Plant Minds: A Philosophical Defense by CHAUNCEY MAHER
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.