Thursday, October 23, 2014

In Psearch of Psyche: Day of the Triffids!

Chapter One: A Sensational Show

Psyche, in psearch of you
Is TOF's Faithful Reader ready? Yes, that's right. It's the next inpstallment of that pscintillating pseries, In Psearch of Psyche!  For those coming late to the party, the previous chapters were:
  1. "To Deepen into Art..."
  2. In Psearch of Psyche: Some Groundwork 
  3. In Psearch of Psyche: Man the Vegetable
For those disinclined to wade once more through those swamps, some key points are these:
  • Psyche, or soul, is the substantial form of a living body, no more mysterious in its way than the sphere that somehow informs a basketball.
  • There's more to it than that, of course: the form is "in motion" and not simply shape and arrangement. That's what makes the Argument from Motion (q.v.) so interesting.
  • Soul is whatever a living body possesses that a dead body does not. It cannot be the matter of the body itself, since materialistically-speaking, the corpse consists of all the same matter as the organism that immediately preceded it. And in fact, your matter is continually changing at the atomic level. You are not today the stuff you were ten years ago. Since you are in fact the same person, you cannot be only your stuff.¹
  • Inanimate forms possess (generically) four powers: gravity, electromagnetism, strong (nuclear), and weak (radiative). Without these powers, atoms would have no substantial form: The negative charges of the electrons would cause them to plummet into the positively charged nucleus. The positive charges of the protons would cause them to fly apart from one another, rather than huddle together in a nucleus.
  • Living things are those whose actions are immanent: that is, their acts originate within the thing itself and are done for the sake of the thing. A basketball does not bounce for its own sake; but a petunia blooms for its.² 
  • The simplest of living things are the vegetative things, which include plants, fungi, and the like. (This is psyche-ology, so we won't worry overmuch about distinctions of bodily classifications made by creative taxonomists.
  • The vegetative psyche, a/k/a the reproductive soul, possesses (generically) four powers in addition to the powers of the inanimate form: nutrition/metabolism, development/growth, and reproduction, plus homeostasis to maintain these in balance.
  • A plant does not have two souls. Its inanimate powers are recruited into the service of the organism, so that (e.g.) the chemical processes of electromagnetism provide for the digestion and incorporation of food into the stuff of the organism.
  • Man³ likewise incorporates both the powers of his inanimate stuff and his vegetative powers, which is why the Late Modern obsession with eating and reproductive acts reduces Man to little more than a vegetative state.
1. not your stuff. This so upsets the Usual Suspects that they deny the minor premise. You are not the same person you were ten years ago. You only think you are. How "you" can think without being "you" is carefully ducked.
2. Note to the excessively literal-minded:
This does not imply conscious intention.
3. Man.
Do we really need to reiterate that this is the base meaning of "man" as "a rational animal," the same root as "men-tal"? When we mean Man, the Male, we'll say so. Males, alas, lack an exclusive word for themselves as rational beings, to which lack their wives will nod wisely in agreement. The original word for males in Anglo-Saxon was weremann (in contrast to wifmann), abbreviated wera ond wifa as it reads in Beowulf.


“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle [root, of a plant]... 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.”
-- C. Darwin, The Power of Movement in Plants

"The continuity of nature," writes Brennan, "manifests a gradual transition from plant to animal." (p.11) In borderline cases, it may be hard to tell which side of the border the thing is on. Brandon Watson writes in a comment at another  blog: "Just as high-order estimative cognition has a wide range of similarities to low-order rational cognition, a sort of overlap, so high-order plant activity should have a wide range of similarities to, or even what could be seen as a sort of overlap with, low-order animal behavior." Since gray areas and overlaps are always interesting to SFnal types, let's take a closer look at this

Plants and animals are both alive; but they live in different ways. Plants, generally speaking, are just stuff-that-grows, and rather relentlessly at that, driving roots for water and minerals, spreading leaves for sunlight, opening flowers, or casting off seeds for reproduction. For the vegetative life, it's all about eating, growing, and reproducing. (And it seems for many people, as well.)

Venus fly-trap, ready for sensations
But some higher plants shows signs of reacting to stimuli.  The sunflower turns to the sun, the Venus fly-trap closes on the unfortunate insect. Might they be said in some primitive way to "sense" these things?
Sensation: a qualitative change in a sense organ by an impinging external stimulus.
Well, plants do not have sense organs as such, and they do not show the range of reactions to sensation that animals do. And there is no evidence that they are aware of the sensations. There is a distinction between sensation and mere mechanical or chemical reaction. After all, rocks deform under pressure. Do they "sense" pressure? No one seems to think so. At least, not yet.

In "The Intelligent Plant," by the delightfully-named Michael Pollan, we read:
Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and coördinate a plant’s behavioral response. The authors pointed out that electrical and chemical signalling systems have been identified in plants which are homologous to those found in the nervous systems of animals. They also noted that neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate have been found in plants, though their role remains unclear. [Emph. added]

The pushback by mainstream science against the "plant intelligence" people is rather fierce:
“Yes, plants have both short- and long-term electrical signalling, and they use some neurotransmitter-like chemicals as chemical signals,” Lincoln Taiz, an emeritus professor of plant physiology at U.C. Santa Cruz and one of the signers of the Alpi letter, told me. “But the mechanisms are quite different from those of true nervous systems.” Taiz says that the writings of the plant neurobiologists suffer from “over-interpretation of data, teleology, anthropomorphizing, philosophizing, and wild speculations.” He is confident that eventually the plant behaviors we can’t yet account for will be explained by the action of chemical or electrical pathways, without recourse to “animism.”[Emph. added]
Where that light coming from?
sez Mr. Fungus
Well, we can't have any of that philosophizing going on. Taiz seems delightfully unaware of his own philosophizing. But one side says plant "intelligence" when they are really only talking about plant "sensation." The temptation is always to take a lower level function and make out like it is a higher level one, so that one may "discover" dramatic things and get published. A light-sensitive spot suddenly becomes "seeing." A seagull dropping clams onto shell-breaking rocks is "a tool-user." So it is easy to claim sensation as "intelligence."

The other side of the debate is correctly aware that there is a difference between true sensation and mere electro-chemical reactions. But just as there are those who will make too much of things, there are others who make too little, and reduce everything, including human reason, to electro-chemical reactions.¹ Only we, O Faithful Reader, can see the truth of analogous structures and behaviors and how human acts may be higher-order versions of things already present in lower-order natures without the higher and lower orders being actually the same thing.

Not a water buffalo
A petunia does not sense "soil structure" the way that a lioness can sense a gazelle. We should be wary of water buffaloes in ways that we are not wary of watermelons. Still, it would be surprising if there were no structures in plants analogous to the autonomic nervous system. After all, anything actual presupposes a potency, so if animals emerged from plants as evolutionists suppose, there must be something in plants that provides the potential for nervous systems to arise -- and to go on evolving even after animals had the nerve to go their own way.²  Philosophizing demands that there be some kind of homeostatic system in vegetative life.

Certainly plants are capable of receiving information from their environments in ways analogous to sensation. But in plants there is no conscious awareness associated with the reception of this information. The roots of a plant grow toward water; but that doesn't mean the plant feels thirsty. Some plants may react to vibrations or gases; but that doesn't mean they hear or smell. [cf. Feser, 2012]

But "feeling thirsty" is something subjective, TOF hears you say. Yes. Exactly.
"Hey, babe, you come drinking here often?"
"I'm not that kind of plant. And don't call me "hay."

If we should not multiply entities without necessity, then if the behaviors of plants can be explained by chemical and mechanical responses to physical stimuli, then it is unreasonable to postulate any sort of plant sentience in addition. Furthermore, assuming evolution by natural selection, how would plant sentience even arise in a creature incapable of locomotion? "[I]magine that dry grass could feel the oppressive heat of the sun or experience thirst and the craving for water.  What would be the point?  It would not be able to do anything about its circumstances..." Natural selection works on behaviors, culling those that are reproductively less successful. So, how would such "thirst" be selected for? What exactly is being selected?³
1. reduce everything. A telling quote from Pollan's article: "Mancuso is the poet-philosopher [sic] of the movement, determined to win for plants the recognition they deserve [sic] and, perhaps, bring humans down a peg in the process." [Emph. added] That'll teach them humans.
2. had the nerve. Pun intended. I'm not sorry. I'm not.
3. Yeah, yeah. Spandrels, blah-blah-blah. TOF often digresses, but let's not get carried so far off topic we never find our way back.

Blonde, not having more fun.  Why do
they always come after our wimmin?
TOF will leave things here until the scientists get done with their mud wrassle. It seems that when you discard the immanence of nature, you wind up fearing The Day of the Triffids. There is a continuity between plant and animal. Check. There are borderline cases. Check. There are homologous structures. Check. Plants are intelligent. Umm, lets hold off on that one. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, right?

(Although the idea mentioned in the movie poster of plants that "stalk" is delightfully drôle.)

We will content ourselves with picking out the paradigmatic general cases. Sunflowers, cockroaches and bats all react to light. So do some rocks. But perhaps with varying degrees of "sentience," no?

Perhaps Motives are in play:
Mancuso believes that, because plants are sensitive and intelligent beings, we are obliged to treat them with some degree of respect. That means protecting their habitats from destruction and avoiding practices such as genetic manipulation, growing plants in monocultures, and training them in bonsai. [Emph. added]
IOW, Science!™ once again has demonstrated the need for a NeoLeftian¹ agenda. Quelle surprise. Well, we can't tolerate cruelties like bonsai.
How can you do it? It's heartless, it's cruel.
It's murder, cold-blooded, and gross.
To slay a poor vegetable just for your stew,
Or to serve with some cheese sauce on toast.
Have you no decency? Have you no shame?
Have you no conscience, you cad?
To rip that poor vegetable out of the earth,
Away from its poor mom and dad?
-- Tom Paxton, "Don't Slay That Potato"

1. NeoLeftian.
The real Left of the 1930s and 40s, and even the New Left of the 1960s would likely roll their eyes back in their collectivist heads and weep. Well, as Marx himself wrote: "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

Tune in again next time for a sensational post!


  1. Brennan, Robert E. Thomistic Psychology (Macmillan, 1941)
  2. Feser, Edward. "Sentient plants?" (Edward Feser blog, Jun 22, 2012)
  3. Pollan, Michael, "The Intelligent Plant." (The New Yorker, Dec 23, 2013)


  1. Fascinating discussion; I whall follow it eagerly. By the way -apropos of nothing- I saw the first line of tomorrow's first reading, and though immediately of Eifelheim: "Thus says the LORD:
    "You shall not molest or oppress an alien.""


  3. Maybe we should worry about the revenge of the plants.

    "If Man has mashed countless potatoes, could not potatoes be expected to mash a man?"---Stanislaw Lem

  4. Since you enjoy borderline cases and misfits, here are a few for you:

    In the human life cycle, there are diploids and haploids. We are diploids and sperm and eggs are haploids. I have read the sperm referred to as a quasi-substance, because it acts on its own yet is an instrument for an end of man, reproduction. Now, ferns (diploids) produce spores (haploids). These spores, however, don't grow right back into normal ferns, but instead produce small multicellular plants called gametophytes. These then produce sperm and egg, which fuse and grow into the sporophyte, what I referred to earlier as the "normal fern". The fern gametophyte and sporophyte are both nutrionally independent. Should we consider them both as substances? Do they both have the same substantial form? Is the series spore->gametophyte->gamete made of 3 separate quasi-substances? What about mosses, with their dominant gametophyte and nutritionally-dependent sporophyte?

    Mosses, ferns, and some gymnosperms have flagellated sperm. These are capable of autonomous movement and must seek out the egg in order to fertilize it. If we are to count bacteria as animals, must we also count flagellated plant sperm?

    1. Interesting questions, and not ones I feel qualified to address.

      I would say that while the bacterium reproduces its own kind, I am skeptical about the flagellated plant sperm which, from what you have said, does not produce a flagellated plant sperm.

      It sounds also as if the spore and the gametophyte are simply stages in the reproduction of the fern.

    2. Thank your for your responses. I would love to see this topic further studied.

      The sperm still causes problems for me though. If it's acting with powers we have said are characteristic of animals, then isn't it an animal? It's for this reason that I have tended to think of sensation and locomotion as purely multicellular phenomena. I think there are other good reasons for seeing it this way, but I haven't been able to flesh them out yet.

  5. FYI...


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