Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Universal Progressive Evolution

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine Humanity+, March 25, 2015.)

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955), a Jesuit priest trained as a paleontologist and geologist, was one of the most prominent thinkers who tried to reconcile evolutionary theory, religion, and the meaning of life. In his magnum opus,The Phenomenon of Man
he sets forth a sweeping account of cosmic unfolding.

While Teilhard’s philosophy is notoriously complex, the key notion is that cosmic evolution is directional or teleological. Evolution brings about an increasing complexity of consciousness, leading from an unconscious geosphere, to a semi-conscious biosphere, and eventually to conscious sphere of mind. The arrival of human beings on the cosmic scene is particularly important, signaling that evolution is becoming conscious of itself. As the process continues, the human ability to accumulate and transmit ideas increases along with the depth and complexity of those ideas. This will lead to the emergence of what Teilhard calls the “noosphere,” a thinking layer containing the collective consciousness of humanity which will envelope the earth. (Some contemporary commentators view the World Wide Web as a partial fulfillment of Teilhard’s prophecy.)

Not only does evolution explain how mind arose from matter, it is also the key to all metaphysical understanding, if such understanding is to be based on a firm foundation.

Is evolution a theory, a system or a hypothesis? It is much more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all 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.[i]

Teilhard recognized this evolutionary worldview, with its oceans of space and time, as a source of disquiet for minds previously comforted by childlike myths. Anxiety begins when we reflect, and reflection on the nature of the universe clearly discomforts.

Which of us has ever in his life really had the courage to look squarely at and try to ‘live’ [in] a universe formed of galaxies whose distance apart runs into hundreds of thousands of light years? Which of us, having tried, has not emerged from the ordeal shaken in one or other of his beliefs? And who, even when trying to shut his eyes as best he can to what the astronomers implacably put before us, has not had a confused sensation of gigantic shadow passing over the serenity of his joy?[ii]

Yet psychic troubles derives from this evolutionary worldview. “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.”[iii]But alas the source of our discomfort is also the fount of our salvation. For if the future is open to our further development, then we have the chance to fulfill ourselves, “to progress until we arrive … at the utmost limits of ourselves.[iv]

The increasing power and influence of the noosphere or world of mind will culminate in the Omega Point—a supreme consciousness or God. At that point all consciousness will converge, although Teilhard argues that individual consciousness will somehow still be preserved. While the Omega point is extraordinarily difficult to describe, it must be a union of love if it is to be a sublimely suitable outcome of evolution. Here Teilhard waxes poetic:

Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves. This is a fact of daily experience. At what moment do lovers come into the most complete possession of themselves if not when they say they are lost in each other? In truth, does not love every instant achieve all around us, in the couple or the team, the magic feat, the feat reputed to be contradictory, of personalizing by totalizing? And if that is what it can achieve daily on a small scale, why should it not repeat this one day on world-wide dimensions?[v]

In Teilhard’s vision, all reality evolves toward higher forms of being and consciousness, which includes more intense and satisfying forms of love. Thus spirit or mind, not matter or energy, ground the unity of the universe; they are the inner driving force propelling evolution forward. (This is Teilhard’s god.) Teilhard found meaning and purpose in this sweeping epic of cosmic evolution in which the endpoint of all evolution will be the highest good.

(Note – I do have doubts about some of Teilhard’s esoteric ideas and concepts. A lot of what he says is profound, but some of it is probably nonsense. For the most devastating critique of Teilhard ever penned see the great biologist P. B. Medawar’s “Review of the Phenomenon of Man” (1961). I will write about this in tomorrow’s post.)

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[i] Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre,  The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper Collins, 1975), 219.
[ii] Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man. 227.
[iii] Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, 229.
[iv] Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, 231.
[v] Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, 265.

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