Gravity and the Noosphere

gravity-movie-trailer-hd-stills-clip-detached-sandra-bullock--150x150I loved seeing Gravity. In my opinion, the Planet Earth should be nominated for a supporting-player Oscar. I drank in the massive, stunning views of the earth in the background of so many scenes—completely convincing, thanks to high-level CGI effects. At those screen-filling distances, you could make out the thin, blue-white film of the atmosphere, the delicate outer membrane that makes life on earth possible. There they were: the biosphere and the atmosphere, as seen from space for real by just a few hundred people so far.

That soft shell of atmosphere offers a visual analogue to other, unseen layers, both actual and imagined. There’s cyberspace—a zone of reality that’s tied to physical things like computers, servers, satellites and fiber-optic cable, but can’t be seen or felt. We call this domain digital, but what does that mean? It doesn’t seem farfetched to think of this quickly filling-in worldwide web as another, invisible shell surrounding the earth’s surface.

And then there’s the noosphere, an idea put forward by the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin about 90 years ago. He was inspired by Vladimir Verdansky, a Russian scientist who himself gets credit for coming up with the term “biosphere.” With the noosphere (the prefix comes from Greek nous, for mind) Teilhard invites us into a kind of thought experiment: imagine that all of human thought surrounds the earth in an invisible shell. As our mental outpourings grow and intensify, this “thinking layer” fills in and comes into its own. Teilhard suggested that the noosphere would emerge out of technologies “extending a closely interdependent network” around the world. At that time he was referring to radio, teletype and television—but his description seems to eerily anticipate the Internet and our current web of digital communication.

This promise of the noosphere pulled me in when I first heard about it. It was there when I wrote in the libretto for Violet Fire about Nikola Tesla’s vision of the earth becoming “a single brain” through his planned World Broadcasting System. In Leaving Alexandria, the novel I’m working on, it has helped me envision the accumulation of knowledge, from ancient libraries to our expanding digital cybersphere. We can’t see any of these the way we can see the translucent envelope of our atmosphere, but that doesn’t stop us from experiencing them around us.

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17 thoughts on “Gravity and the Noosphere”

  1. Thank you for a wonderful review. I enjoyed the movie Gravity immensely also. I also agree with you that Teilhard de Chardin was ahead of his time but his vision of the Noosphere certainly seems to be evolving (pun intended 🙂 according to his vision. I am a huge fan of Teilhard de Chardin and have started a blog devoted to his thoughts. For those interested in learning more about Teilhard’s vision of the Noosphere, here is a three-part introductory series I wrote in Teilhard’s thoughts (which is related to but not identical with Verdansky’s).

    http://wp.me/p3pJsV-mK
    http://wp.me/p3pJsV-nc
    http://wp.me/p3pJsV-nd

    Also, there is a documentary on Teilhard de Chardin that will be released in April 2015, the 60th anniversary of his death. I am not directly involved with this endeavor (other than being an enthusiastic supporter). Hopefully this project will help introduce Teilhard and his ideas to a new generation.

    http://www.teilhardproject.com/

    Peace,
    W. Ockham

    1. Thanks for your response! I had found your blog, and really appreciated your thoughtful treatment of Teilhard de Chardin – very happy to have this link to it. And that’s great to hear about the documentary in the works, to help a new audience discover him and his compelling ideas.

  2. The ideas you’re expressing are enchanting, and I love the essay. For me, the whole concept of messages flying across something called “cyperspace” instantaneously is magical and unreal — yet here we are, using it in mundane ways. Not impossible to imagine thoughts and dreams floating out there too. Poetry or science? Thank you for stirring the questions.

  3. Love the thought of the noosphere and the analogy with the biosphere. Yes, definitely like cyberspace. But on a smaller scale, it reminds me of that ineffable – but palpable – sense of shared consciousness that permeates some kinds of group experience – especially those inspired by music and dancing – creating the feeling that everyone there is encircled by swirls of communal feeling. Invisible, but undeniably present…

    1. Great connection! That was my favorite thing about going to baseball games – the feeling of sharing an experience with thousands of people in the same place. Marshall McLuhan called this “darshan,” which he lifted from the Hindu word that I think means a sacred connection coming out of face-to-face encounter – somebody help here if I’ve got this wrong. Anyway, that’s the word I use for this now. Maybe the closest in English would be communion?

      1. “Communion,” with its Christian connotation, reminds me that I’ve felt this kind of connection in church sometimes, sitting there with family members who belonged to the congregation, even though I’m not religious and was only a visitor. The connection extended, for those few minutes, to the entire assemblage of people I didn’t know, even during the boring sermon. The music of such a church service certainly helps, as Susan noted. So does the sitting in rows, in more or less the same posture. So does the recital of common texts and communal singing of old hymns, whatever their content.

      2. @mirseidel, @sam: “Communion” is a great description of the Noosphere. I am a huge football fan and I have the same feeling of deep connectedness at football games.

        In religious contexts, the Catholic Eucharist is a celebration of the collective consciousness of the Noosphere and the central component of the Catholic Mass. As Pope Benedict said in his book “Spirit of the Liturgy”, referencing Teilhard de Chardin:

        “And so we can now say that the goal of worship and the goal of creation as a whole are one and the same—divinization, a world of freedom and love. . . Teilhard looks on Christ as the energy that strives toward the Noosphere and finally incorporates everything in its “fullness’. From here Teilhard went on to give a new meaning to Christian worship: the transubstantiated Host is the anticipation of the transformation and divinization of matter in the christological “fullness”. In his view, the Eucharist provides the movement of the cosmos with its direction; it anticipates its goal and at the same time urges it on.”

        Other religious traditions have similar concepts but my experience is that the concept of the Noosphere is more pronounced in Christianity due to a belief in a very personal God.

        Peace,
        W. Ockham

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