Plant Minds: A Philo­soph­i­cal De­fense by CHAUNCEY MA­HER

Cosmos - - Spectrum - — JIM ROUNTREE

Rout­ledge ( 2017) RRP $ 24.30 Paper­back DO PLANTS HAVE MINDS? Ob­vi­ously not, you’ve pos­si­bly al­ready thought, it is crazy to even ask the ques­tion. In this lit­tle book – just 127 pages – Chauncey Ma­her shows the no­tion isn’t bizarre. He doesn’t end up con­clud­ing plants do have minds but does say it is plau­si­ble.

The ques­tion hinges on what plants do that could qual­ify them as hav­ing minds, and what hav­ing a mind en­tails.

In terms of what they do, Ma­her cov­ers things well-known, such as grow­ing to­wards light, and other facts less fa­mil­iar, such as re­leas­ing chem­i­cals when at­tacked by pests to alert sur­round­ing plants. We take plants for granted, so it is good to have these things ex­plained at a level of de­tail that en­ables us to ap­pre­ci­ate how so­phis­ti­cated they re­ally are. But if you’re look­ing for a book about the amaz­ing abil­i­ties of plants, this isn’t it. In­stead Ma­her con­cen­trates on ideas about what the mind is, test­ing these against the ev­i­dence from plants.

It makes the book a con­cise over­view of the phi­los­o­phy of mind, from Aris­to­tle through to the present. That’s a lot to cover. Ma­her writes clearly, though at a pace where much gets left be­hind. These are weighty ideas, so if you’re new to this topic you might want to take it more slowly.

What is par­tic­u­larly nice is that Ma­her brings us up to date with a very re­cent the­ory of mind. Most of what you will find on this sub­ject set­tles on an ex­pla­na­tion in terms of rep­re­sen­ta­tions and com­pu­ta­tion. This ap­proach is pretty much as­sumed by cog­ni­tive sci­en­tists and most philoso­phers too. Un­der it the case for plant minds is weak. But a quite dif­fer­ent ap­proach – en­ac­tivism – is get­ting some at­ten­tion.

En­ac­tivism starts by think­ing about liv­ing things, which en­com­passes every­thing we are sure has a mind. Liv­ing things cre­ate them­selves – they main­tain their own bodies and pro­duce more of the same. In do­ing this they en­gage with en­vi­ron­ments con­tain­ing some things they need and oth­ers they must avoid. They change things in their en­vi­ron­ments to their ad­van­tage. In these in­ter­ac­tions lies a la­tent idea of mind. If this idea is right, plants could have minds – proto-minds, any­way. It is a nice chal­lenge to con­sider.

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