Teilhard’s progress

Many scientists lament the apparent fulfillment of Fermi’s paradox, which states that as the universe rapidly expands, the likelihood of finding intelligent extraterrestrial life rapidly diminishes.

The point of discovery has passed, if, indeed, it ever occurred. Why should this perturb us? The 20th-century scientific community sought extraterrestrial life as the holy grail. Astronomer Carl Sagan established the SETI project, designing the odd information plates and accessories that would accompany the missions into outer space. Whether motivated by hubris (we humans are the definers of intelligence), delusion (they’re out there, I tell you!), bias (may technology be everywhere!), or revenge (there is no God, there is only the search), Sagan and many other scientists have lamented not finding anything.

The obverse is represented by the Catholic paleontologist and thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), writing after the tumult of World War II, virtually rhapsodizing about the new astronomy’s revelations as a key to the philosophical understanding of the life force in the universe. Teilhard linked modern and post-war science to a theory of progress, and to social notions of the inevitable planetization of consciousness. His optimism was unflagging. He saw evolution not as halting jerks and missteps of mutation but as a mystical directionality of Noosgenesis, concentrated no longer in the stars and galaxies but here on a unique planet, within evolution as its greatest project, culminating in the consciousness of human beings (of “Man,” as he would say collectively).

Teilhard had, at any rate, reconciled himself to notion of a universe of concentrated but non-living matter. Perhaps his religious faith did not invite him to go further into the issue of extraterrestrial life. But he did not need to.

Teilhard saw the convergence of consciousness and forces of concentration (the latter mainly social) as positive signs that the technologies being rapidly invented and deployed evidence human cerebralization as a forerunner to human solidarity. Evolution had stopped making physical and biological progress and shifted, with human beings, to psychosocial progress.

In his introduction to the English translation of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man, Julian Huxley describes Teilhard’s views on evolution as

an anti-entropic process, running counter to the second law of thermodynamics with its degradation of energy and its tendency to uniformity. With the aid of the sun’s energy, biological evolution marches uphill, producing increased variety and high degrees of organization.

Despite the inimical uses of those very technologies, however, Teilhard saw technological advance as proof of humanity’s increasing ability to join in common goals which, he maintained, would eventually evolve into benign and positive expressions, what he called “complexifications.”

We may be reassured. The vast individual and social system by which we are enveloped does not threaten to crush us, neither does it seek to rob us of our soul. The energy emanating from it is free not only in the sense that it represents forces that can be used; it is moreover free because, in the Whole no less than in the least of its elements, it arises out of a state that grows ever more spiritualized. —The Formation of the Noosphere, 1947

Who today can make this boast for the benignity of technology? This is the old theory of progress refurbished for a post-War West, still in ascendancy as it was when the Enlightenment centered progress in reason and science and described humanity as increasing in Reason. Hegel, in turn gave Reason a “Spirit” as the crowning achievement of the Universe — an inversion of Teilhard’s later apex of the cone of the Noosphere. At this point, God need not be whispered about in his theology, being adequately reduced to that force of progress that empowers the philosophers and patrons of the modern state. Though Huxlley could not follow Teilhard’s Christocentric cosmology and its trappings.

Fortunately, perhaps, the universe does expand, and the hypothesized intelligent life quickly distances itself from eccentric humanity, especially from its ambitious apologists for modern thought. We are left to an unobserved fate, lamented by Sagan as leaving us “a little lonely.” The Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen has popularized the term Anthropocene to describe the geological era of today, marked by human destructiveness of a fragile little planet, a destructiveness perhaps unconsciously recognized as the probable direction of embraced progress by many scientists themselves — more consciously by famous Einstein and Oppehheimer, for example. Such was the very destructiveness Teilhard doggedly considered a product of human consciousness, evolving into something better.

How would Teilhard characterize the Anthropocene? Teilhard is one of those ironic figures in history (like Galileo). He was forbidden by his Church to teach or to publish, a Church embarrassed by his theology, but as much, no doubt, embarrassed by his dubious optimism.


Science and its social impact is analogous to religion and its social impact.

In a Scientific American report, test subjects (i.e., college students) were asked to morally judge a rape case, but were first given scientific material to read before the case was introduced. Follow-up comments of the students were uniformly condemnatory towards the rape. The researchers deduced that thinking about science is sufficient to promote morality. In fact, the article title is: “Just Thinking about Science Triggers Moral Behavior.”

How “scientific” is such a deduction? Even accounting for mere correlation, the researchers insist that there was an important relation between thinking about science and making moral judgments. Science is viewed as supra-moral or trans-moral by modern opinion when buzz words like “hypothesis” “observation” and “deduction” are used.

A greater moral challenge could easily have been introduced to overthrow the handy conclusion. Instead of a rape case — which the researchers obviously saw as irrefutably as a strong moral topic — what about financial corruption, destruction of aquifers, bombing of civilians, selling of disease-inducing foods?

A more tentative and plausible conclusion might be that public opinion habitually distinguishes scientists’ personal behavior from scientific work.

Don’t analogies exist everywhere? Does widespread scandal change people’s view of their own religious beliefs or those of a church or institution to which they adhere? Does war, aggression, and militarism affect the perception of the moral beliefs of war leaders? Does the personal behavior of musicians, composers, performers, movie actors, professional athletes, not affect how one perceives their art or industry?

In each case, the premise is that we separate the act from the actor, that there is no necessary affiliation between the two. Such is public opinion, and the advice of a pragmatic wisdom. But is it valid?

According to this line of reasoning, if a priest or guru pursues sexual passions, it does not mean that their professed beliefs about god, soul, morals, philosophy, etc. are intrinsically flawed and should have been robust enough to have preserved their integrity (but wasn’t for that one person at that one time). There are too many variables to belief and personality, it can be argued. They fell short of the beliefs, the high standards, the ideal behaviors that they should have professed. They are not emblematic or representative. They are not even necessarily “bad” though the act was “bad.” They are, to continue the argument, the product of their upbringing or mental state. In short, nothing intrinsic has transpired within these people, so that nothing intrinsic should affect our shared beliefs.

This is a difficult line for the solitary to accept. We are all products of our upbringing and mental states. We all struggle with the same social context. And our humility and charity understand the universal fragility of all individuals. The clue and the answer lies in society and our relation to society — society meaning the totality of environment, culture, mores, and civilizational premises.

Every belief system, every tradition, is flawed by degrees, and their adherents, even at the apex of the system, reveal something objectionable. Rather than begin with the social circumstances of a given scandal, the solitary recognizes that society as a whole cannot be a context or environment from which to expect dis-ambiguity, let alone purity. Therefore, the solitary starts with the self.

The solitary pores carefully over the content of the self’s mind and heart, extirpates that which is external and debilitating, or internal and debilitating. Solitaries and hermits understand the world’s temptations and interpret them intrinsically, in terms of “the world,” the totality of human context. Hence the radicality of those who fled for mountain-top, forest, or desert, having witnessed, perhaps more tangibly than others, the enormity of the gap between ideal and self, between professed belief and actual practice.

No principle or belief, however absolutely we may define it in our belief system, is absolute in its power to fully engage the self, to purify the self of all desire and intention and predisposition to shortfall. The hermit, the individual alone, must undertake this work. No reliance on beliefs, principles, or authority can suffice to bring about the consciousness that the solitary pursues.