Despite the obvious attractions of secular humanism, particularly in freeing individuals from conformity to religious doctrines unsupported by science, and by transcending religious particularism and exclusivity by focusing on the universality of the human experience, there are several problems with it. One is, at a fundamental philosophical level, there is no more evidence (there might actually be less) for secular humanism, particularly of its more militantly atheistic persuasion, than there is for a rational theism. Another is that the human experience of every culture up to the present day has included the religious as well as the secular. Third, the abandonment of a religious perspective in predominantly secular societies has not contributed to human happiness. The fundamental breach is that between the scientific and religious views of the world. Many thinkers have attempted to address this dilemma, of which one of the most important, in my opinion, is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1890 – 1955).
As a young man I remember reading my newly-purchased copy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man sitting on a rock atop a hill in the Welsh borderland, as the sun poked through a lingering mist. It was probably that concatenation of heady ideas on an impressionable young mind in those surreal and sublimely beautiful surroundings, as much as the ideas themselves, that caused this book to have a long-lasting influence on my thinking. Nevertheless, as a student of geology, but with an interest in philosophy and spirituality, and becoming aware of the conflicting interpretations of the world which those perspectives entailed, reading Teilhard at that time had a revelatory power.
Teilhard was an unusual figure even by the standards of the time, and of a sort that could barely exist today; or at least, if they did, would be a peripheral figure of interest to no one, in our technophile, celebrity-obsessed, instant-information age. He was a heroic-tragic figure, a thinker and writer, and explorer, who straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. But he was as unlike the romantic figures of that age of exploration as could be, for example Burton of India, the chronicler of the profane, or Shackleton, who led his expedition into perdition. First, he was a Catholic priest, and a particularly pious one, who wrote a number of books on the inner spiritual life, such as The Divine Milieu and Hymn of the Universe. Then, he was also a philosopher, much influenced by the vitalism of Henri Bergson and the evolutionism of Samuel Alexander, as well as a geologist with a strong interest in palaeontology.
His writings attempted to bridge the gap between Catholic theology and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Teilhard envisioned a universe in which God, rather than creating by fiat – in the biblical six days – in some mysterious way fashioned the fundamental principles that allowed the evolution of the universe towards a final eschaton, that represented the fusion of the material and the divine. He coined several terms that were once fashionable, although are perhaps less heard now, such as the ‘noosphere’ to describe the world of human consciousness (the human equivalent of the biosphere), and the ‘Omega Point’ to describe the final destiny of the universe.
Such views naturally brought Teilhard to the attention of the Catholic authorities. He was accused of denying original sin and promoting a pantheistic view of the universe. During his lifetime his writings were suppressed, and he was banned from teaching in Catholic seminaries. As a Jesuit under holy orders he was exiled from France and sent to China, where as part of an expeditionary force, he assisted in the discovery and identification of a new early hominid species, Pithecanthropus or Peking Man. Long after his death, he was rehabilitated and many of his views are now part of the orthodox Catholic view on evolution.
Teilhard proposed the idea, known as orthogenesis, that the evolution of the cosmos, life, consciousness and human history were all linked and guided by the immanent presence of the divine in nature and the human mind. He saw evidence for this in the appearance of increasingly complex forms of life, in the appearance of increasingly human-like forms in the fossil record, and in the appearance of increasingly large brains and resultant rise in intelligence, processes which he referred to, respectively, as complexification, hominisation and encephalisation. Teilhard theorised that evolution had passed through three qualitative stages, that of existence, life and consciousness, and proposed that this foreshadowed a fourth and final stage, that of super-consciousness, in which the divine and human become fused, in what he termed the Omega Point. Powering these developments, he asserted, was the agency of two types of energy, called radial and tangential. Radial energy he surmised was responsible for the radiation of the complex variety of life from a single point of origin, while tangential energy bound matter into more complex arrangements that allowed the emergence of higher order
Teilhard considered that he was advancing a scientific account of evolution, albeit one that incorporated a theological perspective, and at the time he wrote The Phenomenon of Man, his ideas were considered an important contribution to the debate on science and religion and sufficiently influential that the prominent evolutionist Julian Huxley wrote an effusive introduction to the book, perhaps despite reservations. Today, Teilhard’s ideas on evolution are largely discredited, and almost universally so by evolutionary biologists. Evolution is asserted to be a stochastic process, guided only by the principle of differential survival through adaptability to changing environmental conditions, underlain by natural, random variation. I would add a caveat to this. While natural selection explains in a very satisfactory manner the adaptability of nature, it does not explain – without a great deal of apparent fudging and speculating – the appearance of new forms of life or the transition between forms, for example reptiles to birds, or the appearance of bipedalism in humans. That is not to argue for creationism or a form of guided evolution, only to point out that our understanding of these processes is still incomplete.
However, while Teilhard may not have succeeded in adding to our scientific knowledge of the evolutionary process, there is a case that he has contributed to an understanding of human nature. In the concept of the emergence of the human mind/brain as ‘evolution understanding itself’, Teilhard has distilled the idea of humans as quintessentially and uniquely spiritual beings, even as we are continuous with the rest of nature. This brings me to a second caveat; even those who maintain a strict agnosticism and reductive interpretation of human biology – even those who advocate a forthright atheism – fail to be unmoved by the sacredness (their terminology) of nature and of the highest human cultural achievements. This does not constitute evidence for the existence and intervention of a divinity; it is, however, an argument that human nature represents a qualitative discontinuity with the rest of nature.
Furthermore, while the concepts of radial and tangential energies owe more to the ideas of vitalism and the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer than to empirical science, they are a useful tool for thinking about human social change, particularly in the more generic and less loaded terminology of differentiation and integration. These are widely observable tendencies in all societies throughout history; moreover, they are principles which tend to stay in balance. If differentiating tendencies, for example the desire for freedom, independence and personal glory, become too strong they result in social fracture, but tend to provoke moves towards greater integration, such as solidarity or cooperation. On the other hand, if integration becomes over-dominant, as it does in authoritarian and totalitarian states, this tends to provoke moves towards liberation and secession. To put that in context, differentiation and integration form part of a complex of reaction and resistance, which all healthy, dynamic societies exhibit, although I would be loath to raise this concept to the level of a predictive category.
There are important ideas in Teilhard’s philosophy that enable us to see an alternative to the soulless bureaucratisation of life. Going beyond the sense of awe at the majesty of nature seen in the immensity of distance, size and time, that is often referred to on the literature on secular spirituality, is the perception of the immanence of divine wonderment in the simplest and smallest of things of nature, in the processes and systems of the natural world, in the emergence of the universe, and the evolution of life, specifically the emergence of man and the evolution of human consciousness and human achievement. Moreover, these perspectives are neither inimical to existing knowledge nor any sort of impediment to any future understanding of nature. In fact, like Teilhard himself, the sense of wonderment and curiosity that nature evokes may actually be a spur to future research. Moreover, the spiritual dimension of knowledge, which places human consciousness at the foreground, acts as a counter to the dehumanising tendency of modern technocratic and bureaucratic processing of information.
There are criticisms that can be made of Teilhard. One is that his essentially pantheistic view, makes it difficult to reconcile the human desire for goodness and justice, with the real existence of evil in the world, however one evaluates its ontological or epistemological significance, and this was a just criticism of his Catholic superiors in an otherwise unjustifiable suppression of his teaching and writing. Teilhard’s vision was, to some extent marred by his political naivety and he offered little in the way of criticism of the monstrosities of Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, or offered much hope for their oppressed peoples. His focus was unremittingly on the eschatological future of mankind, at the Omega Point of the future of super-consciousness. There are recent interpretations that predict the Omega Point to the moment when human consciousness becomes augmented by artificial intelligence, when human minds interface imperceptibly with supercomputers. To quote the cyber-sage John Perry Barlow: “Teilhard’s work is about creating a consciousness so profound it will make good company for God itself.” Some may find in this prospect the closest approach to divinity imaginable. To me it would seem the sacrifice of our very humanity and freedom, which is as much constituted in the limitations of our physicality and the proximity of our bonding as it is in the extension of our knowledge.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1961) The Phenomenon of Man. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.