The genesis of a great idea can lie dormant for a very long time before ascending into consciousness. For the philosopher, scientist, and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, it was germinated in the mud of Verdun, France, where, as a stretcher bearer in World War I, he carted the dead and wounded from the front lines. Like Edgar Mitchell, Teilhard had the ability to intuit a greater meaning from his immediate circumstances, to see out beyond the literal front lines to the outlines of a global consciousness.
Journaling during a brief furlough from his duties in war, Teilhard reflected on the paradoxical pressures that soldiers felt between the respite from fighting and the tension of being on the front lines.
Our future continues to be pretty vague, both as to when and what it will be. What the future imposes on our present existence is not exactly a feeling of depression; it’s rather a sort of seriousness, of detachment, of a broadening, too, of outlook. This feeling, of course, borders on a sort of sadness (the sadness that accompanies every fundamental change); but it leads also to a sort of higher joy. . . . I’d call it “Nostalgia for the Front.” The reasons, I believe, come down to this; the front cannot but attract us because it is, in one way, the extreme boundary between what one is already aware of, and what is still in process of formation. (Teilhard de Chardin 1965, 205)
What was being stirred up in Teilhard’s imagination was a profound shift of attention. The months on the front altered his perception. Decades later, he would acknowledge how the concentration of bodies, “the atmosphere of the front,” and the loss of boundaries between “natural” and “artificial” and between “physical” and “moral” inspired within him an epiphany. The human million, as he described it, had within itself a “psychic temperature” and an evolutionary throb. The isolated human being, like an unattached cell, was predisposed to join with others and become a more complex entity, “to coalesce into physical relationships and groupings that belong to a higher order.” Grounded in his scientific knowledge of biological evolution and now acting with a spiritual sixth sense, Teilhard’s capacity for observation was magnified. He described this as a “gift or faculty of perceiving without actually seeing, the reality and organicity [sic] of collective magnitudes . . . what emerged into my field of perception was literally a new universe” (King 1996, 60–61).
Decades before Edgar Mitchell gazed down from the sky and saw a singular planet, Teilhard looked up from the planet’s physical core and saw a web of psychic coherence, like a thin mist, rising above human consciousness. His mind had been rewired to see unity from multiplicity and diversity as elements that make up a larger whole. “Yes,” he wrote in The Phenomenon of Man, “from now on we envisage, beside and above individual realities, the collective realities that are not reducible to the component element” (Teilhard de Chardin 1959, 247).
Teilhard’s intuition in the mud fields of Verdun finally took shape in a new world view. In collaboration with his colleague, the mathematician Edouard Le Roy, and influenced by lectures given at the Sorbonne by the Russian geo-chemist Vladimir Vernadsky, Teilhard had a name for his discovery — the noosphere. Drawing upon the concept of a biosphere, a term invented in the 19th century for the ecological pattern on Earth’s surface where physical life dwells, the noosphere was a layer of thought interacting with life’s psychic energy, a meta layer of human thought fed by the richness and convergence of diverse cultures and ideas.
In these postulations, Teilhard was challenging us to observe differently, intentionally moving our gaze from a kind of fatalism that says habits of the past and instinct alone will determine our future. With joyous determination, and possibly a dollop of naiveté, he was pleading with us to recognize the neuro-plasticity of the collective mind.
Ironically, during the period when he was making this argument, Western science believed that the trajectory of the individual brain was genetically determined and that enrichment from the environment was irrelevant. Now we know differently. There is consensus and mountains of empirical evidence to show that the individual brain continues to develop throughout its lifespan. And we know something as well about the health of the individual brain. What enlivens brain function is diet, curiosity, novelty, physical activity, challenge, and love. And it is no different for the collective mind. What matters is how we enrich ourselves as a collective. Just as we once thought aging was predetermined by genetic factors alone, Teilhard was telling us that human evolution would not be determined solely by base instincts and habitual beliefs.
(Excerpted from writing currently in process on the relationship between individual practice and group process in collective wisdom)
King, U. Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin. New York: Orbis Books, 1996.
Teilhard de Chardin, P. The Making of a Mind: Letters From a Soldier-Priest 1914–1919. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Teilhard de Chardin, P. The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1959.