SENTIENCE in the Cosmos: Possibilities and Implications

Scientists and organizations should keep open minds and preserve the niche of abstract ideas and possibilities. 

The Cambridge dictionary defines Sentience as ‘the quality of being able to experience feelings. ‘Sentient’, is an adjective encompassing a complex whole of cognitive and other high mental functions which definitely cannot be explained abridged. 

We have come to know of and associate sentience with humans ( many of us do so ) since we occupy the top of the food chain and proudly sit at the apex of the complex pyramid of life on earth.  So, what is it that makes us sentient? Is other life on earth sentient as well? What about life beyond our planet and in some far-off solar system in ours or a distant galaxy? 


Humans are social animals, as they say. We live our lives based on what we feel, imbibe and imprint from those around us and the environment. Our complex minds enable us to feel, analyze, assimilate and react to the different stimuli around us. Our lives are shaped by our emotions. We laugh, cry, lament and despise all through. This is done primarily through our senses, both physical and, yes, through those hunches you call gut feelings.

Our minds perceive the world in relation to our identities which are unique. We are physically distinct from each other, but there is another more profound construct at work here. That is the ‘I’. The ‘I’ is called self-awareness which tells me I am not part of someone else but rather a unique entity. That ‘I’ is unique in having boundaries, e.g., physical or spiritual. 

Our existence on earth for millions of years has depended on our complex emotional skillsets, which have enabled us to survive, interact, reproduce and build complex civilizations. Though, as a species, we have done a lot of harm by perpetuating extremes of emotions in hatred, animosity, and fear-mongering. This, too, obviously has come along with the complex package of being ‘Sentient’. Some people wear their emotions on their sleeves ostentatious in expressing their inners.

While others do not express themselves at all making it difficult for others to actually peer into the reclusive minds as to what they are thinking or feeling. Therein lies our inaptness to actually deal with these dilemmas daily, which is where our other skill sets come into play. Where we try to assess the reactions of others to what we do or say and then respond accordingly, considering the risks and benefits of our responses. This awareness of ourselves and our interests in relation to the environment and other beings is what makes us sentient. An agglomeration of emotions, consciousness, and intelligence.

Being human, we know that hurting someone will cause anguish, pain, and suffering, which is why we try to abstain (well, mostly). However, as previously mentioned, we do not necessarily know what the other person or animal, for that matter, is feeling at a particular moment.  If we apply that to animals since we cannot ascertain their feelings, are we at liberty to cause harm to them? Assuming that they won’t feel a thing? Experiments have been carried out repeatedly, showing that many animals, like cats, dogs, and even octopuses, show signs of self-awareness and complex thinking patterns.

The same goes for plants; we know they react to environmental variables quite drastically, showing they are aware of themselves and the environment’s effect on them. Ruthless deforestation and hurting or killing animals makes you question our intelligence as a species where we consider no being sentient beyond our bubble of the human ego. Respecting other sentience may be too much to ask for, considering the loss of innocent human lives in ongoing bloody wars.


Our highly complex mind of ours, with all its perks, has one issue. It can be very rigid in terms of adhering to preconceived notions and ideas. It can have a hard time thinking out of the box and beyond specific patterns with which it is already familiar. We ‘assume’ that life would have developed based on the same principles whereby it flourished here on earth. We also ‘assume’ that the same molecular building blocks would be required to develop life elsewhere, namely ribose sugars, nitrogenous bases, and phosphoric acid. While life on earth depends on water to sustain itself, who knows, life elsewhere might need some other vital ‘elixir’ to thrive.

What if some Aliens have totally different emotional skill sets from ours? Credit: Hunain Riaz

Maybe it’s the least we can do, thinking about life beyond earth in the image of our own civilization.  What really adds more intrigue to the possibility of Alien life elsewhere in the cosmos is that the universe has been around for around 13.5 billion years. While our solar system came into existence roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Our presence here on earth is merely a few hundred million years which probably would account for a minute on the cosmic clock that has been ticked up till now.

There is a possibility that intelligent life developed elsewhere earlier on the cosmic time scale and probably exhausted itself in terms of achieving the pinnacle of civilization. Or maybe intelligence is flourishing somewhere but has not reached the point whereby it can reach out to live in the cosmos. The vast distances mean that our means of communication are pretty shorthanded in terms of reach. We use radio waves to send out messages and expect to receive the same from some distant part of our galaxy or beyond.

Make no mistake; when I talk about sentient life, I refer to life with intellectual, emotional, and functional capacities that can enable them to develop civilizations. We as humans have a tremendously broad spectrum of emotions and feelings and probably expect alien life to have a bit of the same faculties or maybe the same. What if they are on a totally different wavelength? What if they possess advanced intelligence and functional abilities or even advanced means of communication with each other, say utilizing telekinesis?

Hollywood has been riding the bandwagon of ‘Aliens coming here for nefarious purposes for far too long now. It gets obnoxiously unfair to portray any galactic neighbors as only sinister. Humans love to love, and yes, we have also loved to kill throughout history, and it seems to go on and on. What if some Aliens have totally different emotional skill sets from ours? Maybe they aren’t humanoids with brains or similar structures. Maybe they have minds which work in unison and have senses which can feel and communicate across long distances (quantum entanglement, if you will)

What if they are devoid of destructive emotions of greed, selfishness, envy, and hatred? And they only care about harmony, stability, and love for the universe and its contents. On the contrary, it could be the other way round, mirroring how the entertainment world presents aliens, Nefarious, warmongering, and usurpers of resources (I highly doubt this idea). 


We as a species appear to be quite content with our apparent isolation in the known universe till now. What it would mean to human life knowing that there are beings who are more, if not equally, sentient. How would the human race react to this reality? Over the past many years, there is a great debate and mystery surrounding unexplained phenomena in the skies. With different opinions regarding the subject matter, with experts divided. That, however, is a pandora’s box and beyond this article. However, the common folk generally have an opinion that if Aliens have, in fact, visited our planet and currently are doing so ( as per some enthusiasts ), why haven’t they made themselves known to life on earth? 

This opinion can be challenged in an intellectual manner. Suppose we assume that they are here and have been coming here for some time now. Now assuming that one would also have to assume that they are at a technological standpoint where they are hundreds if not thousands of years ahead of us. And maybe they are space-faring or even dimension-faring entities. Such a species would definitely be highly developed in terms of intellectual prowess.

Why haven’t the aliens made themselves known to life on earth?
Why haven’t the aliens made themselves known to life on earth?

While observing us humans, would it make sense to intervene in our matters or reveal themselves in all their glory only to make people run amok? That does not just feel like the right thing to do, meddling with the social & religious status quo of a civilization. Yes, they could be observing us, or maybe even concerned for us, considering how we are ruining our environment with all the fossil fuel usage and even nuclear weapons. This is the point that I would like to highlight, such sentient life, which can traverse light years and dimensions, would know how to survive and sustain itself and would want other life elsewhere to do the same. 


Scientists are doing their best to send out signals and awaiting a return message using our radio tech. And the recently launched groundbreaking James-Webb telescope will be looking out for exoplanets and habitable atmospheres. Our rovers rolling about on our neighboring planets. We certainly do our part in looking out there. And here on earth, we have intricate and large telescope array systems like the ALLEN telescopic array, which has the added edge of listening for signals across large swathes of the sky.

But like I mentioned earlier, maybe sentient life somewhere is too advanced to use the technology which we use to communicate. When we aren’t even aware of the true nature of dark matter, which is to say we know that sentient Alien life would use the same means of communication and, for that matter, follow the same ladder of civilization evolution. Scientists and organizations should keep open minds and preserve the niche of abstract ideas and possibilities. 

Regarding how evolved a civilization could be in terms of technological progress, a scale was devised by Russian Astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev in 1964. The Kardeshev Scale. The scale categorized possible Alien civilizations according to the energy they can utilize. The scaling was from 0 to III.  Type I would be one that would be able to harness all the energy of the nearby star and store and use it as required ( we aren’t even a type 1 civilization as yet since it would need us to bolster our energy production by thousands of times to reach the first step).

Type II civilization would be able to use starlight energy and control the star’s production of energy utilizing colossal structures  (Dyson spheres). The hypothetical III civilization would be what one could call a genuinely galactic race that has mastered everything about energy production, storage, and utilization. If you consider humans to reach this pinnacle of progress, we would probably have developed sentient robots or even human/robot hybrids by then. Beings that could traverse the vastness of space without the worries of biological vulnerability.  Astronomers have extended this scale up to V, which eventually includes the omega point of civilizational progress, where the whole universe’s energy is at its disposal.

To round off, It would be pertinent to question our preparation to disclose and un curtain Sentient Alien life. Are the world Governments ready? Is there an organization that has made specific rules and regulations concerning contact? What will concern right and wrong in dealing with such sentience? These ideas might seem sci-fiction right now, but this will be inevitable, and we need to be prepared for it.

The fear-mongering done by media and other outlets makes me fear the freakishly panicky response humans might have to unequivocal disclosure. This would call for bringing together people of expertise and repute who could formulate specific guidelines and solutions to tackle the ruckus disclosure may cause. 

Current news and media outlets are teaming up with articles and news regarding the possibility of life elsewhere and whether we are being visited or not, considering the revelations regarding UAP/UFO’s. I, for one,  would definitely keep my views regarding potential sentient Alien life as being benevolent and benign whether we are faced with disclosure in our lifetimes or not. 

Also, read: Extraterrestrial life: A conversation with Dr. Bruce Damer