Friday, December 18, 2009

Teilhard de Chardin

Back in the mid 60's the two greatest intellectual influences on my development were Albert Einstein and Teilhard de Chardin.

What I subsequently found fascinating was the degree to which they were very close contemporaries. De Chardin was born in 1881 (two years after Einstein). However they both died in April 1955, within 8 days of each other, in the US (which had become their new adopted homeland). Indeed even geographically they were very closely united at the end with de Chardin dying in New York and Einstein just 50 miles away in Princeton.

Though in my own person a raging internal debate was going on regarding their respective philosophical standpoints, I am not aware of any substantial contact taking place between the two men during their own lifetimes.

What is similar in the work of both is a great drive towards understanding the unity governing all creation.

However though Einstein was certainly inspired by deep wonder and intuitive insight (of a genuine religious kind) he always sought to understand the laws of nature as if somehow separate from the enquiring mind. This is the underlying principle which drives the classical approach to science. Indeed one could validly argue that - despite the counter intuitive findings from quantum mechanics and elsewhere - that this is still the guiding principle of modern physics in the search for a merely "objective" solution as the Theory of Everything.

However - though a great scientist in his own right - de Chardin's standpoint is quite different. For him there is always an irreducible psychic - as well as physical - aspect to matter. And the subsequent story of creation is the manner in which both interact through evolution. De Chardin believed that increasing complexification of matter reflected the growing influence of the psychic aspect (bringing a capacity for greater organisation). Ultimately with the unfolding of evolution this psychic aspect was set to become ever more prominent leading eventually to an Omega point in creation where all matter would become transformed in spiritual energy.

Now, I would not necessarily agree on the details of de Chardin's perspective. However that is not the key point.

For Einstein the task of unification is to understand the immutable physical laws governing nature. The proposed answer here is in the form of a (detached) rational theory. So, the relationship of the knower to what is known is either effectively ignored or explained in merely reduced physical terms.

However for de Chardin the task of unification is to understand the key relationship as between both the physical and psychic capacities of matter (which are interdependent). Though this approach certainly does not deny the validity of rational understanding - in fact, strictly, it requires a much more refined use - the proposed answer is ultimately found through authentic contemplative experience. Here the knower (as subject) and what is known (as object) are transformed into their common identity as pure emptiness (in spirit).

Though it is continually ignored in conventional science, this key issue remains of the relationship of the knower to what is known.

Though once again the findings of quantum physics spell the death knell for the merely reductionist view, it still remains the overriding dominant perspective in our culture.

Meanwhile truly vast territories of new scientific understanding with potential riches to significantly transform our whole relationship with the environment remain totally unexplored.

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