Large tree with a bench beneath it

On Consciousness

Addressing the argument that plants feel pain and what consequence that should have on the way we treat animals.

Authored by Marco Pelloni on December 4th, 2022

When engaging the public through Vegan Justice’s street fair activism, I’ve found that discussions tend to stick to the same lines of argumentation. For example, a volunteer is guaranteed to have a few conversations during a shift around getting adequate levels of protein on a vegan diet, the convenience factor of eating animals, the taste pleasure of cheese, etc.

One line of argument that has always surprised me is the insistence that plants are not only alive, but are conscious of their experience. “Plants feel pain too. How do you know they aren’t conscious?”. At first, I took this as a disingenuous approach to dealing with veganism; does this person truthfully think that plants suffer the same as living, breathing animals? Is this person genuinely having a hard time differentiating between a carrot and a cow?

This argument comes up often as a quick retort to label any vegan as a hypocrite. I’ve watched volunteers trip over their words trying to respond since it’s not only an attack on their character, but it raises a concept surrounding “consciousness” which is notably difficult to define.

Defining Experience

Merriam-Webster defines consciousness in one way as “the state of being characterized by sensation, emotion, volition, and thought“.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel proposes that a subject is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be the subject. In his famous paper he posits the question,“Is there something that it is like to be a bat?”. The following quote is from the concluding pages of his paper:

.. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism – something it is like for the organism.

Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, p. 436

When it comes to animals, I’m not sure that people really give this much thought. Is there something it is like to be a dog?

In fact, I don’t think anyone really gives this much thought even as it pertains to their own consciousness. You might say that you have the capacity to feel complex emotions like happiness, pain, etc. or bring up that you have unique thoughts, memories, feelings, and sensations. It’s a bit difficult to verbally prove our fact of our own consciousness.

In the case of animals and plants, verbalizing in a language that we can understand doesn’t appear to be an option. They can’t make an appeal to us, so what else do we have to go off of in determining whether or not an animal or plant is conscious?

Reaction to stimuli might be one way to prove some level of conscious behavior. If I poke a cat with a sharp stick, I perceive a reaction that has a negative quality to it. If I poke my house plant with a sharp stick, I don’t seem to perceive a reaction positive or negative. My failure to perceive a reaction does not mean that the plant is not responding to the stimuli. Is it possible that I’m simply failing to register the plant’s true experience?

Stimuli and Perception

Does the plant register the stimuli as pain like we do or does it just have a chemical reaction to stimuli? The important question is if the plant has the ability to perceive the stimuli as pain and suffers as a result.

Your ability to perceive pain is the underlying magic of suffering. Without the perception of pain, there is no suffering to take on. For example, performing a surgery on you where your chest is cut open while conscious is a different experience than if you’re induced unconscious by anesthesia. You aren’t able to perceive the stimuli as pain while unconscious even though your body is actively reacting to the stimuli.

When it comes to animals, they’ll react to a sharp poke similarly to how we do. There’s a physiological movement away from the source of stimuli, as well as a negative psychological response of pain. They perceive the stimuli as pain and suffer as a result.

This perception of stimuli appears to take place in a “cognitive structure” known as the brain. This is an organic structure that seems to give rise to consciousness, and is present in both human and non-human animals but notably not plants.

For what little humans seem to know about the nature of consciousness, it strikes me that where absence of evidence exists due to our lack of knowledge on the subject that we as a collective society should tread carefully in how we treat life that shows signs of complex consciousness regardless of how it presents itself whether it be in the form of a cow, a pig, a plant, or a human.

For example, if we came across a tree in a forest that had the ability to perceive pain and expressed complex emotions like joy, sadness, guilt, etc. then it might make sense to give the tree some level of protections from suffering. If we found out that the tree actually possessed a brain, I’d argue that we’d really have a situation on our hands to protect the tree from being harmed unnecessarily. If I pierce the tree with a knife, and it reacts negatively to this stimuli and actively avoided being stabbed again it would be further evidence that we ought to consider the possibility that the tree is having a conscious experience with the capacity to suffer.

Complex Consciousness

My point of invoking a conscious tree is that we have billions of animals in this world currently that already display this level of complex consciousness. Fifteen minutes spent with a Golden Retriever should present the realization that there’s something it is like to be a dog. The dog appears to be excited when I reach for a tennis ball. The dog appears to yelp in pain when I accidentally step on their tail. The dog has some level of memory recall when I call out their name and they turn to look at me. The dog appears to react in shame when I yell at it for eating food off the table. If I pierce the dog with a knife like I did the tree, there will be a negative reaction due to the dog’s ability to perceive pain stimuli.

This alone should be enough evidence that the dog should receive some level of legal protection from violent harm and suffering until substantial evidence proves otherwise. Again, with our minimal understanding of what consciousness is we should tread carefully knowing what’s at stake considering our own experiences with involuntary suffering. If in the future, there is evidence that dogs actually really enjoy being poked with sharp sticks and their yelps are actually joyful, we can then revise our approach.

In the meantime, animals who show signs of complex consciousness seem to react negatively to living out their lives in a factory farm. When cows are impregnated over and over for milk, their bodies break down and they seem to suffer immensely. Cows seem to cry out in distress when their calf is taken away from them for the production of milk. Cows appear to undergo serious levels of cognitive decline and suffering when being fed the bodies of other cows. These realities of conscious suffering are taken to their extremes within the agricultural systems we have in place.

Corporations created for the purposes of extracting materials as efficiently as possible are not interested in taking into consideration the conscious experience of the animal. As a result, animals are treated as resources as opposed to individual conscious beings. There is truly no limit to the amount of suffering that can be inflicted regardless of its conscious status because that conscious status is not taken into consideration.

The only remedy is legal intervention between the corporation (factory farms) and the resource (farm animals). Because farm animals show evidence of complex consciousness and can suffer, it stands that they should be given protections under the law and as a result should not exist within the animal agriculture system.

Even if there is a case to be made for plants (which I don’t believe there is), it would make sense to start immediately with animals who possess brains and are clearly having a complex conscious experience. There is something it is like to be a dog, a pig, a cow, a bat, and a human. The faster we recognize this similarity of conscious experience and create legal protections for these animals, the faster we can alleviate the true suffering they are enduring because of our actions.

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