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A Natural History of Sentience

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Fiona Roby.

Sentient creatures are ones that have a capacity for feeling; they have the potential to suffer and it is valid to be concerned about their well-being. But the problem with sentience is that it is difficult and problematic to make assumptions about. If we assume that a particular species is sentient, we can be accused of being unparsimonious in our explanations of its behaviour and anthropomorphic in our inferences. If we assume that it isn’t, we may find ourselves denying the moral status of an ethically relevant being. In this talk I argue that one pragmatic assumption can and should be made about sentience – that it evolved. Taking this simple step allows us to think about sentience as a biological phenomenon that is present in humans and is likely to have antecedents in other animal species. Even if a completely human-like sentience is not a part of the biological make up of many animals, facets of sentience may be present, and evidence for these can be sought. In recent years, the study of human consciousness has grown exponentially. Experimental studies of the neural and functional correlates of people’s subjective experiences have allowed researchers for the first time to start to develop an understanding of the neural architecture involved in some aspects of conscious processing, and of the functions these experiences may have in determining our behavioural choices. I propose a “natural history of sentience”, arguing that certain human decision processes work, and work better, thanks to being done consciously rather than non-consciously. I go on to consider whether and in what forms such processes can be observed in non-human animals, and review how empirically-based conclusions about animal sentience may tally with socially constructed beliefs about sentience in scientists and lay observers alike.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminar Programme, Department of Veterinary Medicine series.

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