Teilhard de Chardin was a philosophical bridge builder. His work went to the edges of the conceptual maps and sought to bridge between them. Between physics and biology there is terra incognita whereby life is usually dismissed as a highly unlikely event — as something that “just happened” by some billion to one fluke. And between biology and the social sciences and humanities there is the classic nature vs culture chasm in which the two are left to operate in isolation.
These are the chasms that de Chardin sets out to bridge between with his work. He seeks to create a more encompassing map that connects these various separate maps together in their correct relationships.
de Chardin’s work can ironically be simplified to one word: complexity. This is the force that bridges these chasms. de Chardin argues that these three domains of reality are related to each other like the members of a Russian Doll. They form three domains of the physical world, the biological world and the thought world: the Physiosphere, the biosphere and the noosphere. The biosphere and the noosphere do not exist separately from their more fundamental domains but are “superimposed upon, and coextensive with” them.
In this article we are going to look at the nature of and relationship between these three domains and we are going to talk about what the noosphere is, why it is so important and about de Chardin’s Singularity — the Omega Point.
A Tale of Two Spheres
Traditionally, physics is accustomed to two infinities: the infinitely small studied by quantum mechanics and the infinitely large studied by Einstein’s Relativity. But de Chardin argues that there is a third spatial infinity which he calls complexity.
As it moves out from the small to the larger, matter has two avenues of development. Under one set of ideal conditions i.e. a nebula, this matter will, by process of aggregation, transform into a solar system with the birth of a star and its attending planets and moons.
Under another set of ideal conditions i.e. the surface of a planet in the Goldilocks zone, matter will by a different process of accumulation called combination, transform into life.
Just as there is a threshold at which a lot of space dust begins a cascading gravitational process that ignites the engine of a star, there is also a threshold of complexity whereby the elements of a primordial soup will go through a cascading complexification process that ignites a spark of life.
Thus de Chardin says complexity is just another direction for the evolution of matter. In the thick soup of primordial Earth, atoms combined into more and more complex molecules which combined into amino acids, proteins and ultimately into something that could turn the other elements around it into copies of itself and so reproduction was born and the four-billion-year series — that we and our peers in the present moment are the latest manifestations of — began.
This was the birth of what de Chardin calls the Biosphere. The Biosphere is the thin film of life that surrounds the Earth. In de Chardin’s sense it isn’t just the habitable part of the planet but it is in fact the actual crust of life that covers the Earth. This vitalised Biosphere is superimposed on and coextensive with the unvitalised matter of the Physiosphere. de Chardin prefers to call the inert matter pre-living rather than inert. For him, life is not some uncanny alien happening in the universe but a fundamental property. As he puts it:
“life is not a peculiar anomaly, sporadically flowering on matter — but an exaggeration, through specially favourable circumstances, of a universal cosmic property — life is not an epiphenomenon, but the very essence of phenomenon.”
The Third Sphere
The Emergence of the Noosphere
With the emergence of life, the Biosphere spread over the whole planet and evolution pushed its various citizens in different directions.
In looking at the tree of life that has evolved out of this initial vitalisation, we can see that some organisms have increased in complexity more than others. Some branches have found stable forms of evolution as single-celled organisms, while others have continued to transform and diversify. de Chardin argues that if we are looking for the lifeforce of complexity we should seek it in these longer branches on the tree of life.
With that in mind, he identifies three particular shoots that are the most vital: the plants, the arthropods i.e. insects and spiders and the vertebrates i.e. mammals, reptiles and so on.
The evolution and diversification of the Biosphere continued on much as it had begun but around two million years ago in the east of Africa, something new began to occur whose significance can only be compared with the emergence of life itself.
The “Threshold of Reflection”
This is the emergence of the Noosphere. Our ancestors in the genus Homo crossed what de Chardin calls the “threshold of reflection”. Consciousness was no longer reactive to its environment but began to fold in on itself.
In a wave of evolutions of which we, Sapiens, were the final movement, a whole new domain of complexity began to emerge. Just as life and the Biosphere signified the breaking through of a ceiling, the same can be said for the Noosphere. It represents a whole new realm of evolution. This domain is cultural evolution. From the musical instruments of the Neanderthals and the tools of the Denisovans to the invention of the internet by Sapiens, the Noosphere represented a whole new sphere of evolution.
Where the Biosphere was limited to the slow steady process of chromosomal heredity, with the Noosphere we see the emergence of acquired heredity. It is no longer a genetic inheritance relying on chromosomes but a cultural inheritance of everything that your ancestors knew. This process still had something of a bottleneck constraining it due to the limitations of the human memory but with the advent of writing this cultural evolution took on an exponential growth.
But it wasn’t just a new method of evolution, it was a whole new lifeform that was evolving. de Chardin notes that the evolution of the Noosphere isn’t just the evolution of humanity but of our thoughts and our ideas.
We can map this over onto Richard Dawkins’ work on memetics and say that the Noosphere was the birth of a whole new order of life. In a way, humanity is merely the substrate of the Noosphere just as the matter of the Physiosphere is the substrate of life.
We are the medium through which the ideas travel and propagate and compete. One could argue that a more appropriate name for the Noosphere would be the Memesphere. For while thinking and mind are core structural components of this new sphere of evolution, the actual lifeforms are the memes themselves.
Humanity might be compared to the inert matter transformed by the Biosphere; we are not the agents of the new evolution but the raw material — the carriers of a whole new realm of evolution that is working itself out through us.
Having talked about what this Noosphere or Memesphere is, let’s talk about where it is heading. de Chardin identifies one of the core properties of life and complexity as its “knitting together of a certain number of elements upon itself”. Another way that de Chardin talks about this is as a folding back on itself.
When humanity first emerged from Africa it spread over the globe. When it finally reached the tip of South America the Noosphere now encircled the globe. But it was disconnected. The connection between the various elements of the Noosphere was slow; there was massive latency. Innovation could only occur with the arrival of a new wave of humans usually as conquerors or with the re-organisation of the old wave. Just as life emerged out of an increasingly dense primordial soup, so the innovations in human organisation emerged out of the areas with a higher population or what de Chardin calls “psychic temperature”.
In the river valley civilisations of China, India, Egypt and most significantly of all Sumeria, we see hunter-gathering tribes gave way to villages, then towns, cities, nations and empires. The crop yields afforded by their fortuitous position led to increased population and with that a need for greater organisation of their society.
Where the chief, shaman or elders could speak directly with the members of the tribe, a greater organisation had to be formed where a king might never see one of its subjects and yet they were each to have their role in the society.
The critical invention in bridging this gap was writing which enabled the scaling of communication and which we can see emerge independently in at least three of our four river valley civilisations — China, Egypt and Sumeria. This innovation had a major cascading effect in the self-enfolding of the Noosphere.
Noospheric Compression and the Omega Point
Until the modern era, writing was the cutting edge of this self-enfolding but with the increase in population density once again, there came an increased need for organisation and an increased self-enfolding of the Noosphere. In the past century and a half the world population has increased five times over and with that we have seen the emergence of the telephone, radio, television and most recently the internet and social media. And now we are staring down the barrel of computer-brain interfaces that would connect us directly into the hive mind.
The increasing population whether by cause or effect brings with it a need for increased organisation of the Noosphere. The knitting together upon itself of the Noosphere seems to be reaching a fevered pitch comparable to the threshold of reflection in east Africa or the point of vitalisation in the primordial soup four billion years ago.
This compression of the Noosphere is far from news to us today but the question of how the desirability of this endpoint is still a matter of heated debate. On the pessimistic side we have Star Trek’s great brain-computer hive mind the Borg, dystopian portrayals of AI or fears of an insect-like humanity like see in HG Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon. On the optimistic side we have the Rapture of the Nerds that we call the Singularity and de Chardin himself. de Chardin saw this final and total compression of the Noosphere as the bridging point between religion and science. This is the Omega Point where the Noosphere compresses into one point just as the Big Bang was originally one primordial atom. It is the complementary endpoint to mirror the Big Bang’s starting point. It is the meaning of the universe and the birth of God.
However we feel about the future of this process the reason why I find de Chardin’s work so important is that it speaks to many of the dynamics in our society. It gives us a frame whereby we can situate man’s place in nature and biology’s place in the physical world. It offers us a holistic vision of the sciences and the place of complexity while also offering us a novel frame through which to look at the problems arising out of social media and globalisation as well as the climate crisis. There is a thrust of complexity driving us forward that is far more fundamental than any individual human’s greedy appetite. There is a will to compression — to bring this folding in on itself that is the hallmark of complexity to its final degree.