Notes on Teilhard's Omega Point: Part 2, Inside the Universe

The Phenomenon of Man is considered to be Teilhard's masterwork. In The Phenomenon of Man Teilhard sets out most of the ideas he is known for:

1. His focus on human consciousness and its relationship to evolution
2. The Law of Complexity and Consciousness
3. The Noosphere
4. The Omega Point

In Chapter 2 of The Phenomenon of Man--The Within of Things--Teilhard takes up the great subject of consciousness and its puzzling but singular existence in the cosmos. I want to begin my notes with this subject.

In Chapter 2 of The Phenomenon of Man Teilhard makes, among others, two related observations:

1. Matter can become conscious
2. Science has largely ignored this fact

In Teilhard's language there is an Inside and Outside aspect to existence. A Within and a Without. The Outside/Without aspect of existence has been the focus of science. It is the material manifestation of the cosmos. The physical stuff of the universe from tables, to our bodies, to stars.

But as conscious creatures we also know that matter can have an Inside as well. "Inside" or "within" your material existence is the experiencing facet of the cosmos, the conscious aspect of matter.

Note that we are not speaking of a ghost in a machine, a spiritual entity existing within a material shell, a soul inhabiting a body. Rather, as Teilhard notes, matter itself, in certain configurations (e.g., humans, dogs, rats), is intrinsically conscious. Matter and consciousness exist in some kind of relationship.

This idea is not unique to Teilhard. Spinoza espoused a view of consciousness and matter that is very similar. From the Ethics:

From Part 2, Proposition 7, Scholium:
...the thinking substance and the extended substance are one and the same substance, which is now comprehended under this attribute, now under that. So also a mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, but expressed in two ways.

From Part 3, Proposition 2, Scholium:
...the mind and the body are one and the same thing, which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension.

This is Spinoza's famous parallelism, his view of the relationship between the mind and body. Specifically, the mind (the attribute of thought) and body (a mode of extension: a thing that takes up space) are considered to be two different aspects of a single substance. Mind and body are not two different things that influence each other back and forth. They are, simply, different "attributes" of a single underlying substance. Two ways of looking at the same thing. In the language of Teilhard the substance of the cosmos has an Inside (consciousness) and an Outside (the physically measurable features of matter) which exist in some kind of relationship.

What kind of relationship? We'll get to that in the next post, but for now Teilhard's main criticism is this: Science has been, on a grand scale, ignoring this relationship. We all know consciousness exists. It is the most striking feature of the universe. And yet, science has, by and large, completely ignored it as an object of study. Cosmologists study the origins of the cosmos. Biologists study the origin of species. But where is science systematically studying the Dawn of Consciousness and its relationship to matter?

Let me be concrete. Why is a dog conscious but a rock is not? Both the dog and the rock are made up of the same stuff. Atoms and molecules. So what is the difference? It must be in the way the atoms and molecules are organized. If so, why does one kind of organization lead to consciousness while another organization does not? What is the law governing how consciousness adheres to or emerges from different material configurations? There must, it seems, be a lawful relationship. If so, who in the scientific community is working on specifying this lawful relation? Because I think Teilhard is correct. If science only specifies the laws of the Outside of the universe (those Grand Unified Theories Stephen Hawking and his ilk talk about) science would have surely failed in fully specifying the laws of the cosmos.

The Inside remains.

Next Post: Part 3

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11 thoughts on “Notes on Teilhard's Omega Point: Part 2, Inside the Universe”

  1. "... Grand Unified Theories Stephen Hawking..."

    Unfortunately some of those theories may be little more that conjecture. But CERN is betting that Hawking Radiation might be real. If Dr. Steven Hawking and CERN are wrong, as several PHDs and Professors of Math and Physics have argued that Hawking Radiation may not be real, then the consequences THIS YEAR could result in an unimaginable catastrophe.

    Did you know that CERN predicts that super dense matter called micro black holes might be created for the first time on Earth later in 2008 in the Large Hadron Collider?

    If micro black holes do not evaporate, evaporate?!, they could actually destroy the planet. Destroy the planet in just years or decade according to Dr. Otto Rossler of Germany!

    Black holes observed in space only grow. And several PHDs and Professors of Math and Physics have argued that all black holes, even micro black holes may also possibly also only grow.

    On this topic, Dr. Raj Baldev, Director of the Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research, writes: “ … the scientists are fully aware that it is not a project without a grave risk to the life of the Earth.”

    Learn more at

  2. How do you define "consciousness"?

    How about, "That phenomenon which cannot be known apart from itself"?

    (Knowing necessary--or even perhaps someday sufficient causes--of consciousness is not the same as having consciousness, which is to say that science might someday be able to tell us when and why it arises without getting any closer to what it is, i.e., understanding "the law governing how consciousness adheres to or emerges from...material configurations," as you put it, might not tell us anything about consciousness, per se.)

    If my tautological "it is what it is" definition is granted as the only possible, a fun conundrum results for the "Inside/Outside" talk. Since knowledge of the "Outside" presumes empiricism which presumes consciousness, the "Outside" you refer to is actually inside the "Inside."

    This all follows if mind is the ultimate stuff: "Thou art that."

    And how will you know that without mind?

    Ya gotta love it.

  3. "That phenomenon which cannot be known apart from itself"

    That's not a bad definition. Philosophers speak of qualia and psychologists speak of sensation. Both refer to raw sensory impressions subjectively experienced. Like the color red, the taste of sugar, or the feelings of pleasure or pain. So, in this discussion "consciousness" isn't about self-awareness but about the fact that matter can "feel." In the next post I'm calling this the Ouch Factor.

  4. We all know consciousness exists. It is the most striking feature of the universe.

    I got a chuckle out of this. It's hard to know exactly what might be striking about the universe apart from a consciousness to be "struck."

    And that said, there are some other bits of the universe which are pretty fantastic in their own right---once one quits being struck by his own consciousness long enough to marvel at them.


  5. "What is the law governing how consciousness adheres to or emerges from different material configurations?

    I prefer to think of it in computer terms, hardware and software. Except in biology it is literally a more fluid relationship. There is some plasticity to the mind-brain connection which is difficult to explain, but which is currently being investigated. Hofstadter does an excellent job of describing how self-referential the software is, and how this subtly constructs a sense of identity. This property also enables the brain to compensate for damage when it occurs, since nonlinear systems are very robust. Where he doesn't do so well is explaining how the different types of brain region outputs are integrated into one gestalt or how the direction of focus gets altered by learning or instinct.

    Related to that point, Walker Percy suggested that what makes human consciousness unique is the degree of separation we have from the environment. Unlike the world we simplify to dyadic interactions in order to study, we have a triadic interface where everything is converted into a symbol, including the generative, elusive sign-maker known as self. This interface has its benefits and drawbacks, including the ability to tune out distractions and social withdrawal. Kant's pure categories of understanding are one of the main features of this interface since they give a true reflection of reality, but only as phenomena, not as things-in-themselves.

  6. eric,
    Point well taken. There are a multitude of wonders...

    I have also been influenced by Hofstader's work. I think his strength is as an account of cognitive representation. However, he has never touched, or even attempted an account of, consciousness.

  7. Richard,
    I came across your blog because of your series on strange loops. That said, I don't really know what to make of your statement. Hoftstadter, like other functionalists in the mind-brain debate, believes that higher order cognitive representation (i.e. isomorphic mapping) is the definition of consciousness. If you could tell me what definition you are suggesting that would help me understand your position better.


  8. Who is working on the problem of consciousness? It has been receiving more attention these last 15 to 20 years. People like John Searle, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Nicholas Humphrey and David Chalmers come to mind. Can't find my copy of Chalmer's book right now but he divides the effort to understand how consciousness works into two components. The first has to do with the physiological and biochemical concommitants of consciousness. He notes that progress is being made on this aspect. But the other part of the question of consciousness is what he calls "the hard problem". Even if we knew the location and action of every molecule and electron in the brain that accompanied a thought or a feeling of pain we would not understand why and how it is that those processes enable us to be conscious. Why should these tiny things moving around in complicated fashion create feeling? Some of the more old style positivist, materialist type folks like Dennett perceive only the physiological side of the issue.

    Yes, Du Chardin and you are right. Somehow consciousness is a different substance from matter and energy. I've argued till I'm blue in the face with a friend about this but have never gotten through to him on it.

  9. Step 2,
    Sure thing.

    Now I could be wrong in my reading of Hofstadter, so correct me if I'm wrong, but my take is that he is interested in symbols, cognitive representations. His strange loop is still focused on this, only now the self is a symbol.

    Consciousness, as psychologists define it, isn't about symbols, even self-referential symbols. It's about sensation: Tastes, smells, sounds, pleasure and pain. Thus while DH's account is a fine and exciting account of the functional side of cognition it doesn't make any attempt to account for sensation (or qualia, to use the philosopher's term).

    I think the confusion comes when the word consciousness is used in two different ways:

    1. Self-awareness
    2. Sensation/Qualia

    DH is working with #1 and I'm speaking of #2, in keeping with my discipline and the philosophical discussions.

  10. Steve,
    You're right that people are writing about consciousness, but they tend to work on opposite sides of the issue and never at the interface that I and Teilhard are pointing to.

    For example, Dennett willfully refuses to recognize the problems while people like Searle gesture at mysteries. Only Chalmers, who I referred to in my first post as an influence and who I'm getting to in tonight's post, makes a stab at the issue (and, incidentally, is roundly dismissed for his speculative and Teilhardian ideas).

  11. Richard,
    Many thanks, that clears things up immensely. My response to the qualia definition is that they are evolutionary responses to basic needs that are mediated (like all things) through the symbolic interface . Pain and pleasure being the two clearest examples, since every animal has a survival instinct that gives negative feedback for toxic environments and positive feedback for healthy environments. The practical requirement becomes how to determine what is healthy and what is harmful. These states are differentiated through the sensations of tastes, smells, sounds, visuals, and kinesthetics. In other animals, these perceptions and a simple instinct combined with a limited communication framework are sufficient to warn them of which environments to avoid and which to seek out. As part of our more advanced communication framework, humans further depend upon sensory memory entwined with symbolic context. A quick way to demonstrate this is to nullify the context. Simply repeat the word "orange" aloud forty times, after a dozen or so the word loses its sensory content.

    The interesting twist is that unlike other animals, we have many more choices available to us because of this fuzzy relationship between sign and signifier. The law of requisite variety means that this gives us stability if not dominance in an extreme range of environments, but it also means that we can and will attach wrong values to our sensory memories. In psychological parlance, the qualia of traumatic memory is less important than the process of memory formation, which has cut off available options for healthy responses and therefore must be changed.

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