Thursday, April 17, 2014

Do plants have their own form of conciousness?

Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain - When, almost two months ago, I penned an op-ed titled If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?  for "The Stone" philosophy section of the New York Times, I did not expect that it would stir as much controversy as it did in the following weeks.

My argument was attacked by everyone from Christian fundamentalists to vegans and from neuroscientists to humanist rationalists. Since then I have responded to some of the criticisms in another Times piece, Is Plant Liberation on the Menu? and participated in a debate on plant ethics with the animal rights advocate, Professor Gary Francione. Despite the occasionally heated polemics, I take the interest in this topic to be an encouraging sign that the current attitudes toward plants may be starting to shift. The sheer fact that they can become the subjects of intense discussion and debate implies that plants do not have to be forever confined to the inconspicuous background of our everyday lives.

"Some plants can defend themselves by releasing volatile chemicals that attract the predators of the very herbivores who feed on them."

It seems, however, that all this is but the tip of an iceberg now emerging from the stagnant waters of humanist ethics. Even a cursory consultation with the findings of contemporary botany is enough to gauge how research is rapidly dismantling what we thought we knew about plants. Not only can some plants defend themselves by releasing volatile chemicals that attract the predators of the very herbivores who feed on them but they can also differentiate between members of the same species and "strangers", altering their root growth in response to the identity of the neighbouring plant.

At the moment, our political and ethical thinking about vegetation is lagging behind these discoveries. Most people consider plants to be bordering on machines, wholly determined by external factors. And nothing is more conducive to the deepening global environmental crisis than the complacent and un-problematised equation of trees with raw materials - available for unlimited human consumption.

Without prejudice

In the recent debate, for example, Prof Francione compared a plant to an inanimate object, a bell triggered from the outside. Clearly, if one adheres to an ethical program inspired by 19th century utilitarianism, one would want to convey a 19th century idea of what is a plant, as opposed to an animal. The desire of vegans to enforce the conceptual dividing lines between sentience and non-sentience prompts them to blur the obvious distinctions between living plants and inanimate things.

Although they can be chemically manipulated into blossoming or delayed in the process of ripening, plants and their parts - flowers, fruit etc - are growing beings, whose hormonal, biochemical and cellular processes remain, to this day, largely unknown to us. Overlooking this complexity results in a thinking that is simplistic. Worse still, it gives carte blanche to the forces of agro-capitalism bent on commodifying every aspect of human and nonhuman lives.

"Although plants might not have the capacity to experience pain, they relate to the world in ways often drastically divergent from those employed by humans or animals."

The challenge is to initiate a dialogue between the scientific and the philosophical issues related to plant life, without allowing prejudice to creep into either. In this respect, the fundamental philosophical questions here are: How are we to think through the foundations for ethical thought and action? And is this foundationalist approach still justifiable, relevant or useful? Are we to treat ethically only those living beings that most resemble us, ie: sentient animals? Is empathy the ultimate basis for determining how to treat someone or something? Or, is an ethics of difference (or otherness) needed so as to account for our conduct toward life forms that do not facilitate our sympathetic self-recognition?

I believe that this last point is especially relevant to the ethics of plant life. Although plants might not have the capacity to experience pain, they relate to the world in ways often drastically divergent from those employed by humans or animals. Let us take the example of language. It would have been fair to say that, in talking about "plant communication", we merely project our own realities onto plants, if (and only if) communication were a uniquely anthropomorphic phenomenon.

Conversely, if human language is just one example of what language "as such" - as Walter Benjamin, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jacques Derrida have acknowledged in the course of the 20th century - then this manner of speaking is not our careless projection of our artifacts onto the nonhuman world, but a definitive departure from a narrowly anthropocentric paradigm.

Why should we care?

Without a doubt, the questioning of what plants are and how we should treat them is perceived as threatening by members of various interest groups. I have already touched upon the negative vegan reaction, which is nevertheless inexplicable, given that they had to deal with analogous criticisms occasioned by their attempts at the extension of legal and other rights to animals. Here is a comparison of the most common attacks on proponents of animal ethics and plant ethics, respectively:
  • Why should we care about animals, when humans are dying of hunger and genocide?
  • Why should we care about plants, when animals are suffering and are killed for food?
  • Because animals are not rational beings, their lives are impoverished and less valuable, compared with those of humans.
  • Because plants are not sentient beings, their lives are impoverished and less valuable, compared with those of animals.
  • Where do we draw the line if we admit animals into our moral considerations? Will plants be next?
  • Where do we draw the line if we admit plants into our moral considerations? Will bacteria be next?
If, in each of these cases, the critic fails to give either animals or plants their due, it is because these and all other beings are slotted into an objectively fixed hierarchy with humanity at its apex. (For some, the Supreme Being remains God who presides over the rest of this ladder of beings. Christian fundamentalists who pour their scorn on plant ethics do so because it puts into question the rigid theological order wherein plants are inferior, and, hence, contradicts the word of God.) It does not occur to those who adhere to hierarchies of being and value that the categories comprising them are not discrete and that, for instance, something of animal and plant natures survives in humans.

"Those who think that drawing attention to the unlimited violence perpetrated against plants is a distraction from their concern for animals are the unfortunate victims of erroneous thinking."

Compared with the horrific abuse of animals, which undoubtedly intensified with the industrialization of agriculture, our comportment toward plants is less disturbing because, after all, a felled tree does not scream in pain as a slaughtered pig does. But this does not mean that the ongoing exploitation of plant life ought to be condoned.

To call attention to the need for justifying our otherwise unbridled instrumentalisation of vegetation is not to argue that animals should continue to suffer in industrial farm settings and slaughterhouses as well. This is a non sequitur - a conclusion that does not follow from the preceding premise and an appalling piece of fallacious thinking. Those who think that drawing attention to the unlimited violence perpetrated against plants is a distraction from their concern for animals are the unfortunate victims of this crude fallacy.

Plant consciousness?

Plant ethics does not compete for a "pet cause" with animal ethics; rather, the general idea behind it is that choices we did not deem either moral or immoral in the past are laden with serious consequences to everything (and everyone) affected. Granted: the dismantling of the hierarchies of being and value wreaks havoc in a dogmatically ordered ontological and moral universe of philosophy still insufficiently suffused with the spirit of criticism. Such deconstruction does not, however, culminate in the erasure of differences between and within all beings - but in the exact opposite: a flourishing of difference outside the confines of its hierarchical arrangement.  

The other source of anxiety lies hidden in the responses of neuroscientists, who have long reduced human consciousness to a series of cellular and molecular interactions. Plants, of course, do not have a central nervous system but this does not prevent them from sending complex bio-chemical messages, for instance, through their roots and altering their growth patterns as a result.

"We should interpret the results of current plant intelligence studies in botany as a wake-up call to philosophers."

Evidence for the non-metaphorical memory of light residing in plant leaves adds insult to the injury suffered by the argument of those who still insist on the exceptionalism of the central nervous system. In other words, when consciousness is wholly embedded in its biochemical substratum, it becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the cellular and molecular processes of other, presumably non-conscious organisms, such as plants. The freedom (or plasticity) of plants is the obverse of the deterministic stricture, into which neuroscience has forced the grounds for human conduct.

The dialogue between the defenders and detractors of plant life is nothing new. In Ancient Greece, a tremendous conceptual-methodological gap was evident between the thought of Aristotle and that of his best-known student, Theophrastus. Among other writings, Aristotle bequeathed to us detailed studies of animals and their "parts", while Theophrastus left behind voluminous works, including Enquiry into Plants and De Causis Plantarum.

The lineage Western philosophy followed was undoubtedly Aristotelian, in that it privileged the animal understanding of humans, variously defined as "political animals" or "animals endowed with logos" (reason, speech etc). But what if subsequent philosophers were to pursue a Theophrastean line of thinking, focusing on the vegetal heritage in us? What if they were to pay just a fraction of the attention Theophrastus devoted to plant species and life processes?

Perhaps, in that case, the idea of plant ethics would not have sounded so outlandish to professional academics and members of the general public alike, steeped, whether consciously or not, in the Aristotelian tradition that has become a part of our common sense.

We should interpret the results of current plant intelligence studies in botany as a wakeup call to philosophers, who must begin to imagine the contours of this other mode of thinking - a discipline that has much to learn about and from plants.  

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. His most recent book, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life is forthcoming from Columbia University Press later this year. His website is

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Life Continues on After Death States Scientist by Kimberly Ruble

A new book that has just been released which is titled Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the Nature of the Universe has caused quite a stir all across the Internet, due to the fact that its subject matter is completely about the idea of life continuing on after death and going on forever. The author of the book is scientist Dr. Robert Lanza and he has been called the third most significant science researcher alive today by the New York Times.

Lanza is considered to be one of the top professionals in the world in regard to regenerative medication and works as a scientist on cell technology. Before this, Dr. Lanza was known for widespread research in which he studied stem cells. He is also known for performing numerous cloning experiments on endangered animals.

However, he decided to get involved with quantum mechanics and astrophysics. Such a combination has given rise to the theory of biocentrism. That is the idea that states both consciousness and life itself are essential to the universe.  It is consciousness which has created the physical universe and not the opposite way around as has been believed, according to Lanza.

He states that the entire assembly of the universe, and the constants, forces and even laws of the universe seem to be set up for life, suggesting that some sort of intelligence occurred before any matter was created.  He also states that time and space are not things or items, but are instead just tools to help individuals understand the world around them.  Lanza explained that people hold time and space close similar to how turtles carry their shells. But when people throw off their shells (time and space disappear) people still live.

Lanza is also a believer of multiple universes. He thinks that even though a person might pass away in one universe, but in another, it can still be alive and well and continues to exist. This idea means that someone who has died would go not to heaven or hell but end up in a world that was similar to the one that he or she once before had lived in but is now again alive. This continues onward indefinitely.

This very controversial theory that is held by Dr. Lanza actually has many supporters and not just plain mortals who are terrified of death, but also some other very well-known scientists as well. These are both physicists and also astrophysicists who happen to say that the presence of parallel worlds and the prospect of multiple universes is a possible concept. The idea of the multiverse or multi-universe is actually a real scientific concept, which many researchers defend. They state that there are no physical laws in existence that disallow any presence of there being the possibility of parallel worlds.

Dr. Hugh Everett, who worked at Princeton University, stated that at any time the universe can divide into any number of endless parallel instances. The very next moment, these brand-new universes split into yet another branch.. In some of these worlds a person might be watching television, in others he or she could be reading a book or even in others that person may not even exist.

What causes the triggers for such universes are peoples own actions. When certain choices are made, in an instant one universe divides into two that have two various outcomes. It is believed that space has many different orbs that allow the rise to similar orbs, and these make even more orbs, and so it goes on and on to infinity. Throughout the universe, they are apart, never knowing of each other but they all signify parts of the very same universe from which they came.

There is data that shows the universe is not alone. Using information from deep space telescopes, scientists have produced an extremely accurate map of microwave backgrounds. These are considered cosmic relics that have stayed around since the beginning of the birth of the universe. They have also discovered the universe contains much dark matter that is represented by gaps and black holes.

With this, many scientists now think there are many places that the soul could go to after death, when studying the idea of neo-biocentrism. Yet this is if one believes the soul actually exists.  The scientist Dr. Stuart Hameroff, who is a near-death expert, offers a different description of consciousness that can perhaps appeal to rational scientific minds and also personal clairvoyance.

Hameroff believes that consciousness resides inside microtubules of the brain. These are the main areas of quantum processing.  When death occurs, this information is released out of a person’s body, therefore meaning a consciousness is let go as well. Consciousness is believed by these scientists to be an important property of the universe that was present back at the beginning of the universe when the Big Bang occurred.

If such were to be true, then all souls were made from the very fabric of the universe and have existed since the starting of time itself. Human brains would be considered only receivers and amplifiers for the consciousness that is floating around in space and time.

Such accounts of quantum consciousness might start to explain such occurrences such as out of body experiences, near-death experiences, astral projection and possibly reincarnation without the need to bend to any religious philosophy.  The energy of consciousness could possibly be recycled over and over into a new body at some time. While it waited, it could stay out of any physical body on some other kind of reality, and even in some kind of other sort of universe.

All these ideas have come to pass due to the new book Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the Nature of the Universe which has caused quite a stir all across the Internet, due to the fact that its subject matter is completely about the idea of life continuing on after death and going on forever. The author of the book, scientist Dr. Robert Lanza, has been called the third most significant science researcher alive today by the New York Times.

By Kimberly Ruble
The Democratic
New Integral Living
Spirits and Science News

Friday, March 28, 2014

Psychedelic Shamanism: Should You Try Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca Description
from Psychedelic Shamanism
by Jim DeKorne
Published 1994 by Loompanics Unlimited

From the Amazonian rain forest comes one of the most potent catalysts for expanded awareness yet discovered by human beings. In Ecuador and Peru this medicine is known as Ayahuasca, a Quechua Indian word meaning, ironically, "vine of the dead". In Columbia and parts of Brazil, the Tupi Indian name Yage (pronounced Ya-hay) is used, and among Amazonia's proliferating mestizo relious cults it is called Daime...

"Ayahuasca" as a hallucinogenic substance does not properly refer to one single plant, but to a singular mixture of two very different plant species...there is no such thing as an "ayahuasca plant," or a "yage plant", any more than there is a simple liquor simply called "Martini." Ayahuasca correctly refers to a psychedelic combination of plants which varies in potency according to the skill of its maker.

While each shaman has his own secret formula for the mixture (with probably no two exactly alike), it has been established that true ayahuasca always contains both beta-carboline and tryptamine alkaloids, the former (harmine and harmaline) usually obtained from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and the latter (N, N-dimethyl-tryptamine, or DMT) from the leaves of the Psychotria viridis bush. (There may be variations among plant species, but the alkaloids are always consistent.

It is significant to note that neither one of these plant substances by itself is normally psychoactive in oral doses. (Harmine/harmaline is said to effect hallucinosis at highly toxic levels, but in less heroic quantities it is at best a tranquilizer, at worst an emetic.) DMT, in any quantity, is not orally active unless used in combination with a monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor. This principle is precisely what makes ayahuasca effective; the harmala alkaloids in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine are potent short term MAO inhibitors which synergize with the DMT-containing Psychotria viridis leaves to produce what has been described as one of the most profound of all psychedelic experiences. 

Ayahuasca Side Effects

Nausea and Vomiting

The most reported side-effect of ayahuasca is nausea, followed by intense repetitive vomiting. For some, the vomiting comes early, while for others it occurs during the hallucinations. In ritual settings in South America, vomit buckets are often close at hand for this certainty, according to National Geographic writer Kira Salak in her 2004 article "Peru: To Hell and Back." Some users experience diarrhea as well. In the shamanic cultures where ayahuasca originated, these gastro-intestinal events are considered signs that the medicine is cleansing the body, mind and soul of impurities and toxins.

Other Physical Side Effects

Some users experience profuse sweating, tremors, increased blood pressure and heart rate, according to Peter Strafford, author of the "Psychedelics Encyclopedia." These effects are most likely due to DMT intoxication, which is also known in a pure state to cause hypertension, agitation, dilated pupils, dizziness and muscular incoordination. Neither ayahuasca, nor DMT, are addictive.

Emotional Intensity

Ayahuasca, like other hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin, can sir up profound emotional states, including anxiety, fear and paranoia while, at the same time, providing profound depersonalization, so that the user may be more receptive to emotionally charged memories and past traumas. This profound and unsettling effect has attracted medical doctors to research the psychiatric value of ayahuasca. However, if ayahuasca is not taken in a safe environment with trained guides, these effects could be destabilizing. In the 2004 National Geographic article "Peru: To Hell and Back," ayahuasca expert Charles Grob, M.D., warns, "Ayahuasca is not for everyone. You have to be willing to have a very powerful, long, internal experience, which can get very scary."

Taken in a ritual context, such as provided in ayahuasca shamanism or part of the Brazilian ayahuasca church UniĆ£o do Vegetal, ayahuasca use appears safe and may even facilitate greater psychological health for Brazilian youth, according to a 2005 study published in the "Journal of Psychiatric Drugs."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What is Voodoo?

A Voodoo ceremony in Togo, Africa

You don't have to look far to find references to Voodoo in popular culture, especially in the Western world. Zombie movies, of course, have distant roots in Haitian Voodoo. Novelty stores sell pin-filled dolls to target anyone from miscreant romantic partners to unreasonable bosses. Even World of Warcraft has its own brand of Voodoo, found in Zul'Gurub's Hakkari witch doctors, jinxed hoodoo piles and punctured voodoo dolls.

Representations like these are a big part of what many people would mention if asked to describe Voodoo. Some people would also talk about spiritual possession and animal sacrifice. Many might reference a specific place -- usually the Caribbean islands, like Haiti and Jamaica, or the southeastern United States, especially New Orleans and the Mississippi delta.

In spite of their prevalence in most people's minds, many of these stereotypes have nothing to do with Voodoo. Others are related only tangentially. However, some of the stereotypes include a grain of truth, and one -- spirit possession -- is central to the Voodoo religion.

According to the Voodoo tradition, there is one supreme god, who is known by different names in different parts of the world. In Haiti, for example, he is called Bondye, which comes from the French bon dieu, meaning "good god." Regardless of which name people use, the primary god is immensely powerful and beyond the reach ordinary followers. For this reason, Voodoo practitioners must rely on hundreds or thousands of other spirits to communicate with god.

Photo courtesy Mami Wata Healers Society of North America Inc., image public domain
These spirits are known as loa or lwa in Haiti; anthropologists writing about African Voodoo often refer to them as spirits or gods. The spirits exist in a hierarchy. There are major, powerful loa, many of whom have their own holidays, celebrations or other observances. There are also minor spirits, who play various roles in different regions. Communities and even families have their own loa, such as the spirits of beloved or influential family or community members. The loa receive their power from god and communicate with god on behalf of followers.

During ceremonies and observances, followers of Voodoo ask the spirits for advice, protection or assistance. The process is reciprocal; followers must look after the loa by performing rituals, which sometimes come in the form of animal sacrifice. Other rituals allow followers to thank the spirits for protection, blessings or good fortune. To maintain a good relationship with the loa, followers must also conduct themselves properly according to the customs of both the community and the religion. In this way, the practice of Voodoo can influence a person's day-to-day decisions and activities.
Part of the Voodoo belief is that loa communicate with followers through possession. The loa temporarily displaces the soul of its host, or medium, and takes control of the medium's body. According to this belief, the medium cannot feel pain or become injured while possessed. The loa speaks through the medium, often giving instructions, advice or prophecies of future events. Sometimes, a loa rebukes followers for failing to perform their duties to the loa, their family or their community. In some Voodoo traditions, a few select people have the privilege of becoming possessed. In others, the loa may choose to possess anyone at any time.

This idea -- that powerful or influential spirits can possess people -- unites two distinct forms of Voodoo. One exists primarily in the northern and central portions of the western African coast. The other is practiced primarily in Haiti, as well as in parts of North and South America. Books that explore either form often explain the religion through a series of stories or anecdotes instead of as a straightforward analysis. There are several reasons for this:
  • Voodoo is an oral tradition without a primary holy text, prayer book or set of rituals and beliefs. In different regions, Voodoo practices, the names of gods and other traits can vary considerably.
  • The religion makes use of a wealth of rituals and observations that affect followers' day-to-day lives, making a straightforward list of observances impractical.
  • In many ways, Voodoo is a personal religion. Followers have direct experiences with spirits and loa, and these experiences can be dramatically different from place to place and person to person.
A Note on Names
Some scholars and practitioners prefer alternate spellings of Voodoo, such as Vodou, Vodon, Vodun or Vodu, in part to differentiate the religion from the stereotypes. Additionally, when used to refer to the religion itself, the word "Voodoo" is capitalized. For other uses, such as "voodoo dolls" or "voodoo economics," it is not.