Plant and animal consciousness

Lifeboat foundation – plant consciousness

[ 20/Feb/21 Response to a link to this article about plant responses]

Having systems capable of signaling damage or opportunity or some aspect of system state does not of itself indicate that systems are capable of consciousness or pain.

It seems beyond reasonable doubt that consciousness requires systems of sufficient computational complexity and flexibility to model the world in very close to real time with reasonable degrees of accuracy, and then still have sufficient capacity left to be able to build a symbolic model of the model within which it already exists.

No plant has that sort of spare computational capacity.

Plants certainly have many forms of signaling and response mechanisms, some that work effectively at the group level (like the acacia response to browsing giraffes).

[followed by]

I draw a very definite distinction between a system being able to respond to stimuli, and one being sufficiently computationally complex to be aware of its responses to stimuli.

If you can point to any system in plants that might be able to support the latter, then I would be very interested – I am not aware of any that come anywhere near.

[followed by]

Hi Stephen,

I agree that there is room for difference, but not that our differences are just “opinions”. In 1973 as a 17 year old I got direct entry to second year biochem at university. That same year I started programming computers. I am an autistic spectrum geek with a reasonably high IQ. I was very interested in evolutionary biology and the mathematics behind evolutionary strategy. In 1980 I built my first computer, and in 1986 I started the software company that I still own and operate. I have kept a watching brief on developments in evolutionary theory and biochemistry, in neurobiology, in AI, theory of strategy and logics of non-binary truth values.

So I am more than a little atypical.

I was clear about many of the distinctions for what makes intelligence and language capable self awareness possible 45 years ago, and could also see dangers in much of what I understood, so haven’t put much effort into communications on that front.

I am much more interested in what it takes to make indefinite life extension work. The biological issues of modifying the tissues to live on indefinitely are trivial compared to the social issues in creating social conditions that actually give potentially very long lived individuals a reasonable probability of doing so.

That set of enquiries has lead me to the understanding that cooperation is fundamental to the survival of all new levels of complexity, and that the survival of such cooperation is not trivial, as it demands the quite rapid emergence of effective cheat detection and mitigation strategies (all levels, always). So there are actually not many sets of contexts where such conditions can exist that actually allow for the emergence of such new levels of complexity, and allow them to acquire the necessary sets of stabilising strategies.

I simply do not see anything in the evolutionary history of plants that would support such a set of conditions.

In animals, the need for movement promoted the development of a nervous systems, that can then be exapted repeatedly to deliver other necessary sets of systems for the emergence of intelligence like us.

Nothing similar exists for plants.

So right now, I have no evidence at all, of any sort of structure that could support the level of complexity exhibited in human awareness in plants, and nor do I see any possible evolutionary path for such a thing to have evolved.

Animals – whole different ball game – lots of evidence for very close to human intelligence in many species of animals – elephants, cetaceans, corvids, some parrots, other apes and maybe quite a few more.

A thermostat will regulate temperature, but has zero awareness that it is doing so.

I see a lot of such systems in plants.

And to be clear, even the simplest of single celled life forms is vastly more complex than our cell phones. Life is inherently complex, far more complex than most people have any real awareness of. I am not under estimating the complexity of life, and nor do I underestimate the complexity of the sort of awareness that allows symbols like this to emerge and be interpreted, and have the sorts of feelings that we feel.

And a lot of the systems that we experience as feeling had to exist long before there was any sort of awareness there to experience them, that is how evolution necessarily works.

[Followed by]

Hi Stephen,

Yes – I am very clear that single celled organisms lack awareness as we understand it. They are much more like very complex thermostats than aware entities.

There are necessary levels of complexity before awareness can emerge, many more of them than single celled organisms possess – I have no shadow of reasonable doubt about that.

Sure, plants can and do have some very complex responses to their environment, they are very complex evolved organisms, and they simply do not possess structures capable of human level awareness, at least 4 major levels of complexity are missing.

[20/ Feb/21 – Not claiming human level awareness.]

Hi Stephen,

My point is that there really doesn’t seem to be anything between a very complex collection of thermostat type devices and human level awareness, in a very real and meaningful sense. There can be behaviour and signaling, and those things can be selected for by evolution, and must necessarily be extremely complex before something capable of “experiencing” those behaviours emerges. It seems beyond reasonable doubt that language is also a necessary precursor to the sort of awareness we have, which means culture has to be there too.

It is really kinda weird once someone actually starts to see it.

When I first came to awareness I had many memories of experiences, but no memory of awareness. That distinction is critical to understanding what we seem to be.

Memory must logically precede awareness.

[last one]

Hi Stephen,

I have spent 60 years looking very closely at the animal kingdom, in ways that are difficult for those who are not autistic to understand.

What I see is very complex systems.

I see myself as a very complex system, but one with levels of systems that are not commonly present in other species.

I suspect that this conversation could now take a very long time to make any significant progress, as I suspect that in respect to this enquiry, we now have little left that is shared in terms of interpretive schema.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
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1 Response to Plant and animal consciousness

  1. Dear Ted Howard,

    Hello! Since you are interested in and have investigated certain subject matters in plant and animal consciousness, you might very well enjoy reading my multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary post entitled “SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality” published at

    Being simultaneously witty and serious about a number of outstanding issues, the said post actually ventures far beyond whatever its title may suggest or mean to any reader, especially in the very long “Conclusions” section. Please note the ISEA Model that I have devised to analyse and describe the Instrumental, Spiritual, Pro-Environment and Pro-Animal/Plant perspectives.

    Please be informed that you might need to use a desktop or laptop computer with a large screen to view the rich multimedia contents available for heightening your multisensory enjoyment at my blog, which could be too powerful and feature-rich for iPad, iPhone, tablet or other portable devices to handle properly or adequately.

    Happy April to you very soon!


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