While science aims to understand what fundamentals are in the circle of concepts, philosophy addresses the blurry boundaries between agency, sentience, and consciousness at the core of humans' interactions with their surroundings. In a 2020 article on sentience, agency, and ontological difference, Anthropologist Francesca Merlan writes that sentience is the capacity to feel, experience, and perceive subjectively; what then makes it different from consciousness? Moreover, if agency implies the ability to make choices in response to new and unforeseen circumstances, does it suggest the will to introduce such agency?
For an octopus, its arms are partly self - they can be directed and used to manipulate things. But from the central brain’s perspective, they are partly non-self too, partly agents of their own.
To me, agency is, with entropy, one of the most challenging concepts to grasp. There is that which acts and that which is acted upon. The invisible flow of magnetic fields appears never to act. Yet, it acts upon everything in the Universe, influencing the paths of charged particles around us, the Earth, the solar system, and the galaxies. The many kinds of agency encompass a range of possibilities within the Universe’s causal design. Borrowing the concept from the field of anthropology, agency entails more broadly the setting of physical associations, more or less durable connections, and crossroads where not only choices are made but “provisional repositories” are formed.
Ultimately, the debate over agency, sentience, and consciousness comes down to how individual organisms could have intrinsic goals, act on their behalf, and choose their own course of action without some form of consciousness. A theory of agency would challenge the basis for panpsychism since it intends to explain the behavior of things such as a particle, a cell, or an insect. Researchers have been studying whether insects have sentience or simply agency. While some may point to the functional similarities between the insect brain and vertebrate midbrain, Johannes Hans van Hateren, for his part, argues that primordial forms of agency and goal-directedness have little to do with consciousness. On the one hand, it may be that our tendency to analyze, differentiate, and arrange things in a hierarchy forbids us to accept that consciousness is universal. On the other hand, when Hateren observes in insects a lack of shared agency and social bonding, he rightly concludes, I believe, consciousness as a relational concept.
Agency is also said to be the ability to control one’s own actions. How, then do those control mechanisms work? The sense of agency involves a kind of sensorimotor identification in which predictions of sensory consequences of a movement are confirmed by sensory feedback. Agents are able to discriminate their own movements in the absence of conscious awareness. Bodily sense and external sense of agency are defined as follows:
According to a bodily conception, the sense of agency is related to the performance of specific bodily movements, whereas according to an external conception, the sense of agency is associated with the planned environmental consequences of one’s action.
we feel ourselves reduced to nothing, feel ourselves as individuals, as living bodies, a transient appearance of the will, like drops in the ocean, fading away, melting away into nothing… that we are, in some sense, one with the world, and thus not brought down, but rather elevated, by its immensity.
We, humans, do not submit to being alone in the Universe. We wish to save our vital or passional subjectivity by attributing life, personality, spirit, to the whole Universe. If consciousness is only the product of my imagination, should I agree that the Universe is simply a mechanical structure without a soul? Within spacetime, energy and gravity have coalesced to give form to the sentient Universe. Under the spell of gravity, the magnetic field around my heart and mind is woven into the fabric of spacetime. As I reflect on Merlan’s paper, I would take it one step further and argue that even the exchange between the Universe and human consciousness revolves around aspects such as the continuity between life and death, the fundamental ambiguity of human and nonhuman difference; and communicative relationships between humans and other entities such as when we are genuinely moved by birds, their movements and their songs. There is no solitude, only invisible chains of human and nonhuman kindred spirits.
Under the lid of the cosmic prison evolves the Earth around the Sun, populated by billions of beings and their inner selves, cloaked in disguise, with their face masked even in solitude.
Is the Universe sentient, or is all sentience attributable to “spirits”? What if stars could listen, planets could smell, and the entire Universe was populated by sentient beings? The air I breathe is a sentient medium of transmission. Poetry attributes souls and infers sentience to the roaring wind, the flowing river, the leaves turning red, and a plant named Heal-all. It may be that stars and galaxies express their volition when electromagnetic fields unwind in space. Could the same components that sunk into Earth’s interior in the process of core formation and play a role in generating the Earth’s magnetic field have created my own body’s electromagnetic field and established a kind of spatial relation with entities around me? Although we learn nothing about what an electron is independently of what it does, writes Philip Goff, we are starting to grasp the full extent to which spatiotemporal relationships matter. If we are prepared to accept Universalism as when subjects always combine to make a further subject, it follows that for any group of material objects, the members of that group, being spatially related, determine a conscious subject.
The Moon hung naked in a firmament Of azure without cloud, and at my feet Rested a silent sea of hoary mist. A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved All over this still ocean; and beyond, Far, far beyond, the solid vapours stretched, In headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes, Into the main Atlantic, that appeared To dwindle, and give up his majesty, Usurped upon far as the sight could reach. Not so the ethereal vault; encroachment none Was there, nor loss; only the inferior stars Had disappeared, or shed a fainter light In the clear presence of the full-orbed Moon, Who, from her sovereign elevation, gazed Upon the billowy ocean, as it lay All meek and silent, save that through a rift-- Not distant from the shore whereon we stood, A fixed, abysmal, gloomy, breathing-place-- Mounted the roar of waters, torrents, streams Innumerable, roaring with one voice! Heard over earth and sea, and, in that hour, For so it seemed, felt by the starry heavens. When into air had partially dissolved That vision, given to spirits of the night And three chance human wanderers, in calm thought Reflected, it appeared to me the type Of a majestic intellect, its acts And its possessions, what it has and craves, What in itself it is, and would become. There I beheld the emblem of a mind That feeds upon infinity, that broods Over the dark abyss, intent to hear Its voices issuing forth to silent light In one continuous stream; a mind sustained By recognitions of transcendent power, In sense conducting to ideal form, In soul of more than mortal privilege. One function, above all, of such a mind Had Nature shadowed there, by putting forth, 'Mid circumstances awful and sublime, That mutual domination which she loves To exert upon the face of outward things,
As I stumble upon Ascent of Snowdon from The Prelude by William Wordsworth, I remember climbing Mount Tai and Mount Emei and wonder whether the experience of the sublime defines the highest degree of symbiosis with the Universe, the same feeling that overwhelms us when we stare with amazement at space images. The inhomogeneity of space alluded to in my previous post brings us to an even more unsettling prospect that we may be residing inside a void. It is not enough to imagine ourselves on a floating planet; we may ponder with even more fright on the possibility that Laniakae is lost in a void, the so-called Keenan–Barger–Cowie Void. At the same time, such a scenario may put into question our current understanding of the standard cosmological model.
Not only should we realize that what exists outside the correlation to our subjective experience is nothing but indeterminacy, but the very nature of that correlation between mind and matter, between Consciousness and the Universe is also unknown. Sentience may be a shared quality of autopoietic entities and aggregates that have the ability to sense and adapt to their environment. Is it that shared quality inside me that answers to the call of the white-throated sparrow? It may be that every speck of metaphysical dust interacts with us because, indeed, we feel more than we know.
people will differ in their guessed inferences: some might stop sentience at the lobster limit, others might stop at the beetle border – but why stop at all? If one demands a stop, the determining criterion must be established.
Do all organisms have a minimum of subjective experience? Consciousness involves the emotion of time. From feelings to rational abstraction, it has evolved. Sentient beings are bodily forms of sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness. Earth is a body above which lies a thinking layer. If sentience came before consciousness - as long as we differentiate one from the other – it has resulted from the fusion of passive and active dispositions, feeling and acting as entities respond to stimuli. Cosmic consciousness and the human consciousness rooted in the chatter between body, heart, and mind are consubstantial.
Papunya: A place made after the Story, Geoffrey Bardon, The Megunyaeh Press