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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

the intentionality of plants

"it's trying to grab hold of the fence"

"it wants to face the sun"

"I think this one's just given up"

"they like the afternoon sun"

in the past week or so, I've found myself in the garden saying each of the above in reference to plants. it's interesting, because common conception says that plants don't really "try," "want," "think," or "like" anything. ultimately, I know that the plant doesn't "want" to face the sun, but rather that the sun striking certain parts of the plant cause some cells to expand and others to constrict, effectively orienting the plant to face the sun and thus expose as much surface area on its leaves as possible to the sun. it's all a strictly chemical process, but it seems quite a bit easier to ascribe intentionality to the plant. it makes it easier to talk about and to reason about, even though I "know" the plant doesn't "intend" anything. Dennett would probably have a word or two to say about this.

however, what I think is really interesting is the way that, in the back of my mind, I can't shake the thought that, really, it's "just" a plant, that its movements are "merely" the result of chemical process, that there's no "real" intentionality there. why not? the answer that comes to mind: it doesn't have a nervous system. most species that are said to have intentionality have some sort of nervous system. but what's behind that anatomical system? it's a chemical (and in most cases electrical) process, possibly not all that much different from the chemical processes at work in directing a plant toward the sun. now I'm not trying to say that, because we are based largely on chemical processes (which we would approach with what Dennett calls the physical stance) that we are not intentional. I also realize that, despite the fact that both forms of life are based on chemical processes, a plant can't very well learn a language or perform abstract symbol manipulation, and there is certainly an argument to be had over whether or not plants can communicate with one another (this argument probably hinges on how you define communication). so, yes, there are certain cognitive capacities generally associated with intentionality that plants lack.

what I want to argue is not that we don't have intentionality, but rather that, in a certain sense, plants do. insofar as we talk about them and treat them as intentional life forms, I think they should be considered as such. it doesn't really matter if they are or aren't intentional, what's important is whether or not we perceive them as intentional. I suspect that, by viewing plants as entities with wants, needs, desires, goals, and intentions, people may be more inclined to take steps toward preserving and protecting the ecologies in which those plants survive. how does one encourage people to adopt an intentional stance towards plants? I suspect that the best way to do this might be through the cultivation of plants in home, community, and/or office gardens, but I'm sure there are lots of other options. once someone has adopted this stance, how does one leverage it to encourage them to make environmentally conscious decisions? the answer to this question is likely far more complex, but I suspect that, rather than guiding thought specifically, in involves encouraging people to reflect on their experiences with plants, their approach to those experiences, and what that approach broadly writ might imply abouttheir general behavior towards the environment.

I realize that the argument here looks something like Swiss cheese, and I'd love to have people point out all the holes in it. is it fooling to encourage taking the intentional stance towards plants? might such a stance not lead easily to environmentally conscious decisions? could it be possible to instill such reflections without actually needing to have people do gardening? is encouraging reflection the best way to approach the problem or is there a better route?

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