Do plants have minds?

Do plants have minds?

Rachael Petersen writes:

Gustav Theodor Fechner championed the idea that plants have souls – something we might call ‘consciousness’ today. I first learned of him in an interdisciplinary reading group on plant consciousness that I co-lead at Harvard University. We convene biologists, theologians, artists and ethologists to explore the burgeoning literature on plant life. We found Fechner covered in the New York Times bestselling book by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins titled The Secret Life of Plants (1973). Michael Pollan describes this book as a ‘beguiling mashup of legitimate plant science, quack experiments, and mystical nature worship that captured the public imagination at a time when New Age thinking was seeping into the mainstream.’ The Secret Life of Plants cites Fechner as an important but often forgotten champion for plant sentience.

In 2006, 30 years after The Secret Life of Plants, a bold group of scientists published an article calling to establish the field of ‘plant neurobiology’ with the goal of ‘understanding how plants perceive their circumstances and respond to environmental input in an integrated fashion’. In other words, how plants might have something like minds.

The burgeoning field of plant science has become a rich playground for profound questions that have beguiled Western philosophy since Plato: namely, what is mind, where does it extend, and how? Who has mind, and how do we know? While scientists increasingly agree that many animals are sentient, doubts remain about our vegetal kin. For many, plants remain a limit case in the types of beings we are willing to concede experience life with the richness humans do, or whose experience we can meaningfully study.

Fechner, writing more than 150 years ago, anticipated many claims of the contemporary plant neurobiology movement. His thought stands like an oasis amid an intellectual history otherwise hostile to plants. After all, in De Anima, Aristotle deemed plants the lowest form of life, construing them as defective animals. Francis Bacon later construed science as a method of torturing nature. And René Descartes not only reduced animals to unthinking automata, but fundamentally ruptured the relationship between matter and mind.

Fechner would spend his whole life trying to heal the divide between mind and matter, and the commensurate split between philosophy and science – but, first, he had to go mad. [Continue reading…]

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