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New Frontiers In Science
December 23, 2013 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Can plants think? Michael Pollan asks the question. (SLNewYorker)
posted by Diablevert (75 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Plants and Pollan, you say

Another tick in the "Our world is a novel and its author is Dickens" column
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:29 AM on December 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


More and more these sorts of questions seem philosophical to me, rather than scientific. What is thought? Answer that first, then the question of whether plants can do it or not becomes kind of trivial.
posted by empath at 7:44 AM on December 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


I had heard a lot of the more interesting experiments, but this one was a real startler:

The pattern of nutrient traffic showed how “mother trees” were using the network to nourish shaded seedlings, including their offspring—which the trees can apparently recognize as kin—until they’re tall enough to reach the light.

Some plants, fir trees at least, have parental care. That's one of the more sophisticated and later developing behaviors even for animals.

Some of the disputes seem reasonable -- why call it neurobiology when it is intelligence that doesn't use neurons? -- and critiques can be important, but a lot of it seemed reflexive denial. Also, I kind of adore the fact that Darwin and his methodical thinking and experiments are yet again a touchstone.
posted by tavella at 7:45 AM on December 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


Stevie Wonder's best album ever!

Don't know if they can think but woo can they FEEL!

Wonder presumes nature to exist in a state of pure innocence....

This is the album after a wacky yet beautiful "documentary" from a book of the same name.
posted by sammyo at 8:04 AM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


It doesn't seem that plants are thinking, it does look from the various experiments that plants are capable of intelligent action. If that intelligent action is the result of a network of cell signaling pathways, there are some interesting things to think about in regards to our own intelligent actions and of the difference between intelligence, intelligent actions, and intelligent thought.

It seems like philosophy has quite a head start down that particular rabbit hole though.
posted by Slackermagee at 8:07 AM on December 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


I agree with the philosophical debates penned above. We don't really understand "thought" all that well. Heck, we experience it ourselves, but are unable to quantify it past the assumption of neuron transmissions through a brain. And yet here we are attempting to assign "thought" to something that neither has a brain nor transmits neurons.

Even in the most academic of worlds I'd have a hard time believing that this is an attempt to better understand and identify what thought was. Instead, I get the feeling that this is someone who was hoping to come to an expected result even before the phrasing of the question was solidified.
posted by Blue_Villain at 8:07 AM on December 23, 2013


An intelligent network of plants, had it existed, would surely be vaster than empires and more slow.
posted by hat_eater at 8:15 AM on December 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, don't blame Pollan for my glibness. The headline the New Yorker chose was "The Intelligent Plant." Intelligence is a noun and comfortably vague; think is a verb and provocative, and the provocation was mine and deliberate.

But I stand by it; I'd say "can plants think" is a fair summary of the thesis. But make no mistake: Pollan's article is nuanced and considered. He mostly presents a series of intriguing experiments which demonstrate some extremely complex behaviors on the part of the plants which we are only now beginning to precieve. And he actually talks a lot in the article about the implications of metaphor and terminology --- describe the plant as "learning" to do something, that's hippie-dippy not-science, describe it as "adapting" and you're perfectly respectable.

It seems clear that a helluva lot more work has to be done before we can begin to sort out if some of these experimental observations are in fact evidence of intelligence in plants. But some of the experiments are quite fascinating.

Dunno where it leaves vegetarians, though....
posted by Diablevert at 8:19 AM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


An intelligent network of plants, had it existed, would surely be vaster than empires and more slow.

Plants play a crucial role in preserving and maintaining all life on Earth. If they were intelligent, it'd be fair to say they've established the longest-lived and most pervasive empire in the Earth's natural history.

I'd say it's a pretty "smart" adaptive strategy to use animal life to propagate seeds and pollen--many plants produce fruit that are specifically adapted to being eaten by animals. (Also, that fact should ease the conscience's of many vegetarians, especially Buddhists, since eating fruit in particular still observes the ethical principle of taking only what is given).

Plants whether sentient in any sense we might recognize or not are exquisitely well-adapted to life on Earth. I'd argue that if there were a hierarchy of life, with "best-fit" to general survival being at the top, plants would be the apex of evolution. Animal life is much less efficient and less self-sufficient than plant life (and in fact, ultimately all animal life depends on plant life, but not necessarily the converse).

I tend to think intelligence/consciousness runs along a continuum with unconscious thought playing a much larger role in conscious behavior than most people realize, and I think unconscious intelligence is something a bit closer to the kind of vegetable intelligence/consciousness plants and simpler organisms exhibit. But more complex human consciousness is built on the same foundations, I suspect, as the simpler forms of physically deterministic intelligence (automatic responses to raw sensory input such as simple worms exhibit in their tunneling behaviors). We've just developed many complex layers on top of those same foundations, and as in computer code, the layering of structures adds capability.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:34 AM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


-The Secret Language of Plants
-Quantum Light Harvesting Hints at Entirely New Form of Computing
-What We Can Learn From the Quantum Calculations of Birds and Bacteria
posted by kliuless at 8:38 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Secret Life of Plants, 1973 documentary with soundtrack by Stevie Wonder


Outside My Window
Come Back as a Flower

posted by Teakettle at 8:41 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd say it's a pretty "smart" adaptive strategy to use animal life to propagate seeds and pollen

Of course, others would just say it was purely random. Especially those that prescribe to the theory of evolution.
posted by Blue_Villain at 8:42 AM on December 23, 2013


Evolution isn't random.
posted by empath at 8:45 AM on December 23, 2013


For clarification, I did NOT say that Evolution was the theory of random changes. What I did say was that many people believe the process of changing/mutating is random, and with them are a large number of evolutionists.

No, evolution is the theory of how life adapts with/after those changes, but does nothing to explain how or why the changes themselves came to be.
posted by Blue_Villain at 8:53 AM on December 23, 2013


And yet here we are attempting to assign "thought" to something that neither has a brain nor transmits neurons.

Less a thought, from my reading of it, and more a reaction that isn't random but is 'intelligent' in that it furthers the organisms assumed interests.
posted by Slackermagee at 8:53 AM on December 23, 2013


I definitely like where this might go. I guess the sanctimonious kind of vegetarians will have to forego the thinking veggies. At least until Pollan asks if rice can think.
posted by ReeMonster at 9:08 AM on December 23, 2013


If they were intelligent, it'd be fair to say they've established the longest-lived and most pervasive empire in the Earth's natural history.

Actually, the words I used, though lifted from a XVII-century poem, allude to another word.
posted by hat_eater at 9:15 AM on December 23, 2013


And yet here we are attempting to assign "thought" to something that neither has a brain nor transmits neurons.

He addresses this in the article, actually. You can define thinking as essentially, "that which a brain does" and in that case, plants don't think, as they don't have brains. But if thought is merely "that which produces intelligent behavior" then things get a lot more complicated --- plants' sensory capabilities and ability to respond to changes in their environment are a much, much more sophisticated than what's visible to us by the naked eye. Pollan talks about evidence for plants being able to hear, to anaesthetise themselves, to become habituated to repetitive stimuli, to retreat from competitors. An organism can certainly do all these things without a brain, without consciousness. But without intelligence? Say they're more similar to an ant colony than a human mind; I don't know if that really changes anything.
posted by Diablevert at 9:17 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Obligatory photo of L. Ron Hubbard using an E-Meter on a tomato plant to audit it for the presence of body thetans demonstrate plants feel the sensation of pain and have emotions such as fear.
posted by radwolf76 at 9:32 AM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think part of the problem is that people are reifying intelligence as almost a literal substance which neurons (or humans, or animals) possess. This is also why people will insist, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, that computers don't think, and that animals don't think.

I think it's more and more clear that all that is required for intelligence of some kind is a medium which allows for the storage, processing and transmission of information, all of which plants seem to possess.
posted by empath at 9:36 AM on December 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.
-- Jack Handey
posted by benzenedream at 9:48 AM on December 23, 2013 [13 favorites]


coming up at 11, a new study shows that, no, they cannot.

frankly i did not read the article. i don't want to know. i already wonder how tortured my veal was or if my bacon died humanely. if plants feel pain then.... the fuck do we do? don't walk on your lawn? (AND HEAVENS TO GOD IF YOU MOW IT) and that means pretty much we can eat air and drink water. that's it. so, ya, i'm making a joke and moving along, and pretending i can't hear the tiny screams of my orchids when i trim them.
posted by chasles at 9:49 AM on December 23, 2013


Philosophy and science do not live in different housing estates. The view that sentience, intelligence, mindedness, cognition, etc are actually better understood by considering the concerned perspective of the living, starting with the individual cell, rather than fetishizing nervous systems, is well developed. Evan Thompson's large book Mind in Life is a significant reference point. For some wonderfully lucid science/philosophy in this domain you might well look at Fred Keijzer's work too. The entire enactive and embodied developments within contemporary cognitive science point towards an informed, scientific, philosophically-grounded, understanding of the grounding of experience in something other than mere brains.
posted by stonepharisee at 9:54 AM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


(I'm enjoying the conversation here.)
posted by benito.strauss at 10:24 AM on December 23, 2013


I grew up taking care of plants by the thousands, even tens of thousands at a time. After a while you go beyond having a green thumb, you can look at plants and read their language. You can see things like the distinctive upward curl of tree leaves that means their stomata are all opening up, normally they'd be closed to preserve water but they are open because the tree thinks it's going to rain soon. And then it rains.

I was telling this to a friend once, as we sat in his garden. He said, "ok, if you can talk to plants, what is this one saying?" Well they don't speak English duh. I looked at his scraggly ornamental flower plant, and tried to figure out how to express its message in English. I finally said, "Well plants mostly want two things, water and sunlight. So their language is almost completely composed of variations of 'more water please' and 'ahh sun.'"
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:49 AM on December 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


I finally said, "Well plants mostly want two things, water and sunlight. So their language is almost completely composed of variations of 'more water please' and 'ahh sun.'"

Houseplants have 20 different words for "Sunbeam" but the word "mercy" does not appear in their lexicon.

Oddly enough, the same applies to their mortal enemy, the housecat.
posted by radwolf76 at 10:57 AM on December 23, 2013 [15 favorites]


Of course, others would just say it was purely random. Especially those that prescribe to the theory of evolution.

All functional intelligence is just random from a purely evolutionary standpoint. Whatever mechanisms we as humans use to arrive at our intelligent-seeming behaviors, those mechanisms are irrelevant from an evolutionary standpoint, which cares only about the inputs and outputs to the organism and the adaptive fitness of the behaviors and traits that result.

My point is human intelligence represents only one possible solution to the more general problem of intelligence (as evident in animals and other living things displaying consciousness and intelligence in various forms and to varying degrees), and there's nothing that makes our version of consciousness and intelligence special or essentially different-in-kind than the seemingly less reflective forms of consciousness and intelligence we observe in other living things so far as we know.

It may be that self-reflection allows us to apply our functional intelligence in ways that are more flexible than if we weren't capable of self-reflection, and that's why consciousness has served us well as an adaptation. But consciousness and conscious experience probably aren't strictly necessary for living things to perceive and act on their perceptions of the world around them. Blindsight is often held up as an illustration of how the human brain need not create conscious representations of sense-input in order to process it and understand it, but there are also plenty of examples of living things that don't seem to have the necessary brain architecture to create representations of sense-experience that nevertheless behave "intelligently" to some degree in response to their environment.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:12 AM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Now Pollan sounds like kind of a monster for that "Mostly plants" directive.
posted by Mallenroh at 11:47 AM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


This line of inquiry is interesting as we consider what are the things towards which we have a moral duty.

It seems like we often draw poor inferences like But of course that's not a valid form of inference. The valid form would be but the first premise of this argument is not at all self-evident. As a lay philosopher I tend to be swayed by Peter Singer's arguments that would generalize our moral duty from humans to animals, which stems in part from an argument that it is not intelligence in another that creates moral duty towards that other. In that case, Pollan's line of evidence that plants are intelligent is not terribly relevant.

On the other hand, if we see that intelligence arises without animal neural structure, it seems like we really ought to take it as evidence that the capacity to feel pain or experience fear could arise without animal neural structure. I just don't know how you'd go about establishing those things about plants. It is largely because we share behaviors with animals that we impute to them the ability to feel pain. What behavior of a "suffering" plant will ever really be able to stir our empathy? Should it? Is that even the right question?
posted by jepler at 12:07 PM on December 23, 2013


Great article. Pollin approaches the matter with a very knowledgeable and circumspect eye. His writing is remarkably even-handed (I liked the summary of the Q and A for the 'plants can learn' talk at one of those conferences), yet he leaves room for some rousing emotions -- the ire of the "those guys are morons" doubters, the sense of wonder he gets from watching that time-lapse video of the bean growing. (anyone can find that on YooToob? cursory search yielded nothing)

As for my two cents, the line of thought put out by the "plant intelligence" folks, the elevating the merit of 'distributed intelligence' -- whether root tendrils on a plant, birds in a flock, an ant colony, a grove of trees working together, neurons in a brain -- can't come fast enough. I certainly don't think intelligence is restricted to brains and neurons. And, in elevating 'intelligent responses' from various biological entities (animals or plants) or systems (a grove of trees, etc), I'd love to see the general class of popular science articles that lead in with an "evolution says..." tagline vanish in favor of articles speaking to (for example) "deciduous trees say that cutting down surrounding fir trees restricts nutrition during the winter months", etc.

Fuss on the verbiage all you wish (can plants "say" anything? etc); for me the crux of the matter is that evolution seems to be the de facto intelligent non-animal 'voice' -- consider the relative glamour of a field like evolutionary biology. I'd say we'd be far far wiser to refine how we 'listen' to plants (or other biological systems, your ant colony, for example) and taking stock of what we can 'hear' from them.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 12:37 PM on December 23, 2013


An intelligent network of plants, had it existed, would surely be vaster than empires and more slow.

What a marvelous comment.
posted by yoink at 1:14 PM on December 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


On the topic of the thread: some of this seems suspiciously akin to arguments for intelligent design: such and such a complex, apparently teleological behavior occurs, therefore there must be a directing "mind" behind it. I find it odd that people who can instantly see the flaw in that argument when it comes to the complex behaviors of whole ecosystems seem not to see them when it comes to complex behaviors produced by one species.
posted by yoink at 1:16 PM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yoink, that's a good point. There's something clearly purposeful about the actions of humans (or of my actions at any rate). Clearly there's no purpose on the part of water even when its flow results in erosion. Where between the two does purpose arise? What structures (like the human nervous system) are necessary or sufficient for purpose to exist? And what relationship (if any) is there between another's capacity for purposeful action and my moral duty?
posted by jepler at 1:41 PM on December 23, 2013


The problem, yoink, is that independent, scientific evidence for the existence of a "mind behind the behavior" is no stronger for humans than it is for most other living and nonliving things that display functionally intelligent behaviors. The only scientific evidence for consciousness in humans is subjective and based on self-reporting, which can never really provide definitive proof. Subjective experience and first-person reporting don't really offer much in the way of objective, measurable evidence for the existence of mind in humans either (although I'm personally inclined to believe that people's reports of conscious experience actually do point to some real phenomenon or complex of phenomena that so far remains elusive to simple physical reduction and scientific description). People's reports of their experiences of consciousness are all over the map, and are impossible to independently verify.

Scientifically, there's no objectively better evidence for the existence of "human mind" or "animal mind" or "vegetable mind." It's just not an area science has made much progress in understanding, even despite all the advances in modeling and understanding functional intelligence.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:42 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Intelligence is something like: the ability to adapt behaviorally to changes in environmental condition. Even very limited animals have a lot of intelligence. The frog responds to the darkening of a spot in its visual field by darting its tongue in an appropriate direction. It responds to the darkening of a wider region of its visual field by turning away from it and fleeing.

We don't know about the frog's mind from talking to it. Everything we know about the frog's mind comes from observing its behavior (in the famous study I linked above, scientists recorded intermediate visual signals from nerve fibers). We may not even be tempted to say the frog has a "mind." But it has intelligence.

No one is tempted to say that genes have minds, I think. But they can have intelligence in this sense. Evolution is an intelligence not unlike our own -- faced with novel environmental problems, it finds solutions by trial and error. It's very slow, and it's not reflective or conscious, but it is intelligent in that sense.

So if plants have more behavioral plasticity than we thought, and more ability to process signals from their environments, it seems right to say they have intelligence.

The criticisms quoted in the article seem very wrong-headed.
Taiz says that the writings of the plant neurobiologists suffer from “over-interpretation of data, teleology, anthropomorphizing, philosophizing, and wild speculations.” He is confident that eventually the plant behaviors we can’t yet account for will be explained by the action of chemical or electrical pathways, without recourse to “animism.”
With scientific progress, the behaviors of the frog "will be explained by the action of chemical or electrical pathways, without recourse to 'animism.'" The behaviors of the dog "will be explained by the action of chemical or electrical pathways, without recourse to 'animism.'" The behaviors of humans "will be explained by the action of chemical or electrical pathways, without recourse to 'animism.'" But the frog, dog, and human are still intelligent. It is frankly superstitious to suggest there is something special about animal intelligence that cannot "be explained by the action of chemical or electrical pathways" (or other appropriately dumb mechanisms).

The success or failure of the plant-intelligence research program shouldn't depend on definitional questions about intelligence or thought. It should succeed if the mechanisms of plant behavioral plasticity turn out to be fairly general and interesting, as they increasingly seem to be.

I am not sure how to interpret the tenure of criticism printed in the Pollan article. Are those people really the most thoughtful critics of plant intelligence, spewing these superstitious quibbles? Or are they merely the most quotable? Are their views being represented fairly, or do they have more substantive criticisms that didn't make it into the article? Science journalism is extremely dicey, even science journalism by famous writers in the best magazines.
posted by grobstein at 1:49 PM on December 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


(For example, our eyes ultimately share common features with the much more rudimentary visual systems of C. elegans roundworms (which lack eyes, but have a rudimentary capability to perceive and respond to big changes in light levels). At a certain base level, what we experience when we see the world around us probably shares some perceptual features in common with how these worms perceive changes in light levels. But our version of this sensory faculty is more elaborated and includes more and different kinds of information.)
posted by saulgoodman at 1:54 PM on December 23, 2013


tavella: " a lot of it seemed reflexive denial."

In my experience teaching undergrads, when people say "thought" or "intelligence," a lot of them mean "thinking about things on purpose," and so their reflexive denial that computers, cats, or corn can't be "intelligent" is actually saying "they don't think about Shakespeare!" If you can get them to agree to be more specific about some kind of networked response to stimuli, many of them would agree that computers, cats, and corn could all do that, but that it's qualitatively different from "thinking." "Thought" and "Intelligence" and "Consciousness" are surprisingly emotionally-loaded terms, and you can often get better discussions going if you can use different terms, at least at first. I'm still surprised, after five years, how threatened a lot of people are by the idea that computers could think or dolphins could have consciousness.

(Then you can get into a really interesting discussion about what this qualitative difference is -- the ability to construct counterfactuals? Memory? Taking pleasure in the act of thinking? -- and which beings can do it, but that seems like a different question.)

If Avatar turns out to be prophetic, though, imma be kinda mad.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:02 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


The problem, yoink, is that independent, scientific evidence for the existence of a "mind behind the behavior" is no stronger for humans than it is for most other living and nonliving things that display functionally intelligent behaviors.

But even if we grant this (and its hand waving a few problems even in the set-up, but I do grant that at a certain level of abstraction it's true) that's not a reason for attributing "mind" or "intellect" to things other than humans. It's a reason for inquiring about whether the thing humans describe subjectively as "thinking" or "thinking about" or what have you may not be an illusion. That is, there's no scientific or philosophical requirement to say "well, boys, we can't prove that human minds actually do work in the way you think--therefore we have to assume that frogs' minds, ants' minds, trees' minds and, hey, why not, amoebas minds all work in exactly the way we subjectively experience our own minds to work."

And just to forestall a certain predictable objection ("you can't say that they're not thinking, can you?")--no, we can't prove a negative. That's still true. It's also unimportant. I can't prove that my microwave isn't thinking. I can't prove that my table isn't thinking ("hmmmm, they keep talking about getting me refinished, but they never do, the bastards; how will I ever get that cute end table to notice me?"). That inability is in no way an argument in favor of the hypothesis.
posted by yoink at 2:47 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the case of nonhuman animals though, both the behaviors and underlying mechanisms of sense perception and information processing are either measurably very similar or identical--the extraordinary claim is that humans have some special faculty called mind or consciousness that makes our independently measurable functionally intelligent behavior somehow fundamentally different from the same kinds of behaviors we observe in other organisms--considering that in some cases we share more than 90% of our biological makeup with those nonhuman organisms.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:55 PM on December 23, 2013


In the case of nonhuman animals though, both the behaviors and underlying mechanisms of sense perception and information processing are either measurably very similar or identical

And leaving aside the issue of whether that's relevant for thinking about animal intelligence (I don't, personally, think it is; but I concede it's a complex philosophical argument): it is clearly not true of plants that either their "behaviors" or their "underlying mechanisms of sense perceptions and information processing" are either "very similar or identical" to those of humans.
posted by yoink at 3:02 PM on December 23, 2013


I finally said, "Well plants mostly want two things, water and sunlight. So their language is almost completely composed of variations of 'more water please' and 'ahh sun.'"

Oh I forgot, there is one other frequently used plant language concept: "Oh no, not again." I often wonder how Douglas Adams nailed this one so accurately.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:21 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


The global economic system requires the commoditisation of all life. Biology serves this economic system by treating all biota as strictly material. To restore the biosphere to health, we need a new biology that starts by recognizing in each distinct life-form a unique expression of thought.
posted by No Robots at 3:27 PM on December 23, 2013


To restore the biosphere to health, we need a new biology that starts by recognizing in each distinct life-form a unique expression of thought.

I'm not sure that conceiving ourselves as ineluctably doomed to be mass murderers of unique life-forms in order to live is likely to make us more sensitive to the needs of the planet. It strikes me as such a profoundly dystopian conception of life that the only way to cope with it is to be a complete nihilist or a monumental egotist.

Or, I guess, you could go with just not really thinking through the implications.
posted by yoink at 4:34 PM on December 23, 2013


yoink: just not really thinking

Oh, the irony.
posted by No Robots at 5:03 PM on December 23, 2013


Oh, the irony.

Okey doke: explain how you sleep at night when you know that every meal you eat required the slaughter of hundreds of "distinct life-forms" each capable of "a unique expression of thought."
posted by yoink at 5:50 PM on December 23, 2013


^Sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you.

The point is that we shouldn't be pointlessly destroying life-forms in their entirety.

I understand that it is difficult to face up to the damage man has inflicted upon other life-forms. Surely, though, the path to redemption lies in learning how to respect those forms that are left.
posted by No Robots at 6:00 PM on December 23, 2013


If they were intelligent, it'd be fair to say they've established the longest-lived and most pervasive empire in the Earth's natural history.

Bacteria are charmed by this quaint idea from one of their cousins, and would address this point if the entire genus weren't so short-lived and unimportant.

Pass another forest, dear; I'm feeling peckish.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:42 PM on December 23, 2013



But consciousness and conscious experience probably aren't strictly necessary for living things to perceive and act on their perceptions of the world around them


To me perception is consciousness. Gosh, it is amazing how hard it is just to come to a basic agreement on definitions of consciousness, intelligence, and thought.

Thinking, it seems to me, tradionally means the conscious experience of having thoughts. So to say something literally thinks is to imply it is conscious.

Intelligence implies intentionality or the ability to understand the meaning of symbols (which we do in our thoughts). When people used to talk about finding extra-terrestrial intelligence for example, it seems to me they meant finding a conscious, thinking entity that we could share experience and meaning with.

It seems that intelligence and thinking have been redefined behavioristically or equated with empty symbol processing in the scientific community, which I think causes confusion and isn't very helpful.


The only scientific evidence for consciousness in humans is subjective and based on self-reporting, which can never really provide definitive proof.


The existence of subjectivity is the proof of consciousness. Does anyone actually deny they are experiencing, seeing, hearing, thinking, etc?
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:09 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


What is consciousness, Golden Eternity?
posted by empath at 9:15 PM on December 23, 2013


Sensations (sight, sound, touch,smell, pain,etc.) Everything we experience. That's probably how I would define it anyway. I don't know how it can really be defined other than by referring to the sensations we have. Trying to define it objectively is like trying to define color to someone who is blind, which is actually the same problem. But that doesn't mean colors don't exist. I know they exist because I see them. If I were blind I might be skeptical.
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:42 PM on December 23, 2013


I'm oscillating between designing experiments to get at the root of what gives a person a 'green thumb', as described above by charlie don't surf, and searching for Jack Handey quotes.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 9:57 PM on December 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sensations (sight, sound, touch,smell, pain,etc.) Everything we experience.

Yes, but plans have senses. They take in sensory stimuli and react to them. If the plant moves toward sunlight, is it conscious of it? Is there an awareness of the sunlight somehow embedded in the shape of the leaves?
posted by empath at 11:11 PM on December 23, 2013


It seems to me you've made a mechanistic, behavioral definition of sensation. By sensation I was referring to the direct experience of pain, color, the smell of coffee, etc. that we actually experience. Of course this gets tautological.

If the plant moves toward sunlight, is it conscious of it?

Since we don't understand consciousness, I don't think we can say for sure if plants are conscious. The consciousness we can 'measure' directly, our own, is highly correlated to nerve cells and neurotransmitters and drugs like LSD. There are many other cells and molecules in our bodies that don't seem to have any direct impact on our conscious experience at all, so that gives me doubt. But it is really interesting that plants produce dopamine, etc. Maybe we should give plants acid and see what happens.

If an ant colony turns towards a new source of food does the colony itself have a conscious sense of what it is doing?
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:53 PM on December 23, 2013


I think a perfectly reasonable definition if consciousness is that of information which is available to an organism to act on it. If you want to consider an ant colony to be an organism, than I think it's also fair to say it can have consciousness.

You've kind of made a definition of consciousness which is only relevant to experiences that you personally have, with no possibility of there being other forms or levels of it.
posted by empath at 3:33 AM on December 24, 2013


Sensations (sight, sound, touch,smell, pain,etc.) Everything we experience. That's probably how I would define it anyway. I don't know how it can really be defined other than by referring to the sensations we have. Trying to define it objectively is like trying to define color to someone who is blind, which is actually the same problem. But that doesn't mean colors don't exist. I know they exist because I see them. If I were blind I might be skeptical.

It's funny you should use that example, because there's been some interesting recent studies into the phenomena of blindsight, in which a subject can see and act on their perceptions without being aware of seeing, that is, without being conscious of seeing. There's been a lot of work done with MRI studies which suggests consciousness is at best an executive summary of the full range of what we perceive; if it turns out that 90 percent of the information processing and decision-making we do is unconsciousness, can consciousness really be the sin qua non of intelligence?
posted by Diablevert at 5:57 AM on December 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure that conceiving ourselves as ineluctably doomed to be mass murderers of unique life-forms in order to live is likely to make us more sensitive to the needs of the planet.

Plants are capable of producing more than enough fruit to sustain us, if we were willing to limit our diets to fruits. Plants aren't harmed by eating fruit at all--in fact, it's what they "want" (in the sense that they're specifically adapted to it). Our nutritional needs would adapt. If we truly wanted to live ethically, we would limit our diets to various plant fruits. No living thing suffers when you eat fruit, and you're actually helping the plant propagate itself in the process.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:02 AM on December 24, 2013


Our nutritional needs would adapt. If we truly wanted to live ethically, we would limit our diets to various plant fruits. No living thing suffers when you eat fruit, and you're actually helping the plant propagate itself in the process.

I don't think that's at all realistic. Our nutritional needs would adapt over what time scale? And in the meantime, you'd be fucked for protein. A little light googling suggests that the fruit with the highest protein content is dried apricots, a 4 grams a cup. A healthy adult, at the low end of daily recommended protein requirements, would need to eat five pounds of apricots a day to hit that.

Nuts are high in protein, but almost all nuts are seeds, as far as I'm aware. Tree embryos. Granted that they are produced in such abundance the tree anticipates a 98% failure rate for germination.
posted by Diablevert at 8:01 AM on December 24, 2013


Trees deliberately feed their seeds to animals. Nuts can provide plenty of protein. Nuts are often encased in fruit that plants have adapted to be tasty to animals.

Nuts are "embryos"? Really? The anti-abortion crowd have really got people mixed up about things if this is how people are thinking now.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:07 AM on December 24, 2013


I don't think that how people are thinking. It's something I'm pointing out to address the assertion you made that humanity could healthfully survive on stuff trees produce on purpose for animals to consume, thus without causing any harm to the tree.

I'm no botanist, but my layman understanding us that most of the fruit we eat has seeds designed to pass through animal digestive tracts intact --- peach pits, apple seeds, etc. But such fruits consist almost wholly of simple sugars, water, and fiber, and humans need protein to survive.

There are some plant products that contain significant protein --- but these are mostly seeds themselves, the reproductive mechanism of the plant. If you harvest and consume them, the plant does not reproduce. When I eat a cashew, it is entirely consumed by me and cannot create a new cashew tree.

Now, nature's a complicated thing. A plant produces way, way more seeds each year than will ever grow into trees. And in some cases (squirrels and acorns) the tree has, we infer, evolved to make tasty seeds because even though each nut a squirrel eats is destroyed, each nut a squirrel caches and forgets about has a fair chance of becoming an oak tree. But as a matter of ethics, it's hard to argue that destroying an organism's ability to reproduce does it no harm. And that's what you're doing when you eat nuts. Harvesting them is the same as harvesting caviar or chicken eggs.
posted by Diablevert at 8:53 AM on December 24, 2013


The universe is under no obligation to provide you with an ethical way to sustain yourself.

Even if we all became fruitarians, that in no way would erase all of the mountains of human blood and suffering that goes into creating and distributing goods and services and food. From the moment you're born until you die, you suffer and cause others to suffer, then you die. That's all life is. Maybe the best we can do is have a moment of reflection about the absurdity and pointlessness of it all from time to time.

Or to really cherish those moments when we can help others to not suffer when we can.
posted by empath at 9:18 AM on December 24, 2013


The universe is under no obligation to provide you with an ethical way to sustain yourself.

Who gives a fuck? It already has! There are plenty of possible ecological systems that could eliminate the need for cruelty/predatory behavior and provide more practical and sustainable models for living systems at the same time. Predation is ecologically costly and unsustainable except in times of relative biological prosperty. When times are tough, predators disappear. Because they are surplus-feeding parasites.

Plants clearly want us to eat their fruit. When we eat their nuts while ensuring their continued prosperity through sustainable farming/grazing, we do them no harm and behave in a way that could sustain life indefinitely (barring external/self-made climactic or environmental upheaval).

It would, in theory, be a perfectly sustainable system if plant life directly sustained all animal life through fruit production. There's nothing wrong with it as an idea, and honestly, I find it a bit silly it seems to raise such hackles as if it were somehow impossible even to conceive of a sustainable ecological economy that didn't require predation.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:04 AM on December 24, 2013


Plants clearly want us to eat their fruit. When we eat their nuts while ensuring their continued prosperity through sustainable farming/grazing, we do them no harm and behave in a way that could sustain life indefinitely (barring external/self-made climactic or environmental upheaval).

I'm not at all sure that that's clear. You can't hand wave away human's need for protein. Sustaining adaquate protein levels on a vegan diet is difficult. I'm not at all sure it could realistically be done on a large scale using only fruits and sustainably raised nuts and beans. Hell, up until the 1960s, famine was a huge problem in much of the world, that was only addressed through the application of massive amounts of chemical fertilizers and lately, genetically modified pest-resistant crops.
posted by Diablevert at 10:28 AM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


You've kind of made a definition of consciousness which is only relevant to experiences that you personally have, with no possibility of there being other forms or levels of it.

That was not my intention, this works for me:

Experiences that you personally anyone or any 'thing' has.

If you want to consider an ant colony to be an organism, than I think it's also fair to say it can have consciousness.

It is not my consideration of something that makes it conscious. When I smell a rose or see a color, it does not occur because I considered myself a conscious organism, it was caused by something happening in my brain. My consideration of a colony doesn't make it conscious; either it is or it isn't.

Equating consciousness with information processing quickly leads to conclusions like: the United States of America is conscious, McDonald's Corporation is conscious, the global economy is conscious, etc., as soon as we consider them as organisms - as they all store and process information.

If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious


can consciousness really be the sin qua non of intelligence?

Not the but a sine qua npn because intelligence involves 'understanding' which involves consciousness. I'm sure this is an extremely weak argument, but I sense there is something to it.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:25 AM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not at all sure that that's clear. You can't hand wave away human's need for protein.

What does human adaptation to eating protein have to do with whether or not plants are adapted to encourage animals to eat their fruit? That much is more or less undisputed fact. Some living organisms have adopted survival strategies that not only benefit themselves but that directly benefit other organisms. It's possible for creatures to survive and even thrive using such strategies.

Humans aren't adapted to eating only fruit, but over time, we presumably could adapt to such a diet by gradually shifting our long-term behaviors (there are other extent primate species that are so adapted; it's not physically impossible). And in the meantime, there are plenty of vegetable-derived sources of protein (legumes, for example) that we could harvest sustainably in ways that benefit both us and the plants. There is no argument from necessity for eating meat, period. It's a preference. (One that I indulge in myself from time to time, so I'm not arguing from some latent puritanism here.)
posted by saulgoodman at 11:40 AM on December 24, 2013


Wow, Eric Schwitzgebel is awesome.

Crazyism:
Crazyism about X is the view that something that it would be crazy to believe must be among the core truths about X.  In this essay, I argue that crazyism is true of the metaphysics of mind. 
...
I will argue that any well developed materialist metaphysics will be crazy, in the intended sense of the term.  I will argue the same for any well developed dualist metaphysics.  And the same for idealism (well developed or not).  And the same for positions that reject all three of these views or aim to reconcile or compromise among them.  But some metaphysical theory of this sort must be true – that is, either some form of materialism, dualism, or idealism must be true or some sort of rejection or compromise approach must be true.  So something crazy must be among the core truths in the metaphysics of mind.
Reinstalling Eden
posted by Golden Eternity at 4:25 PM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


If we truly wanted to live ethically, we would limit our diets to various plant fruits. No living thing suffers when you eat fruit, and you're actually helping the plant propagate itself in the process.

There is a legend in my buddhist sect about a temple where the priests strictly adhered to the principle of not harming any living thing. They carried brooms to sweep their path, lest they step on an insect and kill it. They would not harm a plant to harvest food, only eating the fruits and grains that naturally fell to the ground. Nor would they absolve themselves of doing harm by letting others do it for them, they would not accept donations of food that would almost certainly cause harm during the harvest. The junior priests could not endure the prolonged hunger, they all ran away. The senior priests, certain of the perfection of their spiritual practices, starved to death.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:39 PM on December 24, 2013


Late to the party but I am loving this thread. Unqualified to comment but after skimming I wonder if decision making is the great cutoff that will give comfort to those who hold that plant-think is total rubbish. I can put a lot of sensors on a device, and give it a program to allow it to act taking lots of inputs into account but it doesn't make decisions. That has been done by the builder. I can dive into these papers with awe and never feel a Copernicus-scale displacement because of the decision making faculty looks to be absent. I can also marvel at them without feeling the threat of an intelligent design hovering over me - my robot example is just a convenient glossing.

Also, I should link to that Mark Wahlberg "trees are ganging up on us" film and the excellent Gil Gilberto live cover of The Secret Life but I am on my phone...
posted by drowsy at 8:18 AM on December 25, 2013


Based on Golden Eternity's quote I'm looking forward to reading the linked articles by Eric Schwitzgebel.
posted by jepler at 5:14 AM on December 26, 2013


here's nothing wrong with it as an idea, and honestly, I find it a bit silly it seems to raise such hackles as if it were somehow impossible even to conceive of a sustainable ecological economy that didn't require predation.

How many acres of land have to be dedicated to fruit production in order to sustain a population of several billion people?
posted by empath at 8:26 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Humans aren't adapted to eating only fruit, but over time, we presumably could adapt to such a diet by gradually shifting our long-term behaviors (there are other extent primate species that are so adapted; it's not physically impossible). And in the meantime, there are plenty of vegetable-derived sources of protein (legumes, for example) that we could harvest sustainably in ways that benefit both us and the plants. There is no argument from necessity for eating meat, period. It's a preference. (One that I indulge in myself from time to time, so I'm not arguing from some latent puritanism here.)

This seems a genuinely bizarre train of thought. The human race cannot will itself into adapting its diet; the way natural selection works is that a bunch of people die young. Announcing that initiating a human holocaust is the only ethical path is um, strange.

You can do vegetarianism with no particular health problems, even for kids, but veganism will generally leave you micronutrient deficient without artificially enriched foods, and is extremely, extremely questionable for kids. Fruitarian is a good way to _kill_ or stunt kids; roots and leaves are rather vital sources of nutrient variety in a vegan diet. And that's even if you and allow nuts and seeds, and given that most grain and legume harvesting involves chopping down the plants to make way for the next cycle, it's hard to see how it would be more 'ethical' than harvesting a cabbage.
posted by tavella at 3:08 PM on December 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Equating consciousness with information processing quickly leads to conclusions like: the United States of America is conscious, McDonald's Corporation is conscious, the global economy is conscious, etc., as soon as we consider them as organisms - as they all store and process information.

I dunno, man, it seems like one could posit that consciousness is an emergent property of sufficiently complex information processing without it meaning that everything that processes information is conscious.


Not the but a sine qua npn because intelligence involves 'understanding' which involves consciousness. I'm sure this is an extremely weak argument, but I sense there is something to it.

So it doesn't count as intelligent unless I'm aware of myself knowing it? I feel like this is just tautological: intelligence is consciousness is intelligence. I dunno if that's the best definition of intelligence, though. There are plenty of decisions my body makes without my being consciously aware of them --- if something comes flying at my eye, I don't think to myself, "that's dangerous, guess I should close my eyes" I just close them. We can and do react to sensory input more quickly than we can formulate conscious thoughts about that input.

You could say, well, closing your eyelids or yanking your hand off a hot stove doesn't require intelligence, it's just a reflex. But take a slightly different example: I'm a big hand talker, but I'm rarely aware that I'm doing it when I'm doing it. It's something others have pointed out to me. Consciously, when we're having a conversation, I am thinking of the words I want to say and their meaning; I am not thinking, "and when you describe how frustrated you were, fling your hands out in front of you in a gesture of impatience". Yet I do that, if I'm telling a story. That seems to me to be a little too complicated a behavior to be described as a reflex or an instinct; I make the gestures I make to emphasize the points I want to emphasize, to heighten emotion and better hold my audience's attention. At some level, is there not some part of me that is deciding how to do that, deciding where to put my hands and how to move them? And how exactly does the emoting I do shade into and differ from, say, what a jazz musician does when they improvise a solo? They also are trying to hold an audience's attention, to communicate an emotion, using a set repertoire of gestures, and I don't think anyone'd argue that doing that doesn't 't require skill, intelligence, at a high level. But are they constantly naming to themselves the next note they'll play, mid- solo? I doubt it, somehow.
posted by Diablevert at 7:04 AM on December 28, 2013



it seems like one could posit that consciousness is an emergent property of sufficiently complex information processing without it meaning that everything that processes information is conscious.


Schwitzgebel argues that nations do have what are claimed by "materialists" to be information processing abilities sufficient for consciousness.
Yet it’s unclear by what materialist standard the United States lacks consciousness.  Nations, it would seem, represent and self-represent.  They respond (semi-)intelligently and self-protectively, in a coordinated way, to opportunities and threats.  They gather, store, and manipulate information.  They show skillful attunement to environmental inputs in warring and spying on each other.  Their subparts (people and subgroups of people) are massively informationally interconnected and mutually dependent, including in incredibly fancy self-regulating feedback loops.  These are the kinds of capacities and structures that materialists typically regard as the heart of mentality.[15]  Nations do all these things via the behavior of their subparts, of course; but on materialist views individual people also do what they do via the behavior of their subparts.
But it is not even clear to me that 'information processing' of a very high complexity is required for all conscious experiences. Pain or smell for example. The processing involved would seem to just involve detecting a condition that merits a certain pain or a certain smell and then generating the experience. But what does information processing have to do with the actual experience of a certain pain or smell itself?

"Something beyond our understanding occurs in the genesis of qualia, the transformation of an objective cerebral computation to a subjective experience." --Oliver Sacks

So it doesn't count as intelligent unless I'm aware of myself knowing it?


Intelligence is a nebulous concept. When it comes to understanding and comprehending ideas and understanding the meaning of words, I am suggesting that conscious thinking is required. Perhaps this is just one component or category of 'intelligence.' Other than the idea that consciousness emerges directly from 'information processing,' I don't think I disagree with anything in your comment.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:13 AM on December 29, 2013


The linked paper by Schwitzgebel further pushes me toward concluding that "intelligence" and "consciousness" must not be the traits that entail moral duty. But I'm left even more at sea wondering what those traits are. I'm only falling into a different neurocentric trap if I concede that the US is conscious but deny that an individual person has a moral duty towards the US.

Otherwise, if I concede that I have a moral duty towards individual supersquids and antheads, how do I stop that argument (however I develop it) from carrying forward to the US for largely the same reasons that the argument for consciousness works?

Perhaps by trying to salvage some kind of nesting principle of morality: the humans have moral duty towards humans, and the states have moral duty towards states. But if states have moral duty, I'd rather they had moral duty towards humans and care less whether they have moral duty to states.
posted by jepler at 7:02 AM on December 29, 2013


What you have described is essential realpolitik as practiced by Henry Kissinger. (States have a moral duty toward states only.).
posted by empath at 10:37 AM on December 29, 2013


The linked paper by Schwitzgebel further pushes me toward concluding that "intelligence" and "consciousness" must not be the traits that entail moral duty. But I'm left even more at sea wondering what those traits are. I'm only falling into a different neurocentric trap if I concede that the US is conscious but deny that an individual person has a moral duty towards the US.


Yeah, I'm pretty worried about this. It seems intuitive that having a subjective experience is a necessary and sufficient criterion for the contents of one's subjective experience to be morally significant. For example, if a being can experience pain, then that pain appears to be morally relevant just by virtue of its being possible. But if we should be attributing subjective experiences to almost everything, or to nothing, or if there is no definitive "fact of the matter" about how to attribute them, etc., then we would seem to be at sea, morally.
posted by grobstein at 10:40 AM on January 9


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