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.