Heaven is
The place where
Happiness is
And birds sing —
As does
To each stone,
Stone answers back, "Well! And you?"
- Langston Hughes

My five-year-old son, Walden, is a rock collector. On days that he doesn’t want to be an archeologist or a paleontologist, he wants to be a geologist. For Walden, to be a geologist is to wear a headlamp in dark caves and to swing a pickaxe, dislodging Crayola-colored rocks and the occasional T-rex mandible—rows of dagger teeth still intact. His middle name, my wife’s maiden name, is therefore fitting: Stone.

This past Christmas, his great grandmother got him a tacklebox, in which she assembled an assortment of candy-colored gemstones and crystals: desert rose, a crystal, pink and wrinkled, like a lab mouse’s exposed brain; pyrite, or “fool’s gold”; hematite, a mineral form of iron oxide with a dull metallic sheen vaguely outer-space-like; snowflake obsidian, a glassy black rock with leprous white spots; and jasper, a gemstone red as gingivitic gums at the hands of an underpaid and vindictive dental hygienist. Any one of these rocks is so beautiful as to appear almost gaudy. If, several thousand years ago, any one of these rocks were to be happened upon by one of our knuckle-dragging ancestors, it would compel them to bow sloping foreheads to the ground in reverent worship.

On YouTube you can watch amateur geologists cracking open geodes and exposing to sunlight for the first time the deep, kaleidoscopic purples that have slept in uninterrupted darkness for millions of years. How is it possible that such ravishing beauty can exist without any human eyes to appreciate it? How should such a singularly stunning artifact exist with no human consciousness to perceive it? Our stunned incredulousness at this scandal recalls God's rhetorical question to Job: “Who brings rain on a barren land, on a desert where no man lives, to satisfy the parched wasteland and make it sprout with tender grass?”

Before this past Christmas, though, Walden’s collection consisted not of glinty gemstones or crystals but of dumb, garden-variety rocks—the kind you and I tread over without a thought every day. True, some in his collection are speckled in ways interesting even to my jaded (pun intended) vision, but most are an offensively monochrome grey hardly to be distinguished from chunks of concrete.

Walden loves these ugly rocks because they are useful for skipping across ponds and lakes. Throw enough rocks in at a time, and the ripples collide and intersect, making mystical mandalas. Rocks make useful projectiles to throw at logs and boulders. In these ways, Walden uses rocks to test out the confusing physics of this new world he inhabits. But Walden sees something in his pile of gray stones beyond mere utility. Because while rocks can always be used for skipping and throwing, Walden keeps most rocks in a bag for admiring. He fills his pockets with them, and piles them in little mounds in our backyard. “Dumb as a box of rocks” is an idiom that would make zero sense to Walden. What’s dumb about rocks?

These latter rocks, the undecorated garden-variety type, raise in my mind certain religious and metaphysical questions—as if the fact of the rocks’ unadorned ugliness brings their naked materiality to the foreground. What is matter? What is the nature of God’s creation? What is God’s relationship to the stuff of the universe?

In Newtonian physics, matter is the “dumb,” dead, inert stuff of the universe. However, quantum mechanics is upending much of what we thought we knew about matter. “It is fair to say that in physics, there is no broad consensus as to a general definition of matter,” says Wikipedia with remarkable frankness and uncommon humility. “[N]obody, from the brightest scientist to the smartest philosopher, knows what matter is,” writes Catholic theologian Stephen Webb.

The little I’ve read of quantum mechanics is bewildering and disorienting: quantum entanglement, ghost waves, quark-gluon plasma. I do not pretend to understand what I read. And it seems that nearly every day our picture of the world gets stranger and stranger. This week a New York Times headline reads, “A Tiny Particle’s Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics.” The subheading elaborates: “Experiments with particles known as muons suggest that there are forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos that are not yet known to science.” The first paragraph of the article reads: “Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle seems to be disobeying the known laws of physics, scientists announced on Wednesday, a finding that would open a vast and tantalizing hole in our understanding of the universe.” (Notice the agency implied by the word “disobeyed.”)

Quantum mechanics challenge some of our most commonsensical notions like cause and effect or space and time. Consider the phenomenon of “quantum entanglement”: particles that are “entangled” undergo the same changes, irrespective of the distance between two objects. Don’t ask me to explain any further. [1]

The more we learn, in other words, the clearer it is that matter is stranger than we’d ever supposed. It seems more and more true, as Jane Bennett wrote twenty years ago, eleven years before the Higgs Boson was discovered, that “Matter has a liveliness, resilience, unpredictability, or recalcitrance that is itself a source of wonder for us.”

Stephen Webb argues that Christian theology generally has not kept pace with rapid advancements in quantum mechanics. [2] “Scientists have changed their minds about matter, but have theologians? And if theologians did change their minds about matter, wouldn’t they have to change their minds about God?” According to Webb, Christian theology is hampered by an uncritical alliance with outdated Newtonian physics and Platonic immaterialism. He dares to wonder what a Christianity might look like that was more adventurous in its thinking about matter. For his part, Webb thinks that LDS theology is the answer. “Take away Plato from Christianity, and you will get . . . well, you will end up with something very much like the Mormon conception of the divine,” writes Webb.

In the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, as revealed through Joseph Smith and as elaborated upon by brilliant thinkers and theologians like Orson and Parley Pratt, matter is not inert or dead. Neither is it subordinate to the immaterial—a corruptible impediment to progress and perfection.

To the contrary, Joseph Smith taught that matter is imbued with glory. Speaking of the creation of the world, Smith taught, “Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos— chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory” (emph. mine).

To Smith, matter was not only imbued with glory, but intelligence and agency. In the book of Abraham, God utters commandments and stands back to “watch those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.” Elaborating on Smith, Orson Pratt wrote that “an unintelligent particle is incapable of understanding or obeying a law, while an intelligent particle is capable of both understanding and obedience. It would be entirely useless for an Intelligent Cause to give laws to unintelligent matter.”

Likewise, Brigham Young taught that “there is life in all matter, throughout the vast extent of all the eternities; it is in the rock, the sand, the dust, in water, air, the gases, and in short, in every description and organization of matter, whether it be solid, liquid, or gaseous, particle operating with particle.”

John Widtsoe wrote in the same vein: “Life is nothing more than matter in motion; that, therefore, all matter possesses a kind of life . . . Matter [is] intelligent . . . hence everything in the universe is alive.”

In other words, according to Smith, Young, Pratt, and Widtsoe, there’s nothing “dumb” about rocks.

I found these quotes (from Smith, Pratt, Young, and Widtsoe) in Terryl Givens’ Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought—the single best explication of the beauty and cogency of Latter-day Saint theology of which I am aware. In the book, Terryl Givens speaks of “cul-de-sacs” in Mormonism’s theological development: ideas or doctrines that, for one reason or another, never became an integrated or integral part of the mainstream theological throughways. The “virtual panpsychism” (Givens’ phrase) represented by the quotes above is one of these theological cul-de-sacs; they are probably best characterized as speculations rather than doctrine. But as any kid who has grown up on a cul-de-sac knows, with no speeding motorists to endanger you, cul-de-sacs are great and safe spaces for play. Will you humor me as I “play” in this speculative, theological cul-de-sac?

If we, as a thought experiment, assume the truth of these speculations, certain well-known scriptures suddenly display surprising new meanings and evocative possibilities.

When Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, the multitudes began to cry out, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Sensitive to the import of these sayings, the Pharisees called on Jesus to rebuke his disciples for the apparent blasphemy. But Jesus answered them, “I tell you that if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:40).

The verses are usually read as figurative— as hyperbole. Barnes’ Notes on the Bible is typical in its assertion that “The expression here seems to be ‘proverbial’ and is not to be taken literally.” It continues:

Proverbs are designed to express the truth "strongly," but are not to be taken to signify as much as if they were to be interpreted literally. The sense is that his coming was an event of so much importance that it "ought" to be celebrated in some way, and "would" be celebrated. It would be impossible to restrain the people, and improper to attempt it. The language here is strong proverbial language to denote that fact. We are not to suppose, therefore, that our Saviour meant to say that the stones were "conscious" of his coming, or that God would "make" them speak, but only that there was "great joy" among the people; that it was "proper" that they should express it in this manner, and that it was not fit that he should attempt to repress it.

I am not a hard-nosed Biblical literalist by any means, but what if Jesus was being literal rather than figurative? What if the “intelligences” in the stones—the same that hearkened to the voice of God “in the Beginning” and organized themselves in obedience—were conscious that they were bearing the weight of a donkey that was bearing the weight of He who commanded them “in the Beginning”? What if the stones, being intelligent, could cry out? (How could they cry out, not having tongues?) The possibilities are fun to consider.

In Stephen Webb’s reading of Joseph Smith’s material cosmology, matter is not only intelligent and alive, but is also continuously striving upwards towards higher levels of existence. In other words, matter is ambitious as well as alive. Drawing on Parley Pratt’s writings, and in particular Pratt’s principle of the “law of increase,” Webb writes that “Matter . . . is always in motion, and the goal of every object, for Pratt, is . . . realization of the attributes that God most splendidly exemplifies” (emph. mine). In Webb’s reading, the inexorable law of the universe is that all of material reality is striving towards becoming like God. What might this actually mean?

As the Sons and Daughters of Heavenly Father, we were adopted or sired by Him when he organized our spirit bodies from eternally existing “intelligences.” Now, with spirits tabernacled in bodies, we experience this mortal probation on earth in order that we might develop and become like our Heavenly Father.

Could Pratt’s “law of increase” mean that although we human beings may be further along in the process of becoming like our Heavenly Father, we are not the only ones capable of realizing the universal aspiration to become like God? Is it possible that other, lower, and cruder forms of matter-intelligence might yet, in aeons to come, have an opportunity to become Sons and Daughters of God, and then like God Himself?

V. H. Cassler, on her blog Latterday Crone, has recently shared her “probably heretical belief” that “advanced animals are simply at a lower stage of spiritual development than the sons and daughters of God, and maybe in the future they will develop into something more, maybe one day even children of God.”

Heretical or not, Cassler carries Pratt’s logic to its conclusion. Except, actually, that the logic might be taken even further, to suggest the potential apotheosis of every animal, vegetable, and mineral.

Rebuking the Pharisees and Sadducees for their self-importance, John the Baptist said, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” Are his words to be understood as prophetic hyperbole? Or do we sense here an actual truth, disguised by the seeming impossibility of its bald literalism, for those with ears to hear?

When fasting in the wilderness, Jesus was tempted by Satan: “If Thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.” Is the temptation here the premature appeasement of hunger? Or, is it possible that Satan, knowing that God can turn not only stones into bread but stones into Gods, is teasingly mocking Jesus, minimizing His powers?

Perhaps that God made Adam from “dust” is intended not only to humble man but to dignify dust (Genesis 2:7)?

In Enoch’s vision, he hears Mother Earth cry out in distress:

And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the earth; and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying: Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me? When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face? (Moses 7:48).

Is this merely literary personification? President Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1972) didn’t think so:

The Lord . . . informs us that the earth on which we dwell is a living thing, and that the time must come when it will be sanctified from all unrighteousness. In the Pearl of Great Price, when Enoch is conversing with the Lord, he hears the earth crying for deliverance from the iniquity upon her face . . . It is not the fault of the earth that wickedness prevails upon her face, for she has been true to the law which she received and that law is the celestial law. Therefore the Lord says that the earth shall be sanctified from all unrighteousness. (Church History and Modern Revelation [1953], 1:366–67)

How might we act differently if we believed that all matter is alive, intelligent, ambitious, glorious? For one, it would fundamentally change our relationship to the natural world. All the world would sparkle with a child-like wonder. Perhaps we’d pay closer attention to the rocks beneath our feet, and begin filling our pockets with them. Perhaps we would be better conservators and protectors of the world’s astoundingly beautiful rock formations.

My son Walden would get along splendidly with the English writer and theologian G.K. Chesterton, who was one of those rare specimens who manages to retain well into adulthood the wonder of the child. For Chesterton, as for my son Walden, living is an adventure, and the mundane is miraculous. All of existence—even the most tedious humdrum—is humming with excitement.

“In short, I have experienced the mere excitement of existence in places that would commonly be called as dull as ditch-water,” he wrote. “And by the way, is ditch-water dull? Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.”

Idioms like “dumb as rocks” or “dull as ditch-water” are sometimes the recepticles of hard-won common sense, and handily represent the wisdom of a widespread consensus of the human species. Just as often, though, idioms can smuggle stupidity or lack of imagination or laziness or obsolescence in attractive packaging. Chesterton, whom a fawning biographer has called “The Apostle of Common Sense,” recognized this. “Dull as ditch-water” made sense, in its way, before the era of the microscope. After the invention of the microscope, however, ditch-water could no longer be so disparaged, because it was revealed for what it actually was: a cellular carnival in dizzying motion.

Anticipating modern cinema, nineteenth-century Victorian showmen would collect ditch water from London and use a projection microscope to display on a screen to public audiences the funny-looking animalcules inhabiting the water. “Over the course of the century, hundreds of thousands of viewers attended public oxy-hydrogen shows featuring spectacular displays and thrilling dramas,” writes FSU English professor Meegan Kennedy, who is writing a book on the cultural impact of the microscope. “Professional and amateur operators staged and scripted these shows for optimum effect, and advertisements and written reports of the shows boasted of their animated displays. In these iconic demonstrations, viewers watched the struggles of living animalcules as moving images projected hugely onto a screen.” What audiences learned, to their astonishment, was that epic soap operas were happening in the tiniest drops of water. Or, seeing as the animalcules could be immensely frightening when magnified, it might be more appropriate to describe the screenings as horror shows rather than soap operas. Even by today’s standards, desensitized as we are by a steady diet of bloody slashers and high-budget CGI monsters, the animalcules—wormy, antlered, strangely hairy—are horrifying.

Hans Christian Andersen, famous Danish writer of fairy tales, must have seen a similar sort of (horror) show. In story he wrote called “A Drop of Water” begins this way:

If you take it and hold it close to your eye and look at a single drop of ditchwater, you'll see thousands of strange little creatures, such as you couldn't imagine living in a drop of water. But they are really there. They look almost like a plateful of shrimp, all jumping and crowding against each other, and they are so ferocious they tear off each other's arm and legs; yet in their own way they are happy and merry.

Before the microscope, water was “dull,” placid, and dead; After the microscope, ditch water was a menagerie of miniscule alien monsters.

Is it possible to imagine some similar revolution in quantum physics or theology that would similarly change our notions of matter, of rocks? What if quantum mechanics someday vindicated Smith, Pratt, Young, and Widtsoe? (If research did validate revelation, would I be smart enough to read the journals and understand them? What is science-speak for “glory”?)

Actually, some thinkers and scientists have begun to take the ancient idea of panpsychism seriously. These include the philosopher David Chalmers and neuroscientist Christof Koch, who see in it a possible solution to the intractable “mind-body problem.” (The mind-body problem asks how consciousness might arise from merely physical constituent parts— how does matter make mind?) This theory is not mainstream, and has its detractors. But isn’t that how revolutionary ideas are always initially received?

I am merely speculating, and am in no way committed to the thought experiments above. In fact, no matter how hard I try, it is impossible for me to even imagine, or to even pretend, that the rock in my hand is imbued with intelligence, agency, and glory. How am I to understand this incredulity? Is it a reliable warning that “panpsychism” is really nineteenth century pseudoscience, promulgated by true prophets who were nevertheless scientific dilettantes? Or is my incredulity really just the spectre of Plato and Newton that I just can’t shake?

As I fail to make my imagination conform to this exciting vision of material reality, I feel no small sadness. If it were true, how exciting that would be. If I could believe it, how the world would shine with resplendent glory. Perhaps Walden can still bring himself to imagine it. For my son, as for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Earth's crammed with heaven,/ And every common bush afire with God.” Every common bush, and every rock. 


[1] A friend who did graduate work in physics at UCI assures me I’ve explained this badly. [Back to manuscript].

[2] One notable exception is Marilynne Robinson, who in several essays in The Givenness of Things explores the religious possibilities of quantum mechanics. “The new cosmologies open so many ways of reconceiving the universe(s) that all sorts of speculations are respectable now,” she writes --- [Back to manuscript].


[3] Ahlquist, Dale. G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense. Ignatius Press, March 2003.

[4] Anderson, Hans Christian. “A Drop of Water.”

[5] Bennett, Jane. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

[6] Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Project Gutenberg.

[7] Chesterton, GK. “The Spice of Life.”

[8] Hudson, VM. “Angels Among Us in Animal Form.” Latterday Crone. 26 January 2021.

[9] Givens, Terryl. Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity. Oxford University Press. 2015. Print.

[10] Horgan, John. “Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness?” Scientific American. December 1, 2015. Web.

[11] Hughes, Langston. “Heaven.” American Religious Poems, edited by Harold Bloom, Library of America, 2006, p. 286.

[12] Kennedy, Meegan. “‘Throes and struggles . . . witnessed with painful distinctness’: The oxy-hydrogen microscope, performing science, and the projection of the moving image.” Victorian Studies 62.1 (Autumn 2019): 85-118.

[13] “Matter.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 May 2021.

[14] “Nick Herbert (physicist).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 May 2021.

[15] Neuman, Scott. “Scout Leaders Who Toppled Ancient Rock Formation Are Charged.” NPR, 1 February 2014.

[16] Overbye, Dennis. “A Tiny Particle’s Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics.” New York Times, 7 April 2021.

[17] Robinson, Marilynne. “Humanism, Science, and the Radical Expansion of the Possible." The Nation, 22 October 2015. Web.

[18] Schrader, Adam. “Scientists are debating bizarre theory that EVERYTHING in the universe has consciousness including inanimate objects like rocks and chairs as proponents argue the human conscious exists outside the brain.” The Guardian. 24 July 2021. Web.

[19] “Stunning amethyst geode being cracked open.” Youtube, uploaded by Volucris Soul, 2 December 2018,

[20] Webb, Stephen H. Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-Day Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Full Citation for this Article: Wozniak, Corey (2021) "“Dumb as a Box of Rocks”: Playful Metaphysical Speculations," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 2 (Summer 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

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