Panmobilism and optimism in teilhardian humanism
par Denis Ghislain MBESSA
Université de Yaoundé I - D.E.A 2009
Thought is born and this nativity is no less significant than the very advent of life. Thought which Teilhard de Chardin likens to reflection or consciousness coiled back in upon itself finds a home in the human being. Here at last, says Teilhard de Chardin, is the summit of evolution as we know it.I
For Teilhard de Chardin, what sets thought apart from all lesser types of consciousness, and what so fascinates him, is the phenomenon of reflection. Reflection is a sort of quantum leap in consciousness. Teilhard de Chardin defines it as
L..] the power acquired by a consciousness to turn in 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.2
Thought, we might say, is consciousness squared and its emergence affects everything. As Teilhard de Chardin writes:
Man is psychically distinguished from all other animals by the entirely new fact that he not only knows, but knows that he knows. In him, for the first time on earth, consciousness has coiled back upon itself to become thought. To an observer unaware of what it signifies, the event might at first seem to have little importance; but in fact it represents the complete resurgence of terrestrial life upon itself. In reflecting psychically upon itself Life made a new start.3
Life's new start was momentous but not immediately noticeable. Indeed, like all other advances in evolution, this threshold disappears under the weight of the past.4
I Ibid., p. I80.
2 Ibid., p. I65.
3 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, New York, I964, p. 293.
4 Teilhard de Chardin, as an apologist for evolution, often makes reference to what he calls the suppression of the peduncles. At every critical stage, the earliest transitionary forms are the most fragile and vanish under the weight of history. This is true biologically even as it is technologically; where, he asks, are the very first buggies? Who was the first Greek or Roman? Cf. The Phenomenon of Man, pp. I20-I22.
47 "Man came silently into the world," says Teilhard de Chardin.I We must not make the mistake of treating this remarkable new human being as something other than a part of nature. The same play of tangential and radial energy that brought into existence the first crystals, the first plants, the first animals, here brought to birth the first occurrence of mind. In short, humanity is a natural phenomenon, the latest of life's successive waves.2 Teilhard de Chardin describes a world very much like our own with,
[...]myriads of antelopes and zebras, a variety of proboscidians in herds, deer with every kind of antler, tigers, wolves, foxes and badgers, all similar to those we have today. In short, the landscape is not too dissimilar from that which we are today seeking to preserve in National Parks -- on the Zambesi, in the Congo, or in Arizona. Except for a few lingering archaic forms, so familiar is this scene that we have to make an effort to realize that nowhere is there so much as a wisp of smoke rising from camp or village.3
Then somewhere, perhaps along the great majestic steppes of Africa, something revolutionary occurred: a breakthrough. In a flash, in the midst of the anthropoids, consciousness took an infinite leap forward:
Outwardly, almost nothing in the organs had changed. But in depth, a great revolution had taken place: consciousness was now leaping and boiling in a space of super-sensory relationships and representations; and simultaneously consciousness was capable of perceiving itself in the concentrated simplicity of its faculties. And all this happened for the first time.4
This strange and wonderful event, a mutation from zero to everything, resulted in the first persons. Reflection is consciousness turned inward. Whereas before humanity, consciousness only radiated outwards perceiving the world to a greater or lesser degree through the senses, we can now for the first time in history speak of centers of consciousness. This enroulement, `inturning process', leads to the reality of
I Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, New York, I959, p. I84.
2 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, New York, I964, p. 298.
3 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, New York, I959, p. I52.
4 Ibid., pp. I68-I69.
48 personalization. Teilhard de Chardin sums it up, "The cell has become `someone'. After the grain of matter, the grain of life; and now at last we see constituted the grain of thought.~I
Surveying the globe today, the significance of this emergence is uncontestable. Since its recent egression, humanity has ascended to a position of unrivaled privilege. We are everywhere now engaged in the process of becoming yet more human, even of making the earth itself more human. Teilhard de Chardin calls this process hominisation. Hominisation has two aspects.
[It] can be accepted in the first place as the individual and instantaneous leap from instinct to thought, but it is also, in a wider sense, the progressive phyletic spiritualization in human civilization of all the forces contained in the animal world.2
To clarify: in humanity evolution finally becomes conscious of itself. We right now are in evolution looking at itself, reflecting upon itself.3 Humanity stands like a priest representative of all the forces in the animal world. In the reflective consciousness of a man or a woman, nature itself after laboring so long, participates in the phenomenon of thought. Teilhard de Chardin therefore understands the entire span of organic and cosmic evolution in light of this Hominisation:
[...] if we are going towards a human era of science, it will be eminently an era of human science. Man, the knowing subject, will perceive at last that man, `the object of knowledge', is the key to the whole science of nature.4
Humanity is the key to understanding evolution revealing it to be precisely an evolution of consciousness. De facto the history of evolution is the history of the evolution of persons. For Teilhard de Chardin, that evolution should result in the evolution of persons is of profound significance.
I Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Op. cit., p. I73.
2Ibid., p. I80. 3Ibid., p. 22I. 'Ibid., pp. 28I-282.
Teilhard de Chardin puts this in historical perspective. Science, in the person of COPERNICUS, removed humanity from its arrogant position of privilege within the universe and we have ever since grown increasingly wary of anthropomorphism, anthropocentrisms, and so on. But now that same science, this time in an evolutionary form, restores humanity to a place of even greater dignity as the apex of cosmic evolution. Without returning to vulgar anthropomorphisms, now, we must nevertheless see the cosmos in light of the human person.
Man is not the centre 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 in terms of life. Man alone constitutes the last-born, the freshest, the most complicated, the most subtle of all the successive layers of life.'
So humanity emerges like an arrow but an arrow pointing where?2
Here we find ourselves cast upon Teilhard's concept of the Noosphere. Some years before Teilhard de Chardin, in I875, the Austrian geologist Eduard SUESS had coined the term biosphere to describe the skin of living material stretched out upon the earth. Suess derived his neologism from two existing geological terms: the lithosphere which described the solid rocky crust of the earth and just below it the yet more dense liquid of barysphere. With Eduard Suess, we had the barysphere, the lithosphere and the biosphere. Teilhard de Chardin however, adds the Noosphere as a description of that skin of mind that, since the advent of Hominisation, has stretched itself out over the biosphere. Teilhard de Chardin describes this event:
A glow ripples outward from the first spark of conscious reflection. The point of ignition grows larger. The fire spreads in ever widening circles till finally the whole planet is covered with incandescence... It is really a new layer, the 'thinking layer', which, since its germination at the end of the Tertiary period, has spread over and above the world of plants and animals.3
I Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Op. cit., p. 223.
2 See appendix II. Humanity emerges like an arrow pointing to the Omega Point.
3 Ibid., p. I82.
The Noosphere is a sort of envelope of mind, a lattice of thought, relationships, and love that spans the globe, a matrix of personal interconnectivity. It is the support structure of Hominisation. As the Noosphere has developed, with, for example, the invention of oral traditions, libraries, or various tools and means of communication, it has become, among other things, a collective depository of human memory. Though we are wont to regard such noospheric structures as synthetic we must see them as a continuation of the same cosmic drama to which we have thus far been attending. When evolution, with the appearance of humanity, took its second critical turn, the first being the appearance of life, the mechanisms of evolution themselves went through a decisive change. Now that thought had at last burst forth the process of evolution moved, more or less, from soma to psyche.I
The Noosphere is today the psychic front of evolution. Since the emergence of reflection, evolutionary advancement occurs less and less through heredity and increasingly through conscious means such as communication or education. In the Noosphere, we see Teilhard de Chardin's vision of evolution going far beyond the cosmic or biological spheres. Social evolution, psychic evolution, cultural evolution and moral evolution: these are all parts of the one process that birthed both the stars, and the swamps and all of the life therein. "The social phenomenon, says Teilhard de Chardin, is the culmination and not the attenuation of the biological phenomenon."2
Noo genesis occurs on any number of fronts. For example, Teilhard de Chardin equates it with technological progress of all kinds. He describes the proliferation of factories, the harnessing of the earth's powers, the spread of human civilization with awed enthusiasm. He looks reverently forward to humanity's mastery of eugenics or artificial creation of neo-life.3 Teilhard de Chardin's optimism in these matters may seem
IPierre Teilhard de Chardin, Op. cit., p. 202 "[...] evolution has [...] overtly overflowed its anatomical modalities to spread, or perhaps even to transplant its main thrust into the zones of psychic spontaneity both individual and collective. Henceforward it is in that form almost exclusively that we shall be recognizing it and following its course."
2 Ibid., p. 222.
3 Ibid., p. 250.
51 naïve, and even reckless, but he did attempt to tie this dangerous concept of progress to a profound reverence for the earth and all of creation. There is a moral element to his fascination with progress that is revealed by his comment, "There is less difference than people think between research and adoration."' His moral bearings become even more pronounced when he insists on the fact that this progression of science must always wrestle with the question of "how to give to each and every element its final value by grouping them in the unity of the organized whole."2
Which brings us to the most characteristic quality of the noosphere, namely, collectivity or universality? We recall that evolution has proceeded all along, in Teilhard de Chardin's view, through the pull of radial energy. In humanity and the consequent Noosphere, radial energy achieves a new level of ascendancy. He first notices this in the peculiar phenomenon of humanity. "Formerly, on the tree of life, says Teilhard, we had :in all phyla] a mere tangle of stems; now over the whole domain of Homo sapiens we have synthesis."3 Different races, cultures, and traditions, what Teilhard de Chardin likens to different species, shuffle and blend psychically and biologically. The roundness of the earth even plays its part, for some time now bringing us all ever closer to one another and forcing greater levels of cooperation and communication. Looking at our modern world, Teilhard de Chardin comments:
No one can deny that a network (a world network) of economic and psychic affiliations is being woven at ever increasing speed which envelops and constantly penetrates more deeply within each of us. With every day that passes it becomes a little more impossible for us to act or think otherwise than collectively.'
In this rush to collectivity however, one must not forget the preeminence of the personal, the essence of Hominisation. The odd trend displayed by evolution is one towards an ever higher degree of personality along with a concomitant rise in
3 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, New York, I964, p. 208.
4 Ibid., p. I7I.
52 universality. This is the ideal of radial energy, the heights of complexity-consciousness. Such a uniting of personal centers with other personal centers occurs most fully in Love.
And so the evolution of the Noosphere presents itself to us as a movement towards ever greater unity, cooperation and love. Teilhard de Chardin illustrates it succinctly:
Evolution = Rise of consciousness,
Rise of consciousness = Effect of union I
As the Noosphere approaches this collectivity, it has planetary and even cosmic repercussions. If Hominisation includes all the forces of the animal world, as Teilhard de Chardin maintains, then the phenomenon of planetization becomes supremely significant. It is, says Teilhard de Chardin, nothing short than the emergence of a single planetary spirit; in Teilhard's language, the spirit of the earth, the spirit of evolution.2 Teilhard de Chardin looks ahead and comments,
Peace through conquest, work in joy. These are waiting for us beyond the line where empires are set up against other empires, in an interior totalisation of the world upon itself, in the unanimous construction of a spirit of the earth.3
As radial energy has gained in ascendancy, through the historical increase of complexity-consciousness, it has become increasingly liberated from the decay of the tangential. This has translated to an ever greater degree of environmental freedom each step along the way. With the deployment of the Noosphere this freedom reaches a high point. Until fairly recently, evolution continued going along gropingly but unabated. No longer, for an evolution aware of itself is also an evolution that can choose to simply quit. In this regard, Teilhard de Chardin says:
I Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, New York, I959, p. 243.
2 Ibid., p. 253.
[...] evolution, by becoming conscious of itself in the depths of ourselves [...] becomes free to dispose of itself--it can give itself or refuse itself. Not only do we read in our slightest acts the secret of its proceedings; but for an elementary part we hold it in our hands, responsible for its past to its future.'
Teilhard de Chardin turns to existential language when discussing this new phase of consciousness evolution. Having become reflective, evolution conscious of itself, humanity becomes the first creature capable of cosmic refusal. If in surveying the globe with its conditions of war, poverty, and injustice, humans conclude that our efforts are futile, then it remains only for us to give up. To do so would be to relinquish evolution itself, to bring the whole cosmic process screeching to a halt.
Teilhard de Chardin sees humanity as the apex of evolution but not the end. He anticipates a future spirit of the earth but concedes that it is not yet inevitable. There is precariousness to humanity's present condition that must be met with a reliable vision of the future. Hope must be kindled; instead of despair and angst, Teilhard de Chardin insists, even the prognostications of science must somehow generate a taste for life, for upon this love of life and kindling of hope hangs the whole cosmic project of evolution.
If progress is a myth, that is to say, if faced by the work involved we can say: 'What's the good of it all?' our efforts will flag. With that the whole of evolution will come to a halt--because we are evolution.2