And the Word Is…

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Before I get into the discussion of certain words, I need to offer a bit of context.  Why do I need context? Well, I’m not really sure, but it seems appropriate somehow.  You see, the correct use of words is a daily issue at my house.  Okay, to be accurate, this isn’t really my house, but it is where I live at the moment while my house is being renovated.  Well, not renovated, exactly…more like re-built.  But as I was saying, (writing, actually) the correct use of words is a daily issue here.  Son, Adam, is something of a wordsmith — as am I, to a lesser degree, else I wouldn’t be here, writing to you.  In our little circle of Frequent Togetherness, (AKA Three Geeks and a Granny) Adam is the self-appointed Word Policeman.  None of us are allowed to say things like “very unique,” for example.  We (well, more often than not they) have many deep philosophical, technical, or just curious conversations about topics ranging from artificial intelligence to who invented crankcase oil.  It can be very interesting, or dead boring to me.  (They wouldn’t dream of discussing quilts…) Anyway, Adam is generally the expert, but even he has to resort to the dictionary occasionally to settle a dispute or query.

Now that you have the so-called context, I can share my dilemma  (usage: At its core, a dilemma is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, e.g. this is my dilemma: do I stay here for the job security, or do I risk it all for the chance of a better career? More informally, dilemma can mean ‘a difficult situation or problem’ as in ‘the insoluble dilemma of adolescence.’ Some traditionalists object to this weakened use, but it is recorded as early as the first part of the 17th century, and is now widespread and generally acceptable. Note that dilemma is spelled with a double m in the middle, not as -mn-.). But I digress  (No, I won’t define digress.)

A word which seems to come up, or at least apply, to a number of topics is the word sentient.  (Sentient:  the ability to feelperceive, or experience subjectively.)  You can see how the word might be applied in bioethics, for example… in discussions about the rights or best interests of a fetus, or a severely brain-injured adult. Sentience would be relevant in animal rights issues.  Likewise, it comes up in debates about the meaning or scope of artificial intelligence, or extra-terrestrials.  I’m sure you get the point.  So what’s the dilemma? you ask.  Well, the question is, ‘is sentient always the right word to be using?’  Does it expand the nature of the debate, or, indeed, does it restrict it? And does it matter?  I think it does matter.

Eighteenth-century philosophers used the concept to distinguish the ability to think (reason) from the ability to feel (sentience). In modern Western philosophy, sentience is the ability to experience sensations (known in philosophy of mind as “qualia“).

In Eastern philosophy, sentience is a metaphysical quality of all things that requires respect and care. The concept is central to the philosophy of animal rights, because sentience is necessary for the ability to suffer, and thus is held to confer certain rights.  (wikipedia)

You can see where this could go… to some fairly heavy discussions… but I don’t want to do that here.  For me, this is not the best place to argue where sentience begins, e.g. in the animal world: Is a fruit fly sentient?  Does it know that the apricot on the counter is better than the pencil beside it, or is it drawn to the apricot in much the same way a paper clip is drawn to a magnet?   Re artificial intelligence: Stephen Hawking has said that it is dangerous.  And so it goes…

As weighty — and important — as these topics are, this post is not about any of them. It’s about the nature–the precision–of the language used to frame the discourse. For example,  I constantly hear people tossing around words like ‘rights’ and ‘sentience’ in debates about embryos.  Usually the words are mis-applied, or, at best, left undefined. In the end, I often get the feeling that those ranting and raving loudest may themselves not be sentient beings..     I’m just saying …                     MM

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