Tìm hiểu 4 từ khó wise, sentient, conscious, mindful

Tìm hiểu 4 từ khó wise, sentient, conscious, mindful

In the Linnaean system of classifyng living things–the system used around the world in biology–the human species is called Homo sapiens, a Latin phrase that can be translated: “a wise human-shaped animal.”  Comment is often made about the presumption of our calling ourselves “wise,” but that is because “wise” here is really a mistranslation.  A better translation would use the word “sapient” rather than “wise.”

The English word “sapient” derives directly from sapiens and carries the meaning of having the ability to reason, not implying that humans generally do it well (which is what “wise” means).  It can be argued that other animals can also reason, but most people will agree that this (and language and tool use–attributes that seem to go hand-in-hand) is a special human trait that is not seen to anywhere near the same degree in other animals.

If one is going to think well (wisely?) about human and animal mental abilities, it is good to distinguish several terms often found in this context.  Above I distinguished “sapience” and “wisdom” as being the ability to reason, “sapience” making no implication as to whether the reasoning is “wise” or not.

There are also the words “consciousness”  and “sentience” and “self-awareness” and “mindfulness.”  To be conscious is to be awake, not asleep or in a coma or whatever.  It also has another, closely related meaning, of being aware, of being able to discern what is around oneself and react accordingly.  Obviously most animals, and even some plants, can be said to be “conscious” to one degree or another.

We also have the word “sentience,” which is almost impossible to define in words but which everyone understands.  It is the ability to experience the world in our senses and emotions and sensations.  These three are all basically different manifestations of being sentient.  We do not directly experience the wave front of a beam of light or a pulse of sound–instead our minds translate these external phenomena into color and pitch and so on.  We cannot define “blue” except by giving examples–it is something we experience and others experience, so that we can communicate the experience only by referring to the same experience we presume is found in others.  The same applies to an emotion such as joy or love or to a sensation such as pain or nausea or hunger.

Thus, if we say an animal is “sapient,” we are talking about its ability to reason, while if we say it is “sentient,” we are talking about its ability to feel (“feel” used in the broad sense of the ability to experience via mental interpretation the world around us, including our bodily world).

As a side note, modern physiologists have figured out that the experiences we call sentience evolved in mammals and birds but probably not elsewhere–they are linked to certain biochemical pathways and mediated by certain chemicals, the best known being serotonin (although it must be remarked that having the ability to trace the physical pattern that leads to sentience does little if anything toward clarifying the essential mystery of what “experience” really is).  Other organisms, when they respond to the environment, behave entirely reflexively, while mammals and birds, although they retain some reflexive behaviors, are more likely to have their behavior mediated through sensations–especially emotions.

There recently was a fad among behaviorists (scientists who study the behavior of animals–the word also has another meaning) to put a mirror in front of an animal and to try to discern from the animal’s behavior whether or not the animal can understand that the image in the mirror is a reflection of itself and not another being.  Chimpanzees seem to have no trouble with this, and quickly learn to use the mirror to see parts of its body it cannot see otherwise.

Most animals “fail” this test–they see the reflection as another animal, and react accordingly (sometimes showing hostile or dominance displays, often looking behind the mirror to see what is there).  It has been imagined that the inability to recognize the image in the mirror as being an image of oneself demonstrates that the animal involved is not self-aware.  Further thought persuades most people that this is a non sequitur–that failure to recognize the illusional nature of the image in the mirror comes from lack of mental agility or intelligence, not from lack of self-awareness.

“Mindfulness,” the last word on the list above, refers to a special kind of self-awareness–an awareness that one is aware.  We can all sit quietly and “watch” our mind function as it moves in its stream of consciousness form one thought to another, one emotion or feeling or sensation (say an itch behind an ear) to another.  This is being “mindful.”

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