is like saying "Thoughtful thinking", or, better yet, "truthful truth".

      Yes, sentience is a state of awareness, it does denote the patterning of awareness called "consciousness" or being "conscious"...stupid new-age fools litter the Earth, just using words without actually contemplating the nature of them to any significant depth >.<

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  2. OK, little suckers @Halloween, DOGS REASON. I had a K9 evaluate a situation and respond w/o command. And he made the right decision at the time in a split second that I balked on. THEREFORE DOGS ARE SAPIENT!!!!! WHO KNEW!!!
    WoodyMcShepherd <)' this #KatyPerry

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  3. I've recently posted my own blog post about the difference between sentience and sapience in which I've quoted a sci-fi novel that discusses this.

    Woody - One of the arguments that I read about sapience is that sentient animals sometimes can have flashes of sapience to understand how to handle new problems. The argument went on to say that humanity crossed from sentient to sapient when the environment forced them into a sustained thought using until it became the norm.

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    1. Thanks for pointing out your post! I love the quotes you used; they really do a good job of describing the difference. And good point about "flashes" of sapience. It's the 24/7, not the occasional, that really makes the defining line.

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    2. By this definition then the majority of humans are not sapient? Is that what you are saying?

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    3. Oh. Well, that would explain my dog's flash of sapience. She might have crossed over, but probably not. I showed her that the reflection in the mirror is her's, when she was barking at it. She just sat there, looking, and wagging her tail. Weird. She's pretty happy about it, from what I can tell. Actually being social. She literally ran to the door when I came home, and was quite happy to see me. She never does that, she isn't that social.

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  4. to Anonymous: hehe, short answer, probably not. XD

    I want to say that Niles and Woody, and the summary of their perspectives conclude that while humans are more sapient than animals, we are still just as bound to our sentient nature as animals. I know I sometimes act out of what I feel over what I think, (aka, emotions over logic).
    I will react to stimuli based on what is sensed in my environment (ow, hurt, hand away from stove!) before I can have a sapient thought of what in my environment caused the stimuli. (oh the stove is still on. I should turn that off.)
    And animals do show capacity for sapience as described by woody with his dog (wouldn't mind hearing more about the circumstances to that incident) but I think that it isn't so much a question of who or what is sapient or sentient, but how much each entity whether human or animal is capable or willing to use each that defines us.
    for example, a person who sees something wrong and immediately acts out to correct it, spending all their time and energy fighting a battle they don't understand.
    versus someone who sees a problem, steps back and evaluates each and every angle of perspective, cause and effect, and concludes that it is not something that they can effect or will effect them, and walk on by ignoring the problem altogether.
    In which scenario is it worse?
    each has seen the problem, acknowledged the problem but neither were able to improve the circumstances because each acted entirely dependent on either sapient thought or sentient emotions.
    each by itself cannot be used exclusively if we are to be able to handle our human condition. if humans act out based on sentiment, how are they better than animals? but if they act only on sapient thought, they become something else, in my opinion much worse.
    personally, the answer isn't in the difference between, but in the inclusion of both, that defines what we are.

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  5. If the only restriction is being able to reason then dogs are also sapient. Dogs may only have thoughts at the complexity-level of a two-year-old, but if you've ever been around a two-year-old (or a bright enough dog, even) you'd definitely say they can think and reason.

    I find it hard to believe that a dog could figure out how to open a door with a round doorknob without reasoning or thinking just a teeeensy bit (and I had a dog that learned to do that, though she wasn't perfect at it, she did it at least a few times).

    That being said, yeah, I realize my dog isn't as "wise" as I am (or at least I certainly hope not, given she eats dirt, gets confused by her own reflection in the mirror, and chases her own tail until she falls down dizzy on a regular basis), but that doesn't mean her entire existence is simple, non-conscious chemical or built-in responses to stimuli.

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  6. I make this argument in my article on the Self-Ownership Principle, that the sapient mind, as an emergent phenomenon of a sufficiently compex neural network, axiomatically has self ownership of the brain and body which it inhabits, and from this, sapients possess natural rights and practice non-aggression as the best long term rational strategy for getting other sapients to respect the sapients natural rights, by reciprocating mutual respect.
    The animal rights bozos always talk about sentients rights INTENTIONALLY, because they are emotionally driven non-thinkers, while ignoring facts such that there are even sentient plants, like the Venus Flytrap, and microorganisms, like the planarian flatworm which not only have sensory responses but memory and the indication of emotion. So don't get sucked in by the vegan animal rights crowd. If your sentient can't say "I think, therefore I own myself", then he or she is not sapient, therefore, they are potential food or pets.

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    1. By that definition that means humans aren't sapient if they have mental disability's or when they are infants, please try to elaborate more since this is debate is both one of science and one philosophy. Also, you wouldn't say a Japanese person isn't sapient because they cant say "i think therefore i own myself" in a language you understand, many animals have there own language after all and saying otherwise would clearly not be true as us as humans are basically hairless apes with massive amounts of intelligence compared to a normal ape. Now I am slightly concerned about your mental health and would love to know more about you so you can disprove my fears.

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  7. You sapient supremacists disgust me. Power to the plants!

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  8. Yeahh, author your absolutely wrong. Maybe do your research before posting crap. Plenty of animals have the ability to reason. Check yourself.

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  11. I think we will have to evolve quickly to point E if we are going to survive climate change, nuclear stockpiles, population exceeding carrying capacity, and a few other existential problems.

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    1. Change my mind on that one. After all we arn't very different from other animals.

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  12. Actually, parrots understand enough of what they say to be considered as articulate as four-year-old humans. When I was three I talked at Scooby oo level, and I think the scientist who said Alex the African Gray has the linguistic skills of a three-year-old was referring to precocious three-year-olds.

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  13. Animals are sentient. Yes that includces non mammals and non avians.

    http://www.livescience.com/39481-time-to-declare-animal-sentience.html

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  14. Actually maybe all creatures and humans are sapient but at different levels. I mean just beacuse an animal is sapient doesn't mean that they think and reason like humans do. Maybe people with mild and moderate mental disability have some sapient in them up to a certain level. Maybe not all reasoning and thinking skills aren't all the same.


    "Studies of animal behavior (particularly of chimps and other apes) show that animals not only laugh and cry and care for each other, but can learn sign language and even have basic reasoning ability. In fact, Christian neuroscientist Malcolm Jeeves writes that “any attempt to set down a clear demarcation between the reasoning abilities of nonhuman primates and humans is found to have become blurred.”3 Obviously, humans have a much larger capacity to reason than animals, but reasoning is not a uniquely human ability. As neuroscientists and animal behaviorists learn more about animals, they see how traits appear in a rudimentary form at a level similar to human children.4" - See more at: http://biologos.org/common-questions/human-origins/image-of-god#sthash.gddRY7RI.dpuf

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  15. Let me put it this way: A dog may be sentient in that it can feel and experience emotions, but it is not sapient because it doesn't know not to run in the middle of the street and can't perceive that danger. In this same vein, an artificial intelligence may be sapient (which is the correct term that movies and TV misuse all the time) because it can think and reason, but it is not sentient because it cannot experience emotion or feel any pain/joy/comfort/etc.

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    1. I have a question. Here's a video of a parrot chick: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdynRR-x1-Q&t=12m54s
      Would the chick be called sapient?

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  16. Interesting discussion 😁 Sorry I'm so late to it! 😟
    I liked John Ringo's explanation in, I believe, his addenda to the Monster Hunter series (originated by the brilliant Larry Correia), Saints and Sinners (set in New Orleans), where Milo explains to a vampire rights-advocating 'professor' that vampires are sentient, but not sapient. Ie, they experience the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch & taste, and can learn through their experiences of same, but are incapable of what we designate "higher orders of thinking", including love, compassion, altruism.
    Just the $0.02 of a former Woman Marine 😉
    Semper Fi'
    DM

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  17. Isn’t it more likely that we humans may never truly know the true depths of animals’ sapience or sentience? What I mean is that animals can't communicate or explain their own emotions or thought process in a detailed way that humans to decipher. Yes, we can stimulate, simulate scenarios and observe animals' responses but without any feedback from those animals how can we be entirely sure whether or not they are truly formulating their response or if they are simply reacting? We know that humans both formulate and react because they can articulate what they were thinking and feeling at any given time. Animals cannot do this so we are forced to simply observe and theorize what they MAY have been thinking or feeling.
    I am not an expert in any scientific field, whether that be animal behavior, psychology or sociology. But given that animals can never report on these things (unless and until they evolve to a point where they can) we are quite limited when it comes to assigning these attributes. And when we do attempt to make such determinations, the only thing that we can base them on is restricted by what we know about humans.

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