Sentience

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism
User avatar
Riverbend
Posts: 29
Joined: Sun Jun 20, 2010 9:36 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: England
Contact:

Sentience

Postby Riverbend » Tue Jul 06, 2010 11:45 pm

In Buddhism, how exactly is sentience defined? I hesitate to say this as it will sound facetious but I do not intend it: is it okay for a Buddhist to wash his or her hands because bacteria are not sentient? What about ants in your kitchen? One definition I have heard of sentience is a subjective self awareness. Is that what Buddhists think?

Thank you.
I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is you'll agree a certain je ne se quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot. [Uncle Monty -- Withnail & I.]

User avatar
Tex
Posts: 623
Joined: Thu Jan 22, 2009 9:46 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1
Location: Austin, TX, USA

Re: Sentience

Postby Tex » Tue Jul 06, 2010 11:50 pm

The basic definition is usually something like "conscious life forms" or "beings with a mind". Plants and some life forms like bacteria would not be included. Ants and other insects definitely are included in "sentient beings".

A good qualifying question might be "Is the being capable of making decisions?". Plants, bacteria, etc do respond to stimuli, but there is not a mind making a decision in there.
"The serene and peaceful mind is the true epitome of human achievement."-- Ajahn Chah, Living Dhamma

"To reach beyond fear and danger we must sharpen and widen our vision. We have to pierce through the deceptions that lull us into a comfortable complacency, to take a straight look down into the depths of our existence, without turning away uneasily or running after distractions." -- Bhikkhu Bodhi

User avatar
Riverbend
Posts: 29
Joined: Sun Jun 20, 2010 9:36 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: England
Contact:

Re: Sentience

Postby Riverbend » Wed Jul 07, 2010 12:05 am

Tex wrote:The basic definition is usually something like "conscious life forms" or "beings with a mind". Plants and some life forms like bacteria would not be included. Ants and other insects definitely are included in "sentient beings".

A good qualifying question might be "Is the being capable of making decisions?". Plants, bacteria, etc do respond to stimuli, but there is not a mind making a decision in there.


Thank you for taking the time to answer. Isn't it very difficult to know what has a mind? An ant, for instance. How can we say it has a mind and isn't just responding to stimuli? Humans have a subjective self awareness. We act and ask questions about it. That's the difference between just responding and making decisions.

But talking of ants, what would be the action of a Buddhist if confronted with thousands of ants in his kitchen where he keeps his food?
I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is you'll agree a certain je ne se quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot. [Uncle Monty -- Withnail & I.]

User avatar
Tex
Posts: 623
Joined: Thu Jan 22, 2009 9:46 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1
Location: Austin, TX, USA

Re: Sentience

Postby Tex » Wed Jul 07, 2010 12:39 am

Riverbend wrote:Thank you for taking the time to answer. Isn't it very difficult to know what has a mind? An ant, for instance. How can we say it has a mind and isn't just responding to stimuli? Humans have a subjective self awareness. We act and ask questions about it. That's the difference between just responding and making decisions.


Well, with ants and other insects, I think they show varying responses to stimuli. If you move your fingetip into an ant's space, some will choose to run the opposite direction, some will turn 90 degrees and run that way, and some will probably bite your finger instead. To me, that shows a mind at work deciding, rightly or wrongly, about the best course of action, whereas plants will always grow toward the source of light and are not capable of choosing to grow away from it. This is probably not a very good analogy, but in general, yes, insects are considered sentient.

And yes, it can be difficult to tell in some cases if a being is sentient, and I think even some Buddhists disagree about exactly where to draw the line. But if we're unsure, we can always play it safe and refrain from killing it.

Riverbend wrote:But talking of ants, what would be the action of a Buddhist if confronted with thousands of ants in his kitchen where he keeps his food?


This exact question was asked and the majority of the responses were things like thoroughly cleaning the kitchen to remove the source of the attraction for the ants and I think there was something that ants don't like the smell of that was recommended to be used as a repellent, but I can't recall what it was.
"The serene and peaceful mind is the true epitome of human achievement."-- Ajahn Chah, Living Dhamma

"To reach beyond fear and danger we must sharpen and widen our vision. We have to pierce through the deceptions that lull us into a comfortable complacency, to take a straight look down into the depths of our existence, without turning away uneasily or running after distractions." -- Bhikkhu Bodhi

User avatar
octathlon
Posts: 599
Joined: Thu Jun 17, 2010 5:06 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: USA

Re: Sentience

Postby octathlon » Wed Jul 07, 2010 12:45 am

Is there anything in the teachings on where the 'line' is drawn? I tried searching and couldn't find it. Maybe whatever Pali term was used would help, as opposed to trying to guess based on the English translation?

I was thinking the answer be related to creatures in whose bodies rebirth could occur, but couldn't find any clues on what those would be.

User avatar
David N. Snyder
Site Admin
Posts: 8292
Joined: Tue Dec 30, 2008 4:15 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1001
Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Contact:

Re: Sentience

Postby David N. Snyder » Wed Jul 07, 2010 1:09 am

octathlon wrote:Is there anything in the teachings on where the 'line' is drawn? I tried searching and couldn't find it. Maybe whatever Pali term was used would help, as opposed to trying to guess based on the English translation?

I was thinking the answer be related to creatures in whose bodies rebirth could occur, but couldn't find any clues on what those would be.


There is no way we can avoid the "death" to bacteria, mold, fungi, etc. so this is true, that a line must be drawn. Buddhism is not so extreme as say, Jain philosophy and I think there is a clear line with the Animal Kingdom. Insects, humans, mammals, and fish are all members of the Animal Kingdom. Bacteria, mold, fungi are in different separate Biological Kingdoms / classifications and do not have as much sentience, if any.

The First Precept is clearly for sentient beings of the Animal Kingdom which are humans and animals. The 31 planes of existence to which we are subject to in samsara does not mention the other Biological Kingdoms of life.

User avatar
Ben
Site Admin
Posts: 16351
Joined: Wed Dec 31, 2008 12:49 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1001
Location: Land of the sleeping gods
Contact:

Re: Sentience

Postby Ben » Wed Jul 07, 2010 2:04 am

Hi Riverbend and Tex,

Tex wrote:
Riverbend wrote:But talking of ants, what would be the action of a Buddhist if confronted with thousands of ants in his kitchen where he keeps his food?


This exact question was asked and the majority of the responses were things like thoroughly cleaning the kitchen to remove the source of the attraction for the ants and I think there was something that ants don't like the smell of that was recommended to be used as a repellent, but I can't recall what it was.


Actually, I am in this situation. I keep my kitchen as clean as possible and I try to remove any attractants as quickly as I can. I also take the time to gently sweep them up with a dustpan and hand-brush and take them outside before my wife and kids (non-Buddhists) apply insecticide. But being winter, living in an old house with many cracks in the floor and behind bench fittings, they're coming in for the warmth as well as water and food.
kind regards

Ben
Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.

Taṃ nadīhi vijānātha:
sobbhesu padaresu ca,
saṇantā yanti kusobbhā,
tuṇhīyanti mahodadhī.

Sutta Nipata 3.725

Compassionate Hands Foundation (Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • Buddhist Global ReliefUNHCR
Buddhist Life Stories of Australia
e: ben.dhammawheel@gmail.com

User avatar
Wind
Posts: 342
Joined: Thu Feb 04, 2010 11:10 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6

Re: Sentience

Postby Wind » Wed Jul 07, 2010 4:18 am

Another way to look at Sentience is in terms of realms of rebirth. The Buddha covers all the possible realms sentient beings can be reborn. So since sentient beings do not reborn as plants, plants are not sentient. There are no bacteria realm either that sentient beings reborn into. Bacteria in my opinion is similar to single cell organism like your skin cells but lives independently. It is part of nature but not sentient. In other words, plants and micro organisms are living "things" but not living "beings".

User avatar
Riverbend
Posts: 29
Joined: Sun Jun 20, 2010 9:36 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: England
Contact:

Re: Sentience

Postby Riverbend » Wed Jul 07, 2010 9:00 am

Thank you all. I always try to avoid killing anything, even spiders, which I am terrified of.

About sentience, though: it has been said that we as humans can do everything we do without being consciously self-aware of it and that an outside observer wouldn't know the difference; that we could go about our daily lives exactly as we do now while never being subjectively conscious of any of it. So we can't really assume that anything is consciously self aware. We know far too little about it. Not that it matters to me: as a vegetable gardener, I feel guilty throwing away seedlings I don't need!

Personally, I see it as not causing suffering to things that are capable of experiencing it. I have no idea if ants can suffer, but I'll play it safe. I prefer this criterion as experiments suggest humans are not consciously self aware until the age of about two.

Richard
I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is you'll agree a certain je ne se quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot. [Uncle Monty -- Withnail & I.]

User avatar
Ben
Site Admin
Posts: 16351
Joined: Wed Dec 31, 2008 12:49 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 1001
Location: Land of the sleeping gods
Contact:

Re: Sentience

Postby Ben » Wed Jul 07, 2010 9:16 am

Hi Riverbend,
Riverbend wrote:I have no idea if ants can suffer, but I'll play it safe.

Yes, I can assure you, ants suffer. I've seen it myself.

Riverbend wrote:I prefer this criterion as experiments suggest humans are not consciously self aware until the age of about two.

What it suggest to me is that you don't have any children. If you did, you would know that babies are conscious and self-aware from the day they are born.
kind regards

Ben
Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.

Taṃ nadīhi vijānātha:
sobbhesu padaresu ca,
saṇantā yanti kusobbhā,
tuṇhīyanti mahodadhī.

Sutta Nipata 3.725

Compassionate Hands Foundation (Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • Buddhist Global ReliefUNHCR
Buddhist Life Stories of Australia
e: ben.dhammawheel@gmail.com

Sanghamitta
Posts: 1614
Joined: Wed Jul 29, 2009 9:21 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: By the River Thames near London.

Re: Sentience

Postby Sanghamitta » Wed Jul 07, 2010 10:06 am

One standard definition of sentience is does the organism in its functional state respond to painful/pleasurable stimuli ..
By that criterion ants are certainly sentient. They are drawn to honey. They avoid heat etc.

But...here comes the nematode issue. As others have pointed out on this and other forums Nematodes are the cosmos's way of stopping Buddhists becoming too triumphalist about diet purity.. :tongue:
Nematodes are sentient by any definition. They respond to stimuli. They have separate digestive tracts. Many species of nematodes reproduce sexually.
And they live in all plant tissue...all plant tissue. Organic fruit and veg have more nematodes per gm than inorganic f and v. If you cook fruit and veg the nematodes die. If you eat raw fruit and veg you eat live nematodes.
These are not bacteria.They are small multi celled animals. Some are visible to the naked eye.
So, does this mean that we can hunt deer or kill chickens because we are going to eat sentient creatures anyway ?
Of course not. When we eat a carrot we have no intention of killing nematodes..as we would have if we kill a chicken. When we eat carrots the death of nematodes is an unintended consequence. Therefore no vipaka ensues.
The point being that in conditioned existence the death of sentient creatures is an inevitable result of needing food. Its one big chain. Which means that no Buddhist should point the finger at another Buddhist over the food issue. Its all a matter of degree. Purity as another member pointed out recently is impossible in this area.
The going for refuge is the door of entrance to the teachings of the Buddha.

Bhikku Bodhi.

User avatar
Riverbend
Posts: 29
Joined: Sun Jun 20, 2010 9:36 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: England
Contact:

Re: Sentience

Postby Riverbend » Wed Jul 07, 2010 10:15 am

Hi Ben,

How do you know ants suffer? What do you see that leads you to that? I think you're probably right, by the way, but I only have a feeling to go on. My feelings are often proved wrong, so I 'd like something more concrete to rely on.

I don't have my own children but I helped bring up my niece. That's not really relevant, though, as we can do everything we do without being consciously self aware and that an outside observer would not be able to tell. It is therefore very easy to assume sentience by projecting our own experience onto others who display similar behaviour. Not that the assumption is necessarily wrong: just not necessarily right.

The experiment I alluded to was simple: a baby was allowed to see itself in a mirror. It was then distracted and a coloured sticker was placed on its forehead. When it looked at the mirror again its attention was not drawn to the sticker. When the experiment was repeated with children above a certain age (I think it was two) they would immediately notice the sticker and reach for it.

That is a crude experiment and not proof of anything; but we know so very little about consciousness and it suggests we might not become self-aware until a specific age. It is also very easy, through crude experiments, to disembody our self-awareness so that we feel the sensation of touch even if it is not us being touched and so on.

Really all I am saying is that conscious self-awareness may not be what we assume it to be. It's such an elusive thing: a fleeting, emergent property of our mental processes that we have only just begun to understand. That is why I personally prefer to base sentience on whether or not a living thing is capable of suffering.
I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is you'll agree a certain je ne se quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot. [Uncle Monty -- Withnail & I.]

Sanghamitta
Posts: 1614
Joined: Wed Jul 29, 2009 9:21 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: By the River Thames near London.

Re: Sentience

Postby Sanghamitta » Wed Jul 07, 2010 10:18 am

" suffering " is too narrow Riverbend. A more broad definition held by many is that a sentient organism responds to painful or pleasurable stimuli.
The going for refuge is the door of entrance to the teachings of the Buddha.

Bhikku Bodhi.

User avatar
Riverbend
Posts: 29
Joined: Sun Jun 20, 2010 9:36 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: England
Contact:

Re: Sentience

Postby Riverbend » Wed Jul 07, 2010 10:23 am

One standard definition of sentience is does the organism in its functional state respond to painful/pleasurable stimuli ..
By that criterion ants are certainly sentient. They are drawn to honey. They avoid heat etc.


I think this is much safer ground. But even then I don't see how we can be sure the ants are not simply responding in a pre-programmed manner to certain stimuli. I am not trying to find excuses to kill ants here, I hasten to add. I just find this area very interesting, not to mention problematic. I avoid the problem by trying to not kill anything at all, while understanding, as you say, it cannot be helped.
I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is you'll agree a certain je ne se quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot. [Uncle Monty -- Withnail & I.]

User avatar
Riverbend
Posts: 29
Joined: Sun Jun 20, 2010 9:36 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: England
Contact:

Re: Sentience

Postby Riverbend » Wed Jul 07, 2010 10:28 am

" suffering " is too narrow Riverbend. A more broad definition held by many is that a sentient organism responds to painful or pleasurable stimuli.


How can we know the organism is responding to 'pleasure' and 'pain' and not just doing what all living things do in that, through natural selection, they are being automatically drawn toward what they need to survive and recoil from what might kill them? Plants do that.
I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is you'll agree a certain je ne se quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot. [Uncle Monty -- Withnail & I.]

Sanghamitta
Posts: 1614
Joined: Wed Jul 29, 2009 9:21 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: By the River Thames near London.

Re: Sentience

Postby Sanghamitta » Wed Jul 07, 2010 10:34 am

Sure its problematic..and for every philosophical solution there will be a problem..
In Theravada Buddhism we tend to the pragmatic. To whatever reduces suffering, and aids insight into the way things are. We tend not to do abstract verities. So we have a rough hewn working definition of a number of things. Including sentience. Buddhadhamma is a verb, Its what we do. Rather than a coherent belief system.
The going for refuge is the door of entrance to the teachings of the Buddha.

Bhikku Bodhi.

User avatar
Riverbend
Posts: 29
Joined: Sun Jun 20, 2010 9:36 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: England
Contact:

Re: Sentience

Postby Riverbend » Wed Jul 07, 2010 10:48 am

Sanghamitta wrote:Sure its problematic..and for every philosophical solution there will be a problem..
In Theravada Buddhism we tend to the pragmatic. To whatever reduces suffering, and aids insight into the way things are. We tend not to do abstract verities. So we have a rough hewn working definition of a number of things. Including sentience. Buddhadhamma is a verb, Its what we do. Rather than a coherent belief system.


Your pragmatism is why I came here with my question. As someone said in this thread, a line must be drawn. I was wondering where that line is and, more specifically, what lies just either side of it. Not because I am interested in abstractions but because I want to get it right. That is why I wanted to get to the bottom of exactly what sentience is. Because it troubles me. It seems the line is a blurry one but that is fine by me. Such is life. A rough hewn working definition is perfectly okay as far as I am concerned. I just need to follow my feelings on this one. Ants can live, but bacteria must die! :)
I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is you'll agree a certain je ne se quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot. [Uncle Monty -- Withnail & I.]

Sanghamitta
Posts: 1614
Joined: Wed Jul 29, 2009 9:21 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: By the River Thames near London.

Re: Sentience

Postby Sanghamitta » Wed Jul 07, 2010 10:55 am

Ants will die anyway. Bacteria can live. All we can do is take responsibility for our own actions and leave as small a footprint as possible.
The going for refuge is the door of entrance to the teachings of the Buddha.

Bhikku Bodhi.

User avatar
Riverbend
Posts: 29
Joined: Sun Jun 20, 2010 9:36 am
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6
Location: England
Contact:

Re: Sentience

Postby Riverbend » Wed Jul 07, 2010 10:57 am

Sanghamitta wrote:All we can do is take responsibility for our own actions and leave as small a footprint as possible.


Wonderful answer!
I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is you'll agree a certain je ne se quoi oh so very special about a firm young carrot. [Uncle Monty -- Withnail & I.]

chownah
Posts: 3022
Joined: Wed Aug 12, 2009 2:19 pm
Which number is larger than 1000 and less than 1002: 6

Re: Sentience

Postby chownah » Wed Jul 07, 2010 2:23 pm

So far there are no references to any Buddhist text anywere in this discussion unless I have overlooked one......so is this all just personal views with no support from the Buddha's teachings?
chownah


Return to “General Theravāda discussion”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 6 guests