The errors of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Given a very superficial understanding of Luhmann’s work, one might mistakenly associate it with the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (or other “vitalist” theories). One possible connection is that Teilhard’s theory deals with evolution and complexity, and perhaps Teilhard’s idea of the noosphere as a planetary mind.

Teilhard (1881-1955) was was a Jesuit priest and a paleontologist who was censored by the Catholic Church for his writings on evolution. He argued that evolution proceeds teleologically from inanimate matter (the geosphere) to living organisms (the biosphere) to the a level of human thought encompassing the planet, which he called the noosphere. (Incidentally, the nearest approximation to Teillard’s noosphere might be the Internet.) The goal of evolution for Teilhard was called the Omega Point, which is identified with Christ or a universal Christ Consciousness. Evolution proceeds from matter, to life, to mind, to spirit. The idea is that evolution culminates in a singular point, where all separation is transcended.

The theory is tempting because of its symmetry and comprehensiveness. In this sense, it’s sort of like scholasticism or Dante’s vision of the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The overall design is somehow beautiful.

One reason someone might confuse Teilhard’s theories with Luhmann, systems theory or complexity theory is that Teilhard talked about increasing complexity and a sort of global mind–the noosphere, which might be called a social system. You might even think of the noosphere as being operationally autonomous and, like social systems, beyond the control of particular human beings.

But for Luhmann, global society is not a global mind or brain; it is a global communicaition system Also, evolution is not teleological; there is no ultimate purpose or goal. Society, in Luhmannian theory, is a comprehensive social system; however, it does not consist of human thought but, rather, communication–and not just human communication.  There is also no sense in which social systems are “higher” than psychic or organic systems. Neither is any living organism higher on some evolutionary ladder. Yes, evolution does produce more complexity, but this doesn’t imply a hierarchy or an Omega Point. The entire concept of hierarchy is associated with stratified society. But in a functionally differentiated society, there is no overall coordination among systems. There is no transcendent God that observes, organizes, or guides all of the systems.

The fundamental problem is that Teilhard tried to join science and religion, which are two seperate function systems. Both the scientists and the theologins rejected his attempted synthesis. Another problem with the synthesis is that if science changes theology would have to change with it. Teilhard seems to assume that science would not change.

A related issue is that Teilhrd’s theory allowed him to accept racism and eugenics. These views are very much tied to Herbert Spencer’s theory of social evolution, which was preceded by the work of Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782)  in Historical Law Tracts (1758) and Sketches on the History of Man (1774).

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