Jared Morningstar


The Alfred North Whitehead & Teilhard de Chardin Conference

recent events

LAST MONTH the Center for Process Studies and the Center for Christogenesis collaborated to put on a conference exploring the intersections of the work of process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead & noospheric thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. 

The conference, featuring 15 premiere scholars with expertise in Whitehead, Teilhard or both, sought to uncover points of contact and contrast between these two relational, evolutionary thinkers.

Hotsted at Villanova University, the conference “Alfred North Whitehead & Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Convergences, Divergences, and Integrations” kicked off on Thursday, September 21st with evening presentations from Ilia Delio and Donald Wayne Viney.

These initial plenary sessions introduced the thought of Teilhard and Whitehead presented initial points of contact between the two, providing context for the following two days of presentations which dealt with more specific topics.

Among the niches explored were:

>>> Panpsychism/panexperientialism in Teilhard and Whitehead; how both thinkers could contribute to visions of developmental politics
>>> Teilhard’s ideas of cosmic evolution and the Omega Point versus Whitehead’s processual cosmos with God as Divine Lure
>>> Neoclassical theistic ideas of theodicy and the possibility of God in Teilhard and Whitehead
>>> Both thinkers’ speculations about extraterrestrial life and how the existence of such beings would change how we approach philosophy and theology.

Over the course of the 3 days of academic presentations and conversations, a particular phrase from Teilhard’s corpus came to recur as a refrain: “Union differentiates.

This evocative statement turns many classical metaphysical presumptions on their head. In the act of unification, rather than things becoming undifferentiated, Teilhard insists the exact opposite: that things become more themselves, more what they’re meant to be. The cosmic force of love which is constantly at work to pull things together is in fact a creative force of individuation and complexification, not one of mere consolidation.

This notion, combined with Teilhard’s ideas of an Omega Point, provides a strong sense of a cosmic telos. While the Teilhard experts at the conference were quick to qualify that Teilhard’s Omega Point is merely not some far-off, distant cosmic attractor where all shall be reconciled and fulfilled, but rather something here and now, interwoven in the very becoming of the universe, there is nonetheless a sense in which Teilhard’s cosmos is one with a global and determinate telos.

This is perhaps his greatest contrast with Whitehead’s philosophy. Interestingly, many with a cursory familiarity with Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” often suggest that he is explicitly not a teleological thinker—an understanding which is complicated by qualifications from more seasoned Whitehead scholars.

What is certainly the case, however, is that the teleology of the Whiteheadian cosmos is relational, atomic, and evolutionary. Relational, as the aims of any entities are constituted and constrained by the other entities with which they are connected; atomic, as larger scale teleology develops out of the negotiation of indivisible “subjective aims” amongst various actual entities; and evolutionary because it is only through this actual negotiation that consistent lines of becoming may develop in the cosmos—even the electromagnetic “cosmic epoch” we currently find ourselves in is not metaphysically necessary for Whitehead, but is an emergent harmony that developed out of the negotiation of the various aims of the actualities that composed the hot particle soup of the early universe.

So, one finds different flavors of teleology in Whitehead and Teilhard—and perhaps a skillful intermingling of these flavors may allow for a tasty and nourishing noospheric perspective to develop—such is my intuition and hope following this excellent conference.

In Teilhard’s vision of the Omega Point, there is something inspirational and coherent in the becoming of the cosmos itself—this whole thing is really going somewhere. In our contemporary age colored by nihilism and disconnection from the natural order, such a teleological perspective may serve a therapeutic purpose in addition to opening up new avenues for intellectual and scientific speculation. To be is to contribute to noospheric evolution and the more deeply one lurches towards unity with God, other beings, and cosmos, the more deeply one becomes oneself—and vice versa. Rather than being situated in a cold, arbitrary, and unfeeling cosmos, here the consciousness embedded in human life is not only continuous with the natural order, but in some sense an important cutting edge of this order, expressive of the deeper urge towards union that is behind the cosmic forces themselves.

Such a perspective, however, is not without its shadow and pitfalls. With the global teleology of Teilhard’s cosmos comes dangers of anthropocentrism and determinism. Barring clear evidence for other higher, conscious lifeforms analogous to human beings, the cosmic task of constituting and contributing to the noosphere seems to rest entirely on our shoulders. As my Teilhardian colleagues would insist, there are certainly resources in Teilhard’s own thought to guard against this danger and complicate this reading, but this concern nonetheless remains so long as one presents a cosmic teleology where human beings are contributing something essential and higher-order.

With determinism as well, there is plenty in Teilhard’s writings which cut against such a reading of the Omega Point, but even the mere language of a point seems to suggest that there is some singular, determinate end where the whole universe shall culminate. Figuring out how to hold this idea in a way that integrates rather than nullifies intentional human agency will likely be essential to preserve the edifying aspects of Teilhard’s thought while avoiding this pitfall. Here, Whitehead’s ideas may be helpful.

In Whiteheadian process philosophy, human beings are likewise exemplifications of the natural order rather than being an anomalous presence in the cosmos. However, the Whiteheadian reasoning for this perspective has more to do with emergence rather than culmination. Grounded in a panexperientialist ontology, Whitehead sees all of actuality being composed of experience. It is due to the inner experience of each actual entity, where relations with other entities are felt and integrated, that anything happens at all. To be is to become and becoming is predicated on experience. So, there is nothing cosmically necessary about human beings (or other possible lifeforms with a similar sort of higher consciousness), but our advanced reflective capacities have roots in the simpler forms of feeling in even the actuality of a single quark.

So, the Whiteheadian perspective de-centers the human as some teleological necessity and cuts against the idea that there is some kind of necessary, predetermined end towards which human beings are pointing while simultaneously providing a sense of deep integration with and embeddedness in the natural order. As a result, teleology is fundamentally open. Like all other entities, human beings find themselves in a situation where we need to decide what we ought to become—where we should be aiming with our existence. As a result, there is great responsibility, as we cannot merely tune into some pre-existing “right path” but instead must be constantly and dynamically attuned to what is, and what could be. The good news, however (and here there’s good possibilities for meaning-making), is that the openness of teleology means we can always reorient and through this we may uncover previously unmanifest possibilities for becoming. 

The potential downside of Whitehead’s diffuse, open-ended account of teleology is a creeping sense of arbitrariness to the cosmos—something which cuts against basic intuitions that we as human beings in general and as well as particular individuals have a particular role to play in the cosmic drama. Here some of Teilhard’s ideas may help counterbalance this tendency in Whitehead, though of course one may also find resources to this end in process philosophy itself—especially in Whitehead’s account of God as the “Divine Lure” who presents possibilities for harmony and intensity to beings in each moment of their becoming. 

Figuring out a right balance, oscillation, or synthesis between the beauty and coherence of a Teilhardian style cosmic teleology, and the humility and adaptability of Whitehead’s open teleology likely holds great promise for moving towards a more integrated understanding of the human-cosmos relation and the modes of contribution we have at our disposal. Hopefully this conference—and the anthology which will follow in its wake (the first of its kind exploring Teilhard and Whitehead side by side—stay tuned!)—may offer some small contribution to that end. 

Words by Jared Morningstar