The secret life of plants: how they memorise, communicate, problem solve and socialise

One of the most controversial aspects of Mancuso’s work is the idea of plant consciousness. As we learn more about animal and plant intelligence, not to mention human intelligence, the always-contentious term consciousness has become the subject of ever more heated scientific and philosophical debate. “Let’s use another term,” Mancuso suggests. “Consciousness is a little bit tricky in both our languages. Let’s talk about awareness. Plants are perfectly aware of themselves.” A simple example is when one plant overshadows another – the shaded plant will grow faster to reach the light. But when you look into the crown of a tree, all the shoots are heavily shaded. They do not grow fast because they know that they are shaded by part of themselves. “So they have a perfect image of themselves and of the outside,” says Mancuso.

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The systematic approach to suffering by Robert Daoust

“The study of pleasure and pain belongs to the province of the political philosopher; for he is the architect of the end, with a view to which we call one thing bad and another good without qualification. ” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The systematic approach to suffering will present a collection of lists, a series of enumerations as exhaustive as possible concerning suffering, causes of suffering, people and organizations who cause suffering, factors of difficulty in work against excessive suffering, ideas of strategy, solutions, people and organizations who contribute to solve excessive suffering, documents interesting the systematic approach to suffering, and many other lists.

All those inventories, mostly without precedent, call for a new type of gathering and classification work. And the interrelationships among all those elements will also call for new specialties. Moreover, it will be necessary to develop standardized procedures for measuring individual or collective suffering. Those measurements will be used to guide the work of prevention, reduction, suppression, eradication.

Such a wider and more precise mapping of the field will better inform us on what is occurring and where we should go, will better prepare us to react to the evolution of the global problematique (for instance, it would make it possible to detect and control the harmful consequences of certain solutions, or to use advisedly new shrewd tactics). It will make it easier for us to find our way through the abundance, the vastitude and the complexity of the subject.

The systematic approach to suffering proposes a general plan of solution to the whole problem of excessive suffering; it proposes which steps would lead to a global victory; it proposes a framework apt to accomodate all collaborations and to organize usefully their theoretical or practical contributions; it offers “an operational environment supporting the mutual reinforcement of the approaches and the projects of solution, too often isolated and vulnerable at present.

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The importance of phenomenal binding

We normally assume a fundamental distinction between conscious and non-conscious systems. Instead, I explore the possibility that what makes animals special isn’t consciousness per se, but phenomenal binding. Unless spooky “strong” emergence is true, then a termite colony, or the enteric nervous system, or a classical digital computer, or the population of the United States is not a unified subject of experience.

So how is phenomenal binding possible in the CNS? Why aren’t we micro-experiential zombies too?

I explore a quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism. In recent years, the intrinsic nature argument has undergone a revival. See Phil Goff’s “Galileo’s Error” (cf. for an accessible introduction. According to the intrinsic nature argument, experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, the mysterious “fire” in the equations.

The biggest technical obstacle faced by the intrinsic nature argument is often reckoned the phenomenal binding / combination problem:

However, I argue that _if_ the intrinsic nature argument is sound, and _if_ unitary-only quantum mechanics is correct, then we already have a built-in solution to the binding problem:

Stepping back, a lot of researchers assume that we face a stark choice: scientific materialism versus mysticism/dualism.

Not so. I assume that monistic physicalism is true.

But I’ve no idea how to reconcile subjective experience with materialism:

Text by David Pearce

Is sentience evolutionarily useful or physically inevitable?

When it is stated that sentience has a purpose, this idea is usually explained by indicating that sentience is useful because it motivates doing certain things and avoiding others. In addition, in this explanation, it is usually indicated that sentience motivates but does not force. That is, under this explanation, sentience is not simply the cause and behavior the consequence, but sentience motivates to strive to make the best possible decision, under the threat of pain and the reward of pleasure. According to this explanation, sentient beings would make better decisions and will be selected (“better”, from an evolutionary point of view).

But we can also consider that it is possible that we are sentient robots, but without will, that we simply do what we have been programmed for, even though we have the feeling that we make free decisions, so that sentience really does not play any role in the evolution in form of motivation.

So, is sentience useful or inevitable?

My best intuition is that sentience is probably inevitable when certain conditions are met. So, sentience would be inevitable. Not useful. But let’s assume for a moment that sentience is useful. If sentience were useful, then sentience must incorporate some element that goes beyond classical physics, to be really useful. For example, related to quantum physics or the multiverse.


Because if sentience had a positive effect (in the form of motivation) on survival, in some way that can be explained by classical chemistry and physics, for example, thinking faster, taking better decisions, or being able to escape running faster than a predator, this behavior, that would be evolutionarily selected, would have to compete with another behavior that would also be evolutionarily selected, which is to do exactly the same, following the laws of chemistry and classical physics, but without the sentience.

I will give an example to try to illustrate all this.

Suppose we have a DNA chain that “reproduces as much as possible” and that follows the laws of classical physics. This chain does not feel.

By the way, when I say that the chain “reproduces as much as possible” I am not assigning agency, but summarizing in that phrase what is happening on a physical level. That chain that “reproduces as much as possible” is simply matter following the laws of physics. The phrase “reproduces as much as possible” is a summary way of describing what is happening.

We also have a second strand of DNA also formed by physical particles and obviously also that “reproduces as much as possible.” However, this DNA chain does feel: it feels pleasure every time it reproduces and frustration if it can not. Which motivates it to reproduce as much as possible.

This second strand of DNA is motivated to reproduce, but in what physical way would it be able to do it better than the chain that does not feel, and therefore is not “motivated”?

Whichever way we imagine that this second chain can do something better than the first chain, if it is following the laws of physics, it is something that chains like the first one could also perform. That is, evolution could always create chains that do not feel, like the first one, and that would have that characteristic of being more efficient, like the second one. Then both types of chain could exist: those that feel and those that do not feel. Motivation would not have any differential advantage.

If instead of DNA chains we think about complete individuals like us, the example works the same.

Obviously, if we consider that from a certain level of complexity or when certain functions appear, all the chains (or individuals) feel, then it would seem that sentience plays a role in evolution, but simply what would be happening is that sentience is a byproduct of something else. And it is that other thing (complexity, function) the thing that is being selected, not sentience. Sentience would not be useful: it would be inevitable.

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The Physical and Consciousness: One World Conforming to Different Descriptions

Panpsychism is the doctrine that the world’s fundamental physical stuff also has primitive experiential properties. Unlike the physicalistic idealism explored here, panpsychism doesn’t claim that the world’s fundamental physical stuff is experiential. Panpsychism is best treated as a form of property-dualism.

How, one may wonder, is Pearce’s view different from panpsychism, and from property dualist views more generally? This is something I myself have struggled a lot to understand, and inquired him about repeatedly. And my understanding is the following: according to Pearce, there is only consciousness, and its dynamics conform to physical description. Property dualist views, in contrast, view the world as having two properties: the stuff of the world has insentient physical properties to which separate, experiential properties are somehow attached.

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Farmed Salmon May Be Depressed

Researchers find that growth-stunted farmed salmon show chronic serotonergic activity and do not respond to acute stress — a state that could be interpreted as depression.

In the vertebrate brain, serotonin mediated signaling is vital for several key physiological functions such as the body’s energy regulation, neural plasticity, behavioral and emotional control, and responses to stress. However, prolonged serotonin activation is associated with chronic stress and stress-induced pathologies in mammals. Such states include depression-like behaviors. This paper represents the first physiological data, showing that growth-stunted commercially farmed salmon have elevated serotonergic activity; what’s more, this is determined as the main characteristic of the growth-stunted phenotype. Compared to healthy fishes, these salmon are suggested to experience chronic stress. In fact, the researchers show that the fishes’ brains are not responsive to additional acute stress, representing a classic example of when regulatory mechanisms are unable to react to further challenges, indicating a depressive state.

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Where Should Humanity Steer Sentience? Examining 8 Potential Directions

The list of eight options below is not intended to be a complete list. Rather, it is intended to be a reasonably likely list of options that people might discuss in the near term.

For the sake of this article, the word pleasure is being used as a broad term to indicate all preferable conscious experiences, from finishing a great oil painting, to eating ice cream, to reading a good book, to feeling peace of mind, to having sex, and so on – depending one’s personal preferences, cultural background, etc. Suffering, likewise, is used to represent all gradients of unpleasant conscious states, from being dumped in a relationship, to stubbing your toe, to being eaten alive by hyenas.

The circle to the right represents a relative change in the amount of sentient experience in the world (in the increased or decreased or unchanged size of the circle), or in the relative change in the balance of pleasure and suffering in the world (in the changed degrees of red or blue in the circle).

The presence of the right-facing arrow indicates a movement from where we are now in our pleasure/suffering ratio, to one of the eight different directions that we’ll be exploring.

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How a nervous system operates without giving rise to an experience

In our bodies, if our knee is lightly tapped, our leg moves automatically (with no intention on our part) and independently of the experience of the tap that we sense.  The information that originates in our knee, with the tap, splits up and moves through two separate pathways: one path goes to our brain through the spinal cord, where it is processed to produce the corresponding experience; the other path involves a different circuit, going through the spinal cord to the muscles that operate the leg, without ever reaching the brain. In the second path, the information takes a much shorter direct route to enable our body to react quickly to the stimulus (‘reflex arc’). There is a good reason why this dual mechanism exists. There are cases where some part of the body will be endangered by a slow reaction to an external threat. If we had to think about moving because of pain, rather than responding automatically, we might not act quickly enough to avoid harm.

What is relevant here is that the information transmitted through this ‘reflex arc’ is never experienced because it is never processed by a central nervous system. The non-centralized nervous systems of some animals operate just as reflex arcs do. Information is transmitted from the cells receiving certain stimuli to other cells which must be activated, without any involvement of subjective experience. In these cases, there is a merely mechanical transmission of information. Such reactions are not an indication of sentience.

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