Blogs by Gregory K Sams
How vegetative is the vegetable world? ... and other curious questions.
7/27/2009 5:00:05 AM
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In the latest New Scientist (25th July) we find another article about a study detecting the presence of conscious awareness in as many as 40% of patients who had been diagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state. This raises issues on obvious counts (switching off life support/transplant, etc) none of which I intend to go into here.
Though unconsidered by those who conducted this survey, what interest me are the implications of this for our understanding of consciousness in general. Scientists have traditionally believed that human beings were exclusively capable of consciousness and only in recent years have some researchers begun to claim that Orang-utan a few marine mammals such as the porpoise, and some primates such as the orang-utan, can also experience consciousness. It is an ongoing area of debate between scientists.
There are a few basic consciousness tests that are applied to other animals, a key one being the ability to recognized one’s self in the mirror – and another being the act of playing for the sake of having fun and nothing else. Fine, but it is clear that these were not the tests involved in the deep vegetative state research above.
Most of us who have ever lived with a pet, or watched a David Attenborough programme will have the feeling, not scientifically proven, that most animals are self-aware (conscious), whether cat or dog, bird or turtle. The steadfast belief by most scientists that almost all non-human animals are automatons, unaware of their own existence and simply following pre-programmed survival-oriented behaviour, is a strange one indeed. I will not go into this subject here either, other than to point out that this headset was put in place by Descartes, who is said to have calmly nailed his own pet dog to the kitchen door, in the sure knowledge that its yelps and squeals were no more indicative of pain and suffering than were the groans and squeaks of an un-oiled machine.
They must be using extremely subtle tests to detect consciousness in patients in a permanent vegetative state. Has anybody devised equally subtle tests to see just how vegetative is the vegetable world? In 1966 Cleve Backster hooked a crude (by our standards) lie-detector to a philodendron plant, for another purpose, and then noticed both a response to injury and a recognition of the inflictor’s subsequent presence. In 1900 the renowned Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose began his rigorous series of experiments demonstrating the sentience of plants.
There is still a taboo in place that hinders most serious scientific investigation into "offbeat" subjects Tree such as sentience and self-awareness in plants. Might that 1000-year old Redwood tree towering above all others in the grove feel some sense of accomplishment at having won first place in the race towards the Sun? How does a healthy denizen of the rainforest respond to the sound of the chainsaws felling its neighbours? I think that science could tell us, but who’s going to pay them to do it? For every offbeat scientist like Lyall Watson or Rupert Sheldrake who “survives” I suspect there are dozens who lost reputation, funding, prospects, jobs and homes for wandering into unfunded and long-forbidden territories.
Consciousness continually weaves in and out of my new book Sun of gOd, which re-examines what we know about our Universe, in the light of a conscious Sun. In its pages, we extend the boundaries of consciousness beyond those ancient trees with whom we share a good proportion of our genes. How do we test a mountain, or the mighty river that springs to life upon its slopes; our Sun, and the galaxy in which it lives?
Whether we look at orderly weather systems, trans-global oceanic currents, our Sun and other stars, or twirling galaxies, science says nothing that bears on the issue of consciousness, albeit not quite like ours, having residence in any of them. I suggest that if we forget for a moment an old taboo, put in place by a jealous church and now upheld by biased scientists, it makes more sense to view these well managed phenomena as living systems. Instead, we tend to assume without enquiry that thought and intelligence must always be accompanied by a human-like brain, even though we still do not understand our own invisible mind.
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