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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Plant Intelligence" Studies May Hint at a New Theory of Mind

Last year Michael Pollan created something of a sensation with his New Yorker article entitled “The Intelligent Plant.” Pollan discussed a variety of findings and experiments which suggest that plants may have capabilities that somewhat resemble or mimic aspects of the human mind.

Pollan stated: “Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and co├Ârdinate a plant’s behavioral response.” He pointed out that in 2006 six scientists had called for a new field of study to be called “plant neurobiology.”

I may note that intelligence is not necessarily the same as consciousness, so the idea that plants may have some degree of intelligence does not necessarily imply that plants have consciousness. Computer programs, for example, are not self-conscious, but do show some degree of intelligence.

Pollan claims that “plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five,” such as sight, hearing, touch, and smell. Somehow plants seem to gather information and then “decide” where to move their roots or stems. A simple example is called phototropism: a plant will grow its stems toward a source of light. Plants also seem to grow away from competitors, notes plant ecologist Rick Karban. Botanists have studied phenomena that resemble communication or signaling between different plants. 

Is there a bit of Mind in our meadows?

Scientist Monica Gagliana has written a paper entitled “Animal-like Learning in Mimosa Pudica.” She claims to have detected that this plant species can “learn” to ignore a stimulus that it originally responded to.

Recently a scientific journal published a paper “Adaptive and selective seed abortion reveals complex conditional decision making in plants." The paper stated: “Ecological evidence for complex decision making in plants thus includes a structural memory (the second seed), simple reasoning (integration of inner and outer conditions), conditional behavior (abortion), and anticipation of future risks (seed predation)." The paper is summarized here, in an article entitled "Are Plants More Intelligent Than We Assume?"

Some materialists have dismissed and belittled such findings, claiming that they are all nonsense. Their reasoning goes like this:
  1. Neurons are the sole source of intelligence.
  2. Plants do not have neurons.
  3. Therefore plants cannot have anything like intelligence.
This reasoning is similar to the reasoning used to reject evidence for a wide variety of paranormal phenomena suggesting human consciousness can exist outside of the brain (phenomena such as near-death experiences, medium phenomena, and apparition sightings). The strategy is all too familiar: when someone accumulates or produces evidence that contradicts your assumption, portray that person as a fraud, a fool, or a fanatic. One may ask why materialists cling so stubbornly to the premise that neurons are the sole source of intelligence, given that no one has any real understanding of how neurons actually produce thoughts.

But what if there is something more than just trickery, misinterpretations or errors behind the numerous indications that neurons may not be the sole source of intelligence? One can imagine an alternate theory of intelligence that may be consistent with these findings about plant intelligence and indications of paranormal phenomena.

The theory might be something along these lines. It could be that there is some unknown external source of what we might call Mind Stuff. A sufficient amount of this Mind Stuff might result in self-conscious beings like us. A much smaller amount of this Mind Stuff might result in some limited degree of information processing capability such as may exist in plants. It could be that our brains are just receptacles for this Mind Stuff, or some kind of receivers that tune in to this Mind Stuff (or organs that attract this Mind Stuff, like a magnet attracts metal, or like a capacitor attracts electric charge). It could be that plants are able to somehow attract or store a small amount of this Mind Stuff. Through such a theory we might be able to get around the difficulty that plants seem to have a limited degree of something like intelligence, even though they have no neurons. We might also be able to explain the anomalous observations discussed here and here (such as the fact that some human minds perform well even with only half as many neurons). 

Although it fits all observations (including reports of paranormal phenomena), such a theory will no doubt be spurned by conventional theorists, who will continue to cling to the dogma that thought can only be produced by neurons, clinging to it like a young child clinging to his favorite stuffed animal.