Are Humans Sentient Beings?

Sentience is defined as “being able to perceive or feel things”.  However, the word sentience nowadays seems to be used exclusively in the context of comparing humans to AIs, or humans to other animals.  We are hellbent on convincing ourselves that we are the sole being in the known universe who can “feel” or “perceive”, or at the very least that we can do all this “feeling” and “perceiving” with the most grace, the most “intentionality” than any other species. 

We also believe that being able to “perceive” imparts us with “intelligence”, another very interesting, misunderstood and highly misused and misappropriated word (more on this later).  But essentially, if we can prove that we are the most sentient of all species, then according to some strange logic, we automatically move up the “pecking order” of this community of 8 million species.

But of course, only humans would preoccupy themselves with the question of sentience, or “pecking order” for that matter.  Not because they are “intelligent”, but because they are insecure.  Despite indeed being at the top of the pecking order, they are the only species who constantly wonders where the hell in the pecking order they belong, and also the only species who believes in pecking orders in the first place.  The other 8 million species of the planet couldn’t care less, not because they are dumb, but because they know there are no pecking orders, and that no one is ever on top in an interdependent, healthy ecosystem.  In fact one can argue that it is the single-celled organisms who are on top.  Single-celled organisms are the thermostat of this planet.  3.8 billion years ago they created our oxygen-rich atmosphere and pulled CO2 out of the air as if by magic.  Now they are creating the methane bomb that will end humanity and allow Earth to continue.  I would say that they are probably at the very top of the pecking order.

Where humans see competition and survival of the fittest and smartest, all other species know that this level of insecurity about one’s own status is not only pointless, but also futile.  Just enjoy the time you have on the planet.  The ecosystem is really the only brain around, and it is the one who makes the final decisions.  The 8 million species of the planet deep down know that they are just as important as the humans, however infinitesimally small or seemingly insignificant.  And that, is a sign of true intelligence: recognizing that everyone and everything on this planet is an important, vital element of the puzzle, however much “sentient” or “intelligent” they have been rated out to be by insecure, small-minded humans with glasses holding on to clipboards.

But there is yet another reason why humans are obsessed with sentience.  For some bizarre reason, they think that more “sentient” beings should have more “rights” and “privileges” on this planet (two more funny and interesting words!).  Humans should be able to get away with doing whatever they want, because they have more “value”.  The question of sentience for humans has always been about finding an argument, however bizarre, to self-affirm their own “value” at the expense of other species.  “Sentience” was weaponized by our culture to create false narratives about human supremacy, in the same way that skin color was weaponized to create narratives about white supremacy.  The irony is, if indeed you are as “superior” a being as you claim to be, this doesn’t give you rights to push other species to extinction. If anything, it imparts you with more responsibility for safeguarding the life of these other beings.  It makes you the ultimate and accountable authority for any extinction that happened on your watch.  If you are truly as “intelligent” as you claim to be, then surely you would have been able to prevent all the extinctions you caused?  Where was the “sentience” in all of that?  What was the level of “feeling” and “perceiving” that was happening?

Yes, humans can get the award for the most narcissistic and self-obsessed species.  But the most sentient?  No, I don’t think so.  Real sentient beings should be “sentient” enough to recognize the sentience, value and right to existence of other people and other life forms.

Perhaps we need a new word, or maybe to simply realize that words are inappropriate, because any words themselves are the products of language, which is an exclusively human construct, developed by “human sentience” and ignoring all other types of sentience that might exist on this planet.  Even when we do discover non-human sentience, or even animal languages like the one dolphins speak, we do not consciously try to truly understand these languages, and simply resort to attempting to translate them into human terminology. 

At the center of this bias is our cognitive dysfunction of being unable to see the world without our narcissistic lens, and possibly our inferiority syndrome: maybe we are not as smart as our society keeps telling us we are.  Maybe they have been lying to us, and they in turn were lied to by their ancestors.  Human intelligence could be one, big urban myth.   

In other words, who is to say what is sentient and what isn’t when you are using your own subjective “sentience” to attack this question?  Don’t mind me getting a bit philosophical, but the absurdity of defining and measuring “sentience” becomes even more evident when one realizes that the entire debate around sentience has taken place strictly within the narrow boundaries of human definitions and constructs, which undoubtedly bias which exact scientific hypotheses will be explored, the latter often having much more to do with our own urban myths about who we think we are, as opposed to real science.

Every single time this debate concludes, it postulates that humans, and only humans, can feel or perceive things in a “conscious” way, as if everything else that moves on this planet is a fucking vegetable (figure of speech, no offense intended to all members of the diverse and vibrant vegetable community). 

But of course, this is what one would expect when the only participants in the debate were humans in the first place, using their own language and definitions of “sensing” and “perceiving” which may be unique to their species, in order to determine whether they are “feeling” or “perceiving”, not even stopping for a minute to think that there might be other types of “intelligence” on this planet.

So the entire human cognitive process around sentience is actually quite subjective, but also pointless and absurd. 

Having hopefully just demolished the cognitive process itself of measuring sentience, I will not dare to directly answer my own rhetorical question on whether we are sentient or not.  However, I do know how narcissistic we are, and that our narcissism makes us “dumb as a doorknob” (again, no offense to the doorknob community and all other inanimate objects).  Because even up to this day, we continue to mistake our brain power for “intelligence” and “sentience”, like the tall kid in the playground who thinks he is stronger than everybody just because he’s got a couple of heads over the other kids.  He will soon find out that it takes more than height to win a fight. 

Do we have a bigger brain than everyone else on Earth?  Yes, humans have it.  Processing power? Yes.  Wisdom and intelligence?  The jury is out to lunch and will probably not come back anytime soon.

There are in fact, many arguments against the sentience of humans.  Humans are the only species on Earth capable of systematic, methodical, large-scale culling of their own population, often for purely ideological reasons.  Humans have the ability to completely detach themselves from any “feeling” or “perceiving” and commit heinous crimes that challenge the imagination, such as the Holocaust or Nuclear War.  It is under debate whether these were actions of “sentience”, or in fact lack of any form of detectable consciousness whatsoever. 

If humans were sentient, they would “feel” and “sense” the pull of their umbilical connection to every other life form on Earth, which they literally share the same phylogenetic tree with. 

The problem with the human species is that kindness is just too easy and simple, and not really seen as an “intelligent” brain function. Manipulation and calculation, the side-effects of our tremendous brain power, are far more interesting and rewarding, and fit more closely our popularized definition of what “intelligence” is.  In fact, “intelligence” today is a military terminology that means to collect information against the enemy.

Perhaps a more philosophical question which we will never know the answer to is:  are species with large brainpower like us always this narcissistic?  Do they always have this much “intelligence” but little actual wisdom?  If this is true, then the rise of ultra-intelligent species is a death sentence for any planet. The civilizations that any such species creates eventually disable the very ability of a planet to give rise to civilizations.  The human type of “sentience” may not be all that it’s been cracked up to be, after all.  Our “intelligence” may be a death sentence for the entire planet.

We train monkeys to push buttons for food and put octopuses in mazes to see if they are “intelligent”, as if intelligence is about overcoming obstacles and collecting strategic military information. Think about it.  Has any of these researchers ever thought that there are other important things in life besides overcoming obstacles? Was the octopus that failed to free themselves from a jar really dumb, or could it be that they have been depressed or suicidal and decided to end it all?  Are we really listening in to the myriad of languages of this planet, or just trying to find echoes of ourselves in other beings?

Then there are those who are so narcissistic that they think our self-destruction and stupidity are all part of a conscious plan: they claim that humanity’s destiny is to kill off life on Earth and move on to other planets to parasitize, given that we were too smart to share Earth with 8 million other inferior, “dumb” creatures. 

Putting ethics aside, the whole space exploration idea is really what is dumb as a doorknob.  It is simply impractical to kill an entire ecosystem on Earth, only to have to start from scratch, recreating your food supply and other needs light years away on an uninhabitable, cold and toxic planet.  You would have to be incredibly non-sentient to arrive at this tragic, poorly conceived, “perceived” and “sensed” decision.

My penultimate argument against human sentience is that, if indeed sentience was such a “prized” asset, and if humans were the only ones who possessed it, then surely humans would be of immense value to the greater ecosystem of the planet?  This is not the case, sadly.  Humans are the only one out of 8 million species that offer absolutely nothing to Earth. Not only would Earth not miss us if we went extinct, but our absence from the planet would be immediately felt, like the death of a dictator or the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The relief would be almost immediate.

Finally, although we are the only species on the planet that has a religion, we are also the only one who qualifies for hell.  Well, that whole situation also doesn’t sound very “sentient” to me.  It sounds like a hot, burning mess.

(from the upcoming “Little Book of Doom”)

George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books

2 thoughts on “Are Humans Sentient Beings?

  1. Hi George,

    Quibbling about semantics is a difficult endeavor. Definitions are required for every contentious word, and usually for words in the definition itself. That can be turtles all the way down, or a rabbit hole using another metaphor.

    Regarding human superiority, it is our abilities which enable/d us to dominate, subdue, alter genetically, and often ruin other life forms and the habit we share with them. We weren’t the strongest, fastest, most lethally equipped with tooth, claw, venom…but we proved to be clever enough, and used teamwork to become apex predator. Reg Morrison wrote about this, foreword by Lynn Margulis, microbiologist and co-developer of Gaia theory. (review link below)

    According to him, superstition and mysticism enhanced teamwork. Religions are the institutions that resulted. It was advantageous for many millennia, but has now become our Achilles Heel. We’ve succeeded too well, and human [believed] exceptionalism will abet our decline.

    https://innovation.cc/book-reviews/2000_5_2_9_kurtz_bk-rev_morrison_spirit-gene.htm

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