The Roots of Plant Intelligence

Here's a fascinating TED talk by Stefano Mancuso, a founder of the study of plant 'neurobiology', which explores how plants communicate, or "signal," with each other, using a complex internal analysis system to find nutrients, spread their species and even defend themselves against predators.

Watching this presentation prompts a number of questions for me. If consciousness is 'simply' an emergent phenomenon of a network of neurons, is it possible that other networks (roots, mycelia, even the Internet) could be self-aware too? Are we deceived mainly by the static nature of plants (or at least, their less noticeable movement) more than any other factor in thinking of them as vegetative? And once again, I am reminded of Dennis McKenna's psychedelic experience under the influence of ayahuasca (as told by Daniel Pinchbeck in his excellent book, Breaking Open the Head):

When Dennis McKenna, Terence's botanist brother, drank ayahuasca with the Uniao do Vegetal, a Brazilian syncretic religion that uses ayahuasca as its sacrament, he was turned into a sentient water molecule in the jungle soil, pulled up through a vine's roots to experience the miraculous molecular processes of photosynthesis in its leaves. "Somehow I understood - though no words were involved - that the Banisteriopsis vine was the embodiment of the plant intelligence that embraced and covered the earth," he recalled. At the end of his vision, a voice told him, "You monkeys only think you're running things."

Observant readers would have noted that McKenna's monkey line is the footer to my comments here on TDG. Some have assumed previously that it's meant as a moderator tagline about who is in charge here on the site, but in fact it's there simply as a reminder against anthropocentric hubris and assuming too much about our current state of knowledge. Will we have a completely different outlook (and relationship) with plants in two thousand years time? And if we find that plants are sentient, where does that leave vegans?

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red pill junkie's picture
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The idea of a vegetable grand consciousness was one of the things I enjoyed the most about Avatar, so I do wonder if Cameron was hinting to Mckenna's experience —if only Hollywood reporters read TDG before showing to interviews!

PS: Gred old boy, I know you want us to keep the political babble to a minimum, but with all that talk about how cunning plants are into utilizing animals as vectors to secure their survival through pollination, for me it's impossible NOT to start seeing the current drug trafficking in a whole different way :-P

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earthling's picture
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I've been saying for years that the cereal grains are in control of things. They have humans duped into converting large sections of the planet into areas where these grasses can flourish, unmolested by their natural competitors.

Other plants are not doing so bad either. Cocoa, sugar cane, coffee, hemp, you name it.

Maybe its just a symbiosis of sorts, between humans and all these plants.

Maybe.

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Inannawhimsey's picture
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*hears the rim shot*

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lobotomatic's picture
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This idea agrees with what is known as Panpsychism (the assertion that consciousness - "mind-stuff" - is a fundamental characteristic of the universe, much like mass, charge, etc...).
There are quite a few philosophers who support panpsychism to one extent or another. David Chalmers being, perhaps, the best known.

However, even from that view consciousness is still an emergent phenomenon of neuro-physiology, and, more importantly, external sensory input. No matter how woo woo the metaphysics get there is really no escaping that consciousness exists, in some major way, as a vehicle for interacting with the physical world.

I am not against the idea of panpsychism, indeed I find it quite aesthetically pleasing (from a teleological perspective), but I have never been quite so enthralled with it as Chalmers. He makes it a point to bop around to various conferences and personally debate any would-be philosopher who attempts to present any argument against panpsychism. Especially Chalmer's view on it. All in all the guy is kind of a rock star, but I digress.

Now, from my view panpsychism is an incredibly compelling idea. After all, just because we Western philosophers have only recently begin to consider the idea, the basic premise has formed the foundation of just about all Eastern metaphysics and philosophy for at least the last... well, pretty much as far back as we have recorded history. Last year I spoke to a Neurobiologist from India about this and he laughed. "This is old news, but it shows the West is growing!" he said. I digress again.

I prefer to look at consciousness - as far as how it manifests itself - as a property of networks. meaning, I find it quite easy to accept that a simple fungi, or "root", can have the same informational capacity as a single neuron. Linked together in sufficiently complex way, and the sum of the parts becomes greater than the whole. Just like a human brain.

That's a fairly general synopsis, but I think you're already onto the idea anyway.

However, it's worth noting that both the Eastern tradition (at its philosophical core) and the emerging Western concept of panpsychism, nullify the importance of, and need for, the individuation of the metaphysical properties of the Self. Meaning, the old Western ideas about a Soul, and the reigning dualism that infuses every aspect of our culture's metaphysical discourse, is really an illusion created by consciousness manifesting itself physically. Also, it must be understood that what we experience as reality is a product of our consciousness, and determined by our sensory input, therefore the reality that would be experienced by, say, a vast colony of mycelia, or a complex jungle root system, would be incredibly different from what we consider reality. Such things as time and space, for example, are constructs determined by how we are able to physically interact with, and exist within, our environment. A plant-consciousness (I rather like that term!) would exist in a completely different kind of reality than we do.

The same argument can be made about cetaceans, by the way.

Anyway, I prattle on... I love the DG, and enjoy the chance to pop in and offer my input from time to time. Thanks.

earthling's picture
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An interesting point here:

Quote:

However, even from that view consciousness is still an emergent phenomenon of neuro-physiology, and, more importantly, external sensory input. No matter how woo woo the metaphysics get there is really no escaping that consciousness exists, in some major way, as a vehicle for interacting with the physical world.

Indeed a universe filled with (or consisting of?) all-pervasive psyche evidently generates individual conciousness. The way in which the individual conciousness comes about in some (not all) of the animals with neurons is a complete mystery.

Or alternatively, a universe consisting of (hence filled with) dumb mindless dust evidently generates individual conciousness, in some (not all) of the animals with neurons, in a completely mysterious way.

So neither universe provides any explanation of individual conciousness. Saying that "its already in there" doesn't explain how it comes out in just a few places, and not in others.

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lobotomatic's picture
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Let me begin by saying that I really don't want to get into a lengthy Internet debate about this, my intention is not to pick a fight with you.

That being said, you're wrong.

You state, "The way in which the individual conciousness comes about in some (not all) of the animals with neurons is a complete mystery."

That's not really true, but let me explain.

While it is true that we may not fully understand what consciousness is, or how it arises from (or via) physiology, we do know that there is a very empirically obvious, predictable, testable, and reproducible curve to the complexity of consciousness. What I mean is that when one plots a curve of organisms arranged by the complexity of their neurobiology and structural physiology starting with the most simple organisms (such as frogs and fish) at one end and proceeding up the scale to humans that the complexity of their measured brainwaves matches that ascending curve exactly. Consciousness matches neuronal complexity. This curve has been labeled the "Gamma Ascent" by researches Peter Walling and Kenneth Hicks. Therefore we know that consciousness is an emergent property (whether of or through) physiology.

Check out this site for more info, it covers the work of Walling and Hicks.
http://www.wallinghicksbrainwaves.net/wo...

earthling's picture
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Certainly we observe that more complex neurology does produce produce a more pronounced level of conciousness in vertebrates and some molluscs. On the other hand, it doesn't seem to produce any conciousness in insects. What is the difference? Episodic memory perhaps, but I'm not sure.

One of my points is really that the view of the universe as having pervasive conciousness doesn't explain individual conciousness any more than the view of the dumb material universe. It doesn't explain what conciousness is, and it doesn't explain how it shows up in the individual animals.

As an analogy, suppose we are inside a boat, and some compartments have water in them, and others don't. The universal conciousness people say the water comes from an unseen ocean that the boat is floating on, but can't demonstrate where the holes are that let in the water. But they find confirmation for the unseen ocean by damp spots in the compartments that are not flooded.

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lobotomatic's picture
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I see where you are going with that line of thought. My apologies, I guess I misunderstood what you were saying initially.

Two things, I think if we could hook up an insect to an EEG machine we'd find that they exhibit a brainwave complexity that matches their physiology. The problem is with the mechanics of measurement, not that insects don't possess a corresponding level of consciousness.

Also, Walling and Hicks actually do provide a pretty solid account of how individual consciousness arises from physiology, and though they do not posit a version of panpsychism, one could certainly fit panpsychism into their discoveries and theory.

Individuality arises because of the limitations of neuronal physiology and our sensory apparatus.

Panpsychism could be understood to postulate consciousness as a fundamental universal force like gravity. Gravity doesn't express itself until the resulting physical properties are met. If there is no mass, or an insufficient amount, there is no gravity. The same argument could be made of consciousness. It is a fundamental universal force that will invariably manifest itself but only when the resulting network, informational capacity, is present. As well, the degree to which consciousness is expressed is directly related to the physical characteristics that it becomes manifest within.

So, it's not that consciousness is some amorphous universal field that floats around all the time in the "aether" and brains are only biological antennas which can tune into it. Consciousness is a fundamental aspect of the teleological process that expresses itself as what we call the universe.

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About the insects, I don't think there is any indication from their behaviour that they have conciousness. They appear entirely robotic. While I'm reasonably convinced that conciousness actually does arise from organized neuron activity, I'm also reasonably convinced that not just any organized neuron activity will do. It's not simply quantity.

I looked on the website you linked to. Unfortunately the software they have doesn't help any, they don't want people to look inside of it. No reverse engineering, disassembly and all that. So without being able to look at what it does, I can't treat the software as a contribution to science.

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lobotomatic's picture
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Well, it's not the software they developed to test their hypothesis I was referring to. They use the software they developed to measure consciousness complexity. They have then used those findings to present a very compelling theory as to how consciousness arises. Their book, "Anatomy of the Soul" is a very cohesive an well thought out presentation of their theory. I'd highly recommend it.

As to the robotic appearance of insects; I don't think consciousness should be viewed as a static thing. It is a continuum, a spectrum. Insects are just very far down on the lower, less complex, end of that spectrum. However, anyone who's ever tried to kill a pesky fly can attest that flies do indeed react to their physical environment.

In any event, It's been a pleasure exchanging ideas with you today. I'll try and check in later.

red pill junkie's picture
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how about insects acting as a hive group?

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earthling's picture
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Yes, that's the classic example. The conciousness need not be in the individual ant, any more than it needs to be in the individual neuron.

Conciousness is really hard to determine in those cases where its barely there, and not communicating to the outside world. Reacting to the outside world yes, but not communicating.

To compare ant hills and bee hives to human equivalents, we should probably look to what cities do.

Also, is it a sign of conciousness if something shows a purpose in its behaviour?

We are starting to see some robots that show definite purpose, like those autonomous little quadcopters that can fly through hoops that are thrown in front of them. The behaviour isn't predetermined, it reacts to what it sees. And it does show complex purposeful behaviour - but nobody would argue that it is aware of itself.

So how do we tell, complex robotic behaviour or concious?

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red pill junkie's picture
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Also, is it a sign of conciousness if something shows a purpose in its behaviour?

I don't know the answer. But we should definitely look into it.

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It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

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lobotomatic's picture
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red pill junkie wrote:

how about insects acting as a hive group?

What you're asking is if groups of insects can all "link up" to form a greater, singular, consciousness?

If so, then no. However, at least not a singular consciousness as we would understand it in relation to ourselves as a singular conscious being.

earthling wrote:

The conciousness need not be in the individual ant, any more than it needs to be in the individual neuron.

Also, is it a sign of conciousness if something shows a purpose in its behaviour?

We are starting to see some robots that show definite purpose, like those autonomous little quadcopters that can fly through hoops that are thrown in front of them. The behaviour isn't predetermined, it reacts to what it sees. And it does show complex purposeful behaviour - but nobody would argue that it is aware of itself.

So how do we tell, complex robotic behaviour or concious?

Well, all biological organisms (including human beings) can be seen as complex robots, though biological we may be. And your question really gets to the heart of the philosophical/scientific debate about what consciousness is. On the one hand Neuroscientists will mostly say that humans are complex biological robots interacting with their physical environment in largely predetermined ways. On the other Philosophers will mostly argue that consciousness (Sentience, at least) is something more than biology.

I did my undergrad in Philosophy, and I came to the Science of Consciousness from that direction so I've always had a personal tendency to agree with the "we are a whole that is more than the sum of our parts" type of view. This position, I have to tell you, is getting harder to maintain in the face of scientific discovery. What we are learning is that consciousness more than likely is a biological process determined by our physiology and sensory apparatus.

I think it takes a die-hard romantic to remain open to the possibility of certain passe', and waning, metaphysical concepts such as most traditional spiritual concepts. Indeed, I think the time is fast approaching when even a conversation such as this will be moot due to the advance of scientific knowledge.

At that point, however, will we have arrived at a theory of consciousness that accounts for plants (such as the original video) and the hive-mind actions of insects, and human cultural groups (vis a vis memetics, the "hive mind")? I think so. I think panpsychism, to some degree, is true and that consciousness (as a spectrum of perceptual states and values) is indeed integral to the universe.

red pill junkie's picture
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What you're asking is if groups of insects can all "link up" to form a greater, singular, consciousness?

If so, then no. However, at least not a singular consciousness as we would understand it in relation to ourselves as a singular conscious being.

What's the difference between a singular consciousness, and a process in which a group of entities ACT as if they were a singular consciousness?

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

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lobotomatic's picture
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red pill junkie wrote:

What's the difference between a singular consciousness, and a process in which a group of entities ACT as if they were a singular consciousness?

The Self.

Like I said above, Humans understand consciousness in purely individuated terms. We are a Self, an Ego, and that Self is, for us, our consciousness. I'm not saying that's what consciousness is, I'm saying that's what human consciousness is.

red pill junkie's picture
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The Self, eh?

It's kind of trying to find a difference between the feeling's of a person who thinks it's in love, and true love.

My point is that the Self is the end result we humans experience, but we know very little at how that sensation starts at the base. For all we know, a bee hive have could also experience a sense of self; we just don't know because (a) we're not bees; and (b)we're not a bee hive.

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
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lobotomatic's picture
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red pill junkie wrote:

The Self, eh?

It's kind of trying to find a difference between the feeling's of a person who thinks it's in love, and true love.

My point is that the Self is the end result we humans experience, but we know very little at how that sensation starts at the base. For all we know, a bee hive have could also experience a sense of self; we just don't know because (a) we're not bees; and (b)we're not a bee hive.

I think the actions of a bee hive, and any other observable hive-group of insects, show us that they are not a singular self aware conscious being. At least - and I've been saying this since the beginning of this thread - not in any way that we would understand it in relation ourselves as sentient conscious beings. Therefore, if they are a hive-mind consciousness (which is the hypothetical in question), they are not sentient, or conscious (an individuated Self) in the same way that we are.

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lobotomatic wrote:

I think the actions of a bee hive, and any other observable hive-group of insects, show us that they are not a singular self aware conscious being. At least - and I've been saying this since the beginning of this thread - not in any way that we would understand it in relation ourselves as sentient conscious beings. Therefore, if they are a hive-mind consciousness (which is the hypothetical in question), they are not sentient, or conscious (an individuated Self) in the same way that we are.

But we are the whole, we aren't the pieces (or in this case, 'the bees'). The analogy would be the bees = neurons (or something else at the base level), from which consciousness emerges to become the whole.

In short, if consciousness can emerge from a network of brain cells, why can't it emerge from networks of other things communicating amongst themselves. That consciousness doesn't necessarily have to have any 'bee-like' behaviour about it, as much as we don't behave like neurons.

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

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I think the Bee = Neuron example is, quite frankly, a bad one. There are many reasons that a bee hive does not resemble a human brain. Most notably being that bees are not structurally organized, and each bee acts independently of the other bees - whereas neurons are exactly opposite in both ways.

A better example, I think, returning to the original topic, would be a colony of Mycelium. Fungus is structurally organized and single fungi (nuerons, in this example) do no act independently of the other fungi. The colony then, becomes a singular unit and operates in such a way.

QED, of course, being is that colony of Mycelium conscious? Again, I will say that if it is, it is not conscious in a manner that we would recognize, or define, in relation to what we experience as conscious beings.

What I am trying to communicate here, as hastily as possible, is that while an ant colony, a bee hive, and colony of Mycelium may share some structural similarities with, and be facilely similar to, a human brain it's really an apples and oranges comparison from a standpoint of consciousness.

Consciousness, that is, as we currently understand it. (I keep repeating that idea because it is key.)

So what we have is a question of neuronal capacity vs structural organization. Now, I have absolutely no empirical data to back this up, but from a purely prima facie standpoint I think it is obvious that two bees communicating with each other have less (by an order of magnitude, I'd suspect) informational carrying capacity than do two neurons. Coupled with this informational handicap (for lack of a better phrase) is the fact that a bee hive is not structurally, physiologically, organized in nearly as complex, efficient, and "networked" manner as a human brain.

However, if we allow that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of network informational capacity and structural organization than we must allow that a bee hive, at some very primitive level, can be viewed as conscious. Given another 100 million years of evolution... who knows?

A colony of Mycelium (or a large scale root system), on the other hand, has both the complex structural organization, and informational carrying capacity, for the assertions of Stefano Mancuso (Paul Stamets is another researcher who you might find interesting for his work with Mycelium) to be correct.

It could very well be that these fungal root systems are conscious in a way that we simply cannot (at least have not yet) comprehend. Much like your quote from McKenna's brother alludes to, we humans - and our cultural institution of science - like to view ourselves are some sort of pinnacle of consciousness and evolution. It could be that not only are we not the most highly evolved, complex, consciousness on the planet earth, but we're not even in the top 3.

So, all I've been trying to communicate here in this thread is that from a scientific standpoint we cannot say with certainty that human consciousness is the only kind of consciousness, therefore we have no measure of what other consciousness would be like. Following that, we should not expect that any other consciousness - whether here on Earth or extra-terrestrial in nature - would resemble us, and our perceptual reality, in any way. It would be completely alien to us.

red pill junkie's picture
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Most notably being that bees are not structurally organized, and each bee acts independently of the other bees

It's not that I'm trying to disagree, but I'm sure an entomologist would have a thing to say about not finding a lot of structure inside a hive.

Now, I have absolutely no empirical data to back this up, but from a purely prima facie standpoint I think it is obvious that two bees communicating with each other have less (by an order of magnitude, I'd suspect) informational carrying capacity than do two neurons. Coupled with this informational handicap (for lack of a better phrase) is the fact that a bee hive is not structurally, physiologically, organized in nearly as complex, efficient, and "networked" manner as a human brain.

Granted, a hive of bees are not "linked" in the same way a network of neurons are.

But you of all people should know that neurons are *not* really "touching" each other. Separating neurons and dendrites is a space (very tiny, yes, but still there) where the so called "action potential" is carried out.

The same way, a group of bees flying in formation have a lot of empty space between them. Yet they ARE transmitting information among each individual through pheromones, visual cues, what-have-you. It is not electrochemical signal in the form of ions like in our brain, but it's still a method of information transmission —the same way the Internet is also transmitting information between nodes through electrical impulses packed in 0s & 1s.

This might just be a question of scale.

All I'm saying is that there re all sorts of networks found in Nature —and also in our own technology— involved in the transmission of sensorial input. And these networks display amazing behaviors. Can't we really in all good faith disqualify this behavior as some form of consciousness? Why not? because it's only a simulation? In the digital world, what's the difference between a simulation and the real thing anyway?

If (or when) we finally develop a true simulation of intelligence, how are going to differentiate it from the real thing?

So maybe a bee hive is (hypothetically) not self-aware. But why are we discounting the possibility of sentience without awareness?

So maybe a bee hive does not involve in the creation of culture, or at least one we could recognize anyway. Then again, I know a lot of people who don't give a damn about who Michelangelo was. They go about their business as drones (pun intended).

Like you said in the end, we need to broaden our concepts of what consciousness, and life ultimately, are.

Once again, this might just be a question of scale, an our limited perceptions given our place between the micro and macrocosmos.

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

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I think we are largely on the same page here. We're just coming at it from two different directions. Nothing wrong with that!

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A big difference is the speed of communication. In bee hives this is limited (in terms of latency) by the movement of bees. So you're looking at maybe 5km/h, maybe 10. Neuron signal propagation is something like 100 times faster. These numbers may be off by a factor of 2 or so, but not much more.

I'm not sure about switching times versus transfer times. Synapse switching takes on the order of 1/10 of a second if I remember this right. Bee-to-beer switching is going to be significantly slower. Factor of 10 or 100 maybe?

Then you have the number of items communicated at any one time. The amount of information carried in a single bee is probably somewhat higher than in a single neuron, but not by much. That is assuming the neuron's information content is carried entirely by its excitation level, and that is probably incorrect. Depending on how the neuron is connected, its excitation level could mean different things to different neighboring neurons. A bee is probably much more of a store and forwardmechanism than a neuron.

Then there is the width of the whole system, hive versus brain. Compared to the neuron count in a half way decent vertebrate brain, the number of bees in a hive is tiny. At the same time, the number of connections between individual bees is a lot smaller.

So assuming that the errors in all my estimates are not all in the same direction, and being too lazy to multiply out a bunch of numbers, I would say that the latency of information flow through a bee hive is at least 4 orders of magnitude slower than a vertebrate brain (or a bee brain for that matter). Probably more like 6 orders or magnitude.

The bandwidth is probably even worse than that.

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I would tend to agree in the sense of a bee-hive not being aware of anything.

If you look at the purposeful behaviour of bee hives and such things, it does exist, independently of bees. But it is really not much more than, say an amoeba.

My contention though is that you can have really complex purposeful behaviour without any trace of awareness of self. That's what I call robotic, and my best guess is that insects, and the rest of the arthropods, all fall in this category.

If episodic memory is one thing that vertebrates have, and arthropods don't. Perhaps that ends up making the difference. If that is the case, we can make concious machines.

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earthling wrote:

I would tend to agree in the sense of a bee-hive not being aware of anything.

If you look at the purposeful behaviour of bee hives and such things, it does exist, independently of bees. But it is really not much more than, say an amoeba.

But perhaps beehives are predisposed to remaining solitary and contemplating the universe? Who knows what 'purposeful behaviours' it might have that we are not aware of....

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

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Only time would tell, but bee hives don't live long enough.

Plant colonies on the other hand, there we could be talking about centuries.

And what if they have found the answer, and its really boring?

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earthling wrote:

My contention though is that you can have really complex purposeful behaviour without any trace of awareness of self. That's what I call robotic, and my best guess is that insects, and the rest of the arthropods, all fall in this category.

If episodic memory is one thing that vertebrates have, and arthropods don't. Perhaps that ends up making the difference. If that is the case, we can make concious machines.

This is a very widely held idea in the field. Bernie Baars' Global Workspace Theory relies heavily on the role of memory in consciousness.