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The Omega Point: The search for the secret of human consciousness

coverNewsweek ebook, June 2015

What is consciousness?  Where does it reside?  Does it belong to the mind or the body, or does it exist outside both? Is consciousness part of our souls, or does it live in the things we create – our art, our music, our cities and wars?  As science and spirituality converge, what’s the next leap: humans with the souls of computers, or conscious machines?

From the smash-and-grab acid of the ’60s CIA to stoner elephants and singularitarians, Bella Bathurst follows the world’s longest-running detective story.

Are you conscious? Of course you are. You’re awake, you’re sentient, you might even be upright. You’re not comatose or dead, and it’s reasonable to assume that if you were on some kind of powerful mind-altering drug then you wouldn’t be reading this. The point is, you’re here, and you’re alive, so therefore you’re conscious. You know you are.

OK then, since you’re conscious and I’m conscious and everyone else is conscious, go ahead. Define it. What is consciousness? Where does it reside? Does it belong to the mind or the body, or does it exist outside both? Is consciousness part of our souls, or does it live in the things we create – our art, our music, our cities and wars? Could it be mechanical or electronic, and, if so, what makes it operate? Most pressingly of all, is it possible we have now made for ourselves a new kind of consciousness, one which exists independently? If so, then what the hell have we got ourselves into?

The search for a definition of consciousness must lay claim to be the world’s longest-running detective story. We’ve had our best minds on it ever since we developed brains big enough to ask questions and, still, we seem to be stumped. Plato and Aristotle couldn’t fix it; Kant, Hume and Locke tried different angles; Schroedinger, Heisenberg and Einstein remained in awe before it. None of them came up with the final formula, the definitive, nailed-it for ever, silences-all-critics answer.

Lately though, the hunt seems to have changed gear. Despite big differences about how best to conduct the search and where to look, several of the most persistent sleuths have found themselves disconcertingly close to agreement. No-one is yet at the stage when they are ready to call a press conference and announce to the world they have finally apprehended the suspect, but they have at least begun to converge on these two leads: the Omega Point and the Singularity.

The tipping point

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is an improbable prophet, partly because he’s dead, and partly because he’s still associated with a famous palaeontological fraud. Born the fourth of 11 children near Clermont-Ferrand in France in 1881, de Chardin developed two interests when young: God and fossils. Aged 18, he entered the Jesuit Order as a novice before completing his studies in philosophy and maths.

In 1912, he became part of the team working on Piltdown Man, the “discovery” of bones in East Sussex which were claimed to belong to an early hominid and thus to provide the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans. Nearly 40 years later, the find was exposed as a hoax. Team leader Charles Dawson had combined the skull of a modern human with the jaw of an orang-utan. Whether or not de Chardin had actually participated in the fraud – his contribution of a missing molar to the skull was a major supporting piece of evidence – his archaeological work was interrupted by the outbreak of war.

When he resumed in 1918, he moved the focus of his studies sideways into geology and began teaching in China. For the rest of his life, he combined writing, spiritual practice, teaching and adventure. By the time of his death in 1955 he’d driven a car across the whole of Eurasia and had a long but supposedly unconsummated relationship with an American sculptor called Lucille Swan.TLS - First

But it was neither his science nor his love-life that brought him into conflict with the church. It was his attempt to synthesise evolution and Christianity, and his views on original sin. The sin bit is still clouded (no-one knows whether he was in favour of more or less) but de Chardin’s basic theory was that as science, humanity and civilisation develop, there will ultimately come a point when the noosphere – the sphere of sentient thought – evolves until it joins with itself, human consciousness unifies, and … and something wonderful happens. “At that moment of ultimate synthesis, the internal spark of consciousness that evolution has slowly banked into a roaring fire will finally consume the universe itself,” he wrote in Let Me Explain, a collection of his thoughts published in 1970. “Our ancient itch to flee this woeful orb will finally be satisfied as the immense expanse of cosmic matter collapses like some mathematician’s hypercube into absolute spirit.”

If the noosphere is to reach this exciting finale, then all the fractured layers of human thought must first be conjoined by a single disembodied intelligence. De Chardin envisaged that disembodied intelligence as something directed by us, but separate – an intelligence which now just happens to look a lot like the internet.

The upside to noosphere theory is not only that it appears to unify science and theology, but that it also takes account of artificial intelligence. The downside is that, even allowing for mistranslation, de Chardin’s writings are a stiff uphill climb through thickets of abstraction. Despite this handicap, it seems he’s finally found his moment.