About The Mind

Subject:      A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain
From:         bewise <bewise@sirius.com>
Date:         1997/05/05
Message-Id:   <336E4550.1F4E@sirius.com>
Newsgroups:   alt.metaphysics.a-a-bailey,alt.astrology,alt.astrology.metapsych,

A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain

An obscure Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,set down the
philosophical framework for planetary, Net-based consciousness 50 years

By Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg

He has inspired Al Gore and Mario Cuomo. Cyberbard John Perry Barlow
finds him richly prescient. Nobel laureate Christian de Duve claims his
vision helps us find meaning in the cosmos. Even Marshall McLuhan cited
his "lyrical testimony" when formulating his emerging global-village
vision.  Whom is this eclectic group celebrating? An obscure Jesuit
priest and paleontologist named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose quirky
philosophy points, oddly, right into cyberspace.  

Teilhard de Chardin finds allies among those searching for grains of
spiritual truth in a secular universe. As Mario Cuomo put it, "Teilhard
made negativism a sin. He taught us how the whole universe - even pain
and imperfection - is sacred." Marshall McLuhan turned to Teilhard as a
source of divine insight in The Gutenberg Galaxy, his classic analysis
of Western culture's descent into a profane world. Al Gore, in his book
Earth in the Balance, argues that Teilhard helps us understand the
importance of faith in the future. "Armed with such faith," Gore writes,
"we might find it possible to resanctify the earth, identify it as God's
creation, and accept our responsibility to protect and defend it." 

From the '20s to the '50s, Teilhard de Chardin drafted a series of
poetic works about evolution that has reemerged as a foundation for new
evolutionary theories. In particular, Teilhard and his Russian
counterpart Vladimir Vernadsky inspired the renegade Gaia hypothesis
(later set forth by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis): the global
ecosystem is a superorganism with a whole much greater than the sum of
its parts. This vision is clearly theological - suddenly everything,
from rocks to people, takes on a holistic importance. As a Jesuit,
Teilhard felt this deeply, and a handful of cyberphilosophers are now
mining this ideological source as they search for the deeper
implications of the Net. As Barlow says, 

"Teilhard's work is about creating a consciousness so profound it will
make good company for God itself."  Teilhard imagined a stage of
evolution characterized by a complex membrane of information enveloping
the globe and fueled by human consciousness. It sounds a little
off-the-wall, until you think about the Net, that vast electronic web
encircling the Earth, running point to point through a nervelike
constellation of wires. We live in an intertwined world of telephone
lines, wireless satellite-based transmissions, and dedicated computer
circuits that allow us to travel electronically from Des Moines to Delhi
in the blink of an eye. 

Teilhard saw the Net coming more than half a century before it arrived.
He believed this vast thinking membrane would ultimately coalesce into
"the living unity of a single tissue" containing our collective thoughts
and experiences. In his magnum opus, The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard
wrote, "Is this not like some great body which is being born - with its
limbs, its nervous system, its perceptive organs, its memory - the body
in fact of that great living Thing which had to come to fulfill the
ambitions aroused in the reflective being by the newly acquired

"What Teilhard was saying here can easily be summed up in a few words,"
says John Perry Barlow. "The point of all evolution up to this stage is
the creation of a collective organism of Mind."

Teilhard's philosophy of evolution was born out of his duality as both a
Jesuit father ordained in 1911 and a paleontologist whose career began
in the early 1920s. While conducting research in the Egyptian desert,
Teilhard was scratching around for the remains of ancient creatures when
he turned over a stone, dusted it off, and suddenly realized that
everything around him was beautifully connected in one vast, pulsating
web of divine life.

Teilhard soon developed a philosophy that married the science of the
material world with the sacred forces of the Catholic Church. Neither
the Catholic Church nor the scientific academy, however, agreed.
Teilhard's premise, that rocks possessed a divine force, was seen as
flaky by scientists and outright heretical by the church. Teilhard's
writings were scorned by peers in both camps.

Throughout the '40s and '50s, the Catholic Church was on the verge of
excommunicating Teilhard. But the philosopher was committed to his
perspective, refusing to stop writing or to leave the Church. As his
problems with the Church escalated, Teilhard became something of a cause
c*l*bre within his small circle in Europe. The Church responded by
forbidding him to publish and posting him to China, where he lived in a
state of semi-exile, trekking through the Gobi desert and developing his
philosophy in isolation. (His paleontological studies continued to
circulate and was highly regarded.) The rest of his work was not
published until after his death on Easter Sunday, 1955, when it caused a
small stir in the theological world; it was read widely for only a short
time. In the postmodern climate of today's theology, Teilhard is once
again out of favor among theologists, evolutionary biologists, and
scientists, who view his work with derision.

"Teilhard de Chardin gets too little credit for the quality of his
insights," says Ralph Abraham, one of the founders of chaos theory and
co-author of The Web Empowerment Book, a World Wide Web primer. "He was
successfully deprived of his influence by the popes." But what were the
popes so afraid of? The answer's simple: evolution.

The concept of evolution was a central pillar, both intellectual and
spiritual, for Teilhard's life. During his early career, before science
had strong evidence for the existence of DNA, the theory of evolution
was not widely accepted. Yet, Teilhard gravitated toward it, sensing
that the theory would bridge his love of rocks and of God. He would
later describe evolution as the "general condition to which all other
theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow and which they must
satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is
a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow." 

The meaning of evolution was as hotly debated in Teilhard's day as it is
now. Some argued in the strictest Darwinian terms that evolution's
primary mechanism is necessity - "survival of the fittest." Other
evolutionists followed in the footsteps of Jacques Monod, the
groundbreaking French biologist, who argued for a mixture of random
chance and necessity. Teilhard took Monod one step further, saying that
evolution was guided chance and necessity. In conclusion, this brought
Teilhard to the heart of his dual heresy - if evolution is being led,
what is doing the leading? And where is it going?

By the '40s, the idea of species evolution was no longer controversial
in scientific circles. But evolution was, and still is, a radical idea
in religious spheres. Every Catholic schoolchild is taught that God is
immutable. And every young science student knows how little God has to
do with the emergence of humanity from the evolutionary ooze.

Was Teilhard implying that God evolves?

Not exactly. Teilhard's idea was more subtle, and useful for examining
the implications of the fast, loose, out-of-control world we now call

Teilhard felt that the spark of divine life he experienced in the
Egyptian desert was a force present throughout the evolutionary process,
guiding and shaping it every bit as much as the material forces
described by physical science. Teilhard would later codify this force
into two distinct,  fundamental types of energy - "radial" and
"tangential." Radial energy was the energy of Newtonian physics. This
energy obeyed mechanistic laws, such as cause and effect, and could be
quantified. Teilhard called radial energy the energy of "without."
Tangential energy, on the other hand, was the energy of "within," in
other words, the divine spark.

Teilhard described three types of tangential energy. In inanimate
objects,  he called it "pre-life." In beings that are not
self-reflective, he called it "life." And in humans, he called it
"consciousness." As Teilhard began to observe the world described by
science, he noticed that in certain things,  such as rocks, the radial
energy was dominant, while the tangential energy was barely visible.
Rocks, therefore, are best described by the laws that rule radial energy
- physics. But in animals, in which tangential energy, or life, is
present, the laws of physics are only a partial explanation. Teilhard
concluded that where radial energy was dominant, the evolutionary
process would be characterized by the traditional scientific laws of
necessity and chance. But in those organisms in which the tangential
energy was significant, the forces of life and consciousness would lead
the laws of chance and natural selection. 

Teilhard then moved this insight forward. As the balance of tangential
energy in any given entity grew larger, he noticed that it developed
naturally in the direction of consciousness. An increase in
consciousness was accompanied by an increase in the overall complexity
of the organism.  Teilhard called this the "law of complexity
consciousness," which stated that increasing complexity is accompanied
by increased consciousness.

Teilhard wrote, "The living world is constituted by consciousness
clothed in flesh and bone." He argued that the primary vehicle for
increasing complexity consciousness among living organisms was the
nervous system. The informational wiring of a being, he argued - whether
of neurons or electronics - gives birth to consciousness. As the
diversification of nervous connections increases, evolution is led
toward greater consciousness.

As Abraham points out, Teilhard's complexity-consciousness law is the
same as what we now think of as the neural net. "We now know from
neural-net technology that when there are more connections between
points in a system,  and there is greater strength between these
connections, there will be sudden leaps in intelligence, where
intelligence is defined as success rate in performing a task." If one
accepts this power of connections, then the planetary neural-network of
the Internet is fertile soil for the emergence
of a global intelligence.

Teilhard went on to argue that there have been three major phases in the
evolutionary process. The first significant phase started when life was
born from the development of the biosphere. The second began at the end
of the Tertiary period, when humans emerged along with self-reflective
thinking.  And once thinking humans began communicating around the
world, along came the third phase. This was Teilhard's "thinking layer"
of the biosphere,  called the noosphere (from the Greek noo, for mind).
Though small and scattered at first, the noosphere has continued to grow
over time,  particularly during the age of electronics. Teilhard
described the noosphere on Earth as a crystallization: "A glow rippled
outward from the first spark of conscious reflection. The point of
ignition grows larger. The fire spreads in ever-widening circles, he
wrote, "till finally the whole planet is covered with incandescence."

His picture of the noosphere as a thinking membrane covering the planet
was almost biological - it was a globe clothing itself with a brain.
Teilhard wrote that the noosphere "results from the combined action of
two curvatures - the roundness of the earth and the cosmic convergence
of the mind."

Marshall McLuhan was drawn to the concept of the noosphere. Teilhard's
description of this electromagnetic phenomenon became a touchstone for
McLuhan's theories of the global "electric culture." In The Gutenberg
Galaxy, McLuhan quotes Teilhard: "What, in fact, do we see happening in
the modern paroxysm? It has been stated over and over again. Through the
discovery yesterday of the railway, the motor car and the aeroplane, the
physical influence of each man, formerly restricted to a few miles, now
extends to hundreds of leagues or more. Better still: thanks to the
prodigious biological event represented by the discovery of
electromagnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth
(actively and passively)  simultaneously present, over land and sea, in
every corner of the earth."

This simultaneous quality, McLuhan believed, "provides our lives again
with a tribal base." But this time around, the tribe comes together on a
global playing field.

We stand today at the beginning of Teilhard's third phase of evolution,
the moment at which the world is covered with the incandescent glow of
consciousness. Teilhard characterized this as "evolution becoming
conscious of itself." The Net, that great collectivizer of minds, is the
primary tool for our emergence into the third phase. "With cyberspace,
we are, in effect,  hard-wiring the collective consciousness," says

In introducing the idea of tangential energy - the energy of
consciousness - as a primary factor in evolution, Teilhard opened the
door for a new level of meaning. The history of the world, he wrote,
"would thus appear no longer as an interlocking succession of structural
types replacing one another, but as an ascension of inner sap spreading
out in a forest of consolidated instincts." This could very well be what
the Net is doing - consolidating our instincts - so that consciousness
can continue to develop.

Artificial life fans take this idea one step further. They see virtual
life- Teilhard's tangential energy - trying to break out of organic life
into new forms. The founder of artificial life research, Chris Langton,
told reporter Steven Levy that "there are these other forms of life,
artificial ones, that want to come into existence. And they are using me
as a vehicle for reproduction and for implementation."

According to Teilhard, this invisible virtual life has been with us
since the beginning.

We now have a vehicle - the Net - that enables us to see virtual life
for what it really is. It's not the 0s and the 1s - those are visible.
Virtual life is, as Barlow argues, "the space between the 0s and the 1s.
It's the pattern of information that is relevant. Invisible life is
composed of those life forms emerging in the space between things.
Cyberspace helps us see these forms by taking us past the mechanical

The global mind may be more potential than actual in 1995. As de Duve
points out, if the noosphere seems laughable now, imagine how today's
technology would look to our predecessors. He writes, "A merger of minds
into Teilhard's noosphere remains no more than a poetic image at the
present time. But so would the notion of satellite television to Lucy
[an early Australopithecus hominoid] if she had been capable of
conceiving this possibility. Who can tell what the future has in store?"

Teilhard warned that evolution is a slow process, beset with setbacks
and reversals. We should not question the forces that are connecting our
neurons, he argued; rather we should expand our own awareness and
embrace\our new complexity. Teilhard would readily see the Net as a
necessary step along this path. At this point, the earth needs humanity
to build the noosphere. As we become conscious of our group mind, a new
relationship with the earth emerges. When that happens, Teilhard wrote,
"we have the beginning
of a new age. The earth 'gets a new skin.' Better still, it finds its

Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg (jkreisberg@igc.apc.org) has an MA in theology
and studies the sacred dimension of technology.


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Compilation copyright  1995 HotWired Ventures LLC

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