CAN TREES FEEL?

Are trees conscious? Do they have feelings? I instantly answer my own question, of course not, confident that the world of vegetation as distinct from the world of animals and humans is devoid of any sort of awareness. Some people may become vegetarians on the grounds that animals suffer pain in the messy confines of an abattoir. With the notable exception of Descartes, most thinkers, indeed most people, take for granted that animals, particularly the more complex one most similar to humans in their makeup, share with us feelings of pain and pleasure, to say the least, and probably many other emotional states too. But we draw the line when it comes to plant life. Nobody refrains from eating fruit and vegetables to avoid cruelty to plants.

I must admit that I have never seriously questioned the view that flowers, vegetables, shrubs and trees are non-feeling entities.  Does anyone believe that when an axe is embedded in its trunk, a tree feels pain? For this reason I was quite taken aback to read a review of a book in which this assumption was challenged. In The Hidden Life of trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst (2016) the author tells us that his curiosity was first aroused when he investigated the stump of a very old beech tree. Why, he wondered, had it not decomposed and rotted away? Why was it still green? Studying the botanical literature he discovered that ‘the surrounding beeches were pumping sugar to keep it alive.’

I was immediately sceptical reading this. Wohlleben describes the situation in terms of purposeful action ‘to keep it alive.’ And a further cautious point, what advantage was gained, even if the other trees actually had such an aim, in keeping that stump alive? I have written other posts on a related subject, addressing the fact that there is clearly purposeful action in the non-human natural world. (See posts on this blog ‘Animal Architecture’ during January and February 2017). My favoured example has been the process of nest making among birds. But, if I have read the review correctly, Wohlleben is saying more than this. Not just purposeful action but conscious action.

Intrigued, I read on. Wohlleben thinks that trees work together to achieve certain ends, that they ‘experience pain’, even ‘make decisions’ and have characteristics like greediness and impatience. Furthermore, they ‘are aware’ of changes in temperature and can compare the lengths of days at different times of the year and ‘pass their knowledge on to the next generation’. To Wohlleben trees are conscious agents with some control over the manner of their growth.

A staple of philosophy of mind studies is Thomas Nagel’s article ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ (1974) in which the reader is invited to consider the proposition, first. that a bat is an experiencer of consciousness and then that the nature, the particular quality of that consciousness,  is difficult if not impossible for humans to comprehend. Their method of echolation is surely not the same as our seeing but neither is it like our hearing.  In the case of trees, which in terms of physical structure are far more remote from us than bats, without even the benefit of crude analogies with seeing and hearing, we cannot have the slightest inkling of their state of mind. Nevertheless, as Wohlleben argues (and to pick up Nagel’s phrase), there is ‘something it is like’ to be a tree. Can he say anything about tree consciousness? He offers ‘a diffuse, blind intelligence located in the sensitive, questing  filaments of thousands of root-tips, or a networked language of chemical messages, fanning out through the forest floor via a “wood wide web” of symbiotic fungal mycelium.’ Make of that what you can.

To maintain the status quo, to uphold the received wisdom of the western philosophical tradition which places vegetation in all its forms outside the boundaries of consciousness, I am inclined to say that however complex the reactions of trees may be, they can be accounted for in terms of chemical processes and that, therefore, there is no need to invoke consciousness in a full description of what is taking place.  But I am a little reluctant to lean on accepted wisdom without at least a pause for reflection.

According to Wohlleben trees can ‘taste’ which species of pest has bitten into their leaves and in response send out an appropriate chemical compound as a form of resistance. They even emit messages to other nearby trees which then release the same compounds as protection against likely attack: ‘When umbrella thorn acacias are nibbled by giraffes they release ethylene which deters them; but the chemical also drifts to nearby acacias, and “all the forewarned trees also [pump] toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves.” ’

I am sure that many readers will take the line that even these very subtle and sophisticated responses are evidence only of the operation of highly complex chemical systems, physical cause and effect in accordance with natural law without the accompaniment of any feeling.

But even if that explanation is accepted, it is not the end of the story. There is a link here to a deeply unsettling and difficult philosophical problem, namely that of other minds. It can be argued that all we witness in the behaviour of others, whether it is in the form of facial expressions, movements, cries, calls or, in the case of humans, speech is in one sense reducible to biological and chemical reactions. Lips move, fists clench, sound waves are emitted and so on. The only conscious states that are known are our own. Trees protect themselves against pests, animals fight against predators, humans talk to one another in a war cabinet. It’s chemistry, chemistry, chemistry? Or am I getting the wrong end of the stick?

So where does consciousness, what we know indubitably and at first-hand, come in?

(Wohlleben’s book was reviewed by Francis Gooding in the London Review of Books, 16th February 2017.)

 

 

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AGNOSTICS

I have put together in this post some quotations from eminent people whose philosophical stance seems to me to be consistent with agnosticism.

The first two are from the article about philosopher, Bryan Magee, published in the New Statesman, 6-12 April 2018 and summarised in a previous post.

  1. Karl Popper: (the quotation is from the article mentioned above not directly from Popper): ‘to demand certainty is to demand something you can never have. At best, all we can have is conjectural and provisional knowledge permanently open to improvement’
    Magee himself added: ‘There aren’t explanations for anything, and we should be far more agnostic in our way of living.’
  2. Martin Amis: (from the same article which quotes from an interview with Bill Moyers) that being an agnostic was ‘the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast … We’re about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. Why is the universe so incredibly complicated? That makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence.’
  3. David Attenborough in an interview on YouTube: He rejected literal interpretations of texts (e.g., Genesis) in the light of the fact that around the world in different cultures there are many different creation stories and there is no way to choose between them. Besides, whereas these stories are all different, the scientific explanation for phenomena is the same everywhere. He then went on to explain why he is not an atheist:
    ‘When I’ve taken off the top of a termite hill, I’ve seen termites in there all busying about building walls, looking after the queen, caring for the pupae, clearing the nest, all busy, all blind. They haven’t the faintest idea I am there watching what they are doing because they don’t have the sense organs which would allow them to know that and I do sometimes feel that maybe I am lacking in some sense organs, that I don’t know whether there’s anyone else involved in all this sort of thing. And it’s a very confident thing to say that you’re absolutely sure that there’s nothing in the world that I don’t have the sense organs to appreciate. That would be my position.’

COMMENT: In line with what I have learned from a sketchy knowledge of Kant, what we perceive, believe, know, indeed all of our consciousness arises within us by virtue of the apparatus, the body (in particular, the brain) the medium through which it manifests. In the light of this we have a very limited perspective. If tempted to make grand claims to knowledge, a reminder of our psychological condition helps to put them into perspective.

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MORE ON BRYAN MAGEE

Plato wrote that the unexamined life was not worth living. I take him to mean that a life devoid of a quest for truth is a shallow one. Was Plato right in saying this? I will not attempt to answer that question here. Certainly Bryan Magee’s life has been replete with examining. If ever a man was driven by an urge to question life, to explore and scrutinise any notion of meaning and truth in philosophy, it is surely him.

But by his own account at an advanced age he feels frustrated by his inability to make progress in coming to grips with fundamental problems. I imagine that this admission will evoke in many an I-told-you-so response. I have met a good number of people who see philosophy as a doomed and pointless project from the outset in the sense that answers to the ultimate questions can never be forthcoming. These are the great imponderables, they say, so why devote any time, certainly not the bulk of your life, to trying to resolve them? Why not put them aside and instead devote oneself to objectives that are actually achievable.

I concede that they have a point. As far as I can tell within my limited experience the human intellect — I ought to say my intellect — falls far short in the great metaphysical enterprises. To give an example of this sense of limitation from within the world of philosophy, some of those working in the field of philosophy of mind are labelled ‘mysterians’ precisely for this reason. They argue that the relationship between the brain and consciousness is simply beyond the capacity of the human mind to sort out, now and probably forever.

But the fact that the human mind is constrained within boundaries that do not admit of solutions to ultimate problems is not justification for not embarking on the quest. What could be more human, more distinctive of the character of our species than the search for knowledge, the never ending why? why? why?  I salute Bryan Magee as a knight of philosophy.

I know that he has never taken recourse in the comforts of religion but I hope he would not be offended by my concluding with these lines from Robert Browning:
‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp
or what’s a heaven for?’ (Andrea del Sarto)

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PHILOSOPHER, BRYAN MAGEE: AN INTERVIEW

During the 1980s to anyone interested in ideas, and in philosophy in particular, Bryan Magee was an unexpected benefactor. In a series of television programmes (impossible to imagine on mainstream media nowadays) he took part in one-to-one conversations with eminent philosophers.  Whether exploring contemporary theories (in later book form, Men of Ideas, 1978) or the most influential philosophers in the European tradition (The Great Philosophers, 1987) Magee would ask the questions and then allow the experts plenty of time to answer. Often these answers, if I remember rightly, were too erudite or too jargon ridden for the general viewer. In the next stage, the one that remains most clearly in my memory, Magee gave an exemplary demonstration of explication. Without an introduction as blunt as ‘What you were trying to say in plain English is something along these lines …’ he proceeded to precis the key points in clear, precise and understandable language, as least as understandable as the ideas themselves allowed. It was delight to watch his pedagogic excellence.

I have just read an article (‘The Restless Philosopher’ by Jason Cowley in The New Statesman, 6-12 April, 2018) based on an interview with Bryan Magee now aged 87. The  point of the article, it seems to me, is that throughout his life, and just as much in old age as in childhood and in his careers, he has been driven by a powerful desire to make sense of life, to answer the fundamental problems of philosophy, to engage in the quest to find meaning.

As a child Magee was ‘absorbed by ultimate questions. The world and its mysteries perplexed and tormented him’. Decades later he says to his interviewer, ‘What the hell is it all about? … What are we doing here? What’s going on? I feel the weight of these huge questions and I know I can’t get answers to them, and I find that oppressive.‘

He has worked in television, served as an MP and been a writer but was always returning to philosophy. However, he always felt limited by his own inadequacy. ‘What’s been wrong with me in life is that I haven’t had that extra ability or belief in myself.’ He has never been able to achieve what, when he was younger, he thought himself capable of.  Incidentally, in his enquiries into profound philosophical problems he has never been drawn to religion but equally has never taken an atheist line.

The article ends with these words: ‘… just as he did as a child in Hoxton [East London] all those years ago, he cannot stop grappling with the human predicament. He is pursuing answers to questions he knows can never be answered, and yet will go on pursuing them for as long as he can, until the flickering flame of life is extinguished.’

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REWARDS AND PUNISHMENTS

‘In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments: there are consequences.’
Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899)

This quotation, which I recently came across, struck a chord with me. I need to find out why.

If there are no rewards and punishments in nature, then where are they to be found? Presumably, they exist in our minds, in our responses to events in nature, a thought that reminds me of a line from Hamlet: ‘There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ (Act II, Scene ii). Good and bad are to be found not in events but in our responses to events, like rewards and punishments.

Nature, the physical world in its raw reality, consists of particles of matter in motion forming temporary collections which we call objects, collections which in due course disintegrate, dissolve, form and dissolve over and over again. In nature there is neither good nor bad, no rewards and no punishments, just moments, events one after another after another, collisions and partings, blendings and separations.

But what about the concept of reward (or punishment, for that matter, but for brevity’s sake I’ll keep to reward)?  We usually mean by it more than a consequence. I hand over the wallet I found in the street to the police.  The owner is reunited with it. He is grateful. He gives me a reward which I am pleased to receive. This feeling of gratitude, what does it amount to? Don’t we think of it as an attitude of one person to another? Molecules do not feel gratitude for the effects of other molecules but for some reason we do have such a feeling.

We don’t praise the rain for filling our reservoirs and providing us with water to drink or the sun for keeping us warm. But in the case of people, praise and blame, good and evil, reward and punishment are in the forefront of our thinking.

In nature all that has occurred is reducible to the toing and froing of atoms and molecules. In our relationships with each other, however, we operate on the principle that there are persons who have responses to, and feelings about other persons. But where in the material universe of particles, atoms, molecules, elements and their compounds are we to locate persons?

 

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FUNCTION (Part Two)

In the light of the previous post  (FUNCTION, Part One, 8th March 2018) the question that needs next to be addressed is as follows:
Is it the case that mankind is a part of a greater whole by analogy with, for example, artefacts, organs of the body, social roles?

The claim that man is indeed a part of a greater scheme of things is, generally speaking, made by religions. In summary, the key idea is that God in creating the universe gave to each part of it a particular task and that the task or function of humanity is outlined in sacred texts or described by prophets or communicated directly to men and women or to some of them. It follows that the nature of the human function cannot be identified until it has been shown that there is a divine plan and what particular duties are ascribed to humans within it. There is a long history in the philosophy of religion of attempts to get to grips with this problem. But a problem it certainly is and one on a grand scale with many difficulties along the way.

In the opposite corner, as it were, are those who reject the whole notion of man as part of a given and greater purpose. Existentialists in the tradition of Sartre think along these lines. Sartre takes exception to any plausible analogy between humans and artefacts made for a particular purpose, like, to use his example, a paper knife. To Sartre man has no essential nature but finds himself existing in a meaningless universe where he chooses (rather than discovers) a purpose. But there are problems here too. Existentialists often take it for granted that there is no prior purpose for which we are born rather than grapple with the many arguments that contradict their position.

Clearly, behind the notion of a human function are fundamental metaphysical problems about the nature of human beings and of the universe in which we live. Until we really understand what or who we are and what kind of universe this is, we can make little headway with the idea of a human function.

This puts the onus on us to think more deeply about our nature and world.

IT ALL DEPENDS

It all depends on what we are:
spin off from stars
brothers and sisters of stone
dots that dance in an echoing box
in a rickety house
in a ghost town that bends in the wind
and nobody knows that we’re there
nobody knows we’re there

It all depends on what we are:
a bundle of crochets that fell from a hymn,
sleepy-headed spies
seeds thumbed deep in so-so soil
in the lee of a wall
with nails to cling to and climb on
knowing and known
seeing and seen.

It all depends on what we are.

 

‘It All Depends’ is taken  from Shreds and Patches, a collection of short poems, thoughts and reflections, available in the UK from Amazon UK.

 

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FUNCTION (Part One)

Aristotle tells us in the very early pages of his Ethics that human beings have a function — a bold proposition that in the more than two millennia since his day has proved to be both very influential and very problematic.

What do we mean by ‘function’? One dictionary defines it as ‘an activity that is natural to or the purpose of a thing’. You might replace ‘natural’ with ‘proper’ as other dictionaries prefer. The function of something is the activity that is natural or proper to it.

There are many examples of functional items to draw on particularly from the domain of artefacts: a spade, a screwdriver, a door handle, a carburettor, a violin string, a tap washer. In all these cases a function is evident within a wider context in which the particular object fits. And its suitability, what makes it fit there, is identified by reference to its particular shape, size, strength and other properties. The shape, size and weight of a spade, for instance, make it ideal for digging soil. The slightly different specs of a shovel with its raised flanges make it more suitable for loading gravel or coal. And so on. To find the function of an object we consider for what activity its physical structure best befits it within a context in which it is situated.

In the cases mentioned above, since they are all man-made objects, I prefer the term ‘proper’ to ‘natural’. They were first imagined and subsequently constructed with a particular task in mind to be carried out. They are hardly ‘natural’ things.

But we do not have to be restricted to artefacts in our consideration of the idea of function. Parts of animal and human bodies have functions too: the liver, an eyelid, a gland, a neuron. Each component contributes to the working of the body as a whole by carrying out a certain activity for which its physical makeup renders it suitable. Here, the term ‘natural’ seems more appropriate.

On a larger scale the idea of function is a feature of the activities of individuals within a society. Workers, tradespeople, professionals all fulfil roles within larger groupings of people: the train driver, the checkout person, the lawyer, the priest, the road sweeper, etc.

In summary the essence of the term ‘function’ is surely to be found in the relationship of parts to a whole. There are three requirements here that need to be in place:
a) the condition of being a part in a greater whole
b) the part having a distinctive or unique quality or property
c) the part by virtue of its distinctive or unique properties contributing to the working of the whole.

Aristotle claims that human beings as such, that is, not just as train drivers, or, to cite his example, flute-players, but simply by virtue of being human, have a function. His approach is to look for the characteristic that is distinctive to human beings. He argues that this is reason. Though humans share many characteristics with other animals and with vegetation, the ability to use language in rational thought is special, indeed, unique to them. Aristotle goes on to make the point that to be a good human is to use reason well.  Note that Aristotle’s response satisfies b) above but not a) or c).

 

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