Patterns, coherence, and the strange spaces of sentiocentrism

‘The Universe’s instantaneous self-destruction button’, ‘to anesthetize and assassinate’ or ‘The undiscovered infidelity’ are all explained ignoring the existence of individuals in the habitual sense of the word.

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I’ll define “conventional sentiocentrism” as the the moral position that considers that the ability to feel is the relevant criterion for establishing who are the beings who deserve moral consideration.

I’ll define “strict sentiocentrism” as the moral stance that considers that the relevant thing to establish moral consideration is the ability to feel.

The first definition implicitly assumes that there are beings, and these beings are different one from each other. The second does not. We’ll see how the use of both definitions can clarify important nuances.

‘Being’ or ‘thing’ is that which (apparently) possesses a certain coherence and thanks to it, is identified and named in our mental representation. This is why we speak about the capacity to feel of things.

Moral mental processes required to consider the future. ‘Present’ sentient beings are those who are aware of the ‘present’. However, a wider conceptualization of sentient beings allows us to establish moral considerations for the future (through mental representations), requiring the introduction of time and potentiality factors, and not only talking about the beings that are sentient in the present moment, but about those which presumably will continue being, and about those that will be, even when in the present moment they are not.

The individual coherence of an object is that which allows us to define and identify it. Consistency requires time factor: not only because mental processes are processes and require time factor, but because what mental processes handle also required to have a certain stability, inertia or recurrence in time in order to be identified and managed. An object is an object (an identified object in our mind) due to an existing, recognizable pattern, which remains through time.

That is to say, a ‘thing’ can experience less or more transformations and keep being such ‘thing’. But if it experiences ‘many’ transformations, we will say that it has turned into ‘another’ thing. Definitively, the identity of that ‘thing’ is in our mind.

The identification of objects is necessary to establish distinct moral standards in relation to them and their potential subjectivity. But we should not forget that, after all, such objects, that is to say, such dualistic coherence, that separates an object from the rest of the universe, is something that exists only in our mind, not ultimately in the object, as paradoxical as it may sound.

The coherence we observe between an adult individual and the ‘same’ individual a couple of seconds before, is -usually- huge. Nevertheless, during those seconds, the individual has changed and has transformed into another. We can track the coherence of the pattern between the adult individual and his younger self from a few years before (for example, detecting similarities in old pictures) and therefore, talk about the same individual, whether he is three years old or ninety years old, the further they are on the timeline, the more difficult it will be to say that they are the same person, given that in almost any case that we may analyze, our findings will be different.

It is even more difficult to understand the coherence between a just-fertilized ovum (or actually, why not, before being fertilized) and the adult individual. In a certain moment, clearly arbitrary, of the temporal sequence, we will identify them as different things.

The identification of the ‘being’ or ‘thing’ is in a last instance arbitrary. It is something useful, but it doesn’t truly reflect the deepest reality. The continuity of the ‘I’ is an illusion, as it is in my case, as in the case of the rest of the animals, plants or inanimate objects.

That is why sentiocentrism, taken to its final consequences, is driven to really strange places, ethically arguable from a theoretical point of view such as ‘The Universe’s instantaneous self-destruction button’, ‘Anesthetize and assassinate’ or ‘The undiscovered infidelity’. The bottom line is that the strict sentiocentrism ignore the existence of individuals in the common sense of the word ‘individual’. Such common sense of the word ‘individual’ implies the continuity through time of a pattern that is independent from the capacity to feel, and such pattern is that which is ignored by the strict sentiocentrism.

This is to say, if I am aware of the sentience but I ignore the concept of individual, understood as a pattern through time, the strange places of the sentiocentrism are clarified and the ethical reasoning turns to be logical, although disturbing.

In my opinion, the consistency and continuity of self is an illusion in the same way that free will is an illusion.

Of course, what clearly keeps us away from this idea, is the experience that what I feel is not being felt by others, and vice versa; and that ‘I’ own continuity through time (due to my memory). And the reasonable supposition that others are experiencing the same. And if I did not have continuity, at least I have the appearance of continuity. I have the experience of being continuous through time.

We cannot compare the coherence of a non-sentient object (a stone, a bunch of soil, a gin-tonic, a building, a highway, a forest) with the coherence of a sentient object (a frog). All these objects possess coherence, they have a pattern, a representation in my mind. But those objects which also possess sentience are quite different: They have the same dualistic experience that I have when separating ‘I’ from the rest of the universe.

Certainly, it is hard to look around and identify sentience without identifying distinct individuals. A way to approach this issue that could help to understand this paradigm is to interpret that all individuals are the same one (I cannot be untrue to myself). The underlying logic of the utilitarian calculations is easily understood if we consider that there is only one individual (that all individuals are the same one).

In fact, it is only necessary to consider that only the ‘present’ exists, or that individuals are not different beings from each other, to explain the ‘strange places’ of the sentiocentrism.

Precisely if sentience is the thing around which revolves the whole moral consideration, we must recognize that the ability to feel, the pure sentience, the pure subjectivity, is indistinguishable from beings to beings, and is irrelevant “who” feel such a thing, but the fact of feeling.

The ‘inverse logic’ (when a message is determined by the absence of message; when silence is the warning signal) and the metaphor of the square covered by a piece of fabric with a hole can also help to understand this idea. What we call ‘I’ is an idea we can interpret as the machinery that generates my particular sentient experience, as the machinery that, from the global sentient experience, hides everything to me, except for that experience I call mine. Both are valid forms to discover the same pattern (‘I’).

Is such pattern an illusion? Illusion or not, sentient beings considerate themselves extraordinarily relevant, they experience continuity and, in general, they pretend to maintain it, their own and their beloved’s one, and, in case of necessity, at the expense of others.


Posted by Manu Herrán

Research associate at the Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS).

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