Metaphors and mycelia

After reading a draft copy of a book by Bob Trubshaw, which touched upon some recent developments in cognitive science that I’ve completely missed out on, I fancied I should make an effort and catch up. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is my rather daunting starting point. Without a good understanding of the tradition they’re taking apart, I’m not sure I’m fully engaged with their ideas, but the cognitive science discoveries they’re building on, and their various takes on these discoveries, are definitely deepening my penchant for toying with a kind of "psychedelic materialism".

The key to their thinking is metaphor. Their technical definition is: projecting or mapping qualities from a source domain onto a target domain. I would say: understanding one thing in terms of another. Their contention is that metaphor isn’t just some rarified literary technique, some flourish that only happens when we wax poetic, but that it is actually part of the bedrock of the way we conceptualise the world—that is, part of the foundations of thought. Metaphors are not just the domain of language; they work at the deeper but connected realm of conceptualisation, too. Lakoff & Johnson never seem to refute the existence of purely literal, non-metaphorical conceptions; they merely point out that such conceptions, when truly stripped of all metaphor, are so skeletal as to be virtually unusable. "Neural beings" such as us prefer "something to hold on to". Metaphor is the flesh of conscious thought, without which it would flail around like some ineffectual ascetic.

The main challenge to Western philosophy is that the "source domain" for what they call "Primary Metaphors"—the real meat as opposed to the non-essential delicacies we rustle up for florid writings like this—is the material realm. Specifically our bodily interactions with the world. Jim was pretty non-plussed and unimpressed when I ran some of their examples by him, such as the idea of emotional "closeness" (the "target domain") being metaphorically derived from its association in childhood with physical closeness (the source). Jim’s argument—and that of the many critics of the Lakoff/Johnson school of cognitive science and linguistics—is that these two senses of "close" are just homonyms (words with the same spelling or sound but with unrelated meanings). It’s an interesting debate that’s not going to be resolved here. Suffice it to say that the scientific evidence, such as it is, seems compelling. And if Primary Metaphors do form the foundations for the rational mind, the traditional Western philosophical notion of a disembodied basis for mind, untainted by the sensual world’s dynamics, has to be discarded. (If that is, you haven’t already joined the party with Blake, Nietzsche, Freud, Watts, and all the feminists, ecologists and neo-pagans who’ve pulled themselves together and embraced matter. An accurate criticism of Lakoff is that he hasn’t fairly acknowledged the shoulders he’s standing on.)

My thoughts on this are constantly, as ever, spinning off on tangents. I’m sure most people reading this are familiar with the way the mind itself has been understood metaphorically via contemporary technologies. The ambience of the Industrial Revolution gave Freud and his mates all their ideas of forces and pressures—consciousness as a mechanical engine. (Not to mention film and lighting tech’s contribution to the idea of "projection".) And the Information Age has given us the computer as a model of mind—it’s all hardware (or wetware) and software, all circuits and networks.

It’s always tempting, when you catch sight of such larger perspectives, to be dismissive. "It’s just a phase" is something we hate hearing applied to ourselves as teenagers, but love dishing out intellectually when we feel we’ve gained some higher, "superior" vantage point. As I’ve argued elsewhere, that word "just" is a little bastard. It undervalues things in a deceptively casual way. What if the phase is important? What if the process is the product? "Just a phase" stands in this light as an everyday inheritance of our Christian death-denying fixation on the importance of unchanging constants, something any good Taoist would point at and laugh.

The thing I like most about Lakoff & Johnson’s thinking so far is that they’re wholly anti-reductionist, and see metaphor—however temporary and limited the models we build with them are at any given time—as crucial to scientific advances:

Cognitive neuroscientists engaged in neural computation have a theoretical commitment to the reality of neural gates, synaptic weights, thresholds, and mathematical operations "performed by neurons" […]. Of course, the numbers used in such calculations are not literally there in the cell bodies. The mathematics used in the computations is part of a critically important scientific metaphor for understanding how neurons function: the Neural Computation metaphor. […] It is extremely common for computational neurobiologists to form what linguists call a "conceptual blend" of the source and target domains of the metaphor […]. In such a blended discourse, biological structures are conceptualized as if they "changed (the numbers indicating) synaptic weights," "sent inhibition," "formed gates," and so on. Conceptual blends of this sort are the norm in scientific discourse.

And discussing the use of spatial metaphors for time in Einstein’s theory of general relativity, they’re careful to stress that we shouldn’t let our inherited feel for metaphors as literary "window dressing" lead to the idea that they’re putting the theory down:

One can see general relativity as metaphorical. This does not make general relativity either false or fanciful or subjective, since its metaphors can still be apt. That is, they can entail non-metaphorical predictions that can be verified or falsified. In general, to say that science is metaphorical is not to belittle it. […] Indeed, metaphor is what allows mathematical models to be linked to phenomena in the world and to be regarded as scientific theories.

To get back to that whole thing of comprehending the mind in terms of technology, then, I found it amazing to happen across a link in a friend’s blog about someone I had, equally amazingly, never heard of: Paul Stamets (do check out all the links on this profile page). A visionary mycologist, this guy makes Terence McKenna’s allegiance to the mushroom look like a half-hearted fling. It seems his research is being taken seriously as well, as he uncovers the potential in mycelial mats (the dense networks of underground fibres that are to mushrooms as trees are to fruit) to process all kinds of hydrocarbon waste and pollutants, and regenerate damaged ecosystems ("mycoremediation").

Stamets’ Big Idea (at least, the main one I’ve found in articles and interviews so far) is that the structure and "behaviour" of mycelial networks is reflected in human neurophysiology, as well as our rapidly flowering technological network, the internet. I wonder, then, whether we would have come to such an understanding of the nature of mycelia if we hadn’t progressed thus far in neuroscience—itself inspired by our after-the-fact comprehension of the technologies we’re extruding. It all resounds with the tone of that old chestnut about us being the universe’s attempt to reflect on itself and know itself. Maybe (deep toke, long hold, slow release) Adam was the first metaphor… God’s little whizz-bang gadget that helped him on his oh-so-important journey of self-discovery:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.

Genesis 1:26

Understanding one thing in terms of another, remember?

Of course, shamans were comprehending consciousness in terms of nature, as a part of nature, long before they had enough tech to use for really sophisticated metaphors. But it’s interesting to note the conclusions that anthropologist Graham Townsley (cited in Jeremy Narby’s The Cosmic Serpent) came to studying the songs of Yaminahua ayahuasqueros in the Peruvian Amazon, which they learn from spirits in their hallucinations.

Townsley writes: "Almost nothing in these songs is referred to by its normal name. The abstrusest metaphoric circumlocutions are used instead. For example, night becomes ‘swift tapirs,’ the forest becomes ‘cultivated peanuts’ […]" In each case, writes Townsley, the metaphorical logic can be explained by an obscure, but real, connection […] Why do Yaminahua shamans talk in [what Townsley translates as] twisted language? According to one of them: "With my koshuiti [songs] I want to see—singing, I carefully examine things—twisted language brings me close but not too close—with normal words I would crash into things—with twisted ones I circle around them—I can see them clearly."


I should note that if anyone’s interested in delving into Lakoff’s ideas, Bob recently recommended his more linguistic work as a good introduction, and Mark Turner’s The Literary Mind: The origins of thought and language as "by far the most digestible exegesis of cognitive linguistics".