Are We Living in the Noosphere Now?

There is one sense in which people conceive of the Noosphere as a futuristic planetary-scale entity of some sort—a fully functional superorganism with a global brain and collective consciousness, brought into being as the Internet evolves into an increasingly powerful and capable interconnecting force.

In another sense, however, we live in the Noosphere now—though perhaps not fully functional as a global superorganism at this point. However, in that sense the Noosphere has been evolving for hundreds of thousands of years. It began to form—albeit at much smaller scale—when humans first used symbolic language to communicate, and reflect on their place in the universe using symbolic thought. Whereas life’s evolution up until that point had been biologically-based—mediated through information networks of genes—human evolution became noospherically-based, mediated through cultural information networks instead.

Those first small human groups, known as hunter-gatherers, became essentially mini-noospheres, or superorganisms in their own right. They used language to coordinate and regulate their activities. They developed ever-more sophisticated technology and developed survival strategies that enabled them to adapt to virtually every environment on the earth. By the time the last ice age came to an end, humans had become a planetary species and the stage was set for the next phase of the Noosphere’s growth.

The Noosphere’s evolution involved the scale of human groups as well as the nature of the information networks that connected us and technologies of all sorts. Information networks took a giant leap with written language, first on clay tablets, then handwriting on paper, and much more recently the printing press. With each new information technology, the shared knowledge contained in collective consciousness of the Noosphere grew by leaps and bounds.

The next great leap in technology-assisted collective consciousness was ushered in with the telegraph, less than 150 years ago. Information that had theretofore taken months to disseminate across the planet was transmitted in minutes instead. As we know well, information technology progressed rapidly from that point to the Internet we use today, along with social media, video conferencing, and access to the knowledge of the Noosphere literally at our fingertips.

Those two senses of the Noosphere may seem at odds with each other. In the first sense we expect a functionally organized planetary superorganism. Needless to say, we’re not there. If we were we would have some sense of global consciousness, and solving problems like pandemics and climate change wouldn’t seem quite daunting as they do today.

In the second sense the Noosphere is a work-in-progress. The size and complexity of Noospheric superorganisms has been increasing across the long sweep of human history, reducing internal conflict and enhancing cooperation at ever larger scales—from hunter-gatherer groups, to villages, to cities, to nation-states, to our incipient global society today. The growth of the Noosphere is linked to the development of more sophisticated information technologies and institutions of governance.

Though she might not state it in those terms, Marta Lenartowicz seems to favor the second sense. She is studying the evolution of the global brain and collective consciousness as a member of the team at at the Center Leo Apostel for transdisciplinary studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Free University of Brussels). The Human Energy Project has funded that team to provide a scientific foundation for a theory of the Noosphere, and to help develop an integrated, meaningful, science-based worldview for the Third Story.

Marta’s recent conversation with David Sloan Wilson is presented below in two parts.

Summary of Part One

David begins by asking Marta how she became involved in studying collective consciousness and the global brain. She began in the field of humanistic management and the study of social systems. She became interested in the intersection of mind, action, thought, social context, and cybernetics, all of which led to the work she’s doing now.

David explains he’d like to focus their conversation on two key concepts and their relationship. One is interdependence, and the other is functional organization. He thinks functional organization is a special kind of interdependence—that interdependence is a broader category. In this framework an organism qualifies as functionally organized, as does a human brain, or in his sense of the term, Teilhard’s description of the Noosphere. His position is that a system has to be functionally organized for the common good, not merely interdependent, to achieve superorganism status. And though global society today has a lot of interdependence, it’s not functionally organized for the common good.

In a back and forth discussion, Marta explains her position that we are living in the Noosphere today through analogies. An analogy that resonates most is her comparison between the personal development of an individual human with the conflicted global society we live in today. She explains that though an individual is clearly one organism, “you look at yourself and you will see you smoke, you drink…all of the things you don’t want to do. It doesn’t mean you say, ‘it’s not me’. You say, ‘Yes, it’s me and actually I don’t want to do that.” It’s not a leap from there to say, “Yes, it’s us humanity, and look what we are doing. But we are this organism.”

David thinks that analogy is useful—that we can improve ourselves, but it doesn’t change our status as an individual, and her position is that the Noosphere could be like that: “All of humanity is far from perfect, but at the same time, is an organism in progress.”

David introduces his own work on the three criteria necessary to evaluate any meaning system—important here because they apply to any versions of a Third Story such as Human Energy is developing. The first criterion is how it motivates people as individuals. The second is, what does it cause them to do? The third is, how well does it accord with science?

He thinks Marta’s analogy of looking at humanity as an imperfect individual who needs work to become more cooperative and functionally organized works well when evaluated by those criteria. He analyzes, from his perspective, some of the elements necessary to perfect human organization in that sense. He discusses the problem of what kind of governance works for such a system. He thinks it’s similar to humanistic management as Marta had described her earlier work. He suggests that we might think about building a better Noosphere as humanistic management on a grand scale, and asks what Marta thinks about that.

She begins by talking about narratives as the basis for governing structures, and wonders what kind of narrative organization of meaning will be able to coordinate the kind of society that the Third Story of the Noosphere represents. She discusses the Noosphere as the development of consciousness and cognitive structure, and asks what kind of narrative of governance structure would work more like Noosphere than we have now. She muses that it depends on whose perspective you’re addressing.

She discusses governance as “structure of decision making in a system, however it is constituted.” But it’s not always easy to determine where decisions are being made. She ends the section by suggesting that functionally, the global media network may have more power than the official governance sector.

Are We Living in the Noosphere Now? Part One Transcript

Summary of Part Two

David introduces Elinor Ostrom’s 8 design principles for managing common pool resource groups, and explains how they apply in any kind of group at every level of social organization from local to global—in other words, they are scale independent. He suggests that the large degree of variation in how well various groups function, at any level, can be explained by how well or poorly they institute those design principles. He argues that how well these principles are implemented is what distinguishes groups that simply have interdependence and interconnectedness from groups that have functional organization, which as described the first part of the conversation, is necessary for a group to function as an organism.

Marta agrees that those principles are a nice set of criteria for well functioning groups. She gives an example of a band playing together. They have a feeling of belonging and coordination that frees them to be spontaneous and creative at the same time because they are doing so relative to a group of other agents who are like that as well. She suggests that while there is some sort of governance taking place at a global level, at the global level it’s not governing itself well.

David agrees, and brings the discussion back to the evolution of cooperation, particularly in the original form of human societies, small hunter-gatherer groups. He suggests that these groups weren’t only functionally organized in a practical sense—that is, division of labor for hunting and gathering—but that they represented true merging of minds, the sense that we are part of something larger than ourselves. In this sense the heart of the religious and spiritual impulse is deeply biological. The psychological experience of we-ness is innate.

He discusses the idea that Teilhard stressed, that the Noosphere must also preserve individual freedom, that “pearl beyond price”.

He observes that we’re also flexible as to the groups we belong to, and in the case of the Noosphere, that group could be the whole earth—but that brings us back to narrative and the Third Story. He revisits his three criteria for a meaning system for that story: “It needs to be psychologically inspiring, it needs to cause us to act in the right way for the global good. And it needs to be in accord with modern science.”

That is what excites him about this project—“that we’re actually getting close to something which scores high on those three criteria of a meaning system.”

Marta observes that our innate drive to belong to a group can have a downside as well, if the groups we are attracted to, to be loyal to, are not so good. Also there is the problem of polarization as we are attracted to opposing kinds of groups. She thinks the whole idea of goodness or badness of groups is complicated. She suggests that the narrative for the Noosphere, the Third Story, must somehow appeal to shared values.

David says that for that reason he feels science is eminently useful as that third criteria for the meaning system that must inform the Third Story. He suggests that the science of multilevel selection and how it explains selfishness and cooperation within and between different levels of groups is important to keep in mind. It leads to the conclusion that “the whole earth must be the superordinate entity.” He comes back to where the discussion started, that the growing interconnectedness of everything can contribute to that becoming the case. That’s his “optimistic prognosis”.

Marta agrees, commenting that “I would like it to be just the basic human identity. I’m a human on earth. And it’s growing, and it’s so attractive, and it’s so beautiful and it’s also what does make sense.” She ends with the observation that it’s okay that we’re dissatisfied with ourselves, for instance on issues such as climate change. Like an individual who has some personal problem, until we recognize what we are doing to ourselves as one species on the earth, we won’t change our behavior.

Are We Living in the Noosphere Now? Part Two Transcript