By Menas Kafatos and I, published in Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research| April 2013.
Philosophical understandings of consciousness divide into emergentist positions (when the universe is sufficiently organized and complex it gives rise to consciousness) vs. panpsychism (consciousness pervades the universe). A leading emergentist position derives from autopoietic theory of Maturana and Varela: to be alive is to have cognition, one component of which is sentience. Here, reflecting autopoietic theory, we define sentience as: sensing of the surrounding environment, complex processing of information that has been sensed, (i.e. processing mechanisms defined by characteristics of a complex system), and generation of a response. Further, complexity theory, points to all aspects of the universe comprising “systems of systems.” Bringing these themes together, we find that sentience is not limited to the living, but present throughout existence. Thus, a complexity approach shifts autopoietic theory from an emergentist to a panpsychist position and shows that sentience must be inherent in all structures of existence across all levels of scale.