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3/21/04



Home______Tielhard de Chardin, Noogenesis, No-Self, & Implications For An Intelligent Universe

A Jesuit priest born the year before Darwin's death, Pierre Tielhard de Chardin sought the Vatican's approval for his manuscripts, but never got it. His superiors continually denied permission for their release, believing that his theories would not accord with Church doctrine. Published posthumously in 1955 as The Phenomenon of Man, the book assembles his ideas and is based on his work as both a philosopher and paleontologist. His ideas matured in the 1940s while he was in China studying the fossil remains of Peking Man.

In short time his book met with praise and detraction. Its detractors accused Tielhard of imposing teleology, some end goal, on biology and evolution. His phrase for it was the Omega Point. They claimed that he had imported his religious views into science. In his noogenesis, or the origin of human reflective thought, his supporters found evidence that human history cannot be explained by evolutionary theory.

Tielhard de Chardin premises his theory on discontinuity, which cannot be explained by evolutionary theory. He posits a few key transition points when radical changes occurred in evolution, and likens them to water, first luke warm, then brought to a boil. Its state undergoes a discrete alteration, from water, a liquid, to steam, a gas with properties wholly different.

Similarly, he finds major transitions on a grand scale, the appearance of matter, the formation of Earth, the origin of cells, and the rise of reflective thought. Central to his argument is that, with each emergence, the old rules became subsumed under the new. The new rules became preeminent in the evolutionary pattern.

De Chardin wrote of "an explosion pulverizing a primitive quasi-atom . . . then a swarming of elementary corpuscles." Matter thus moves to greater complexity. This is somewhat akin to the Big Bang Theory, which was not in vogue during the 1940s, although de Chardin provides a kind of preview.

After slow eons, life emerged as something wholly, cataclysmically, new. Among his scientific peers today, de Chardin would find few dissenters in this.

De Chardin posits another discontinuity. From the earliest unicellular organisms to mammals, he sees a direction, not random but pointed at the origin of man. With this creature comes noogenesis, reflective thought, a major departure.

If he is right, then sociobiologists are wrong. They maintain that human beings can be studied by finding parallels between people and animals. Animal societies can help explain human societies. Animal ethology and human ethology are not distinctly different for purposes of tracing behavior origins, say most sociobiologists.

But reflective thought is an emergent property and exhibits features unique to people, not chimpanzees. De Chardin would insist that a real discontinuity in programming exists between primates and humans.

The essential question here, then, bears upon Tielhard de Chardin's key concept of noogenesis (occurring in what he calls the noosphere).

Of those who have studied him, many see the central questions as these--Is reflective thought a discontinuity? Or does it evolve out of an earlier order? I see another question as more important, which nobody has addressed.

Rather, one must ask, Just what is reflection? Examination of consciousnesss reveals that any "self-reflected" thought is not generated by a self. It happens and a self arises to take ownership of the thought after the fact. Nobody reflects. Put it this way, if you want--reflecting reflects. There is only the illusion that somebody does so. Scotsman David Hume was one of the first Westerners to point this out, although a history of testimony begins in the East before Buddha. Hume and others have observed that no personal identity underlies perceptions that come and go. They are like images on a movie screen, a series of single pictures to which smoothness, a sense of continuity, is imparted. *

Reflective thought is a naturally occuring phenomenon. Just as the eye incessantly moves although it generates a sense of stability, so does the mind, and it fosters a sense of self. The idea of a self that reflects is an epiphenomenon to help explain understandings which come as a result of thought.

Reflective thought may or may not be a substantial discontinuity, but it does not bring man closer to the angels, as the good priest would like it to have done.

Tielhard de Chardin never considered self as without evidence. If he had, he would still have been faced with another question, one that can redeemed by mystery, although not of his orthodox kind. The question he could have posed, is this--Whence this understanding? How is it, for example, that so many people throughout history can recognize the absence of self? Clearly, understanding understands, if we must phrase the situation so that a process be operated upon.

However we phrase the issue, we must confront the view that the universe itself is intelligent and not the blind thing of the materialists. When the sense of self is seen through as an arising and falling away, understanding remains.

On this, the materialists will eventually have to cede to Tieldhard de Chardin--matter provides insufficient explanation for our world. Consciousness can only do so. Quantum physicists can no longer accept the materialist explanation, except as a handy way to communicate among colleagues. They know that the weirdness of their experiments can not be explained by a materialist perspective.

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