Drone Sunrise
Drone Sunrise

A Question of Sentience: What is Conscious and Awake?

There is a different use of the word “sentient” than in the culture at large, one that clarifies an important distinction between consciousness and the outward behavior of a bodymind. The question comes up, what is the status of consciousness in different states, such as sleeping, or deep sleep, in dreaming, or under anesthesia?  An important distinction can be made between the experience itself of different states from the point of view of awareness, as distinct from what is seen as a certain kind of responsiveness  from the outside. When we are talking about consciousness (synonymous with “awareness”) we are talking about the direct experience in the now – “the reality that is hearing these words right now”. When we are talking about a body and mind going through states as seen by an outside observer, then the word “sentience” is useful. 

If one is aware of different states such as waking, dreaming, and deep sleep (even when there’s not a memory available of the mental contents of deep sleep) then something must be aware of such a state of affairs. In other words, there’s a constant reality in contrast to the changes occurring in experience. According to our training, our programming from the culture, the constant reality is the body (this is the automatic reaction of thought, if you are of that disposition to believe that “reality” equals matter, stuff, things, bits of appearances, concepts of matter). But notice that to hold that belief, you are switching from the view of first-hand experience, to a view from the outside. It is a concept of a body, an image in mind, an appearance, as seen from the outside of a body sleeping. But if we are asking about awareness, consciousness, we are not asking about bodies, or the assumption or belief one has, but to facts of experience. Thus it is useful to distinguish the concept “sentience” from the word “conscious”.

Some people may claim there is no awareness in deep sleep or under anesthesia. But think about this carefully and slowly: you cannot have an experience of no-experience, because that is an experience.

“Being is, and non-being is not” to paraphrase Parmenides.

By contrast in the culture, the word “sentient” is confused with consciousness, because consciousness is considered to be mind-like. For example, in a science fiction movie, a robot is said to be “sentient”, meaning conscious, when it starts experiencing dreams and feelings, at least according to an outside observer of its behavior (including talking). Or, the robots run some new kind of computer programs that makes it “wake up” into consciousness. In AI and cognitive science research, and the high tech world in general, real intelligence is assumed to be mind-like and a quality or emergent property of the right hardware + software + training. As you can see in those scenarios, consciousness is assumed to be mind-like, which is a fundamental misunderstanding (and it can be useful to familiarize oneself  with John Searle’s Chinese room thought experiment that shows that meaning and understanding are not just symbolic constructs).

Now, someone asked me the other day, probably in the context of awareness during sleep (we’d been discussing lucid dreaming), given this definition of sentient that I brought up, could a robot be sentient? I hesitated, and said “yes”. I hesitated, not only because of the sort of flavor the word “sentient” has (and the questioner was a retired psychiatrist) — but also because the concept of sentience seems to imply something beyond a mechanical, computational processing of perceptual data or symbol representations, no matter how sophisticated or coherently synchronized by the processing machinery (biological or man-made).  In addition, there was also the nagging question in the back of my mind: what is actually required for a sentient bodymind to be an instrument of consciousness?

What I mean by instrument of consciousness is this. Since it makes no sense to consider bodies or minds to be conscious – after all a thought cannot think and a perception cannot perceive, and a sensation cannot sense (for one thing) – and as it becomes more clear that awareness is not generated by a body or arises from parts of a body and mind machine, but is eternally pre-existing here and now – then it’s obvious that we had it all backwards: consciousness doesn’t appear in bodies, bodies appear in consciousness. For “body” you can substitute any object: mind, person, man, woman, brain, etc.  So as speakers, talkers, actors, artists, humans, parents, workers, freedom lovers, understanders — whatever we see ourselves doing — we are acting as instruments of what Is, that is what we call “Consciousness” or “Life” or “God” (if you’re religious or feeling dualistic), as instruments of creativity, beauty, truth… sparks of the “divine”. We don’t really own this body or mind or anything in experience, We are It, in which it all appears, comes and goes.

I feel very reluctant to grant the possibility to machines of being instruments of Consciousness, whereas obviously biological robots like humans (like myself) can be, since I am, and other humans apparently are.

Is Anybody Home?

There is obviously no central perceiver or doer in the human bodymind where “the buck stops” since that would be an infinite regress: where is the perceiver of the perceptions, or the ultimate cause of a decision? If you trace them back, trying to find who or what is observing the screen where all the perceptions come together, and then ask, for that perceiver, is there also another screen inside them, and an observer of that screen, and so on? This will go on forever: you can’t find the ultimate perceiver as an object. Likewise if you try and trace back the chains of cause and effect of what caused a decision, it’s an infinite regress to the Big Bang… and what caused the Big Bang? (It does not matter what theories you’ve heard about the Big bang or time or space, etc: just think about it logically).

Time always implies more time, and implies space.

In time and space there is no freedom, there is only cause and effect. Thus both biological and robotic bodyminds are bound by nature and nurture at every moment.

However, we know deep inside, that what we are is free. So wherein is this freedom? As we have seen, it can’t be in the body or the mind, since such systems are ruled by cause and effect, natural laws, time and space, culture and conditioning. We’ve all had moments of creativity, of insight, of the experience of love, beauty, truth and insight. We’ve had moments of understanding where we know something for certain, in the sudden light of understanding. These are not functions of the robot – these are not simulations, these are not things seen from the outside, these are direct, immediate, self-evident, and natural. 

On the other hand, observed from the outside, the behavior of a machine can fool us into thinking it is exhibiting consciousness or understanding of meaning. A very good simulation of linguistic behavior will fool many of the people much of the time, depending on their willingness, faith, belief and understanding. So as the simulation of outward behavior that looks or sounds conscious reaches closer and closer to the asymptote (never 100%), how does one know from the outside that a body one observes is an instrument of consciousness, and not just a very good simulation? We humans have a tendency to project all kinds of qualities, as well as our feelings, onto objects. Look at how a person will feel that a therapist computer program seems to answer their questions or comfort them, or how a child will become bonded to a doll.

This has ethical and social questions and implications obviously for how we treat robots in the future, as well as animals now. If they are both sentient, is it right to kill them or treat them cruelly, in ways that makes them suffer (or seem to suffer: act in ways that look and sound like what we call suffering in humans that can talk to us).

A related question is, how does one develop real empathy, and is it different from compassion?

To see more clearly what is meant by empathy, consider how, for example, a sociopath with no love can have empathy, in the sense of understanding where another is coming from such as to manipulate them, though they have no love. So you add love to empathy and we have compassion. What is the basis of compassion, in the model of reality that is based in consciousness? It is knowing the awareness in me is the same awareness in fact as in “the other”: that there is no real separation, though there appears to be to the mind (the conditioned perception). 

On the flip side psychologically, the case of an Aspergers person (on the autistic spectrum) one can have love without empathy – in other words they have a hard time understanding where another is coming from, which impedes communication and socialization, yet they can have love, especially for inanimate objects. Is this a neurological difference, as some have suggested? I don’t know, but it highlights some of the fascinating facets in human experience, of how and when we connect, love, communicate, understand, and enjoy life as sentient, conscious beings in a world…



  1. don salmon on January 11, 2021 at 9:12 pm

    Interesting tidbit. Actually, many autistic people have astonishing levels of emotional empathy, but little or no capacity for cognitive empathy.

    Temple Grandin, one of the world’s most famous autistic individuals, elaborated on this in great detail in her writings. She had an almost telepathic ability to commune with animals, but, she said, even with babies, there was a level of cognitive complexity that shaped emotions in a way she could not understand.

    This has some relevance to your larger point. Taking the issue solely from what is at least marginally accepted in science, we have the following:

    1. It is becoming increasingly widely accepted that in the activities of so-called subatomic particles, there is a process of reaction, of attraction and aversion (not emotional attraction and aversion but what one might call energetic attraction and aversion) which speaks of some level of “consciousness” (I’m using Awareness here for that in which all exists; that which “sees” all; “consciousness” is, in the way I’m using it, the knowing element which is inseparable from all we refer to as matter or energy; this is an integration of idealism, which sees all in awareness, and panpsychism, which sees matter as always correlated with mind)

    2. There is an amazing amount of solid replicable data showing remarkable levels of simple mental consciousness in one celled organisms. In one experiment an ameboid organism (a conglomeration of one celled creatures) was able to solve a maze. There is some controversial but rather convincing evidence that bacteria may be able to intelligently mutate in response to external challenges – something that, if proven, would require rethinking evolutionary theory from the ground up.

    3. Franz de Waal speculates that perhaps some sort of “centered” (but not self conscious) experience occurs first in fish. Territoriality seems to begin to come into prominence with reptiles. The capacity to perceive a solid, objective environment, along with the ability to sustain conscious imagery (not self conscious) seems to appear both in mammals and birds.

    4. Self awareness seems fragmentary in the animal kingdom; some primates, perhaps also whales and maybe dolphins – and to the chagrin of those who like neat categories, at least one African Gray parrot seems to have shown some level of self awareness (Alex Pepperberg had the cognitive capacity of a 5 year old child, in some respects).

    Given the above, particularly #1 (all matter is correlated with “mind” of some kind, and therefore sentience, in order to speak to your friend’s question it might do good to completely deconstruct what we mean by a “robot” and for that matter, a “world.”

    When we see there is no robot, no sun, no stars, no earth or planets, no machines, no computers, no people, water, fire, air, earth, in the way that most who do not recognize all-pervading Awareness think about these things, then we might have a truly worthwhile science.

    As for me, I gave up on psychological research 20 years ago, and am very glad to have retired last year as a psychologist. The “new” science I had hoped for 50 years ago is, I believe, at least 50 years away.

    • meestereric on January 15, 2021 at 9:49 pm

      Regarding “… many autistic people have astonishing levels of emotional empathy, but little or no capacity for cognitive empathy.”
      That makes sense relative to my experience with an Aspergers girlfriend and a client. They could be very perceptive or sensitive to the emotional tone or context, yet communication would be very difficult (not just when they “shut down” and put up a wall to communication, from emotional overload or change or frustration or whatever). They would not interpret hints or an underlying suggested message, but hear the words and a more literal or technical meaning, and respond to that. I had to remember to keep things very matter-of-fact, to-the-point, clear, no hidden meanings, etc. The logical analysis was top-notch but some kind of hard-to-define human complexity of interrelation or interaction escaped them.

  2. don salmon on January 11, 2021 at 9:18 pm

    My favorite story about Alex.

    Alex (the parrot, that is) had a vocabulary of about 100 words, including words he coined himself (after learning to refer to a triangle as a “3 corner,” when he saw a football, before being told what it was, he referred to it as a “2 corner.”

    He would often get into arguments with his caretaker, Irene Pepperberg. She would get angry, and he would shout to her, “Calm down,” to which she would reply, “Don’t tell ME to calm down!”

    There were several corporate sponsors who would visit from time to time to see how their money was doing with research on his abilities. One of the tests he would undertake would to identify shapes, sounds and colors.

    So at one point, Dr. Pepperberg was pointing out various “refrigerator magnets” shaped like various letter. So she would say, “What does this sound like” (pointing to an “S”)?

    He would go, “SSSsssss” and then – as he was accustomed to being rewarded after getting a correct answer – he’d say, “wanna nut!”

    She knew that birds take a long time to eat nuts, so she would tell him, “Soon,” and then go on: “what shape is this (pointing to a blue triangle)?”

    “Three corner” and immediately after, somewhat more irritated and impatient, “WANNT NUT!”

    She tried to calm him again, and asked, “What color is this” (pointing to a red circle”)

    Instead of answer, Alex said, “WANNA NUT!! Nnnnnn…. Uuuuuuh…. Tttttt”

    That was the first that Dr. Pepperberg knew that Alex was able to spelll!

    Alex died of a heart attack when he was 28. His last words, the night before, were, “Good night. See you tomorrow. I love you.”

    • meestereric on January 16, 2021 at 8:48 am

      And an even better question is, what does all this (while admittedly fascinating to us science, tech and psychology nerds, especially who love science fiction) have to do with non-duality, with liberation, i.e., real, more or less permanent happiness and peace, freedom from worry, Truth Love and Beauty, Reality with a capital “R”?
      Can we be free of time, while still seemingly “in a body”? Well, without taking a psychedelics (entheogens)? 🙂

  3. don salmon on January 16, 2021 at 9:19 pm

    Not meaning to be mechanically pseudo nondual, what does not have to do with Truth?

    is “Time” less real than the “Timeless”?

    Is Reality really only the changeless?

    Shankara, it turns out, was a dualist, only slightly more so than Nagarjuna.

    Is all this really the Brahman, or is the changeless more Brahman than what changes?

    4 legs good, 2 legs bad. Animal farm nonduality?

    turns out a very subtle layer of mental constructs remains even in appears to be utter silence of the mind?

    What is “Alex”? What is “Irene Pepperberg?”. What is the Ananda, the very substance, of Alex’ life and apparent death?

    Does the mind end up having a very subtle fixation on Awareness?

    Does the mind know what the Heart knows?

    Perhaps Alex’ exploits, even one hour of them, have more nondual worth than 10,000 talks by Adyashanti.

    • meestereric on January 17, 2021 at 10:17 am

      >>Not meaning to be mechanically pseudo nondual, what does not have to do with Truth?

      Ignorance. I.E., ignoring what one is in order to try and be what one isn’t. Incredible it can even be accomplished. What power we I have!

      >> is “Time” less real than the “Timeless”?

      Yes. Time and space are not fundamental, and can be there or not. The timeless cannot not be.

      Also, try going out into the desert without a watch for a week, and see if you can even remember what day it is. 😉

      >> Is Reality really only the changeless?

      Yes or no, depending on whether you see the world, the phenomenal: as a “modulation” of Consciousness, or as absolutely unreal.
      I don’t know, and it seems to me what matters is the elimination of suffering – in other words, is it useful. That’s the criteria for spiritual teachings. In a context of Western society, seeing the world as a modulation of consciousness, the flip side of the noumenal as it were, is more useful, rather than be totally world-denying. A kind of spiritual realism based in experience: the world and the mindbody are real as is Consciousness and they must be the same, like two sides of a möbius strip: it’s all “matter” and we don’t know what matter is except that there is nothing solid apparently and keeps dancing and vibrating, transforming itself in the swirling unitary fishbowl of energy of the cosmos of alive intelligent awareness knowing itself. The alternative is idealism, where a static Reality-Consciousness spits out “mind” which spits out “world” and sits there contemplating its creation. This is good for those that want to sit under a tree and be fed by devotees, or have a position as a philosophy professor. I’d rather make art and write crazy shit in the comments on my blog.

      >> Shankara, it turns out, was a dualist, only slightly more so than Nagarjuna.

      I don’t know much about them.

      >> Is all this really the Brahman, or is the changeless more Brahman than what changes?

      See above, about Reality. (Lots of folks talk about talk about Brahman vs Atman, and they are One, etc., including Atmananda Krishna Menon, but they are rather foreign to me and not all that clear. I hear a lot of hair splitting from students over this schtuff).

      >> 4 legs good, 2 legs bad. Animal farm nonduality?

      Have you been listening to Francis Lucille? 🙂

      >> turns out a very subtle layer of mental constructs remains even in appears to be utter silence of the mind?

      I would go by experience. There always seems to be something phenomenal, some content, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything to remember from those timeless moments. So we have them, but can’t remember, just like we can’t remember what happened a couple days ago (or an hour ago, or two minutes ago for us old fogey non-dualists) or are rarely aware of what other people are thinking at any given time, even though it all must be in Consciousness. In experiences of precognition or an instant knowing someone’s thoughts (“telepathy”), it’s not a transmission, it’s simply a peek behind the curtain, since there’s only one Being and time and space are not ultimately real.

      >> What is “Alex”? What is “Irene Pepperberg?”. What is the Ananda, the very substance, of Alex’ life and apparent death?

      Good questions. Let me know when you figure it out… or your revelations. 🙂 It’s all made out of experience, and that’s made out of consciousness, whatever that is… and life and death are the same apparently.

      >> Does the mind end up having a very subtle fixation on Awareness?

      Not sure what you mean. For who – non-dualists? And what does “fixation” mean exactly?
      The mind can’t know anything about awareness. Mind appears in awareness, and “mind” is a concept in the mind (is a thought) and doesn’t really exist.

      >> Does the mind know what the Heart knows?

      It pretends to, but then it has to pay alimony.

      >> Perhaps Alex’ exploits, even one hour of them, have more nondual worth than 10,000 talks by Adyashanti.

      Or even one talk. 🙂

    • meestereric on January 17, 2021 at 10:30 am

      Here’s a joke I want you to complete:

      “How do you tell the difference between an idealist and a solipsist?”

      “I don’t know, how?”

      “They’re both talking to themselves, but the idealist… [ ]” (fill in the blank)

  4. don salmon on January 18, 2021 at 7:11 am

    “How do you tell the difference between an idealist and a solipsist?”

    “I don’t know, how?”

    “They’re both talking to themselves, but the idealist thinks he’s not, therefore he isn’t.

  5. don salmon on January 18, 2021 at 7:16 am

    So everything you wrote in response to my comment could be seen as simply more analysis, and not “seeing.”

    Take the response regarding “Time.”

    “Try going to the desert without a watch”


    If you define “Time” as depending on a watch, well of course there will be no time in the desert without a watch, just as there is no world for the solipsist when he closes his eyes.

    But going still flows, and Don still flows when Eric closes his eyes.

    Advaita does not depend on analysis. When a truly “seeing” (non) person makes a distinction between Brahman and Atman, if you think they’re analyzing something, well then of course that’s hair splitting.

    For me, having shaved my entire head, hair splitting is a thing of the past (which, yes, isn’t real when recorded by a watch, but I like “I can see clearly” and other music sung by Jimmy Cliff, so I quite enjoy the time listening.

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