Sentience vs. Sapience: What’s the Difference?

The main difference between sentience and sapience is self-awareness. A sentient being has consciousness, the capacity for sensation, and a subjective experience. Many animals can be described as sentient, although it’s hard to know for sure what’s going on inside a fish’s head. Sapience, on the other hand, is marked by a higher level of cognition and intelligence. Human beings are sapient creatures. 

Science fiction plots often explore the possibility of sapience in other life forms. For example, the film Planet of the Apes shows a world in which gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees are self-aware. The book I, Robot by Isaac Asimov includes a number of short stories about artificial intelligence. In a review of the collection published in The Guardian, reviewer Jiyon writes, “In all the short stories, you will begin to notice that the robots become more advanced and increasingly independent…” This work of fiction provides an example of man-made sapience. 

Some people confuse the word sentience with the word sapience, but there’s a simple trick to remember the difference. Homo sapiens, also known as humans, are sapient beings. We possess wisdom and self-awareness beyond animal sentience.

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Etymology

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “sentience” originated with the Latin word sentientem, meaning “feeling.” The English adjective “sentient” dates from the 1630’s. “Sentience,” a noun, entered the English language in 1817. 

In contrast, “sapience” comes from the Proto-Indo-European root sep-, which means “to taste, perceive.” From this root, the Latin word sapientia developed, meaning “good taste, good sense, discernment; intelligence, wisdom.” The word sapience, a noun, passed into Old French before making its way into the English language in the late 1300’s. 

Definitions

Merriam-Webster defines sentience as:

  • a sentient quality or state
  • feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception and thought

Sentient means “responsive to or conscious of sense impressions,” “aware,” and “finely sensitive in perception or feeling.”

Sapience is defined as “wisdom” or “sagacity.”

Synonyms

According to Thesaurus.com, synonyms for sentience include:

  • activity
  • growth
  • heart
  • soul
  • alertness
  • appreciation
  • attention
  • consciousness
  • experience
  • information
  • perception
  • realization
  • recognition
  • understanding

Thesaurus.com lists the following as synonyms for sapience:

  • erudition
  • insight
  • judgment
  • knowledge
  • wisdom
  • intuitiveness

Philosophical Traditions

As animal rights activists are quick to point out, the line between sapience and sentience does not always appear to be a clearcut division. Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) states, “WDC believes that whales and dolphins are both sentient and sapient individuals, and so deserve to have rights recognised and welfare protected.” The organization bases this claim on the mammals’ abilities to develop complex social groups, exhibit complex behaviors such as cooperation and tool use, and form unique cultures.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the study of sapience and sentience has long fascinated philosophers: “The philosophy of mind is specifically concerned with quite general questions about the nature of mental phenomena: what, for example, is the nature of thought, feeling, perception, consciousness, and sensory experience?” Eighteenth century philosophers like David Hume and Immanuel Kant examined the complicated relationship between consciousness, reason, and sentience. 

In Of the Reason of Animals, Hume wrote, “…It seems evident, that animals as well as men learn many things from experience, and infer, that the same events will always follow from the same causes.” By identifying a common sense of cause and effect within sentient animals, he suggested that they may possess a higher order of consciousness than mere physical sensation. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes Kant’s contrasting view. He argued that phenomenal consciousness required more than associated ideas, but “at a minimum had to be the experience of a conscious self situated in an objective world structured with respect to space, time and causality.”

In the 20th century, the word “qualia” emerged to describe “raw feel” sense data. Encyclopedia.com explains, “As used by C. I. Lewis (1929) and those following him, it refers to the qualities of phenomenal individuals, such as color patches, tastes, and sounds.” Many philosophers throughout the 20th century debated the nature of qualia, arguing about how sense data fit into a materialistic worldview. Should qualia be considered as physical properties of the nervous system or nonphysical mental states? Philosophers presented differing opinions. 

As computers became more advanced, philosophers and scientists developed theories about how a processing unit could qualify as sentient or sapient being. In 1950, English mathematician Alan Turing famously invented a test to determine whether a computer could think. By 2014, BBC News reports, “A computer program called Eugene Goostman, which simulates a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy, is said to have passed the Turing test at an event organised by the University of Reading.” In spite of this milestone, most humans do not consider computers as either sentient or sapient beings. 

The Words in Context

“Consciousness also has different levels. The most basic, primary level is sentience, which is essentially the ability to have a point of view. The next level is sapience, the ability to hold a train of thought and form opinions. The final, highest level is the understanding of the self.”
Weather.com, “Breakthrough Study Demonstrates Crows’ Ability…”

“Sentience, as Birch described, is the lowest level of cognition, and the level which Birch hopes to study. Sentience can be described as having a unique point of view. ‘Sentience is just this term for, basically, consciousness…. there being something like what it feels like to be you. Whether it’s having this experience of a blue sky or the smell of a cup of coffee.'”
​Forbes, “A New Study Asks If Animals Like Bees Or Crabs Have Sentience”

“It is also a rare event, the first solo show in nearly seven years of work by an artist, now seventy-eight, who is not only esteemed but cherished in the art world, as a paragon of aesthetic rigor, poetic sapience, and brusque, funny personal charm.”
The New Yorker, “The Beautiful and the Unexpected”

“What’s more, Forky’s crude origins suggest he is in some sort of physical pain. He is a spork who has been made sentient, wrenched into the world of the living, as much of an affront to the natural order of toyhood as Frankenstein’s monster.”
The Week, “I’m Very Concerned About the Sentient Spork in Toy Story 4″

“Green Neuroscience Lab researchers are warning that, although no one has proven that lab-grown brains are sentient, the risk could be too great to continue using them.”
New York Post, “Scientists Worry Lab-Grown Human ‘Mini-Brains’ May…”

Sources: 

  1. https://www.etymonline.com/word/sapient
  2. https://www.etymonline.com/word/sentience#etymonline_v_37887
  3. https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/sapience?s=t
  4. https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/sentience?s=t
  5. https://www.bartleby.com/37/3/13.html
  6. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/#HisIss
  7. https://weather.com/en-IN/india/science/news/2020-09-29-breakthrough-study-demonstrates-crows-ability-subjective-experiences
  8. https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/qualia
  9. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-27762088
  10. https://www.forbes.com/sites/fernandezelizabeth/2019/10/21/a-new-study-asks-if-animals-like-bees-or-crabs-have-sentience/?sh=272c144972d2
  11. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/the-beautiful-and-the-unexpected
  12. https://theweek.com/articles/807232/im-concerned-about-sentient-spork-toy-story-4
  13. https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/jun/30/i-robot-isaac-asimov-review