Clément Vidal provides an overview of the Noosphere based on an essay written in 1947 by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, entitled The Formation of the Noosphere.
What is the Noosphere?
The Noosphere is the sphere of thought enveloping the Earth. The word comes from the Greek noos (mind) and sphaira (sphere). The Noosphere is the third stage of Earth’s development, after the geosphere (think rocks, water, and air) and the biosphere (all the living things). The three spheres build on each other: For example, life in the biosphere needs the geosphere to survive (matter, water, and air), and thinking needs to be embodied in the biosphere, via the living brains of human beings and our technology. So the Noosphere can be seen as the rise of a planetary superorganism integrating all geological, biological, human, and technological activities into a new level of planetary functioning.
Geosphere, biosphere and noosphere stand for matter, life and mind on a planetary scale.
The idea of the Noosphere was developed by paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, mathematician Édouard Le Roy, and geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky between 1927-1955.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Édouard Le Roy and Vladimir Vernadsky developed the idea of the noosphere.
Is the Noosphere a religious idea?
No, it’s not. Vernadsky was an atheist and thus championed a secular and materialist vision of the Noosphere that had an immense influence in Russia and Eastern Europe. Regarding Teilhard, it is true that his system of thought attempts to integrate science and religion, but as much as his scientific work in paleontology can be dissociated from his religious beliefs and writings, the same holds for his futuristic vision of humanity and the Noosphere.
What may have brought confusion on this question is that Teilhard also argued that the Noosphere would ultimately develop towards an “omega point”, a kind of God-like state. This is of course speculation about a very very distant future, and is a separate fascinating and controversial topic.
How does the Noosphere compare to other future visions?
The Noosphere is a unique future vision at the intersection of three other visions: the Cosmic, the Green, and the Geek.
The Noosphere is a future vision at the intersection of three others:
the Cosmic, the Green and the Geek.
First, Teilhard sees the Noosphere as a part of the cosmic evolution that we know today stretches 13.8 billions of years. For Teilhard, evolution is a “general condition to which all other theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow and which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow.”1 He doesn’t say that evolution stops with humanity; quite on the contrary, he suggests that something greater is coming when humanity unites on a global scale: the Noosphere.
The green visions of the future often see Earth as a living organism, or “Gaïa”. Unfortunately this idea is generally received with doubts by many scientists who find that it lacks scientific rigor. It assumes that planet Earth, its climate, and its living organisms will spontaneously regulate each other. The Gaïa philosophy essentially reverts the dominance-submission relationship that humans currently have with Earth. Instead of viewing humans as pitiless masters of planet Earth, it is planet Earth who is in control, and pictured as a Goddess: Gaïa. The problem is that humans disrupt these natural regulation cycles, and we don’t know whether or when Gaïa will find a new equilibrium. Believing naïvely that Gaïa is almighty is also a dangerous assumption, because it could lead to the idea that humans are free to do whatever mistake with the planet, and it will fix itself anyway. But what if She can’t?
Geologists have certainly acknowledged the massive impact of humans on the planet, and have even given a name for this new geological epoch: the “Anthropocene”. However, this vision insists on the global problems (climate change, biodiversity loss, etc.) and doesn’t hint much at solutions. Green political movements often take the position of slowing things down to protect the environment and life, but this stance in its extreme forms is incompatible with accelerating technological change.
In turn, those who insist on the power of technology are often led to the technological singularity vision championed by futurists such as Ray Kurzweil. The singularity vision stresses the tremendous accelerating progress and impact of computers, communication networks, artificial intelligence, robots, and the internet of things. They argue that it will lead our world towards a new regime pretty soon – around 2045 – that will be totally incomprehensible: i.e. a moment of singularity. This future is often pictured in a scary manner, where humans won’t be needed and where machines might even take over, like in The Terminator or The Matrix movies. However, these fiction scenarios are not plausible, because humans and machines are rarely in direct competition, and are rather co-dependent. Who is afraid of their smartphone and wants to destroy it? Which smartphone is afraid of its human user and tries to kill it?
Teilhard foresaw that the rise of machines would free humans from mundane tasks and thus increase unemployment (… but also creativity!). This is now a common topic in discussions about the future, nicely popularized by this video that should make you think.
In a way, the Noosphere vision acknowledges the core messages of these three visions, but adds that the planet needs a thoughtful mind, a Noosphere to deal with its most daunting challenges: it needs to better manage the geosphere (e.g. climate change), the biosphere (e.g. biodiversity loss), while at the same time enabling humans to become globally intelligent and to flourish together with technology. Matter, life, and mind (both human and technological) need to work as a coherent and evolving system, as a whole.
Why is the Noosphere important?
We are hyperconnected, stressed, and drowning in a sea of information. The future often seems uncertain and unpredictable at best, scary and hopeless at worst. Most future visions are indeed scary – think about artificial intelligence or robots taking over the Earth – or hopeless – humanity terminating itself through nuclear war or extreme climate change – just name your favorite doom scenario.
By contrast, the Noosphere vision provides direction and hope for the future, hope to tackle global challenges, whether they are social, economical, ecological, technological, or climatic. Most importantly, the Noosphere is a holistic idea that forces us to think of these global challenges together, as tightly interconnected. The vision of the Noosphere may thus be our best bet to tackle meaningfully the global challenges of today. For example, Prof. Francis Heylighen at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) argued that despite the many perils on the road, the Noosphere has an immense potential, namely to develop pragmatic versions of divine attributes: omniscience (knowing everything needed to solve our problems), omnipresence (being available anywhere anytime), omnipotence (being able to provide any product or service in the most efficient way) and omnibenevolence (aiming at the greatest happiness for the greatest number)2. Viewed in this optimistic lens, the Noosphere may thus offer meaning and purpose, by guiding and inspiring us towards an amazing planetary transition.
Did Teilhard de Chardin actually predict the internet?
Broadly speaking, he did. Indeed, the internet can be seen as a layer of information, as a thinking layer. Although in today’s world, social networks seem to act more like a feeling layer…
More precisely, Teilhard was envisioning a radical global transformation of planet Earth with two ingredients: the rise of communication networks and computers. He identified the two ingredients, but he did not mix them to find the internet recipe. Yet this failure is minor; contrast his vision with the vision of other futurists around his time who where speculating about housewife robots or flying cars…
Deep down, Teilhard’s vision was not centered on machines and networks, but on humanity uniting in love and community. He did not predict the darker side of the internet with fake news, manipulation of social networks for political purposes, and massive surveillance programs. It seems there is still room to be inspired by his Noosphere vision to build the internet of tomorrow.
How did the Noosphere start?
It’s difficult to say when exactly it started, but Teilhard argued that three conditions had to be met. First, humans had to be there. We have a unique faculty of reflection that enables sophisticated symbolic communication and the unification of human groups. Second, with human evolution, evolution is no longer only diverging into more and more diverse species, but also converging as humans form bigger and more integrated wholes. Third, humans had to become a global species, i.e. to dwell in all places around the world. Of course, going and adapting everywhere on Earth was just the beginning, and humans also needed to weave new links with each other to exchange goods and information on a global scale. This progressive global interconnection triggered a Great Acceleration in the 1950s.
What are the components of Earth as a super-organism?
If one zooms out on planet Earth, many features of an organism do appear. For example, to eat, you first need to find food, and when you ingest it, your body circulates it. Similarly, with human activities such as agriculture or mining, Earth resources are collected and further distributed nationally or internationally by trains, trucks, container ships, or airplanes.
Your body also has five senses to sense and interact with its environment. On Earth, technological sensors are being developed and deployed to monitor the weather (wind, temperature, humidity sensors on Earth or in space satellites), or surveillance cameras to monitor the behavior of animals (including party animals). This is the core mission of the internet of things: to distribute sensing and acting capacities to technological artifacts throughout the globe.
At Teilhard’s time, the equivalent of the human nervous system were the growing radio and TV networks, which are now dwarfed by the power and interactivity of the internet. The memory function has also grown well beyond libraries: We can now easily store and retrieve more of the collective memory of humanity. This seems normal to us today, but think a minute how amazing it really is. We can also see in embryonic form higher thinking and global decision making, with intergovernmental organizations such as the World Health Organization or the United Nations.
How does the Noosphere function?
Like a surgeon, Teilhard attempts to dissect the super-organism, and finds that there are three essential parts. First, a new form of heredity that comes with the invention of culture. Culture can transfer information quickly as new ideas and know-how can be communicated within a given generation, via imitation, conversation, books, etc. With culture, accumulated information and knowledge can be transferred without having to be first encoded into DNA.
Second, Teilhard also saw the disruptive nature of machines. He writes that a process of mechanization “finally creates, on the periphery of the human race, an organism that is collective in its nature and amplitude.” In other words, technology and machines are starting to create their own evolutionary path and dynamics, on top of biology. This theme has been explored in depth by Kevin Kelly in his 2010 book “What technology wants”3.
Finally, he sees the importance of computers and communication networks, forming the beginning of a global cerebral apparatus. Teilhard writes that “No one can deny that a network (a world network) of economic and psychic affiliations is being woven at an ever accelerating speed which envelops and constantly penetrates more deeply within each of us.”4 Of course, these three parts are not independent, and it’s the three together that makes the whole work.
How is the Noosphere developing?
The rise of the Noosphere is a unique and unprecedented event in history, so it is a hard guess to say how it will develop. Our best bet is to get inspiration from similar situations in the past course of evolution, using theories of major evolutionary transitions 5. A major evolutionary transition is a key moment in evolution where radically more complex lifeforms appear. There have been a few of them in the 3.8 billion years of life’s history. Examples include the appearance of self-replicating molecules (RNA, DNA), complex cells (eukaryotes), multicellular organisms (all plants and animals), or sexual reproduction (yes, there was a boring time without sex). Some cutting-edge evolutionary scientists try to distill what is common to all these different transitions, and apply this new knowledge to the rising Noosphere.
In particular, one can explore the possible future development of the noosphere by taking seriously the idea of an emerging and developing planetary nervous system. Let’s compare this with the development of a child’s brain.
When a child is born, the basic reflexes and automatic body functions are already in place. A baby reacts to pain, can breathe, and regulate its temperature. We also need such functions for the planet, to be able to sense and react quickly to basic challenges. Physically connecting with cables all the computers on Earth was a necessary first step. Many basic global functions work well already: think of agriculture and the distribution of food – at least in developed countries- or the fact that weather and volcanic alerts that can save millions from natural disasters. But we’re not even as good as a newborn, since we are not able to regulate the Earth temperature, a basic function that all mammals have.
As a child grows, it has to deal with intense emotions it experiences. All parents know this too well, and they have to teach their children how to manage and deal with these emotions to make them functional. At a planetary scale current social networks have the power to elicit emotions on a global scale. But who is teaching the Noosphere how to manage global emotions? The answer is … nobody! As Paul Virilio wrote, we are “facing the emergence of a real, collective madness reinforced by the synchronization of emotions: the sudden globalization of affects in real time that hits all of humanity at the same time.” 6
Relying on emotions and gut reactions is clearly insufficient and children have to go through many years of education to learn to regulate their emotions, and to ultimately complement their emotions with rational knowledge. At a global level, this would be the analog of collective reasoning and decision making. We’re not there yet, as even our best collective decision making process, democracy, sometimes leads to bad outcomes (I’ll let you pick your trump card here).
These three aspects of the Noosphere – reflexes, emotions, collective rationality – are developing in parallel, but it is clear that a collective rationality is still least developed today. Indeed, who can convince superpowers like China or the USA to stop experimenting with eugenics or to reduce pollution?
Will the Noosphere become conscious?
That is to be expected, but no one knows when or how, or if we would be able to even detect it! So the issue here is that we will never be able to gain a profound, equal dialogue with the Noosphere. In a way, we are already using the “brain power” of the Noosphere when we use digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant. They feed on terabytes of data to bring us answers. The point is that they filter big data for us, and give us only the tiny bit of information we need. We already can’t know everything that happens on the internet. This is just beyond our brain capacities. Some transhumanists would say we could improve and augment our brains with neural implants7, but even then, we would never reach the capacity of the Noosphere as a whole. It is both mind-boggling and humbling, and knowing too much might even freak us out, like in the movie Her.
Is the Noosphere inevitable?
There are three possible ways to address this question. First, the Noosphere that we are developing here and now on planet Earth might not survive in the long term. In biology the struggle for life implies that many individuals and species die, and only those staying most adapted to their environment survive. Although it makes our head spin, we could imagine that many Noospheres try to hatch in our galaxy, but only very few of them succeed. Our Earth might not hatch completely, and this would be a tragedy of planetary – but perhaps not cosmic – proportions.
Second, the Noosphere might hatch, and maybe there is just one way to do so. This outcome is unlikely. Given what we know of evolution, there is immense room for variation, even if different organisms end up with the same function. For example, the eye has been “discovered” many times in evolution, and many different organisms use different ways to capture and interpret light. The idea of absolute inevitability is also dangerous because it downplays our free will and our ethical responsibility. If the Noosphere is inevitable, shouldn’t we just be submissive, sit down, and watch this emerging level coming? Why should we bother about changing anything or doing anything right?
Third, the Noosphere might hatch in many possible ways. One could agree that the Noosphere is inevitable, but that its particular organization could take various forms. Who wants a totalitarian government at a planetary scale, like in George Orwell’s 1984 novel? The technology is certainly in place to make such a transition possible, so we should do our best to avoid it. What would be the ideal roles and structures regulating governments, corporations, and citizen organizations? How could we try to steer the evolution of the Noosphere towards such an ideal? These are questions that we must ponder and debate to make the Noosphere hatch beautifully. More than that, it is our evolutionary responsibility to make the best possible Noosphere transition. That means discussing and agreeing together on our ideals and what we mean by “best possible”.
How could we retain our individual freedom with the coming of a superorganism?
Let us take the example of the major evolutionary transition towards multicellularity. On Earth, both unicellular and multicellular organisms co-exist, so the multicellular transition was not forced systematically. In the same way, you will always be free to choose and may manage to survive outside the Noosphere, outside of society, like in the movie Into the Wild. Doing so, you are freed from societal constraints, but there is no doubt that your range of possible actions is actually much reduced. So in the end, by freeing yourself from society, you’re less free! You do gain much greater and new kinds of freedom once you integrate into society (even if it involves new constraints). This point is clear in our globalized world: think about your freedom to order almost any product via the internet or to travel anywhere on Earth: these things are obviously impossible if you are isolated, eat only the vegetables or animals you find in nature, don’t own a passport and refuse to use money.
Still, in the Noosphere, wouldn’t all humans be insignificant, and thus replaceable?
No, because we are not replaceable like cells in a multicellular organism. Every human being is a unique person and can make a unique contribution to the whole. The great thinker Valentin Turchin, who was inspired by Teilhard, wrote: “The creative act of free will is the ‘biological function’ of the human being. In an integrated super-being [or noosphere] it must be preserved as an inviolable foundation, and the new qualities must appear through it and because of it.”8
What does the Noosphere imply for humans?
The Noosphere implies new ethics, new values. In human evolution, each time human groups have grown, from foraging groups, to villages, cities, nations, they had to transition to new ethical and governing structures to maintain high levels of cooperation. The fundamental challenge of ethics today is to find ways to understand, guide and steer the actions of some 8 billion people as well as the many more billions of technological artifacts that we design, build, interact with, and increasingly depend upon.
Humans are aware of past evolution, and our present predicament is that we are at a critical evolutionary threshold. This has major ethical implications because the successful unfolding of this evolutionary process towards the Noosphere relies on positive and conscious contributions from individuals, groups and governments. Teilhard writes: “This is Life setting out upon a second adventure from the springboard it established when it created humankind.”9 Without the appropriate ethics and vision, humans may fail to even start this second adventure.
Teilhard’s view transcends both rigid versions of religious understanding that stick only to traditional values and a skeptical, meaningless scientific view that doesn’t want to deal with ethics. If this view of the Noosphere is accepted, says Teilhard, “we see a splendid goal before us, and a clear line of progress. Coherence and fecundity, the two criteria of truth. Is this all illusion, or is it reality? It is for the reader to decide.”10
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper, 1959), 219.
- F. Heylighen, “Return to Eden? Promises and Perils on the Road to a Global Superintelligence,” in The End of the Beginning: Life, Society and Economy on the Brink of the Singularity, ed. Ben Goertzel and Ted Goertzel, 2015, https://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/BrinkofSingularity.pdf.
- Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants (New York: Viking, 2010).
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Formation of the Noosphere,” in The Future of Man (New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1959), 165, https://www.organism.earth/library/document/formation-of-the-noosphere.
- see e.g. David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution (New York: Pantheon, 2019).
- Paul Virilio and Bertrand Richard, The Administration of Fear (MIT Press, 2012), 75.
- “Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future – Wait But Why,” accessed April 22, 2017, https://waitbutwhy.com/2017/04/neuralink.html.
- V. Turchin, “A Dialogue on Metasystem Transition,” World Futures 45 (1995): 59, https://en.scientificcommons.org/42814465.
- Teilhard de Chardin, “The Formation of the Noosphere,” 171.
- Teilhard de Chardin, 176.