At a Kinds of Minds seminar:
Planta sapiens, homo stupidus (abstract)
Abstract. Cognitive science provides the means to make headway in the quest for plant intelligence. Contrary to common belief, plants are not merely acted upon; they rather take action autonomously according to their own needs. To do so, self-propelled mobility is needed—although, unlike animal locomotion, plant movement takes the form of growth and development. Unfortunately, the default understanding of the relation between mobility and cognition is by resorting to an orthodox information-processing paradigm. By having an informed debate about the ‘architecture of plant cognition’, we may engage with empirical investigations somewhat differently. Recent research in neural network theory, theoretical neuroscience and perceptual psychology pinpoints parallel distributed processing, predictive processing, and ecological psychology as fruitful models of cognition. At MINT Lab we re-situate the quest for plant intelligence into a broader approach in cognitive science, as represented by these schools of thought. Plant science can graft onto these investigations and benefit from integrating their theoretical and methodological paradigms. On the other hand, the evolution of sentience has become a hot topic of research in recent years. Cognitive science cannot rule out non-animal forms of life having structures that promote awareness. My talk explores the very possibility and consequences of plant sentience. This approach may ultimately bear upon our understanding of life and cognition more broadly, reaching all the way from single cell organisms to human beings, including plants. – Paco Calvo, described at ResearchGate as a “a leading figure in the philosophy of plant behavior and signalling” (March 13, 2023)
There are many instances of this sort of thing from recent years, along the lines that all living cells are “cognitive.”
We’re still learning and one question that arises is this: Is the growing presence of panpsychism in science an effort to get away from naturalism or to rescue it?
You may also wish to read: Why panpsychism is starting to push out naturalism. A key goal of naturalism/materialism has been to explain human consciousness away as “nothing but a pack of neurons.” That can’t work. Panpsychism is not dualism. By including consciousness — including human consciousness — as a bedrock fact of nature, it avoids naturalism’s dead end.
2 Replies to “As panpsychism takes hold in science, plant minds become a focus”
I’ve been following a lot of this literature closely, and I really do not think that panpsychism has anything to do with it.
The recent resurgence of panpsychism (Galen Strawson, Philip Goff) is motivated by a commitment to (1) realism about qualia and (2) rejection of emergentism. Given those commitments, qualia all the way down seems like a fairly straightforward implication.
The surge of interest in plant and bacterial cognition has a completely different influence. It comes primarily from work in the biology of intelligence, not the metaphysics of consciousness. A good example of this kind of work is Peter Godfrey-Smith’s 2016 paper “Individuality, Subjectivity, and Minimal Cognition“. This paper grew out of Godfrey-Smith’s excited reaction to Evan Thomson’s Mind in Life (2007).
This is where the story gets really interesting (in my view). Thompson’s 2007 book was a majestic synthesis of multiple lines of biological and philosophical thought. One of those was the phenomenological biology of Hans Jonas. Jonas wrote in The Phenomenon of Life that our ability to recognize something as being alive is because we intuitively grasp its similarity to us as living things ourselves. As he puts it, “life can only be known by life”.
Jonas is severely critical of any attempt to deduce life from mathematical physics; he thinks that a purely disembodied abstract consciousness would not be able to comprehend that some temporally unified spatio-temporal regions are living things. Thus he argues against the idea that God is a mathematician: a mathematical God would be unable to recognize that some physical systems have an essentially subjective interiority to them.
Jonas’s influence on Thompson (and also on one of Thompson’s old mentors, Francisco Varela) is massive. From Jonas, Thompson (and Varela) are motivated by some conception of biopsychism (all life is minded) or what Thompson calls the mind-life continuity thesis: there is mind wherever there is life and life wherever there is mind.
Godfrey-Smith, himself a well-known expert in the philosophy of the biology of cognition (his 1997 Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature is a masterpiece in itself), saw in Thompson’s work the possibility of understanding cognition as fundamentally biological, which meant that there is cognition wherever there is life. That meant even the simplest bacteria are cognitive — or as PGS prefers, “proto-cognitive”.
Some more recent interventions in this debate:
From allostatic agents to counterfactual cognisers: active inference, biological regulation, and the origins of cognition by Corcoran, Pezzulo, and Hohwy
Natural Agents: The Case of Bacterial Cognition by Fulda
Of what is “minimal cognition” the half-baked version? by Lyon.
All this is to say that the recent interest in plant and bacterial cognition really has nothing to do with the rise of interest in panpsychism. Those intellectual communities have very little (if any) interaction, from what I can tel.