ASSOCIATED WITH TEILHARD'S
VISION OF THE UNIVERSE
An Article by Brian Cowan
Universe, by Milena GAZIBARA, Belgrade, Yugoslavia
In his 1924 essay, "Mon Univers"" ["My Universe"], completed in Tientsin, China, Teilhard de Chardin writes: "I believe it useful to bring to the fore a certain number of fundamental principles or postulates wherein appears "the spirit" in which my vision of the universe was born and grew." (1) These fundamental principles or postulates of his are four in number, and I list them as follows.
1. "The primacy of consciousness." (2)
2. "Faith in life." (3)
3. "Faith in the Absolute." (4)
4. "The priority of the all." (5)
In this submission I"d like to take a closer look at these four basic postulates associated with the way the French paleontologist looks upon the universe. Let"s consider them one by one. Because I think the first postulate is both interesting and important, I"ll devote more attention to it than I will to any of the other three.
1. THE PRIMACY OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Teilhard informs us that he is strongly persuaded that to exist, to be is good. In this connection he speaks of his "profound conviction that being is good". (6) If we agree with him that to exist is good, we will, I think, also concur with him when he goes on to state:
- "that it is better to be than not to be" (7), and
- "that it is better to be more than to be less." (8)
In a 1920 essay of his entitled "A Note on Progress" the Auvergnian Jesuit had already made plain his view that "to be more is in the first place to know more." (9) Such a viewpoint does appear to make sense to me. I believe it would be difficult to deny, for example, that a physician nowadays is more of a physician than his or her counterpart of, say, a century ago. The average medical doctor, in 2003, is more of a medical doctor than his or her counterpart of 1903 because the former knows ever so much more, in terms of the prevention and treatment of illness, than did the latter back in 1903.
For the French paleontologist, then, it is the case that knowing more, experiencing greater consciousness, amounts to being more, to existing at a higher plane of being. And in his paper,
"Mon Univers", I believe he says as much when he admits to an "auxiliary principle" (10) which he regards as a corollary to his view that to exist is good. This auxiliary principle, from his perspective, avers "that "fulfilled" being is conscious being". (11) By way of clarification of what he is here proposing he goes on to remark:
- "that it is better to be conscious than to not be so" (12), and
- "that it is better to be more conscious than less conscious." (13)
So, under the heading of the primacy of consciousness, Teilhard submits for our consideration two main propositions each accompanied by two auxiliary propositions as summarized in the following outline.
1. To be is good. a) It is better to be than not to be. b) It is better to be more than less.
2. The more fulfilled (or actualized) being is, the more conscious it is. a) It is better to be conscious than unconscious. b) It is better to be more conscious than less conscious.
The French Jesuit does acknowledge, not without some surprise, that not everyone accepts these propositions of his. In this connection he writes:
"we are surprised, in the course of experience, to see how often they [i. e. the propositions] are contested practically or theoretically, by the agnostics, the pessimists, the hedonists and the faint-hearted. It may well be at the level of the basic choice between the absolute worth or non-worth of maximally enhanced consciousness that occurs the great split between good and bad people, between the elect and the reprobate." (14)
Possibly we will feel the Père Teilhard is being somewhat harsh here when he suggests that those who disagree with his basic propositions about the worth of being and consciousness may be bad people who find themselves numbered among the reprobate! : - ) I, personally, think that he is, in fact, speaking with undue severity in this instance.
Perhaps because I am a theist (15) I do accept as plausible the Auvergnian Jesuit"s six propositions relating to the primacy of consciousness. From my perspective, to be, to exist is good because being more closely imitates the Divinity than does non-being. Further, the more something is the more it resembles the Divinity, the absolute Being. Also, in that I am of the view that God is all-knowing, that is to say, absolute Consciousness, I, consequently, opine that consciousness is better than unconsciousness because the former approaches closer to the divine Awareness than does the latter. And, to be sure, more consciousness, from my vantage point, is better than less because the more conscious an entity is, the more does that entity resemble the Divine.
I do not think that Teilhard would seriously dispute the theistic views which I have expressed in the previous paragraph, and, if I am correct on this point, then I believe we are safe in saying that his views on the primacy of consciousness are consistent with his theism.
For the benefit of those e-group members who read French I will include, with these notes, Teilhard"s own French phrasing of any material which I translate, to the best of my ability, into English. The French Jesuit"s words, as he wrote them in his native tongue, will appear within square brackets at the end of any note which references material that I have translated.
Perhaps the agnostic or the atheist, not sure about, or lacking altogether, an absolute standard, a standard, that is to say, grounded by an absolute Divinity, will experience more difficulty than the theist when it comes to comfortably acceding to Teilhard's propositions relating to the primacy of consciousness. It is, after all, difficult to judge or measure something if you lack a standard, a yardstick, so to speak, against which to do the judging, the measuring. The Auvergnian Jesuit makes the interesting comment that "everything holds together from on high" (16), from some transcendent, absolute Principle. I"m inclined to agree with him on this point. As well, it does seem to me that at least some standards or measures of judgment have to be firmly held in place, to be solidly fixed, as it were, in such an absolute Principle.
Despite a possible hesitancy on the part of some persons to grant the reality of transcendently secured standards regarding being and consciousness, it does seem to me to be the case that, at least implicitly, there is some recognition of these very standards in the popular consciousness at large. An example will perhaps clarify the case I am trying to make. Suppose that A is out for a walk in a public place, a city park perhaps, and carries out one of the following three acts, each act constituting a possible scenario.
- For no particular reason A kicks an empty soft-drink can which is lying on the ground.
- For no good reason (such as self-protection) A kicks a dog.
- For no appropriate reason (such as self-defense) A kicks a human being.
Let's consider the likely reactions by average members of the public who happen to witness any of these three scenarios.
Scenario # 1: As act of kicking an empty can will likely go almost unnoticed; it will not be viewed as an act meriting a sanction of any sort.
Scenario # 2: Many, if not most, of those who witness A administering a gratuitous blow to the dog will probably want to see A constrained, by the legal authorities, to pay at least a moderate fine for having treated an animal with cruelty.
Scenario # 3: Many, if not most, of those who watch A directing a blow, for no valid reason, at another person, will, in all probability, wish to see A required, by a court of justice, to pay a substantial fine, or even to serve some time in prison, for assaulting a human being.
As I see it the three probable public reactions to the three possible scenarios we have just been considering reflect an implicit recognition, by people at large, that, in some sense, to exist as a conscious being is better than to exist as an unconscious being, and that to exist as a thinking conscious being is better than to exist entirely at the level of instinctive consciousness. It seems to me that it is this implicit recognition which stands behind the following generally held public viewpoints.
- The viewpoint that a gratuitous blow to an object which is perceived as inanimate, for example an empty soft-drink can, calls for no sanction.
- The viewpoint that a gratuitous blow to an animal, such as a dog, calls for at least a moderate sanction.
- The viewpoint that a gratuitous blow to a person calls of a substantial sanction.
From my perspective the three probable public attitudes under discussion involve a latent recognition of at least three levels of existential worth or value -- the worth or value related, respectively, to:
- pre-conscious existence,
- conscious but pre-thinking existence,
- thinking existence.
In my opinion, these three implicit differences in assessment of worth or value are made manifest by the three variations, in terms of sanctions, seen as appropriate for acts of unprovoked aggression against the three levels of being. And the variations in terms of sanctions are the following:
- no sanction whatsoever in the case of a pre-conscious being,
- a moderate sanction in the instance of a conscious but non-thinking animal such as a dog, and
- a substantial sanction when a thinking being is involved.
It does seem to me that the public, the so called collectivity of average persons in the street, would not become progressively more severe, in terms of the sanctions it deems appropriate for unprovoked aggressive behaviour against beings of varying levels of awareness if it did not implicitly recognize that it is better to be conscious than not conscious and better to be more conscious than less conscious. Why, for example, would public opinion regard it as appropriate to apply a greater sanction for the unjustifiable injury to a person than for the unjustifiable injury to an animal if the said public did not, at least latently, understand that, in some sense, and at some level, people are of more worth and value, that is to say, better, than animals?
2. FAITH IN LIFE
I am of the opinion that, in the present context, when Teilhard claims to have faith in life, he is more or less asserting that he has faith in the universe itself. From his perspective the universe is alive and has been so since its inception. In this connection, in a paper written in 1945, he speaks of a cosmos which, despite appearing lifeless, at various places and times, is, nonetheless, vital. Thus he mentions a universe "which seems dead but is in fact "imperceptibly alive"." (17) In addition, few would wish to dispute the notion that what is alive is animated by an inwardness, a spontaneity and a measure of consciousness. Now, from the perspective of the Jesuit thinker, our material universe has never been without these attributes, and so has always been vital, even if at times and places such vitality has been attenuated in the extreme. The Teilhardian idea of the all-pervading vitality of the material cosmos comes out clearly, I believe, in the following passage appearing in an essay completed by the Auvergnian paleontologist in the early 1940s.
"Absolutely inert and totally brute matter does not exist. Every element contains, at least to an infinitesimal degree, some germ of inwardness and spontaneity, that is to say of consciousness." (18)
If we once grant, as I believe we legitimately can, that, for Teilhard, a faith in life, in the present context, more or less amounts to a faith in the universe, the question naturally arises as to what it is about the universe that he has faith in. He answers this question when he expresses an "unshakeable certitude that the universe, considered as a whole, a) has a goal, b) and cannot err regarding the direction of its route nor stop along its way." (19)
>From the perspective of the French Jesuit, notwithstanding particular failures, the universe, as a totality, will achieve, cannot fail to achieve, "a certain superior state of consciousness." (20) Maybe some thinking worlds, some noospheres here and there in the cosmos, will fail to reach their points of culmination in the domain of consciousness, but others, for their part, will pick up the slack and will succeed in attaining such culminations. Teilhard, quite candidly, acknowledges that he simply cannot accept the idea that the universe, as a whole, might founder. In this connection he states: "I am unable to admit that the universe will fail." (21)
We may safely say, I believe, that the Jesuit thinker's views here tie in nicely with his theism. He would have a hard time envisaging God creating the cosmos in a goalless, aimless way
3. FAITH IN THE ABSOLUTE
In so far as I understand him, Teilhard posits an Absolute, at least in part, as a way of guaranteeing the immortality of thinking consciousness. Our universe is one that is gradually descending the slope of entropy, that is, little by little, giving up the light and the heat needed to sustain life. The day will come, eons hence, when the cosmos will become too cold and too dark for life to persist. Such being the case, it is not within the cosmos that thinking life must look for its own immortality. No, the grains of thinking matter must turn to an eternal Absolute, an Absolute whose undying light will still be shining brightly after the stars and galaxies of our cosmos will have, one by one, winked out and our universe will have entered its long era of lifeless night.
Why, we may ask, is immortality important, even crucial, for Teilhard? He replies to this question quite plainly when he asserts that were he to become convinced of a future total annihilation of thinking consciousness, such a conviction would have the effect of deactivating the energy which sustains his working life. As he puts it:
"The more I think about it, the more I see that I would be psychologically incapable of making the least effort if I could not believe in the absolute value of something associated with this effort. Prove to me that nothing will remain one day of my work because there will be, not only a death of the individual, and a death of the earth, but a death of the universe; -- and you kill in me the incentive for all activity." (22)
So, at least one reason for Teilhard"s acceptance of an Absolute is that only such an acceptance keeps flowing into him the energy he needs to get on with his life"s work. >From his perspective, it is the guarantee of something that perdures into forever which accords him the energy, the spur, the incentive to carry on with his day to day labours. As he sees it, the Absolute serves as a kind of unshakeable warranty guaranteeing that the best of himself and of his accomplishments, as well the best of humanity and of humanity"s accomplishments, will last without end. This warranty energizes him to carry on; lacking such a warranty, he would find his energy to persevere in his efforts deactivated.
Perhaps an example form ordinary life may help us to understand better what Teilhard means when he talks about how an expectation about the future can energize or de-energize people. We"ll consider such an example in a later section.
Let us begin with our example, taken from everyday life, of how an expectation about the future can serve to either activate or de-activate human energy.
Imagine two individuals contemplating the possibility of building houses for themselves and their families on land which they own. Each individual, along with his or her family, very much wants a new house. A"s land sits on solid bedrock and is little threatened by such eventualities as floods or erosion. B"s land, on the other hand, is situated near the edge of a high precipice, a precipice which, each time there is a significant rain storm, erodes away by a few inches.
A is pretty sure that if he builds his house with its foundation solidly resting on the bedrock that house is very likely to last well into the lifetimes of his great grandchildren. B, though, understands that a new house built by her on her cliff-edge land is probably one that, after a few years and a few dozen rain storms, will become dislodged from its moorings in the earth, tumble over the edge of the precipice and go crashing down to the base of the escarpment.
The foregoing couple of paragraphs disclose, I think, situations where an expectation of what the future is likely to bring can either energize or de-energize people. A probably will be energized, motivated to build his new house in the expectation that it will probably last for a century or more. B, on the other hand, is likely to find herself de-energized, de-motivated vis-à-vis the possible project of constructing a house on her steadily eroding land. Indeed, most probably, she will not embark on the project at all. What is the point, she will no doubt ask herself, of putting up a dwelling that in all likelihood is destined in a few years time to tumble over the precipice to its destruction? Why bother, it seems to me she will say to herself, embark upon a more or less pointless construction project.
The examples of the two land-owners contemplating the viability of building houses may help us to understand a little better Teilhard"s accedence to the view that human energy can be activated or deactivated by expectations about the future.
Finally, we may note that due to the fact that Père Teilhard identifies the Absolute with God, his belief in the reality of the Absolute does tie in with his theism.
4. THE PRIORITY OF THE ALL
As Teilhard sees it, the totality of the living universe is inerrant, infallible in the pursuit of its final culmination. In this connection he remarks that "life in its entirety, and not in its elements,is infallible". (23) Individual persons, individual groups of persons, maybe even individual worlds, may, quite fallibly, diverge from the route leading to the overall cosmic goal of arriving at the culmination point of an ever increasing complexity and an ever growing consciousness. But, from his standpoint, cosmogenesis, in its totality, will infallibly, inerrantly close in on, rise to, the said goal.
For the Jesuit thinker, the rise of, the advance of cosmogenesis is a process that draws ever closer to a point of absolute culmination. But this process of moving to culmination, to fulfilment is one that involves the cosmos as a whole, the universe as a totality. In this connection he tells us that "the Absolute towards which we are climbing cannot have any other face besides that of an all -- an All, purified, spiritualized, "rendered aware"." (24)
Teilhard"s notion of a universe advancing, as a whole, towards an absolute and perfected totality seems to tie in with his theistic outlook. In his opinion what draws the universe forward to its final, totalized, unified state is a Centre of convergence at whose core is situated the Divine. In this connection he writes:
"by way of one thing leading to another (by way of the more multiple leading to the less multiple) we are led to conceptualize a first and supreme Centre, an Omega, in whom are bound all the fibers, the threads, the generators of the universe -- a Centre still in formation (virtual) if we envisage the completion of the movement which it directs, but also a Centre already real because without its present attraction, the general flow towards unification could not raise the multiple upwards." (25)
As we know from another essay of his, the Divine constitutes, for Teilhard, the transcendent aspect of the supreme Centre of convergence, of Omega. In this regard he tells us that, from his standpoint, "God" is "the transcendent aspect of Omega" is "independent of evolution" and is such as to subsist "in himself independently of time and space". (26)
(1) "Mon Univers", in "Science et Christ" ["Science and Christ"] (Editions du Seuil, 1965), p. 69. ["je crois utile de dégager un certain nombre de Principes ou Postulats fondamentaux , où apparait "l"esprit" dans lequel est née et s'est développée ma représentation de l'Univers."]
(2) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 69. ["Le primat de la conscience."]
(3) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 70. ["La foi en la vie."]
(4) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 71. ["La foi en l'absolu."]
(5) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 73. ["La priorité du tout."]
(6) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 69. ["conviction profonde que l'être est bon"]
(7) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 69. ["qu"il vaut mieux être que ne pas être"]
(8) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 69. ["qu"il vaut mieux être plus qu'être moins."]
(9) "A Note on Progress", in "The Future of Man" (Harper & Row, 1969), p. 20.
(10) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 69. ["principe auxiliaire"]
(11) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 69. ["que l'être "achevé" est l'être conscient"]
(12) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 70. ["qu"il vaut mieux être conscient que de ne pas être tel"]
(13) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 70. ["qu"il vaut mieux être plus conscient que moins conscient."]
(14) "Mon Univers", in "Science, p. 70. ["on est surpris, à l'expérience, de voir combien elles sont souvent contestées practiquement ou théoriquement, par les agnostiques, les pessimistes, les jouisseurs, les pusillamines. C"est peut-être bien sur l'option primordial entre la valeur ou la non-valeur absolue de la plus grande conscience que se produit la grande coupure entre les Hommes bon ou mauvais, élus ou réprouvés."]
(15) In this submission I will not go into the details of the reasons for my theistic position. Suffice it to say that, on the whole, I do buy into Teilhard"s theory that a self-synthesizing universe does appear to point beyond itself to a divine Principle or Centre of synthesis or convergence.
(16) "Mon Univers", in "Science", p. 79. ["tout tient par en haut"]
(17) "The Planetisation of Mankind et. al.", in "Future", p. 135.
(18) "Man"s Place in the Universe et. al.", in "The Vision of the Past (Collins, 1966), p. 225.
(19) "Mon Univers", in "Science", p. 70. ["certitude inébranlable que l'Univers, considéré dans son ensemble, a) a un but, b) et ne peut ni se tromper de route, ni s'arrêter en chemin."]
(20) "Mon Univers", in "Science", p.71. ["un certain état supérieur de conscience."]
(21) "Mon Univers", in "Science", p.70. ["Je ne puis admettre que l'Univers échoue."]
(22) "Mon Univers", in "Science", p.72. ["Plus j'y pense, plus je vois que je serais psychologiquement incapable de faire le plus petit effort si je ne pouvais croire à la valeur absolue de quelque chose dans cette effort. Prouvez-moi que rien ne restera un jour de mon oeuvre, parce qu" il y aura, non seulement une mort de l'individu, et une mort de la Terre, mais une mort de l'Univers; -- et vous tuez en moi le ressort de toute activité."]
(23) "Mon Univers", in "Science", p. 73. ["la Vie dans son ensemble, et non dans ses éléments,est infaillible"]
(24) "Mon Univers", in "Science", p. 73. ["l’Absolu vers qui nous nous élevons ne saurait avour d"autre visage que celui du tout -- d'un Tout épuré, sublimisé, "conscientisé"."]
(25) "Mon Univers", in "Science", p. 77. ["de proche en proche (de plus multiple en moins multiple), nous sommes amenés à concevoir un Centre premier et suprême, un oméga, en qui se relient toutes les fibres, les fils, les génératrices de l'Univers -- Centre encore en formation (virtuel) si on envisage la complétion du movement qu"il dirige, mais Centre déjà réel aussi, puisque, sans son attraction actuelle, le flux général d"unification ne pourrait soulever le Multiple."]
(26) "Outline of a Dialectic of Spirit", in "Activation of Energy" (Harvest Book, 1970), p. 146.
Posted at 22 May 2003 by Brian COWAN