Consciousness and Intelligence, 12 October

Philosophical Subcategory= EPISTEMOLOGY:
Bees and . . . Consciousness/Intelligence
Bumblebee with honeysuckle

Photo, courtesy of Jane Shaw. While out walking with her dog, Bingley, Jane paused to photograph some honeysuckle–as she clicked, the bee flew into the picture. It must have known.

Very droll, Sharon–also very pretty and impressive! This is extremely appropriate as I plan to discuss next time what it is like for bees–and also fish and Thomas Nagel’s bats!–to be like they are, that is, so different to us and with such different sensory equipments. Does it make any sense to say ANY of them are conscious at all? Do they learn and adapt their behaviour by choice and/or by trial and error? Or are they just instinctual automatons or invertebrate zombies like caterpillers who will simply go round and round in circles for ever if you remove one of their eyes? Do you believe, like Michael Tye, that bees and fish are “phenomenally conscious” although they are not mentally introspective, like us? How does he– and we– know? Are we uniquely endowed with higher-level consciousness? And, for that mattter, how do we know what we believe we know? What is “belief” anyway? Can we be as sure as Dekkard (Harrison Ford) in “Blade Runner” that he knew his beloved Rachael was, in fact, a Replicator (non-human android), just because his emotional testing machine told him so? Did it make any difference, when all was said and done, to his past and planned future relationship with her? We all have to die but what does it mean to live? Stay tuned with your antennae or eyes or lateral lines or sonar equipment to this place! Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel! Ha!


Summary of the 12th October session

What is it like to be a honeybee?

T.H White, in his 1958 updated children’s fantasy novel, The Sword in the Stone, has his young squire hero [called the Wart as a short nickname for his real name as this rhymes more or less with Art, and who is to become, by the novel’s end, King Arthur of Round Table legend], being taught by no less a personage than Merlin, the magician-sorcerer. Merlin’s magic allows the Wart to assume many different shapes and forms and to live amongst the non-human world of nature. His first shape-shifting adventure is as a small perch fish and, accompanied just that one time by Merlin as a solemn tench, he has to learn the difficult art of trying to swim like a fish rather than as an adolescent boy. Merlin tells and shows him how: “Use your feet to turn to left or right . . . and spread those fins on your tummy to keep level. You are living in two planes now, not one.”

But, of course, we know this is quite impossible without the aid of such magic. We can only exist on our human plane while fish and all other non-human creatures live on theirs quite separate from us. But does this mean that fish and bats and bees and similar creatures are only reflexive automotons with no capacities for changing their patterns of behaviour based upon what they sensorily experience, and of perhaps learning to do different things and skills like the Wart supposedly did? And can imagination enable us to put ourselves in their place, as it were, and see the world from their point of view rather than our own, and perhaps experience what they do and in like manner? Lastly, do any of such organisms feel at all and could we imagine ourselves effectively feeling like–or somewhat like–they do?

When the Wart learns how to manage his fins and tail effectively, he and Merlin go for a little swim together in the moat of the castle:

“The Wart was on an even keel now, and reasonably able to move about. He had leisure to look at the extraordinary universe into which the tattoed gentleman [Neptune or Poseidon, earlier conjured up by Merlin using his wand and a magic incantation]’s trident had plunged him. It was different from the universe to which he had been accustomed. For one thing, the heaven or sky above him was now a perfect circle. The horizon had closed to this. In order to imagine yourself into the Wart’s position, you would have to picture a round horizon, a few inches about your head, instead of the flat horizon which you usually see. Under this horizon of air you would have to imagine another horizon of under water, spherical and practically upside down–for the surface of the water acted partly as a mirror to what was below it. It is difficult to imagine.

What makes it a great deal more difficult to imagine is that everything which human beings would consider to be above the water level was fringed with all the colours of the spectrum. For instance, if you happened to be fishing for the Wart, he would have seen you, at the rim of the tea saucer which was the upper air to him, not as one person, waving a fishing-rod, but as seven people, whose outlines were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, all waving the same rod whose colours were as varied. In fact, you would have been a rainbow man to him, a beacon of flashing and radiating colours, which ran into one another and had rays all about. You would have burned upon the water like Cleopatra in the poem.

The next most lovely thing was that the Wart had no weight. He was not earth-bound any more and did not have to plod along on a flat surface, pressed down by gravity and the weight of the atmosphere. He could do what men have always wanted to do, that is, fly. There is practically no difference between flying in the water and flying in the air. The best of it was that he did not have to fly in a machine, by pulling levers and sitting still, but could do it with his own body.

It was like the dreams people have.” [p.43]

[This is how I imagined what goldfish might be “dreaming” or “perceiving” in Kantian terms in a poem I wrote last year:]

Kantian Goldfish (Synthetic Analysis)
[dedicated to Jeff Pitt]

“When all spins round and round and round,
Then: what looks up and what casts down?
And: what is out and what is in?

When all flows round and round and round,
Then: what has been; what still to be?
And: what is face and what is fin?

When all swims round and round and round,
Then: what transcends and what perceives?

And: what is ‘You’ and what is ‘Me’?”

[Peter Tooth, 24th November, 2012]

However, leaving aside Mr. Kant for the moment, here is what another philosopher of consciousness, Michael Tye, said in the first few pages of his excellent 1997 article entitled:


“Are frogs conscious? Or fish? What about honey bees? Do paramecia
have experiences? Somewhere down the phylogenetic scale
consciousness ceases. But where? That is the topic of this paper.
It is sometimes supposed that once we begin to reflect upon much
simpler beings than ourselves – snails, for example – we are left
with nothing physical or structural that we could plausibly take
to help us determine whether they are conscious. The Problem of
Other Minds, as it applies to the consciousness of such creatures, is without solution. There is really no way of our knowing if spiders are conscious of anything, as they spin their webs, or if fish undergo any phenomenal experiences, as they swim about in the sea.

This pessimistic assessment has led some philosophers to
conclude that there is no fact of the matter about whether octupi
or toads are conscious, and hence that their consciousness is of no moral importance. The verificationist thinking upon which this line of argument rests seems to me to have little to recommend it. Why should our inability to decide whether consciousness is present in some cases show that there is real indeterminacy in the world with respect to the matter? We are products of nature as much as everything else. The world need no more conform to our cognitive limitations than it need to those of the simpler creatures at issue.

And is it really true anyway that the evident physical and structural differences between ourselves and much more primitive creatures prevent us from knowing whether they are conscious? Is the Problem of Simple Minds, as we might call it, beyond solution?

I say not. Given the theoretical perspective I favor, we are now
in a position to determine in general terms where, on the phylogenetic scale, consciousness disappears and to make decisions about particular cases. Honey bees, I shall argue, are conscious, as are fish; amoeba are not. I shall begin with some general, pretheoretical remarks about different concepts of consciousness.

Consciousness comes in many varieties. As I write, I am conscious
of a mosquito in the garden just outside the window. In this sense, consciousness is a matter of noticing or thinking to oneself that such-and-such an item is present. I am also conscious of a desire for a holiday and my belief that I am going to be late for a dental appointment. This is higher-order consciousness. Here one turns one’s attention inwards and conceptually represents one’s own mental states. My being conscious of a given belief, for example, consists in my believing or judging that the belief is present.

However, I need not notice something to be conscious of it. For example, I am conscious of the fact that the earth is ninety three
million miles from the sun. This is one of many facts of which I
am aware. But I am not now attending to it. In this loose, colloquial sense of the term ‘conscious’, I am conscious of facts that I know.

My experiences and feelings are conscious too. How could they not be? If I experience something – a deep purple, say – I must be
conscious of purple. Likewise, if I feel something – an itch, say – I must be conscious of the itch. This is not to say, of course, that I must be attending to the experience or feeling. I may be distracted. Perhaps, I am even unable to respond to the experience cognitively through some sort of impairment. Still, if I have an experience or feeling, consciousness must surely be present.

This is the sort of consciousness that philosophers, and increasingly psychologists, find most baffling. It goes with talk of “raw feels”, of “sensational qualities”, of “what it is like.” For a person who feels pain, there is something it is like for him to be in pain. The pain has a definite phenomenal or subjectively felt quality. Phenomenal consciousness is present. A mental state, then, may be said to be phenomenally conscious just in case there is something it is like to undergo the state, some immediate sensational “feel” the state has, some distinctive experiential quality. A creature may be said to be phenomenally conscious if, and only if, it is the subject of nominally conscious states. Where a creature undergoes such states, following standard usage, I shall say that there is something it is like to be that creature.

Consciousness of this sort seems essential or integral to experiences and feelings in a way in which it is not to other mental states. Thoughts, for example, may or may not be conscious. Thinking that water is wet, to take a specific case, has no intrinsic phenomenal character, although it may certainly be accompanied by images or bodily sensations (e.g., the feeling of thirst). Perhaps it is also the case that upon occasion, particular tokens of the above thought have a felt quality to them. Still, none of these qualities is essential to the thought itself. Felt qualities can vary without any variation in thought, and even without any variation in conscious thought.

Conversely, thoughts (including conscious thoughts) can vary without any variation in phenomenal character. My doppelganger on Putnam’s famous planet, twin earth, who thinks that twin-water (or twater) is wet, rather than that water is wet, does not thereby differ from me at the level of sensory experience or feeling. What he thinks is certainly different from me. His thought has a different content from mine, and if he is conscious of what is thinking then his thought has a different conscious content. But this is not a difference in phenomenal consciousness, at least in any sense that I intend. The difference rather is one of higher-order consciousness.

I presently have a rich and varied phenomenal consciousness. My visual field is full of the colors of my garden. I have auditory sensations of my computer humming quietly, a fan purring, distant traffic. I feel my legs crossed, as I sit on my chair. There is a slightsensation of pressure around my neck from my shirt collar. I feel my feet touching the floor, my wrists resting against the edge of my desk as my fingers make contact with the keyboard. These sensations need not themselves come into existence, as I focus upon them. They can exist even if, as is usually the case, my attention is directed elsewhere. Or so at least it is normally supposed. Phenomenal consciousness seems to be a relatively primitive, largely automatic matter, something more widespread in nature than higher-order consciousness, for example. But it is also deeply puzzling. Reflection upon phenomenal consciousness gives rise to talk of an explanatory gap.

There seems a huge difference between what it is like on the inside, as it were, and what is going on physically in the brain. Somehow, objective, physical changes in the mundane grey and white matter composing brains generate the subjective qualities of experience. How is the trick done? How can perspectivally subjective states (i.e., states that cannot be fully understood by creatures that have not experienced them) be generated at all in the natural world?

Phenomenal consciousness can be illustrated further by reference
to the famous inverted and absent qualia hypotheses, although it
does not require that they be true. The former of these hypotheses
is standardly illustrated by the example of color and the idea that you or I might have color experiences that are phenomenally inverted relative to those of everyone else even though we use color words and function in color tests in all the standard ways. The latter hypothesis is the claim that there might be someone who felt or experienced nothing at all, someone who altogether lacked phenomenal consciousness, but who functioned in just the same manner as someone who was phenomenally conscious.

It is phenomenal consciousness that is the primary focus of the
present paper. The Problem of Simple Minds, as it will concern us
in what follows, is to be understood as pertaining to the phenomenal consciousness of simple creatures. Do honey bees or fish undergo mental states with phenomenal or subjective qualities? Is there, in the relevant sense, something it is like for them? Or are they zombies, creatures without any ‘qualia’ at all, mere detectors of their environments?” (Philosophical Studies 88: 289-292, 1997)

Brief summary of the roundtable discussion:

We attempted during the lively discussion to consider and provide some suggested answers to the above questions as well as to consider whether plants can be said to “think” in any meaningful sense of the word or remain merely reflexive automatons acting in soley tropic fashion to stimuli like my Venus Fly Trap, Boris, who, incidentally, came along with us and kindly let everybody play with him!

I referred to the audio-recording of Michael Marder’s interview on the Australian radio programme Philosophical Zones re “Plant Thinking” [which can be found in its entirety as an audio link below], more than once, as this emphasised the Aristotelian notion of a basic plant soul notion which he–and now Marder– considered all animate life to inherit.

This, of course, is very similar, in many ways to Steiner’s anthroposophic notions of cosmic soul and we later touched upon the latter’s belief, expressed in his first short lecture on “Bees”, that the hive is based on love throughout due to the worker bees’ sacrifice of sex and also to the love qualities contained in the nectar they collect from the plants via their incessant foraging. Joel Yoeli, in particular, also wanted to stress this erotic aspect of consciousness extant in all nature.

We also took a passing nod at Thomas Nagel’s influential 1974 article in Philosophical Review, LXXXIII, “What is it like to be a bat?” in which he considers the relationship between the subjective and the objective in such problems of consciousness of non-human life-forms. Nagel deliberately chooses bats to illustrate his various points in this short article because, as he says, “if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all.”

I tried to indicate in our discussion, however, how the famous and startling experiments [1949 and after] on bees by Karl von Frisch–especially in connection with their mutual communications via their dancing routines and chemical exchanges–radically challenges this assumption and shows it to be quite false.

Frisch, quite eloquently and simply, provides the evidence for Tye’s assertion that honeybees do have qualitative experiences and phenomenal consciousness of a sort enabling them to learn and to adapt their behaviour in the light of powerful instincts and goals in regard to the collection of nectar and other pursuits. Joel, however, was very critical of this assumption of goal-directed behaviour in bees and also, generally, of the Pavlovian type conditioning and Skinnerian-type behaviouralist models employed in modern experiments of bees and other life-forms, since he considered these to be very limited in their scope and the revelation of the full and true nature of consciousness.

Again, for me at least, this was very reminiscent of the issues raised (November 28, 1923) by Steiner in his third lecture [handout provided to the class and full text available via a search box of the Steiner Archives, weblinked in the body of the text of the Session One Summary, Intro and Overview, posted at the very bottom of the page for the first discussion session of July 13th] which discusses the infra-red and ultra-violet sensitivities of bees re recognising or “seeing” or scenting colours in experiments. Steiner, in this short lecture, has some interesting things to say in fundamentally rejecting many of the anthropomorphically-based conclusions made– via their scientific experimental work–of Forel, Kuhn and Pohl. These scientists collectively posed the question: “Can Bees See Colors Invisible to Human beings?” Steiner stresses how honeybees see the Queen Bee–via ultra-violet sensitivity, which remains invisible, of course, to us– to be shining . [David Dobereiner, in particular, has since told me that this was all new and highly informative to him.]

Nagel, however, is solely concerned to illustrate the vast problems involved in us trying to work out:

“what it is like to be a bat” [as] we must consider
whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to
the inner life of the bat from our own case [or] rather
the mentalistic ideas that we apply unproblematically
to ourselves and other human beings . . . and if not,
what alternative methods there may be for understanding
the notion. . . [for] bats, although more closely related
to us than those other species [wasps or flounders]
nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory
apparatus so different from ours that the problem I
want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly
could be raised with other species). Even without the
benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent
some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows
what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.”

[Hence their long association with horror movies–especially those concerned with blood-sucking vampires! Sharon and I still shiver when we think of our several shrieky close encountersof the furry kind with bats hiding on our basement walls and flying crazily around at us after sunset in our USA home!].

The fundamental problem remains: how we are to access and know the subjective or qualia sensory/mental experiences of bats (and other non-human organisms) from our own objective and scientifically-formalistic perpectives and approaches?

Finally, I also briefly mentioned a recent and highly informative article, entitled Learning and Memory in Bees by Randolf Menzel and Jochen Erber, which elucidates the neural basis of the programmed behaviour of bees which enables them to learn quickly and to remember for long periods the colour and the odour of flowers that yield them nectar or pollen. Such neural processes, remarkably, it seems, are quite similar to that used by us all. Will this help us, though, to empathise better with such mute (to us) creatures? Without language, can we ever really know them?

[The vital nature and role of verbal and written language for human cultural development, social/political organization, and ethical/economic matters will be considered during our next session.]

At the end, some of us happily adjourned, after such a stimulating discussion, to continue to talk more philosophy at the Tyneside Cafe for a further hour or two!

[Don’t forget: there is optionally much, much, more on this fascinating subject in the weblinks and articles below which cover in greater detail much of what we discussed on Saturday and lots more besides for those of you, who, like me, can’t get enough of all this kind of stuff!]

Many thanks.

Peter Tooth (Hemlockian34)

Articles, etc for our discussion on 12 October:

Article from Philosophical Studies, v.88, 1997, pp.289-317
The problem of simple minds: is there anything it is like to be a honey bee?
By Michael Tye

Article from Scientific American, v.239, issue 1, July 1978, pp. 102-110
Learning and Memory in Bees
by Randolf Menzel and Jochen Erber

Article from Natural History, v.88, issue 6, 1979, pp.66-75
Do Honeybees Know What They Are Doing?
by James L. Gould
Please note: Sorry, but we are unable to provide a scan of this article. The link above will take you to a webpage of Internet Archive, where v.88 of Natural History is freely available. To the left of the page are options for downloading or viewing the entire volume. Once this rather large file is opened or downloaded, you will need to navigate to issue 6, pp.66-75.

Article from BBC Wildlife, Nov 2012 (p. 58)
Species: honeybee, Job: bomb detection

From the ‘How Stuff Works’ website
How can you train honeybees to sniff for bombs?
by Julia Layton

Article from National Geographic, 26 March 2013
Honeybees can move each other with electric fields
by Ed Yong

Interview of artist Susana Soares, from ANTENNAE, The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, Issue 11, Autumn 2009. Please see pages 51-56.
(With thanks to Kirsty Young for the source)
Pavlov’s [sic] Bees
Questions by Zoe Peled

From the Red Orbit website, 13 Dec 2012
Conditional Training Makes Honeybees Stick Out Their Tongues

From the Red and White Kop Liverpool FC Forum website
How intelligent are other animals?
Originally apprearing as The Brains of the Animal Kingdom by Frans de Waal, in The Wall Street Journal, 22 Mar 2013
(With thanks to Lee Higham for the source)

The Philosopher’s Zone, on Australia’s ABC Radio National
Plant Thinking
Joe Gelonesi talks with philosopher Michael Marder, broadcast 2 June 2013
What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide To The Senses Of Your Garden–And Beyond, by Daniel Chamovitz (especially the short prologue and epilogue chapters): Oneworld Publications, London, 2012
(with thanks to Pru Hamed for both sources)

[email comment before the meeting to Pru from Dob re the audio]

Thanks Pru,
This was a good one. What a clear and articulate philosopher!
What’s an ethical vegan to eat now? Answer. Eat elements that
plants discard, like fruit and seeds, or wait until plants die a
natural death (then race to get to them before the bugs do).



23 thoughts on “Consciousness and Intelligence, 12 October

  1. Thanks, Peter, for facilitating a most interesting discussion on consciousness. As to be expected, the discussion focussed on different ideas of consciousness ranging form concepts of universalism (all entities, from innate matter to plants and animals, exhibit some form of consciousness) to concepts of the behaviourism’s ‘black box’ (behaviour is viewed only in terms of input and output).

    For my money, the ‘black box’ of consciousness is metaphysically empty. But the human condition demands that we fill it with transcendental ideas, cognitive constructs, with which we seek to account for our experience of ‘reality’, and which Kant described as a ‘social dynamic’ i.e. our ‘truth’. Certainly we can see that ideas do affect our behaviour – think of religion and politics – not to mention science and art.

    For me the most convincing construct, which account[s] for the experiential difference between human and other sentient beings, is the perspective of human objectivism – that is to say only humans experience entities as objective, independent of our conscious[ness] of them. Other sentient beings cannot, it would seem, objectify in this way.

    This human characteristic is seen most directly in our objectification of the self. Jacques Lacan’s view, endorsed by Slavoj Zisek, postulates a phase in human development where a young child undergoes the ‘mirror image’ stage when the ego first recognises itself as an objective entity – the ‘me’. Other animals cannot recognise their mirror image – for them there is no ‘me’. Lacan and, and the linguistic philosophers, account for this human characteristic of objectivism by our facility for language. Our experience of reality is mediated by language. Other animals, on the other hand, experience their reality subjectively and unmediated. It follows that language in its cultural definition determines our distinctive human experience of ‘reality’.

    We cannot extrapolate from the behaviour of bees to an understanding of the behaviour of the human species. It will be interesting to see how/if this perspective will play out in the next Bees[in Philosophy] discussion on Economics and Morality where, it might be seen, that our language defines our morality.

    • Jack: Thanks for your most positive response to the discussion last Saturday, and I absolutely agree with you about the essential difference between human beings and non-human species in regard to the vital role played by language and the objectifying of reality. This is, perhaps, what Nagel did not elucidate sufficiently–at least, that is, for me. Also: I remember now (Oct.16th) that Dan Robinson, in an online lecture course that Suze Lord first put me in touch with when we were both studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Logic, a while back [I’ll hunt it out and post it on the wesite, if you wish], spoke about how only humans can recognise the spacial differences between right and left handedness, and that a mirror image would only serve to thoroughly confuse a Martian. But I also remain somewhat confused still myself!

      However, be that as it may . . . I have tried above to more than just hint at the immense cutural and developmental importance of language, both verbal and written in the human adventure, but, as you say, it will certainly be most interesting to see how the perspective between language and economics and ethics plays out in our next discussion. I can hardly wait!

      Incidentally, as I already mentioned to you and others, I had originally planned to mention Thomas Hobbes and his comments in Leviathan, whereby he categorically states that the reason there is harmony, “utopian” peace and cooperation, as well as collective industry in the honeybee hive, is precisely because they lack our human verbal facility. But I ran out of time!

      In Hobbes’s view, if the bees talked like us, they would have all the strife, discord, divisions, anarchy and war that we homo sapiens, unfortunately, experience. This necessitates, in Hobbes’s well-known view, that without a strong and autocratic government or leader, life would be “nasty, brutish, and short “. This outlook plus Machiavelli’s pragmatic cynicism concerning the arrangements and operations of power in his “The Prince” should also prove edifying during our discussion next month–if we ever manage to get round to these philosophical misanthropes, that is!

  2. [David Dobereiner emailed some of us with this comment on October 7th–days before our 12th Discussion at the Lit & Phil. Jack later asked me if I could post it here, so . . . only too happy to oblige!]

    “To the degree we are endowed with imagination, empathy and compassion we can catch a glimpse of what the world would feel like from within the life of any organism. Plants are a lot harder than animals, or even insects. But consider a tree: I am encased in a tubular bark-like straight jacket that envelops me from ankles to top of head, but my feet are planted in the earth and enjoy a life of their own, each toe exploring an exciting world of discovery in soil and sprouting other toes to expand their reach. At the top, my hair has branched out and sprouted leaves that enjoy the air and sunlight. The changing conditions of wind strength and direction and constantly changing weather offer drama and excitement from air equivalent to that of my brothers below ground.

    OK. Not too convincing. But here is an example from the animal kingdom that I would like to relate: As you all may know, I live alone in a flat where pets are prohibited. My only companions are feral pigeons that visit my balcony. I have developed a relationship with one particular pigeon couple that has been going on for two years now, but I don’t wish to discuss Bert and Olucci now. Rather it is when other groups of strange pigeons land briefly on my balcony in gangs of 3 to 6 that I have occasionally noticed a behaviour that is unexpected and mysterious. On more than one occasion I have seen one member of these gangs spinning round on their feet. Round and round. Children sometimes do this in order to make themselves feel dizzy, which is somehow exciting, like the effects of a drug.

    I have concluded in my usual anthropomorphic (and I make no apologies) way that it is the same with pigeons. These spinning pigeons are just over excited by the interaction with their friends and potential mates and are stimulated to give themselves a cheap high. If we were not endowed with arms and hands, but wanted to clap our hands with glee, we would do what pigeons do. We would clap our feet.



  3. [my email reply on 7th October also]

    Exactly, Jack! This whole thing assumes anthopomorphism–erroneously! On Saturday morning, I shall be explicitly dealing with non-human organisms–plants, insects, low-scaled phylogenia, and especially honeybees from THEIR unique sensory and non-human phenonenological perceptions. We need to clear this human contexualising right out of the way. If you visit the beesinphilosophy website and click on the pull-down menu under Oct 12th topic, you will all find ample posted article material on the subject, which, although, copious, is rarely complex. Hope to see you all there then for a lively discussion! Cheers!

  4. [same day again]
    Hi Pru,
    I cannot ‘know’ what it’s like to be me, but I can experience what it’s like to be me. And I can imagine what it’s like to experience being another being with the same sensory and cognitive apparatus. But, how can I imagine what it’s like being a being without the same sensory and cognitive apparatus? How can I imagine what it’s like to experience being a plant – or a god?
    Best regards,

  5. [same day again]

    Hi Pru,
    I am not sure that plants don’t have something very closely analogous to a nervous system. Just we give it a different name. Also its not only a question of whether they feel pain but whether they feel anything. It seems that they do.

    Interesting point about lianas, those parasites and criminals. We could ethically eat their leaves but that’s not practical. We can’t go climbing around tops of rain forests.

    Actually why can’t they be culled? They should be treated as a disease, like small pox. Armies of volunteers armed with band saws could sweep through the affected areas of rain forests sawing through all those massive trunks at ground level.

    I’ve often wondered why some agency like the RSPCA doesn’t fly some mating pairs of polar bears to the south pole, since the Arctic is melting.People say this would hurt the penguins.

    Is warfare an inevitable part of life? Not only between humans and each other but between plants and even between animals and the environment that suddenly turns on them.

    Life is good. Except when its bad.


  6. [same day, slightly earlier in the sequence of emails]

    On Mon, Oct 7, 2013 at 8:47 AM, pru Hamed wrote:

    Hi Dob

    The course I have just started makes it clear that plants do not have a nervous system and presumably feel no pain as such. Plants and animals’ evolutionary lineages diverged a very long time ago but they still deserve consideration as living beings.

    A plant in the ‘wrong place’ can damage the overall diversity of the ecosystem. Should the existence of say, Japanese knotweed be respected when it dominates river banks, or those lianas which are thriving in the altered forest environment of Amazonia?

    I feel that it is OK to grow and eat or collect plants as long as the ‘diversity’ and ‘health’ of any ecosystem is respected as much as possible.

    All the Best


  7. [me to Jack, same day (7th Oct)]

    Right on, Jack! One, of course, cannot–but one can agree on a certain degree of phenomological consciousness as empirically and evidentially existing in certain levels of phylogenetic lifeforms when one closely observes their behaviour: i.e. one can tell there is, for instance, a certain degree of memory brought to bear on learning different responses to experiences and stimuli from that organisms point of view, rather than simple repetition of reflex responses, like my Venus Fly-Trap plant here at home which can only respond tropically to flies or other insects activiating its hair-triggers. There is no advance in the range of possible responses, unlike with fish and bees and many other kinds of higher-life. One can choose to call this process “thinking” of a kind–but it is certainly not thinking of a higher-order consciousness such as we humans enjoy for our existential pains. They do not think about thinking introspectively as we do or abstractly conceptualise–at least as far as we are able to determine this scientifically. That is science-fiction–as with John Wyndham’s infamous Triffid plants. Wishful human thinking and sentimentalising does not make it factually so, unfortunately. All else is anthromorphic transference. Here is a wonderful article which makes this all very clear (ignore the opaque middle theoretical section on the PANIC process!) by Michael Tye that I will be citing from often this Saturday morning morning at the Lit & Phil! Enjoy!

    [please note: this Tye article is available in its entirety in the weblink above; simply click on and enjoy!–Hemlockian34]

  8. [7th October email from me, intended to Pru but sent to David instead!]

    to David

    What you say makes a lot better sense to me, Pru, than what Dob is anthropomorphosising about with his pigeons or trees! But I could be wrong!

  9. [7th Oct. general email from Pru]

    Hi Dob

    There is a lot to reply to in your email.

    Animals and plants tend to exploit the ecological niches that fall available to them and are suitable for them. Human animals do the same thing, in many ways.

    But we have evolved ethical thinking which can help us adapt in a more fruitful way for the whole planet even avoiding warfare to an extent. Warfare though common is widely deplored and often seen to be counterproductive.

    Plants undoubtedly feel touch but not pain, not having any ‘subjective’ responses. They feel stimulation but lack a brain and central nervous system to experience pain. This is taken from What a Plant Knows – by Daniel Chamovitz. [see the very last citation above–Hemlockian34]

    Best regards

  10. [Edited reply to last Pru email from Dob to her and me, same day]

    Hi Pru,

    “Animals and plants tend to exploit the ecological niches that fall available to them and are suitable for them.”

    ‘Exploiting an ecological niche’ is a bit of an oxymoronic cliche in my view. Species in fact mostly co-evolve and in a stable eco-system there are no ‘gaps’. In a healthy system the interactions are, in the main, symbiotic. Even the predators and prey balance each other by limiting over population in both species. However parasites are in a different category. The lianas are killing trees that form forests which are needed by the whole system to act as a carbon sink and to regulate the hydrologic cycle. When they have killed all the trees they will die themselves because they will have destabilised the whole system.

    “Human animals do the same thing, in many ways.”

    We do the same thing because we are the same thing, animals. Because we have this false sense that ‘nature’ is for us to ‘exploit’ we act largely in parasitic fashion, like lianas except not limiting our murderous activities just to trees but to all non-human animals and plants with devastating consequences, potentially, for all earthly life.

    “But we have evolved ethical thinking which can help us adapt in a more fruitful way for the whole planet even avoiding warfare to an extent. Warfare though common is widely deplored and often seen to be counterproductive.”

    I believe Kropotkin showed conclusively that ethical behaviour has evolved normatively within all species. Humans have surpassed all others, up to now, in the art of killing their own kind. I must say Pru, your optimism borders on complacency, in my opinion.

    “Plants undoubtedly feel touch but not pain, not having any ‘subjective’ responses. They feel stimulation but lack a brain and central nervous system to experience pain. This is taken from What a Plant Knows – by Daniel Chamovitz.”

    There again I cannot accept the received opinion. If someone steps on my finger, I feel the pain IN MY FINGER. My self is an integrity that occupies every cubic centimetre of my body, including my brain and my mind which may spread out into a field that is part conscious and largely unconscious, just as in any other organism that is not rooted in the ground. It must be so because to move through space requires making decisions about where and how to move, and towards what end. This is doubly so for organisms capable of doing something as complicated as flying, such as a bird, or a bee (take that, Peter). Ha!



  11. [me to Dob next day, 8th Oct.–edited slightly]

    I still agree with [Pru] re pain and plants, Dob, I am afraid. Ha back to you! Nor do I believe bees can feel pain in terms of suffering–but let’s talk some more about it. By the by, I also do not believe that Kropotkin “showed conclusively that ethical behaviour has evolved normatively within all species”. The concept of ethics is a human and anthropomorphic one and does not usefully apply to other species–which is not to say that animals are not nice to each other a lot of the time and often cooperate with each other. But then so do people much of the time. War and same-species killing is another topic entirely and man is definitely guilty at the bar there–but not completely uniquely so either.

  12. [same day,from Pru]

    Hi Dob

    Sorry if I sound complacent. I was taken aback by the vehemence of your response to the lianas. They are parasites, as are many plants, but that is their way of life. Symbiosis in undeniable but does not necessarily exclude parasitism. see Wiki below

    Symbiosis (from Ancient Greek σύν “together” and βίωσις “living”)[1] is close and often long-term interaction between two or more different biological species. In 1877, Albert Bernhard Frank used the word symbiosis (which previously had been used to depict people living together in community) to describe the mutualistic relationship in lichens.[2] In 1879, the German mycologist Heinrich Anton de Bary defined it as “the living together of unlike organisms.”[3][4]

    The definition of symbiosis is controversial among scientists. Some believe symbiosis should only refer to persistent mutualisms, while others believe it should apply to any types of persistent biological interactions (i.e. mutualistic, commensalistic, or parasitic).[5]

    All the Best

  13. [same day, me]
    Hi Pru and Dob! Wow! I hope we all remain sympatico if not symbiotico! This plant/animal intelligence and/or feelings stuff seems to have stirred up some human feathers a bit! Aristotle, like Plato, has so much to answer for, what with all the talk of soul and spirit in nature. And now it has beguiled the ecologists and greens. Politics truly makes for strange bedfellows! Ha!

  14. [Dob to Pru et al, same day]

    Hi Pru,
    Parasitic plants are rather rare according to this source:
    But I think the author overstates the independence of the ‘normal’ plant
    Ecologists have been almost unanimous in pointing out that biodiversity
    contributes to the health of plant communities. In other words they benefit
    from each other’s presence. Therefore, surely they are in some sense
    ‘aware’ of the presence of the other?

    We also benefit from the diversity of ideas that come out of an exchange
    like this, towards which you Pru, have been the main contributor.

    Many thanks,


  15. {same day]
    Hi Peter
    From the wiki
    In ecology, commensalism is a class of relationship between two organisms where one organism benefits without affecting the other. It compares with mutualism, in which both organisms benefit, amensalism, where one is harmed while the other is unaffected, and parasitism, where one benefits while the other is harmed.

    The wiki goes on to describe further various types.



    Commensalism derives from the English word commensal, meaning “eating at the same table” in human social interaction, which in turn comes through French from the Medieval Latin commensalis, meaning “sharing a table”, from the prefix com-, meaning “together”, and mensa, meaning “table” or “meal”.[1]

  16. [me to Dob on 8th October, referring to one of his earlier emails above]

    Awareness most certainly, Dob–but this is rarely the same thing, surely, as what we mean by the words “feeling”, “intelligence”, “thinking” and certainly not “consciousness”? Words, words, words all over again and we are back to Wittie once more–and Hamlet! Cheers!

  17. Only words indeed, Peter. But words are all we have – unless you include ‘feelings’. Now that’s another ball game and raises the question – do we experience feelings because of our language (the concept ‘feeling’) – or do we have language (the concept ‘feeling’) because of our emotional experience? I tend to the Lacanian (and Freudian) view that there is a spectrum from the ‘unconscious’ to the ‘subconscious’ to the ‘conscious’ and we can place all ‘beings’ somewhere in that spectrum depending on their language state. Unfortunately, the human use of language has led us into the trap of metaphysics – language is our doing – and might be also our undoing.

    • I am very much hoping, Jack, that we can try to tackle such thorny problems next time out on Sat. Nov. 9th! I have certainly tried to provided a fairly wide cross-section of background material from the philosophical canon for this purpose–but all, I freely admit, pre-postmodernist stuff! [see above] I will certainly –and, I hope, unpatronisingly– be eager to be guided by you and your superior knowledge of or acquintance with, Lacan, for example! Cheers!

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