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Meeting #5

Monday, 4/25/2022

This week, we took a break from our regularly scheduled Journal Club content and instead debated the following question.

Are trees or humans better?

Many arguments were raised in favor of trees being better and in favor of humans being better.

Proposition: Trees are better (than humans).

  • Trees are also conscious
  • Consciousness is more likely a continuum than a binary, all or nothing phenomena. What is the arbitrary boundary between conscious and nonconscious? Why should humans exclusively possess this property? Or only mammals? Why not other life forms capable of the same behavior? Yet, if other life forms are also conscious, few would think that dogs and humans have the same level of consciousness. Therefore, rather than “conscious” or “not conscious”, a continuum of consciousness seems to fit the observable world better.
  • Are all non-mammals nonconscious? Is this a good boundary condition for consciousness? Birds seem to demonstrate the same behaviors we would attribute to dogs, which we would likely agree are somewhat conscious. Are birds a purely unconscious form of intelligent behavior? It seems that intelligent behavior is a good indication of consciousness and unlikely that birds are inexplicably less conscious than other life forms whose intelligent behaviors they can match. But birds do not have a neocortex. If one agrees that birds are likely conscious, then we can conclude consciousness does not depend on the particular structure or substrate in which it is observed.
  • How else can it be defined? One possible way is based on the degree to which the reactions of a system to changes in its environment can extend its own propagation or lifespan. Does this metric have any scientific backing? No idea. But it does appear to be a property conscious things possess. For example, pain is a good heuristic to select actions that will increase life prolonging actions. If we accept this metric of consciousness, trees are capable of this. They can send glucose in mycorrhizal networks of forests in a reaction to their environment to prolong the life of the forest for example.
  • If we accept that trees are to some degree conscious due to intelligent behaviors that one would associate with consciousness, the arguments which elevate humans on the basis of consciousness are not valid. The question becomes, which form of consciousness is “better”?
  • Since human consciousness is unstable, self destructive, and on the verge of extincting ourselves through our actions, one would argue that from the perspective of trees which have existed without extincting themselves for millions of years, humans are pretty dumb. Trees are better at preserving intelligent behavior, life, and arguably, consciousness.
  • Without trees there are no humans, so if you can only choose one – all trees or all humans – there is no scenario in which you should choose humans. However, it may be a uselessly unrealistic scenario to have to choose all of either, because clearly we can have both.

Proposition: Humans are better (than trees).

  • Humans are conscious, trees are not. We hold a ‘strict’/undiluted definition of consciousness, which requires abstraction and self-actualization (among other properties).
  • The concept of betterness emerges from a system of ethics and morality. Ethics and morality are contained within consciousness; that is, there is no basis for the existence of ethics and morality without consciousness - they are formulated from and in terms of a conscious being. To apply concepts of betterness and worseness to unconscious objects while attempting to detach human conscious influence is invalid. Therefore, humans are beter because betterness applies only to consciousness. This is a subcase of the statement “conscious things are better than unconscious things”.
  • (Unrigorous) Betterness is dependent on value. If you value an object \(A\) more than an object \(B\), then if you are given the choice to only keep one of \({A, B}\), you will choose to keep \(A\) while discarding \(B\). You are presented with a human and a tree. You keep one alive, and kill the other. Most people (apparently not the pro-tree folks at the meeting) would choose the human, thus demonstrating value judgement and judgement of betterness.

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