Teilhard and the Texture of the Evolutionary Cosmos
I would like to share with you one physicist’s understanding of the religious thought of one of the most creative minds involved in the early 20 th century science and religion dialogue. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a geologist and paleontologist who was also a Jesuit priest, lived during a very fertile, one could almost say a very volatile, period in the history of science. Just a few years before his birth, the theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin in the mid-nineteenth century was bolstered through contributions made by Gregor Mendel to our understanding of genetics. By the time Teilhard had finished high school and joined the Jesuit order, Max Planck had shown mathematically that energy is quantized, a finding that eventually led the way to the quantum revolution. Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity followed soon after as a prelude to general relativity. Astronomical discoveries greatly extended the boundaries of the cosmos while paleontological and geological specimens continued to provide new insights into the dynamic processes that formed our Earth and pushed the age of the solar system well beyond what people from a previous era could have imagined. The scientific landscape of the day was truly pregnant with potential.
It should come as no surprise, then, that this scientific ferment would affect religious belief. For many, new insights into cosmic processes were a threat to their commonly-held literal interpretation of biblical creation stories and caused them to discredit science. Others, astounded by and satisfied with the power of science to explain phenomena, opted for a materialist view of nature which discredited religion. Although most people kept their lives of religion and science quite separate, some few were challenged to integrate new discoveries into what they considered their rich religious heritage. Teilhard is a stellar member of this final group. New scientific theories invigorated him, particularly the theory of evolution, and, once he found connections between these discoveries and several cosmic-sounding scripture passages from Paul and John, he was delighted with the possibilities that they presented to him for enriching his core religious beliefs. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm was not shared by church authorities who eventually prohibited him from publishing his many religious essays. It was only after his death in 1955 that his works became available to a broader audience for study and criticism.
Teilhard had an extraordinary ability to look at the whole of the phenomenon. His two major works, The Divine Milieu and The Human Phenomenon, treat human consciousness as a special event in the evolutionary story but clearly embed the human within cosmic processes. From the vantage point of evolution, Teilhard attempts to plumb the depths of space-time, to look beneath the surface of the phenomenon as science presents it, to discover its spiritual core. Rather than decomposing nature into sacred and profane components, he demonstrates that these are interconnected aspects of our experience and part of a single whole.
To effect his synthesis, Teilhard relies heavily on vivid scientific imagery. One striking example is his use of textural images that refer to weaving and spinning, looms and tapestries, fibers and threads. These he connects to concepts in biology, physics, and mathematics such as evolutionary landscapes, space-time diagrams, and topological surfaces. It is also interesting to note how some of these images relate to newer physical theories such as complexity theory, superstring theory, and cellular automata theory.
Sometimes Teilhard refers directly to the texture of the cosmos. For instance, in an early lecture, he muses about “the ultimate texture of the world” (S, 25) and about analyzing the texture of the stuff of the universe (see AE, 24). At other times, he refers to the web of life or, like Brian Greene, the fabric of the cosmos. However, he goes a step further than Brian Greene and ventures into the realm of spirit, referring to the intellectual texture of the investigator’s mind (see HE, 114), the texture of the soul (see W, 134-35), and “the fundamental texture of Spirit” (W, 162). The phrase, “texture of spirit,” can seem strange at first since mind and spirit are rarely described in such sensory terms. In this lecture, I hope to explore with you the meaning of this phrase and to show how Teilhard uses these images of texture to convey his message.
As a geologist and paleontologist, Teilhard needed to be sensitive to texture. His work depended on a sharp eye that could notice interesting rock formations and fossils at an unusually large distance. In fact, his friends attest to the fact that he was extraordinarily adept in this respect. The details of the terrain that he explored, the shape of the arrowhead, the texture of the fossils he collected, were important clues for his scientific investigations. I suspect that his use of sensuous imagery is related to his professional interest in the texture of things.
Perhaps the clearest constellation of his texture references appears in an image that I call the cosmic tapestry. Woven throughout Teilhard’s texts, this image is most clearly described at the beginning of The Human Phenomenon where he asserts, “each element of the cosmos is woven . . . from all the others” (14). To explain what he means, he suggests that we view the universe in four-dimensional space-time instead of simply three dimensions in space so that we will be able to examine the evolutionary cosmos as a whole. Because we perceive only what is happening at the present, and because our total life experience of the cosmos is so short compared to its approximately fourteen-billion-year history, we encounter only a relatively minuscule cross-section of its complex texture at each moment and so experience matter as particle-like. If both time and space are taken into account, however, our ability to see the cosmos as a whole is enhanced.
If the positions of the elementary particles of the evolving cosmos are plotted as a function of time, a surprising texture is generated. The trajectory of a single particle forms a thread that weaves in and out, that intertwines with other trajectories and unravels, creating patterns and falling apart, forming a kind of tapestry as forces cause it to attract and repel, to form new entities, and to fall apart. Duration confers texture on a world that only appears to be made up of particles. Initially, the threads repel one another. As time passes, the space-time fibers become much more interrelated as they learn, despite their natural tendencies, to form rich patterns. Elementary particles give birth to atoms, then molecules, and finally, with the coming of life, to cells, organisms, and more and more complex structures. The cosmic fibers experience what Teilhard calls Creative Union. As they interweave, they preserve their identities while yet becoming something more (see W, 155).
It is somewhat difficult to appreciate the texture that is being generated. “The whole immensity of space that we perceive at any moment,” Teilhard tells us, “is no more than the slice ‘at time t’ of a trunk whose roots plunge down into the abyss of an unfathomable past, and whose branches rise somewhere ahead in a future that, at first sight, seems boundless.” Initially, the fibers diverge like tree branches. However, a variety of forces causes them to channel as if “into rivulets, then into clearly defined streams.” Even as the fibers spread, they begin to draw together into a few dominant directions (see HP 69).
The fibers seem to struggle to become something new. To illustrate this, Teilhard refers to adaptive landscapes, those crude topographic maps used by the evolutionary biologists of his day to model the dynamics of speciation. These models have once again been made popular by complexity scientists such as Stuart Kauffman who develops algorithms to generate adaptive landscapes and then searches them for fitness peaks. Individuals who are more fit are placed on the upper slopes and on the hill tops, while less fit individuals are found along the lower slopes and in the valleys. These landscapes depict evolution as the struggle of a population, driven by natural selection, to climb to the top of a local fitness peak. Some populations split; others diverge as they experiment with new ways to advance toward greater fitness. The struggle is made more difficult because the interaction of one species with another gives the landscape a dynamic texture. There is plenty of evidence in the fossil record that “all the roads that life tries in order to effect the synthesis . . . are not equally profitable” (HP 158). Besides, “there are no summits without abysses” (HP 206). Therefore, the most advantageous direction for the threads of the tapestry to pursue in the evolutionary climb is never clear. The best they can do in the struggle for fitness is to grope their way forward.
As the evolutionary drama unfolds and its branches and threads intertwine and unravel, the four-dimensional fabric becomes more dynamically and organically centered. Even though the number of species and individuals within each species increases rapidly with time, more of the once disparate elementary matter becomes interrelated. Rather than as a sea of particles, then, matter can be viewed as a network of threads weaving in and out, responding to forces that encourage complexity, originality and beauty. The resultant space-time diagram presents an holistic and integrated image of the cosmogonic process. Individual patterns come undone, but as time progresses the texture of the fabric as a whole becomes more complex, more centered and, as we shall see, discloses the texture of Spirit. In fact, if the evolutionary project could be seen from outside rather than from its center, it would look like a giant tapestry, “woven in a single piece” (HP, 15). However, this is ordinarily so difficult to envision because we are so firmly immersed within it (see HP, 16).
To provide further insight into the structure and texture of biological space-time, Teilhard singles out the space-time trajectory of one of the many elementary particles of the early universe and calls it “Ariadne’s Thread.” This trajectory performs the same function for Teilhard as the ball of string given by Ariadne performed for Theseus who after killing the Minotaur in the depths of the labyrinth was able to retrace his steps and find his way out by rewinding his ball of string.
Teilhard uses his thread to explore the cosmic becoming, to guide him through the cosmic labyrinth. This thread eventually becomes an arrow that points him in the direction of increasing complexity-consciousness (see HP, 92). This thread helps him disentangle the complexity in nature and convinces him that evolution is going somewhere, that it has a direction.
Grasping his guiding thread, Teilhard descends in spirit back through the maze of fibers to the beginning of time, noticing, along the way, how the fibers seem to fall apart, lose bit by bit their capacity for union. At each step, once-familiar patterns seem to come and go at random and finally unravel. When he reaches the early universe, all that was familiar to him has disappeared, Teilhard concludes that the principle of unity is not to be found at the beginning of time (see W, 157). Still clutching his prized thread and still searching for cosmic consistence, he reverses his direction. In the positive direction of time, the cross-sectional patterns, made by slicing the four-dimensional tapestry at particular points in time, become more complex on average as time passes. It becomes clear to Teilhard that the principle of unity that he seeks is up ahead, in the future.
Teilhard’s journey into the depths of the cosmos is not unlike his journey into the depths of his own being. He, too, is “made up of all sorts of fibres . . . each with its own history and life” (AE, 188). In fact, each thread contains the evolutionary story of the cosmos (see HP, 121). As he moves through the maze of fibers that have been part of his being, he observes “the innumerable strands which form the web of chance” (D, 78). He wonders particularly at the “slender . . . threads from which [his] existence is woven, extending from the initial starting-point of the cosmic processes . . . to the meeting of [his] parents . . . Had but a single one of those threads snapped [his] spirit would never have emerged into existence” (W, 228). As Teilhard approaches the present and the gradual development of mind becomes clear, he realizes that “evolution is now busy . . . in a richer, more complex domain, constructing spirit, with all our minds and hearts put together” (HP, 198). Ariadne’s thread has helped him explore the complex and delicate fabric of his own spirit as well as the spirit of humanity as a whole (see AE, 188). He returns from his labyrinthian journey not only aware that he is part of humanity, part of the cosmos, part of a synthetic process and but also convinced that the cosmos has a “psychically convergent structure” (HP, 28).
Teilhard notices that Spirit and Matter are not separate entities. Rather, like the threads of the cosmic tapestry and the spaces between them, they are intricately woven together. They have complementary textures, textures carved and shaped by complementary processes (see HM, 28). They are simply “two states or two aspects of one and the same cosmic Stuff” (HM, 26). Fibers of Matter are influenced by gravity and threads of Spirit are drawn by love. Together, they weave a common soul. Matter serves as a matrix on which spirit can be woven (see W, 157). This interplay on the loom supports and guides the continued creativity of the evolutionary cosmos.
Extrapolating from his own inner experience, Teilhard states that there must be something or perhaps even someone at the center of the evolution drawing all creation together. Familiar as he was with the forces such as gravity and electromagnetism that draw the threads of matter, he speculates on the source and nature of the force that allures the threads of spirit. He suggests that as we explore the tapestry’s texture, “we are gradually introduced . . . to the concept of a first, supreme centre, an omega, in which all the fibres, the threads, the generating lines, of the universe are knit together” (S, 48). For Teilhard, Omega, the irresistible and universal center of convergence to which we are attracted (see LTF, 107) becomes for him the cosmic Christ. Like a strange attractor, that both confines an orbit within its influence even while letting it roam in a graceful way, Christ Omega encourages the fibers of spirit embedded within the fabric of space-time to weave patterns of complexity and beauty and thus to support the work of the material cosmos. Teilhard claims that
If things hold, and are held together, it is only by reason of complexity, from above . . . The world would have no internal coherence were Christ not at hand to give it a centre and to consummate it. Christ, on the other hand, would not be divine if his spirit could not be recognized as underlying the processes which are even now re-creating the soul of the earth. (T, 38)
Teilhard tries to visualize the shape and texture of the spiritual fabric that is gradually emerging within the cosmos. He pictures a noosphere as a “halo of thinking energy” (V 233). This conscious layer (see HM 32) encircles and crowns the atmosphere, that layer of air that surrounds Earth, the lithosphere, that layer of rock that supports Earth’s surface, and the biosphere, that layer of living organisms, the plants, and animals that surrounds Earth’s surface. Silently, almost imperceptibly (see HP 125), matter and spirit have been weaving the noosphere since the beginning of time. Teilhard compares its emergence to a phase transition. He labels its appearance as one of the major critical points in cosmic history (see HE, 160) and notes that, to this day, this “most remarkable layer of all” (S, 93) continues to multiply its internal fibers and tighten its network (see F 132).
The noosphere is “an animated covering of our planet” (HE 95), “a network of living connexions [that] never for a moment ceases to hold them in a single tissue” (HE 95). Its elements are not like identical inert gas molecules that refuse to interact but rather they “correspond . . . to the cells of a highly specialized organism” (HE 131), each with its own special function that enhances the whole. A thinking network, the noosphere is capable of self-reflection and thus of furthering its own progress (see V 73).
The more easily distinguishable worldwide web of social, educational, and economic connections so graphically evident in our day is merely an “external indication of another far more fundamental work that is presently taking place: the inner psychical organization of the noosphere” (HE 136). The structure of the noosphere is akin to “a vast nervous system” (HP 95) with “fibers and ganglions on the surface; consciousness deep within” (HP 95), a consciousness that “rises constantly in and through us” (HP 205) producing as it does a collective brain with a collective memory (see HP 142).
Because it is psychic, the noosphere’s energy is difficult to measure. Yet, just as a geologist can sense the violent activity deep within Earth’s core, so the vitality of the noosphere can be discerned by a mind alert to its possible movement (see HE 122-23). Or just as “electrical charges distributed uniformly along a conductor” indicate the presence of an electric field, conscious beings, Teilhard claims, are simply the local manifestations of a single spirit, the spirit of Earth (see HE 95).
The noosphere is a “tenuous envelope” (HE 121), “an almost insignificant film” (HE 121), yet because of its capacity for relationship and for sympathy, it can overcome any innate tendency to fragment (see V 73). It is a “sphere of the conscious unity of souls” (V 63). In fact, Teilhard calls it “the very Soul of the Earth” (HM 32).
If we compare organic life with inorganic matter, both the emergent properties and the centric properties of matter become clear (see AE 33). “The thinking network is gradually [both] expanding and tightening” (HP 135). It is expanding in space as it increases in depth of spirit (see HE 137). The tendency of the noosphere towards a higher spiritualization continues on, “animated by a movement of its own, [that is] drawing it towards [ever greater] concentration” (HE 122).
According to Teilhard, the noosphere is still weaving its ever-complexifying web and continues to increase its “incredible potential for the unexpected” (HP 195). Like those chaotic attractors that seem to weave where they will, despite the fact that deterministic forces are guiding them, the future shape and form of the cosmic tapestry is unpredictable. Chance meetings within this tangle of fibers make all the difference.
The space-time fabric, in which we are embedded and which is being woven as we speak, is immortal. The care we take in weaving it matters and the work that we do not only survives but also transcends the short span of our experience. The future of the tapestry depends on the creative response of a species conscious of its own potential to weave patterns of wholeness. From his own inner experience, as well as from the evidence he has gleaned as a paleontologist and as a human being within an evolving world, Teilhard is convinced that the cosmos will continue to increase in spirit, in complexity, in union, in love.
Teilhard’s approach to synthesis is appealing. His words have the power to move us because they are so rooted in the fabric of the cosmos, in the dynamic processes at work within our psyches, our bodies, our societies, our Earth. They ring true to the fundamental nature of our universe. They embed us within the Earth and within the cosmos. They interconnect us to the cosmic becoming.
Scientifically based metaphors such as those used by Teilhard carry a raft of nuances and associations that embellish their meaning. Grounded in science, they serve as both quasi-physical models and poetic images. They encourage us to look beneath the surface of the phenomenon into its depths. Like the superstrings used by physicists to describe the material structure of the cosmos many orders of magnitude below the surface, texture imagery provides a visual construct for the spiritual structure of the cosmos. Both superstrings and the cosmic tapestry are merely representations that provide us with visual images of the unseen. And like the models found in physical theories, they are never quite adequate. They need constantly to be reworked, extended, sometimes even drastically changed.
Teilhard’s synthesis required a major shift in his understanding of both science and religion as they were understood in the early twentieth century. To accomplish it, he had to distill the truly significant features from both a belief system that had lost its vitality and its ability to inspire and from a science that had lost its ability to see beneath the surface of the phenomenon. He had to break through to the core of both his faith and his science to bestow on them a new vitality. This is what Teilhard achieved for himself and what he yearned to share with others. His love for the church and its potential to be a light in the darkness motivated him to continue his work even in the midst of painful rejection.
Let us gratefully remember Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a courageous and creative pioneer who has helped us to peer more deeply into the fabric of the cosmos.
List of Abbreviations for the Works of Teilhard Cited in This Essay
AE Activation of Energy. (Rene Hague, Trans.) New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1970.
D The Divine Milieu. (Bernard Wall, Trans.) New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1960.
F Toward the Future. (Rene Hague, Trans.) New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975.
HE Human Energy. (J. M. Cohen, Trans.) New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.
HM The Heart of Matter. (Rene Hague, Trans.) New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1978.
HP The Human Phenomenon. (Sarah Appleton-Weber, Trans.). Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 1999.
LTF Letters to Two Friends 1926-1952. (Helen Weaver, Trans.; Ruth Nanda Anshen, Ed.) New York: The New American Library, 1967.
S Science and Christ. (Rene Hague, Trans.) New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968.
T Toward the Future. (Rene Hague, Trans.) New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1975.
V The Vision of the Past. (J. M. Cohen, Trans.) New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1966.
W Writings in Time of War. (Rene Hague, Trans.) New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967.