Teilhard de Chardin and the noosphere

Already in the 1920s, the impact of the growing state of knowledge and consciousness in humanity on the planet was the subject of an advanced discussion. For the first time in history, due to technical progress, large fractions of humanity experienced the same events, and shared the same emotions at the same time. Participators in this discussion were among others the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky and the paleontologist and Jesuit Father Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Together they coined the term noospfiere (from the Greek word noos for mind), implying an emerging mental sphere of intelligence covering the whole earth. This sphere, superposed on the biosphere, the sphere of life, is the main topic in Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man. Both the noosphere and the ‘principle of Omega’, also presented in the book, are examples of finalistic theories postulating some kind of cosmic teleology, purpose, or programme.

The book discusses the development of man as part of a universal process and presents both scientific, philosophical and theological perspectives. It is an attempt to synthesize the physical world with the world of the mind, the past with the future and variety with unity. It has its starting point in the concept of convergence, denoting the evolutionary tendency of mankind towards non-specialization and unification. Man is the only successful race remaining as a single interbreeding species, that is, without splitting into a number of biologically separated branches. He has reached maturity; his body no longer changes. Transformation does take place but in mental and social contexts. Convergence is clearly visible in human cultures where differentiation is more and more levelled out, especially in the modern technological society.

The main force behind various modes of human convergence is the earth’s shape as a spherical restricted surface. A rapidly growing number of individuals must share less and less available land. In spreading out around a sphere, man sooner or later meets his own kind; idea meeting idea produces an interconnected web of thoughts, the noosphere. Human existence is thereby under the influence of a general complexification as ever more psychosocial energy is created. The impact of complexification is seen in nature, which before the appearance of man was only an unorganized pattern of ecological interaction. With mankind the mental properties of organisms become the most important characteristics of life. As a step in the development of man, the present self-consciousness stage will transcend into a new mode of thought for his evolutionary future and the emergent noosphere will grow even stronger. This stage will integrate the self with the outer world of nature and also facilitate a complete exchange with the rest of the universe. Man has then reached his ultimate goal, or the Point of Omega, the final convergence. Teilhard de Chardin uses the metaphor of the meridians; as they approach the pole, science, philosophy and theology are forced to converge in one final point. The Point of Omega is here the opposite of a state of Alpha representing the elementary particles and their pertinent energies.

The origin of man and his development toward the Point of Omega is shown in Figure 3.11. The numbers on the left indicate thousands of years. The zone of convergence is not to scale.

To clarify his thoughts, Teilhard de Chardin, being a paleontologist, uses a geophysical model in which the noosphere is the outermost of the six layers of geogenesis.

  • barysphere
  • lithosphere
  • hydrosphere
  • biosphere
  • atmosphere
  • noosphere

These layers are a consequence of a goal-directed evolution where matter becomes conscious of itself in a self-organizing biogenesis by way of the following steps:

  1. energy is successively transformed into
  2. matter which gives rise to
  3. life with
  4. instincts and later
  5. thoughts and finally
  6. noosphere, the thinking layer

Here we can see how geogenesis via biogenesis is extended to psychogenesis. With the emergence of self-consciousness, man has crossed some kind of threshold and exists on an entirely new biological plane approaching the culmination of a cosmic process of organization. Thereby cosmos fulfils its own goal systematically through reflective perception when building itself in the inverse direction of matter (which vanishes). Such a concentration of a conscious universe would be unthinkable if it did not include all the existing consciousness.

Figure 3.11 Human development toward the Point of Omega (from Teilhard de Chardin 1947).

In his philosophizing on the development of man, Teilhard  de Chardin focuses on phenomena of special importance. One is that the event of science provided the means to meet the material needs for life. Its effectiveness brought us the freedom of the modern city which in turn became a prerequisite for man, a predominantly mental being. Another phenomenon is the nature of human synthesis which leads to the noosphere. Teilhard de Chardin states that union differentiates as the elements of every organized whole fulfil and perfect themselves. The element becomes personal first when it universalizes itself; a synthesis is not the disintegration of the individual.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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