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Thread: "Plants Neither Possess nor Require Consciousness"

  1. #1

    "Plants Neither Possess nor Require Consciousness"

    [from LIVESCIENCE] A tree falls in the woods; but whether or not anyone hears it, the tree has no regrets. Nor does it experience fear, anger, relief or sadness as it topples to the ground. Trees — and all plants, for that matter — feel nothing at all, because consciousness, emotions and cognition are hallmarks of animals alone, scientists recently reported in an opinion article.

    The idea that plants have some degree of consciousness first took root in the early 2000s; the term "plant neurobiology" was coined around the notion that some aspects of plant behavior could be compared to intelligence in animals. Though plants lack brains, the firing of electrical signals in their stems and leaves nonetheless triggered responses that hinted at consciousness, researchers previously reported.

    But such an idea is bunk, according to the authors of the new article. Plant biology is complex and fascinating, but it differs so greatly from that of animals that so-called evidence of plants' intelligence is intriguing but inconclusive, the scientists wrote. ...

    "For consciousness to evolve, a brain with a threshold level of complexity and capacity is required," he added.

    Other researchers who recently investigated the neuroscience of consciousness — awareness of one's world and a sense of self — found that in animals, only vertebrates, arthropods and cephalopods had brains complex enough to enable them to be conscious.

    The cited report:

    I happened to be working today on a section of my new book "ZEN of the FUTURE!" which asks if robots might develop consciousness and a subjective experience and sense of self. My conclusion looking at various theories is that probably, yes, if they possess an electronic or artificial bio-chemical brain of sufficient complexity to process data from some set of senses, they would develop consciousness and self-awareness. With the right structure (most probable for a structure closely resembling the human brain, and quite likely for variations), consciousness is likely to arise spontaneously as a naturally emergent property (like gravity naturally emerges from mass), including subjective self-awareness. I speculate in the book that the brain creates subjective self-awareness from a fundamental pre-existing undivided state by dividing the whole though a kind of "house of mirrors" parlor trick into the subject-object divide, and a world broken into separate objects with individual characteristics experienced out of our eyes from a particular vantage point, via the brain's ability to exclude data as much as it absorbs data. (These are not original ideas by me at all, of course, and are in fact pretty ancient Buddhist ideas of dependent co-arising). The brain creates a vantage point looking out from our eyes at external objects, but it is something of a "hall of mirrors" effect that the brain employs to divide reality into pieces. In other words, it is not so much creating consciousness of "self" but instead dividing self into subject/object and "this that and the other thing" on a rather sophisticated level. Animals with less sophisticated brains are able to do so to lesser degrees, and robots with more sophisticated brains might be able to go even further.

    In many Buddhist theories, by the way, "Satori" consists of reversing the above effect to return to that original pre-subject/object "wholeness."

    Anyway, it is just a small section of the book, so I just toss it out there.

    Gassho, J

    Last edited by Jundo; 07-11-2019 at 04:22 PM.

  2. #2
    Hi Jundo

    I saw that article and, as a plant biologist, totally support its message. There have been numerous books and articles of late about plant consciousness, even going so far to envisage a 'world wide web' of trees and plants which are connected by a 'fibre optic' system of fungal threads.

    As the above points out, you need a central nervous system and other physiological structures to achieve higher cognition and the fact that plants exhibit behaviour and release hormones in response to stimuli is not indicative of consciousness. Bacteria do the same.

    While it is also true and very interesting that many plants have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi (literally 'fungus root') in which carbohydrate from the plant is exchanged for nutrients from the fungus, especially phosphorus, the extent to which this network (which is thought to extend to 95% of land plants) facilitates the flow of signals between plants is as yet in its infancy as a research topic. Even without this, plants are known to release their own chemicals from their roots and leaves to send 'messages'. One of my PhD supervisors was an expert in this field (pun intended!).

    Those things said, some of my best friends are green and engage in photosynthesis. Plants are also sources of oxygen, food, medicine, clothing, shelter and beauty and are greatly to be respected and enjoyed in their own right. In my village one of the old oak trees may well have lived for a millennium or more ( Some Native American people referred to trees as the 'standing people' and I like that.

    A tree supported our original teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha, as he sat vigil for six days before seeing the morning star on his night of awakening. Other trees have been used to build numerous Zen temples including Treeleaf Tsukuba I imagine, and Sekishi's new mutli-generational home and zendo.

    Dogen says:

    "Dharma is without end. Grass, trees, fences and walls become able to preach for all souls, common people and saints; conversely, all souls, common people and saints preach for grass, trees, fences and walls."

    -- Bendowa (Nishijima/Cross translation)

    Humans and plants are made from each other and live side-by-side. Not one, not two.

    In my morning sit, I see the birch tree outside my window and do not find it unusual to think that we are sitting zazen together.

    We may be looking towards a future of sentient robots but I hope we don't forget our tree friends whether conscious or not!

    Feel free to message me if you wish to talk about issues around practicing with physical limitations. This is something I have been sitting with for a fair while and am happy to help with suggestions or just offer a listening ear.

  3. #3
    Member Hoseki's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2015
    St. John's Newfoundland, Canada.
    Hi folks,

    I thought I could chime in here. Below is a link to a video that explains Mock Bands. Our visual system enhances the edges of objects. This makes them stand out more. Its just an example of our brain tinkering with the information we process. I also wanted to add that some species brains will be much better at somethings to us. I can't tell you what my dog used to be so interested in when we went for walks but it seemed like he was smelling everything. I think this quote from William James gets at this point.

    "Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world ; and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other ?—we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior ? With all his good will toward you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch ! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion, and vacant of all conscious life !" - William James

    As a side note, if your interested in some of the weirdness of our perception there is a book (I didn't read but I continuely plan to) call "The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat." ( Its a book written by a neurologist about his patients.


  4. #4
    Treeleaf Unsui / Engineer Sekishi's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2013
    Virginia, USA
    In a nice bit of timing, I just watched this video yesterday and really enjoyed the simple presentation of the complexity that fills the forest floor and canopy:

    #sat #lah

    As a novice priest-in-training, this is simply an expression of my opinion. Please take it with a grain of salt.

  5. #5
    By the way, what the Zen and Tendai Masters like Master Dogen and others meant in calling mountains, lanterns, trees and such as "sentient beings" is not necessarily that same thing that the scientists are meaning.

    It is hard to convey concretely what Dogen meant, but it is likely expressed as something like this: There is such a deep, interpenetrating, vibrant wholeness to all reality, with all things dependent on all things, such that you and I pour into the mountains and trees, and the trees and mountains and rivers and sky and stars pour into us, and all is always changing and on the move ...

    ... such that one might say that "mountains walk" and all are "sentient beings" even though (Dogen also made clearer elsewhere) they are not really technically "sentient beings" like people are in either the modern or traditional Buddhist sense. (In contrast, the scientists seem to mean the ability to have actual subjective self-awareness, complex thoughts and emotions.)

    We can also say that you are so much the world, and the world so much you, that when you (dear reader) think, the whole world is thus thinking, because you are not other than the world and all the stuff in it, and the world of stuff is just you and me. When you catch cold, the tree sneezes.

    Dogen writes in the Jijiyu Zanmai:

    “All the dharmas intimately and imperceptibly assist each other. Grasses and trees, fences and walls demonstrate and exalt the deep, wondrous dharma for the sake of living beings, both ordinary and sage; And in turn, living beings, both ordinary and sage, express and unfold it for the sake of grasses and trees, fences and walls.

    At this time, because earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles, all things in the dharma realm in ten directions, carry out Buddha work, therefore everyone receives the benefit of wind and water movement caused by this functioning, and all are imperceptibly helped by the wondrous and incomprehensible influence of Buddha to actualize the enlightenment at hand.”

    From Sansuikyo:

    If you doubt mountains' walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that you do not walk, but that you do not know or understand your own walking. Since you do not know your walking, you should fully know the green mountains' walking. Green mountains are neither sentient nor insentient. You are neither sentient nor insentient. At this moment, you cannot doubt the green mountains' walking. ... It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not just in water. There is also a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire. There is a world of sentient beings on earth. There is a world of sentient beings in the phenomenal world. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass. There is a world of sentient beings in one staff. Wherever there is a world of sentient beings, there is a world of Buddha ancestors. You should thoroughly examine the meaning of this.

    Gassho, J

    Last edited by Jundo; 07-12-2019 at 04:30 AM.

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