“I want to know, what is human conscience.”

“Human consciousness?” I asked, not hearing him correctly.

“No,” he said. “Con-sci-ence. When I search for this word in the English dictionary, I find that it is from Latin. Con means ‘with’ and science means ‘knowing.’ So conscience means ‘with knowing.’ With science.”

“I’ve never quite thought about it that way,” I told him. “But I’m sure you’re right.”

"Conscience means 'with knowing.' With science."

Conscience means ‘with knowing.’ With science.”

He continued. “But this does not make sense.” He pulled out a piece of paper. “The dictionary says ‘A knowledge or sense of right and wrong, with a compulsion to do right.’”

He held up the piece of paper for me to see, so I took it. “That seems like a reasonable definition.”

“But I do not understand. Knowledge and sense are not the same thing. Knowledge I understand, but how about sense? Is sense the same as feeling? Is conscience a fact that I can learn and know, or is it more like an emotion? Is it related to empathy? Is it different than shame? And why is it a compulsion?”

I must have looked as baffled as I felt, because he went on to explain.

“I’m afraid that even though I am trained in computer science, I have never felt such a sense or feeling. This is a big disadvantage for my work. I would like to ask you, can I learn to feel such a feeling? At my age, is it too late?”

~ from A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, 2013, p 306-307 (italics in original).