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Title – Who has sentience?

In collaboration with the Medical Advances Without Animals Trust, we are seeking a student for a research project on sentient organisms. In considering alternatives to animals in medical research, questions about whether "lower" animals are sentient, or not, often stimulate vigorous debate. The project requires a definition of sentience and why it matters (to philosophers and/or biologists). Some review of the philosophical literature on sentience, with reference to the scientific literature where appropriate, will be required, and from this platform conclusions and recommendations will be sought on where sentience ends phylogenetically, if at all. Some consideration of pan-psychism may be included if aligned with biological sentience. In assessing sentience, it will be helpful to consider biological examples such as quorum sensing, colony organism behaviour (e.g. slime moulds, ants), and whether cephalopods have brains. These and other examples can be used to illustrate, philosophically, where a boundary for sentience may be drawn.

Supervisors – Jason Grossman, Australian National University (philosophy of science), and Clare McCausland, La Trobe University (ethics)


  • Brief statement of what sentience is and why it matters. This bit should be easy, I hope!

  • The main part of this project would be a literature review of the philosophical literature. Ideally it would include the scientific literature too, but I don't think there will be time.

  • Maybe a brief summary of the law ... but I'm not sure whether that's worth the time.

  • The possibility that sentience is not black and white, including maybe something on panpsychism.

  • Jac Dalziel's stuff on bacteria, including quorum sensing.

  • Colony organisms, including slime moulds ... and "Prelude Ant Fugue".

  • Do cephalopods have brains? (maybe not, from an evolutionary point of view, because their nerve bundles are not homologous to ours ... but that seems silly from an ethical point of view).

  • Daniel Dennet. "Why you can't make a computer that feels pain". Synthese 38 (1978): 415- 456.

Jason Grossman