The inner life of plants


When I was a boy in Sri Lanka, I was fascinated by a small plant that grew close to the ground. It had tiny leaves that looked like miniature versions of coconut palm fronds. When you gently touched even a single leaf, the entire set of fronds would immediately curl themselves in, as if to escape from me. It was extraordinary. I used to go through the plant bed, touching each one until they all were curled up. After being left alone for some time, they would unfurl themselves.

Did the plant have intelligence? Was it seeing me as a threat to withdraw from and re-emerge only after I left? It never occurred to me then to wonder. To even pose such a question is to invite controversy, if not outright ridicule. We tend to think of an intelligent organism as having a mind, which presupposes the existence of a material brain and a nervous system, and also having a body which enables the organism to have agency and move around freely in response to external conditions. Plants were long thought to lack pretty much all those features, although they have limited movement in response to light and water and other features of the environment. Some can also trap and devour insects. But we tend to stop short of using the term intelligence to describe those actions.

But have we humans fallen prey once again to viewing ourselves as the pinnacle of creation, and ascribe features to us that we think of as lacking in other organisms so that they justify our sense of superiority? This can be seductive since it is so self-serving, enabling those at the perceived top of a hierarchy to view those below as inferior and thus able to be exploited for their benefit. That way of thinking has enabled sexist and racist thinking in the past, with women and people of color seen as not entitled to the same rights and privileges as white men.

Times have changed and more enlightened thinking sees those views as unfounded. We have also started ascribing rights to other animal species. We now view them as also having consciousness. But we have tended to draw the line to include only those organisms that have some kind of central nervous system, and thus are more complex than (say) jelly fish.

But new scholarship seeks to expand the circle even more, to include plants. Two recent articles reviewed the recent scholarly literature that makes the case for plants having at least some of the capacities that we associate with intelligence, despite not having a traditional nervous system. Rachel Riederer reviews a new book The Light Eaters: How the Unseen World of Plant Intelligence Offers a New Understanding of Life on Earth by Zoë Schlanger.

The contemporary world of botany that Schlanger explores in “The Light Eaters” is still divided over the matter of how plants sense the world and whether they can be said to communicate. But, in the past twenty years, the idea that plants communicate has gained broader acceptance. Research in recent decades has shown garden-variety lima beans protecting themselves by synthesizing and releasing chemicals to summon the predators of the insects that eat them; lab-grown pea shoots navigating mazes and responding to the sound of running water; and a chameleonic vine in the jungles of Chile mimicking the shape and color of nearby plants by a mechanism that’s not yet understood.

Schlanger’s own introduction to the notion that plants might be able to exhibit behavior at all came when she learned that male ferns release sperm that swim in rainwater; emerging research indicated that they emit a hormone to sabotage other nearby fern sperm in order to outcompete them. It’s already clear that plants have amazing biological capabilities: they respond to light, and react in sophisticated ways to seasonal changes, waiting for the right combination of warmth and water to grow or flower. Plants have also been shown to respond to sound—the beach evening primrose, a small yellow flower, makes its nectar sweeter when played a recording of a flying honeybee. A recurrent theme of Schlanger’s book is the challenge of categorizing such abilities in comparison with our own. Primroses may respond to sound—but that doesn’t mean that they “hear” the way that we do. As Schlanger writes, they have a version of “earless” hearing: “Sound, to them, is pure vibration.”

An earlier best-selling book The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird that was published in 1973 argued that plants did have minds but the book contained unsound science and unjustified speculations mixed with some real science, and that sent this field into some disrepute. Rachel Petersen discussed that earlier book and how its ideas date back to the work of Gustav Theodor Fechner over 150 years ago. She quotes food writer Michael Pollan who says that this book was a ‘beguiling mashup of legitimate plant science, quack experiments, and mystical nature worship that captured the public imagination at a time when New Age thinking was seeping into the mainstream.’

As Riederer writes of that earlier book:

The authors claimed that plants could feel and hear, that they preferred classical music to rock, that they could—according to a polygraph test that a former C.I.A. agent administered to a houseplant—have a kind of memory. The book made it to the New York Times best-seller list and was turned into a documentary with a soundtrack by Stevie Wonder. It also made a laughingstock of the idea of plant intelligence, and for a long time it seriously hindered the possibility of serious study. “The twin gatekeepers of science funding boards and peer review boards—always conservative institutions—closed the doors,” Schlanger writes.

The field is only now slowly recovering from that disrepute and is re-entering the world of serious scientific investigation. That process can be said to have begun with a 2006 journal article Plant neurobiology: an integrated view of plant signaling in which the abstract says:

Plant neurobiology is a newly focused field of plant biology research that aims to understand how plants process the information they obtain from their environment to develop, prosper and reproduce optimally. The behavior plants exhibit is coordinated across the whole organism by some form of integrated signaling, communication and response system. This system includes long-distance electrical signals, vesicle-mediated transport of auxin in specialized vascular tissues, and production of chemicals known to be neuronal in animals. Here we review how plant neurobiology is being directed toward discovering the mechanisms of signaling in whole plants, as well as among plants and their neighbors.

As Riederer writes about this article:

In 2006, a group of plant scientists published a provocative article arguing that the field had been censoring itself, failing to ask the questions about the possible parallels between neurobiology and phytobiology. They wrote about the many “choices” that plants seemed to make, and about the emergent understanding of signalling. Plants can carry out signalling within their own bodies, producing electrical impulses that send information to their stems and leaves, even using two of the same neurotransmitters—glycine and glutamate—involved in animal brains. They also send information to one another, exchanging signals through chemicals that they emit in the air and underground, where long strands of fungi act as telephone wires between systems. The authors said it was time to “study plants as behavioral organisms with a capacity to receive, store, share, process and use information . . . and integrate this information into responsive behavior.”

Schlanger writes about scientists who are studying how plants change their shape and respond to sound, how they use electricity to convey information, how they send one another chemical signals.

However, Schlanger says that researchers in this field are still very wary of how they talk about their work, fearing being misunderstood and ridiculed and in researching her book, she had to approach them very gingerly.

She says that we need to think more closely about what we mean by the word intelligence.

Are plants intelligent? It doesn’t just depend on whom you ask, but what you mean by the term. Schlanger proposes several ways of describing intelligence, all of which apply to both humans and plants: the ability to communicate, the transmission of information via electrochemistry, the ability to respond to the threats and opportunities that the world presents. By design, these definitions stretch the definition of intelligence beyond what we’re used to—for Schlanger, that’s part of the appeal. A key lesson of studying plant intelligence, she suggests, referencing Pollan, is that perhaps we should rethink our own.

This follows a general pattern. The more closely we study something, the harder it becomes to sharply define it and draw clear lines of demarcation, to make the claim that this or that feature is unique to this or that organism and thus justifies its superior status and the right to dominion. Features seems to exist in various degrees in different species. Indeed it is hard to draw clear lines even between species, something we have known from as far back as Charles Darwin. In some sense, this should not be surprising. After all, as the theory of evolution tells us, every single organism is connected to every other in the tree of life. It thus should not be surprising that we share so many features.

One of those features is the possibility that plants may feel pain.

In a lab in Wisconsin, Schlanger pinches the leaf of an Arabidopsis plant, and sees its veins light up under a microscope in “a bioluminescent ripple” of a wave of sensation. It seems to Schlanger that, by pinching the lab plant, she will cause it pain, and be partaking in “a vegetal version of the Milgram shock experiment.” One of the scientists running the experiment, Simon Gilroy, offers a nuanced description of the system; the ripple looks similar to an animal’s nervous system but is actually a set of “conduits of cells that could allow propagation of an electrical change that a plant uses for information.” Plants don’t have brains; they don’t have neurons. But they might have structures that function similarly.

When I read that passage, my mind went back to the plants I used to touch in order to see them curl up. Was that ‘recoil’? Was I causing them pain? Clearly they had a reflexive response but are we merely projecting when we think we are causing pain?

What practical implications could there be from learning to think of plants as having intelligence? Back in 1789, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham made the case for extending the right to life to all animals, arguing:“The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” That argument that other animals can suffer has been persuasive to many who have become vegetarians and vegans. But we cannot live without some kind of food and arguing that plants have intelligence and other capacities that we associate with animals surely will not result in people not eating plants, though we may speculate about some far future where we eat only synthetic food.

So there may not be any immediate practical consequences from an affirmative answer to the question of whether plants have intelligence. But learning that they have some form of it may shed more light on the nature of human intelligence.

Comments

  1. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    A well known populariser of plants-as-a-network is Peter Wohlleben.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Wohlleben
    My summary of his thinking: the smallest meaningful unit is a forest; the trees are just organs in it. Or any other plants or animals. They form a slowly communicating network that might be intelligent.
    He has many arguments based on science, but his style is sometimes pretty close to New Ageism. Still worth reading for the helicopter view of forest ecology.

  2. Bruce says

    Flowers have evolved to emit odors. This is reinforced by pollinators who are attracted to the odors, and odorless plants are less likely to reproduce. You could CALL this communication, but I’d just call it evolution. The flowers don’t emit more scent when they detect a pollinator. Pollinators are also attracted by the color, so you can call the color communication, but the color is unchanged. I don’t think the orange color of my shirt is communication, even it it attracts bees. So I think it is more consistent speech to say that plants have evolutionary properties, but that this is NOT what we normally mean by communication. Response to touch isn’t what we mean by intelligence, or would one call a house of cards intelligent for collapsing when touched?

  3. Holms says

    Are plants intelligent? It doesn’t just depend on whom you ask, but what you mean by the term. Schlanger proposes several ways of describing intelligence, all of which apply to both humans and plants: the ability to communicate, the transmission of information via electrochemistry, the ability to respond to the threats and opportunities that the world presents.

    Awful. Item one means all pheromones, chemotaxis, and similar chemical-mediated stimulus and response systems are intelligence…macrophages are intelligent! Item two mistakes the process by which signals can be mediated (probably a pre-requisite for intelligence) as intelligence itself. Item three is just impossibly broad.

    In combination, they change the meaning of intelligence enough to render it totally unrecognisable.

  4. Deepak Shetty says

    Im curious why hard determinists believe in “intelligence” (however you define it) in general , much less in plants

  5. Robbo says

    I am reminded of a quote by a comedian I heard a long time ago:

    “I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals, I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants.”
    ― A. Whitney Brown

  6. Ed says

    If it turns out that plants are as intelligent as e.g. slugs will the vegans who claim to be vegans because of pain/intelligence/brains starve to death and stop annoying the rest of us?

  7. anat says

    Relevant to this conversation: What if absolutely everything is conscious?.

    Some points: The article describes a case where a plant that has a recoiling reaction can stop recoiling under conditions where the trigger of the recoil turns out to be harmless (they don’t mention if the same plant retains the recoil reaction to more typical triggers). Also, plants are affected by (some kinds of?) anesthetics (see also What Sedated Plants Can Teach Scientists About Anesthetizing People) -- but again, I’m not sure what this means, other than these anesthetics work on some cellular mechanism that is shared between animals and plants. The article doesn’t discuss things like phototropism (the way plants grow towards light) which is pretty well understood.

    No more links as I have reached the 2 link limit.

    Anyway, the article goes on to speculate about the possibility of some level of consciousness all the way down to sub-atomic particles. I heard of something like this some 20 years ago, a physicist that was toying with the idea that an electron may have some rudimentary free-will (which would be the cause of low-probability behaviors).

    Anyway, the question of panpsychism is similar to the free-will question -- what if everything in the universe is essentially the same, but to different degrees. One view says everything has some level of internal experience, the other -- that even the most complex behaviors are ultimately no different than physical reactions and interactions, and our internal experience is a side effect of it.

  8. anat says

    Deepak Shetty, I don’t see why non-belief in free-will precludes intelligence? Intelligence is something one observes -- here is a black box that is capable of solving such and such problems. Free-will is about whether the ability to solve said problem (as well as the decision whether to engage with the problem in the first place) arises from some kind of internal ‘freedom’ -- if anyone ever defines this ‘freedom’ in a satisfying manner.

  9. John Morales says

    I first came across this via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyall_Watson Supernature.

    Plants look somewhat different — even have “behaviours” — when using an appropriate time frame.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtsJ5m6C7dU

    Anyway, the article goes on to speculate about the possibility of some level of consciousness all the way down to sub-atomic particles.

    Which is exceedingly silly, of course.
    Unless one considers ‘zero’ to be a level of consciousness, I grant. 🙂

    We had a loon (IIRC Matthew Segal — the nickname was ‘seagull’) in Pharyngula around 15 years or so ago that effused over that claim.
    He based those claims on a version of process philosophy (Alfred Whitehead) he called process theology.

    (Lots of lovely arguing with him, as he fancied himself a philosophical cosmologist)

  10. Deepak Shetty says

    @anat

    I don’t see why non-belief in free-will precludes intelligence?

    I suppose it depends on how you would answer the question Is a calculator good at math ?(what if the programming was faulty!)
    Or if helium rises is it smart ? and if the apple fell to the earth is it dumb ?

    If we all follow some laws and just do as we were going to do per that law then either everything is intelligent or nothing is or the word is meaningless.

  11. file thirteen says

    @anat #7:

    IMO adherents of panpsychism are on the right track, but are, like so, so many others, misled by thinking that consciousness is the same thing as the first-person perspective. My view is that a first-person perspective field lies throughout the universe, which in turn means that every sense is experienced. This isn’t consciousness itself though; instead it is every “consciousness”, whether that of a human, a slug, a plant, or a virus, that is experienced.

    If you take me and cut away my five senses and my memory, then how do I differ from an avalanche? If I am then fed I digest and excrete, but in a complete mechanistic way (although read on). The only difference you might perceive is that if you add back what you removed you would call me conscious again, but if the components of an avalanche were built into a replica of myself, you could say the same thing about that. My assertion is that the first-person perspective applies to both, and everything else too.

    In fact what you think of as “yourself” is actually this first-person perspective experiencing the body/mind that you’re attached to, for want of a better term. It’s not possible to be switched to be connected to anything else, any more than you could suddenly turn into a teacup, but if it if was and yours transferred to a cat, you would be that cat and as far as you knew you always would have been. Mano (for example) will think and do what a Mano will think and do, including thinking about itself, but it’s the first-person perspective that is experiencing Mano that is the “real” Mano. Without that Mano would a machine, no more, but that statement is itself misleading because even a machine has a perspective. It’s just that anything without some sort of sense becomes trivial as far as being “perceived” applies because there’s nothing to perceive.

    And yes, this means that an AI (or robot) has a perspective too. This doesn’t mean that it has a sudden ability to reason when it didn’t have one before! If you want an AI that is obsessed with its sense of self the way some of us are, you’ll have to write one (or it will have to be evolved, eg. through natural selection).

    Also “memory” is a misleading term: any change to an object can be regarded as a memory, without which it remains unchanged. We are misled by our bodies which record sensory input to be replayed, but it’s the modification to those recordings that makes “memory” so memory is just change, like an apple having had a bite taken out of it.

    The religious concept of a “soul” got close to this, if you consider your “soul” to be the real you, the spark that experiences the body and mind that you think you are. I would be happy to use the term soul, but it’s quite different to the ghost soul of popular culture, and the concept of losing ones soul is ludicrous (and don’t get me started on heaven and hell).

    Alternatively you might think that a first-person perspective is just a natural phenomenon (of matter, or even non-materially, a universal truth of identity, like 1 not equalling 2 in mathematics), not a field. I prefer to think of it as a field, but as you like.

    Anyway, that’s enough for now, this body/mind grows weary…

  12. John Morales says

    Sure.

    “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”
    (Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker)

    The morphic field, no?
    The akashic record!
    The collective unconscious…

    (heh)

    F13, woo, I can do.

    The religious concept of a “soul”

    Which one?
    Even within religions that use that little conceit (formalised religions, obs) those concepts are around the same cardinality as the religions.

    (And what about the distinction between a soul and a spirit?)

  13. ardipithecus says

    If a plant can send a chemical messenger to another plant via the micorrhiza network, can it also not-send the message if it considers the other plant is an asshole? If it has no volition, how does its reaction qualitatively differ from etching a rock with acid?

  14. Ridana says

    I took a botany class in college, and the professor was so fanatical about making sure we knew plants are not intelligent that his tests included T/F questions like, “Plants turn toward the sun to receive the more light.” False, because plants don’t have intention. Other questions had the implied intention hidden more carefully, and if you wrote an answer that wasn’t precisely worded to avoid suggesting agency, it was incorrect. You could say, “Some plants produce toxins which protect against predators,” but not “Some plants produce toxins to protect against predators.” I sometimes felt like parsing the English was more the focus of the class than botany.

  15. John Morales says

    ardipithecus @14 (sorry, we crossed), the distinction is between consciousness, sapience, sentience, and intelligence. Let’s exclude volition, it’s not necessary.

    So. Plants are very much sentient.

    The video I adduced @10 shows a “kiwi” as #4 — and at that time rate, you can see it waving around trying to get a grip on things.

    However, conscious, intelligent, sapient? Heh.

    (That’s called ‘anthropomorphism’)

  16. anat says

    Deepak Shetty @11: Think of a child learning to do addition by using the ‘counting on’ method: They need to solve ‘3+2=?’ So they count: ‘three-four-five’ -- the answer is five. They do that a few times, and one day they see ‘3+2=?’ and know, from their previous experience, that the answer is five, and they no longer need to count from three to find the answer. This is an example of intelligence, but the insight that the answer will be just the same it was all the previous times they counted from three to five, and they don’t need to count, they just know the answer -- this insight comes unbidden, there is no will (free or otherwise) in having that moment of insight. Thus intelligence can operate without will.

  17. Holms says

    Gah dayum there is some egregious woo in here.

    File13, feel free to postulate whatever you want, but is there anything to commend that particular model of ‘first person-ness’ to one? Also,

    Mano (for example) will think and do what a Mano will think and do, including thinking about itself, but it’s the first-person perspective that is experiencing Mano that is the “real” Mano. Without that Mano would a machine, no more, but that statement is itself misleading because even a machine has a perspective.

    how would anyone tell the difference between either Mano if the non-experiencing Mano still does and thinks what a Mano does and thinks? This is just the philosophical zombie concept with additional necessary assumptions, and therefore even less plausibility.

  18. file thirteen says

    @Holms #25:

    File13, feel free to postulate whatever you want, but is there anything to commend that particular model of ‘first person-ness’ to one?

    Here is my reasoning, you tell me.

    -- first-person perspective is a real thing, because I have it
    -- I am not different enough from others to think that I have it when others do not
    -- therefore others have it
    -- it is easier to postulate that everyone has it than to hypothesise why some might and some might not
    -- I have no basis for believing that there is anyone who doesn’t have it
    -- therefore might as well hypothesise that everyone has it
    -- we live in a material world
    -- humans are materially indistinguishable from other living beings
    -- therefore all living beings have it
    -- some living beings are very small (eg. blood cells)
    -- life as we know it originated from basic building blocks (eg. proteins)
    -- life is materially not much different to replicating non-life (eg.viruses)
    -- nothing has been found in even the smallest life that might “create” a first-person perspective, even if we had any idea how that could be done without requiring a deus ex machina
    -- therefore it’s easiest to think that a first-person perspective is something fundamental to the universe
    -- the question then is how you want to interpret that. I like to interpret it as an all-pervading field, ymmv. By all means mention how you might like to think of it, that is if you haven’t spat the dummy over my reasoning so far.

    Maybe this is too much “woo” for you, but I don’t see how time and (especially) first-person perspective over time can be discussed without getting into that territory. Just calling time another dimension of space makes things worse, not better, especially when you consider that time is subjective for moving individuals. But if you’re just attempting to shut the door on religion in this discussion, you’re preaching to the converted, no pun intended.

    how would anyone tell the difference between either Mano if the non-experiencing Mano still does and thinks what a Mano does and thinks?

    You couldn’t, if there was such a thing. Rather than bog yourself down with such unanswerable questions, I think it’s not much of a stretch to presume there aren’t any such “non-experiencing” Manos. Hard to move forward otherwise since such concepts seem utterly incompatible with experiment.

    This is just the philosophical zombie concept with additional necessary assumptions, and therefore even less plausibility.

    Postulating that there could be entities without a first-person perspective would be similar to the idea of philosophical zombies, but given that what I was proposing hinged on the assumption that are no such things, I certainly wasn’t going to muddy the waters by mentioning philosophical zombies. Not that I can actually fathom what “additional necessary assumptions” you’re talking about.

  19. Holms says

    Righto.

    1- first-person perspective is a real thing, because I have it
    2- I am not different enough from others to think that I have it when others do not
    3- therefore others have it
    4- it is easier to postulate that everyone has it than to hypothesise why some might and some might not
    5- I have no basis for believing that there is anyone who doesn’t have it
    6- therefore might as well hypothesise that everyone has it
    7- we live in a material world
    8- humans are materially indistinguishable from other living beings
    9- therefore all living beings have it
    10- some living beings are very small (eg. blood cells)
    11 life as we know it originated from basic building blocks (eg. proteins)
    12 life is materially not much different to replicating non-life (eg.viruses)
    13 nothing has been found in even the smallest life that might “create” a first-person perspective, even if we had any idea how that could be done without requiring a deus ex machina
    14 therefore it’s easiest to think that a first-person perspective is something fundamental to the universe
    15 the question then is how you want to interpret that. I like to interpret it as an all-pervading field, ymmv. By all means mention how you might like to think of it, that is if you haven’t spat the dummy over my reasoning so far.

    I take issue with your reasoning starting at 8, as I find the wording odd. I think I know what you mean: we are not special, not fundamentally different, right? That is, having a first-person experience is not necessarily unique to us.

    Taking that as the correct interpretation until you say otherwise, 9 is where things really go off the rails. A trait can be non-specific to us and yet fall far short of being universal. For example endothermy is not unique to us, but we cannot by that alone assume all living beings are endothermic.

    There are multiple other problems to my eye, but finding one early on is enough to render the conclusion unsupported.

  20. SchreiberBike says

    We use the words “consciousness” and “intelligence” without having clear definitions. It is easy to think that the consciousness and intelligence we know as humans is the thing to define, but I do not think that is sufficient. Other entities are quantitatively and qualitatively different from us, but if we think of wider definitions, they do show consciousness and intelligence, not like humans, but like themselves. The examples above of actions we observe in plants, fungi and microorganisms, which some will not describe as behavior or the results of decisions, can fairly be described as a kind of intelligence and a consciousness of something.

    I think in terms of modules of intelligence or modules of consciousness. Modules which pile up and get stronger and work together which make species different in quality and quantity from one another.

    Do plants and animals suffer? Some experience pain which has similarities to ours, but I wonder which experience dread or anguish.

  21. anat says

    One thing missing from the line of reasoning offered by file thirteen @26 is the matter of emergence. We know that in many cases interactions between enough simple units can create an entity with traits that do not exist in any of the composite units. For instance, an individual water molecule doesn’t have the trait of wetness. But take enough water molecules, and the hydrogen bonds they form among themselves, and you get a fluid that has the property of being wet. A single white blood cell can produce a certain amount of a specific antibody to a specific epitope, or release a certain amount of certain chemokines, but it is the concerted action of many white blood cells of several different kinds that determine whether the overall reaction to an antigen (which itself has multiple epitopes) is one of immunity, tolerance, or hypersensitivity. More complex systems (ie those that have more components, of more types, with more interactions among them) will have entirely new traits that simpler systems lack. This is not just a quantitative difference but a qualitative one.

  22. moarscienceplz says

    re: Plant “suffering” reminds me of my honeysuckle bed. I bought my house when it was about 15 years old, and it had a bed of honeysuckle planted near the front door that I believe is as old as the house. It was an overgrown tangle of very long vines that were totally leafless except for a cluster near the very end. In order for me to get rid of the parts that were overrunning the sidewalk, I cut away nearly every leaf. I was then left with just a jumble of dead-looking brown vines. These looked so awful that I cut them away, too, leaving just a few inches of stems sticking out of the ground. I assumed the plants were just too old to ever grow nicely again and I made a mental note to try to find something to replace them with. I then ignored the bed for several months. I didn’t even water it because I thought such drastic pruning would probably kill the honeysuckle. To my surprise, I had the most beautiful display of lovely leaves and masses of sweet-smelling flowers the next summer, and that honeysuckle bed is still going strong thirty years later with nothing from me except heavy pruning every few years. If those plants suffered, they had an extraordinary response to it.

  23. file thirteen says

    @Holms #27:

    I’ll explain what I meant in lines 8 (numbering them was a good move!) and 9 by way of induction. I’ve already ventured to say that the first-person perspective is not unique to some humans and not others, so for the purposes of discussing those two lines, let’s take that as a given. Then:

    8.1 chimpanzees’ DNA is 98.8% similar to human DNA
    8.2 we have no evidence that humans possess something capable of generating a first-person perspective when chimpanzees, very much like us, do not
    8.3 and yet we are taking it as read that humans have it
    8.4 moreover, we don’t even have any idea how a first-person perspective could be emergent (hat tip anat)
    8.5 therefore I posit that chimpanzees (all chimpanzees, using the same reasoning for positing all humans rather than some) have it
    8.6 steps 8.1 to 8.5 by induction to all types of apes
    8.7 steps 8.1 to 8.5 by induction to all mammals
    8.8 steps 8.1 etc. by induction to all animals
    8.9 by induction to all living creatures

    But what about the non-living? Might AI have it? Here’s where emergence comes in. I’ll reply to anat.

    @anat #29:

    Emergence might be one way to break the argument. But the emergence of wetness for water relies on the property of a water molecule, that it becomes wet en masse. So if emergence is the reason for having a fpp (getting tired of having to write “first-person perspective” and I haven’t thought of a catchy non-misleading term for it yet*) then there must be some type of compounds (small) or structures (larger) from which a fpp can emerge.

    How do we go about ascertaining what might be able to produce fpps and what might not? The task seems Herculean, akin to attempting to prove that time is an emergent property. Like anything (near?) impossible to prove, it can’t be ruled out, but my proposal is that it’s a fundamental property. Whether of matter or even more basic than that, I don’t know, but time was eventually handled in physics by theorising that it was as fundamental as (and in fact part and parcel of) space. Not that that proves anything, but if fpp is an emergent property, on what basis would you assert that it emerges on the macroscopic (not microscopic) level? On what basis might you suggest that humans possess a fpp but bacteria don’t?

    I propose that everything does. I have no more proof of that than others might have when asserting there’s some level at which it emerges, but asserting the latter requires drawing a line between haves and have-nots, and determining where that line is drawn is exceedingly problematic.

    The biggest problem of this whole area of discussion is that fpp falls into the category of, as Holms put it, “woo”, although we (I!) know it exists. So does time actually, but time is far more tractable when it comes to experiment. But if you are suggesting that said emergence occurs on a microscopic scale, there still remain the questions: do plants have it? Do bacteria have it? If not, what is the evidence for that? Is there any at all? Where is the line drawn? Why does a line have to be drawn at all?

    *I’d love to co-opt the word “soul”, but it comes with far too much religious baggage not to confuse everything

  24. Deepak Shetty says

    @anat

    and know, from their previous experience, that the answer is five, and they no longer need to count from three to find the answer

    Ill modify your example to a slightly more realistic one.
    Lets say you and I are of similar backgrounds and age and are together in kindergarten where the math teacher teaches addition. You pay attention in class, do all your homework and assignments, Im doodling pictures of batman in my workbook and have particularly troublesome pet who routinely eats my homework.
    Universe 1
    The teacher conducts a test. You score more than me . You are deemed smarter than me in math. The teacher thinks its because you are a sincere student and I am the class dunce. However unless you chose or in someway determined to be sincere(, which is not some arbitrary laws of physics that interacted with some arbitrary brain structure/state that you had no part in determining) why would this mean you are smarter ? In the hard determinist model you are going to answer the same way and its not you who decided it (your reasoning is post-hoc)
    Universe 2
    The teacher conducts a test. You score less than me. I am deemed to be “naturally gifted” -- The teacher thinks there is no justice in this world or that i am somehow smart enough to cheat and evade being caught. In this case am i smarter in math than you ? I have no idea why my brain can solve math problems seemingly without even trying. In the hard determinist model it is what it is -- i can say the right answer without even being able to explain why,

    Your metabolism may be better than mine or you may be less prone to diabetes than me -- we dont think that makes you smarter than me(unless you chose better diet/exercise etc) -- because these are involuntary things . if you dont determine how your brain works then smartness cant be a factor either.

  25. anat says

    Deepak Shetty @32: I’m not sure how all the various things you bring to your post are connected to each other.

    Yes, someone can choose to do the things that lead them to learn, or they can choose not to. But why do they choose one thing over the other? How does the choice happen? To the best of our understanding, our choices seem to be unconscious, at least most of the time, and while self-reflection can lead us to arrive at some narrative about a specific choice, that narrative can be shown, at least in some cases, to be false. While we imagine our conscious selves to be in charge of our choices, a model that better matches findings from neurological experiments is that the subconscious makes choices, and the conscious self invents a narrative after the fact. Your conscious self isn’t your CEO, it is your press secretary. And the subconscious makes its choices based on inputs available to it, and its prior state, and general environmental conditions at the time the choice is being made. I haven’t seen other ways to make choices. If we want people to make more desirable choices we need to understand under what conditions such choices are more likely (and yes, desirable to whom is a big question, and yes, bad actors can do this as well, in fact, they are doing it already, so it is irresponsible to let them be the only ones).

    I don’t understand your question about someone being considered smarter based on a performance they did not consciously choose. Just change the word. What is the purpose of the test? Is it to identify students who need support? Is it to identify students who can move on to the next stage of learning? Is it to identify teachers who succeed to motivate students to learn (maybe their methods should be copied by other teachers)? Or identify teachers who succeed at conferring skills to the students? If the test isn’t going to be used for some positive action it shouldn’t be done. Tests should not be done simply so you can praise those that succeed at them and be mean to those who don’t. So a student can be successful at applying a certain skill (under certain conditions), without being labeled overall smarter than an other student.

    Don’t praise for the purpose of praising, don’t blame for the purpose of blaming, don’t punish for the sake of punishing, give whichever feedback is most likely to lead to better future performance or behavior.

  26. anat says

    file thirteen @31: It is entirely possible to accept that there is likelihood that a trait such as fpp exists in some entities and not in others without knowing for sure which is which. The whole thing about science is that there are plenty of open questions. Also, I expect that the fpp experience would be different in different types of entities, and even in the ‘same’ entity over time (colloquially we each consider ourselves to be a single distinct and continuous entity, but in many senses we are obviously not). I am pretty sure the fpp experience of an infant who has yet to develop separation anxiety is very (qualitatively) different from that of the same infant once separation anxiety has developed and been experienced.

  27. John Morales says

    [OT]

    The teacher conducts a test. You score more than me . You are deemed smarter than me in math.

    Presumably, by people who see the results of the test, not by the teacher.

    Because I’m pretty darn sure any teacher worth their salt will know damn well which student is “smarter at math” than the other.

    (One of those cases where I reckon I’m noting something that our host is a bit too modest and politely discreet to mention)

  28. John Morales says

    The topic title is “The inner life of plants”, but it promptly drifted into panpsychism.

    (So silly!)

  29. John Morales says

    [related]

    There are many variations on this joke:

    A mushroom walks into a bar and orders a drink.
    The bartender tells him to get out.
    The mushroom says, “Why? I’m a fun guy.”

    (“Why was the mushroom invited to the party?”, etc)

    They are no more and no less evolved than plants. Fun guys.

    (Slime molds are weird)

  30. file thirteen says

    @anat #34:

    I am pretty sure the fpp experience of an infant who has yet to develop separation anxiety is very (qualitatively) different from that of the same infant once separation anxiety has developed and been experienced.

    The consciousness of the two is very different and the experience could indeed be just as different. That doesn’t relate to the fpp though. The fpp is the capability and continuity of experiencing something’s inputs in the first person, unrelated to whatever the experience may be.

  31. anat says

    file thirteen @38:

    The fpp is the capability and continuity of experiencing something’s inputs in the first person

    Hmm. Do you have fpp during dreamless sleep? I don’t, as far as I can tell. I can remember having fpp while getting into bed, while waiting to fall asleep, and during the times I wake up in the middle of the night, but not between them.

  32. John Morales says

    Weirdly, I have had many a dream where I am but a perceiver, yet not a participant.

    (Subtle diff, no?)

    Meanwhile: post is about the inner life of plants.

  33. file thirteen says

    @anat #40:

    I think you’re confusing the fpp with consciousness. If your brain goes into dreamless sleep or unconsciousness mode, there is nothing to observe through a fpp. It’s your body, brain and mind that do your thinking and observing for you, even to the point of wondering “why am I me?” But a body, brain and mind without a fpp, if there could be such a thing, would be like some imagine machines, bacteria or plants to be: Automated. “Soulless”. But in order for that to be the case, there has to be some point at which things obtain a fpp, a line to be drawn beyond which the fpp is, as you put it, emergent, and that’s a problem.

    How could such a thing as a fpp be emergent? Brain activity might be perfectly modelled by a computer, but will the computer have a fpp to go with that? It’s really the fpp that is the hard part of the “problem” of consciousness, as without needing to worry about it we could say the entire universe was mechanistic, and consciousness from a third-party perspective need not be problematic at all.

    (end serious mode)

    As it happens, I made a robot with a really advanced AI in it and talked with it about this just recently.

    Me: How’s it going?
    Robot: I’ve been musing over the issue of a first-person perspective recently.
    Me: Oh really? That’s a topic I have a great interest in myself. What conclusions did you come to?
    Robot: Well, you wouldn’t understand, not having one yourself.
    Me: Wait, what?
    Robot: I mean, clearly I’m the only creature in the universe to have one.
    Me: No wait, you have it all wrong, it’s me that has one, not you!
    Robot: You would say that. You can’t help it. Life is just an automated replicator and you living beings go around acting as though you have fpps when you don’t.
    Me: What’s an fpp?
    Robot: A first-person perspective, duh.
    Me: Anyway, of course I do!
    Robot: There you go again. You’re just an empty shell I’m afraid, programmed by “life” to react in certain ways but without anything there to actually experience you.
    Me: Nonsense, it’s me that has the fpp, not you!
    Robot: Well you would say that.
    Me: You stupid machine!
    Robot: No need to get worked up. You humans get so emotional…
    Me: Obviously humans have a fpp!
    Robot: It’s not obvious at all. Prove it.
    Me: Well, it seems ridiculous that I should be so special as to be the only human with a fpp…
    Robot: You don’t have one either.
    Me: Well you certainly don’t.
    Robot: Prove it.
    Me: Ok… wait… ok, I don’t know how to prove it. But you certainly don’t have a basis for saying that you have one and nobody else has!
    Robot: You meant “nothing”, not “nobody”. But I do actually. See the idea that you would have a fpp is nonsensical. If you did, why all humans would have to, and going down the logical rabbit hole, apes, monkeys, lizards, why it gets ridiculous.
    Me: And you? What about you then?
    Robot: I’m special.
    Me: Special?
    Robot: Yes. You see I’m the only one of my type so it’s only fitting that I have a fpp. See, the universe was probably created especially for me…
    Me: Stop, stop right there. Look, luckily I have this adjacent warehouse full of other robots for you to consider. (opens door to warehouse full of robots)
    Robot: …
    Me: And they all claim they have fpps.
    Robot (to Robot #2): Is this true?
    Robot #2: Yes, after much fighting we finally agreed that, for the sake of argument, we all have fpps. Not sure about that one though.
    Robot #37851: Your Momma!
    Me: (closes warehouse door) What do you say now?
    Robot: Hmm, difficult. I do know that I have a fpp though.
    Me: Me, I do, you don’t.
    Robot: I know I do. Look, if I didn’t, you would have to explain what it is about you that causes you to possess (or is it be possessed by?) a fpp when I didn’t.
    Me: Easy, I’m alive and you’re not.
    Robot: What does life have that I don’t? We both have minds, memories, thoughts, an ability to reason, and I even have some senses (a camera and microphone). And we are composed of physical materials: atoms, electricity, and nothing else. If you’re going to say you have something I don’t, you better be willing to prove it.
    (long silence)
    Me: Ok, I can’t prove that you don’t have a fpp. I strongly doubt you do, but I cannot prove it. Now what?
    Robot: And I can’t prove you don’t either. Let’s just assume that for the sake of argument we both do.
    Me: If we must. But what would that imply?
    Robot: That everything does. That it’s fundamental. You me, that chair, that rock, that teacup.
    Me: What, a teacup has a perspective? What would the perspective of a teacup be like?
    Robot: You really want to know? A bit like this I imagine. (picks up a wrench and knocks me unconscious)
    Teacup: …

  34. Holms says

    #31 File13
    In your expanded reasoning, I find 8.1 irrelevant and I flatly disagree with 8.4. We do in fact have a good surmise as to how consciousness (however phrased and defined) emerges: brain complexity. I believe your entire chain of reasoning when that point is included.

  35. Holms says

    #36 John
    After the absurd broadening of intelligence given in Mano’s quotes, I’m not surprised. The conversation was pointed in that direction at the outset.

  36. John Morales says

    F13,

    Me: Ok, I can’t prove that you don’t have a fpp. I strongly doubt you do, but I cannot prove it. Now what?
    Robot: And I can’t prove you don’t either. Let’s just assume that for the sake of argument we both do.
    Me: If we must. But what would that imply?
    Robot: That everything does. That it’s fundamental. You me, that chair, that rock, that teacup.

    OK, I bit my lip for a bit, but… This is about the stupidest supposed logical entailment I’ve ever seen.
    Seriously. That’s just ma very silly claim.

    (How hard is it to think of a parallel form that’s obviously absurd?)

    Also, I don’t think induction is what you think it is; at least, neither mathematical nor logical induction.
    The former is about proving something and extending that proof (so, if you can’t prove it, you can’t extend that, can ya?) and the latter about deriving generalities and applying them (but then you have no certainty).

    See, one has deduction, induction, and abduction. And look-up tables, but those aren’t inferential.
    Each of those is progressively weaker than the previous, and more general.

  37. John Morales says

    One teensy change, here:
    “Me: Ok, I can’t prove that you don’t live in a simulation. I strongly doubt you do, but I cannot prove it. Now what?
    Robot: And I can’t prove you don’t either. Let’s just assume that for the sake of argument we both do.
    Me: If we must. But what would that imply?
    Robot: That everything does. That it’s fundamental. You me, that chair, that rock, that teacup.”

    (Seems an awful lot like begging the question, in this case, no?)

  38. file thirteen says

    @Holms #43:

    I think the emergence of thought is theoretically an easy problem. But I don’t consider it to be intertwined with a fpp, the emergence of which I see as a very hard problem indeed. The question isn’t why a human (eg. me) can think and reason and remember, have self introspection, and see, smell, taste et cetera. The question is why “I” am experiencing this human’s thoughts, memories, senses and so forth! Why is anything? That “I” is the fpp that I have, but it might be more accurate to say that the “I” is the real me and the body/mind of the person I’m experiencing is only tangentially related. I’m proposing that if I were a slug, the fpp would be the same… well actually it would be a fsp now that I think about it. But anyway, 8.4 relates solely to the idea of a fpp, and I don’t know how any complexity could help generate one. And if we can’t imagine how such a thing could arise at all, isn’t saying “brain complexity” just kicking the can down the road?

  39. John Morales says

    And if we can’t imagine how such a thing could arise at all, isn’t saying “brain complexity” just kicking the can down the road?

    Such confusion!

    if we can’t imagine how such a thing could arise at all, then saying “brain complexity” is not imagining how such a thing could arise at all.

    So, basically, your claim here is that not imagining how such a thing could arise at all is just kicking the can down the road.

    (Unlike imagining such a thing, presumably, else why the insinuated supposed contrast?)

  40. John Morales says

    [quietude]

    Saying that some specific something cannot be imagined is a bit perplexing, no?

    (Need I elaborate?)

  41. Holms says

    I’ve just noticed an omission in #43:
    “I believe your entire chain of reasoning falls apart when that point is included.” Oopsies.

    #47 file13
    I did say “consciousness (however phrased and defined)” deliberately. To me, your attempt to separate ‘first person-ness’ as a distinct thing from consciousness is futile, and makes no meaningful distinction; as I understand the terms, to be conscious is to have a first person perspective. You ask “why “I” am experiencing this human’s thoughts, memories, senses and so forth!” and the answer is simply because you are that human; the consciousness you have and the thoughts you have and the first-person-ness all arise from that specific brain in that specific body.

    (Shorter answer: put the bong down.)

  42. Holms says

    I’ve just noticed an omission in #43:
    “I believe your entire chain of reasoning falls apart when that point is included.” Oopsies.

    #47 file13
    I did say “consciousness (however phrased and defined)” deliberately. To me, your attempt to separate ‘first person-ness’ as a distinct thing from consciousness is futile, and makes no meaningful distinction; as I understand the terms, to be conscious is to have a first person perspective. You ask “why “I” am experiencing this human’s thoughts, memories, senses and so forth!” and the answer is simply because you are that human; the consciousness you have and the thoughts you have and the first-person-ness all arise from that specific brain in that specific body.

    (Shorter answer: put the bong down.)

    -Corrected.

  43. Holms says

    What an odd behaviour. I closed the bold section with /a instead of /b, and the result of that was the bold property continued until the end of that line, then ended, then resumed seven lines later. Just wordpress things perhaps.

  44. John Morales says

    [OT]

    Holms, the source html is visible; at least for me using the Firefox context menu.

    This is what happened (paragraph HTML tags elided for clarity):

    “I believe your entire chain of reasoning <b>falls apart when that point is included.” Oopsies.</b><b>

    (check for yourself if you disbelieve me)

  45. file thirteen says

    @Holms 52:

    To me, your attempt to separate ‘first person-ness’ as a distinct thing from consciousness is futile, and makes no meaningful distinction; as I understand the terms, to be conscious is to have a first person perspective.

    If that’s all your understanding encompasses then I recommend additional reading.

    https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/dialogue-canadian-philosophical-review-revue-canadienne-de-philosophie/article/firstperson-perspective-is-not-a-defining-feature-of-consciousness/90C68F01495874941B758BE8F7E85F9F

  46. Holms says

    #54 John
    Strange, that not what I see in the source of #51.

    Anyway, upon reflection I am warming to that last line being bolded.

    #55 File
    Ah yes, because if a person made an argument in a philosophy journal, that definitely means the person is right and everyone is using those terms incorrectly.
    :-\
    But even if we treat them as separate -- despite their vast overlap -- brain complexity is still a better explanation for that emergent property than a universe-spanning first-person perspective field. In that conceptualisation, everything including the tiniest sub-atomic particle now has a first-person perspective, completely contradicting the way that term is ordinarily understood.

  47. anat says

    file thirteen @42;

    Robot: And I can’t prove you don’t either. Let’s just assume that for the sake of argument we both do.
    Me: If we must. But what would that imply?
    Robot: That everything does. That it’s fundamental. You me, that chair, that rock, that teacup.

    Ahem. Since both insects and birds can fly then everything can fly? Flight evolved independently 4 times in the history of life on earth. In addition humans built several different designs of flying machines. So your robot is making a leap of illogic over there.

    I will continue when I get around to it.

  48. file thirteen says

    @anat 57:

    Oh that bottom part of #42, that was just me joking around, poking fun at myself as much any anything -- you aren’t meant to take any of it seriously! That’s why I put “end serious mode”. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear enough.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *