Rocks are as animate as I am

Published on 2023-09-14

A while ago I was presented with an argument for why it doesn't make sense to think of ourselves as individuals, or that we have a "self" distinct from the rest of the world. At least, in the physical sense, but the argument is so convincing that you're tempted to extend it into the "mental" or spiritual realm as well. It stuck with me, anyway, and I think about it every now and then. It goes something like this:

You probably perceive yourself as a wholly contained individual--that is, you start, and you end, in space. Where you start and end is a bit subjective. Many atheists seem to think that we are brains piloting a fleshy mecha. Maybe you think you are a ghost in the machine of your body. Regardless, the individual almost always starts within the body and ends at the edge of your skin. Since it doesn't really matter for our purposes we'll take the most generous assumption and imagine that being an individual means your "self" exists and is limited by your physical body. The same reasoning applies if you want to confine yourself to your brain, or whatever.

What are the limits of your body? The easy answer is probably "the outer edge of your skin," but that's not really true. That assumes your body is a fully closed-system, completely cut off from the rest of the world. For example, the air we breathe comes into our body from the outside world. Air is pretty important to our staying alive and whatnot, but most people probably wouldn't consider "air" to be a part of their body. But why not? Maybe, if you really wanted, you could think of the body as a sort of highway through which things pass, and we, the self, merely benefit from its passage, still divorced from it in some meaningful way.

But, we couldn't live without air, just like we couldn't live without all of the tiny organisms that have lived along these "highways" for our entire lives. The body, and thus the self, is a part of a much larger system. There isn't really a good reason to draw a solid line between the body and the rest of the world, because the body is in a constant exchange of materials with the environment.

The brain directly commands many parts of the body, but the fact that we can't command, say, a tree to grow, makes it tempting to think of the self as the realm over which our brain has control. While the brain may not be able to command a tree to grow merely by thinking, it could command it to grow by, say, watering it, or giving it adequate sunlight and nutrients. Those are things within the brain's realm of control. For that matter, I can't command my hands to type these words just by thinking of it; what actually drives them to make the right motions seems a lot more subconscious than that.

Point is, as with most things, the subject-object dichotomy is a thing we made up because it was convenient and suited our worldview. That's not to say that it's necessarily a bad thing, but I do find that some problems are easier to frame when we learn to break out of it.

One thing I've found this kind of thinking very useful for is understanding my relationship to the ecosystem--something humans classically like to position themselves as being outside of. When I try to approach environmental problems, I want to think of myself as being a part of it. I want the line between me and the ecosystem to be as fuzzy as possible, because when I am the ecosystem, things like climate change stop feeling like engineering problems and start feeling like threats being made against my family.

So there's your preamble on the subject-object dichotomy. What I actually want to talk about is rocks.

I'm taking a "rocks" class this year at university, where we learn about rocks. Last week, we were studying plate tectonics, which is this idea you're probably at least vaguely familiar with that argues the uppermost layer of the earth is broken into these large shards that move around and shit. When they hit each other, they make mountains. When they move apart from each other, they also make mountains, but differently. Rock stuff.

One of the ideas I was struggling to understand at first was the idea of mantle convection, which my textbook basically treats as a given as though it makes any sense what-so-ever. Geologists generally believe that the Earth's mantle--the massive, middle layer of the earth, made of rock, "convects." That is, the hot core of the Earth heats up the lower rocks, and then they move upwards, replacing the cool rocks that move down towards the core in a loop.

But, like, isn't the mantle supposed to be solid? It's literally just rocks for thousands of kilometres. How is it moving around? Well, there's a few different ways that's supposed to happen, but a big part of getting it to make sense is to accept that while the Earth is mostly a solid rock, it also isn't really. At least, not on the 4.6 billion year timescale geologists need to think and lose sleep over. Over a geological timescale, rocks are much more plastic, like silly putty, slowly deforming to adjust to the specific environment of the geological era.

Accepting that is what first gave me this intense feeling that the Earth is "alive." Usually, when we think of the Earth being alive, we think only of the stuff on the topmost layer: the so-called "biosphere." The biosphere is all the things we conventionally think of as alive, juxtaposed against the "abiotic," or all the things we conventionally don't think of as alive. Rocks are abiotic. You're probably biotic. There are meaningful biological distinctions we can make between you and a rock. But, I'm starting to feel that, in our expanded understanding of our self as a part of an unimaginably large organism we only ever see a little bit of, this biotic/abiotic distinction isn't really all that useful.

There are many abiotic things in my body right now. There are many biotic things in the mostly closed system that is the Earth. It might make sense to think of certain parts of my body in the framework of biology, but to think of myself takes a more expansive understanding of what it means to be alive.

In the fleeting glimpse that I'll get over the course of my life at the Earth, it looks quite a bit like a dead rock with a shiny biological coat, but on a geological timescale, the Earth looks very much alive. Plates glide across the mantle like boats on a lake, they're sucked into the ground by the force of gravity and the pull of hot, coursing mantle. Things are moving! I don't know; it's hard to explain exactly, but dead things don't move. I suppose I imagine living things as sources of agency--things that act on the world, living and dead. The Earth feels like it has the same kind of agency I'd ascribe to a tree or a bacterium, just not the kind you'd see acted out in your lifetime. This, despite the fact it is literally made of rocks: the parent function of things we don't consider to be alive.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with this feeling, exactly. It's probably not going to help me much on my geology midterm (if I brought it up, my professor would probably think I'm weird). But, it does make me feel a lot more connected to the Earth in a way I used to think wasn't necessary. I thought that what mattered was that I understood the biological ecosystem, taking it for granted that the rocky parts of the Earth would be there when I needed them. I'll never have the kind of affect on the mantle that humans are currently ushering in with the Anthropocene, but that in and of itself gives me a very important level of humility. We are just a thin layer of moss on an incomprehensibly large machine hurdling through space, and that machine is just as alive as I am.

Respond to this article

If you have thoughts you'd like to share, send me an email!

See here for ways to reach out