The Jesuit Priest Who Believed in God and the Singularity
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas may have been ahead of his time.
In 1915, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was serving on the front lines of World War I. Somewhere in the blood, sweat, and death of never-ending trench warfare, Teilhard glimpsed something that would haunt him: the vast inter-connectedness of living things.
That realization changed his life.
Teilhard went on to become a paleontologist, geologist, lecturer, essayist, world traveler, war hero, and part of the team that discovered Peking Man—a collection of ancestral human bones making up one of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century. You can imagine him as a sort of bookish Indiana Jones, traipsing around the world, uncovering the mysteries of human existence as he went.
But what was most remarkable about Teilhard was that he was a Jesuit priest. And rather than seeing evolution as undermining his Christian faith, he came to believe that evolution was nothing less than the absolute core of Christianity.
The Catholic church wasn't so sure. Neither was the scientific establishment. Teilhard was connecting things that were traditionally kept apart—and upsetting the uneasy stand-off between science and religion.
No one knew it then, but in crossing those lines, Teilhard was breaking ground on the ideas that would evolve into modern transhumanism.
The Exponential Curve
Most controversially, Teilhard saw a direction to evolution. This was a heated debate both then and now, but the more Teilhard studied, the more he became convinced of an undeniable trend towards increasing complexity, interconnection, and intelligence.
This trend had led from single-celled creatures to multi-celled organisms, from multi-celled organisms to creatures with hearts, lungs, and brains, and from creatures with brains to beings who could read, write, and communicate across thousands of miles. This was Teilhard's "curve of evolution," and it resembled nothing so much as the exponential curve of Moore's Law, leading up and to the right at an ever increasing angle.
Despite the initial antagonism, the church has clearly—if quietly—embraced Teilhard's thinking
This process had led inexorably toward human beings. But Teilhard's point was that humanity was simply one step on a never-ending staircase of increasing complexity. Humanity wasn't at the end of the process. Not at all.
In fact, Teilhard believed another new level of complexity and intelligence was already emerging. Teilhard called this new level the "noosphere"—the increasingly networked world of the mind.
As Teilhard saw it, this had begun with the advent of human brains, but couldn't stay isolated in human brains forever. In our books, our art, our technology, our roads — the noosphere was already reaching out to establish greater connection, greater depth, greater integration. That process would become:
"…[a] network of links…a nervous system…a closely interdependent network…over the whole earth…" (The Phenomenon of Man)
If that sounds familiar, you're not alone. Teilhard has been credited with anticipating the internet before it was even a glimmer in DARPA's eye.
But Teilhard's vision didn't stop with the emergence of a noosphere and a global nervous system. His "curve of evolution" kept going, tracing out ever-increasing complexity, intelligence, and connection.
The Emergence of Superintelligence
This pointed to one thing: an emerging superorganism.
Teilhard called this "The Omega Point." These days, we call it "the Singularity." The idea is the same: at some point, the network "wakes up" and a superhuman intelligence emerges within it. Once a superintelligence has emerged, we're fundamentally unable to comprehend what happens next. Our exponential curve has effectively gone to infinity, and passed beyond the limits of perception.
Despite that, modern Singularity theorists can't help speculating about what comes next. Teilhard was no different.
He imagined that once the Omega Point had been reached, life might finally move off the planet in an explosive beam of light, heading out to colonize the universe. Perhaps out among the stars, life would discover thousands or millions of inhabited worlds, and then connect with them to join the universe together in a brilliant network of mind.
It's hard to imagine anything more in keeping with Teilhard's expansive vision.
In 1949, Teilhard described pursuing this future as a process of "transhumanizing," and a path towards becoming transhuman.
Julian Huxley, the biologist and eugenicist (and brother to writer Aldous Huxley), was deeply impacted by Teilhard. In 1957, Huxley wrote:
"The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself —not just sporadically…but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature."
This was the origin of modern transhumanism—a movement largely characterized by the concepts of emerging superintelligence, and an exponential arc of evolution.
Teilhard's influence has only grown over the years.
During his life, Teilhard was heavily censored by the Catholic church. But despite the initial antagonism, the church has clearly—if quietly—embraced Teilhard's thinking. The last three popes have referenced him favorably, Pope Francis including him in the groundbreaking Laudato Si' encyclical—and Pope Benedict even defining the Catholic mass as the anticipation of the complete noosphere.
Like Teilhard's curve of accelerating evolution, this trend seems to be continuing. Religious people are becoming increasingly involved in transhumanist efforts, and that will probably only accelerate in the coming years.
Even if you aren't religious, this may be a good thing. In a world of often terrifying change, maybe the Singularity could use a patron saint—and Teilhard may be recognized as the first one to see it coming.