The (ephemeral) phenomenon of man

De Chardin wrote his “Phenomenon of Man” in the 1930s. I read it at University where I studied evolution, and it has been a constant influence since then. Like Jung and Buber he speaks to a unity of spirit and material. Indeed he saw the whole evolution of the universe as a story of coalescence of consciousness driven by the force of Love (aka God). Marked by phase transitions from physical evolution to chemical through biological now to the world of pure ideas, Homo Sapiens is a waypoint. A phenomenon, yes – because in us consciousness has become self aware; but ephemeral. A stage and not the end, or final purpose.

Around the same time Wilfred Bion identified the mind as simply a developing apparatus to help humans tolerate and organize experience.

“The apparatus for thinking, the capacity to have thoughts “has to be called into existence to cope with thoughts” (1967, p. 111). Thoughts exist prior to their realization. Thinking, the capacity to think the thoughts which already exist, develops through another mind providing α-function (1962, p. 83)—through the “container” role of maternal reverie.”

Our mind is the mechanism by which thoughts are made concrete.

Richard Dawkins simply stole these ideas, regurgitating them as his “memes”. Unfortunately he stripped them of context and hence of their meaning. Bions context was maternal reverie and de Chardins was Love – “the most powerful and most unknown energy in the world”. Rather than originality Dawkins simply displays through his evangelism a childlike rage against what he conceives of as God (in the image of his own father perhaps?).

I believe absolutely in purpose and progress; that there is meaning to existence and to our part in an unfolding story. I would wish that we each set aside our personal imagining of God (even when we label this “Science” or “Humanity”) and instead share this fundamental premise, and wonder together about miraculous existence.

What then of the darkness of Man? Of our destruction of the planet, of the holocaust, of loss of society to the maw of technology?

Perhaps we should look forward to a next chapter where humans are recombined with machines and connected in a giant web. Perhaps rather than contemplating that with fear – we should embrace this future as Love’s path to the Omega Point.?

Here below is Wikipedia’s summary of the book. A work of prophesy if ever there were one.

Reprint of Wikipedia ..

“The Phenomenon of Man (Le phénomène humain) is a 1955 book written by the French philosopher, paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In this work, Teilhard describes evolution as a process that leads to increasing complexity, culminating in the unification of consciousness

The book was finished in the 1930s, but was published posthumously in 1955, and translated into English in 1959. The Roman Catholic Church initially prohibited the publication of some of Teilhard’s writings on the grounds that they contradicted orthodoxy.

The foreword to the book was written by one of the key advocates for natural selection and evolution of the 20th century, and a co-developer of the modern synthesis in biology, Julian Huxley.

Teilhard views evolution as a process that leads to increasing complexity. From the cell to the thinking animal, a process of psychical concentration leads to greater consciousness.[3] The emergence of Homo sapiens marks the beginning of a new age, as the power acquired by consciousness to turn in upon itself raises mankind to a new sphere.[4] Borrowing Huxley’s expression, Teilhard describes humankind as evolution becoming conscious of itself.[5]

In Teilhard’s conception of the evolution of the species, a collective identity begins to develop as trade and the transmission of ideas increases.[6] Knowledge accumulates and is transmitted in increasing levels of depth and complexity.[7] This leads to a further augmentation of consciousness and the emergence of a thinking layer that envelops the earth.[8] Teilhard calls the new membrane the “noosphere” (from the Greek nous”, meaning mind), a term first coined by Vladimir Vernadsky. The noosphere is the collective consciousness of humanity, the networks of thought and emotion in which all are immersed.[9]

The development of science and technology causes an expansion of the human sphere of influence, allowing a person to be simultaneously present in every corner of the world. Teilhard argues that humanity has thus become cosmopolitan, stretching a single organized membrane over the Earth.[10] Teilhard describes the process by which this happens as a “gigantic psychobiological operation, a sort of mega-synthesis, the “super-arrangement” to which all the thinking elements of the earth find themselves today individually and collectively subject”.[8] The rapid expansion of the noosphere requires a new domain of psychical expansion, which “is staring us in the face if we would only raise our heads to look at it”.[11]

In Teilhard’s view, evolution will culminate in the Omega Point, a sort of supreme consciousness. Layers of consciousness will converge in Omega, fusing and consuming them in itself.[12] The concentration of a conscious universe will reassemble in itself all consciousnesses as well as all that we are conscious of.[13]Teilhard emphasizes that each individual facet of consciousness will remain conscious of itself at the end of the process.[14]

Society and Leadership

Wilfred Bion believed that societies operate according to one of three basic assumptions. These are – dependent – broadly where society looks to a leader to depend upon; flight- flight – where there is a perceived external threat where the leader galvanises and curdles (my word) society; and the pairing group – where there are two leaders (archetypal parents). In this latter group system there is a hopeful expectation because the true leader, the future leader, is yet to be born. Bion termed this the messianic idea.

Bion observed that we are each as humans essentially social animals. We have these group structural tendencies within us, even before we are operating within a group.

“Our individual psychic make-up is intimately related to others, both the tendency to form constructively working groups and the potential for forming any of the basic assumption mental states when in a physical group setting with others”.

Societies do seem to me, practically to group as Bion suggests. It also seems to me that there is a tendency for dependent societies to flip to fight-flight and back, and that pairing groups emerge only after a period of stability. A quick personal review:

Russia (now) – under Putin. Dependent, but he introduces external enemies because he is failing to provide (the basic function of a dependent leader) – therefore moving toward fight-flight. This is also reflected across many middle-eastern countries, the difference being the “religious” archetype that their leaders draw upon, introducing a twisted and unreconstructed medieval view of Islam to create an enemy (all of the rest of the world). In Britain I would suggest we had a dependent/fight-fight society right through to Margaret Thatcher, but that this moved with Blair-Brown and now Cameron-Clegg toward a pairing group society. (Who will the future Messiah be for British politics, we sure are looking for one!). The USA was perhaps set up in the first place as a pairing group society (checks and balances!). It’s why it doesn’t (it seems to me) work so well when either the Democrats or Republicans have ALL the levers of power – Senate, President, Supreme Court, Congress – and why this happens so seldom. The leaders in Scotland, most recently of course attempted to carve out a new fiefdom by drawing on the dependent and fight-flight models. We are now moving back to a pairing group structure between Salmond-Sturgeon – which reflects the reality of the fundamental pairing group of Scotland-England. (Salmond as a UK MP, Sturgeon as First Minister of Scotland).

Foundational to Bion’s view is that humans are interdependent, part of one-whole.

The chapter on Bion’s study of groups in Symington’s review of Bion’s work has a quote from Vladimir Soloviev (Russian 19th century Christian mystic and philosopher), which sums up this basic tenet.

“The self-deception in virtue of which a human individual regards himself as real in his separateness from all things, and presupposes this fictitious isolation to be the true ground and only starting-point for all his relations – this self-deception of abstract subjectivisim plays terrible havoc not only in the domain of metaphysics – which, indeed, it abolishes altogether – but also in the domain of the moral and political life”.

Soloviev, though, goes much further, and prefigures Teilhard de Chardin with his observation that all is connected and interdependent, all part of one.

“Success comes in cans; failure in can’ts”

.. great quote from Wilfred Bion. Our whole purpose is to make reality out of infinite potential.  I’m struck by similarity underlying Bion’s model of reality-creation and that of Alfred North Whitehead’s view of a “prehensile” crystallisation of reality in the present moment out of infinite potential.

“The art of being yourself at your best is the art of unfolding your personality into the person you want to be.” Wilfred Bion

“We cannot think first and act afterwards. From the moment of birth we are immersed in action and can only guide it by taking thought.” Alfred North Whitehead


Bion has this concept of our thinking as a candle actively penetrating the dark in a quest to mate with and discover the ideas or truths already there waiting.  If I understand aright Bion’s model of how this arises:

– there is a welter of “unthought” images, emotions and other stuff floating around – his Beta elements.

– if we are able to tolerate the pain of the unknown – then we begin to assemble these into the building blocks of thoughts – his Alpha elements. (Mostly we are able to do that because we’ve had a “good enough” mother and a holding environment as a baby).

– these alpha element thoughts then abstract into – pre-concepts which are “looking for” concepts to “mate with” to allow understanding of ideas. Importantly the ideas already exist and our mind and brain is a machinery that has evolved to allow us to think them.

Compare this with Whitehead’s view of the implications for reality of  quantum mechanics (see Process and Reality). The present moment – is like a zipper – moving from a past event into a future that the observer crystallises by selecting from the infinite potential. This then, the process by which reality is created. He calls the present moment prehensile, because there is an active searching or selecting of the future.

This concept (If my understanding is correct – the book is almost impenetrable) surely has resonance with Bion’s view. There is at the heart of both schemas a vital present force which is actively seeking a “mating” with a future that it is involved in helping create or crystallise.

Can we call this free will? Are we witnesses here and eternally now of all of creation?

“The foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity.” Alfred North Whitehead


Word Existing Beyond Time

“There are three principles in a man’s being and life, the principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action” Martin Buber

“everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.” Neils Bohr

Bion’s womb of ideas, with matter combined
The kennel of fact, the fountain of mind

Tear out aborted materialist and atheist
the Hitlerite, Stalinist, Pol-Pot and Mauist
who’s arrogance conceives to unloose disdain
That insatiably lonely black dog of despair

Be our source the star-chamber of light
Flowing, lithe-limbed
green-golden delight
Mindful, caressing
moltenly longing
Drops coalescing

For, they wander in packs, do our thoughts
And their dress and attire is the word

.. and thought, clothed as word makes the deed

Whence, Whither and Why?

Carl Jung gave us spirit as balance to material, the collective unconscious and synchronicity.

Niels Bohr gave us quantum uncertainty – with observation (call that knowledge) crystallising out our reality from the infinity of potential.

Manuel de Landa gave us nonlinear history. Complex systems combining to form new emergeant realities.

Martin Buber gave us spiritual existentialism. I-thou forming a connection between our spirit and other, as opposed to I-It of materialism which is essentially connecting only with ourselves via our projection on to the material world.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin gave evolution awakening consciousness – from the big bang (physical evolution) formation of atoms (chemical evolution), complexification into life (biological evolution) and now arrival of the noosphere (evolution of ideas).  He believed that the culmination of conscious awakening will be the ultimate connection between us all with shared ideas – the Omega Point.

Wilfred Bion gave ideas existing before the structures to think them.

Albert Einstein gave us the integration of space and time into four dimensional space-time. There have been experiments that show backward causality, with current observation crystallising out past reality from quantum possibility – to make the current observation true.

Whence, Whither and Why?  

Could it not be that God is an emergeant property of the evolving complex system of ideas. The evolution of the material world now supports consciousness that can witness these ideas. If we awoke from Jung’s universal (un)conscious to a shared universal consciousness then we would be at de Chardin’s Omega Point. Consciousness arising from intense connection (the I-thou of Buber’s existentialism). Consciousness, the thinking of pre-existing ideas. Knowledge, witness – observation – which crystalises out reality from the realm of quantum potential. If God were ultimate truth (the word existing beyond time), then end-point of the evolution of ideas and their combination into an emergent property then that observation could perhaps be potent enough to have caused the evolution of the universe to lead to God itself. From our individual standpoint – we would see God as an emergent property of the complex sytems that evolution has thrown up. Cosmology, quantum mechanics and particle physics are discovering the mechanisms through which all this happens. The question – how? is being answered in increasing detail. How?, however, bears no relation to the questions whence?  whither?  or when?

If God, our ultimate shared connection through knowledge, has the power to create itself – perhaps whence? whither? have the same answer or solution.

Of course, that would still leaves the question – why? The answer will not come from the material side of existence, but from the spiritual. de Chardin’s answer is  – love – the primal force, and it’s expression through a physical world. We can experience this, and our most intense connection (I-thou) individually and every day – even though that is still experienced “through a glass darkly”.