AR-FAQ - #43

#43 But how can you prove that plants don't feel pain?

Lest we forget the ultimate point of what follows, let us not forget the central thesis of AR. Simply stated: to the extent other animals share with us certain morally relevant attributes, then to that extent we confer upon them due regard and concern. The two attributes that are arguably relevant are: a) our capacity for pain and suffering, and b) the capacity for being the "subject-of-a-life", i.e., being such that it matters to one whether one's life fares well or ill. Both of these qualities require the existence of mental states. Also note that in order to speak of "mental states" proper, we would denote, as common usage would dictate, that such states are marked by consciousness. It is insufficient to mark off mental states by only the apparent presence of purposefulness or intentionality since, as we shall see below, many material objects possess purposeful-looking behaviors. So then, how do we properly attribute the existence of mental states to other animals, or even to ourselves for that matter? We cannot infer the presence of felt pain simply by the presence of a class of behaviors that are functional for an organism's amelioration or avoidance of noxious stimuli. Thermostats obviously react to thermal changes in the environment and respond in a functionally appropriate manner to restore an initial "preferred" state. We would be foolish, however, to attribute to thermostats a capability to "sense" or "feel" some kind of thermal "pain". Even placing quotes around our terms doesn't protect us from absurdity. Clearly, the behavioral criterion of even functional avoidance/defense reactions is simply not sufficient nor even necessary for the proper attribution of pain as a felt mental state. Science, including the biological sciences, are committed to the working assumption of scientific materialism or physicalism (see "The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science", E. A. Burtt, 1924). We must then start with the generally accepted scientific assumption that matter is the only existent or real primordial constituent of the universe. Let it be said at the outset that scientific materialism as such does not preclude the existence of emergent or functional qualities like that of mind, consciousness, and feeling (or even, dare I say it, free will), but all such qualities are dependent upon the existence of organized matter. If there is no hardware, there is nothing for the software to run on. If there is no intact, living brain, there is no mind. It should also be said that even contemporary versions of dualism or mind-stuff theories will also make embodiment of mental states dependent on the presence of sufficiently organized matter. To briefly state the case, cognitive functions like consciousness and mind are seen as emergent properties of sufficiently organized matter. Just as breathing is a function of a complex system of organs referred to as the respiratory system, so too is consciousness a function of the immensely complex information-processing capabilities of a central nervous system. It is possible, in theory, that future computers, given a sufficiently complex and orderly organization of hardware and clever software, could exhibit the requisite emergent qualities. While such computers do not exist, we DO know that certain living organisms on this planet possess the requisite complexity of specialized and highly organized structure for the emergence of mental states. In theory, plants could possess a mental state like pain, but if, and only if, there were a requisite complexity of organized plant tissue that could serve to instantiate the higher order mental states of consciousness and felt pain. There is no morphological evidence that such a complexity of tissue exists in plants. Plants lack the specialized structures required for emergence of mental states. This is not to say that they cannot exhibit complex reactions, but we are simply over-interpreting such reactions if we designate them as "felt pain". With respect to all mammals, birds, and reptiles, we know that they possess a sufficiently complex neural structure to enable felt pain plus an evolutionary need for such consciously felt states. They possess complex and specialized sense organs, they possess complex and specialized structures for processing information and for centrally orchestrating appropriate behaviors in accordance with mental representations, integrations, and reorganizations of that information. The proper attribution of felt pain in these animals is well justified. It is not for plants, by any stretch of the imagination. TA

The absurdity (and often disingenuity) of the plant-pain promoters can be easily exposed by asking them the following two questions:

  1. Do you agree that animals like dogs and cats should receive pain-killing drugs prior to surgery?
  2. Do you believe that plants should receive pain-killing drugs prior to pruning?


SEE ALSO: #42, #44