Sentient vs Sapient: What’s the Difference Between The Two? [2020]

When it comes to science fiction, there's always a huge debate on just about everything. And let's face it...most of these arguments are subjective. Kirk vs Picard. Cyberpunk vs Steampunk. Naga Sadow vs Tulak Hord. But... sentient vs sapient. There's a real answer here.

In this article, we'll go over exactly what each of these terms mean. And provide you with some kick-butt examples of each in Science Fiction. 

And remember....If you want to check out any of these titles for free, you can do so with Audible's one month free trial.

Sentient vs Sapient: What does Sentient mean?

Time to go back to school. As defined by Merriam-Webster, sentient means:

"Responsive to or conscious to sense impressions; aware; finely sensitive in perception or feeling"

So... basically it refers to being able to access your senses. Can you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel something? And know that you're doing so?

This is what it means to have sentience. Essentially every higher order being has sentience. Some may argue the case for lesser organisms (bacteria, protozoa, and the like). But all-in-all, we're referring to physical recognition of your actions or exterior stimuli.

Think of it as something along the lines of instinct. 

But what about something like "sentient AI"? Is that really a thing? Well, I'd go to say that in the realm of Science Fiction, sentient AI or computers are a real possibility. And I'll go even one further and argue that there's a degree of sentience within our real life computers now--although however minimal.

For instance, you can claim that a computer can "feel" actions performed by a mouse and interpret that to a moved cursor on screen. Or that when a key is depressed on a keyboard, the computer reacts and puts the proper letter/symbol on screen. Even auto-dimming technology on your smartphone could be considered sentience--if not to a minute degree. 

Let's take a look at some great examples of pure sentience as showcased in science fiction.

1.

Alien--Book Series
Various Authors


The Complete Aliens Omnibus: Volume One (Earth Hive, Nightmare Asylum, The Female War)
  • Perry, Steve (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 400 Pages - 01/19/2016 (Publication Date) - Titan Books (Publisher)

If you claim to be a Sci Fi fan, there's almost next to no way you haven't seen Alien. You know, the 1979 Ridley Scott classic starring Sigourney Weaver? And if you're looking for a textbook definition of a sentient being, you've got one with the Xenomorph.

The xenomorph alien--besides being one of the scariest damn things out there--is the penultimate killing machine. It inflicts carnage through raw instinct. But that's not to say that it doesn't adapt when placed under adverse situations.

While it may employ different hunting tactics, the xenomorph does so strictly out of feel--not necessarily logical deduction or emotional reasoning. 

2.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Arthur C. Clarke


2001: a Space Odyssey (Space Odyssey Series)
  • 2001 a Space Odyssey
  • Clarke, Arthur C. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 296 Pages - 09/01/2000 (Publication Date) - Ace (Publisher)

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, we'll find a prime example of a sentient AI in the form of HAL 9000. The HAL 9000 is the main computer aboard the spaceship Discovery.

HAL has all the capabilities of a standard computer concerning ship's functions and operations. But HAL also has the ability to communicate and form relationships with the organic meatbags (aka humans) onboard. All sounds good until a malfunction in HAL's programming happens. Then, all hell breaks loose.

HAL 9000 is one of the highest sentient AIs we've experienced within science fiction. But as you'll soon see, there's one that's just a step above. 

3.

The Last Question
Isaac Asimov


The Complete Stories of Isaac Asimov
  • Harper Collins Paperbacks
  • Asimov, Isaac (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 430 Pages - 06/30/1994 (Publication Date) - Harpercollins Pub Ltd (Publisher)

This may be one of the most famous short stories in all of Sci-Fi creation. It starts out with humanity building a super computer named Multivac capable of answering just about every question. Until one day, someone asked how to massively decrease the net amount of entropy in the universe--essentially reversing the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Multivac can only reply that it doesn't have enough data to formulate the response. And this cycle continues for eons. Each of Multivac's ever more sophisticated descendants is asked this question. All the way to the end of life and time and space. Only then does AC (last descendant of Multivac) understand the meaning of the question. 

The journey that Multivac's line steps closer and closer to full sentience with each generation. With that of AC being a fully sentient being--if not sapient. 

Sentient vs Sapient: What does it mean to be Sapient?

Now that we've had a good look at sentience, let's define sapience. Sapient is defined as follows:

"Possessing or expressing great sagacity"

Sit on that for a second. Sapience refers to the highest functions of mental ability. It's the cognitive ability for rational thought. The ability to think and learn and adapt. Not out of instinct, but through direct learning capabilities. 

One point I'd actually argue is that sapient-driven decisions are often in conflict with emotions. And overcoming those (or following along) proves sapience vice just reacting (sentience).

You'll essentially find sapience among the upper echelons of the animal kingdom such as chimpanzees and humans. Heck, humanity's scientific name is Homo Sapiens--which literally translates to "the wise human" or "the clever human".

And without any difficulty, you'll find prime examples of sapient beings throughout all aspects of Science Fiction.

1.

Planet of the Apes
Pierre Boulle


Planet of the Apes
  • Pierre Boulle (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 272 Pages - 08/13/2020 (Publication Date) - Del Rey (Publisher)

We briefly mentioned earlier that humans alongside some chimpanzees are really the few actual sapients Earth has in real life. So what if in science fiction, the apes learned too much? 

That's exactly what's going on in Pierre Boulle's The Planet of the Apes. In this novel--which kicked off the major motion picture series--three astronauts land on an Earth doppelganger. Every thing appears to be normal except...humans are savage beasts and the Apes are their chiefly overlords. 

This book (or movie) should be in every Sci Fi fan's arsenal. It's a great "what-if" story that'll have you shocked and stunned as you keep turning the pages. 

2.

The Island of Dr. Moreau
H.G. Wells


The Island of Dr. Moreau
  • Wells, H. G. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 92 Pages - 05/25/2017 (Publication Date) - Digireads.com Publishing (Publisher)

Not to be confused with the Val Kilmer movie, this book is amazing. H.G. Wells really outdid himself when it came to this one--and didn't need an alien invasion or time travel to do it.

The plot follows a shipwrecked survivor who finds himself on an island inhabited by "Beast Folk". These Beast Folk are sapient creatures--hybrids between man and beast--created by the exiled mad scientist Dr. Moreau.

This book does a heck of a job showing each stage of sentience and sapience from bestial creatures to anthropomorphic sapient hybrids. At the end of the book, Wells even describes the descent of the Beast Folk back into their original animal origins. This truly is a must-read from one of the masters of science fiction.

3.

Frankenstein
Mary Shelley 


Frankenstein
  • Shelley, Mary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 144 Pages - 11/25/2017 (Publication Date) - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (Publisher)

Here it is. The real OG of Science Fiction. Frankenstein. There's no question that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an absolute classic that will live on forever--despite the torches and pitchforks. 

But Frankenstein is more than just an entertaining read. It's one of the first cases of sapience seen in literature. Frankenstein's monster-like creatures have been witnessed throughout history before often in the form of a golem. However, unlike Frankenstein's monster, these golem were just sentient beings.

Frankenstein's monster stands out from the rest because of its deeply complex emotional tendencies. The monster cannot only think for itself, but interact in an almost grotesque nicety that really makes you feel for it. Frankenstein's monster truly is the quintessential Science Fiction Sapient. 

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