Thinking with rocks.

These rocks, stacked by human hands along a canyon creek near Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, are not simply aggregates or piles. Neither are they simply the freely created artwork of humans. The left-hand stack of eleven rocks (if you count earth) towers toward the sky, together with its local and cosmic ecologies achieving the status of a self-organizing, living being. Locally, human hands have conceptually lured the rocks into a vertical line, while cosmically, the chemistry of electricity and the magnetism of gravity have pushed and pulled them into place. The life of this self-organizing entity has a definite beginning–a birth, and will have a definite ending–a death.

In tactilely experimenting with these rocks, I quickly discovered that removing the top rock, even with great care so as to minimally disturb its underlying neighbor due to friction, almost always destabilizes the entire stack. The stack’s center of mass is complexly distributed among its contributors. Because the stack depends on the maintenance of this center for its survival, the whole stack can be said to be contained in each of the rocks which compose it. In this sense, the parts are greater than the whole.

In another sense, however, the whole is greater than the parts. In attempting to re-stack a fallen pile, I found that achieving the collective stability of the rocks demanded more than simple addition. There was an emergent factor not present in each of the rocks until the last rock had been placed and the whole had cohered.

Once shaped in skyward form, their masses mutually measured in perfect harmony, the many become one and were increased by one. When not only created but encountered as sacred by human beings, I believe the pile can become a person.* It can incarnate a soul, eleven rocks becoming so many organs of a single bodily life. To see the stone stacks this way, they must be allowed to transcend their status as human art. They must be seen for what they are: creatures of living nature.


*Whitehead defined organisms as personally ordered societies of actual occasions.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Jason Hills says:

    Good post Matt. Emergence and creativity are the rebuttals to the recent critiques.

  2. Leon says:

    This sounds like the process (neoclassical) argument for form and order in aesthetics as well. Very profound.

    It sounded as if you captured this photo while on a hike in Big Sur. I actually met a porcupine hanging out in a tree, yesterday while near Wolf’s Rocks on Kittatinny Ridge. I’d like to blog about it or at least post some photos. Really great treat and pretty rare to see like that.

    Anyway, love your post. Never ceases to amaze me how nature can spur such deep thoughts or give us sudden realizations like those which were voiced in your post. More philosophy and nature posts please!

    1. Yes, this is a photo from my iPhone taken while hiking just beyond the grounds of Esalen. I may have something more to say soon concerning thoughts generated while observing the surface tension of water moving downstream.

  3. Jason Hills says:


    Do you think the following characterization is a fair one? What is common to much of process philosophy is the idea of emergence, which alters the usual understanding of mereology (whole-part relations). The relation of the parts can *causally* produce existential effects that are not reducible to the parts, that change the whole, and “increase” the whole. Once something has emerged as (relatively) self-subsistent, then it is no longer dependent on its generative conditions.

    Another distinction that I see lacking in the criticisms is the distinction between generative and sustaining conditions. Existential emergence, in its strong form, means that the generative conditions have produced a self-sustaining novelty, an actual event and not a mere logical predicate of some subject. Again, since most metaphysical views do not include real creativity, they misunderstand process views since they typically do not include these premises.

    Now, if a critical opponent feels that these have been included and that I, or others, are missing the point, then I would like to see that explained. I almost never see criticisms meet this requirement, which is just begging the question: yes, process metaphysics is not substance metaphysics and thus what seems like a strong criticism from a substance perspective is just begging the question from a process one.

  4. Jason, That sounds about right to me. I’d word it slightly different, though: the relation of the parts can produce emergent effects irreducible to the parts: one of these effects is to realize themselves as a whole; but then again, the whole could also be construed as its own cause. My intuition, derived largely from handling the rocks, is that this wholeness is not created ex nihilo by the parts, but realized by them, which is to say that the emergent whole, the balanced stack, was already a potency lying dormant in the rocks themselves, awaiting the proper conditions for its realization. The rocks obviously needed my hands to coax them into place, but it really felt as though I was merely helping them to recollect the form of their verticality. The thinking, in this sense, was as much in myself as in the rocks. I was “thinking with” the rocks, and they with me, in order to realize the idea of wholeness implicit in their particularity. Once the stack emerged as a stack, it began to live independently of my thoughts, now forming its own idea… thinking for itself, as it were.

  5. mary says:

    hey Matt,…Cairns like these seem small scale intimations of Mt Meru, or De Chardin’s vision of noogenesis as in “The Heart Of Matter”:,… well, all his work.,… as if Whitehead had worked out the small scale reconciliation with physics for such a sublime imaginal participation of creativity. Most artists have had the knowing that after a painting is complete, it takes on a life of its own.., or belongs not to themselves any more….”I don’t know how this painting came about”…or…” Did I do that?”…or…”then the painting began to give itself back to me,..” .. Art as the evidence of a spiritual event….It is definitely the and/both event of Whole/parts as a proximate torus of movement which you capture so well in this entry:

    this thinking with rocks reminds me of what Christopher Alexander is on about. Oh,the conversations he and Whitehead could have

    (Ihope this link works).

    1. Matthew David Segall says:

      Mary, Yes I definitely had Alexander’s ideas in mind as I was working with the rocks! Good call.

  6. Plato says:

    Interesting thoughts about materialism and emergence.

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