Do stones weep?

Today’s address is titled ‘Do stones weep?’. Now what could I possibly mean by that? You might think I am making reference to the many claims made in Roman Catholicism of weeping statues – in 2002, for example, a statue in Sicily of one father Pio was discovered weeping blood. Father Pio was a 20th Century priest in Sicily, a mystic and alleged stigmatic who has been canonised, which is to say he is now recognised as a saint within Catholicism.

As soon as the statue of him was discovered weeping blood, the blood was collected and DNA tests were done. It turned out that the blood collected was of female origin and so the case was dismissed as a hoax.

There are a surprisingly large number of hoaxes just like this. Being such an easy hoax to orchestrate – splashing some water on an unsuspecting statue - people obviously can’t help themselves.

No. This is not the topic for this morning. I don’t mean it quite so literally. ‘Do stones weep?’ Our Bible reading this morning was from Habakkuk - one of the Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. Essentially nothing is known about Habakkuk the man. All we know is that he lived in Jerusalem, probably around the 7th Century BCE.

Like many of the prophets, he is trying to get his head around the injustice he sees around him. He is so bold as to even question the wisdom of God: ‘How long must I cry to you and you will not listen?’

But I chose this reading for one reason, the sentence which puts these words into the mouth of God, “The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.”

Personified plaster getting upset with people is quite a funny image. This idea of plaster or stones crying out is an idea later echoed in the Gospels. In the Gospel of Luke the disciples are praising God joyfully with a loud voice, and some Pharisees tell Jesus his disciples should stop. Jesus replies, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

The idea in both these examples is that there a truth so evident, the injustice surrounding the minor prophet, or the need of creation to worship and glorify God, that even if it was not voiced by a person, reality or nature itself would somehow declare such truths. Now common sense might tell us that these references to stones shouting are a bit of poetic licence on the part of the writers. But perhaps it’s more than that.

It could be an echo of some primordial spiritual thought of old, when spirits infused all the animals, and the plants, and the trees, and yes, even the rocks. Before the rise of organised religion, the worldview of people was that spirits infused all reality.

Okay, now to change direction a bit and talk about a popular science book which came out this week. It’s called ‘Rethink’, and it’s by the British author Steven Poole. The book is about where our good ideas come from. Often the cutting edge of modern technology, or medicine, or political thought, is found in the reclaiming of old ideas that have been previously rejected, ridiculed or suppressed.

Take the electric car as a good example. The electric car is the future. And it has been the future for a very long time. The first electric car was built by the Scottish chemist Robert Davidson in 1837. It is by no means a new idea; it is a very old idea, which is just now starting to get some real traction.

Why was the electric car suppressed? For many reasons: it threatened the horse-drawn cabbie businesses in London, it was too expensive in comparison to petrol-powered cars, the rise of American highways demanded cars which were capable of longer distances, and so on…

In the decades running up to the beginning of the 21st Century, the electric powered car was a joke, a sci-fi fantasy that never did or would come to pass. In the last decade however Tesla’s‘Model S’ has proven than the affordable everyday electric car is a very real option, which will surely become the norm in the coming decades.

Another example from the book ‘Rethink’, of old ideas making a comeback, is around the problem of consciousness. As I touched upon last week, at one point we were of an animal nature, and then we weren’t. We made a shift, we became self-aware, we experience this world through the lens of self, myself experiencing this and that. Now what explains this odd phenomenon?

The old Judeo-Christian explanation for this problem was that we were special because we have souls. We are made in the image of God, and as the crowning achievement of God’s creation, we are set apart from creation, to steward over it - an idea which obviously doesn’t have much scientific merit.

One of the more common responses to this problem today is that consciousness is not really real. It is an illusion. The experience of ‘self’ is an illusion. Our brains are like computers, vastly complex computers, which at some key point in our evolution tipped over an important threshold of complexity that resulted in the emergence of consciousness, or rather the illusion of self-agency. It’s a bit of an odd thing to even advance as a theory. We experience ourselves as being conscious, and whether that is an illusion or not, it is still the only lens upon this world we have.

The fact that we think is the starting point for just about everything. As Descartes famously put it ‘We think therefore we are!’

So what could an alternative response to this consciousness problem be? Instead of postulating the imaginary tipping point at which we reach a sufficient degree of complexity, that results in consciousness, perhaps consciousness is not in fact unique to humanity, or even the animal kingdom, but rather is a fundamental property of all matter itself. The idea is that all stuff has to one degree or another an element of individual consciousness.

The idea does not suggest that rocks and plaster are thinking and dreaming. The glimmers of consciousness in matter less complex than the human brain may be very faint indeed. But it does change the way we view the world. We are never as far from minds as we might think.

This idea is of course not new at all – it’s the same idea our pre-organised religious ancestors had, that everything was infused with spirit. And it’s the same idea that Spinoza advanced, when he equated God with nature. It’s the same idea which is present in transcendental thoughts. And it’s the same idea that can be found in Buddhism – that all of reality is somehow interconnected into a single web of consciousness.

The technical name for this view is panpsychism: the belief that all matter has an element of individual consciousness. It wouldn’t be very surprising to me if a long-haired hippie held this view, nor would it be that surprising if a Unitarian minister held this view. What I do find quite surprising is that it might crop up in a 21st century science book published this week. And, according to the book, be held as a credible theory by academics and philosophers at one end, to neurosurgeons and physicists at the other.

So perhaps I can conclude like this: perhaps stones do indeed weep. It’s not quite poetry to say as much, and nor is it quite literally so. Amen.