The awareness of plants

Gerald asked:

Do you believe plants are as aware as humans about their surroundings and themselves? If not, why not?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Personally, I do not believe that plants are as aware as humans about anything; whether this is their surroundings or themselves. For me, plants do not need to have such a highly developed faculty for awareness and this has been dictated by the survival strategy they have employed as organisms. In essence, their survival strategy requires them to produce many potential offspring to ensure their continuance; in turn this requires plants to have a facet, possibly what we may even call a quality, which we may refer to as ‘unawareness’. It should also be noted that this strategy is successful as plants continue to flourish and have existed for aeons.

Here, I will attempt to demonstrate how plants have benefitted from a level of unawareness. But prior to this, if we consider a concept such as awareness to be akin to consciousness, then it should be realised that many philosophers would consider it difficult to transfer the very subjective, human experience of consciousness to other organisms. That said, some would be tempted to ascribe senses, such as awareness to ‘animals’ rather than vegetation; just exactly where this defining line may be drawn is an area for debate and as a starting point the reader may like to visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry for ‘Animal Consciousness’ ( Additionally, it may also be noted that a few philosophers are willing to entertain the possibility that plants and single-celled organisms possess a form of consciousness; notably Alexandra Nagel in his ‘Are Plants Conscious?’ ( Moreover, the reader may like to read the article ‘There is Such a Thing as Plant Intelligence’ by Simon Worrall in National Geographic (

However, let us imagine a plant, whose seeds are distributed in the wind by whichever way the wind blows. Now, if the plant was aware that for its offspring to flourish, its seeds would need to be distributed to the west as the east was unsuitable, then it would only release its seeds to an easterly wind. But if the climate changed, and the west became unsuitable whilst the east became verdant, then all of its offspring would perish. Additionally, if plants repeatedly reacted to such events in their environs it may divert resources from a tried and tested survival strategy. Hence, it is in a plant’s interests to be unaware; but more than this, it may be argued that plants must have a necessary and sufficient level of unawareness in order to survive and procreate.

That said, it would seem that plants are aware, in some manner, that their immediate circumstances are not ideal: for instance, when they stretch and writhe to maximise their exposure to sunlight; in a similar manner, plants rejuvenate themselves after being predated by herbivores. But these local tribulations are probably a limit to their awareness and their survival strategy rests for its success upon many other compatriots germinating in suitable conditions and an abundance of plants that predators cannot deplete. Overall, it should be realised that plants easily accomplish all of the functions they need to survive but seemingly without the necessity of a highly developed faculty for awareness.

Philosophical zombies

Joshua asked:

What is the philosophical Zombie? How does it apply to the real world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

If you want to read up on the literature for the ‘philosophical zombie’ a good starting point would be the Stanford Encyclopedia article by Robert Kirk.

I won’t venture into a summary or critique of that article. Instead, I will give my take on the zombie question and you can compare the two to see which you like better.

There are two connected points raised by the ‘zombie’ idea in philosophy. The first has to do with how I know that another person has an inner life or consciousness (the so-called ‘problem of other minds’). The second arises in an argument against the idea that consciousness is nothing more than a process in the physical brain, or ‘physicalism’ as this theory is called.

However, we need to not lose our bearings. In the ‘real world’ there are no zombies, philosophical or otherwise. It’s a fantasy notion. Dr Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s novel is a zombie, i.e. a reanimated corpse (strictly speaking, the monster is stitched together from several corpses but the difference isn’t important).

You know that you’re dealing with a zombie because its behaviour just isn’t normal. It walks in a jerky way. When you shoot it with your pistol (as in the classic Romero movies) it just keeps on coming. But does it have to be that way? If we’re into the realms of fantasy, couldn’t a zombie be very hard to tell from a human being? or maybe impossible? Maybe I am a zombie. Maybe you are a zombie.

If I am a zombie, how come I am writing this? Zombies can’t speak let alone write. Ah, but a philosopher will tell you that the point is that the ‘essence’ of zombiehood isn’t in abilities or behaviour but rather what’s going on inside.

If I can’t tell from behaviour or any physical signs whether or not a person is a zombie, then I could be the only human being with consciousness. Maybe everyone else on Earth is a zombie. Then again, there could be someone just like me on ‘Twin Earth’ orbiting on the opposite side of the Sun who is a zombie. Physically, we are the same but I have consciousness and my zombie doppelganger does not.

I think this is nonsense. Sheer piffle.

How do I know this? I am going to ask my zombie double on Twin Earth what he thinks. He and I are physically the same, behave exactly the same way, say exactly the same things. So, in response to my question, my zombie double will say, ‘I know I have consciousness but maybe you’re a zombie!’

We both say, ‘I know I have consciousness’, because our brains work in exactly the same way, producing exactly the same physical results. I can try as hard as I like to ‘point’ to my own inner state of consciousness while I am saying, ‘I know I have consciousness’, but in terms of cause and effect the words you hear have nothing to do with what I am trying to describe. They don’t come from ‘inside’, they come from my brain. Something (I have no idea what) in my physical brain makes them come. Whatever is going on ‘inside me’ is not playing any role in this story.

That doesn’t absolutely disprove the zombie idea, but it comes close. Close enough to say that any philosopher who bandies about the word ‘zombie’ doesn’t know what they’re saying. They imagine something, but what they imagine amounts to no more than a mute gesture, like pointing to your head with an urgent expression on your face. Inside! Inside!

I noted that if there could be a philosophical zombie, then physicalism is false. If there could be a zombie, then consciousness is something extra, on top of anything physical. However, it would be an obvious logical fallacy to conclude that because the idea of a philosophical zombie is nonsensical, physicalism is true after all. That doesn’t follow.

Let’s look again at my doppelganger on Twin Earth. He isn’t a zombie. He has consciousness just like me. But even though he is writing these very same words as I am writing at this very moment, he is not I. He is another ‘I’. That shows something. We have two identical physical beings, two ‘I’s. I could be one or the other. But why should I be either? What could possibly explain why one of these beings, but not the other, is I? It can’t be anything physical, by hypothesis. (The form of argument I’ve used here was known in Ancient philosophy as ou mallon, or the ‘no more reason’ principle.)

If physicalism can’t explain why I am I, then physicalism can’t be true. That’s the conclusion I came to in my recent article for Philosophy Pathways. There is more on this in my previous answer, below.

How old am I really?

Chandler asked:

How is it that we say things are young but in reality when you think of it everything is as old as the earth itself. Besides the human example, a spoon may be five months old but the components that make it I’ve been in the ground for billions of years so wouldn’t it be a lot older than We think it is?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Before the atoms that make you up were in the ground, they were formed in stars (other stars than our Sun which is still busy converting Hydrogen to Helium). We are ‘stardust, billion year old carbon’ as Joni Mitchell sang in ‘Woodstock’.

There’s a simple answer to your question in philosophical logic, more specifically the logic of identity statements. You are not identical to the stuff that makes you up. Your identity, as a spatio-temporal ‘continuant’ (to use the technical term) is determined by the conditions under which you are you, and not atoms scattered around the universe waiting to be you, or a pile of ash in a crematorium which was once you.

This begs so many questions, I hardly know where to start. Is the universe very old? Are the particles that compose you very old? Compared to what? Your age? Older, yes, but the number (in years, say) is irrelevant. Just as it is irrelevant how large the universe is in miles or kilometres, or ‘light years’ (to use another technical term). We have to get rid of our naive anthropomorphic way of looking at things, where we stand amazed at the sheer immensity of the universe — a claim which handwaving boffins on YouTube or TV shows love to repeat ad nauseam. The claim is empty, meaningless in any absolute sense.

You are not incredibly young or incredibly small. You are simply the age and size that you are, as is every other physical entity in the universe. How everything works is the interesting part, the laws of nature, the actual process of scientific discovery. That’s something truly to be amazed by: that we are capable of gaining any knowledge at all of ourselves or the universe.

However, there is a bigger question still waiting to be answered, a question for metaphysics rather than for science.

According to science, you are just stuff, formed into a shape or system of interacting components that maintains its functionality over a given temporal period, say, ‘three score and ten years’, or more if you stay healthy. When you say, ‘I exist’, your statement is true if, and only if, that physical system is set up to work in the way that a human body does, in the surrounding physical environment in which it performs its various functions — like thinking about the size of the universe or submitting questions to Ask a Philosopher, or eating or sleeping etc.

I once believed this, but I no longer do. The claim doesn’t make sense.

Speaking for myself (the very same applies to you, and any other human being) I know, as an absolute fact, that I might not have existed. My existence is contingent, not necessary. But contingent on what? On the existence of a ‘physical system set up to work in the way that it does, etc. etc.’? Surely not. The physical system known as GK might have existed, in another possible world otherwise identical to the actual world, although I did not. The ‘GK’ in the identical alternative universe is an existing entity, just as I am an existing entity, but he is not I — even though we perform the same actions, think or write or speak the same words.

I don’t even know whether the entity I refer to as ‘I’ is the same age as my functioning physical body. Maybe a new ‘I’ comes into existence every time I wake up in the morning. Or maybe more frequently than that. Or maybe (as in Vedanta Hinduism) every living human being is one and the same ‘I” (only not realizing this, because we live in a permanent illusion of being separate ‘I’s). I don’t have an answer to this metaphysical conundrum, or even a notion of how one would settle the question one way or another. That realization leaves one simply awestruck. Maybe we will never know.

Regardless of that, if my argument is right then physicalism is false and A.I. is dead in the water. There’s more on this in my recent article for Philosophy Pathways, if you’re interested.

Aristotle on reason and emotion

Kassidy asked:

Aristotle argues that reason should rule our soul (i.e. our mind). In other words, our ability to reason should monitor our emotional responses and keep the pursuit of satisfying our desires in check. Is he essentially right?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a typical instructor’s question. I imagine that your instructor already has in mind the kinds of answers they are likely to receive, for or against the proposition that ‘reason should rule our soul’. But I think it is selling Aristotle short and I’ll explain why.

The question asks us to consider a person whose emotional responses are ‘monitored by reason’ at all times. That’s not a particularly inviting prospect. But then comes the qualifying word, ‘essentially’. This is supposed to make the pill easier to swallow. So we’re not talking about a person who is uptight and over-controlled — or controlling — but rather a man (or woman, although Aristotle doesn’t really consider women as a species) who has the practical wisdom or sophrosune (usually translated by our rather pallid word ‘temperance’) to reflect on his or her actions and emotional responses, interrogate them, seeking all the time to improve one’s performance as a rational agent.

Isn’t this what we should do? Well, again the thought comes that you wouldn’t really like such an individual, someone who ultimately sees himself or herself as pursuing the path of self-perfection as an actor on the stage of human life. There seems something fundamentally dishonest about such a person. Every action, every line of dialogue is honed and refined by rational reflection. To what purpose? You might well ask.

‘I love you.’ — Is that the best you can do? coming out with a cliched line like that?! Come on, use your imagination. Press the the Escape button and try that level of the game again. — And when our ‘rational man’ (or woman) has finally found the right line, it’s beautiful. Pure poetry. Except that, knowing the whole story, you don’t believe it. There can be something pure and honest about a cliche that you simply blurt out, overcome by the emotion of the moment.

However, I still think that this is a parody of Aristotle. It’s true that the Greek philosophers were into sophrosune in a big way. Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Symposium gives an almost comic (well, actually, it is comic) rendition of a man who sometimes has to struggle to keep himself in check when he sees a beautiful boy. Again, that’s a nice touch, isn’t it? Then the punch line: the emotion Socrates feels is channelled (or, as Freud would say, ‘sublimated’) in a more intellectual level towards ‘love of the Forms’, or ‘Platonic love’ as you and I know it. How insipid is that.

I think Aristotle saw something that Plato with his more rigid picture of a ‘divided soul’ missed. Aristotle posed the question what distinguishes human beings as a species from other animals, and his answer was: the capacity for reason. It must therefore, he reasoned, be this capacity which is central to what is ‘good’ for human beings, or what makes for a ‘good life’.

Reason isn’t just something you do in your study. It enters into every aspect of human life. Sport, for example (another thing the Greeks were into in a big way). I’ve never watched kangaroos ‘boxing’, but I object to the use of the same word as the word we use for that noble sport. Boxing is an art and a science. A man ‘boxing’ with a kangaroo is a disgusting spectacle and a parody.

The capacity for judgement is involved at every stage in boxing: in preparation, training for strength, suppleness and stamina, rehearsing punches and combinations as well as reflection on tactics and strategy; or making necessary adjustments to during a fight, which is always unpredictable; or afterwards, in post mortem analysis, whichever way the result went. Two mindless thugs laying into one another isn’t ‘boxing’. It is what it is. And, yes, it is necessary that when you box, you get hurt. Boxing without pain (calling up the courage and mental resources to ride the blows and strike back) would be fist fencing.

We don’t go through life monitoring ourselves. There is a higher game. In game theory, the most rational move isn’t always the best choice, because it’s easier for your opponent to predict than a more random move. In human relationships, you have to learn how to lose control, when that is the appropriate thing to do. Sometimes it is not. Rational reflection shows that we must get over, if we can, our tendency to over-intellectualize things, and learn to value the emotional responses of the moment, while at the same time not going so far overboard on the emotional thing that we end up doing something that we should not have done, causing another person unnecessary hurt. All of this is encompassed in Aristotle’s notion of ‘practical reason’.

‘At all times, remember what it is that makes you a human being,’ would be Aristotle’s recipe for living. That’s pretty difficult advice to challenge, in my view.