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Mushrooms Have Minds? Well, If You Doubt Humans Are Exceptional…

… it is a short step to thinking that mushrooms have minds. A Miami University biologist has taken that step

It’s pretty daring to claim that mushrooms have minds. But, in the light of what we have learned about plant communications, we should perhaps pause a moment to at least listen. Miami University biologist Nicholas P. Money, argues:

Given the magical reputation of the fungi, claiming that they might be conscious is dangerous territory for a credentialled scientist. But in recent years, a body of remarkable experiments have shown that fungi operate as individuals, engage in decision-making, are capable of learning, and possess short-term memory. These findings highlight the spectacular sensitivity of such ‘simple’ organisms, and situate the human version of the mind within a spectrum of consciousness that might well span the entire natural world.

Nicholas P. Money, “The fungal mind: on the evidence for mushroom intelligence” at Psyche

Wait! The ability to process information is not consciousness. If it were, your laptop would be conscious. But it isn’t. And giving the laptop more power or memory would never make it so.

Things continue going wrong for mindful mushrooms as Money continues:

Before we explore the evidence for fungal intelligence, we need to consider the slippery vocabulary of cognitive science. Consciousness implies awareness, evidence of which might be expressed in an organism’s responsiveness or sensitivity to its surroundings. There is an implicit hierarchy here, with consciousness present in a smaller subset of species, while sensitivity applies to every living thing. Until recently, most philosophers and scientists awarded consciousness to big-brained animals and excluded other forms of life from this honour. The problem with this favouritism, as the cognitive psychologist Arthur Reber has pointed out, is that it’s impossible to identify a threshold level of awareness or responsiveness that separates conscious animals from the unconscious. We can escape this dilemma, however, once we allow ourselves to identify different versions of consciousness across a continuum of species, from apes to amoebas. That’s not to imply that all organisms possess rich emotional lives and are capable of thinking, although fungi do appear to express the biological rudiments of these faculties.

Nicholas P. Money, “The fungal mind: on the evidence for mushroom intelligence” at Psyche

Actually, fungi certainly do not possess “rich emotional lives” and are definitely not capable of thinking — assuming that the term “thinking” is allowed to mean what it usually does. But — and this finding has only received attention in recent years — many non-thinking life forms, including (it turns out) fungi, have extensive communications networks. In that case, think “internet services,” not “great philosophers” to get it right.

But Money, the author of Nature Fast and Nature Slow: How Life Works, from Fractions of a Second to Billions of Years (University of Chicago Press, 2021), persists:

Fungal expressions of consciousness are certainly very simple. But they do align with an emerging consensus that, while the human mind might be particular in its refinements, it’s typical in its cellular mechanisms. Experiments on fungal consciousness are exciting for mycologists because they’ve made space for the study of behaviour within the broader field of research on the biology of fungi. Those who study animal behaviour do so without reference to the molecular interactions of their muscles; likewise, mycologists can learn a great deal about fungi simply by paying closer attention to what they do. As crucial players in the ecology of the planet, these fascinating organisms deserve our full attention as genuine partners in sustaining a functional biosphere.

Nicholas P. Money, “The fungal mind: on the evidence for mushroom intelligence” at Psyche

So all this is really about getting people to care more about the environment by pretending that mushrooms think like people?

Which means, of course, that people think like mushrooms.

But wait. We farm and can mushrooms. They don’t farm and can us. And they never say anything about the way things work.

Actually, it is unclear why believing that mushrooms think like people would cause anyone to care more about the environment. It might just as well be an excuse for thinking, “Let the mushrooms handle it.”

The human mind is unique in two qualities: reason and free will. People determined to chip away at that are chipping away at any chance that we would ever do anything about environment degradation.


You may also wish to read:

Can plants be as smart as animals? Seeking to thrive and grow, plants communicate extensively, without a mind or a brain

Why do many scientists see cells as intelligent? Bacteria appear to show intelligent behavior. But what about individual cells in our bodies?

and

The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly.


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Mushrooms Have Minds? Well, If You Doubt Humans Are Exceptional…