i. The Omega Point
The most provocative (or loony) claim that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin makes in The Phenomenon of Man concerns his notion of the Omega Point.
We have already noted how Teilhard suggests that evolution is directional, pushing the material universe toward greater and greater complexity (what Teilhard calls complexification, p. 48). Further, as we noted in the last post, due to the Law of Complexity and Consciousness (p. 61), as the material universe grows complex consciousness is growing more and more complex right along with it.
What happens, therefore, is that great swaths of the material universe become conscious. A "thinking layer" of consciousness is now spread over parts of the material universe. These parts of "thinking layer" eventually interact and converge to create an aggregate. Teilhard named this the Noosphere. The word comes from the Greek word "nous" which means mind or intellect. In the poetic words of Teilhard (p. 182-183):
"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. Only one interpretation, only one name can be found worthy of this grand phenomenon. Much more coherent and just as extensive as any preceding layer, it is really a new layer, the 'thinking layer'...In other words, outside and above the biosphere there is the noosphere...The earth 'gets a new skin'. Better still, it finds its soul."
Where is the noosphere and matter heading? To summarize, Teilhard saw two forces in play:
1. Complixification: Matter moves from the simple toward the complex.
2. Law of Complexity and Consciousness: As matter grows complex a thinking layer emerges which reinforces and continues the push toward greater complexity.
In short, like the electromagnetic wave the rise of one field (e.g., electric) gives rise to the other field (e.g., magnetic) driving the wave forward at the speed of light. Matter grows complex begetting consciousness which begets greater complexity in matter. The physical cosmos and the noosphere start driving each other toward a climax. This climax is called the Omega Point.
Teilhard saw the Omega Point as a point of convergence, as the place where both the physical and "spiritual" (consciousness) would unite. This place, the Omega Point, is where the cosmos meets God.
What is interesting about this vision is how it plays with a variety of Christian ideas and gives them a twist. Physical and spiritual are united in an eschatological event. Yet all this is the lawful and inevitable product of the cosmos. The Divine is more immanent than transcendent in this process, although nothing in Teilhard's vision rules out a transcendent God. In fact, Teilhard states that the Omega Point, to act as a point of convergence, must stand outside of the cosmos. In the language of Scripture, God is "drawing all things to Himself" so that, in the end, "God will be all in all."
ii. Non-crazy Aspects of the Omega Point
What are we to make of the Omega Point? Let me end these posts by pointing out what I consider to be some non-crazy aspects of Teilhard's idea, to show points of convergence between Teilhard and other credible thinkers. And at the end I want to conclude this series with a question I've been thinking about for some time. In fact, this whole series has been simply giving you the background necessary to understand the question when I finally ask it!
To begin, let me overview the main points of Teilhard's thesis using a series of pictures depicting the rise of consciousness to the Omega Point.
First, however, I'd like to depart a bit from Teilhard. Teilhard believes that the Omega Point is one of convergence. I'm not so sure I even know what that means. In contrast, I'd like to think of the Omega Point as being a moment of coverage. Let me begin to illustrate:
Above is a picture representing the rise of consciousness. The material layer of the cosmos is the black background. Consciousness is represented by the colored dots. These are of different sizes to reflect the early stages of life. Some are snails, some are fish, some are mammals. Some dots might even represent early stages of Man. The picture is depicting how some facets of matter have consciousness associated with them.
The next picture depicts what I'll call "convergence."
I don't mean here to represent snail consciousness merging with human or fish consciousness. Rather, I'm trying to represent the rise of culture in the most sophisticated forms of consciousness. That is, human consciousness becomes, as it grows more and more complex, both integrated and distributed. We call this culture. It involves language, symbols, social mores, historical context, value systems, worldviews, etc. In point of fact, you can't even become a human "person" without participating in this shared and distributed layer of thought. Teilhard called this the Noosphere:
Once this cultural "thinking layer" is in place it comes to dominate the biosphere (even to the point where the noosphere can destroy the biosphere).
Let's pause and note something interesting about the noosphere. As the noosphere grows it becomes inherently moral, and grows more moral as it develops in complexity. Why do I say this? Well, as convergence emerges and grows we become increasingly aware of how our individual interests are intimately intertwined. We note how dependent we are upon each other. In short, the moral logic of the Golden Rule appears embedded in the fabric of the universe. Complexity produces convergence, convergence produces interdependence, interdependence produces morality.
Before you reject this as idle speculation read Robert Wright's book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright makes just this argument: There is a cooperative logic driving the evolution of the cosmos.
Similarly, Spinoza in his Ethics makes much the same claim. Specifically, he notes that the logic of self-interest necessarily implies mutual cooperation between persons. For example, Spinoza states that all ethics and virtue are founded upon natural self-interest:
Part 4, Proposition 18, Scholium:
"...the very foundation of virtue is this very striving to preserve one's own being, and that happiness consists in a man's being able to preserve his being."
Yet, this very self-interest demands that you and I work together in mutual harmony:
"Again, it follows that we can never bring it about that we require nothing outside ourselves to preserve our being, nor that we live without having dealings with things outside us...There are, therefore, many things outside us which are useful to us, and on that account to be sought."
What are these things that aid us? Spinoza continues,
"To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man. Man, I say, can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that all should so agree in all things that the minds and bodies of all would compose, as it were, one mind and one body; that all should strive together, as far as they can, to preserve their being; and that all, together, should seek for themselves the common advantage of all."
In sum (to use a formulation borrowed from David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone:
What is good for the group = Virtue
What is bad for the group = Vice
And, interestingly, this moral logic seems inherent in evolution, both material and psychical.
iii. My Big Question
What is the relationship between consciousness and matter? (BTW, this isn't my big question. It comes at the end.) Is consciousness superfluous? Or does it contribute something to the evolution of matter?
I, personally, don't think consciousness is superflous. I think its existence has an impact upon the trajectory of evolution. More specifically, I think consciousness makes two contributions.
First, consciousness appears to preserve complexity. That is, once a complex system develops consciousness appears to work at preserving the structural integrity of the entity. Consciousness, at its most basic, is approach/avoidance and pleasure/pain. All of consciousness and all of morality is an elaboration upon these primary themes. And we note that approach/avoidance and pleasure/pain exist to preserve the structural integrity of the agent.
Thus I conclude that consciousness is a form of inertia. Specifically, a kind of informational or complexity inertia that causes complex structures to persist longer than if consciousness did not exist. For example, think of those very rare disorders where people are born congenitally insensitive to pain. These persons only live a few years due to the amount of biological damage they quickly accrue (from overheating to unfelt tissue damage to failing to detect sunburn) in contrast to what you or I easily, and unconsciously, avoid. Consciousness is primarily about maintaining and prolonging your structural integrity.
And, if Spinoza is correct, this basic aspect of consciousness--preserving structural integrity--is also the root of morality. Spinoza based his ethical system on the notion of conatus, the desire of the person to preserve and maintain integrity. As Spinoza wrote,
Part 3, Propositions 6 and 7
"Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being."
"The striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing."
Upon this notion of conatus Spinoza derived this theory of ethics and virtue:
Part 3, Proposition 9, Scholium
"From all this, then, it is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, desire it."
This might, on first blush, be a recipe for moral disaster. But we've already noted that, for Spinoza, what conatus will persue is cooperation and morality, not isolated self-interest. We are finite creatures and cannot, in the end, control our destinies. People have tried this, even using violence, but they always fail in the end.
But I digress. To recap, what does consciousness do? I've suggested it does two things the first of which is acting as a kind of complexity inertia.
The second thing consciousness does has to do with free will.
First, let me clarify. By "freedom" I don't mean "causally unconstrained." In fact, the freedom I'm speaking of is actually built upon a deterministic model. The freedom I'm talking about is closer to "political freedom," or range of choice. When we speak of setting slaves "free" this is what we are speaking of, freedom from constraints and making available a greater range of options. Thus, there is no such thing as a "free will." Only a "freer will."
In this sense, then, it seems clear that consciousness is intimately involved in making us freer. That is, as we move up the ladder of consciousness, from snails to dogs to humans, we see how consciousness, due to its expanded pain/pleasure sensitivities and representational talents, aids the creature in gaining greater and greater volitional range. In this sense, a human is freer than a dog as a human has, due to her greater complexity, a greater range of choices before her.
Now we are finally getting to the question I've been thinking about for over a year. If we combine the two functions of consciousness what do we get? To recap:
Function 1: To preserve structural integrity
Function 2: Greater volitional range
I think that both Function 1 and Function 2 are self-evidently true, almost axiomatic. And yet, if we endorse them both an interesting outcome emerges. Specifically, you have something close to Teilhard's position. That is, as consciousness grants agents greater and greater volitional range that volitional range will be leveraged into the task of preserving structural integrity against the tides of entropy. What does this mean? It means that, as a finite creature, my volitional horizon is bounded. Thus, as Spinoza stated, my self-perservation efforts will always be thwarted by things outside of my control. But as my volitional range grows I'm able to calculate the causal chains that adversely affect me (or promote my existence) more and more deeply and deeply. My volitional horizon expands. Similar to those supercomputers that can calculate chess moves deeper and deeper into the game to where they now beat the World Chess Champion. What if consciousness, as it seems it must, is able to calculate deeper and deeper into the causal laws of the universe?
Which leads, finally, to my big question: What if this process continued? Specifically, what if consciousness computed ALL the causal chains, enabling it to choose, perfectly, the "moves" that would allow consciousness to permanently stave off entropy and extinction? Would the consciousness, at that point, fully "cover" the material world and reach the Omega Point?:
And if consciousness reached this point, where consciousness overlapped the causal flux, could it "hold" or preserve (per Spinoza's conatus) its structure indefinitely? And if it was able to accomplish this would this not mean, as we have argued, that the universe would have culminated in love, in the full consummation of mutual interdependence?
If so, then Teilhard might have been right.
i. The Omega Point