The smell of mushrooms in science, religion and “New Thought”

William James speaks of science as growing like mushrooms covering the trail to knowledge.  I uses an interesting phrase of “mushroom knowledge” to color ideas about the proliferation of scientific and empiricism and science. We know that mushrooms have their own moldy smell and taste of earth; however they can be safe in a salad, suspicious as a hallucinogen, and, of course, deadly. They grow from decay in the woods. James’s settings for his analysis of alternative descriptions of traditional science and religion brush up against forest mushrooms in his own hiking and camping in spite of his own physical disability. Mushrooms become metaphors only when a cliché rather than mycology is adapted. This is an infinitesimal phrase in James’s work, but a pithy one.

This phrase appears in a lecture about suicide, or rather if “life is worth living.” Both traditional science and traditional religion offer no assurance or comfort to one in despair. James strongly argues and urges that suicide is not the proper or justified (but understandable) response to that despair. The more science dominates though, the more it cannot acknowledge the depth of other approaches to knowledge. The more dogmatic religion brushes up against science, the more it infects other beliefs. Both degrade individual hope rooted in different sources of belief and approaches to reasoning.

When James uses the phrase “mushroom knowledge” he must mean that scientific knowledge grows fast and abundant. About the growth of science and scientific information James asks whether it is “credible that such a mushroom knowledge, such a growth overnight as this, can represent more than the minutest glimpse of what the Universe will really prove to be when adequately understood?” (James, William, 1842-1910. Is life worth living? (Kindle Locations 488-490, emphasis added).

When James uses the phrase “mushroom knowledge,” this can be interpreted by examine what scientific facts of mushrooms themselves disrupt this cliché. The odors of mushrooms are distinctive. Varieties of mushrooms are nutritious, hallucinogenic, or deadly. Some of their smells include almonds, raw potatoes, and rotting flesh. I think the ones that smell or taste like raw potatoes smell and taste like soil itself.

They grow at varying rates, especially in rotting logs and moist soil. James’ walks would have taken him past mushrooms. Mushrooms “prefer dark, cool, moist, and humid growing environments.”   Mushrooms turn decay into nutrition. James’ “Pragmatism: A new name for old ways of thinking” does not shy away from examining philosophy and science like examining mushrooms from all their characteristics. He does his own digging and uprooting the sources of both. “Pragmatism” is a method and individual aspiration to approximate truth by uncovering what is suitable for life.

In the course of scientific exploration In contrast he states that “the world of physics is probably not absolute, all the converging multitude of arguments that make in favor of idealism tend to prove… “It is a fact of human nature that men can live and die by the help of a sort of faith that goes without a single dogma or definition. (James, William, Is life worth living? (Kindle Locations 556-557

The other sources of hope are hidden and manifested even in the “crepuscular depths of personality” (James, William, 1842-1910. Is life worth living? (Kindle Locations 646-647). The dominant views of religion and science suppress other expressions of the “spiritual.” Expressed by a theologian Fechner, James – of whom James is somewhat crucial — describes his view under contemporaneous conditions that “the flowers wither at its breath, the stars turn into stone; our own body grows unworthy of our spirit and sinks to a tenement for carnal senses only.” (James, William, 1842-1910. “A Parallel Universe” (Kindle Locations 150) James states that in the “crepuscular depths of personality” of an individual — and maybe, for James, of a collective memory and spirit — a parallel universe of spirituality persists and resists the gravity of science and religion.

At this point in James’ writing and Joyce’s philosophy are pointers to exploration of consciousness and “mental activity” as well as their association with nature. Strong’s “brain event” shows the scientific method of finding causality at work. Strong does admire James, but tries to refute this. (C. A. Strong    “A Naturalistic Theory of the Reference of Thought to Reality, “The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. 1, No. 10 (May 12, 1904), pp. 253-260, Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc. Jstor: stable URL:,    Accessed: 06-12-2015 17:22 UTC)   Both Henri Bergson and Strong, James writes, “have the hunter’s instinct for the fruitful trails.” In contrast, Radical Empiricism and Pragmatism are aspects of the some method of thinking beyond the borders of traditional science and traditional religion, scientific method and absolutism or logic and feeling.

James cites Fechner’s idea of an “Earth-Soul” (Essays on Radical Empiricism, Longmans, Green, and Co. 39 Paternoster Row, London, New York, Bombay, and Calcutta, 1912). With a bit of mycology, James could have turn the phrase ‘mushroom knowledge” many ways applied to traditional science and religion. For example, science and religion could be deadly: James wrote that “religion is a pathology.” Radical Empiricism would explore the intricacies of both, but not to arrive at a synthesis, but in order to understand if the

“The health for philosophy is to leave off grubbing underground for what effects effectuation, or what makes action act, and to try to solve the concrete questions of where effectuation in this world is located, of which things are the true causal agents there, and of what the more remote effects consist…. Causation inhabits no more inquiry equally sublime level than anything else. It lives in the dirt of the world as well as in the absolute, or in man’s unconquerable mind. The worth and interest of the world consists not in its elements, be these elements, be they elements of things, or be the of conjunctions of things; it exists rather in the dramatic outcome of the whole process and in the meaning of the succession stages the elements work out.” James A Pluralistic Universe, 392, 393

 James’ comments about “New Thought” are satirical at best. “Mind” or the “law of association” are caricatures of absolutism. They are given life by faith and action, but that is not to say have any causal relationship to the “universe.” They may be useful to give meaning, but not to materialize “cash value.” Discovery of ‘the Secret’ is a misplace search for a cause rather than a meaning; furthermore it generates its own ‘cash value’ in being a form of usury. James’ criticizes Royce and absolutism for ignoring the “particulars” of life and activity no matter how seemingly small and smelly.   The name of big causes (in all senses) cling to the abstract when seen in their bloody particulars.

Causes, as anti-slavery, democracy, liberty, etc., dwindle when realized in their sordid particulars. The veritable cash-value of the idea seems to cleave to it in the abstract status Truth at large, as Royce contends, in his Philosophy of Loyalty, appears as another thing altogether from the true particulars in which it is best to believe. It transcends in value all those expediencies, and is something to live for, whether expedient or inexpedient. Truth, with a big T, is a ‘momentous issue’; truths in detail are ‘poor scraps’ mere ‘crumbling successes.’(James, A Pluralist Universe, 341.)

 Meaning cannot be severed from the particulars, and ‘mind’ cannot be abstracted from its content and context. We can neither bury meaning in the dirt nor ‘lift up’ its significance in a balloon of abstraction.

Mushrooms turn decay into nourishment. Decay and nourishment, light and dark, can be scientifically investigated for causes. Mushrooms have meaning enough to give credence to a metaphor of knowledge. Mushrooms exhibit a construct of meaning