The Analysis of Life

June 10, 1945

Life’s essence transcends scientific scrutiny. Though such examination reduces life to physical mechanisms, synthesis reveals the boundless consciousness and freedom underlying all existence. As Teilhard de Chardin contemplated, life organizes chance through each being’s innate creativity. From this vision, we can glimpse life’s mystical emergence.

Written in Peking (Beijing), later published in Activation of Energy


The Problem

Nothing in the world around us is more obvious than the existence—indeed, the fact—of life: and nevertheless nothing is more elusive, more difficult to pin down, than this same life when we try to handle it by the general methods of science. As experienced in ourselves, and as it seems to develop in the course of time, the living being is consciousness, freedom, and finality. As soon, however, as we try to look at it under the microscope, or to submit it to instruments of measurement, all that we can distinguish even in the very depths of this same living being is a pyramid of associated chances and interwoven mechanisms, without apparently a single crevice in which to accommodate the intervention of the conscious and guiding action of the least free factor. In the eyes of the modern biologist, the orthogenesis of living groups tends to be reduced to a random interaction of chromosomic encounters, and the most spontaneous animal seems to be no more than a ‘sum-total of assembled reflexes.’ Thus the whole phenomenon of consciousness, when submitted to scientific investigation, gives the impression of dissolving and melting away, like an illusion, in the uniform flood of a universal determinism: as well might one try to grasp a rainbow.


A General Answer

Many biologists, baffled by this singular capacity that life displays of dissolving into non-life, believe that they are now forced to jettison it, as a pseudo-reality and a mirage. Surely, however, this is simply because their eyes are still closed to the fundamental and mutually opposed operation of synthesis and analysis in the general structure of the universe. In every field, the mere organic combination of a number of elements inevitably brings about the emergence in nature of something completely new (something ‘higher’). Conversely, the suppression of a combination, no matter what it be, causes something to disappear. Seen under too great a magnification, the finest of paintings is reduced to shapeless blotches, the purest curve to divergent stokes, the most regular of phenomena to is ordered turbulence, the most continuous movement to jerks. Bearing that in mind we can hardly wonder that under the solvent, ‘occulting,’ influence of analysis the living being, in turn, is reabsorbed into unconsciousness, chance, and determinisms, while all the rest—all, I mean, that is specifically living—slips through the mesh of the filter. The analogy between the two cases is too obvious to allow any doubt. In both the ‘trick’1 is certainly the same.

It would be naïve, therefore, to believe that if we are to solve the matter-life antimony each of the two must be sacrificed to the other. All we have to do, in fact, is to establish an acceptable structural relationship between the two opposed terms, which will explain how there can, by sythesis, be an ascent from one to the other and, reciprocally, a descent by analysis.

There we have the whole problem.


The Emergence of Life

Reduced to its essence, the scientific problem of life may be expressed as follows.

Having admitted the two major laws of the conservation and dissipation of energy (to which physics may be reduced), the problem we have is to superimposed upon them, without contradiction, a third universal law (in which the whole of biology is summed up), that of the organization of energy. In the language of the atom, science tells us, cosmic evolution represents, for the indestructible grains of energy which make up the universe, the transition from an initial heterogeneous distribution (improbable, but nevertheless without order) to a final homogeneous (that is to say the more probable) distribution. How are we to conceive that in the course of this process, at once conservative and entropic, a portion of the grains of energy is gradually withdrawn, in such a way as, for a time, to build up the organic associations, progressively more improbable, which living beings constitute? And this in such a way, again, that beneath the biological arrangement so produced the physico-chemical arrangement be respected, so that at any moment it may again be revealed by analysis?

Let us see what we can do to solve this problem.

In order to do so, it is not, I believe, necessary to modify th estarting point accepted by modern atomic science, which is the initial existence of a mass of granular energy, distributed in a way which is at once without order and improbable; all we have to do is slightly (but even so decisively) re-touch the picture which is normally drawn of the primordial grain of energy itself. Hitherto this elementary grain has always been regarded as without any vestige either of consciousness or of freedom. Supposing, however, we define it as possessing the three following properties:

  1. A rudimentary ‘within’ (or immanence).
  2. A radius and effective angle (both as narrow as you please) of self-determination.
  3. A psychic polarization, producing a fundamental tendency to associate with other particles in such a way as to form with them progressively more complex units: the effect of this complexity being (in virtue of a primordial and essential property of cosmic being) to increase simultaneously the degree of immanence in the particle which develops it, and its possibilities of choice.

It will be noted that, initially at least, this threefold correction in no way alters the universe of the physicists.

What happens is that on the one hand, in virtue of the play of large numbers, the orderless multitude of elementary consciousnesses, taken as one mass, behaves exactly as though hit were devoid of any ‘within;’ in other words it develops exactly the same over-all determinisms as those produced by the primordial granular energy of the physicists.

On the other hand, the radius of choice allowed to each elementary particle can be drawn short enough to remain within the sphere of indeterminacy recognized by the most extreme determinist science as a specific attribute of the infinitesimal. To put it in another way, the ‘creation’ of energy involved in the choice (what we may call in this context ‘choice-energy’ or ‘choice-quantum’) can be conceived as being of an order of magnitude so small that it has no appreciable effect on the sum total of universal energy.

At the starting point, then, there is no measurable change in the conditions of the universe. With time, however, the effects produced by the three corrections we have applied will gradually make themselves felt. Initially, the play of chance which shuffles the grains of energy continues unaltered; but once two particles of appropriate psychic affinity happen to brush against one another within their ‘radius of choice’ (and in its effective angle), then, exercising choiced, they will fasten on to one another. And so a movement is triggered off which nothing can then halt. Gradually, step by step, an organic heterogeneity develops around this first nucleus of improbability; it extends itself—always, it is true, at the whim of chance, but constantly in a definite direction: the direction of a continually increasing complication and unification. It is a phenomenon that would be inconceivable if the particles were completely ‘inanimate,’ but is perfectly intelligible if they are both rudimentarily free and polarized.2

Now let us consider a little more closely how the double play of determinisms and of chance is respected around and within the growing nuclei of complexity and consciousness, and ow it adapts itself to them. In this context, three observations are called for, and they must be carefully understood.

First observation

During the building up of organic complexes, there is no necessity for the quantity of ‘choice-energy’ to increase with the degree of consciousness. A greater variety and a wider radius of indeterminacy become apparent as one rises higher up the scale of beings: but neither the one nor the other is ever obtained except through the amplifying action of mechanisms which (just as industrial servo-motors do) make it possible to produce, from an extremely small initial impulse, effects as exact as they are powerful. There is nothing therefore to forbid the notion that ‘choice-energy’ represents an invariable cosmic quantum—the same in the atom and the human brain.3 This, when the whole question has been weighed up, would explain the paradoxical fact that freedom can grow indefinitely in the universe without producing any appreciable increase in the output of universal energy. In short, the development of life does not interfere with the release of the material energy of the cosmos, because it can ultimately be reduced to a series of infinitesimal arrangements, each one of which calls for only an infinitesimal impulse—and all this within a fringe of indeterminacy which molecular physics itself recognizes in material reactions.4

Second observation

As, under the influence of a growing complexity, the ‘radius of choice’ increases and opens up to a wider angle, so the cosmic organic centres exercise a continually more effective control over the chance in which they are adrift; but it is always only with chances they make use of that they gradually build up the fabric of their finality. This explains two things: first, the localization of the phenomenon of life in the narrow confines of time and space; and secondly, the enormous part played in biological evolution by tentative probing. Traces of this can be seen everywhere in nature (think of all the trial and error, all the oddities, all the uselessness, all the setbacks, in the zoological world), and in the mechanism that is still at work at the very core of our spirituality (recognizable even in the birth and maturing of our loftiest concepts). In truth, if we study it carefully, all life, and all thought, is simply the seizing and organizing of chance.

Third observation

If, then, we take an over-all view of the cosmic process of vitalization on the Earth, we must distinguish absolutely two principal phases in the phenomenon.

During a first phase, the grains of consciousness arrange themselves spontaneously in mechanisms, in such a way as to construct the selector-switches and amplifiers (the ‘servo-motors’) required to widen the ‘angle and radius of choice’ around psychic centres: the consciousness of these latter, moreover, increasing in direct ratio with their field of action. At this stage, since the elementary consciousness is still too imperfectly centred, one can join up with another only superficially, in some external common function; thus their association can as yet result in producing no more than a syn-ergy (the most finished example of which is the human brain).5

During a later phase, on the other hand, which starts with man, the psychic nuclei are sufficiently centred to be able to come into direct contact and communication, that is to say from one consciousness to another; in consequence a new sphere of complexity and a new form of energy are introduced into nature:

  • the sphere of syn-psychic arrangements and associations (which are not simply a grouping together of activities, but one of souls); of these, so far as we can see at present, a planetized mankind would appear to be the highest term.
  • and then, to control this immanent network of ‘inter-centric’ operations, spiritual energy: the energy of sympathy and attractive power in which, to some degree, there is a continuation of the play of chance and the materializing effects of large numbers. It is an energy, however, whose law is no longer conservation in dissipation but an intensification that increases until the complete organization of the ‘centrified’ portion of the world in the unity of the ‘focus-point Omega:’ this latter is the ultimate source of the impulse that drives the initial dust of the cosmos in the upward, improbable, direction of higher complexes.

It is conceivable that at the term of this evolution (at the death, that is, of each individual man, and at the death of mankind) the hominized essence of man may be released from, and continue to subsist outside of, the machinery of physical energies within which it developed—for those energies, far from representing the fibres from which consciousness is born, are on the contrary no more than a veil which provides a statistical integument for the interplay of conscious centres. We should note, moreover, that this escape of spirit or its volatilization outside matter can ultimately be reduced to no more than the disappearance of a group of ‘points or quanta of indeterminacy’ in the cosmos;6 it cannot therefore produce any perceptible repercussion on the general behaviour of universal determinism.


A world such as we have just been envisaging satisfactorily meets the conditions of the problem of life and matter in the form we expressed it in. While such a world possesses immanence, the power of choice, and finality, both in its totality and in its most elementary terms, nevertheless it displays these properties only in virtue of an infinite number of chances and mechanisms which are imperceptibly selected and associated: thus scientific analysis can break it down completely without meeting the least measurable vestige of intervention of consciousness, freedom, or finality.

This answers our original questions.

Here we should note (and this is well worth while) the close kinship that links together two intellectual attitudes to the problem of life that are considered to be irreconcilable. In spite of the apparent paradox, the man who believes in the creation of fixed species and denies the evolution of life on the ground that if it is examined in detail over very short periods of time it can be reduced to stable segments, falls into exactly the same sort of mistake as the materialist evolutionist who denies consciousness and freedom on the gorund that the living being can be broken down into a system of elementary mechanisms. In both cases we can detect the effects of the same ‘analytical illusion’—in one it materializes spirit, in the other it immobilizes movement. For all the difference in the consequences, the principle behind the mistake is the same. If we restore ‘the effect of synthesis,’ then the two contradictory points of view immediately combine in the perspective of a vitalist evolutionism—the only evolutionism that embraces the whole of the phenomenon of life considered at all its levels simultaneously.


  1. Père Teilhard uses the English word. (Tr.)

  2. At our own level, indeed, we find an echo, or even an exact extension, of this process of organization in the way in which, in daily life, any business or research or religious association is set up. It starts by two or three individuals who are inspired by the same plan meeting by chance. After that, as chance circumstances and the grasping of opportunities determine, the nucleus grows and the ramifications reach out further. Finally, by the mere asosciation of pre-existing units and relationships, with no breaks and no alien intrusion into the system, a new organism is found to have been born into the milieu of man.

  3. This is perhaps too loosely expressed. It would be better, in the case of complex centres, to say that the ‘choice-quantum’ makes itself felt in a control (organic and centred) exercised by each complex centre on the sum total of all the elementary ‘choice-quanta’ which that complex centre integrates in its complexity. From that point of view, the human ‘choice-quantum’ would be co-extensive with the global totality of the human body—the control levers being, moreover, collected and distributed in the system of nervous determinisms (mechanisms).

  4. We may in consequence say that the physicists’ principle of indeterminacy does not prove the existence of a measure of freedom, but makes allowance for it in the world of atom.

    Editorial note: Louis de Broglie writes as follows on the principle of indeterminacy: ‘… no process of measurement can give us the exact position of a corpuscle in space and its momentum, or the energy of a corpuscle at a well-defined moment of the interval. Interpreting these conclusions in a quantitative form, Heisenberg has expressed them by inequalities connecting uncertainties…’ (Physics and Microphysics, Hytschinson, London, 1955).

    ‘The ultimate question, which Einstein has often stressed, is whether the current interpretation with its exclusive use of a purely statistical Ψ wave is a complete description of reality, in which case indeterminism would be a physical fact and we could never hope to give accurate descriptions of atomic events within the framework of space and time, or whether, on the contrary, the interpretation is incomplete’ (Louis de Broglie, New Perspectives in Physics, Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh, 1962).

  5. An intermediate example between ‘syn-ergy’ and ‘syn-psyche’ is to be found in insect colonies, which are lower and rudimentary forms of human society.

  6. Or, more exactly, ‘of an arrangement between points or quanta of indeterminacy in the cosmos.’

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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