A Shower-Bath from the Height of 500 Million Years
VITAL WORKS RECONSIDERED, #2
The Phenomenon of Man. By Teilhard de Chardin.
Kierkegaard, after years of close and discriminating study of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, was finally able to affirm only that “shower-baths from the height of 18 centuries” were “very stimulating,” by which he meant that though the parade of unfolding world historical spirit took away his breath and made him gasp at the sublimity and grandeur of its choreography and the suppleness of inflection manifest in its ever-changing forms, it nonetheless left him, the spectator, pretty much unchanged. In other words, though Hegel appeared to put one’s anxieties to rest by unveiling the secret of the universe and man’s place in it, nevertheless he — Kierkegaard the concerned individual — was in some way left over, remaindered, still stuck with the problem of who he was and what he must do. I mention all this because Teilhard de Chardin’s seminal work, The Phenomenon of Man, occasions an identical response. Teilhard’s aim, in this book, is no less than to chart the evolution of consciousness from pre-life to the end of time, and, as a kind of byproduct, to reconcile religion and science and so to solve the nettlesome problem of modern existential estrangement. But while this shower-bath from the height of 500 million years does at points still invigorate, the book never really edifies.
It is not Teilhard’s optimism I object to, or even the occasionally saccharine aspect to the terms of this optimism. Admittedly, Teilhard does show an alarming propensity for visionary scenarios that smack of Carl Sagan and Steven Spielberg. “Energetics of mind,” a “wholesale introversion upon itself of the Noosphere,” or, a crowning touch, the “detachment of the mind from its material matrix” — it is hard to see how these scenarios follow, in any intelligible way, from concerns like caring for the sick, burying the dead, changing diapers, or doing science. But I can forgive Teilhard these lapses. They are occasional. His book is shallow not because it’s optimistic or because of an intermittent romanticism of detail. Rather it is shallow for the deeper, more thoroughgoing reason that, though the whole book rests on a distinction between the “without” of positivistic fact and the “within” of consciousness, and on the restoration of that “within” to proper scientific respect, Teilhard nevertheless fails to distinguish inside this “within” still another without and within. By equating, say, the invention of airplanes with a growth in being, Teilhard undercuts the very “within” he’s out to save. Put differently, we might say that Teilhard tries to effect a synthesis without first grasping the breach; he hopes without first understanding despair. And so both his synthesis and his hope wind up nourishing, in the reader, that very species of despair his vision was designed to heal.
This does not ruin the whole book. Though Teilhard proves a poor diagnostician of the human spirit and so a poor doctor, he is still an engaging and often convincing natural scientist. And though I part with Teilhard once he starts ascribing to science a salvific role, his argument that Christianity (doctrinally considered) and science tell the same story and so corroborate one another is, to me, provocative enough to merit scrutiny for its own sake. So I will return, later, to the dangers of identifying too closely the postures of Christian faith and scientific inquiry. Right now, I want to detail Teilhard’s rapprochement of science and religion. He works toward this end in three ways: (1) by locating the origins of consciousness in pre-life and thereby showing that consciousness evolves according to both geological and biological models, (2) by stressing the idea of social history as natural history and thereby demonstrating still further that science and religion tell the same story, and (3) by utilizing everywhere a language of thresholds and crises, a strategy germane to both scientists and Christians.
It is early on that Teilhard defines the problem: “finalists” and “spiritualists” see one universe, “determinists” and “materialists” see another. Scientists, for their part, have long been unwilling to see the phenomenon of consciousness as anything other than “an aberrant function” or “a queer exception” because it is entirely inconsistent with the mechanistic world that science sees and measures. “Spiritualists,” on the other hand, cannot reconcile their concrete experience of a crescive “love energy” so utterly central as to seem “finally” caused, with a natural universe which ought, really, to be “dead heat” — as per the second law of thermodynamics. They therefore cannot help but look on the physical universe with as strong a sense of estrangement as that with which scientists perforce look on themselves, the creatures who look through the microscopes. Each is wary of the other’s world and senses its upsetting, capsizing power.
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