In an excerpt from the abstract for today's Metanexus column found below, Thomas P. Sheahen admits that "interpreting the future of evolution is necessarily a matter of speculation; the most optimistic of the futurists is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The model envisioned by Teilhard has been variously denounced, criticized, accepted, praised or endorsed by various observers, but it has seldom been understood. Original Teilhardian words like noosphere are commonly regarded as a nice literary device, but are not taken seriously."
And, yet, as Dr. Sheahen goes on to point out: de Chardin was not casting about creating literary devices. Moreover, he then adds that in "order to enhance understanding of central Teilhardian concepts (such as complexification, centration, the within and without), (...) I retrieve certain fairly simple concepts from mathematics and physics. The way in which we learn mathematics, growing from a simple to a complex understanding as our level of information grows, is presented as an analogy for the kind of growth in complexity that Teilhard proposes. The notion of complex numbers and the relation between energy and entropy are both very useful analogies by which one can grasp some essentials of Teilhard's thinking."
Now here lies an interesting dilemma: we are asked to grasp Teilhard de Chardin's notions via analogy, which is, in fact, a kind of literary device, is it not? Or is it? What distinguishes metaphor from analogy? Is there a difference between a literary device and an explanatory or heuristic device?
Does one lie closer to the truth? Consider, how does one actually comprehend what number is? Is the such a thing as "two" without there being "two things"? Is anything ever understood directly? And, if this is the case, do we ever really understand the present much less the future. According to Dr. Sheahen, "Teilhard accepted the possibility of other levels of consciousness that we don't comprehend yet. Here I examine areas where the equivalent transition has been made, and suggest that the vision of Teilhard (beyond our present horizon) is very plausible."
A plausible future? Can the present ever be used as a certain springboard to a plausible future? Read on to engage Thomas P. Sheahen and his view of Teilhard de Chardin's response to those sort of questions.
Thomas P. Sheahen holds B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Throughout his career, he has specialized in energy-related research in collaboration with private-sector companies and universities, putting scientific principles to work in difficult situations. Dr. Sheahen has worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories, the National Bureau of Standards, and Science Applications International Corporation, among others. As a Congressional Science Fellow and a Senior Policy Analyst with the Office of Technology Assessment, he worked on energy-related legislation. The consistent thread in his work has been to find ways to resolve seeming conflicts in science by advancing to a higher level of thinking. In the mid 1980s, Tom served as Executive Director of the Energy Research Advisory Board of the Department of Energy. With Argonne National Laboratory, his work culminated in the textbook Introduction to High Temperature Superconductivity. Dr. Sheahen has been a Visiting Professor at John Carroll University, and taught the Templeton-supported course Issues in Religion and Science. Since reading The Phenomenon of Man in 1963, he has remained confident that science and religion are fully compatible, but both need to advance to a higher level of thinking. --Stacey E. Ake
Subject: Simple Analogies to Teilhard's Concepts
Thomas P. Sheahen
To grasp what Teilhard de Chardin was trying to say (mainly in The Phenomenon of Man), we must recognize certain of his fundamental principles:
Advancing complexity: Complexity is inherent in nature, especially in living systems.Galileo: "The book of nature and the book of Scripture were written by the same author, and cannot be in conflict."
Physics principle: Any new theory must encompass everything the old theoryexplained.
Teilhard perceived that new realities emerge from simpler realities at lower levels. He looked beyond the laws of physics and biology, never contradicting them, but seeing what else was possible. To this day, people who don't like Teilhard's line of thought are still complaining because he went beyond the accepted laws of science. The scientism viewpoint says you can't do that, because it believes there can be no route to knowledge other than science.
Teilhard believed a number of things, too; and he entered upon his studies confident that the Christian faith would not conflict with Darwin's observation of evolution, once both were properly understood. Teilhard started by accepting that evolution was a fact, and simultaneously by accepting Christianity; then he set about combining them in a magnificent synthesis.
In looking at the natural world, the cornerstone observation that Teilhard began with was that evolution leads to increasing complexity. In the higher animals, this complexity leads to consciousness, and in mankind the very high level of complexity yields rational thinking, language and especially self-consciousness. Teilhard then hypothesized that everything (even atoms) contains at least a fundamental bit of consciousness, which remains dormant and unseen at lower levels, but is recognizable at the higher levels.
Everything has both a within and a without; the without is the aspect which is detectable via sense experience, while the within refers to an inner, intangible property of the thing.
A key Teilhardian concept is that consciousness of a system or organism increases as the complexity of that system increases. The within only becomes significant at higher complexity, as the level of consciousness rises. Therefore, with evolution proceeding toward greater complexity, the "arrow" of evolution is toward higher consciousness.
Teilhard was breaking new ground with this line of thinking, and he struggled to find words to convey his new ideas. He sometimes resorted to metaphors: for example, to illustrate the idea of consciousness suddenly breaking through to a new higher level of self-consciousness, he considered a vat of water being gradually heated -- nothing much happens until it starts to boil, at which point it is obvious to everyone that a new reality is present (water vapor, or steam). Teilhard also invented new words when the old ones wouldn't properly convey his meaning, and sometimes those were hard to translate. His style occasionally became rather literate, almost poetic. Because of this, a lot of people who read The Phenomenon of Man and The Divine Milieu went away with a fuzzy impression of his ideas, and his critics from Scientism made the most of whatever obscurity they could find.
Example of an Emergent Property: Entropy vs. Energy
In the world of physics, there are some concepts that simply do not exist until there are many interacting bodies. An example of this is found in the distinction between Energy and Entropy. Although the words sound similar, there is quite a difference.
Any object (a quark, atom, molecule, baseball,...) has energy, and we have an intuitive grasp of what that means. However, the entropy of a system is a measure of its order or disorder, of whether the system is in a state of high probability or low probability. If "the system" is only one object, there is no meaning in talking about "high" or "low" probability. When several particles interact, only then is it possible to assign a probability to a certain state. In this way, the concept of entropy emerges as the complexity of a system increases. Note that in a one-particle system, the entropy is not zero; entropy is simply a nonexistent concept there. The meaning of the word "entropy" implies the presence of many interacting particles.
Nobody bothers to speak of entropy when there are four or 17 atoms interacting; the system is not big enough for the emerging property of entropy to be very useful. For most physical systems of interest to us, the number of particles interacting is in the "billions of billions" range. Then the concept of entropy is very useful -- it provides a quantitative means of explaining how energy can (or cannot) be used to do work.
Not all kinds of energy are the same: heat is a form that is less useful than mechanical work. The entropy is a numerical measure that compares the usefulness of different sorts of energy. If you wish to convert heat into work, you will lose a substantial fraction of the work because of the relatively high entropy associated with the disorganized heat energy. Going the other way, you can always convert work into heat, as long as you don't mind squandering useful energy. For example, electricity can be used to run a toaster, but the same amount of electricity will go a lot farther when used to run a vacuum cleaner motor.
The First Law of Thermodynamics says that energy is always conserved. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that in any process, the entropy always increases, so the energy degrades to a less useful form: it goes from a low-probability state to a high-probability state. These laws hold in biological processes, too, especially in living things. Our bodies take in chemicals (called food) containing stored energy, and that energy is "used up" by moving, breathing, circulating blood, etc. By "used up" we mean that the total system went from a state of lower probability to one of higher probability. Numerically, the entropy of this energy increases steadily.
Plants regard the waste products of animals as food. For example, we breathe out CO2, which plants love. Via the process of photosynthesis, plants take in the CO2, convert it to make their leaves and branches stronger, and exhale their own waste product, O2. The processes within plants also require entropy to increase -- which leads us to ask how all these things remain in what certainly looks like balance to us. The answer is that sunlight adds new useful energy to the system, and its eventual degradation into heat makes the planet a little bit warmer. (Most sunlight misses the earth, and goes far off into space as starlight. We figure that the sun will probably run out of fuel in about 5 billion years or so, after which our planet will gradually turn very cold.)
All this was fully known to Teilhard, who accepted physics entirely. Acknowledging the significance of increasing entropy in the universe as a whole, Teilhard spoke of the increasing complexity of advanced life forms as equivalent to the frothy spray at the tip of an ocean wave as it crashes upon the shore. After that Teilhard focused his attention on the increasing complexity of the higher life forms.
Example of Expanding Consciousness: Complex Numbers
Everyone who has taken trigonometry in high school has heard of imaginary numbers. At this point it is useful to digress briefly to recall how the concept of imaginary numbers came into being. There is a remarkable similarity here with the subsequent steps in Teilhard's new way of thinking.
While still very young, we grasp the concept of consecutive integers -- a number system. Early in school, we learn about negative numbers, and eventually learn to graph them on the real number line. Soon thereafter, fractions are introduced as the points on the real number line in between the integers. Notice that mathematics is increasing in complexity here.
Eventually the day comes (grade 5? grade 7?) when we learn to calculate square roots -- that number which, when multiplied by itself, gives back the original number. Since negative numbers are just as good as positive numbers, they ought to be entitled to have square roots, too. This leads to trouble! (Try one on your calculator: the little "E" in the corner lights up.) This bothered mathematicians for many years, until in the 17th century, the way out of the impasse was found by expanding the real number line into the complex number plane. A "new dimension" was added here, to say the least.
Henceforth all numbers were said to be a point somewhere in this complex plane, having both a real component and an imaginary component. The component in the new direction was labeled with the letter "i" to signify the direction called imaginary. (The choice of the word imaginary here was very unfortunate, because it left people with the wrong impression about this generalized concept of numbers.)
Good old fashioned problems like 3 x 6 = 18 became (3 + i0) x (6 + i0) = (18 + i0).
That's pretty obvious; indeed it's pointless to carry around the extra baggage, so we commonly skip it. But there are times when you need to carry along that extra dimension, especially in the field of electrical engineering. There would be no such thing as radio or TV without the complex number plane.
The complex number plane had been there all along; but mathematicians didn't discover it until necessity drove them to think of a new reality they hadn't considered before. Increasing complexity (coupled with a basic belief in the rationality of mathematics) forced them to look for new ways of understanding.
Radial and Tangential Energy
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin did something very similar to the mathematicianswho discovered the complex number plane. He introduced a complex energy plane, with both radial and tangential components of energy. Teilhard perceived enough importance in complexity and increasing consciousness that he hypothesized that energy should contain another component, which he named the radial component of energy. Tangential energy is what we've all known and loved for a long time, in the same way that we are familiar with the real number line.
At this point, all those persuaded by Scientism got off the train. Teilhard's critics pointed out that there were excellent rules for measuring energy, and instruments to use, by which scientists could reach agreement on their measurements. Statements about tangential energy are subject to falsification, and this is a fundamental principle of the scientific method. Teilhard had no quantitative instruments to offer which could measure his radial component of energy. Consequently, nobody paid attention to this hypothetical new component of energy, preferring to think only of conventional [tangential] energy, in exactly the same way that we revert toexpressing ordinary multiplication as 3 x 6 = 18.
Teilhard went on to say that increasing radial energy corresponds to increasing consciousness. He also drew a graph showing how consecutive layers of increasingly complex reality blanket the earth. Terms like Lithosphere, Atmosphere and Biosphere are familiar to us; Teilhard coined the term Noosphere to convey the layer of consciousness. The term noogenesis refers to the phase of evolution leading into the domain of reflective consciousness. This imagery has proven more congenial to people, and gradually the word noosphere became accepted, if not exactly commonplace.
By today, the importance of information has become recognized, and people are beginning to note that it is irrelevant to talk about information in thermodynamic terms. A page with writing contains more information than a blank page, etc. The energy levels associated with a "one" bit or a "zero" bit in a magnetic storage device are essentially identical, but the significance of the information is enormous, and the disruption of very few bits can damage information irretrievably. Teilhard lived before the information age, and there is no evidence in his writings of anything about computer bits, etc. It is plausible to speculate that he would have found an association between radial energy and the information content of a system.
The foremost characteristic of Teilhard's radial energy is that it drives things towards increasing consciousness. It is exempt from the considerations of entropy associated with tangential energy. It gives the direction to evolution. This is in contrast to the neo-Darwinian insistence that there is no direction and all change is random, curtailed by natural selection.
Certain consequences follow from Teilhard's line of thinking. First of all, consciousness is pervasive in the cosmos, and there is no reason to expect that this planet is the only place where complexification and consciousness are growing. Second, the level of consciousness we see now is surely not the last stage of increasing consciousness. Elements of physical reality center around something -- Centration. For centuries we have seen increasing socialization , which may be a higher (group) form of consciousness. Teilhard suggested that once centration reaches a certain point, then our continuing cosmic search for a center must take place within religion.
According to Teilhard, the next phase of evolution is Christogenesis. This is evolution upward toward Christ, toward increasing love of God and neighbor. It began 2000 years ago, and certainly has not yet supplanted either biogenesis or noogenesis. Christogenesis moves toward uniting all consciousness (all mankind) in unity with God. This final state was termed by Teilhard the Omega Point, using the final letter of the Greek alphabet to signify it.
The Phenomenon of Man is a brilliant synthesis of Christianity with evolution, arguing very cogently that Christianity not only fits naturally into evolution, but is in fact the real purpose of it all. Teilhard accepted the possibility of other levels of consciousness that we don't understand yet. To deal with such levels, he had to invent new words and resort to metaphors.
In order to appreciate Teilhard's vision, it is first necessary to understand his basic concepts. The analogies discussed in this paper are helpful to grasping the way he built upon ordinary concepts and expanded them to encompass higher levels of complexity. Although Teilhard's writings do not explicitly reference such notions, it is fully plausible that someone schooled around the year 1900 would have been conversant with such mathematics, and routinely used it. Had Teilhard been taught (later) the Uncertainty Principle and Quantum Mechanics, he might have used those analogies as well; but The Phenomenon of Man shows no evidence of that. The key thing that Teilhard recognized is that there is more to life, nature and the universe than the eye or instruments can reveal. He invites each of us to step up with him beyond the merely "real" to a "complex plane" of thought on a higher level.
The future of evolution is more interesting than the past, and Teilhard is one of very few people ever to look over the horizon. Perhaps in the century ahead he will be better appreciated.
Interpreting the future of evolution is necessarily a matter of speculation; the most optimistic of the futurists is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The model envisioned by Teilhard has been variously denounced, criticized, accepted, praised or endorsed by various observers, but it has seldom been understood. Original Teilhardian words like noosphere are commonly regarded as a nice literary device, but are not taken seriously. In order to enhance understanding of central Teilhardian concepts (such as complexification, centration, the within and without), in this paper I retrieve certain fairly simple concepts from mathematics and physics. The way in which we learn mathematics, growing from a simple to a complex understanding as our level of information grows, is presented as an analogy for the kind of growth in complexity that Teilhard proposes. The notion of complex numbers and the relation between energy and entropy are both very useful analogies by which one can grasp some essentials of Teilhard's thinking. Teilhard accepted the possibility of other levels of consciousness that we don't comprehend yet. Here I examine areas where the equivalent transition has been made, and suggest that the vision of Teilhard (beyond our present horizon) is very plausible.
Credit given to the Metanexus: Views 2002.01.28 3245 words.
Material for courses Dialogue between Science and Religion. F. Mikes
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