Sentience, in a broad sense, is the capacity to feel. In a narrower sense, it refers to the capacity to have feelings with a positive or negative quality, such as feelings of pain, pleasure, boredom, excitement, frustration, anxiety and joy. These feelings have the elusive property that philosophers like to call “phenomenal consciousness”. It feels like something to have them.
In recent years, an interdisciplinary community of animal sentience researchers, drawn from neuroscience, comparative psychology, evolutionary biology, animal welfare science and philosophy, has begun to emerge. However, the field is characterized by foundational controversy over the nature of sentience and the criteria for its attribution, leading to heated debate over the presence or absence of sentience in fish and in invertebrates such as cephalopods (e.g. octopods, squid) and arthropods (e.g. bees, crabs).
The Foundations of Animal Sentience project (ASENT), a five-year ERC-funded project led by Dr Jonathan Birch, aims to find ways to resolve these debates. What is needed is a conceptual framework for thinking about sentience as an evolved phenomenon that varies along several dimensions, a deeper understanding of how these dimensions of sentience relate to measurable aspects of animal behaviour and the nervous system, and a richer picture of the links between sentience, welfare and the ethical status of animals.