Do plants have souls?
The last two months I attended two conferences at New York University; one on “Measuring Borderline States of Consciousness” and most recently “The Eleventh Annual Conference on Issues in Modern Philosophy: Animals” and was introduced to the world of plant neurobiology.
This is a very new field in science, and at first I thought it was just another form of pseudoscience that wacky fringe scientists with a lot of time on their hands did, but this is serious work being done by scientists currently.
When we look at a plant, we know that it is a living thing in that it grows, takes in water and sunlight, goes through the processes of photosynthesis to create energy, gives off oxygen, and then dies. And of course there are those carnivorous plants, like the Venus fly-trap, that consumes insects to get its nutrition.
We almost never think of plants harboring a consciousness or intentionality.
In the NYU philosophy conference, Prof. Kristin Andrews of York University gave a talk on “Multicellularity and psychisms” and showed this remarkable video clip of plants in motion and “seeking” after objects or goals.
(The clip is related to a The New Yorker article published last year.)
Quite remarkable I must say.
The new December 2014 issue of New Scientist will have a whole issue dedicated to plant neurobiology and how plants can think, feel and learn.
It is interesting to note that Charles Darwin noticed this trait in plants as well. In his book The Power of Movement in Plants (1880) he wrote:
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle [root] thus endowed, and having the power of directing the movements of the adjoining parts, acts like the brain of one of the lower animals; the brain being seated within the anterior end of the body, receiving impressions from the sense-organs, and directing the several movements.
Furthermore, Paco Calvo, one of the researchers from the “Minimal Intelligence Lab (MINT Lab)” at the Universidad de Murcia, who studies plant intelligence wrote in a paper titled “Manifesto for a Philosophy of Plant Neurobiology” and in it he wrote:
The list of plant competencies has been growing at a considerable pace in recent years. Plants can, not only learn and memorize, but also make decisions and solve complex problems. They can sample and integrate in real time many different biotic and abiotic parameters, such as humidity, light, gravity, temperature, nutrient patches and microorganisms in the soil, and many more, courtesy of a highly sophisticated sensori-motor system (Hodge, 2009; Trewavas, 2009; Baluška and Mancuso, 2013) that includes proprioception (Bastien et al., 2013; Dumais, 2013), with sensory information being transduced via a number of modalities. More distant aspects of their vicinity are also brought in. Plants can anticipate competition for resources, growing differentially depending upon the future acquisition of minerals and water (Novoplansky, 2015). They exhibit self-recognition and territoriality (Schenk et al., 1999), being able to tell apart own from alien, directing their movements towards their targets of interest (Gruntman & Novoplansky, 2004). Plants can communicate aerially (via released volatile organic compounds—VOCs—Dicke et al., 2003; Baldwin et al., 2006) with members of their own kind and with members of other species. They can even communicate bioacoustically, making and perceiving ‘clicking’ noises (Gagliano et al., 2012). Some plants can tell vibrations caused by predators apart from innocuous ones (wind or the chirps of insects), eliciting chemical defenses selectively (Appel and Cocroft, 2014). In a sense, plants can see, smell, hear, and feel (Chamovitz, 2012).
In 2010, another researcher in this field, Stefano Mancuso, gave a TED talk on plant intelligence:
From his research, it seems as if plants do react to pain and will send electrochemicals to detect changes in environment and an awareness of its own condition. Prof. Andrews also mentioned that plants emit neurotransmitters like dopamine to produce responses.
(So the next time you might bite down on a salad or crunch on a carrot or celery, it might be letting out a silent scream.)
All this evidence begs the question on what is consciousness and how we define it. Philosophers, scientists, and neuroscientists all have a hard time describing what consciousness is, and I am sure this study will give them more headaches and data to chew upon. There are also questions to be raised if a brain (as most vertebrates have) is even necessary to learn, think, feel and remember. And I’m sure hard-core vegetarians and even vegans may have a very hard time with this one if further research confirms that plants do in fact register and feel pain.
So all this ties back to the question at the start of this essay: Do plants have souls?
Push it even a bit further to a more theological question: Can plants even relate with God?
Sounds crazy at first, but it is not out of the question that God would have the ability and capability to relate and communicate to them in ways that they could only understand.
We also have to factor the evolutionary tree of life with all of this as well, since it seems as if plants and animals (this includes us humans as well of course) once shared a common ancestor around 1.6 billion years ago that was a single-celled organism that was most likely neither plant or animal.
We have to remember that plants (this includes trees, vegetation, etc.) are intimate and integral parts of creation. Genesis 1: 11 – 12 states:
Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw it was good.
And lest we forget, the Garden of Eden was full of vegetation and harbored two of the most famous trees in the book of Genesis:
Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden: and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Perhaps the word ‘soul’ is not the right term here. But many philosophers and theologians are moving away from the Cartesian notion of a separation between a mind (soul) and the body, and instead are opting for embodied souls. The mind and body should not be dichotomous and instead should be viewed as a singular unit.
Questions about the possibility of post-mortem consciousness (i.e. the afterlife) spring up as well in all of this, especially with the notion that there can still be consciousness without a brain and whether or not consciousness can survive brain death.
The only notions of theology and plants coming together that I am aware of might be vague references here and there in environmental theology, but I doubt there are specific studies done in plant theology. If anyone is familiar with a theologian or theist thinker writing on such matters please let me know, because I believe this to be a fascinating topic and field to further explore.
This only drives the point as to how important it is to understand the sciences in relation to theology and God. New scientific research can make us question our old assumptions about God and the Bible and make us rethink on how God relates to us and his creation in new and novel ways. Questions about pantheism and panentheism arise as well.
It will be interesting to see what developments will come out plant neurobiological research – will it foster better ways of doing agriculture? help save rainforests and the environment? new medicine? new understandings of consciousness in (human) neuroscience?
There will be much to discuss in philosophy, especially in the fields of ethics: if plants are conscious and can feel pain, then what ethical implications are involved?
Time will tell if plant neurobiology will affect Christian understanding of life, creation, God, and even what it means to be created in the image of God (Imago Dei).
Of course, these are all preliminary thoughts that I have for now.