You may have noticed a rash of posts around the ScienceBlogs decrying the ARA terrorist extremists who have vowed, again, to target the children of a UCLA neuroscientist. Dario Ringach famously gave up his nonhuman primate research in 2006 because of threats against his family. His participation in last week's dialog held at the UCLA campus apparently induced the extremist attention seekers, angry at having the momentum and PR shift to their slightly more rational co-travelers, to renew their threats. This is utterly despicable. Utterly.
This would be a great time for people who purport to be non-extremist animal rights advocates or sympathizers to do some deep soul searching. Soul searching that does not just easily write off the terrorists as a crazy fringe but asks penetrating questions about the nature of their own beliefs.
I cannot help you with this difficult work but I noticed something a little odd and new to me popping up in comment threads following the posts linked above. It has to do with the concept of sentience.
Wandering over to the Wikipedia entry I find a rather interesting set of observations.
Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive subjectively. The term is used in philosophy (particularly in the philosophy of animal ethics and in eastern philosophy) as well as in science fiction and (occasionally) in the study of artificial intelligence. In each of these fields the term is used slightly differently.
In eastern philosophy, sentience is a metaphysical quality of all things that requires our respect and care. In science fiction, sentience is "personhood": the essential quality that separates humankind from machines or animals. Sentience is used in the study of consciousness to describe the ability to have sensations or experiences, known to some Western academic philosophers as "qualia".
Some advocates of animal rights argue that many animals are sentient in that they can feel pleasure and pain, and that this entails being entitled to some moral or legal rights.
Well this certainly explains my confusion. To me, "sentience" has always been the science fiction concept. I suspect quite strongly that for most people, this is the connotation of the term.
Interesting, is it not, that animal rights people would co-opt this term to mean "can feel pleasure or pain"? Why create this new use for the term, particularly when it has such strong associations with the full-human capacity, different from animals and machines science-fiction type of definition?
Just another dishonest ploy to sway people to their way of thinking on something other than the merits. Of course they know what they are doing. Of course they know that they are creating this blurring of definitions in the minds of the undecided public. And of course they are hoping to lure everyone into using their terminology so that when people who are in favor of animal research say, well of course animals can feel pain, the ARA nut can claim that such people are admitting to sentience.
When of course they are doing no such thing.
Challenge anyone who uses this "sentience" gambit, eh? Get them to specify exactly what they mean. And ask what they are trying to pull with this redefinition nonsense.