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’ (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-animal/). 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?’ (http://www.esalq.usp.br/lepse/imgs/conteudo_thumb/Are-plants-conscious.pdf). Moreover, the reader may like to read the article ‘There is Such a Thing as Plant Intelligence’ by Simon Worrall in National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/02/160221-plant-science-botany-evolution-mabey-ngbooktalk/).
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.