Towards a Mycological Metaphysics

The mycologist Merlin Sheldrake recently published Entangled Life (2020). The book revels in the power of fungi to “make us question our categories,” thereby “[changing] the way we think and imagine” (14, 214). A few pages in, Merlin defines mycelium as a process, rather than a thing (6). I am inclined to agree. As a process philosopher, I could not help but ally myself with his project. He goes even further later in the book, insisting that all life-forms are relational processes inhabiting a natural world best understood as “an event that never stops” (53). He encourages us to wonder how our scientific image of nature would be transformed by the adoption of mycelial rather than mechanical metaphors. What would it mean to take seriously the many examples of “basal cognition” and “problem-solving behavior” evident in brainless fungi (15)? If even microscopic hyphae are capable of such feats as “decision,” “improvisation,” and “interpretation” (44), then perhaps conscious agency, or something akin to it, is not the exclusive property of human heads. In that case, “culturally treasured notions of identity, autonomy, and independence” would need to be revised (18). Perhaps fungi can inspire more humility in big-headed humanity?

Perhaps. A powerful word, especially for philosophers seeking to gain permission to peek beneath the measurable facts into the plenum of possibilities from out of which such facts precipitate. Despite the feelings of embarrassment that years of disciplinary training had instilled in him, Merlin, too, found it necessary to embrace the power of speculative imagination in order to make sense of what fungi were teaching him. 

“Thousands of my samples passed through expensive machines that whisked, irradiated, and blasted the contents of the tubes into strings of numbers. I spent whole months staring into a microscope, immersed in rootscapes filled with winding hyphae frozen in ambiguous acts of intercourse with plant cells. Still, the fungi I could see were dead, embalmed, and rendered in false colors. I felt like a clumsy sleuth. While I crouched for weeks scraping mud into small tubes, toucans croaked, howler monkeys roared, lianas tangled, and anteaters licked. Microbial lives, especially those buried in soil, were not accessible like the bristling charismatic aboveground world of the large. Really, to make my findings vivid, to allow them to build and contribute to a general understanding, imagination was required. There was no way around it” (19).

Most of us think of mushrooms when we hear the word “fungi”—but they are just the surface-dwelling fruiting bodies of much larger underground networks.  The task of the metaphysician, who is compelled to inquire into the hidden underbelly of reality, is not unlike that of the mycologist, since “[mycelial] relationships are conducted out of sight” (138). Given this similarity, Merlin and I are hoping that an “academic symbiosis” (215) will be possible between philosophy and mycology. This sort of transdisciplinary collaboration may help stitch the modern image of nature back together again. 

While reading Merlin’s book, the overlaps with Alfred North Whitehead’s “organic realism” were impossible to miss. Whitehead is best known as a mathematician and collaborator with Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica. Lesser known is his later work in natural philosophy and metaphysical cosmology. His entrance into philosophy took the form of a critique of the modern “bifurcation of nature,” a thought-habit which insists that a strict separation be maintained between the objective causal factors thought to be “in nature” and the subjective feelings and perceptions imagined to be “in the mind.” On the one hand, there’s the conjectured system of molecules and electromagnetic radiation formulated by physicists, and on the other, the warmth and color of a sunrise celebrated by nature poets. Mocking the incoherence of this bifurcated image of nature, Whitehead writes: 

“Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves; the rose for its scent: the nightingale for his song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly” (SMW, 56). 

Whitehead would go on to articulate a thoroughly unbifurcated vision of the cosmos as an evolving ecology of organisms. He understood processes of emergent evolution as unfolding at all scales in nature, such that something like Lynn Margulis’ endosymbiosis transpires not just in the biological realm as more complex cells arise by incorporating formerly free-living organisms, but also in the physical domain, as early in cosmic history independent protons, neutrons, and electrons forged enduring associations to bring forth the first hydrogen and helium atoms. This vision is not meant to conflict with natural science, but to support and enrich it: he criticized the classical ontology of inert particles governed by arbitrarily imposed mechanical laws as entirely unsuited to the new findings of relativity and quantum theories. In addition to constructing a new metaphysical background for these early 20th century revolutions in the scientific understanding of space, time, matter, and energy, Whitehead also sought to overcome what philosophers nowadays refer to as “the hard problem of consciousness”: in short, how could mind ever arise out of matter if the latter is defined a priori as purely extended and thus entirely devoid of interiority? This is not just a hard problem. According to a growing cadre of panpsychist philosophers, it is impossible. It cannot be solved as stated. It can only be dissolved by rethinking the materialist premises upon which it is based. Despite scientific anxieties about anthropomorphism, Whitehead urged us to come to see our capacity as knowers to be part of the universe we are trying to know. While some physicists lean on randomness in lieu of explanation by making anti-empirical postulates about an infinite supply of other universes without life or mind, the only universe we actually know about is quite obviously anthropogenetic. After all, here we are. Instead of insisting that mind and life are freak accidents in an otherwise well-behaved mechanical world, perhaps (there’s that word again) the emergence of mind and life reveal something about the nascent potentials of matter that classical physics missed? 

Maybe the real danger to proper scientific understanding is not anthropomorphism, but mechanomorphism. Mechanism implies a mechanic, an outside designer; in contrast, Whitehead’s organic cosmos is understood to be self-organizing. Laws of physics become more like widespread habits that evolve with the organisms composing the cosmos, rather than being imposed upon them from beyond, as deistic early modern scientists supposed. While Whitehead restricts conscious experience to highly complex organisms with nervous systems, he insists that the vast majority of experience comes in the form of non-conscious feeling and emotion. It is here that many skeptics like to throw rocks at Whitehead and other panpsychists: “So you’re saying stones can think?!” No, but contemporary physics tells us that rocks are in fact composed of complex societies of vibrating molecules. In Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, the vibratory frequencies of molecules, and of atoms composing molecules, express forms of aesthetic harmonization with attendant feelings of experiential satisfaction. Particles are no longer conceived of as point-like geometric abstractions, but vector-feelings whose local subsistence depends upon the reiteration of their vibratory patterns. Thus, what appear as wave-lengths and vibrations to infrared spectrometers, for the molecular occasions in question are felt as “pulses of emotion” (PR, 163; see also my Physics of the World-Soul [2021], 76). Some mineral societies vibrate into highly ordered crystals, while others are more haphazard. 

Sober-minded scientists may balk at such speculative renderings of physical processes. Merlin quotes Whitehead’s statement to Russell, which speaks to his scientifically unorthodox interpretation of the facts of nature:  “You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day. I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep” (112). Whitehead philosophizes at dawn, while dreams still halo consciousness and the separative outlines of objects remain blurred. In contrast, the speculatively-averse Russell preferred the clarity and distinction afforded by shadowless light. 

Mycological metaphors run even deeper into Whitehead’s metaphysics. “Mycelium is a living, growing, opportunistic investigation—speculation in bodily form,” in Merlin’s words (51). Their networks form “streams of embodiment” (55) that act as “ecological connective tissue” stitching the rest of the living world into relation (46). Do these networks form a single organism, or a plurality? A plurisingularity? According to Merlin,  “a hyphal tip would be the closest one could come to defining the unit of a mycelial swarm” (47). Relating the growth of hyphae to our human experience of becoming, Merlin writes:

“The growing tip is the present moment—your lived experience of now—which gnaws into the future as it advances. The history of your life is the rest of the hypha, the…lines that you’ve left in a tangled trail behind you. A mycelial network is a map of a fungus’s recent history” (53).

The equivalent of hyphal tips in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology are called “actual occasions.” Actual occasions are buds of experience that grow out of their relations to the past, achieve some novel aesthetic value in the subjective immediacy of the present, and perish into objective immortality so as to influence the future, contributing whatever value they’ve garnered to the ongoing creative advance of nature. Occasions tend to organize themselves into “societies”: swarm-like historical routes that sustain and amplify an enduring collective form by faithfully reiterating some shared pattern of potentiality.  

Merlin and I are beginning work on a longer paper to draw out the underground connections between process philosophy and the science of fungi. Our suspicion is that the findings of mycology serve as a special example of the more general categories articulated in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. More to come! 

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*Image credit: Aimee Cornwell (Instagram: @peggyfarmandforage)*