Sentience and selfhood

‘Consciousness’ is a vague term in the English language. Where existent, its counterparts in other languages often carry several meanings. To be conscious can be either transitive or intransitive; it can mean simply to be aware of something—to have an experience—or it can mean a state opposed to sleep, coma, or inattention. While consciousness clearly involves the role of the subjective self, one is not necessarily aware of that role in the moment. That is, one can be conscious though not self-conscious. The latter notion also is ambiguous: in everyday talk, self-consciousness refers to a potentially embarrassing awareness of one’s relationship to others, perhaps social strategizing. Here, it will mean something more technical: simply the momentary awareness of one’s own existence as a conscious subject.

It might be assumed that to be conscious is to be self-conscious, since the two are closely bound up for human beings. I propose rather to make a distinction between sentience (simply having experience) and the awareness of having that experience. The first involves no more than the naïve appearance of an external world as well as internal sensations—what Kant called phenomena and more recent philosophers call “contents of consciousness” or qualia. No concept of self enters into sentience as such. The second involves, additionally, the awareness of self and of the act or fact of experiencing. One should thus be able to imagine, at least, that other creatures can be sentient—even if they do not seem aware of their individual existence in our human way, and regardless of whether one can imagine just what it is like to be them.

Language complicates the issue. For, we can scarcely speak or think of sentience (or awareness, consciousness, experience, etc.) in general without reference to our familiar human sentience. We are thereby reminded of our own existence—indeed, of our presence in the moment of speaking or thinking about it. Nevertheless, it is as possible to be caught up in thought as to be caught up in sensation. (We all daydream, for example, only “awakening” when we realize that is what we have been doing.) Then the object is the focus rather than its subject. This outward focus is, in fact, the default state. Often, we are simply aware of the world around us, or of some thought in regard to it; we are not aware of being aware. Perhaps it is the fluidity of this boundary—between the state of self-awareness and simple awareness of the contents of experience—which gives the impression that sentience necessarily involves self-awareness. After all, as soon as we notice ourselves being sentient, we are self-aware. It is illogical, however, to conclude that creatures without the capability of self-awareness are not sentient. Language plays tricks with labels. At one time, animals were considered mere insensate machines—incapable of feeling, let alone thought, because these properties could belong only to the human soul.

One might even suppose that self-consciousness is a function of language, since the act of speaking to others directly entails and reflects one’s own existence in a way that merely perceiving the world or one’s sensations does not. Yet, it hardly follows that either sentience or self-consciousness is limited to language users. The problem, again, is that we are ill-equipped to imagine any form of experience than our own, which we are used to expressing in words, both to others and to ourselves.

This raises the question of the nature and function of self-consciousness, if it is not simply a by-product of the highly evolved communication of a social species. The question is complicated by the fact that identifiable tags of self-consciousness (such as recognizing one’s image in a reflection) seem to be restricted to intelligent creatures with large brains—such as chimpanzees, cetaceans, and elephants—all of which are also social creatures. On the other hand, social insects communicate, but we do not thereby suppose that they are conscious as individuals. To attribute a collective consciousness to the hive or colony extends the meaning of the term beyond the subjective sense we are considering here. It becomes a description of emergent behavior, observed, rather than individual experience perceived. In some sense, consciousness emerges in the brain; but few today would claim that individual neurons are “conscious” because the brain (or rather the whole organism) is conscious.

Closely related to the distinction between simple awareness and self-awareness is the distinction between object and subject, and the corresponding use of person in language. We describe events around us in the third person, as though their appearance is simply objective fact, having nothing to do with the perceiver. For the most part, for us the world simply is. Self-conscious in theory, naïve realism is our actual default state of mind. With good (evolutionary) reason, the object dominates our attention. Yet, self-awareness, too, is functional for us as highly social creatures. We get along, in part through the ability to imagine the subjective experience of others, which means first recognizing our own subjectivity. The very fact that we conceive of sentience at all is only possible because of this realization. The subject (self) emerges in our awareness as an afterthought with profound implications. As in the biblical Fall, our eyes are opened to our existence as perceiving agents, and we are cast from the state of unselfconscious being.

The modern understanding of consciousness (i.e., awareness of the world as distinct from the world itself) is that the object’s appearance is constructed by the subject. Our daily experience is a virtual reality produced in the brain, an internal map constantly updated from external input. This realization entails metaphysical questions, such as the relationship between that virtual inner show and the reality that exists “out there.” But that is also a practical question. We need an internal account of external reality that is adequate for survival, independent of how “true” it might or might not be. Self-consciousness is functional in that way too. It serves us to know that we co-create a model of external reality, and that the map is not the territory itself, but something we create as a useful guide to navigate it. Knowing the map as a symbolic representation rather than objective fact, means we are free to revise it according to changing need. The moment or act of self-consciousness awakens us from the realist trance. One is no longer transfixed by experience taken at face value. Suddenly we are no longer looking at the world but at our own looking.

This capacity to “wake up” serves both the individual and society. It enables the person or group to stand back from an entrapping mindset, or viewpoint, to question it, which opens the possibility of a broader perspective. Literally, this means a bigger picture, encompassing more of reality, which is potentially more adequate for survival both individually and collectively. Knowledge is empowering; yet it is also a trap when it seems to form a definitive account. The map is then mistaken for the territory and we fall again into trance. So, there is a dialectical relationship between knowing and questioning, between certainty and uncertainty. The ability to break out of a particular viewpoint or framework establishes a new ground for an expanded framework; but that can only ever be provisional, for the new ground must eventually give way again to a yet larger view—ad infinitum. That, of course, is challenging for a finite creature. We are obliged to trust the knowledge we have at a given time, while aware that it may not be adequate. That double awareness is fraught with anxiety. The psychological tendency is to take refuge in what we take to be certain, ignoring the likelihood that it is illusory.

Sentience arose in organisms as a guide to survival, an internal model of the world. Self-consciousness arose—at least in humans—as a further survival tool, the ability to transcend useful appearances in favor of potentially more useful ones. It comes, however, at the price of ultimate uncertainty. One may prefer the trance to the anxiety. From a species point of view, that may be a luxury that expendable individuals can afford, which the planetary collective cannot. Individuals and even nations can stand or fall by their mere beliefs, through some version of natural selection. But what inter-galactic council will be there to give the Darwin Award to a failed human species?