Sentient is a Latin word which moved over into English as a way of describing the phenomenon of experience which humans have apart from intelligence. That is to say, we are able to identify the various stimuli, processes, and products of the mind which rely upon thinking, but sentience is a phenomenon which has to do more with “feeling” than “thinking.”
This concept grew out of the emerging school of philosophy of the 18th century, and is identified with the dialogue to distinguish between these two phenomena. Animals, for instance, are able to experience feelings, but (in some peoples’ opinions) lack intelligence, in the sense of rational processing.
Humans value intelligence and give a great deal of attention to the vehicles by which our cognitive skills can be enhanced. Schools and Universities are intended to stimulate thinking, although some (myself included) would wonder if some institutions of learning are less directed to that goal than others. Thinking involves curiosity and learning to make choices. It is more than data infused into the brain; thinking includes the creation of concepts. A wooden box can be constructed by using basic, simple data and simple tools. A computer, however, requires creativity and more advanced cognitive skills.
Sentient activity, however, is less well defined. Some people believe that we will never fully understand sentience in the same way, or to the same degree that we understand intelligence. In fact…who would have believed that our understanding of intelligence would lead to the development of artificial intelligence?
While the same thing cannot be said of sentience, it would be incorrect to say that we have no understanding of the process of sentience. Much has been studied and written about the ability of humans to sense, feel, perceive and experience. Science has clearly made huge discoveries in the matter of experiencing degrees of temperature and other tactile qualities. Easter religious practices give great value to sentience, with Buddhism giving great credibility and respect to the various levels of sentience one achieves in the journey to spiritual perfection.
Even in our more Western practices, the experiencing of sensation, and the non-cognitive value of feeling is valued. As Westerners have come to adopt contemplation, meditation and non-cognitive prayer forms, one’s spiritual relationship with God is identified as enhanced.
In the more secular world, one’s feelings are crucial to the field of psychology, seen as the foundation of one’s psychological health or lack thereof. It is not to be set over against thinking and rational or cognitive behavior, but as a collaborative function which achieves or seeks wholeness. The term sentient is used to indicate something to be perceivable or conscious. It is a way of saying that something is real in a holistic way of assessing reality.
“There was a sentient presence of her continual joy in the room.”
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