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Punchinello writes...

Mr. Weisman,

I'm sorry I did not acknowledge your response before now. I only realized that you had addressed my post on sentience a moment ago.

I did not really think that you condoned the obliteration of a family of polar bears (anthropomorphic or otherwise). I was raising the issue because I think I am observing a trend wherein people are only assigning value to a life based upon an inference of anthropomorphism. That is to say, some people are investing their ethical concern in something based upon how much it resembles a human being; and this is hardly an objective premise to begin with. Semblance to human beings, mental or otherwise, can not constitute a requirement for being worthy of consideration or protection. However I do believe that it is reasonable to assign values based upon certain criteria from within our own perspectives (it's the only thing we can assign values from) as long as we make a concerted effort to avoid an obviously centrist sentiment like using ourselves as a template for what is worth consideration.

If someone were to ask me what criteria I thought were appropriate, I would probably return to what has already been implied. Intelligence. Emotional intuition. Volition. And a whole host of perceptual characteristics. Those things from which emerge a picture of mental life. Perhaps an ability to suffer and to anticipate conditions which cause or alleviate suffering, and to desire to distance ones self from a cause of it. However, if we are going to determine the presence of those capacities with nothing but purely verifiable data, then we fall in league with the evolutionary psychologists foundation of mental within the biological. And the biological machinery necessary to mediate these abilities is certainly not the exclusive domain of Homo Sapiens. (I _do_ subscribe to the evolutionary psychologist foundation by the way. I like to have data I can verify beyond "it is true because it is so.")

For a lot of people though, these emergent mental properties are always considered as something transcendent of biology, immeasurable, even inviolate, because I have observed others react with hostility to the reduction of mental qualities to biology. On numerous occasions. Thinking that way leads to all kinds of misunderstandings, however. Another contributor to this board, Entity, had taken the position that humans and gorillas were intelligent but dogs were not. I found this extremely interesting because even outside the realm of biological architectures in the brain I could use as a foundation for taking the evolutionary psychologist position, it needs to be acknowledged that even within social psychology dogs are attributed a measurable intelligence. It's not extraordinary. My dog has an IQ of 12 or so for instance. And of course these kinds of figures are disputable, because it really requires the participation of the test subject past his simple presence to get accurate results. I would submit that the whole concept of IQ as it is accepted within the social sciences borders on being fraudulent anyway. The point is that the ascription of non-intelligence that was made about the dog was arbitrary. It was not informed by the physical _or_ social sciences. It was just an assumption. And that kind of casual valuization can be dangerous when it functions as the basis for how much respect we offer another. This is not a slight against this Entity. I'm just using this as an example to outline the stated purpose of my original post. If people are going to hold these positions they maintain, then they need to ask themselves why they have that particular belief. If they have this mental dialogue with themselves and they cannot answer that first question, then it is time to evaluate how much their beliefs represent reality.

I'm probably as guilty as anyone of overusing, or rather overbilling the issue of "sentience". I think the concept has its uses. But it's probably used as a crutch too often.

I would agree. I think of it as a crutch of language. Some people subscribe to an ideology that is a holdover from religious impulses. It maintains that the mantle of "human" is sacred and unapproachable. They need to define what the quality of "human" is that makes it thus, without any background knowledge of cognitive science so that it fits their sensibilities. They can adopt the hazily defined expression, "sentience", imported from popular culture, via star trek, to articulate their position. For some others, the mental capacities of non human animals may be very well understood. They may acknowledge capacities for reflection and emotion, but they still need a convenient means of distinguishing various abilities. So an imprecise language becomes common.

Greg responds...

Agreed. And I'll also admit that your thinking on this subject is much more sophisiticated than mine has been.

I think a lot of how we are defining sentience does come down to the "Potential for Direct Communication", which is of course a fairly preposterous criteria.

On the other hand, if it is truly another hand, I don't think these ideas are mutually exclusive with notions of religion. Dog heaven, man. You know?

And don't worry about not getting back to me sooner. As I'm sure you've noticed, there's something of a delay going on in this whole system. I have trouble keeping up with the posts here. So as long as you remind me of what we were talking about, we should be fine.

Response recorded on September 08, 2001