Teilhard de Chardin and the Noosphere
by Rev. Phillip J. Cunningham, C.S.P.
In 1964, while attempting to adjust my thinking to the many changes following the Second Vatican Council, I first encountered the writings of the French geologist/paleontologist, Pere Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Though he had died nine years earlier, it was only after the Council that his works began appearing in the United States. That circumstance necessitates some biographical information.
Pere Teilhard was born in 1881 to a pious, provincial French family. He chose early on to join the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and in the course of his studies pursued geology and later paleontology. It was his intention to begin a career of teaching and research in the these fields. He was well on his way to doing so when he was conscripted for military service during the first World War.
As a stretcher bearer during the ghastliest battles of that conflict, Teilhard's personal faith was severely challenged. I believe it was his effort to understand this human tragedy (thousands of men killed and maimed in minutes to no purpose)that lead Teilhard to begin developing a vision that combined both his religion and his science.
The Unity of All Things
In the seeming myriad of entities around us, Teilhard perceives a unity: "My starting point is the fundamental initial fact that each one of us is perforce linked by all the material organic and psychic strands of his being to all that surrounds him." Moreover, that unity reaches back in time and continues into the future: "If we look far enough back in the depths of time, the disordered anthill of living beings suddenly, for an informed observer, arranges itself in long files that make their way by various paths towards greater consciousness." (p. 24)
Teilhard's science had already convinced him of the validity of evolution as a paradigm fundamental to understanding the meaning of human existence. He affirms that "the belief that there is an absolute direction of growth , to which both our duty and our happiness demand that we should conform. It is his [the human] function to complete cosmic evolution." (pp. 31-33). He goes so far as to say: "Christ is realized in evolution." (p. 63).
After the war, Teilhard returned to the pursuit of his career as both teacher and researcher. His career took a fortuitous turn when he was invited in 1923 to join an expedition in China. In the following twelve years he was to be part of nine more such exploratory treks. Much of his growing reputation rested on these missions. This was particularly true of his association with the discovery of fossil remains of Sinanthropus or Peking man in 1929.
Sadly, on another front, Teilhard faced the crisis of his life. He had continued to explore the lines of thought that had begun with his "Cosmic Life." Perhaps inevitably, his observations came to the attention of Church authorities. The reaction to some of Teilhard's ideas was ultimately severe. He was deprived of his teaching position and admonished not to publish his observations on religion and science. He observed that restriction until his death in 1955. It was only afterward that collections of his essays were published as well as his central work, The Phenomenon of Man.
In 1925, Teilhard wrote in an essay entitled Hominization: "And this amounts to imagining, in one way or another, above the animal biosphere a human sphere, a sphere of reflection, of conscious invention, of conscious souls (the noosphere, if you will)" (1966, p. 63) It was a neologism employing the Greek word noos for "mind."
The Arrow of Evolution
Teilhard maintains that evolution has a definite direction, an "Ariadne's Thread" as he calls it. "Obviously, Teilhard disagrees, maintaining that evolution has a direction, an "Ariadne's Thread" as he calls it. That "thread" is the increasing complexity of living beings, the focus of which is their nervous systems, more precisely, their brains. Following the growth in "cerebralization" we are led to the mammals and, among them, the anthropoids. The complexity of their brains is paralleled by the complexity of their socialized behaviour. Recent studies of the great apes has only increased our appreciation of their remarkable acuity. Yet, though we are not a radical departure physically or genetically from these marvelous creatures, we nevertheless transcend them in some essential manner.
And just what is the source of this transcendence? For Teilhard, it is "thought" or "reflection." He describes it as "the power acquired by a consciousness to turn it upon itself, to take possession of itself as of an object endowed with its own particular consistence and value: no longer merely to know, but to know oneself; no longer merely to know but to know that one knows." (1961, p. 165)
Now the same question rises which confronted us in discussing biogenesis: Does noogenesis have a direction? In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard posits: "In truth, a neo-humanity has been germinating round the Mediterranean for the last six thousand years" (1961, p. 212) He thought that a "new layer of the noosphere" would soon be formed. "The proof of this lies in the fact that from one end of the world to the other, all peoples, to remain human or to become more so, are inexorably led to formulate the hopes and problems of the modern earth in the very same terms in which the West has formulated them." Teilhard was convinced that the shape of the noosphere's future would be determined by those developments he saw taking place in the Europe and the U.S.
It was his opinion: "We are, at this very moment, passing through a change of age. Beneath a change of age lies a change of thought." (1961, p. 214, 215) That hidden change would at first influence only a few but it would continue to expand. "I know of no more moving story nor any more revealing of the biological reality of a noogenesis than that of intelligence struggling step by step from the beginning to overcome the illusion of proximity." (p. 216) Humanity had lived (and many still did) in a narrow world, unaware of the true dimensions of time and space. Moreover these dimension bore no relationship to each other. Now a new realization arose: "Time and space are organically joined again so as to weave, together, the stuff of the universe." (p. 218) What brought this transformation about?
Teilhard attributes it to the rise of an evolutionary point of view:
"Is evolution a theory, a system or a hypothesis? It is much more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, as systems must bow and which they must satisfy henceforth if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow." (1961, p. 219)
The Emergence of the Noosphere
Teilhard was convinced that geogenesis moved in the direction of an ever increasing conscious that brought about a biogenesis that evolved in the same direction. The process then led to the advent of though/reflection. However, the process did not cease there. "Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself. The consciousness of each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting upon itself." (p. 221) The direction then was toward such a growth in consciousness.
Teilhard was also convinced that a further and even more profound change had taken place. On the one hand we could see humanity simply swept along in a evolutionary stream into the future over which he had no control. Or, we could see that an evolution conscious of itself could also direct itself. "Not only do we read in our slightest acts the secrets of [evolutions] proceedings; but for an elementary part we hold it in our hands, responsible for its past to its future." (p. 226) Noogenesis moves ever more clearly toward self-direction; it is now something we determine.
Still, can we make some estimate of where we are going? "Man is not the center of the universe as once we thought in our simplicity, but something much more wonderful-the arrow pointing the way to the final unification of the world. This is nothing else than the fundamental vision and I shall leave it at that." (p. 224)
Teilhard was hardly alone in that dream of human unity and its chief benefit, peace. He was also aware of the formidable barriers that lay in the path of its achievement. Indeed, the very awareness of the challenges plays its own role in noogenesis. "I can now add that what disconcerts the modern world at its very roots is not being sure, and not seeing how it ever could be sure, that there is an outcome-a suitable outcome-to that evolution." (p. 229)
It was Teilhard's conviction that should humanity lose hope for the future, the hope of transcending the barriers to human unity and peace, noogenesis would cease. "Between these two alternatives of absolute optimism or absolute pessimism, there is no middle way because by its very nature progress is all or nothing." (p. 232) Yet, does not evolution itself offer hope. It has gone from geogenesis to biogenesis and has entered up noogenesis. Will it now be frustrated at this stage and fail to evolve further into the future? Teilhard clings to hope, "there is for us, in the future, under some form or another, a least collective, not only survival but also super-life." (p. 234) In 1950, Teilhard made what was a final attempt to get his observations published. He wrote a short work, Man's Place in Nature, which summarized what he felt was his scientific position. He carefully avoided mentioning the religious aspects of his views. Unfortunately, he was no more successful than he had been earlier. Teilhard does not depart from his earlier views, but he does state them with greater precision. Before continuing our presentation of Teilhard's views of the outcome of noogenesis, I would note some of these more precise statements.
A Foreboding of the Internet
Crucial to the process of human evolution, i.e. to progress is, in Teilhard's view, scientific research. In the past such investigations were isolated, sometimes no more than the hobbies of individuals. "Today we find the reverse: research students are numbered in the hundreds of thousands-soon to be millions-and they are no longer distributed superficially and at random over the globe, but are functionally linked together in a vast organic system that will remain in the future indispensable to the life of the community." (p. 106) One can't but think of today's "Internet," yet this was written forty-six years ago.
But what of the ultimate future, if any. Teilhard says there are no guarantees, "synthesis implies risk." "Life is less certain than death." (p. 117) However, if evolution does in fact reach a final stage it will be "the self-subsistent centre and absolutely final principle of irreversibility and personalization: the one and only true Omega." (p. 121) Teilhard's hope for the future of the noosphere is found in what he called the "Omega Point," perhaps the most controversial aspect of his thought. To understand it, we return to The Phenomenon of Man.
There we continue Teilhard's treatment of noogenesis: "We are faced with a harmonized collectivity of consciousnesses to a sort of superconciousness. The earth not only becoming covered by myriads of grains of thought, but becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope, a single unanimous reflection." (1961, pp. 251-2) Yet such a unanimity of consciousness implies a condition that humans generally reject, depersonalization. Indeed, the conclusion seems inevitable: "So that at the world's Omega, as at its Alpha, lies the Impersonal." (p. 258) At this point, "Omega," the last letter in the Greek alphabet, simply refers to the final stage of evolution. At the end the noosphere become an "all" that absorbs all.
In refining his description of "Omega" Teilhard seems to agree. "Because it contains and engenders consciousness, space-time is necessarily of a convergent nature [and] must somewhere in the future become involuted to a point which we might call Omega, which fuses and consumes them integrally in itself." (p. 259) Here "Omega" takes on its deeper meaning. Noogenesis, as it evolves, inevitably reaches a single focus.
In midst of a particularly ghastly fulfillment of the dictum "War is hell," Pierre Teilhard de Chardin struggled to hold on to a hope for the human future. Ultimately, he found it in noogenesis and in the future of the noosphere. However, to view his thought as no more than an exercise in science or metaphysics, is to fail to reach the core of Teilhard's vision. At the conclusion of The Phenomenon of Man is an Appendix added in 1948. The final line is: "In one manner or the other it still remains true that, even in the view of a mere biologist, the human epic resembles nothing so much as a way of the Cross." (1961, p. 313)
Rev. Phillip J. Cunningham is a retired priest living in San Francisco. He graduated from UCLA, taught at the Johns Hopkins Unversity, served as a priest in Venezuela and Rome and currently writes and lectures on Bible studies.
Copyright © 1997 by Phillip J. Cunningham. All Rights Reserved.