Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 18 (September 1966):78-83.

1. Teilhards project, its starting point and intention: The Teilhardian corpus has a unity and is held together by a profound intention, i. e.

    a) to communicate to his fellow Christians what is valid in the "religion of the earth' as he found the unbeliever of his early years professing it,-thus the value of matter, research, progress, in short all the values of "this world'. Thus the Divine Milieu, etc.

    b) to communicate to scientists and those taken up with this world the religious dimension implicit in their valuing this world and its activities as they do. Thus the Phenomenon of Man.

    c) to impart some guidelines for the Future of Man, to keep the spirit of optimism and progress alive, and working in the most fruitful channels.

2. Teilhard's rethinking of biology in line with the second of three phases in his effort: the gradual elaboration of a method which he calls hyperphysics. I shall try to sketch what this implies for him, how it impinges on the world of life that the biologist studies, on the world of matter studied by the physicist, and what immediate difficulties it has seemed to raise in the eyes of critics. It would be at this point that I would hope questions and discussion would start, for there is plenty of material for both.

We used to hear, some years ago, a song that went; "Please don't talk about me when I'm gone". I doubt whether Teilhard would have sung that song and meant it. At any rate, he is certainly being talked, about: in Europe, both Christians and Marxists find his thought the most hopeful bridge this century offers between what once seemed their irreducibly opposing views. In England, where thinkers have been galvanized by C. P. Snow's dramatic underlining of the "Two Cultures" problem-by his challenge to scientists and humanists, and especially to the latter, to come to some understanding of their opposite numbers-Teilhard's own effort to bridge that yawning chasm has excited genuine interest. The young leaders of Africa look to his synthesis, his "vision", as a possible mode of reconciling their ambition to share in the technological benefits of the Western world, with their determination still to cling to their ancient spiritual heritage. And now, in America, where all these same problems harry us, we find the supply of his writings suddenly fap outstripped by the clamoring demand for them.

He is, we are told, a voice that speaks to the problems of our times, the herald of a unitary vision which our fragmented intelligences sorely need, the prophet of our 20th century. One cannot entirely suppress the suspicion that a certain romanticism runs through such claims: the very portrait of the man who looks out from-the cover of the Phenomenon of Man, the lines of gentle wisdom on his noble face, the peace of long and patient struggle welling from those eyes, half mystical, and yet so profoundly warm and human the very look of the man is an enchantment. And that look, from all we know, does not deceive: Teilhard was like this,-as Professor Barbour has put it, the 11 noblest man with whom I have ever lived", or as his old Superior at Paris phrased it, "the most Jesuit Jesuit I have ever known". Which reminds us of the added fact that be was a man long silenced by his own superiors in the Society of Jesus: oh, what a potent new reason for romantic effusions, particularly now, when voices are raised about freedom of speech in the Catholic Church, and raised in tones of gleeful triumph which make one wonder how the agonies of a Teilhard, a de Lubac, a Ralmer could, so short a time ago, have been even possible. As a person, and a martyr in his way, Teilhard's attractiveness is beyond question.

And yet, there are other voices: that personal attractiveness, they warn us, could be a dangerous snare. For, Teilhard's person was one thing, his thought is quite another dish of tea: a brew compounded of poetry and mysticism mixed with half-digested science, sugared by an infusion of tipsy, euphoric prose; his frantic efforts to deceive are only partly excused by the lengths he went to deceive himself; his science

*Robert J. O'Connell, S.J. is a professor at Fordbarn University,' New York City, N.Y. Paper read at the 20th Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation and the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, August 1965 at the King's College, Briarcliff Manor, New York.

is bad, but his theology is worse; he would present us with an evolution which the evolutionist can scarcely recognize, a Christianity which twists the ancient tradition horribly out of shape, an optimistic vision of the future in which we are asked to drift supinely on our backs till the evolutionary current bear us where it will,-to the ant-hill, with joy/!

To one taken, as I must admit I am, by the person of Teilhard, these indictments of his thinking seem sometimes only thinly to veil a camouflaged attack upon the man himself,-for the graceful life be lived precisely in witness to his vision: if self-deceived and now deceiving others, then the sincerity of his lifeproject stands, in part at least, condemned. And yet, what breeds a certain sympathy even for the most intemperate of his accusers is their evident seriousness: they implicitly admit that there are problems, gigantic and troubling problems involved in such a project as Teilhard made his own. They see that such a project as he took upon himself is eminently worthwhile, even urgent for our times: their complaint is,and if it can be founded it must be taken seriously,their complaint is that Teilhard was unable to measure the grandeur of his project, because ill-equipped to envisage the size, the contours and the baffling complexities of the problems it involved. When names like Medawar, Simpson, and in a more qualified way, Dobzhansky, are ranged against Teilhard, the fact must give us pause; when, on the philosophic side a Toulmin, a Nagel, a D'Armagnac, McMullin or Polanyi, have their difficulties with his way of interpreting scientific findings, it should make the thinking man reflect. The prophet may just be a pied piper; his vision may just be another drifting fire inviting us to wander and eventually founder in a bog. History is too full of such enthusiastic visions and visionaries. Teilhard, we are assured, will free us of the shackles of Thomism,-but those shackles, if shackles they be, we ourselves have forged and put on: are we being urged to sing another rousing chorus of the same old tune, but in another key? If we made the mistake once, we ought at least to be a trifle shy in making it again.

Aristotle here injects the note that must guide all reflection on Teilhard: the friends of the Ideas, he says,
speaking of his master Plato, are our friends too; but truth must be a greater friend. We must attempt to
dissociate ourselves from the personal spell Teilhard's biographies weave, and judge the validity of what
the man said. And he himself, be it noted, would have it no other way. "I may," he admits at the end of his Phenomenon of Man, I may have gone astray at many points. It is up to others to do better. My one
hope is that I have made the reader feel both the reality, difficulty, and urgency of the problem, and at the same time the scale and the form which the solution cannot escape" (290).

I must apologize for having harped so long on the need of this initial attitude, the attitude of simple objectivity, lucidity, reasonableness,-particularly before a group such as this, where it may more safely have been presumed. But experience is a bruising thing, and it has pounded into me again and again that one cannot, in Teilhard's case, assume too much: too few are willing to bring to his work the required patience, the scrupulous objectivity, a receptivity to whatever truth he may have hit upon, along with the willingness to disentangle it where necessary from whatever errors there may be. Before either criticizing or following the man, we must take the time to understand him: to situate the project he took on, find out what he was trying to do, and then, soberly ask how well he succeeded in doing it: how well did he solve the problems that went with his project.

1. Teilhard's project:

A. Its three "moments"

Teilhard's life-project can, I think, usefully be considered as having three distinguished moments. I call them "moments"-not in the chronological sense of the term, but to describe those accents, points of emphasis, which assume varying importance in differing stages of his career. Right from the beginning, he is speaking to three distinct, but inseparably interwoven preoccupations: the preoccupation of the Christian theologian, whom he urges to take the scientific picture and the "religion of the world" with appropriate seriousness; the preoccupation of the scientific thinker, whom * he tries to get to see the human, and religious dimension of the Weltanschauung science presents for our belief; and thirdly, the preoccupation of the man of action, the man involved in furthering the interests of humanity: to him, he wishes to present the probable lines of future human development, to guide his action into the most fruitful channels, and most of all, to assure him that there is hope for that future, despite what an all too often incomplete scientific view of the future would lead him to believe.

B. The first moment:

All three of these moments are, therefore, present in Teilhard's mind and writings at any one point in his career. But in the earlier works, one may think, he addresses himself mainly to the Christian theologian, suspicious of the evolutionary world-view which, in Teilhard's early life-time, was still struggling against an all-too-literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. The first major work from his pen is the Divine Milieti, but its message is already presaged by the war-works (just published in French as E~rits de Guerre; in the Hymn to the Universe which has been translated (badly) and The Making of a Mind which has been published in the brilliant translation it demanded). Here he is trying to show how splendidly the Christian view coheres with the evolutionary view of man and of the world. In doing so, he must to some extent "interpret" Christianity_selecting certain strands in both Scripture and tradition which favor his synthesis and letting others subside into much less prominence. Theologians question whether he has suitably recognized the problems of sin and evil; whether God's gracious intervention in Christ Jesus does not become a necessary, hence no longer "free" and genuinely "gracious" invasion of human history; whether his view of Christ's redemptive activity is not distorted by his evolutionary preoccupations; whether the individual is left really free to maneuver in, and even swim against, 
the drift of the evolutionary current. These and other questions have been asked by serious men, and they 
should be taken seriously: but our own preoccupation now does not lie here. 

C. The third moment: To skip now to the third moment of his activity: the Future of Man, which some of you have read, shows Teilhard insisting that evolution is still going on, that man is evolution become conscious of itself,-conscious, and therefore capable of seizing the helm -freely-directing its future course into most fruitful channels. Teilhard thinks that the scientist whose view of the future is governed mainly by the second law of thermo-dynamics, who thinks of the universe as entropically "running down" and inexorably heading for a "cold death", is preaching a gospel of cosmic despair whether he realizes it or not. If this is all the future really holds for us, then mankind, once the word gets round, will simply "go on strike", lose all interest in the world, stop laboring for the betterment of the human condition. The existentialism of the Second World War seems to have frightened Teilhard: this word of despair was, he felt, getting round: his writings, be it noted, never deny the darker aspects of existence which the Existentialists unilaterally  stressed,-the horrors of Dachau and Buchenwald, thedread of the bomb, were things which darkened his imagination as much as anyone's. And yet, he claimed, there was another cosmic drift besides the one toward  entropy: the upward drift of evolution was of equal,  nay, of even greater importance-qualitatively. There was another side to the black portrait of human cruelty his adversaries kept thrusting before his eyes,-the wildest acts of barbarism sprang from some desire of good, of betterment,-just as every heresy is the re venge of some forgotten truth. What totalitarianism, for example, had in view, was something we Christians  and defenders of democracy have all too frequently forgotten: the mutual involvement of the individual with other men, with the entire human race and with the entirety of God's creation. This corporate aspect of Christianity-the view of the Christian as member of a Body, of an Ekklesia, the view that Church as a leaven meant to ferment the entire mass and bring it to the "Fullness of Christ Who filleth all"- this cor porate aspect is something which the ecumenical movement, among others, has forced us all to redis cover; it put Teilhard significantly ahead of his theo logical time,-and makes one wonder whether some of his critics on this point are not aiming their shafts from a spot situated squarely in the 19th century. 

D. The second moment: "hyperphysics"

But so much for the first and third moments of Teil hard's project: the second moment, which we might
most appropriately consider here, cannot be evalu ated entirely divorced from the other two, but it
can and ought to be discussed distinctly from them. The only work of his so far translated-and horribly translated-into English, which shows him in the stance characteristic of this second moment, is the Phenomenon
of Man. I need not tell you that this is an extraordinarily difficult book, some of you have doubtless tried to hack your way through it. What I wish to stress is that it is a far more difficult book than many have imagined: and that number must include both critics and admirers of Teilhard. Really the to understand it, one must first be content to read it in the French; then read the entire series of essays  written from 1921 to 1930-mostly from the second
 and third volumes of his works, LApparition de L' Homme  and "La Vision du Passe",-essays which
make it plain exactly what he is trying to do, and how  he went about elaborating the method he brings to
doing it. 

"If this work is to be properly understood,: his first words in the Phenomenon warn us,  

it must be read not as a work on metaphysics, still less as a sort of theological essay, but purely and simply as a scientific memoire... This book deals with man solely as a phenomenon; but it also deals with the whole phenomenon of man.

The first disservice this translator performed toward  the English-speaking world-particularly that part of it which is unwilling or unable to consult the French original, about 99% from what one can judge-was to translate that ambiguous word memoire as "treatise". Had Teilhard wished to say that, he would have writ ten traite instead: but this would have meant some thing quite technical, and given the impression that he meant, in his work, to "do science", "practice" sci ence as the term is presently accepted,-as most of his critics, and many of his admirers, have somewhat prematurely assumed.

But this is exactly what he is not doing; if you wish to judge his practice of science, then consult his geo logical and paleontological reports, they number in the hundreds, where you will find an entirely differ ent approach, another standard of evidence, a res olute refusal to take in-as he says here-"the whole phenomenon of man."

What is implicit here, and made repeatedly explicit in the methodological observations which dot the  Phenomenon of Man, (pp. 29-36; 54-54; 142-146; 163-164) is Teilhard's acute consciousness of what he is doing, as distinguished from what the scientist normally, but quite legitimately does. Nowhere, be it noted, does he suggest that scientists should now start practicing their trade according to a different method, and using new standards of evidence; his suggestion is, rather, that when he comes to reflect on the meaning of what his ordinary practice of science discloses, the scientist must become keenly conscious of the fact that his approach has been a partial one, has deliberately eschewed certain aspects of the reality studied, has left them out of consideration in order to treat certain other aspects with as much precision as can be brought to their treatment. When reflecting, therefore, on the meaning of what his method discloses about the world, the scientist must develop-in his terms-another, complementary way of "seeing"-of seeing the whole phenomenon: not only the spatial immensity of the cosmos as we know it, the enormous stretches of time in terms of which we are obliged to think of its development, the bewildering multitude of elements that go to make it up: all these, Teilbard is confident, the scientific mind experiences no difficulty in accepting. But what the initial abstraction involved in scientific knowledge all too often steals from the scientist's way of seeing, what the scientist, therefore, all too often lacks when he ,comes to reflect on the implications of his findings, is "a sense of quality or novelty ... a sense of movement ... (which helps him detect) the entirely new insinuating itself into the heart of the monotonous repetition of the same things, (and) a sense, lastly, of the organic, discovering physical links and structural unity under the superficial juxtaposition of successioris and collectivities (Phenomenon 33-34).

Three "senses", then,-of quality and novelty, of movement, and of the organic; does Teilhard mean to imply that these are indispensable equipment for the scientist in the normal practice of his trade? Something very like it has, it should be noted, been suggested by others, and some of the names involved are names to conjure with: Dewey has insisted on that sense of quality and novelty, Whitehead on the sense of the organic and of movement; practicing biologists like Sinnott and Dubos have tried to bring some such manner of envisaging reality to their work as scientists. But it is not clear that this is exactly what Teilbard has in mind: he is insisting on these senses for the man who would practice the kind of thing his Phenomenon represents,-and the name he attaches to it is not science, but "byper-science"; not physics, but "hyperphysics".

II. Genesis and structure of method:

The Phenomenon of Man, however, confronts us with this method fully-developed; to see what it implies, and judge its value, we must watch it as it developed in his thinking. Then both its differences from and its relationship to science may become clearer.

Science, Teilhard's earlier writings disclose, has as its first task to furnish us with the phenomenal film of what occurs, and what did in the past occur. Let the theologian rant against anti-biblical implications of evolution, let the metaphysician rant to us that such a thing must be impossible: the scientist, Teilhard proposes, asks the simple, modest question: did it, or did it not happen? What does the film of the events in cosmic development tell us? The theologian's business is to make sense of that, the metaphysician's task to ask how such a thing is possible, once its possibility emerges from the sober, objective inquiry of the scientist.

But here Teilhard must meet with an objection: his theologian friends might easily have reminded him of the work of Ernst Haeckel, whose propaganda for the "scientific", evolutionary view of man claimed to show that the Bible was wrong, Christianity a fiction, the creator-God a hypothesis of which the scientist no longer had need. No, Teilbard answers, no: the scientific picture, he tries to show', is both theologically and metaphysically neutral, says nothing per se for or against God, Christianity, the Bible: Haeckel has gotten both a materialistic philosophy and a misunderstood theology mixed up with his half-digested science-exactly, be it noted, the accusation leveled at Teilhard by some of his scientific critics. Science, of itself, contains a dynamism which drives it to a comprehensive explanation of the real as it appears in space and time: but the kind of explaining science does is on one level, the kind theology and metaphysics attempts is on another. These levels, Teilhard insists both in his earlier essays and in Phenomenon, must not be confused, must not get mixed up: they may, and must "converge"-that is, supplement each other's views of the same reality-but they must not do this -it the price of merging, getting tangled up in one another, each claiming its method is appropriate for the other's task.

And yet, this program does not solve the problem that faces Teilhard. How was it that the scientists more generally in his time than now-almost uniformly take the materialist, the anti-biblical stance? You claim, his theologian-friends could justly remind him, that the scientific picture is reconcilable with the Christian view of man and of reality: how will you get your scientific confreres to admit to that?

Reflecting on what man experiences of himself as a creature of interiority, "within", Teilhard is faced with consciousness and liberty; and yet, these properties are all too often left out of scientific studies of man; in scientific studies of reality outside the human sphere, however, they are quite deliberately excluded from consideration. The result is a curious anomaly: man finds himself a creature of consciousness and liberty, the scientist assures him he is the product of evolution that began with hydrogen, moved through the higher elements and molecules, the simpler forms of life, and presto! from constituents without a trace of these two crucial properties, we are to believe that a free and conscious product has emerged.

This, Teilhard decides, is anomaly number one: that scientific explanation regularly ignores the "within" of man, and regularly supposes there is no analogue of that "within" in the elements which have gone into man's constitution.

There is, however, a second anomaly,- we have briefly alluded to it earlier. The Physicist, mesmerized by the
Second Law of Thermo-dynamics, sees the universe running down; the biological sciences, on the contrary, find life pushing ever upward to newer, more complex, more developed forms. But, the normal mode of resolving this apparent conflict says, the entropic drift is the universal, overarching, all-embracing drift of matter,-the upward, evolutionary movement is but a relatively localized and momentary phenomenon: it is doomed eventually to be caught up and drowned in the other.

And yet, there are indications that this picture is not so neat as it originally appears: if evolution began with the simplest stages of matter, then the upward tendency is not merely peculiar to living forms of matter, but is just as universal as the entropic movement: the two are as associated in the physicist's pic ture of the universe as "successes" and "failures" are throughout the spectrum of evolution. Instead, there fore, of considering the entropic as the privileged, the primordial and fundamental movement of matter, why not associate the two throughout the entire scale of material forms: why not say that evolutionary success on every level must be paid for by a bewilder ing number of evolutionary failures,-and that entropy is the result of these failures?

The proposal seems a simple one, but it involves a revolution in scientific thinking: it involves, first of all, the concept of science as engaged in presenting us with a "natural history" of the entire cosmos-in-development, "cosmogenesis". Secondly, it implies that the various forms which matter assumes-from atom to
man-since they develop into one another, are to some extent homogeneous with one another; the lower and higher forms of material being constitute a fun damental continuity; and this means that no property found anywhere on any level of material being, can be thought as totally absent from the lower levels which went into the formation of the higher level at which the property manifests itself. If man is conscious, then all matter must, to some extent, be conscious: however diminished and shadowy that con sciousness may be when compared to man's developed consciousness. And here it must be noted that the continuity Teilhard insists upon admits, even re quires, certain "critical thresholds" which would seem at first to "rupture" that continuity. By continuous application of heat, water suddenly crosses such a threshold and becomes steam: discontinuity within the frame of fundamental continuity. And so, too, with the evolutionary development of matter: man represents just such a critical threshold, where the powers of matter seem to enter another order of being, seem to take a leap "from nothing to everything"; they seem, in fact, to burst into a fullness which makes the earlier forms so primitive that all organic relation between them and man becomes unthinkable. But this is only appearance: the transformation is abrupt, dramatic, but does not constitute a genuine rupture in the continuity of spacetime forms of evolving matter. The picture remains coherent.

The same will hold for liberty: all forms along the evolutionary ladder must possess some diminished  measure of "spontaneity" in their activity, if their combination is ever to produce that full-blown liberty we experience as men. Even the atom, which the physicist has thought his province, Teilhard now thinks rather in the manner of a biologist-or better, through the lens of a biology already "psychologized".

What he has, in effect, done to science is to stand it upon its head, with the calm assurance that it is now, for the first time, since Aristotle, right-side up. The normal scientific approach is regressive: as the scientist understands the term, we "explain" the ac tion of a large unit as the resultant of the myriad actions of its smaller constituents: the molecule be haves this way because the atoms which make it up behave the way they do; and their behavior is
explained by the action of their constituent particles. And nowhere here must he appeal to such "anthropomorphisms" as consciousness, choice and pursuit of ends-in-view. But, says Teilhard, each whole always betrays some properties which cannot be explained by the mere addition of partial results; each higher synthesis manifests some activities which surpass the more primitive capacities of the lower elements into
which, scientifically, we analyze that synthesis. How, then, are we so sure the lower elements were quite
so primitive in the first place?

Now the highest synthesis of matter under observation is man: the normal regressive mode of scientific analysis cannot explain that such a conscious creature should appear as the product of blind mechanical  interactions; nor can it help us understand that free dom should emerge from a play of physical determinisms. If, however, we take the reverse stance; if we estimate what must be in the constituents for this product to emerge, if, in short, we make man the priv ileged locus where the properties of matter reveal themselves in their most developed state, then the anomalies of ordinary scientific explanation vanish, things fall into place, the picture becomes coherent.
Coherence: the word is a key one, for in Teilhard's hyperphysics coherence takes the place of experi mental verifiability as the hallmark of truth. What, then, is the "coherent" view of reality which emerges once this point of view is taken?

Like man, all matter has a certain quantum of powers of matter seem to enter another order of " within": a certain measure of both spontaneity and  consciousness. That measure, on the lower levels, is so diminished that it can safely be ignored,-just as, in classical mechanics, we could ignore the variation of mass with velocity. Indeed, the scientist is fully warranted in pursuing his ordinary practice of re gressive analysis, when practicing science. But when trying to make sense of scientific findings, when try ing to present us with a coherent view of the cosmic
development, he has no choice but to adopt another stance: view things from the hyperphysical stand point; view man, not as some erratic, unexplainable exception in a universe totally alien to his moral, esthetic, and religious concerns, but as the advance flank of an evolutionary thrust: and then, that evolu tionary thrust can be envisaged as dimly groping, down through the ages, questing in man's direction, putting forth the immense profusion of life-solutions we find in the paleontological record, all in the in terests of installing life, and consciousness, and liberty upon our planet. And man has been placed once again where he belongs, not spatially but qualitatively
in the center of things.

Viewed in this way, Teilhard's world at last assumes a "face", becomes a universe both personal and per
sonalizing, is "open" to the possibilities of Incarnation, Redemption, Survival. The scientist, Teilhard is convinced, represents an important segment of humanity devoted to God's world, its interests and its progress; and yet, in the course of their elaborations, they have presented a view of a universe with out a future,-what, then, will become of their own activity? Without some hope, some way out of the cosmic trap their universe becomes for man, without something-or better, Someone- "up ahead" to inspire their efforts, bolster their faith in the worthwhileness
of what they are doing, then they too will go on strike, their effort will be self-defeating. Evolution, for the first time become free to do so, will grind to a halt.

But what of that? What, to parody Hamlet's question, is Evolution to me or me to evolution? It mattered deeply for Teilhard personally. And that fact brings us back to the deepest roots of his conviction, a con viction that sprang from his early, rich experience of the earth: poetic, mystical, esthetic are terms he himself uses in this connection. The piece of iron the child Teilhard found so durable, the rocks of his native Auvergne which seemed, in the phrase of his Jesuit contemporary, Hopkins, "charged with the grandeur of God", were literally revelations, epiphanies to a mind already soaked in the faith and hopes of Christianity. This was God's world, a world he found so dear as to send His Son to wrap Himself in its substance, impart his Life through bread and
wine and water and chrism, charge flesh and matter with the word of life,-of life, and of a giant hope for a human history that truly advances, truly goes somewhere, has somewhere to go. How much of this poetic, mystical vision of the world has crept, with out his being fully aware, into his hyper-scientific thinking? The question calls for another, one that he
himself has raised: how much does any scientific view draw nourishment from some underlying faith, which the practitioner of science brings necessarily to his enterprise, his findings, and to the sense be tries to make of both?