Sunday, January 4, 2015

THE CONSCIOUS PLANT

In the first part of this post I will be discussing an article that appeared in the December 23, 2013 issue of The New Yorker entitled "The Intelligent Plant" by Michael Pollan.  Quotation marks will mean that quoted material is from The Intelligent Plant unless otherwise noted.  I will summarize a lot of the information in this article, but I encourage you to read it for yourself.  It is, in and of itself and regardless of how you interpret the findings that Pollan reports, a mind boggling and consciousness expanding experience to learn some of the things that our plant neighbors, who comprise 99% of the bio-mass of this planet, are able to do.

Before I get into discussing my take on the material in the article, I want to present some findings that are reported there.  These findings about what plants are able to do, not how they do it and not about what they experience while they are doing it, but what they actually do, are not arguable.  All of the following findings are based on scientifically reputable measurements and observations of plant behavior:


1.  Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores and chemical signals from other plants.


2. Plants have electrical and chemical signalling systems homologous to those found in the nervous system of animals.


3. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and glutamate are used in the daily functioning of plants; but just how they are used is still  unknown.


4.  Plants have between fifteen and twenty distinct senses including senses at least similar to smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light and shadow; touch (a vine or a root knows when it encounters a solid object and can sense the presence of a solid object and grow around it without actually touching it); and sound (Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, played a recording of a caterpillar chomping a leaf for plants that hadn't been touched.  The plants responded by producing defense chemicals against the caterpillar.  Stefano Mancuso, head of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology in Florence, Italy, found that plant roots will seek out a buried water pipe even if there is no water on the exterior of the pipe, suggesting that the plant somehow "hears" the sound of  water flowing within the pipe).


5. Plant roots can tell if neighboring roots are part of the same plant, or another plant and, if another, a related plant or a stranger.  Normally plants compete for root space and soil nutrients, but when researchers put four closely related Great Lakes sea-rocket plants (Cakile edentula) in the same pot, the plants restrained themselves and shared resources.


6. Plants perceive competitors and grow away from them and respond to potential competitors before being actually shaded by them.


7. Plants have a rich communication with other plants by producing a wide variety of chemicals that are sensed and responded to by other plants.  Rick Karban, a U.C. Davis ecologist has shown that when sagebrush leaves are clipped, simulating an insect attack, the plant will release volatile chemicals which protect not only the clipped plant, but stimulate its unclipped neighbors to produce chemicals to protect themselves from insect infestation.  At the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology researchers are compiling a dictionary of each species' chemical vocabulary. Stefano Mancuso, the head of ILPN, estimates that a plant has an average of three thousand chemicals in its vocabulary and reminds us that the average human student has a vocabulary of seven hundred words.


8.  Plants also communicate with animals.  "Several species, including corn and lima beans, emit a chemical distress call when attacked by caterpillars. Parasitic wasps some distance away lock in on that scent, follow it to the afflicted plant and proceed to slowly destroy the caterpillars.  Scientists call these insects 'plant bodyguards'….A recent study in Science found that the caffeine produced by many plants may function not only as a defense chemical, as had been previously thought, but in some cases as a psychoactive drug in their nectar.  The caffeine encourages bees to remember a particular plant and return to it, making them more faithful and effective pollinators."


9. Plants can be rendered unconscious by the same anesthetics that put animals out: drugs can induce in plants an unresponsive state resembling sleep. (A snoozing Venus flytrap won't notice an insect crossing its threshold.)


10.  When plants are injured or stressed they produce a chemical, ethylene, that works as an anesthetic on animals.


The reason we don't commonly think of plants as "behaving" is that they are sessile (rooted in one spot) and much of their behavior comes from sensing a wide range of environmental conditions and then producing chemicals which we cannot observe but plant scientists can detect, to adapt to these conditions.  Also, their "movement" is in the form of growth.  They grow their roots, branches, vines and stems in different directions to take advantage of environmental benefits and avoid environmental threats.


The focus of Pollan's article is the debate within the plant research community about what, if anything,  plants are experiencing as they behave in ways that looks very much like evidence of learning, memory, decision-making and intelligence and whether we should even use those words to describe plant behavior or if those words should be reserved solely for living organisms with brains.


Charles Darwin became fascinated with plants in his later years and studied them intensively with his son Francis.  He wrote, "It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle (root)…..having the power of directing the movements of the adjoining parts, acts like the brain of one of the lower animals; the brain being seated within the anterior end of the body, receiving impressions from the sense organs and directing the several movements." Pollan writes regarding Darwin, "He thought of the plant as a kind of upside-down animal with its main sensory organs and 'brain' on the bottom, underground, and its sexual organs on top."  Since then we have discovered that leaves, flowers, branches and stems are, in and of themselves, incredibly sensitive organs that, in response to environmental signals, produce protective chemicals, signal other plants, and twist, turn and grow in ways that enhance their future growth and maximize their nutritional and energy intake without any as yet discovered observable connection to the radicle or root structure.


One of the problems with debating plant intelligence is that there is so much disagreement about what our own intelligence means exactly.  Does it refer to mental qualities such as reason, language and abstract thought or does it mean simply the ability to respond in optimal ways to the challenges presented in the present moment by one's environment and circumstances?  The first definition seems more brain-bound and is really, I think, a definition of intellect as distinct from intelligence.  Intellect is the ability to try to understand the workings of environments, real or imagined, that one is not currently in.  This curiosity and ability to understand environments that are remembered or imagined may be the province of not just exclusively animals, but exclusively human animals.  Intelligence, the ability to satisfy one's desires in the environment one finds oneself in, varies not just from creature to creature, but from environment to environment.  A weaponless, gadget less pet owner (weapons and gadgets being the result of intellect, of imagining predators or food sources, where they would be located, their structure and behavior); this gadgetless pet owner, as I say,  may have less intelligence, less ability to get her needs met in a natural environment, than her pets.


A lot of the disagreement around plant intelligence, will and memory is semantic.  The Society for Plant Neurobiology, under pressure from the more conservative members of the plant research community, changed their name after two years to the less controversial 'Society for Plant Signaling and Behavior.'  A member of the National Science Foundation said  that the N.S.F. would never fund anything with the words 'plant neuro-biology' in it, but were completely open to fund projects from the Plant Signaling and Behavior Society.  "Neuro" an N.S.F. spokesperson said, "belongs to animals."


At their sixth annual meeting, their fourth under the name 'Society for Plant Signaling and Behavior,' Monica Gagliano, an animal ecologist, made a controversial presentation with 'mimosa-pudica.'  Mimosa-pudica (the sensitive plant) along with Venus fly traps are among the few members of the plant world that react quickly enough so that their reactions are noticeable to the unaided human eye.  If the leaves of the mimosa are touched or the plant is dropped or jostled, their leaves will fold up, presumably a defensive reaction to a perceived threat.  Gagliano performed "habituation" experiments, usually done with animals, on these plants.  She wanted to know if a perceived threat proved over and over again to not be threatening, would the plant learn to stop responding defensively.  Gagliano created a system to drop fifty-six potted mimosa plants from a height of about five inches every five seconds.  "She reported that some of the mimosas started to reopen their leaves after just four, five, or six drops, as if they had concluded that the stimulus could be safely ignored.  "By the end, they were completely open.  They couldn't care less anymore."


"Was it just fatigue?  Apparently not: when the plants were shaken, they again closed up."  "Gagliano…retested her plants after a week and found that they continued to disregard the drop stimulus, indicating that they 'remembered' what they had learned.  Even after twenty-eight days, the lesson had not been forgotten.  She reminded her colleagues that, in similar experiments with bees, the insects forgot what they had learned after just forty-eight hours.  Gagliano concluded by suggesting that "brains and neurons are a sophisticated solution but not a necessary requirement for learning," and that there is "some unifying mechanism across living systems that can process information and learn."


In response to Gagliano's presentation, Fred Sack, a botanist from the University of British Columbia offered, "Bullshit.  Animals can exhibit learning, but plants evolve adaptations."  Gagliano thought that this response made no sense.  "Adaptation is far too slow a process to explain the behavior that I had observed.  How can they be adapted to something that they have never experienced in their real world? (being repeatedly dropped).  Also, some of the plants learned faster than others, evidence that this is not an innate or programmed response."


A paper that Gagliano had written about her experiment had already been rejected by ten professional journals, not because of any of the data, but because of the language that she used to describe the data.  She balked at changing it, "unless we use the same language to describe the same behavior (as animals), we can't compare it."


Pollan writes, "Scientists are often uncomfortable talking about the role of metaphor and imagination in their work, yet scientific progress often depends on both.  'Plant neurobiology' is obviously a metaphor-plants don't possess the type of excitable, communicative cells we call neurons.   Yet the introduction of the term has raised a series of questions and inspired a set of experiments that promise to deepen our understanding not only of plants but potentially also of brains.  If there are other ways of processing information, other kinds of cells and cell networks that can somehow give rise to intelligent behavior, then we may be more inclined to ask, with Mancuso, 'What's so special about neurons?'"


I don't know that I have communicated the intensity of this disagreement which is more clearly expressed in Pollan's article.  The more conservative group feels threatened and the more experimental group feels under attack.  The feeling of being threatened, of the metaphor, the assumptions within which you have been operating and upon which all your writings and research are based, as possibly being wrong or shifting, is terrifying to the scientist who has established himself based on a perhaps wrong assumption (i.e. that intelligence is the sole province of animals).  Although Fred Sack uses the surprisingly contemporary expression, "Bullshit," writings of scientific history are generously sprinkled with mainly Victorian expressions which mean the same thing and whose intensity expresses the threat that lurks underneath: "rubbish!, poppycock!, balderdash!, bilge water!, etc." These terms may seem comically outdated but they were not funny when they were hurled at the daring experimentalists of the past who had spent years of their lives devoted to their ground breaking work.


"Plants have their own excitable cells, many of them in a region just behind the root tip.  Here Mancuso and his frequent collaborator, Frantisek Baluska, have detected unusually high levels of electrical activity and oxygen consumption.  They've hypothesized in a series of papers that this so-called 'transition-zone' may be the locus of the 'root brain' first proposed by Darwin."  "What's going on there is not well understood," says Lincoln Taiz, emeritus professor of plant physiology at U.C. Santa Cruz, "but there is no evidence it is a command center."


Yet is there evidence that the brain is a command center?  There are two hundred billion neurons in the brain.  Where is the command center?  Where is the decision maker? Where is the place where electricity is translated into memories, into thoughts, into the actual sights and sounds and smells and tastes and touches of our actual consciousness?  In Pollan's words, "Most neuroscientists would agree that, while brains considered as a whole function as centralized command centers for most animals, within the brain there doesn't appear to be any command post; rather one finds a leaderless network.  That sense that we get when we think about what might govern a plant  'that there is no there there,' no wizard behind the curtain pulling the levers, may apply equally to our brains."


Taiz adds that the writings of the plant neurobiologists suffer from  "over-interpretation of data, teleology, anthropomorphizing, philosophizing and wild speculations."   The plant neurobiologists counter that what is really anthropocentric is to insist on the presence of a brain and neurons to explain capabilities such as intelligence, pain perception, learning and memory.  They believe that in their study of plants they will find a different mechanism for these abilities which will, perhaps, shed light on the gaps in our understanding of how our own animal neurobiological mechanisms work.


If you are perhaps thinking of defining the plant behaviors that you have just read about as a "tropism" or an "instinct" or an "adaptation" or an "evolutionary strategy,"  all of which are words which mean nothing more than an undefined term used to describe behavior without having to resort to consciousness (which upon serious reflection, as I will explain in a moment, is impossible) then please consider the following two studies:

At the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology researchers used time-lapse photography to capture bean plants, which climb things, growing toward a metal pole placed on a dolly.  This experiment was repeated many times with the pole in different positions in relation to the bean plant and the bean plant planted at various angles.  In each case the bean plant did not grow in random directions and sometimes just happened to hit upon the pole, but grew directly toward the pole; no swerving, no wavering, no randomness whatsoever.  It is clear that somehow the plant knows exactly where that pole is.  There are some theories as to the mechanisms by which the plant locates the pole (plants make low clicking sounds as their cells elongate.  Perhaps these sounds reflect off the pole and they can use a form of echolocation to discover it).  The question which is not addressed either by the plant neurobiologists or the more conservative group is: why does the plant exert all this energy and focus to grow directly toward the pole and then climb it?


Then there is the research by Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia.  She studies how trees in a forest use an underground web of mycorrhizal fungus which connects their roots "to exchange information and even goods.  This 'wood-wide web' allows scores of trees in a forest to convey warnings  of insect attacks, and also to deliver carbon, nitrogen, and water to trees in need….She and her colleagues track the flow of nutrients and chemical signals through this invisible underground network.  They inject fir trees with radioactive carbon isotopes, then follow the spread of the isotopes through the forest community….Within a few days, stores of radioactive carbon are being routed from tree to tree.  Every tree in a plot thirty metres square is connected to the network; the oldest trees function as hubs, some with as many as forty-seven connections….The pattern of nutrient traffic shows how 'mother trees' use the network to nourish shaded seedlings, including their offspring-which trees can apparently recognize as kin-until they're tall enough to reach the light.  And in a striking example of interspecies cooperation, Simard found that fir trees were using the fungal web to trade nutrients with paper-bark birch trees over the course of the season.  The evergreen species will tide over the deciduous one when it has sugars to spare, and then call in the debt later in the season."


So  why does the bean plant head directly for the pole?  I am not asking how it knows the location of the pole, that mechanism is already being searched for.  What I want to know is where does the energy, the force, come from that produces the directed growth, that moves that vine over dirt and rocks and grass to get to the pole?   Physicists tell us that there are only four forces: gravity, electro-magnetism, the weak and the strong nuclear forces.  Obviously it is not gravity at work here.  The bean plant heads for the pole whether or not the pole is downhill, uphill or at a level with the plant. The bean plant is not 'falling' into the pole.  Certainly it is not electro-magnetism.  The pole is not exerting a magnetic force and pulling the bean plant toward it like iron filings toward a magnet.  And certainly it has nothing to do with the two enormous nuclear forces which are bound within the atoms of the plant and would destroy it entirely if they became unbound for whatever reason.  There is another force which occurs in nature and synthetically in machines which does not violate these other natural forces (that is impossible) but which gathers and focusses energy in a way to overcome natural forces.  Whenever you see a metabolic system at work as in a living organism, or any other form of gathering and focussing energy as in a machine, then you must realize that the force of "desire" is at work.  Machines are built to overcome natural forces so that they can accomplish what their inventors and their constructors and their users want them to accomplish.  Our bodies and our brains metabolize energy  to accomplish two things.  First there are all the activities that take place without our conscious awareness, which allow us to survive and allow us to be able to experience the kind of experience that the cosmic consciousness, or God, wants us to experience, a human body/brain providing a human experience and a caterpillar body/brain providing a caterpillar experience.  And second there are all the conscious experiences that we ourselves choose to experience and which our bodies and brains allows us to experience by metabolizing energy to allow us to behave in ways that manifest those desires.


And whenever we, and I use 'we' to include all living organisms, choose to experience something we do it for one reason, because we want to.  That doesn't mean that we are excited about it.  We may be choosing the best option in a difficult or threatening environment, but still we do what we want to do, expend energy toward getting to do what we want to do, experiencing what we want to experience, because we want to, and this wanting must be an experienced desire.  What else could it be?  How could we imagine an unexperienced desire, a desire without a desirer?  So if I say that a plant is conscious, which I will be saying quite a bit later on in this post,  I am not referring to any intellectual concept such as having a self awareness, or having any piece of knowledge whatsoever.  I am talking simply about the ground of experience, that which experiences, and that which is the milieu of desires.  This ground of experience, in human cases, not the thoughts, but the thinker, not the sights but the seer, not the memories but the rememberer, not the deeds but the doer, this ground of being is consciousness; it also is what you are as opposed to what you think, or see, or remember, and as opposed to what particular equipment, what particular brain or body you happen to have.


And when you define behavior as "instinctual," whatever that means, it is still something that you want to do at that moment.  If you choose to call 'fight or flight' instinctual that's fine with me.  You can use any semantics you want.  But the fighter is still choosing to fight.  An animal that has the "fight or flight" instinct is not fighting or flighting constantly.  That is ridiculous.  It chooses to fight at a particular moment.  The fight, whatever you want to call it, is a conscious response to a particular situation, and it is conducted not "instinctually" whatever that means, but consciously, moment to moment, adjusting to what the competitor that the fighter is fighting with is doing at each moment.  The same holds true for "evolutionary strategies," whatever that means.  Who decides these evolutionary strategies by the way?   Is it the organisms themselves?  Do microbes sit around and have a planning session and decide that gene swapping, for instance, would be a good evolutionary strategy?  Or is it the genes themselves that have these meetings?  And why am I never invited?  What about eating?  Is that an evolutionary strategy?  Eating which, of course, must include the ability to identify food, to desire food, to get to the food or attract the food, to digest the food, to eliminate the wastes from the food; is that all part of one great "evolutionary strategy?"   If so, what were living organisms like before they developed this particular strategy?  Tell me about a living organism that existed before the strategy of eating, or the strategy of metabolizing, or the strategy of a genetic code, or the strategy of transcription and translation, before any of these transcendentally elaborate, complex and specific strategies were "randomly' stumbled upon.  Or maybe it's a "tropism,"  so the bean plant is just bending toward the pole because it is attracted to poles.  Is this a chemical attraction?  Is it the same chemical attraction if instead of a pole it were a wooden fence?  What about a plastic, or glass or stone pole?  If it's not chemical, is it an unconscious attraction to something upright?  If that's the case, in what part of the bean plant is there an awareness that something 'upright' is in the neighborhood?  If it is just an unconscious bending toward something upright, where does the energy come, once pointed in the right direction, to grow up hill, over stones, through dirt, around curves, to get to that pole?


The bean plant wants something to climb, but it did not choose the desire to climb.  We do not choose our desires, at least our biological ones.  We are born, each species is born, with a set of desires, the fulfillment of which, maximizes our chance of survival.  Part of the experience of being a bee is the desire to build hives, to live in hives and to participate in the communal life of the hive.  Part of the experience of being a goose is the desire to migrate and to migrate in flying formations.  Swarm behavior cannot be reduced to algorithms.  Each participant in a swarm is in a swarm because it wants to be in a swarm, in the same way that some of us like to march in large groups, play in orchestras, dance in troupes, fight in armies and football teams; not because of some algorithms even though you might be able to find an algorithm that matches our behavior, but because we want to, we desire, we enjoy something about the power or the harmony or the blending of the individual self with others which happens when we behave synchronously with large groups.  Whatever else you say about it, you cannot eliminate in the participants of whatever behavior you study, the desire, at that moment, to do that behavior, and that is always, must always be, a conscious desire.


You may have noticed that the title of this post is 'The Conscious Plant,' while the title of Pollan's article is 'The Intelligent Plant.'  And it is consciousness that is the elephant in the room, or the laboratory, that hovers there regarding all these proceedings, waiting with unimaginable patience for people, including scientists, perhaps especially scientists, to figure out who they are and how they got here.  Consider this section of Pollan's article:



"'Does the plant decide in the same way that we choose at a deli between a Reuben sandwich or lox and bagel?' Taiz (a member of the more conservative group of plant scientists) asked. 'No, the plant response is based entirely on the net flow of auxin and other chemical signals.  The verb decide is inappropriate in a plant context.  It implies free will.  Of course, one could argue that humans lack free will too, but that is a separate issue.'


I asked Mancuso (a member of the more radical experimental group) if he thought that a plant decides in the same way we might choose at a deli between a Reuben or lox and bagels.


'Yes, in the same way,' Mancuso wrote back, though he indicated that he had no idea what a Reuben sandwich was.  'Just put ammonium nitrate in the place of Reuben sandwich (whatever it is) and phosphate instead of salmon, and the roots will make a decision.'  But isn't the root responding simply to the net flow of certain chemicals? 'I'm afraid our brain makes decisions in the same exact way."



So here we have both the conservative and the radical scientist in complete agreement that our brains make decisions and that they make decisions based on chemicals. This conclusion based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever is shared by almost the entirety of the biological research community, even though the search for the elusive 'command center' proceeds nonstop with absolutely no sightings, no measurements, not even a specific conjecture as to where this 'brain command center' may be located. 
To this I say, "poppycock!, balderdash! rubbish!"  But seriously folks, my point is that regarding all conscious decisions, the brain does not make any decisions at all.  Prior to deciding what sandwich to eat, we find ourselves experiencing something called hunger.  That is to say that we, as in consciousness, not our brains, but we, experience hunger.  (The brain being made up of neurons, electric charges moving through those neurons and axons connecting those neurons, experiences nothing.  Matter neither cares about nor experiences anything. The brain records my experience, categorizes my experience and helps me define my experience; but it does not experience my experience.) This hunger may be associated with some chemical condition in our bodies, but that chemical condition is translated into the experience of hunger.  Based on this experience that we, not our brains, but we, consciousness, experience, we fire up different sets of neurons in our brain, neurons associated with our memories of eating Reuben sandwiches and eating lox and bagels.  Those memories do not exist in the brain.  They exist in some sort of code of electrons or chemicals  deposits, or microtubules within neurons, or the shape and location of sets of connected neurons; a code which is again translated for us into the remembered experience of tasting and smelling and chewing these substances, a memory that is re-experienced not in our brains but in our consciousness.  (You may notice that during these decisions a lot of remarkable translating and locating of neurons, in fact I would say miraculous translating and locating of neurons, is being done for us, thank God, and I mean that literally!)  And then we weigh, not these chemicals, but the memories that these chemicals arouse and the present condition of our bodies which, again may be based on chemicals but is experienced in consciousness, and based on these experiences, not these chemicals, we make a decision, which is a conscious decision and not a brain decision.  

Don't any of these people realize that we are alive and what it means to be alive?  Scientists both plant scientists and other biologists study my organism, but they do not study me; they do not study the living being which inhabits my organism and which experiences and desires.  They do not study these things precisely because they are not physical things and cannot be measured or observed.  This leads them to absurd conclusions, for instance that the presence of a certain set of chemicals in my organism is hunger, is the exact same thing as hunger.  Really?  Okay, then fill a hypodermic needle with precisely those chemicals and inject it into your sofa.  Will you wind up with a hungry sofa or a mess?  

My organism needs nutrients, needs certain chemicals.  But I, a living being, I don't know that.  That chemical condition is translated into an electrical condition where certain neurons are excited.  This electrical excitation is translated into the experience of hunger so that I, a living being who doesn't know a thing about the chemical needs of my organism, get hungry and get I just so happen to get hungry for precisely the foods that contain the chemicals that my organism needs.  In this way, by being completely ignorant of the chemical needs of my organism, by just satisfying my desires, I also fulfill the needs of my organism.  Pretty amazing, huh?  I would say miraculous, and I thank God for such a system, literally!


We are not automatons; we are not computers.  We do not robotically do what we are told to do by our chemicals or anything else. We eat a Reuben sandwich because we want to eat a Reuben sandwich and that wanting is a conscious,  experienced desire.  We don't just say, "I want a Reuben sandwich," without having any idea why we want it, without having any experience or memory or curiosity that leads us to making that decision.  To somehow leapfrog from chemicals to decision is to bypass experience including the experience of choosing.  In a robot or a computer there is nothing to bypass, but in the relationship between a living organism and a living being, there is the entire experiential life that is bypassed and that is what my life is: my moment to moment experience.

"The plant response is based entirely on the net flow of auxin and other chemical signals."  The tips of plant roots are able to sense gravity, moisture, light, pressure, hardness, volume, nitrogen, phosphorus, salt, various toxins, microbes and chemical signals from neighboring plants.  The decision as to what direction and how long to grow a root is based on all of these.  Saying that this response is dictated by the amount of auxin is like saying:  because there happened to be so much adrenaline in my body I had to run a marathon, rather than saying that my desire to run a marathon created a lot of adrenaline in my body when I needed it; or saying that there happened to be a full tank of gas in my car so I had to drive to New York; rather than saying I decided to drive to New York so I made sure there was a full tank of gas in my car.  Everything is exactly backwards.  You have a body and brain that manufactures enzymes, shifts blood and energy and contracts muscles to aid you in realizing your desires.  It's not that we are the blind, comatose servants of whatever neurons happen randomly to be firing, whatever chemicals happen to be flowing through our blood stream and whatever enzymes happen to be manufactured in our cells at any given moment.  Neurons fire, extra blood flows, enzymes are manufactured and muscles are contracted to serve us in fulfilling our desires.  In plants, auxin and other enzymes are transported to different parts of the plant body to allow the plant to respond to the environment in the way that 'it', the consciousness of that plant, wants to respond to its environment. We, as in all living things, not our brains and not our distribution of enzymes, but we, our consciousness, is the command center.  Our brains and bodies and enzymes are the servants of these commands.


We, and that is all life, including plants, algae, moulds and all forms of animals, are consciousness.  We, again including all of life, have bodies which include brains or some form of electrical signalling system, which are not 'us' but are our equipment; equipment which has been given us, that is consciousness, in order that we, consciousness, can experience this material world in a particular way.  Our bodies and brains or signalling systems are the apparatus through which we experience the world and through which we express our desires and satisfy or attempt to satisfy our desires.  That is, we are not our thoughts, but the thinker of our thoughts.  We are not our words, but the speaker of our words.  We are not our deeds but the doer of our deeds.  We are not our values, but the holder of those values.  We are not our desires, but the desirer of our desires.  We are not our sights, but the seer of our sights.  We are not our sensations but the senser of our sensations.  Everything we have and everything we do is not us.  We are the experiencer of our experience, not the content of our experience.  We are context, not content.  We are consciousness.


And brains and nervous systems do not "give rise to consciousness."  Consciousness gives rise to brains and nervous systems.  Yes, all, or almost all, scientists would agree that "the brain, as a whole, functions as a command center," but I am not a scientist.  You, not your brain, but you, are the command center.   The brain is there for two reasons.  The first is that it is there to allow you to survive; that is, to allow the particular way of experiencing the world that is a function of your particular brain and body, to survive as long as possible.  If you are dopey enough to think that the transcendent complexity of this equipment, the understanding of which our greatest scientists after centuries of exploration and thought are merely scratching the surface of; as I say, if you are dopey enough to think that this transcendent complexity and synchronicity is the result of a random, fortuitous series of molecular collisions, then you can thank evolution for it.  I, as a being with some measure of sanity, prefer to thank God aka Allah, Buddha, Jehovah or the cosmic consciousness.


There are two consciousnesses and only two,  which are really one.  The first is the cosmic consciousness, which is consciousness unattached to a particular body or mind, which we also call God.  That is the consciousness that has set up this remarkable equipment, our bodies and minds, that we all enjoy, or should be enjoying if we lived in a world with a modicum of sanity.  The second is the consciosness that is attached to a particular mind and body.  Being attached to a mind and body gives us the sense of a separate consciousness, but it is only a sense, only an illusion.  We, again including all life forms, are having this separate experience because we want to have a separate experience.  We desire to have a separate experience.  We are attached to this material world through our bodies and minds by a particular set of desires.  Some of these desires are what we call biological.  In other words each living being is born with a set of desires so that what we want to do just so happens to be what we need to do in order to survive and procreate (find the nutrients, water, light, rest, warmth and coolness and, if we are sexual procreators, the partner) even though we are totally ignorant of what we actually need, but just experience what we desire and how to fulfill that desire.  Every living being is born with thirst, which is the desire for water, and hunger, which is the desire for food.  These desires were there from the very inception of life.  These are not 'evolutionary strategies.'  If they were then show me the evidence of any life form that didn't seek out the nutrients and water that it needed, and explain to me how such a life form could survive for enough time for it to procreate and give rise to more thirstless and hungerless progeny.


The command center for all the processes that are not in our conscious control, that are not what we call 'behavior' is God, the cosmic consciousness.  The command center for all behavior, for all conscious activity is us, the separate, or seemingly separate, consciousness.  The instant that we want something, which is every instant of our waking lives, many millions of neurons fire, blood shifts, energy shifts, in the precise way and in the precise sequence that allows us to do whatever it is that we intend to do.  Our behavior is not initiated by firing neurons.  Our behavior is initiated by our conscious intentions which is instantly translated into the precise series of many millions of firing neurons that allows us to do what we intend to do.  These neurons fire because we want them to fire.  And, of course, the same thing holds true for plants.  However their electrical processes work, and however their enzyme transport system works, the movement and manufacture of chemicals within the plant body is initiated by the plant itself, by the consciousness of the plant and what 'it' wants to do.


Admittedly plants are different from animals.  Plants have a sessile life style; they are rooted to one spot.  They cannot approach what they desire by getting up and moving.  They must grow and bend toward what they want.  They cannot move to avoid predators or to attract the things and beings they are attracted to.  They must produce chemicals to protect them from threats and to attract helpers to them.  Plants have a modular structure and a lack of irreplaceable organs allowing plants to lose up to ninety percent of their bodies without being killed.  Since one of the main functions of plant life is the nourishment of animal life, this modularity is an excellent design.  And if plants are here, among other things, for us to eat them, they probably do not experience pain in all parts of their bodies.  Mowing the lawn, from the grass' perspective is probably closer to getting a haircut then an amputation.  When fruit is ripened on the vine it can be gently pulled off.  The fruit is ready to be eaten and the tree or the bush is ready to part with it.  Forcefully ripping fruit prematurely from a tree for international transport and processing is very different and probably does cause the plant a kind of painful experience.  And if you are still doubting that plants are conscious and can experience pain, let's refer back what I mentioned above from the Pollan article.  "…..Mancuso and Baluska point out that plants can be rendered unconscious by the same anesthetics that put animals out: drugs can induce in plants an unresponsive state resembling sleep. (A snoozing Venus flytrap won't notice an insect crossing its threshold.)  What's more, when plants are injured or stressed, they produce a chemical - ethylene - that works as an anesthetic on animals."


Yet the difference between plants and animals, between plants and us, is only superficial.  Let me explain.  As I said, what we are is consciousnesss.  We are the thinker of our thoughts, the speaker of our words, the doer of our deeds.  But whether we are doing or thinking or speaking, we are still exactly the same consciousness, the same 'us.'  There is not one Matt that thinks and another Matt that speaks and yet another Matt that does things.  Whatever I am doing or thinking, I am still the same Matt.  Pain and pleasure are also experienced by the same experiencer.  Childish thoughts, when we are a child, and adult thoughts, when we are adult, are experienced by exactly the same 'us,' the same consciousness.  At the essential level of consciousness, there is no difference, no change from the infant self, to the adult self to the senior citizen self.  The self is not a thing.  Things change.  The self, which is not a thing, does not.  And regarding our fellow human beings, whose culture, background, history, values, language, bodies and brains, are different from ours, the essence of those other people, the consciousness behind that history, culture, brain and body, is exactly the same consciousness, the same self, that is behind our own history, culture, brain and body.   In other words, we are seemingly separate creatures, but only in material and transitory ways.  Essentially, we are not a separate consciousness, but are all aspects of the one cosmic consciousness.  In other words the being that is looking at the world through my eyes and the being that is looking at the world through your eyes and the being that is looking at the world through your cat's eyes, is the same Being. And going one step further, a creature that has no eyes, including the world of plant creatures, is still, in its essence, the same being, the same experiencer that is experiencing its experience as you, the experiencer who is experiencing your experience.


Basically we can divide living experience into three categories:  desire, the  satisfaction of desire, and desirelessness.  I am not talking about the ability to articulate our desires or satisfactions or any thought process whatsoever.  I am talking purely about the experience, which requires no language and no intellect.  We are all, all living beings, attracted to different things and it should be noted that what we desire is not just the thing, but what we really desire is the experience that we think we will have when we acquire that thing.  With food it is the experience of tasting and chewing and smelling that food and the experience of satisfaction that we think we will have when that food is eaten.  Even the most materialistic human craves objects not for the objects themselves but for either the enjoyment of that object or some experience of enhanced self worth that he or she thinks having that object will provide.  The material world, including the material world of our bodies and brains, is the intermediary between our experience of desires (not what we desire, but the desire itself) and the experience of the satisfaction of desires, both of which are experiences and not part of the physical/material world.


The desire for food we call hunger.  The desire for water we call thirst.  The desire for rest or sleep we call fatigue.  The desire for warmth we call being cold.  The desire for coolness we call being hot.  The desire for sex we call horniness.  And the desire to experience connection and love with other beings we call loneliness.  The experience that we will momentarily satisfy our desires is called excitement.  The experience that we will momentarily lose the possibility of satisfying our desires is called fear.  And although we all hunger for different things (each species, at least in a natural state, is designed to desire that food which will best satisfy its biological needs), the experience of hunger, I believe, is very much the same experience even though the object of that hunger can be very different.  And the same is true for the other desires.  A camel may not experience thirst as much as many other animals, but when it experiences thirst it experiences an experience which is very similar if not identical to the thirst experienced by any parched animal or any vegetation in a drought.


Of course the great majority of scientists will see these ideas as  being anthropocentric.  I see the opposite.  I think that the idea that only humans can understand each other's experience, that only humans can experience things with depth, that only humans are relatable as living beings, is the most isolating, virulent form of anthropocentrism.  The thing that may separate humans from other species and from plants is thought and perhaps intellect.  But the absence of thought and intellect in no way diminishes the experience of desire or the satisfaction of desire, in fact, it may enhance desire and satisfaction.  If every ant  goes toward the sugar, is that really desire?  Wouldn't some ants desire something else or not approach the sugar with the same single minded commitment that all the other ants seem to have?  Doesn't that speak to a kind of experienceless instinct?  No.  As I said earlier, if it is not the desire for sugar that is driving these ants, then what force is it?  Certainly none of the four physical forces that I mentioned earlier.  No.  The reason that all these ants, and by the way, it is not all the ants, but all the ants whose job it is to bring food back to the colony.  There are plenty of other ants, the queen and her guards and the maintenance crew for instance, who do not approach the sugar, but remain at the colony awaiting the return of the food gatherers; the reason that all these ants behave in a way that is so uniform and determined is that the desire for sugar is so overwhelming.  They don't have any intellectual chatter which says, "well, yes, this sugar smells great, but there are so many other ants here, maybe I'll come back when it's not so crowded."  Or, "yes, it smells great, but there may be some even better sugar on the other side of the street, and, anyway, I had the same sugar yesterday, I mean how much sugar can you eat," etc.  No.  There is just the pure desire, undiluted by any chatter, just as there is the pure satisfaction of desire.  If anything, it seems, at least in terms of desire and satisfaction, that animals experience things more deeply than we do.


And finally we come to desirelessness, which, I believe, is experienced more commonly in animals and plants than it is in humans, at least contemporary humans.  It seems to be the job of our capitalist economy to keep us continually in a state of desire and, through advertising, to create new desires for things that we do not need at all.  Every advertisement contains within it the implicit message that you will somehow be more complete if you acquire this product, and less complete if you don't.  These ceaseless campaigns to get everyone to improve themselves, to lose fat, gain muscle, build their investments, own a larger home, more equipment, more education for their families, more security for themselves, and to attain an even grander appearing style of life, fills us with a constant gnawing restlessness of unfulfilled desires.  When we experience desirelessness it is often only after a very intense experience of desire satisfaction, and then it lasts only a very short time before the drum beat of restless desires starts sounding in our ears.  But desirelessness is a feeling of deep peace,  a sense of belonging, not just to a particular place and family, but to the universe; that you and the environment that surrounds you are part of the same fabric and inseparable;  and it is this peace that we feel when we are in the company of desireless animals whose needs have been met and who feel no separation from their environment which includes you; and it is this peace that we feel in a thriving forest, a sense that things are the way they should be, that everything is balanced and synchronized, that there is a natural order and design that is beautiful and that we are all part of.  That feeling, I strongly believe, comes not just from humans toward their environment, but from the plant and animal kingdom when they are desireless toward us, when we are among them.  Is this anthropocentric?  If anything it is spiritocentric, a quality that I happily confess to and it would make me feel honored to find out if any of you readers have become more spiritocentric from reading this post.


Please comment!


8 comments:

Squeegie60 said...

So when plants saw that land animals had evolved, they thought it over and began the tedious work of evolving little hooks so they could catch a ride on them and populate other areas beyond how far the wind could disburse them.

Matt Chait said...

Are you being sarcastic? I’m not sure. I’ll try to answer you seriously though. Plants didn’t evolve by their own thoughts, just like monkeys didn’t think it would be a good idea to stand upright or have an opposable thumb. If you think those things happened, both of which include changes in shapes, changes in equilibrium, changes in blood circulation and nerve channels, changes in brain real estate, etc., if you think all that happened by step by step advantageous mutations of nucleic acids, changes which have, by themselves, nothing to do with shape, with the timing of gene firings, with nerves or blood or equilibrium, then you have drunk deeply from the neo-Darwinian Kool-Aid. Adaptations, which must be enormously complex before they begin to be advantageous, are the result of ideas, not the plant’s ideas or the monkey’s ideas, but ideas generated from the cosmic consciousness, which is the source of all ideas.

Squeegie60 said...

You were discussing the consciousness of plants so I was going to ridiculous excess with that thought. Guess I wasn't exessive enough. Just held a discussion with Richard Dawkins in the seventh circle of hell regarding all the background activity that advantageous genetic mutations imply. He was unimpressed.

Matt Chait said...

So,Dawkins was ‘unimpressed.’ How unexpected! Discussing all the background activity that advantageous mutations imply with Richard Dawkins is like discussing the gravitational implications of walking on water and the electro-magnetic implications of turning water into wine with the Pope. Under that arrogant, supercilious exterior, I assure you that Dawkins is shaking in his boots by the threats to his little theory posed by molecular biologists, physicists and geologists, to name a few.

Squeegie60 said...

My main character pointed out to him that he never really uses a cogent dialectic but employs snark, which sounds like an argument but really isn't one. He either has no interest in proving his points or knows he can't so he's satisfied with disparaging the argumentation of his critics. Personality cults are interesting things, insulating the key personality from responsibility for their own words. Thanks again for your efforts.

Matt Chait said...

I think we’re in agreement, but I am still a little baffled by you. Did you actually have a discussion with Richard Dawkins or was this a scene that you wrote in your novel? If you are actually in touch with him, tell him I would kill to debate him; on this blog, in Westminster Cathedral or in a phone booth. Thanks.

Squeegie60 said...

Apologies for the confusion. Am writing my way through the seventh circle of hell and Mr. Dawkins, unnamed in my efforts (though the demonic residents of hell refer to him as 'skinwad', a general epithet for humans but also a nice little anagram and certain of his quotes from The Selfish Gene are represented in the story)inhabits the region in that circle which is reserved for the blasphemous, those violent against God. I am but a mere plumber with an avocation that involves literary interpretation and writing, which I find scratches a mental itch. As this has become more a discussion between the two of us and technically not commentary on your blog entry, perhaps it doesn't qualify for public consumption? Your call of course.

Matt Chait said...

Thanks for the clarification. I'd love to give it a read if and when you think it's ready.