My old college friend Mia asked me for suggestions for reading for her father, a Jungian psychoanalyst with some time on his hands who, she says, is a little bored. Talk about a tall order. You know he’s going to be analyzing anything I suggest, right? When she mentioned he was a fan of Rupert Sheldrake (which makes total sense from a Jungian analyst perspective), something sort of clicked for me, too. I’ve been thinking about radical interdependence, collective memory (in the context of trauma) and “hive mind” a lot lately, and along those lines Sheldrake’s ideas of “morphic resonance” and “formative causation” are interesting:
The idea behind morphic resonance is that memory is inherent in nature, so that when a certain shape or structure has occurred many times, it is more likely to occur again – not through any conventional interaction but through the new distance-defying process of “formative causation”. If this were true, newly synthesised chemicals would soon become easier to make, puzzles would become easier to solve, and video games would become easier to play as more people played them. Paranormal powers, such as psychokinesis and telepathy, would be explained because ideas in one person’s mind could be shaped by morphic resonance with another mind.
Yes, there are “scatty” elements here (as one critic complains). But I’m all for dialoguing with the unknown and making wild claims about the ineffable. That’s, umm, why I got into theology (duh). At any rate, Sheldrake is hardly the first scientist/spiritual seeker to wonder about things like precognition, telepathy and the “psychic staring effect.” There are echoes here of Whitehead’s “ultimate vibratory characters of organisms,” and their “potential element in nature,” and Henry Nelson Wieman’s “infinitely complex and far-reaching network of telepathic feelers, which reach from the tips of my nerves far out into the complexities of society,” (big-time).
Process theologians continue to work and play with these concepts, as they relate to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, through which Whitehead, deeply influenced by the quantum physics of his day, sought “the true relation of each organism to its environment” and “the intrinsic worth of the environment which must be allowed its weight in any consideration of final ends.” Like Sheldrake’s, these thought experiments push back against the Cartesian assumptions of modern materialism. Catherine Keller exhorts us to embrace Whitehead’s emphasis on internal relationships, with its notion of radical interdependence:
We have still barely learned to think, to sense, the discontinuity, the difference, whereby “each primordial element will be an organized system of vibratory streaming of energy.” It is a difference not of independent atoms but of radical interdependence. If “every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location,” might this cosmos not be worked for greater solidarity in the cosmopolitan struggle against a profit-driven individualism and its smoothly homogenized globe?
Aside from the very real concerns about scientific method, one criticism of Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, which was posited decades before the modern internet, much less meme culture, was that puzzles don’t seem to actually become easier to solve the more people solving them. Sheldrake designed an experiment “in which large numbers of people looked at ambiguous drawings, and hypothesized that the hidden image within them would become easier to see.” His results were inconclusive. This may not be the way things work. It’s kind of a crude, clunky experiment, when you think about it. On the other hand, there’s utterly fascinating work being done on transgenerational epigenetic memory, which expands the bounds of what once we were certain belonged to individuals alone: our memories.
As I meditated over it this morning, I found myself wondering how certain puzzles have become easier for us, collectively, over time. Synthesizing chemicals, one of the examples above, wasn’t even humanly possible before 1828, when German chemist Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea. Wöhler did not use telekinesis to do it (he used lead cyanate and ammonia), but discoveries like this are not isolated from culture and context. They are never the work of one person. Doesn’t that rub you the wrong way? It does me. But think about it. Since then, of course, chemical synthesis has become an everyday thing. Our world is literally awash with the products of chemical synthesis. That Wöhler has been busy!
Just kidding. But, no, things have been humming along. Lately I’ve been wondering about the correlation between exponential population growth and transmittal of knowledge. It’s the “two heads are better than one” theory multiplied by tens or hundreds of millions, and now billions. There are plenty of folks asking about the impact of science on population growth (which seems kind of obvious at this point), but not many, if any, asking about the impact of population growth on science, which I think is equally interesting.
This is the “hive mind” stuff. The history of discovery is from one angle a history of orienting and organizing ourselves in certain ways. The observer effect in quantum physics tells us as much, and we certainly could not have observed the observer effect without orienting ourselves toward it. I’m not as interested in the effect itself right now as how we orient and organizer ourselves to observe it. Coordinating a whole organism seems like an awesome undertaking. The Scale is the thing. But then maybe “morphic resonance” is emergent, a phenomenon and something observable only at a certain scale. We have never been a species of nearly 8 billion before. The individual as a construct might need to be sacrificed to make way for this vast Creature with 16 billion eyes.
But seriously, morphic resonance’s resistance to the scientific method is a little problematic. This is why some label Sheldrake a crackpot and others a spiritual guide. I think he’s put his finger on something (or several somethings) that simply defy rational explanation. Again: familiar territory for theologians. Skepticism is warranted, but also: it’s not always about proof. Sometimes the questions lead us not to answers, but to better questions. (“Fail better,” was Samuel Beckett’s motto, and would make a perfectly fine motto for any spiritual community, in my opinion.)
For me, my morning meditation on Sheldrake brought back to the fore questions about our received narrative of progress that tells us that one or two great men a generation pass on their great discoveries that one or two brilliant minds of the next generation then take up. And this is how we move inexorably forward toward our perfection as a species. But even Darwin didn’t come up with Natural Selection on his own. And I’m not just talking about Alfred Russel Wallace, either. There were multitudes of people who either put in energy or dealt with the details that allowed Darwin to do the work. More than that: the whole organism was implicated, as it always is.
How do you think Darwin got to the Galapagos Islands? There were 74 people onboard the HMS Beagle. I’m not reporting the obvious contribution of “lessers” to be cute. The HMS Beagle was not just a pesky incidental detail here. Think of the knowledge and resources necessary to build a boat and then leap forward to, say, a mission to the moon. It’s obvious that these types of projects require lots of people at every stage. Darwin did not conjure the boat that took him to the islands where he observed those finches. That was not Darwin’s achievement. The thing we call “Darwin” is an atom of a much, much larger organism. Was Darwin indispensable to the organism? I mean, ask Wallace. (Wallacism does not have the same ring, but you get the picture.)
Our insistence on highlighting the contributions of, up to now, usually one or two white dudes is more about how we construct and define the individual and the organism than about what actually makes “shit happen.” We have so internalized this myth of the individual and everything attached to it, and certain elements of society are so invested in it (because it seems to argue for their own indispensability) that it’s really impossible to wrap our minds around the bigger, infinitely more complex picture of how “shit happens.” This particular myth, much like Divine Right of Kings back in the day, justifies CEOs earning 271 times the average worker. I can tell you: Jeff Bezos is very invested in this myth. And, yeah, we all buy into this myth of the individual because it’s a foundational, deeply enculturated myth, and we are deeply, deeply invested in it, collectively. And it resonates not only with our longing for heroism, but echoes through its hollow core with our sense of profound isolation. It’s a myth about desperation. But that’s another post.
While hypotheses like “morphic resonance” may just be poking at the bigger truth we can only intuit at this point, we can be sure there is a bigger truth we can only intuit at this point. In moving into this liminal space, this shadowland, in T.S. Eliot’s haunting phrase, “Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act,” we have already outgrown many of the myths we invented to explain away these truths. One of things that science and spirituality have in common is that they poke holes in these foundational myths. Little ones, mostly, but you poke enough holes and sometimes you can poke your head through and see what’s on the other side.
[In the end, the books I suggested for Mia’s dad were: Through Vegetal Being by Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, and anything from The Object Lessons essay series (Marder’s Dust for example). It’s evocative stuff that can get the creative mind humming, and doesn’t require taking a stand. Basically lube for your brain.]