Survival, Part 3: Thought


Reflection Emerges


Reflection is, as the word indicates, the power acquired by a consciousness to turn in upon itself, to know that one knows. The being who is the object of his own reflection becomes, in a flash, able to raise himself into another sphere. In reality, another world is born. All the activities of inner life, shown here, are nothing else than the effervescence of the newly-formed consciousness as it explodes onto itself. Admittedly, the animal knows. But it does not know that it knows. Consequently, it is denied access to a whole domain of reality in which we, as men, can move freely.


We are separated by a chasm, or a threshold, which the animal has not crossed. Because we are reflective, we are not only different, but quite other. It is, in fact, a change of state. From the moment we regard evolution primarily as a transformation of the ‘within,’ we see that instinct manifests itself as a variable dimension. From branch to branch, we have seen how nervous systems follow the great Law of Complexity-Consciousness and that the psychical temperature in the cellular world has been rising for more than 500 million years. Finally, with the primates, the psychical make-ups seem to reach the borders of intelligence.


From the cell to man, as from the atom to the cell, a single process—a constant increase of the ‘within’—continues without interruption, and always in the same direction: forward. After the atom, the cell. And now, at last, we have the individual human person. These, then, are the building blocks of the universe. From now onward, it is not merely animated grains which the pressure of evolution pumps up the main stem of the living tree of life, but grains of thought. In other words, the cell has become someone.


The birth of reflective thought marks a critical transformation: a mutation from zero to everything. But that birth could be compared with the emergence of a fetus from the womb. The newborn baby must still undergo continual growth and change before it becomes a mature, complete human. So it is with man. The creature that first issued across the threshold of reflective thought was not yet complete, but rather a sort of pre-man.


Man came silently into the world. As a matter of fact, when we first catch indisputable sight of him, we find him sprawling all over the old world: from the Cape of Good Hope to Peking. Without a doubt, he had already evolved a sophisticated mode of communication; perhaps even some sort of speech. He lives in groups, uses fire, and fashions primitive stone tools. Pre-man—or first man—is and can only be a crowd, and his infancy extends over thousands and thousands of years. Well, let’s look, now, at some examples of pre-man.


The Australopithecine group—in which at least one form, the famous Homo habilis, discovered by Dr. Leaky—is classified within the family of man. Notice the small cranial capacity, the lack of chin, the heavy jaws requiring thick maxillary muscles, the heavy orbital ridges above the eyes.


Next, the Pithecanthropus, which includes Java and Peking Man. Notice the remarkably increased size of the cranium. Notice, also, that the face is becoming more vertical, the jaws less pronounced. Still the heavy orbital ridge, the eyes close together.


Then the Neanderthal man. Again, the sizable jump in the cranial capacity, the jaws moving to a more vertical position. And finally, we come to true man: Cro Magnon. Here, the brain is much more concentrated, or centered, on itself. In fact, when we compare this last gentleman with ourselves, his brain is so perfect that, since that time, there seems to have been no measurable change.


To comprehend the truly cosmic scale of the phenomenon of man, we had to trace its roots through life back to when the Earth first concentrated in upon itself. But if we wish to understand the specific nature of man, and divine his secret, we have no other means than to observe what reflection has already provided and what it announces ahead.


From his cradle in South Africa, man fans out into China and Java, and into Europe. Finally, he slowly encompasses the sphere which we call Earth by moving across the islands of the Pacific and down across the then-existing land bridge into North and South America.


In this process of human evolution some groups—isolated from the main body of mankind like the Mayan center—became extinct. Others, like the Polynesian center, were too dispersed on the dust of distant islands where they radiated in a vacuum. Early China lacked both the inclination and the impetus for deep renovation. Although an incredibly refined civilization, it remained essentially neolithic well into the 19th century. While China multiplied its gropings and discoveries, it made little effort (until recent times) to build up a science of practical physics; a technology. India chose the route of metaphysics only—as a people, it is said—to become stalemated there. With its historic emphasis on passivity and detachment in the past, India has seemed to lack the capacity to animate and direct the main thrust of evolution. Perhaps the time now dawns when the contribution of its genius will enrich the whole human race.


So our attention is drawn to the more Western zones of the world—to the Euphrates, the Nile, the Mediterranean—where an exceptional concurrence of places and people was, in the course of a few thousand years, to produce that happy blend thanks to which reason could be harnessed to facts, and religion to action.


Without losing any of its essential upward thrust, mankind has continued to move ahead in its convergence with the pivotal axis flowing through the Mediterranean civilizations. Next, we have the most dynamic and decisive period in history to date, for in the rise of the West there is a development of technology. A necessary but not final phase in man’s evolution.


So mankind slowly became outlined and linked up. Slender and granular as this first membrane might have been, a sphere of thought—there and then—began to close in upon itself and to encircle the Earth.


In Book One we witnessed the initial formation of the barysphere of infant Earth: the hot core, composed of simple particles. Next, the structuring of a rocky lithosphere: an envelope of minerals. Then, as the Earth, through time, continued to cool down, the development of a hydrosphere and atmosphere. And within that envelope is the biosphere in which life evolved. And from this envelope of living things a glow ripples outward from the first spark of conscious reflection. The point of ignition grows larger. The fire spreads in ever-widening circles till, finally, the whole planet is covered with incandescence. It is a new layer; a thinking layer. Teilhard suggests a name for this grand phenomenon: the noösphere. In other words, above and transcending the biosphere there is the noösphere: the sphere of the mind. And so we have another, added, planetary layer: an envelope of thinking substance. A sort of living, growing organism of collective human thought.


The greatest revelation open to science and to religion today is to perceive that everything precious, active, and progressive—originally contained in that tiny cosmic fragment from which our world emerged—is now concentrated in a crowning noösphere. A spherical Earth gets a new skin. Better still, it finds itself.

A Reflective Planet


We are, at this very moment, passing through a change of age. Life is taking a step, a decisive step, in us and in our environment. After many centuries, the hour has finally come, characterized by the birth pangs inevitable in another change of state. There were those first men who witnessed our origin. There are the others who will witness the great scenes of the end. To us, in our brief span of life, falls the honor and good fortune of coinciding with a critical transformation of the noösphere.


In these confused and restless zones in which present blends with future in a world of upheaval, we face all the grandeur—the unprecedented grandeur—of the phenomenon of man. Let us look carefully and try to understand the particular form of mind which is coming to birth in the womb of the Earth today.


From the dawn of his existence millions of years ago, man has been looking at himself and his world as somehow divorced from himself. Yet, he has only just begun to take a scientific view of his own significance in the physical world. We should not be surprised at this slow awakening, for man to discover man, he has had to gradually acquire a whole series of senses.


Let’s take a closer look at modern man who, less than 500 years ago, conceived of the Earth as flat and the heavens as a vast ceiling with holes pierced through for the stars. Gradually, man became aware that he did not live on a flat surface, but rather on a sphere. Still, he did not fully understand, for he conceived this Earth that he lived on to be the center of the universe, with everything in the heavens revolving around him.


But man was in for a shock. With the coming of Galileo, this ancient geocentric view exploded, and he discovered the boundless expansions of an unlimited cosmos. The Earth was seen to be a mere speck of sidereal dust.


To us it may seem incredible that man—indeed as late as the 18th century—felt perfectly at ease in a cubic space where the stars turned around the Earth for less than 6,000 years. In a cosmic atmosphere which would suffocate most of us from the first moment, 18th century man breathed without any inconvenience. Between him and us—in the short span of only 200 years—what, then, has happened?


Through the invention of the telescope, awareness of spatial immensity becomes possible. And so man kicked out one wall of his tiny little world. And to balance it, the infinitesimal springs into view through the lens of the microscope. After the walls of space, it is the floor of time which is the next to give. Through the gradual discovery of evolution, man slowly becomes aware of the measureless abysses of the past. And conversely, through man’s awareness of the infinite future, the ceiling of time will expand.


Yet, in these first stages of man’s awakening to the immensities of the cosmos, space and time—however vast—were treated as two great containers; quite separate one from the other. It was only late in the 19th century that the light dawned at last, revealing the process of evolution: that all objects are born from their growing together, from a common beginning. Hence, all things are related to each other, regardless of their complexity. Thus it is that both space and time are organically joined again so as to weave together the stuff of the universe. The landscape lights up and yields its secrets.


Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself. He sees. That is the point we have reached, and how we perceive things today. Step by step, from the early Earth onward, we have followed upward the great Law of Complexity-Consciousness. Now that we have reached the peak, we can turn around, look downward, and take in the pattern of the whole. The harmony is perfect. From top to bottom, from our souls and including our souls, the lines stretch in both directions: untwisted and unbroken.


Man is not the center of the universe—as once we assumed in our simplicity—but something much more wonderful. He is the arrow pointing the way to the final unification of the world in terms of life. Man alone constitutes the last born, the freshest, the most complex, the most subtle of all successive layers of life.



Now, it is impossible to find one’s self in a fundamentally new environment without experiencing the inner terrors of a metamorphosis. Our mind is dazzled when it emerges from its dark prison, awed to find itself suddenly at the top of a tower where it suffers from giddiness and disorientation. The whole psychology of modern uneasiness is linked with the sudden confrontation with spacetime.


Human anxiety is as old as man himself. Yet, we must admit that the men of today are more uneasy than at any other moment of history. Conscious or not, suppressed anguish—a fundamental anguish of being—despite our smiles, strikes in the depths of our hearts and is the undertone of all our conversations. What threatens us? What is lacking?


Space. This is the most tangible, and thus the most frightening aspect. The malady of spacetime manifests itself by a feeling of futility, of being crushed by the enormities of the cosmos. Time, sometimes having the effect of an abyss on those few who are able to see it, and at other times the despairing effect of stability and monotony. Events that follow one another in a circle; vague pathways which intertwine, leading nowhere. The bewildering number of all that has been, is, and will be necessary to fill time and space. The effort, for instance, of trying conscientiously to find our proper place among a thousand million men, or even in a crowd.


Tomorrow? But who can guarantee us a tomorrow anyway? And without the reasonable assurance that tomorrow exists, can mankind really go on living and striving for a better world? Sickness of the dead end: the anguish of feeling shut in. Teilhard contends that that is precisely the ill that causes our disquiet. What makes the world in which we live specifically modern is our discovery in it, and around it, of evolution. And Teilhard now adds that what disconcerts the modern world at its very roots is not being sure that there is an outcome, a suitable outcome to that evolution. After the long series of transformations leading to man, will evolution lead to complete obliteration? No. Man will never take a step in a direction he knows to be blocked.


Either nature is closed to our demands of futurity, in which case thought—the fruit of millions of years of effort—is stifled; stillborn in a self-abortive, absurd universe, or else an opening exists: an opening of the supersoul above our souls. But in that case, the way out—if we are to agree to embark upon it—must open out freely onto limitless spiritual spaces in a universe to which we can entrust ourselves without hesitation.


We are confronted accordingly with two directions, and only two. Having gone so far, what are the minimal requirements to be fulfilled before we can say that the way ahead of us is open? First: that there is—for us, in, the future, under some form or another—not only the possibility and hope of a survival on Earth, but also of a superior form of existence. Secondly, to imagine, discover, and reach this super-life, we have only to walk in the direction in which the lines passed by evolution take on their maximum coherence. In other words, where consciousness is at its greatest.


To bring us into existence, the world has—from the beginning—juggled miraculously with too many improbabilities for there to be any risk whatever in committing ourselves further, and following it right to the end. If the world undertook the task in the first place, it is because it can finish it following the same methods and with the same infallibility with which it began. Man must come to realize that he carries the world’s fortune within himself and that a limitless future stretches before him in which he cannot flounder. The last analysis, the best guarantee that a thing should happen, is that it appears to us as vitally necessary.


Quoting Teilhard de Chardin:

Only in support of hope, there are rational invitations to an act of faith.

Have we the right to hesitate?

Survival, Part 3: Thought

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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