Plants might be conscious, but that’s not what matters

The fierce debate over plant consciousness isn’t really about the minds of plants: it’s about our relationship with nature itself.

What makes a plant biologist angry? Well, probably a lot of things – from the rising rate of plant extinction to most students saying they’d prefer to learn about animals than plants. But now there’s something new ruffling feathers (or leaves?): the idea that plants have consciousness.

Research into whether plants can think has been going on for over a decade, but this month a group of plant biologists decided they’d finally had enough. They wrote in a strongly-worded open letter that: “There is no evidence that plants require, and thus have evolved, energy-expensive mental faculties, such as consciousness, feelings, and intentionality, to survive or to reproduce.”

But this isn’t a case of science vs spooky nonsense. There’s serious research into whether plants can think, and it’s turned up with some compelling results – with papers claiming that plants have memories and that they can communicate with their peers.

So why is plant consciousness such a touchy subject? Why is it making some people so angry? That’s because consciousness is such a loaded issue. The question of whether plants can think is actually about way more than that – the debate raises deep questions about our relationship with nature as a whole, and our moral duties to protect it.

Consciousness is used by different people to mean different things, from being self-aware to being sentient. But there’s one really interesting sense of ‘consciousness’ that’s key to the furore over the minds of plants. That’s when it’s used to refer to our internal, subjective experiences of the world.

In this sense, to be conscious is to have sensations – to see colours, feel hunger, hear music, smell flowers. If you’re conscious, then there’s something it’s like to be you. You’re a subject who is experiencing the world. It doesn’t matter how complex your thoughts are – if you’re capable of having sensations and experiences then you’re conscious.

As well as pleasant sensations, being conscious means we’re subject to unpleasant ones too – including the feeling of pain. And it’s this sensation of pain that makes discussions about consciousness so loaded.

Pain is bad, right? So bad that we have a moral duty not to inflict it on others, and to prevent it where we can. In fact, on many ethical theories – like utilitarianism – the duty to reduce the amount of pain is the foundation of our whole system of morality. Ultimately, our actions are good if they mean that this unpleasant experience is felt as little as possible.

Now we see why plant consciousness is such a loaded issue. If plants are conscious, then they can probably feel pain. And if they can feel pain, then we have some kind of moral duty towards them – a duty to reduce their pain as much as possible. Maybe that’d involve not cutting down trees or stripping their bark, maybe that’d involve not plucking flowers from the grass to make daisy chains.

Whatever it is, we’d have to accept there’s a whole world of living things out there that have value and moral standing, and that we need to think about their conscious experiences. That’d be huge.

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One of the letter-writers acknowledged this link between consciousness and morality in an interview – he thinks the search for plant consciousness is wishful thinking on the part of scientists who want us to treat plants better: “They want to raise people’s consciousness about plants as living organisms and reach them on an emotional level. I’m very sympathetic to the motivations, but it is clouding their objectivity. They have to be prepared for the fact that plants may not have consciousness.”

Pretty much the same criticism was levelled at the study of animal consciousness in the not to recent past. In the sixties an obsession with ‘objectivity’ swept animal studies – scientists were only meant to describe animal behaviour in strictly ‘objective’ terms, which meant only describing their physical behaviours. Any attempt to attribute behaviours to thoughts, feelings or emotions – any attempt to suggest that animals have some sort of internal mental life – led to accusations of anthropomosphism and being overly sentimental.

But, as with today’s debate about plants, the debate about animals wasn’t really about objectivity – it was about what our duties to animals are. If they really can feel pain, how can we justify treating them so badly? Once again, research into consciousness turns out to be loaded with judgements on value and morality.

So the debate about plant consciousness is being clouded by ethical issues. If the moral standing of plants depends on them having consciousness, then the debate is about a whole lot more than just what’s going on in their minds.

But we can avoid the debate being skewed, if we stop placing so much emphasis on consciousness, and the experience of pain, in ethics. Several environmental philosophers have tried to argue that plants and other organisms have moral value even if they aren’t conscious.

Philosopher Kenneth Goodpaster argued that consciousness is just a biological adaptation that helps some organisms meet their interests – and so it’s a strange thing to base morality on. Instead, our moral duties should be based around helping organisms meet their interests, whether these involve consciousness or not. And all it takes to have interests is to be alive: a plant’s interests are in having environmental conditions where they can grow as well as possible, finding enough energy to reproduce, and that sort of thing.

There are a lot of ways to base morality on something other than consciousness, but the point is that consciousness isn’t necessarily the be all and end all. We don’t need plants to be conscious to explain why we should treat them with respect. As philosopher John Rodman wrote: “ I need only to stand in the midst of a clear-cut forest, a strip-mined hillside, a defoliated jungle, or a dammed canyon to feel uneasy with assumptions that could yield the conclusion that no human action can make any difference to the welfare of anything but sentient animals.”

So maybe we can start to separate the debate about plant consciousness from the debate about the ethical standing of plants. There’s no need to get riled up and accuse other researchers of having ulterior motives. Let’s just let them get on with it, and wait to see what they find.

1 comment
  1. The notion of plants having consciousness is scary and interesting and astounding. Never mind stopping the manufacture of wooden furniture or making daisy chains. Will we ever be able to eat fruits and vegetables again?

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