0 votes
by (140 points)

 Yuttadhammo states flatly in the ebook Morality that "plants are not considered sentient beings," and "plants are alive but they are not sentient; so they do not count."

How do we know that plants are not sentient?  How can we be sure? The more we discover about the universe, the more likely it is that we may encounter living beings that blur lines and challenge such categorizations.  Is there a way that we can tell definitively which beings are sentient and which are not? Is there an assumed relationship between sentience and a central nervous system?

2 Answers

+1 vote
by (8.3k points)
What evidence do you have that plants are sentient? We can't claim that everything is true until proven false. That's not how science or any meaningful discussion works.
by (140 points)
I don’t have any evidence that they are, anymore than I have evidence that there is an invisible leprechaun sitting on my shoulder. I am just struck that it is simply taken as a statement of fact that they are not sentient, instead of considering that the answer is unknowable
by (8.3k points)
Would you say a chair or a door is sentient? Do we not take that as a matter of fact because they don't meet our definition of sentience?
by (140 points)
No. A door is not alive; it has no response to stimuli. Plants, fungi, bacteria, etc do. That seems to be enough to consider the possibility.  Buddhism rules out the possibility that they are sentient, but accepts that insects are. We could discover life on another planet, and I would like to understand how that determination is made.
by (8.3k points)
edited by
Buddhist precepts are based on intention. If your intention is to harm beings then that is creating unwholesome karma. If your intention is not to harm beings then that creates wholesome karma. It doesn't matter whether they are sentient or not. What matters is your intentions. You can never know what is really sentient. You can't even know for sure if other people are sentient or not.
by (140 points)
Thank you so much for your answer and your patience with me.  

Your answer makes sense to me, and my intuition is to agree with you that "you can never know what is really sentient," but it does not clear up my confusion over Yuttadhammo's answer to the question about gardening.  He specifically mentions that killing plants doesn't count because they are not sentient beings.  But if sentience doesn't matter, then why even mention it?  Why is it that harming insects during gardening is a problem, but harming plants is not, if sentience is not a matter of concern.
by (8.3k points)
It's intention. If you are cutting down plants your intention is usually not to harm beings. Your intention may be to eat or to remove weeds. But if you are killing insects, with pesticides for example, your intention is always to harm beings.
by (140 points)
So is Yuttadhammo wrong when he brings up sentience as the reason why harming plants doesn’t count? Why is it ok to kill plants for food, but not ok to kill animals for food, if my intention is just to obtain food?
by (8.3k points)
No he's not wrong. The intention to kill something that is sentient creates unwholesome karma. Even if it's killed for food the intention to kill or harm a being still arises. We don't believe plants are sentient so the intention to kill or harm a being doesn't arise.
+1 vote
by (13.5k points)
How do you know if anyone other than you is conscious? How do you know if your parents, siblings and friends are conscious? If you have an answer to that, apply the same standards to find out if plants are conscious.
by (140 points)
There are two ways to answer that question.  

One is empirically: By observing how others appear to perceive and interact with their environment, and by assuming that they are doing that for the same reasons I do: because they are thinking.  But plants also have senses, memories, and communicate with each other.  There is quite a bit of scientific research in this area.  This video summarizes some of it:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xm5i53eiMkU

So based on that, I would have to assume that plants are sentient, and I should avoid harming them the same as any other sentient being.

The other way is through a logical deduction:  By assuming that there is a relationship between the brain and the mind, and that others that have a similar biology as me would likewise have a similar consciousness.  So as we move down the evolutionary tree, the CNS gets simpler, and so does the consciousness, until we get to beings who's nervous system is so simple that they likely are not.  We don't really know where that point is, but we could reasonably assume that a living being with no nervous system likely has no consciousness either.
by (8.3k points)
Computers also have senses, memory, and are able to communicate with each other.
by (13.5k points)
@Phaedrus The question is about 'knowledge', not assumptions or deductions. If you develop Jhanic powers and get the ability to read minds, you will see that consciousness is not arising in plants.
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