March 1997


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."


Teilhard de Chardin and the Noosphere, by Rev. Phillip J. Cunningham, C.S.P.

The Sphere

The vision of the "sphere" with its circumscribed surface is crucial to the Teilhardian perspective. It provided the closed and limited volume in which the earliest stage of evolution took place. "And let me also repeat that this [molecular] synthesis itself would never take place if the globe itself as a whole did not enfold within an enclosed surface the layers of its substance." (1961, p. 73)

Similarly, it is on the watery surface of the geosphere, bombarded by solar radiation and cosmic debris that "the amazing profusion of organic matter whose matted complexity came to form the last (or rather the last but one) of the envelopes or our planet: the biosphere." (p. 79) The initial granule of life was the cell. In the intervening millions of years, the evolutionary process has populated the biosphere with incredible myriad of life forms, many extinct, some extant and some perhaps still evolving.

Teilhard then asks the crucial question: "But, taken as a whole what is the meaning of this movement of expansion?" (p. 141) Going on, he observes: "Asked whether life is going anywhere at the end of its transformation, nine biologists out of ten will say no, even passionately." The percentages today may have shifted a bit but the passion is still there, witness Daniel C. Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" (New York: Touchstone, 1995). He denies that evolution has any direction or, for that matter, meaning.

Obviously, Teilhard disagrees, maintaining that evolution has a direction.


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?


March 1997

Teilhard de Chardin and the Noosphere, by Rev. Phillip J. Cunningham, C.S.P.

Origins of Evolution

Philosophers have pondered man's ability to think for two-and-a-half millennia and it would be far beyond the scope of the present article to even summarize their observations. What can one say other than, "I think and I think you think."

When did the evolutionary process cross the threshold of thought? When did what we would call the first human come into existence? Our understanding of the evolution of the hominids has undergone considerable refinement since Teilhard's day and it continues. There were certainly crucial preliminary stages such as walking erect, modification of the vocal apparatus to increase the range of sounds produced and an increase in the complexity of socialization. Most significantly, as Teilhard believed, there was a dramatic increase in brain size.

What indices do we have of the transition to thought/reflection? Was it the use of tools? There is ample evidence that animals use tools. "But there is a great conceptual leap from using tools as simple hammers with which to break things to using stones to strike a flake off another stone." (Leakey/Lewin 1992, p. 169) With the appearance of Homo erectus some two to three million years ago, it would appear that the crucial transition had been made. "I believe Homo erectus has a well-developed sense of self and considerable language ability." (p. 171) In fact, it might well be that language is the real indication that humanity crossed the threshold of thought. "Human communication through language is unprecedented in the natural world, both in terms of rate and density of information transferred." (p. 245) Unfortunately, that transition left no fossil record. However, as Monod observes, it "amounts to assuming that spoken language, when it appeared among primitive mankind, not only made possible the evolution of culture but contributed to man's physical evolution. But on the day Zinjanthropus or one of his comrades first used an articulate symbol as represent a category, he enormously increased the probability that at some later day a brain might emerge capable of conceiving the Darwinian theory of evolution." (1972, pp. 136-137) That phase of evolution Teilhard called "noogenesis" (1961, p. 185).

Recent discoveries (New York Times, 12/13/96) hint that Homo erectus survived until relatively recently, thus coexisting with two other human species, the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. We had, therefore, a ramification of human forms just as with other species. But that changed because by 30,000 years ago only one species of homo still existed, H. sapiens. It was this form that came to dominate the planet and occupy all but the most inhospitable areas. The genetic unity of H. sapiens, however, supplies the foundation for a deeper unity, that of language. No matter how varied and complex individual linguistic groups may be, we are able to communicate across such barriers. At first, language was tribal (as it still is in many areas). The scope probably broadened with the appearance of farming and herding. However, it is with the development of trade "over the horizon" that a gigantic step was taken, written language. Primitive writing goes back some 30,000 years but written language as we know it developed over the past three millennia. It is a crucial advancement since it makes human communication possible, not only at a distance, but enables the past to communicate with the present and the future. The noosphere now transcends both distance and time.

It is quite likely that this transcendence paved the way for the formation of civilization, "the prelude and presage of some new and superior state for the noosphere." (1961, p. 209) Similar to biological species, Teilhard points to what he calls five "foci," the Mayan, Polynesian, Chinese, Indian (East) and the Sumerian/Egyptian. Their fates, however, differ. The Mayan (Meso-American) remained too isolated and the Polynesian (South Pacific) too dispersed." (pp. 209-10)


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.


Teilhard de Chardin and the Noosphere, by Rev. Phillip J. Cunningham, C.S.P.

Origins of Civilization

As he did in Phenomenon, Teilhard affirms that civilization "is ultimately, simply zoological 'specialization' extended to an animal group (man) in which one particular influence (the psychic) suddenly begins to assume a predominant part in the ramification of the phylum. From this point of view the formation of tribes, nations, empires, and finally of the modern state, is simply a prolongation of the mechanism which produced animal species." (1973, p. 87) Noogenesis is truly an evolutionary process.

Nevertheless, Teilhard was aware that when one applies the evolutionary paradigm to noogenesis there are a significance differences. "First among these is that, since the older chromosomic heredity is now partnered by an 'educational,' extra-individual, heredity, the preservation and accumulation of the acquired suddenly assumes an importance in biogenesis of the first order." We now have Lamarkian (inheritance of acquired characteristics) and Darwinian evolutions combined.

Not unrelated, certainly, to this "educational" heredity is an evolutionary phenomenon unique to noogenesis, "the confluence of branches" (p. 89) After an initial phase of ramification, one species alone, homo sapiens, survives. Civilizations now seems to be on the same path. At first, there was ramification giving rise to some twenty-one distinct civilizations, largely isolated from one another. Like animal species most are extinct or vestigial. Still there remained and remains resistance to the homogenization of culture. Indeed, there seems to be a growing effort to preserve a plurality of cultures.

Yet, in Teilhard's view this resistance is yielding to crucial forces. One he speaks of is "ethnic compression the mainspring or initial motive force of the whole phenomena." (p. 97) In brief, "the human population is coming close to saturation point on the closed surface of our planet." Under such pressure, one would expect some sort of rearrangement, some change in structures. These, Teilhard believed, could be seen in the new "economico-technical organization" of the planet, the industrial revolution being an earlier example. Incidentally, since compression is the "motive force" we would expect such transitions to generate a certain amount of violence. "It is not, in itself, surprising that a rise in 'psychic temperature' should automatically accompany a better social arrangement." (p. 98)

As in Phenomenon, Teilhard turns his attention to what is to come. The ever more complex social arrangements produced by the above compression signals as well a change in human consciousness; the noosphere evolves. "This super-compression, in turn, automatically a super-organization, and that again a super-'consciousisation': that, in turn, is followed by super-super compression, and so the process continues." (p. 99) A multiplicity of stages in noogenesis lie before us.


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.

Indeed, Teilhard was acquainted with the early forms of the key element in that "organic system." He writes, "And here I am thinking of those astonishing electronic machines (the starting-point and hope of the young science of cybernetics), by which our mental capacity to calculate and combine is reinforced and multiplied by the process and to a degree that herald as astonishing advances in this direction as those that optical science has already produced for our power of vision." (p. 110) Obviously Teilhard had only a faint hint as what was actually to occur.

Steve Mizrach relates Teilhard de Chardin's ideas to the metaphysics of information.

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.

Towards Omega

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.


Teilhard de Chardin and the Noosphere, by Rev. Phillip J. Cunningham, C.S.P.

Reaching Omega

But, citing the principle that "union differentiates," Teilhard affirms: "Thus it would be mistaken to represent to represent Omega to ourselves simply as a centre born of the fusion of elements which it collects, or annihilating them in itself. By its structure Omega, in its ultimate principle, can only be a distinct Centre radiating at the core of a system of centres." (p. 262) Consciousnesses lose their individuality but not their "person-ness." The Omega Point is a person among persons.

In concluding the main body of Phenomenon, Teilhard has the following summation: "To make room for thought in the world, I have needed to 'interiorize matter: to imagine an energetics of the mind; to conceive a noogenesis rising upstream against the flow of entropy; to provide evolution with a direction, a line of advance and critical points: and finally to make all things double back on someone. " (p. 290) Are we to conclude that the "someone" is God?

The final line of Man's Place in Nature is: "And it is at this point, if I am not mistaken, in the science of evolution that the problem of God comes in-the Prime Mover, Gatherer and Consolidator, ahead of us, of evolution." (1973, p. 121)

In Phenomenon's epilogue, The Christian Phenomenon, Teilhard admits: "The universe fulfilling itself in a synthesis of centres in perfect conformity with the laws of union. God the Centre of centres. In that final vision the Christian dogma culminates. And so exactly, so perfectly, does this coincide with the Omega Point that doubtless I should never have ventured to envisage the latter or formulate the hypothesis rationally if, in my consciousness as a believer, I had not found not only its speculative model but also its living reality." (1961, p. 294)

Teilhard, in tracing the evolutionary genesis of the noosphere, came to a "point" that he appears to have envisioned from the very beginning. Such should not be a surprise. Back in those horrendous days during World War I, when he sought to understand what was happening, Teilhard already knew where the answer was to be found. "God is vibrant in the ether. Through Him, all bodies come together, exert influence upon one another and sustain one another in the unity of the all-embracing sphere. God is a work within life. He helps it, raises it up, gives it the impulse that drives it along. I can feel God in the deep biological current that runs throu gh my soul and carries it with it. God shines through and is personified in mankind." (1965, p. 61)


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.

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