Map of existential alternatives to the sentient experience
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Manu Herrán
Philosophy, Consciousness, Sentience

Sentience is the ability to experience sensations, to have subjective experiences. Usually it is assumed that sentience is produced in the being that experiments it. But there are actually more possibilities.

A: Who feels? [1..10]
B: What do we feel? [1..4]
C: How much can one feel? [1..2]
D: When does one feel? [1..4]
E: Where does the sentient experience occur? [1..4]
F: Why does the sentient experience occur? How is the sentient experience possible? What is its nature? [1..8]
G: Why does the sentient experience occur? Does it have any purpose? [1..5]
H: How much sentient experience is there? How available is it? [1..3]

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Versión en español

Translated from spanish by Laura Paglia

Who are the sentient beings? And what do they feel? Do they feel a lot or little? This article tries to set up all the possible questions and answers in relation to the ability of sentience, creating a map of the alternatives of the sentient and the subjectivity.

We usually assume that the (sentient [1]) beings are the ones that feel, and that they are different ones from others. The experiences does not exist by themselves: it is needed that it exists some beings that feel them. This is the hypothesis that most of the human beings assume with naturalness, and that represents what truly happens: that there are various beings, some different from others, that do experiment or not certain sensations.

Wait a moment... There are more possibilities? Well, yes: Maybe all the beings are the same one, and the multiplicity of beings is an appearance and the sentient experience is the one that this being experiments. This is the hypothesis that is carried out in “Sensible sand”, in “The egg”, and in multiple mystic traditions. Another possibility is that the experiences have an existence by themselves, regardless of the existence of beings that feel them.

A1 is characteristic of solipsism. Veganism is originally associated with A5-C1 but it also has its version in the gradualist Sensocentrism as A5-C2. Welfarism is markedly A5-C2. The issue of abortion is A3-C1C2-D3D4. Eternal life is found in A3-D3. "Arena Sensible" and "The Egg" are found in D1-E2-F3F8, and "Mass Hypothesis" in A8-B2. What is all this? These are coordinates where different conceptions of reality on sentient experience are located.

I will begin by explaining the title of the article. What is the "sentient experience"? The sentient experience is that which occurs when someone feels. The sentient being can communicate with another (such as me) and transmit that he/she feels (or what he/she feels), or not.

In this article we are going to deal with sentience and subjectivity, although I consider them different. It does not matter at all the used words but the meaning of what we want to transmit.

Related to the objectives of this article, we can consider them equivalent. I assume that the sentience is the most relevant aspect of the subjectivity, and it will not be a problem if the reader considers that this is the only one.

It the reader wants to exchange the two definitions, or use other words for them I will see it as a great thing. Even if he/she considers that both things are the same, or that one of them does not exist. All of it will be indifferent in relation to this article’s objectives. We are going to talk about that no matter its name. If the reader wants to go deeper in the topic of the definitions, I suggest him/her this article.

Otherwise, the closeness to the topic of the sentience usually comes predisposed by a world view in relation to the kind of entities that exist or “worlds”, for example, from these three possible cases: 1) The material world 2) The world of experiences 3) The world of the ideas.

There are people who considers that the three of them exist, two of them or just one. Curiously, those who consider that it only exists the world of experiences they could be talking exactly about the same. Anyway, I will try to include the different world views inside of the alternatives of the sentience map, in a way that it will not be necessary to choose one of them to interpret the map.

It is obvious that beings that possess sentience can exist without us knowing they do, since such beings might not communicate what they experience in any such way we can understand. This article is about sensation, and intends to list all possibilities of sensation regardless of the existence of consciousness or communication of sensation.

The aim is to answer questions such as: "Who is a sentient being?" (A) eg, does an amoeba feels? A computer? Do plants feel? Rocks? The atoms and the electrons? Does an ant feel? And what about an anthill? Do prime numbers feel? Do endangered species feel? Does my cousin? Do I?

And what is it that they feel? Pleasure and pain? (B)

Do they feel a lot or a little? (C)

When does one feel? (D) During his/her whole "life"? Does a newly fertilized egg feel? A human fetus of 14 weeks? Does one feel after one dies?

Where does sentient experience occurs? (E)

How do sentient beings feel? As to say, how is the sentient experience possible and how does it happen? (F)

Why does it happen? Does it have a purpose? (G)

And finally: What is its limit? Can it be finite? (H)

Nobody knows the right answer to these questions. However, we are able to establish various possible answers, observe evidence, establish theories, ponder, and assign more or less likelihood to one or another.

This article deals precisely with establishing all possible questions and answers, creating an alternative map of sentience and subjectivity.

The various existential alternatives of sentient experience I have been able to identify (answers) are listed below, matched to each of its aspects (questions), thus creating a "map" -or space- of possibilities through these questions and answers. The reader's suggestions are welcome for adding and completing questions and answers.

A: Who feels?

Some possible answers are:

  • A1: Oneself (Me)
  • A2: My family, my tribe
  • A3: My species
  • A4: Those belonging to a species similar to mine (eg, if I am a human: other mammals, or all other animals with a face)
  • A5: All animals with a central nervous system
  • A6: All animals (including sponges and jellyfish)
  • A7: All living things (including plants)
  • A8: All living beings and all matter on a same level, eg, all atoms
  • A9: All living beings as well as all matter on every possible conceptual level (all the "things", eg a galaxy, a planet, city, a house, a room, a table, the leg of a table, a molecule, an atom, an electron, etc…, and also: all animal species, all the frogs of the variety "glass frog”, a frog leg, a frog cell, a molecule, an atom, an electron...)
  • A10: All living beings, all matter on every possible conceptual level as well as all kind of ideas, information, or concepts that do not represent material objects (eg, prime numbers, boredom, a give way, the second law of thermodynamics, living above one's means…)

A8 by Brian Tomasik

The idea that all subsets of the universe might be sentient by Brian Tomasik

B: What do we feel?

For most people, there are all kinds of sensations and experiences, fundamentally positive and negative, of different nature and intensity. Others can be neutral or virtually neutral.

For example, one can experiment surprise. The surprise can be related to something positive (a good new), o negative (a bad new). And can it be neutral? What without a doubt it can be is positive, but very little; or negative, but very little, so in practice it would be neutral. Or, maybe, it really does exist totally neutral experiences.

The hint that allow us to distinguish between a totally neutral experience (neither positive, nor negative) from an experience which positive or negative naturalness is so faint that you can barely appreciate it, I do not see it as something relevant, and I do not include it (yet) in the map to not complicate even more.

From now, I will focus on the negative and positive aspects, assimilating that the neutral ones, if they exist, could be randomly integrated in any of these two groups, as the faintest possible value.

There are authors who believe that pleasure does not exist, but that there is a wide range of different kind of pains (Jose Antonio Jauregui in "El ordenador Cerebral").

The answers we contemplate are:
  • B1: One feels all kinds of positive and negative sensations (pleasure and pain)
  • B2: Pleasure does no exist. There is only pain, or the absence of pain. What we call pleasure is the absence of pain
  • B3: Pain does no exist. There is only pleasure, or the absence of pleasure. What we call pain is the absence of pleasure
  • B4: Both pain pleasure does no exist
For many people option B2 does not make any sense since according to them pleasure definitely exists. Let us try to understand this through a metaphor: we commonly talk of heat and cold, although strictly speaking, there is only heat; more or less heat. Let us consider the same with pleasure and pain. If atoms feel, and if there is only one sensation, what would that sensation be? And what would atoms feel? It could be pain (B3), as in "Hypothesis Mass" or it could be pleasure, the pleasure suggested by Jáuregui as the absence of pain. I much prefer this option in which we live after death (we even lived before death) in a permanent state of pleasure (See D1 and D3).

In some way the difference between options B1, B2 and B3 may seem only lexical, rather arbitrary. However, B2 and B3 options combined with other map positions involve very different situations and this is what I want to emphasize here.

Additionally, a curious phenomenon occurs with B2 and B3 expressions so that they can literally mean completely opposite things depending on the context. Lets see it:

In the A8 option of the map it's contemplated that the atoms feel. If they did what would they feel? It could be just pain (B2), as in "Hypothesis Mass", or just pleasure, as B3 says.

I mean, if the atoms feel:
  • B2: If the pleasure does not exist, and only pain does, this looks pretty bad to the atoms: the feel pain or they do not feel anything. Bad!
  • B3: if pain does not exist, and only pleasure does, this looks pretty cool to the atoms: the feel pleasure or they do not feel anything. Nice!
It seems that B3 is better than B2: It is better that pain does not exist and only pleasure does. To the atoms it is, but to us is just the contrary: B2 is better than B3. How is this possible?

Let us consider for example D1 and D3 options in which we will exist after death (and even before death we existed) and they are believed by a large number of human beings (religions) and mix them with B2 and B3.

For we humans:
  • (D1 ó D3) + B2: If pleasure does not exist, and only pain does, then the absence of pain (which is what we call pleasure) is that thing we feel after death, when there is no longer pain. And this is wonderful. Nice!
  • (D1 ó D3) + B3: if pain does not exist, and only pleausre does, then the absence of pleasure (which is what we call pain) is that thing we feel after death, when there is no longer pleasure. And this is horrible. Bad!
If we want to understand this last possibility it can be interesting to remember, at least in a metaphorical sense, that there are neurons that work with what in computer science is known as inverse logic, which consists in that the information, in a positive mode (“it happens x”) is transmitted through the absence of signal. So the absence of signal means would produce a painful sensation. This is pretty accurate when you have to react when something is “cut”.

I mean, if we could choose, i prefer the B2 option where after death we will live (and even, before death we lived) in a stage of permanent pleasure. Jáuregui was not a pessimistic, he was an optimistic.

The apparent paradox that takes place between the different meaning of the expressions B2 and B3 to the atoms and to us is due to some implicit implications related to our experience, in a way that with the same words we are making reference to different things. I imagine an expert system or an artificial intelligence reading this article and getting confused with this topic. I am sorry I could not be clearer. If some day we programme an intelligence greater than ours, an AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) that take us to a singularity out of our control, we will have to be very careful so it understands it pretty well.

What happens is that, for example, in the B2 case to the atoms, when we say that “it only exists pain”, we are saying that the atoms can only feel what we know as pain, maybe in different grades, or do not feel anything. We do not include the possibility of atoms feeling what we know as pleasure (that would be B1).

However, in the B2 case, applied to animals such as human beings, as it a fact that we experiment sensations, which we call “pleasure” and if we accept that pleasure does not exist, then it turns out that what we call “pleasure” is the absence of sensation, and so, the absence of sensation, although we say that this is “to not feel anything”, as we said before, we know that this “to not feel anything”, subjectively, is something very very desirable.

Finally we have the B4 possibility, which sounds pretty weird. The b4 option can make reference to the past or present experiences:
  • B4.1: about the past: The pleasure and the pain did not exist, in the past.
  • B4.2: about the present: The pleasure and the pain do not exist, now.
B4.1 makes reference to the fact of that we cannot be sure about our memories. This could happen if all the memories of having felt in the past were fake (strong version). It also exist a weak version. Let’s see it:
  • B4.1.1: strong version: all the memories of sentience of the past are fake.
  • B4.1.2: weak version: all the memories of sentience of the past are distorted. This option can have other several options:
    • B4.1.2.1: weak version 1: Neither the pleasure was so wonderful, nor the pain was so horrible.
    • B4.1.2.2: weak version 2: The pleasure was not so wonderful, but the pain it was so horrible.
    • B4.1.2.3: weak version 3: The pleasure was wonderful, but the pain was not so horrible.
The B4 option cannot be based on memories too, but on our own confusion when we have to interpret the present experiences. In this case the options are:
  • B4.2.1: strong version: Right now, I think I am feeling pleasure or pain, but it is just an illusion , actually I am not feeling anything.
  • B4.2.2: weak version: right now I am feeling pleasure or pain, but the interpretation I make about them is wrong.
    • B4.2.2.1: weak version 1: Neither the pleasure is so wonderful, nor the pain so horrible
    • B4.2.2.2: weak version 2: The pleasure is not so wonderful, but the pain yes it is so horrible
    • B4.2.2.3: weak version 3: The pleasure is wonderful, but the pain is not so horrible.

C: How much can one feel?

We have already mentioned that there can be different kinds and degrees of sentience, but does the ability to feel also varies? As to say, are there beings who, exposed to equivalent stimuli in similar conditions experience less sentience than others? Of course, we are not referring to the fact that under the effect of certain drugs (anesthesia) one is more or less sensible (there is no doubt about that), but if all mammals have the same capacity to feel and the same sensitivity to stimuli, for instance, or conversely if some species (humans?) are more sensitive than others.

The question refers to these two possibilities:
  • C1: The ability to feel is discrete, ie, exists in a "Yes/No" pattern. One either feels or does not
  • C2: The ability to feel is gradual (is felt in degrees). One can have more or less ability to feel
In the C2 case, and since this article was written by a human, it is important to highlight in turn two possibilities:
  • C2.1: Man is the kind of being with more sentience
  • C2.2: There are other beings with greater ability to feel (can be any of the group "A")

Now let me complicate the scenario of existential possibilities with new questions:

D: When does one feel?

I refer myself here to answers as:
  • D1: Without beginning and without end (always)
  • D2: Without beginning but with an end (Pre-existence and death)
  • D3: With a beginning but without an end ("Birth" and eternal life)
  • D4: With a beginning and an end (from "birth" until death)

Within the scientific community it is widely assumed that a being feels from his/her "birth" until his/her death (D4). However, many religions have popularized the idea that life continues after death (D3). Mystical traditions are specific to D1, and rational discourses are proposed in which the subjective being is neither created nor destroyed. I know of no cases of D2, but this option is added for symmetry.

I speak of "birth" (in quotes) since we commonly affirm that a mammal is "born" at the moment of delivery, although it is obvious that he/she feels seconds before delivery. And most people think that the newly fertilized egg does not feel. How does one transitions from one state to another? And when?

Here's a situation very similar to question C ("C" refers to different individuals, while "D" refers to the same individual at different times of his/her existence).

There could be a gradual transition... or no transition at all... There could be a "magic" moment when one goes from no-sentience to sentience, or this could happen gradually, or a combination of both (a gradual change comparable to discreet). The following figure tries to represent these cases.

The D5 case is the more opposite to the experience, unlikely but possible: all the memory from the past is fake, introduced, and only the present one is real. The past could have never existed.

Fig. 1

Finally, the questions I pose to complete the scenario of the existential possibilities are even more complex and strange:

E: Where does the sentient experience occur?

It is usually assumed that the sentient experience occurs in the being who experiences it. But there are actually more possibilities, as the following:

  • E1: Let's start with the simplest case. Beings are those who feel, and they are different from each other. Experiences do not exist by themselves: the existence of beings who experience them is necessary for experiences to exist. This hypothesis is the one that is assumed as natural by most humans and that apparently represents what happens: that there are several beings different from each other, who experience -or not- certain sensations. Wait... are there other possibilities? Actually, there are:
  • E2: All beings are one and the same; the multiplicity of beings is an appearance, and the sentient experience is what is experienced by this unique being. This is the hypothesis that is developed in "Sensible Arena", in "The Egg" and in several mystical traditions
  • E3: Experiences exist in and for themselves, independently from the existence of beings that experience them.
  • E4: Same as above, but with the requirement that at least one being exists, that experiences each experience for this to exist.

In E1, if no beings existed, there would be neither pleasure nor pain.

According to E2 there are no "beings" but one single Being who feels. If this Being ceased to exist (and/or all of the sub-beings of which it is made), experiences would cease to exist.

E3 assumes that those experiences pre-existed whether experienced by a being or not. This is similar to the philosophical discussion about whether the concept of "red" or the concept of "three" exist by themselves whether or not something red or something grouped to form a trio exist. To explain it with a metaphor, let us imagine that the pleasure-pain experiences is like the cold-hot temperature. We have various containers with water at different temperatures representing the different possible experiences, and we have some beings (sponges in this metaphor) that we introduce in each basin. The experiences (the different temperatures in each basin) exist, with or without beings (sponges), and maybe we could say that the experiences do not "add" by the existence of more beings (sponges) in the basin, since the amount water (experience) remains the same.

In E3 subjectivity is not strongly linked to the beings who experience it, but it exists on its own, so this interpretation also considers all beings as "sub-beings" from the point of view of subjectivity since subjectivity is out of them.

E4 is the same case as above, except that experiences begin to exist when at least one sub-being experiences them, and disappear when nobody does.

In short, E1 considers that sentient beings are the ones we see. E2 considers that there is only one being, and according to E3 and E4 there are as many sentient beings as possible experiences.

Is it reasonable to think that the sentience is no longer an attribute, but a dimension and that, even, it could happen without the existence of beings who feel it? How could something like this happen? It happens the same when two pieces of chess can be in the three line. The “three line” (toothache) looks like an attribute of the piece, such as colour, and, however, it is something that exists independently of the chess piece, and independently of how many pieces are in that line (the number of beings that have felt that sensation). Why do I develop these hypothesis? Because if they were true, we could maybe eliminate the toothache forever, once and for all, for all the beings that are, will be and were, just by eliminating that piece from the chess board.

And lastly:

F: Why does the sentient experience occur? How is the sentient experience possible? What is its nature?

I refer myself here to answers such as:
  • F1: Sensitivity is produced by a special kind of particles which properties still remain unknown in relation to sensitivity. These particles may be present only in some beings (eg A4 or A5), or they could be an already-known particle, present in all known matter (A8). This hypothesis is mentioned in the book "The Sensitive Universe" by William Agudelo.
  • F2: Sensitivity is a dimension such as time or space. See E3.
  • F3: The key is complexity. From a certain level of complexity onwards, the sentient experience emerges with no other need for it. How? Maybe because a certain kind of complexity allows beings to behave like a "radio receiver" that captures the "wave" of subjectivity. Or maybe the sentience “appears” or “it is made” under certain circumstances, for example, when some being is provided with an enough complex brain, it has to take some enough complex decisions to survive in an enough complex space (multidimensional, while it is creating internally a “map”). This case can have different alternatives: we can consider that the sentience can appear under those conditions or that compulsory it always appears under those circumstances and/or that it only appears under those conditions. More references:
  • F4: The key is evolution. The evolution of matter created life with sentience. How? Simply by creating, -surely gradually (C2) and by randomly directed natural selection- "radio receptors" as the previous case.
  • F5: The key is God. "God" created beings capable of sentience. "God" is a supernatural entity capable of anything. This belief has been extremely successful since time immemorial.
  • F6: The key is some extraordinary (to us) being who created (for whatever reason) beings capable of sentience. This extraordinary being could be a super-advanced extraterrestrial from another dimension, another universe... Very similar to the previous case, adding some hints about the possible nature of the super-being.
  • F7: There is a preexisting sensitivity, available in some form, like matter. The fact that there is something -as matter or energy- is already surprising and magical. We can assume that the ability to feel exists (or pre-exists), as well as matter and energy, and that subjectivity is a core component of Reality.
  • F8: The strong version of the above: That sensitivity is not only a basic component of Reality, but that it is the basic component of Reality. That reality is subjective; that reality is sensitivity: that only sensitivity exists and that what we call matter is our perception of something that behaves as if it existed.

There still is another question:

G: Why does the sentient experience occur? Does it have any purpose?

Pleasure and pain guide life to maintain itself as well as complexity. But are pleasure and pain really necessary? What is the difference between adding one plus one, and simulating to add one plus one? None. What functional practical difference is there between a living being who eagerly, anxiously and desperately seeks food, and a machine that performs the same task, simulating eagerness, anxiety and desperation? None.

The following options are considered:
  • G1: Sentience is omnipresent and is available unlimitedly or almost unlimitedly. Although not necessary, it is useful and accessible so it is used (E3, E4, F2)
  • G2: Sentience exists in all natural laws. For example, gravity does not attracts matter, instead it is the desire to attract each other, the pain of separation and the pleasure of getting closer that does it (A9)
  • G3: It is inevitable and has no purpose, it just happens
  • G4: Created by "God" who offers us some kind of challenge
  • G5: Created by some kind of extraordinary beings, for their own benefit. We are an experiment of theirs

And finally:

H: How much sentient experience is there? How available is it?

  • H1: omnipresent and very easy to obtain (A8, A9, A10)
  • H2: Very hard to obtain
  • H3: A combination of the two. There is a great amount of subjectivity available, but a complex system is necessary to achieve it (F3)



2016-03-15 19:04:50

A8... by Brian Tomasik:

2016-12-12 19:28:49

1. Illusion: The self is not real; it is an artificial construct of competing neural systems seeking to make sense of myriad streams of inner information — a trick of the brain.

2. Phenomenal subjectivity:The self is real in that the subject has authentic felt experiences that compose a coherent whole, but the self remains the product of brain neurophysiology and neurochemistry functioning much as we know it (with nothing else needed, certainly nothing exotic).

3. Patterns of information:The self is a highly complex, highly particular array of properties and relationships that can be expressed in some kind of formalized manner (perhaps featuring causal connections and perhaps reproducible beyond biological brains in artificial brains — meaning the self could be uploaded into a nonbiological substrate).

4. Weak emergence:The self is the product of interacting brain mechanisms, both at the microscopic neuronal level and at the macroscopic brain systems level. Given future neuroscience, eventually the self will be predictable from the brain alone; in other words, brain activity alone could still explain the self entirely.

5. Strong emergence:The self is a profoundly new thing that comes into existence as a product of underlying brain activities alone, but no matter how advanced neuroscience becomes, the self can never be predicted from these underlying brain activities, not even in principle.

6. Existential unity: The self is an existentially unified whole in that its parts are incapable of separate existence, and that successive mental states of the same self are inextricably bound through some kind of deep coherence (perhaps quantum-based, perhaps something else — but still of a kind that could count as "physical").

7. Special assembly of new force or structure:The self is a particular organization of a new force or structure in nature that generates or enables consciousness in an enhanced physical world; for example, "panpsychism," where consciousness is a nonreducible feature of every particle (each having inherent proto-consciousness), or "integrated information theory," where consciousness is an independent, nonreducible organization of reality (perhaps a different dimension of reality).

8. Nonphysical local consciousness:The self, in part, is independent of the physical world/body/brain and requires some kind of nonphysical essence — perhaps a new nonphysical feature of reality and perhaps accessible via parapsychology/ESP.

9. Nonphysical god-created consciousness:The self is what the creator designed to be the essence of human beings (and perhaps of other beings as well) by using a kind of nonphysical substance — a "soul" or "spirit" (whose properties remain in interminable dispute). This soul/spirit can be either a required component of consciousness that complements the brain or an independent nonphysical, concrete existing thing that is inherently conscious and uses or manipulates the brain.

10. Nonphysical cosmic consciousness:The self, as a whole, is independent of the physical world/body/brain and derived from an all-pervading cosmic consciousness, which is ultimate reality, the fundamental progenitor of all physical existence.


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