Cyberspace and the Dream of Teilhard de Chardin 

by John R. Mabry 

Progressive Catholics have long cherished Teilhard de Chardin and his unique and mystical vision, and for those of us who have only recently discovered the New Cosmology, his discovery is as great an epiphany as the encountering of Hildegard, Julian of Norwich, or any of the other mystics who testify to Divine immanence. Teilhard was a man possessed of rare vision who was capable of remythologizing his faith to fit the "facts" that his scientific studies convinced him of. His was not a God "out there" who disapproved of humans hypothesizing about or even tampering with the Creation. His God was an organic entity who lived and breathed the life and breath of the Creation, a Creator who was simultaneously giving birth to and being born from the magnificent organism of the universe. His views are profoundly Creation-centered, and are worthy of our present consideration not only because his thought was ahead of its time, but because his predictions;which seemed so unlikely in his own time;are coming to pass unnoticed beneath our very noses. 

Chardin was not a psychologist, nor even a philosopher in the usual sense. He was a priest and mystic, but he was also a scientist, to whom the concept of evolution held as much weight as scripture. "Evolution" is the basis for Chardin's entire cosmology. Not, as Darwinian evolution would have it, a random product, or the "survival of the fittest," but an evolution planned and guided by divine agency. "The magic word 'evo-lution' which haunted my thoughts like a tune," he writes, "was to me like unsatisfied hunger, like a promise held out to me, like a summons to be answered." Chardin's universe is one of continuous and interwoven evolutionary threads, incorporating plants, animals, the planet, the cosmos, and, most peculiar to him, not merely the physical and mental evolution of humankind, but our spiritual ascent as well. Michael Murray in The Thought of Teilhard de Chardin writes, "In Teilhard's hands the theory of evolution, far from diminishing man by relating him to the apes, as so many churchmen used to fear, actually re-establishes him at the moving apex of time-space, well above the fixed central position which he lost in the Copernican revolution." In Teilhard's estimation, humankind is the crowning achievement of the universe, because it is in us, and as far as we yet know, only in us, that the Creation has become self-aware. Our eyes are the eyes through which the Earth finally beholds her own beauty, and, just as importantly, knows that she beholds it. Human beings are not above the Creation, but are themselves the Creation;that part of the Creation that is self- conscious. 

The evolutionary ascent of human beings occurs, according to Chardin's theory, in two stages of what he calls "planetization." The first stage is the "Go forth and multiply" stage, in which humanity expanded, in both quantity (in the very number of persons), and in quality (psychological and spiritual development). As Blanche Marie Gallagher, B.V.M., explains in her introduction to her Meditations With Teilhard de Chardin, "During the long period of expansion, physical and cultural differences isolated the peoples of the Earth from each other as they spread to fill the Earth. At the beginning of our present century, with most of the habitable surface of the Earth occupied, the races began to converge. Through technology, tangential energy becomes evident in the response of the people across the Earth to each other; people are sharing their wars, their coronations, their concerns. Thus the law of complexity-consciousness develops." 

We have reached the end of the expanding, or "diversity" stage, and are now entering the contracting, or "unifying" stage. At this point, Chardin's theory runs completely counter to Darwin's, in that the success of humanity's evolution in the second stage will not be determined by "survival of the fittest," but by our own capacity to converge and unify. The most important initial evolutionary leap of the convergence stage is the formation of what Chardin termed "the Noosphere." It's formation, as Michael Murray explains, begins with "a global network of trade, communications, accumulation, and exchange of knowledge, cooperative research ...all go into the weaving of the material support for a sphere of collective thought. In the field of science alone, no individual knows more than a tiny fraction of the sum of scientific knowledge, and each scientist is dependent not only for his education but for all his subsequent work on the traditions and resources which are the collective possession of an entire international society composed of the living and the dead. Just as Earth once covered itself with a film of interdependent living organisms which we call the biosphere, so mankind's combined achievements are forming a global network of collective mind." 

"The idea," writes Chardin, "is that of the Earth not only covered by myriads of grains of thought, but enclosed in a single thinking envelope so as to form a single vast grain of thought on the sidereal scale, the plurality of individual reflections grouping themselves together and reinforcing one another in the act of a single unanimous reflection." One hesitates to invoke the terms "group-mind" or "hive mentality," but they are, perhaps, leaps made by far less developed creatures than we that presage our own ascent. We know that such a thing can and does exist in a variety of species, especially ants, migratory birds, and others. We also know the evidence regarding the "hundredth monkey" (once a learned behavior is taught to a significant portion of a population ;in this famous example, of monkeys;the behavior becomes instinctual even for those completely isolated from the community which acquired the behavior). If C.G. Jung has given us the notion of the "collective unconscious," Chardin, then, speaks of the "collective conscious." 

Chardin waxes poetic (as he often does) when he describes it: "Noosphere ...the living membrane which is stretched like a film over the lustrous surface of the star which holds us. An ultimate envelope taking on its own individuality and gradually detaching itself like a luminous aura. This envelope was not only conscious, but thinking...the Very Soul of the Earth." Not only are our bodies the stuff of the Earth's body, but our minds are the consciousness of this being, the Earth. We have supposed that we are individuals, yet we "are dust, and to dust ye shall return." We have supposed our minds are our own, that even if the Earth is conscious of herself in us, she is conscious of being many little selves; but perhaps, as theorists in the field of transpersonal psychology suggest, we are mistaken. Chardin, in fact, argues that it must be so, that "what we are aware of is only the nucleus which is ourselves. The interaction of souls would be incomprehensible if some Aura' did not extend from one to the other, something proper to each one and common to all." Chardin believes, too, that this consciousness is not only psychological, but of the greatest spiritual importance, as well. "Nothing is precious," he says, "except that part of you which is in other people, and that part of others which is in you. Up there, on high, everything is one." 

The Noosphere is a fascinating and intriguing idea, one that many of us desperately want, on some level, to be true. But as we have been describing it thus far, it seems little more than science fiction. How is it that such an awesome phenomenon could possibly come to be? Amazingly, Teilhard predicts the evolution of a machine that hardly even existed in his time beyond being a glorified abacus: the computer. "Here I am thinking," he writes in Man's Place in Nature, "of those astonishing electronic machines (the starting-point and hope of the young science of cybernetics), by which our mental capacity to calculate and combine is reinforced and multiplied by a process and to a degree that herald as astonishing advances in this direction as those that optical science has already produced for our power of vision." Teilhard's vision of what computers would do for us is twofold. First, computers will achieve the completion of our brains, in that there would be the instantaneous retrieval of information around the globe. Second, computers will improve our brains by facilitating processes more quickly than our own resources can achieve them. 

It is also interesting that Chardin predicts the use of the prefix "cyber" in regards to the computer/human matrix, since "cyber" is all the rage in computering circles. In fact, what can be seen as the progenitor of Teilhard's Noosphere is now being termed "Cyberspace" by the computer press, in reference to that mystical field of inter-connecting computer pathways wherein all of the exchanges are made. As Michael Benedikt describes it in his Collected Abstracts from the First Conference on Cyberspace, "Cyberspace is a globally networked, computer-sustained, computer-accessed, and computer-generated, multi-dimensional, artificial, or Virtual' reality. In this world, onto which every computer screen is a window, actual, geographical distance is irrelevant. Objects seen or heard are neither physical nor, necessarily, presentations of physical objects, but are rather;in form, character, and action;made up of data, of pure information. This information is derived in part from the operation of the natural, physical world, but is derived primarily from the immense traffic of symbolic information, images, sounds, and people, that constitute human enterprise in science, art, business, and culture." 

The form most of these exchanges take is the computer "bulletin board." On this, any person with the simplest of computers and a modem can call a central, master computer with which literally any number of other users may be linked. Once connected, a person may receive or distribute messages on any given topic to one or a million people. As John Barlow describes it, "In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one forsakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. You can see what your neighbors are saying (or recently said), but not what either they or their physical surroundings look like. Town meetings are continuous and discussions range on everything from sexual kinks to depreciation schedules." ("Trouble in Cyberspace," The Humanist Sept/Oct 1991) 

The extent of these data expressways is staggering. There are literally thousands of individual bulletin boards around the world, and nearly all of them are linked by one incredible, global network, the Internet. Sounding like some sinister creation of an Ian Fleming villain, the Internet links more than 8,000 separate bulletin boards and networks, accommodating ten million people around the world. As Jon Katz notes in Rolling Stone, "Nobody can even calculate how much information is on it, what its boundaries are or who will eventually control it. It contains entire scientific and academic archives, complex networks from aeronautics and African wildlife to the CIA World Factbook. Companies share data between different offices, and hundred of libraries in dozens of countries are putting their catalogs on it. ("Bulletin Boards: News from Cyberspace," Rolling Stone, April 15, 1993) 

Those who study such things predict that the users of Internet are likely to double each year. Vinton Cerf, designer of the Internet system, says that by the year 2000, there will be more than 100 million users. "This kind of reaching out from anywhere in the world," he says in Katz' article, "has got to change the way we think about our world. It will become critical for everyone to be connected. Anyone who isn't will essentially be isolated from the world." And perhaps, in Darwinian terms, be selected out of the emerging node of evolution. 

In light of developments such as computer bulletin boards and "super- information highways" like the Internet, Teilhard's fantastic notions don't seem so fantastic. He is, it turns out, the unsung prophet of our collective future. It is time that we begin to look forward to what these developments are going to mean to us personally, developmentally. Chardin says that "Humankind is now caught up, as though in a train of gears, at the heart of a continually accelerating vortex of self-totalization." We need to consider how the inevitable changes in our nature are going to affect us as individuals, spiritually, psychologically, and pathologically. One advantage, though, to facing what is happening to us is that we can stop "groping about" in the dark, and take conscious control of our evolution to speed it on its way. 

We are, therefore, in the latter twentieth century, at the threshold of another great leap in evolution, the contraction and unification of the human species, the construction of the Noosphere, the focusing of our psychic energies. "The powers that we have released," Chardin states in Human Energy, "could not possibly be absorbed by the narrow system of individual or national units which the architects of the human Earth have hitherto used. The age of nations has passed. Now unless we wish to perish we must shake off our old prejudices and build the Earth." (Italics mine.) How we accomplish this is by correcting our errant perception of reality as being made up of separate units. Chardin insists that "to love is to discover and complete one's self in someone other than oneself, an act impossible of general realization on Earth so long as each can see in the neighbor no more than a closed fragment following its own course through the world. It is precisely this state of isolation that will end if we begin to discover in each other not merely the elements of one and the same thing, but of a single Spirit in search of Itself." 

The result of such a realization is the Noosphere, towards which we are moving even now, via our cybernetic interconnections, know it or not, like it or not, want it or not. As our consciousness of unity progresses, the standard of morality will eventually not be placed on the maintenance of private property, but upon the health of the Whole, which will become more and more perceptible to us as Noogenesis unfolds. Chardin himself admits that "these perspectives will appear absurd to those who don't see that life is, from its origins, groping, adventurous, and dangerous. But these perspectives will grow, like an irresistible idea on the horizon of new generations." Indeed, it seems less and less absurd as this very process unfolds before us. 

John R. Mabry is a doctoral student at the California Institute of Integral Studies and former managing editor of Creation Spirituality magazine. The previous article appeared in Creation Spirituality Magazine, Summer 1994 issue (this text was downloaded from America Online) 

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