Reflections on Ian Barbour and Teilhard de Chardin

by John F. Haught, Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University,
and advisor to The Teilhard de Chardin Project

Ian Barbour was a good friend of mine. I am saddened by his recent death and will miss both his wisdom and charity. I recall how supportive he was of my own early work in science and religion. We also shared a deep interest in Teilhard, and since I have had access to Ian’s personal library on Teilhard I can testify that he read most of Teilhard’s works very carefully, underlining generously and including marginal notes on almost every page. As a young man Ian had met Teilhard whose father George was a scientific associate and personal friend of the Jesuit geologist especially during their days together in China.

When I reflect on Ian Barbour’s impressive body of work today I cannot help noting how well it complements and clarifies Teilhard’s way of “seeing” the universe. In his first major book on science and religion Barbour expressed considerable appreciation of Teilhard’s conviction that those who embrace the scientific spirit should, of all people, be willing to open their eyes. Doesn’t science, after all, boast about its obedience to the empirical imperative? If so, shouldn’t it take into account all of the data available to our experience, including the experience of ourselves as subjects, as conscious beings?

Although for methodological reasons, Barbour, who was a scientist as well as a theologian, did not want to extend the work of science itself to include the formal investigation of the “withinness” in nature, he did agree with Teilhard that subjectivity deserves empirical study. The question is whether we should expand our understanding of science itself to include the study of subjective consciousness, as Teilhard proposed, or instead make “thought” the object of metaphysical inquiry only. Barbour agrees with Teilhard that consciousness is a phenomenon that we can experience or “see,” to use Teilhard’s term, but that the theoretical formulation of what we see is more appropriate to an experientially grounded metaphysics, such as that of Alfred North Whitehead, than to the conventional discourse of the natural sciences.

Teilhard, in any case, was annoyed that the natural sciences typically suppress any illuminating inquiry into the recently emergent phenomenon of “thought.” Scientists, like everyone else, can be blind to certain realities in nature until they have their eyes opened. For this reason that Teilhard places a special emphasis on “seeing.” At the beginning of The Human Phenomenon he writes: “These pages represent an effort to see and to show what the human being becomes, what the human being requires, if placed wholly and completely in the context of appearance.”

Ironically, however, natural science itself has not yet really seen that the human phenomenon is part of nature. Evolutionists, for example, typically bracket out what each of us already knows intimately to be our most distinctive trait–our subjectivity, including especially our capacity for reflection. In doing so they inevitably end up understanding not only the human phenomenon but also the universe in objectivist terms that are misleading and too small to comprehend either. The fact of subjective consciousness actually provides a clue to what the universe is really all about, but science’s myopic habit of methodologically abstracting from the “insideness” of things, ends up blurring rather than clarifying our understanding of both humans and the natural world. While Barbour was appreciative of Teilhard’s plea for a wider empiricism, however, he did not wish to burden the natural sciences themselves with the task of opening our eyes to the fact of subjectivity. Barbour could accept science’s self-limiting method of excluding certain aspects of nature provided that we allow for finer nets to retrieve what gets left behind.

In Whiteheadian process philosophy Barbour found an empirically based complement to the abstractions of physics and other natural sciences. In Whitehead’s writings he found an inclusive metaphysics that acknowledges more explicitly than natural science that subjectivity is part of nature. Parallel to Teilhard’s expansive understanding of “science,” Barbour’s process metaphysics takes into account the “inside” aspect in all of nature, although the Whiteheadian way of doing so is not the same as Teilhard’s. Teilhard did not have available such an empirically capacious metaphysics as Barbour found in Whiteheadian process thought, and so I believe we should treat somewhat amiably Teilhard’s audacious efforts to expand the understanding of science in the direction of the more radical empiricism that for Whitehead and his followers is more characteristic of a suitable metaphysics. Teilhard nevertheless shared with Whitehead the conviction that every mental event is an aspect of nature, and not something that occurs outside the cosmos. They both wanted to keep our search for truth open to whatever is phenomenally available, and this includes the experience of our own subjectivity. If science fails to “see” the interiority in nature, Teilhard is asking in effect, then what other mode of inquiry will do so?

Even though Teilhard used the word “science” too loosely for the tastes of most scientists today, there can be no doubt that he was simply trying to get truth-seekers to accept as an empirical datum the human phenomenon as it has emerged in the context of an evolving universe. It is not that he was being unscientific, but that he thought science should become more integrally empirical than it usually is. He wanted to stretch science’s vision to embrace natural data that science generally ignores.

This is not as grievous an offense against scientific purity, then, as it is sometimes made out to be. We may object to Teilhard’s widening the notion of science, but we have no cause for accusing him of being unempirical. Barbour, while allowing that scientific method may ignore subjectivity, insisted that an empirically based metaphysics must take it into account. Carrying on the spirit, if not the letter, of Teilhard’s way of “seeing,” Barbour kept his eyes open to aspects of the universe and its evolution that modern scientific materialism has still failed to notice. In doing so, it seems to me, he has contributed to a vision of nature that Teilhard would have been honored to endorse.

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