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Cosmogenesis and Consciousness

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"The labor of seaweed as it concentrates in its tissues the substances scattered ... throughout the vast layers of the ocean; the industry of the bees as they make honey from the juices broadcast in so many flowers -- these are but pale images of the ceaseless working-over that all the forces of the universe undergo in us in order to reach the level of the spirit." -- From The Divine Milieu by Teilhard de Chardin

No one, in my estimation, bridged the gulf between science and faith better than Teilhard de Chardin, the French paleontologist, priest, and mystic (1881-1955). As a paleontologist, Teilhard carried a geology hammer on every outing and embraced the theory of evolution with every fiber of his being. As a devout Catholic priest, he prayed to die at Easter, a prayer answered by a massive heart attack on April 10, 1955. As a mystic, he struggled to make one of these opposing allegiances, which sometimes threatened to tear him apart. And by his success, Teilhard provided a model for those who seek integrity in the reconciliation of science and spirituality.

Reading Teilhard is not easy, but buried in his writings are precious gems. To the author, the passage above is Teilhard's crown jewel. Its poetic metaphors hint at a deep mystery of the universe. Shedding light on that mystery is the subject of this post.

"Is evolution a theory, a system, or an hypothesis? It is much more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow and which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true."

This expansive view of evolution was penned by Teilhard de Chardin in his seminal work The Phenomenon of Man (1959). How did a man of such faith arrive at so bold a view of evolution? Keenly aware of science's twin monuments -- evolution and Big-Bang cosmology -- Teilhard grasped their common theme: the nature of Nature is to change. From this recognition emerged his notion of cosmogenesis, which signifies a universe in continual creation. For such radical departure from orthodoxy, Teilhard was forbidden by superiors to teach or publish. All his great works appeared posthumously.

Yet, as a man of faith, Teilhard did not see biological evolution -- or cosmogenesis -- as directionless. However haltingly, evolution marches toward greater biological complexity and concomitantly higher consciousness, by a process for which Teilhard coined another fitting term: complexification.

Teilhard's perspective stands in stark contrast to the prevailing scientific viewpoint, as summarized by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould: "Evolution is purposeless, nonprogressive, and materialistic." Could Gould have overlooked something? Evolution's principal ingredients are variation and natural selection. Although variation is random, and hence directionless, natural selection is not. Natural selection is a random walk with a bias. Higher intelligence is a powerful adaptive mechanism. Thus, over deep time, evolution will drift toward complexification.

As a result, cosmogenesis involves two counter trends, captured succinctly by Sir Charles Sherrington, the 1932 Nobel laureate for physiology:

"The universe of energy is ... running down. It tends fatally towards an equilibrium which shall be final. An equilibrium in which life cannot exist. Yet life is evolved without pause. Our planet in its surround has evolved it and is evolving it. And with it evolves mind."

On the one hand, the physical universe is winding down, "going to hell in a hand-basket" in the vernacular. Lord Kelvin, a luminary in the field of thermodynamics, gave us two relevant thermodynamic principles: energy conservation and energy dissipation. Although the aggregate energy content of the universe remains constant, that energy degrades over time, becoming ever more diffuse. Eventually, thermodynamic equilibrium prevails, at which point energy is distributed uniformly and the universe grinds to a halt. Thermodynamicists call this "heat death." Having begun with a bang, the universe may end with a whimper.

The gloomy trend is pre-ordained by the second law of thermodynamics, which states: The entropy of an isolated system tends to increase over time. Entropy is typically associated with disorder. By the second law, disorder -- heat death -- ultimately prevails. Arthur Eddington, the eminent British astronomer and Quaker, ranked the second law as "the great contribution of the 19th century to scientific thought" -- and the most inviolate.

But this sad tale is only half the picture. In the introduction to Teilhard's The Phenomenon of Man, evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley wrote:

"[Evolution] is an anti-entropic process, running counter to the second law of thermodynamics with its degradation of energy and its tendency to uniformity. [B]iological evolution marches uphill, producing increased variety and higher degrees of organization."

Thus, under the mantle of cosmogenesis exist two counter trends: the tendency of the physical world to run downhill according to the second law, and the counter-entropic trend of biological systems toward greater complexity and higher consciousness. This begs the question: Are the trends related, and if so, how?

At first blush, it would seem that the second law forbids the decrease of entropy associated with life. Fortunately, the second law's prohibition is for isolated systems, and, as we shall see, the earth is not isolated. In Galileo's Finger, Oxford chemist Peter Atkins writes:

"Although elaborate events may occur in the world around us, such as the opening of a leaf, the growth of a tree, the formation of an opinion, and disorder thereby apparently recedes, such events never occur without somehow being driven. That driving results in an even greater proportion of disorder elsewhere."

Thanks to the relatively new field of chaos theory, we now understand what conditions are necessary for order -- biological or otherwise -- to emerge spontaneously from physical disorder. There are but three. First, the thermodynamic "system" cannot be isolated. The earth is not isolated because it basks in the radiant glow of the sun.

Second, the physical processes involved must be mathematically nonlinear. Nonlinearity is a technical term meaning that output is not directly proportional to input. Most laws of nature -- including and especially those of biological chemistry -- are inherently nonlinear.

Third, the system must be far from equilibrium (FFE). Given our proximity to the sun, whose thermonuclear furnace burns fiercely, the thermodynamic state of the earth is FFE.

We've got what it takes for life to swim upstream against entropy: an open system and a nearby source of concentrated energy (low entropy). Sunlight fuels photosynthesis for the metabolic processes of plants. Plants in turn concentrate energy into sugars for herbivores, and in the tissues of herbivores are the further concentrated energies necessary for carnivores.

Moreover, as Sherrington hinted, were it not for the downhill slide of the physical universe, life and evolution would be impossible. In the words of ordained scientist Arthur Peacock:

"It has recently begun to appear possible, even likely, that the continuous increase in entropy over time in the universe may itself, in the natural course of events, gives rise -- through the development of so-called dissipative systems -- to complex forms of organization, eventually including living systems."

Thus, the counter-currents of cosmogenesis are intimately related. Again, the words of Atkins:

"The ceaseless decline in the quality of energy expressed by the second law is a spring that has driven the emergence of all components of the biosphere. In a very direct way, all the kingdoms of creation have been hoisted out of organic matter as the universe has sunk ever more into chaos."

It appears that physics and biology are engaged in a kind of cosmic cahoots summarized here by Peacocke:

"There could be no self-consciousness and human creativity without living organization, and there could be no living dissipative systems unless the entropic stream followed its general, irreversible [downhill] course in time."

To many evolutionary biologists, focused on half the picture, evolution is purposeless. To Teilhard and other integrative thinkers, cosmogenesis is not. We are the products of "ceasing-working over" by a universe that, through its very demise, is in the business of producing higher consciousness.

(This essay encapsulates Chapter 17 -- Pale Images -- of Reason and Wonder.)