by ILIA DELIO
Teilhard knew that the best of science develops when one believes that a new theory can provide a more comprehensive and coherent picture of reality. A newly proposed theory does not present itself with incontrovertible experimental proof but stems from an intuition based on preliminary data, challenging scientists to make a choice based on rational coherence and fertility; a theory provides overall structural understanding of the data which can suggest and inform further research. The path to original and creative scientific thought is not one of logically connected steps; there is no gradual step-by-step transition possible from one basic paradigm of nature to another. Rather testable hypotheses are sometimes leaps across logical gaps between the established system and an, as yet, untested, largely ineffable intuition of possible relationships. Such leaps require passion, courage, and faith to motivate it.
Teilhard realized in mid-twentieth century that if science is to survive, it can no longer do so as an exclusive domain of knowledge. He came to this insight not based on scientific data but on the complexities of socialization. He realized that science, like theology, had become increasingly disconnected from the realm of the emotions and moral sphere, increasingly elite and specialized, no longer satisfying the search for truth nor leading us toward virtuous action. Michael Polanyi too realized the social emptiness of modern science when he wrote:
“Science can no longer hope to survive on an island of positive facts, around which the rest of man’s intellectual heritage sinks to the status of subjective emotionalism. It must claim that certain emotions are right; and if it can make good such a claim, it will not only save itself but sustain by its example the whole system of cultural life of which it forms a part.”
Today the scientist cannot afford to reserve judgment on moral questions which affect society. The skeptic’s and the agnostic’s alleged hesitation to adopt a proposed system of values until convinced by better evidence is a mere pose. A person’s every thought, word, and action stems from an underlying hierarchy of values, conscious or unconscious. Life constantly forces us to act one way or another. Not to adopt a given system of values is to positively reject it and to act on some other system instead. There is no neutral or “none” position.
Science is not neutral and thus the values it imparts shapes the direction of our lives. Although many scientists would hold that evolution is without direction, since it merely describes mechanisms of special variation and complexity, Teilhard could not help but stand back and observe the cosmic sweep of nature from the Big Bang to the rise of homo sapiens; evolution, he said, has direction towards greater complexity and consciousness. What accounts for this direction became integral to his scientific search for meaning. He began to see a fundamental force of attraction at the heart of nature and spoke of love as the essential energy of life. By love he meant not the emotional surge but a deep energy of attraction that is related to consciousness itself. Love requires awareness of another and will stretch out toward the other either by way of attraction (eros) and/or self-gift (agape). Medieval scholars such as Hugh of St. Victor said that love transforms because love unites. Teilhard too said that love is a fundamental force of attraction that complexifies elements in a creative union. “Love,” he wrote is “the physical structure of the universe.”
By describing love as the fundamental physical energy of life, Teilhard saw love-energy operative at every level of life, from matter to mind. Love energy draws elements together toward greater unification and complexity. As life becomes more complex, he noted, consciousness rises. We have lost sight of love in our modern age as the unifier of truth, goodness and beauty, where beauty is the overarching transcendental; not simply that which lies in the eyes of the beholder but what Alfred North Whitehead called the harmony of contrasts. Beauty reveals oneness, goodness, and truth.
If science is the search for truth, that which draws us to probe and question nature, then love is integral to the scientific search. The scientist is not only drawn toward the study of nature but is drawn by that nature beyond its immediate perception. If love is part of the scientific search, then the emotional mind is also at work in the pursuit of data. Behind the veneer of the curious, the mind is drawn to what it loves. Perhaps a key question for scientists today is not what theory are you working on, but what do you love? What is drawing you to what is not yet measurable? What is driving you to spend sleepless nights in the lab or wakes you up in the middle of the night? Of course many scientists would cringe at the idea of love. The mere mention of love would seem to discredit the rigor of their research. One scientist said, “I would rather take a vow of silence than admit that love drew me to study quasars.” Science firmly neglects the emotional right brain and throws its weight on the analytical left brain, as if the details of analysis can satisfy our anxious search for wholeness and unity, which love ultimately attains.
The awkward relationship between love and science is similar to the conflicted relationship between God and science, a discomfort foreign to the ancient Greek philosophers and proto-scientists for whom the cosmos, governed by the Good, was the beginning of all scientific inquiry. It was Plato who gave the word “cosmos” its meaning as world. His Timaeus provided the first description of reality as forming an ordered whole, being both good and beautiful. The cosmos, according to Plato, was created by a divine craftsman who strove to render his work as similar as possible to the perfect model. The Good, the supreme principle, exercises power over physical reality and influences the conduct of the human person who, through the Good, turns one’s soul into a coherent whole [ethics] and gives the public sphere the unity it would otherwise be without. Remi Brague states: “Cosmology had an ethical dimension. In turn, the task of transporting such good into the here below where we live enriched ethics with a cosmological dimension.” The plan for human life is an imitation of the cosmos. The wise person knows the cosmos and sees in it the mirror of one’s own wisdom. In Plato’s world, we stand upright to contemplate the stars.
The divinely empowered cosmos governing human moral action collapsed with a thud around the time of Galileo, though it lingered even after Newton. Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist claims in his provocative book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World that western civilization developed a split brain syndrome. McGilchrist argues that a dominant left brain emerged just as Greek culture was beginning to pass its peak, for the first time in Western civilization. From the 6th c. BC to the 4th c. BC there was an almost unparalleled flowering of science and the arts based on the best of what both right and left hemispheres in conjunction could offer. In western Christianity, dominant left brain thinking emerged with the rise of scholasticism in the Middle Ages (the hypothetical questio) and consolidated with the Galileo affair and the rise of modern science. The shift to analytical thinking among Scholastic theologians not only produced the great summas of theology, such as we find with Thomas Aquinas, but laid the foundation for modern science and the scientific method. According to McGilchrist, a left brain dominant world stripped the world of meaning by reducing the world to atoms, forming abstract theories and generalizations, and returning little to the right brain of passion and connectivity. This lopsided thinking gave rise to systems of knowledge at the expense of love, wholeness, and the unity of the cosmos. As a result, we became master planners and experts of parts, mindless of the whole to which every part belongs. The rise of positivist science meant that the scientist him or herself is to be completely left out of the objective, impersonal picture of the cosmos. Yet, a cosmos from which mind is excluded makes science impossible. As the Bohr school of quantum physics tells us, it is a participatory universe. Subject and object are one in the act of knowing.
Teilhard realized that evolution introduced the dimension of historical time into the realm of science, linking the complexity and synthesis of matter to the emergence of mind/consciousness. He gave primacy to consciousness as the stuff of the universe. Life is “a specific effect of matter turned complex; a property that is present in the entire cosmic stuff.”He considered matter and consciousness not as “two substances” or “two different modes of existence, but as two aspects of the same cosmic stuff.” From the Big Bang onward there is a “withinness” and “withoutness,” or what he called, radial energy and tangential energy. The universe orients itself toward intelligent, conscious, self-reflective life.
David Bohm, the great contemporary of Einstein, spoke of the undivided wholeness of life in which everything shares in the same cosmic process. Evolution calls us into a new type of consciousness where things are first seen together and then as distinct within this togetherness. Otherwise we wind up with what Beatrice Bruteau called a “grid of partiality,” a consciousness of separateness and alienation from nature (and one another); a utilitarian way of thinking that turns the means into the end and forgets the original aim.
Modern science has turned (ever shifting) data into false absolutes which slip through the synaptic gaps of the eager scientist. Science can no longer afford to exclude the fact, however, that evolution produces mind from the stuff of the material world. The realization of mind in matter renders the scientist not an objective observer but an interpreter of mystery. Teilhard said, “We are surprised to see how naively naturalists and physicists were able at the early stages to imagine themselves to be standing outside the universal stream they had just discovered.” The mind that seeks to study nature is itself produced by nature.
Einstein once said that you cannot solve a problem using the same conditions that created it. In the same way, one cannot find the meaning of nature in nature without paying attention to the mind of nature. By this I mean the scientist cannot approach nature with a blind eye or half a mind. One needs to step back and see the mysterious, spiritual depths of nature which, in a sense, is a different nature by its sheer transcendence. The nature of nature, we might say, is not itself physical and measurable; rather, it is transcendent and erotic, pulling us towards it by a force that eludes the logical mind. It is not in bits and pieces that nature has meaning but in the relationship of the parts to one another and to the whole. Or as Teilhard wrote, “Is it not the peculiar difficulty of every synthesis that its end is already implicit in its beginning”? Analytical science can elaborate the intricate mechanisms of nature to an extent but scientists are beginning to realize that the complexities of nature require explanations of synthesis as well as analysis, a new methodology that begs the question, has the scientific method come to an end?
Teilhard grasped the implications of modern science and realized that if science is to impart insight to human life, if it is to offer a new myth or meaningful narrative, then its methods of analysis must be organized around some type of synthesis. Here he brings together his faith in absolute divinity at the heart of matter, what he called Omega, and the nature of matter to organize into greater complex unions. Religion is not opposed to science nor is faith in divinity separate from science. Teilhard’s belief in the incarnation, divinity at the heart of matter, led him to realize it is not a question of faith and nature but faith through nature.
The modern era has reduced God to a concept in the same way that we reduce matter to particles. Since concepts have proven themselves to be so rich and useful, the wisdom of the cosmos disclosed by philosophy and theology has become overshadowed by the episteme of concepts, specifically, of general concepts. A concept does not need philosophy to be a clear and distinct concept; rather, it needs to be separated from the whole in a way that meaning can be sifted through the artificially constructed purified idea. If it is a clearing aside of things to render an idea more visible, then a concept should be led back to love, that is, to a horizon of insight that deepens relationship. The ancient religious traditions including Baha’i, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, as well as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all spoke of a deep relationship between divine being and love, rendering love the highest, most personal and universal synapse of cosmic life.
Christians proclaim God is love which means God is not a concept or a being but Being itself. The dwelling of the Divine is not a matter of our making a place for it or deciphering its language. It might better be understood as becoming conscious of our aspiration toward the Mystery, because it already somehow dwells in us. The late polyglot and Catholic priest, Raimon Panikkar, whose Spanish Catalan mother and Indian Hindu father influenced his development of inter-religious theology, wrote that “there is in Man an urge, an aspiration to know the source of all knowledge, and by knowing this, all becomes known”; this aspiration from without meets the inspiration from within. The meeting of the two forms the “space” where the Divine dwells.
God is the absolute power and depth of the seeker him or herself, a deep indwelling relationship that Panikkar calls “cosmotheandric.” Delving into ourselves, we find the presence of this Mystery in our dynamism toward it. This aspiration is a total movement of our being; and becoming conscious of it, we reach an awareness of the reality of God. The unitive relationship between self-knowledge and divinity is foundational and universal, stemming from ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato and affirmed by Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. On the entrance of the great Islamic temple of Harran the inscription is written: “He who knowns himself knowns Allah.” Similarly, the medieval German Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: “He who knows himself knows all things.” Hence, the knowing of the knower, the wording of the word, the minding of the mind is not another knower, word or mind. The knowing of the knower is the unknowable, ineffable, inexpressible, or as one Upanishad states: “It is not the mind that one should seek to understand; one should know the thinker.” We are not asking here about a substance, a supreme entity. In the final analysis we are asking about other than the known and beyond the unknown. God is the language of the unsayable reality at the heart of all reality.
If science is to provide us with an understanding of the whole, ourselves and the world together, we must look higher up the ladder of synthesis and into the future, toward the unknown, that is, toward the whole pulling us towards it. This is the task of the emotional right brain, attentive to what is drawing us as transcendent unity, what inspires passion within us, what impels us to seek deeper knowledge. Without this combined method of wholeness and inquiry, our analysis of a complex universe dissolves the human into abstract mathematical symbols and leaves us isolated in a strange, cold universe of matter. Analysis needs synthesis and therefore something unified that draws the analytical data into a creative vision of meaningful existence. There is no doubt that Teilhard’s Christian faith impacted his scientific method but what he shows us is the necessity of faith for science. Even for the atheist, the question is one of belief. If not God, then what is the whole that inspires intellectual pursuit?
Teilhard realized that the totality of the cosmos can be fully understood, and its antinomies resolved, only when it is seen from its end summit where all its lines finally converge. In other words, our universe can be completely known only from the point of view of God, the absolute wholeness of love, truth, unity, wisdom, and beauty. Instead of trying to comprehend the lower by analogy with ourselves, we should try to find analogies which will open our understanding to that which is on a qualitatively higher level than our own. Here the risk is no longer to attribute too much to the lower, the parts, but to fail in attributing enough to the higher, the whole which enkindles our love and draws us to seek it in the particularities of nature. Through a dialectic of analysis and synthesis, intellectual discovery no longer terminates in abstract theories or wild speculations but is now part of creative evolution. Science opened up by transcendent wholeness contributes to the whole by sharing its insights with the cosmic whole of theology and philosophy, thus moving us toward new social patterns, ethical action, and co-reflective consciousness.
Science that endures is knowledge that gathers us in our being, not frightening us by an apocalyptic demise or puny lives in an immense universe, but awakening us to a future of life. The ultimacy of that future is what Teilhard called “God Omega,” that point of ultimate gathering into a unity of love that transcends all finite contingencies by its eternal newness. Teilhard saw his scientific life as a mystical life in the divine milieu, seeing the oneness of all things, referring everything to the whole, sensing the omnipresence of God, being in communion with this God in and through the material world of fossils and rocks, sand and deserts, energy and stars: “All phenomena remain the same in themselves and yet all become luminous, living, and loving,” he wrote.In light of Teilhard we may say that science is a rational invitation to an act of faith. To open ourselves to reality, we must not only quest for it but also submit ourselves wholly to its revealing power and, like the great discoverers in art and science, alternate between intensive effort and receptive contemplation.
Perhaps the search for the unified theory of everything is not as difficult as it seems because the unifier may be consciousness itself. No instrument or mathematical equation can arrive at this notion, only the wholeness of love. For when the great scientists die and the grand discoveries of the universe blend into the alchemic gold of newer discoveries, ideas will grow old and weary but love will remain. Love, Teilhard wrote, always brings us to the threshold of another universe.
Ilia Delio, OSF is a Franciscan Sister of Washington, DC and American theologian specializing in the area of science and religion, with interests in evolution, physics, and neuroscience and the import of these for theology. Ilia currently holds the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University, and is the author of seventeen books. Her full bio and more information about her work can be found HERE.
What do you think?
We encourage you to share your takeaways and thoughts as we explore this question: “Can Science Heal Our World?” Please join the conversation and share your comments below.
Starting an Omega Discussion Group
Ilia Delio offers her suggestions for gathering together in groups of two or more to reflect upon topics explored on this website. An outline for starting a discussion group, whether local and in-person or using a virtual format, can be found HERE.