The Subjective Is Objective

Taking sentience seriously

By David Olivier


This text is the English translation of "Le subjectif est objectif", initially published in issue #23 of the journal Les Cahiers antispécistes (2003). The original French text can be read on this site or on the site of the Cahiers antispécistes.

Because of its length, this article has been split over several pages.

Sentience, the central object of all ethics and of all action, is a reality of the world. It is a reality in itself; it is an objective reality, a reality that does not exist merely from some private point of view. In the same sense as a table or a stone are made of matter, our brains too are made of matter; thus, sentience is a potential property of matter in general. Sentience is a physical reality, and it is the task of physics to give us an account of how sentience is tied to the other aspects of reality, and to show us how to determine when, where and with which qualities (suffering, pleasure and other qualia1) it occurs.

Despite this, present-day physics is incapable of making place for sentience in its description of the world. The problem would not be solved by discovering some new phenomenon or some new law. We need a complete overhaul of our ideas of reality and of physics. I do not have the keys to such an overhaul; I will be content here with showing why I believe it necessary, and suggest a few conditions that it will have to satisfy.

My reflections are in large part inspired by the views of the English mathematician Roger Penrose as expressed two works of his2 in which he argues that our current physics is unable to explain mental processes. He considers specifically our capacity to understand mathematical reasoning, a capacity he says cannot be simulated by the execution of an algorithm; this limitation following, he argues, from the well known Gödel incompleteness theorem (1931). I believe this line of reasoning very important, but not quite conclusive. Between the lines in the works of Penrose I see the basis of my own central argument: the inescapability of the internal, subjective point of view, and the fact that this point of view makes it impossible to build a theory of the world without attributing to the subjective - to sentience, and also to the truth value of prescriptive assertions and to the reality of freedom of choice - the status of facts. It's on this basis, I believe, that can be confirmed Penrose's conclusions, and particularly his assertion that the evolution of the world cannot be entirely subject to a calculable determinism. If the world is deterministic, it must be so at least partly in a non-calculable manner, that is, in a manner that is not algorithmically reproducible.

Penrose reasons on the basis of one of the most abstract, and specifically human, forms of thinking, specifically mathematical reasoning. What his works suggest, however, is that all authentic forms of comprehension - including very practical reasoning, of the kind certainly many non human animals are capable of - necessarily comprise a non algorithmic process. Authentic comprehension implies the perception of the truth of certain facts, whether these be the approach of a predator or some mathematical fact; it cannot be reduced to the necessarily unsentient execution of an algorithm. I will argue that sentience, intelligence (the faculty of understanding), freedom and ethics (the non algorithmic search for the right answer to the question “What is to be done?”) are closely connected, and that consequently intelligence, freedom and ethics are properties of every sentient being.

Gwenva the cat playing with water flowing from a tap

Figure 1: Gwenva studying physics

This will give us means to discern, or rather to better found, a number of criteria that we feel natural to resort to in order to determine if a given being is or isn't sentient; such as the non “automatic” nature of its behaviour or the presence of tissues of a certain kind, such as nervous tissues. It will give us indications concerning the place of sentience in evolution. It will allow us to found, as true, our moral obligations towards all sentient beings. Lastly, it will imply the necessity of reconstructing our conceptions of physical reality, and will allow us to sketch some constraints that these new conceptions will have to satisfy.

1. Qualia (singular: a quale) are the purely subjective characteristics of a feeling; they are "what it is like" to experience the colour red, for instance, a "what it is like" that differs from that of seeing red, for instance. The term was coined in 1929 (C.I. Lewis) and is most common in the English speaking world.

2. Shadows of the Mind, 1994; The Emperor's New Mind, 1989.