An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Andrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.
Comparing Ken Wilber's Eros Theory with
Dan Brown's Latest Fictional Narrative, Origin
The novelistic truth embedded in Origin sheds a clearer light than the supposedly ‘non-fictional’ metaphysics espoused in Integral Theory.
Dan Brown is an extraordinarily successful novelist, even if literary scholars have bashed his fictional works, such as The Da Vinci Code and Inferno. I am also not a great fan of Brown's historical fiction, though I readily admit that I perversely enjoyed Angels and Demons.
Brown's latest offering is entitled Origin and describes how Robert Langdon, the renowned Harvard Professor of Symbology and Religious Iconology, tries to unravel the murder of his one-time student and friend, Edmond Kirsch, who as a brilliant computer scientist (think of someone like Elon Musk) has made a shattering discovery that he claims will completely revolutionize our understanding of how life originated and the future destiny of humankind as a species. The problem, and the driving force behind the entire plot of the book, is that Kirsch is killed before he can present his radical findings to the world at large.
Spoiler Alert: Before I proceed, I should caution readers that I will reveal the ending of the book in the following paragraphs and what Kirsch had discovered.
As I was reading the book, which I must confess is a bit pedantic and clichéd, it struck me as quite ironic that the fictional Edmond Kirsch's speculative theories on life's origin and future trajectory was much more evidential and persuasive than Ken Wilber's Eros theory about the cosmos. To put this into sharper relief, the novelistic truth embedded in Origin sheds a clearer light than the supposedly “non-fictional” metaphysics espoused in Integral Theory. The science in Dan Brown's fiction, in other words, is more properly grounded and carries more weight than most of what one finds in Wilber's later tomes. This may come as no surprise to his many critics, but it is disconcerting when one finds greater insight in Dan Brown's latest novel than in Ken Wilber's attempts at Integral science. Of course, it may be argued that novels work precisely when they do reflect deeper truths, even if housed in fanciful tales.
What did the imaginary character, Edmond Kirsch, discover that was so astonishing? Being a computer scientist, interested in where life came from and where it would eventually lead, Kirsch developed a series of computational simulations to model the evolution of life on earth. Utilizing the earlier findings of Stanley Miller and Harold Urey that were published in the early 1950s, which “demonstrated that several organic compounds could be formed spontaneously by simulating the conditions of Earth's early atmosphere,” Kirsch realized that the laws of physics themselves (without any intervening intelligent designer) were sufficient for the emergence of life in the universe. Interwoven in the very laws of physics were the necessary ingredients for the spontaneous birthing of organic life forms from inorganic matter. No creator was necessary at all and thus the world's religious myths concerning creation were bankrupt. Additionally, Kirsch developed a simulation of which clearly demarcated where such an abiogenesis would eventually culminate: the inextricable merging of humankind with technology. We are a transitional bridge giving birth to a new species where artificial intelligence and human values intertwine to usher in a Kurzweilian future.
‘as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill’
To support Edmond Kirsch's utopian vision, Dan Brown cites several real-life scientists and their work along the way, providing the reader with just enough intellectual substance, to make the whole forthcoming scenario sound quite plausible. For instance, Brown cites the controversial theories of the young American physicist, Jeremy England, at M.I.T. who postulates that the origin of life is not mysterious in the least. As Quanta Magazine explains,
The biophysicist Jeremy England made waves in 2013 with a new theory that cast the origin of life as an inevitable outcome of thermodynamics. His equations suggested that under certain conditions, groups of atoms will naturally restructure themselves so as to burn more and more energy, facilitating the incessant dispersal of energy and the rise of “entropy” or disorder in the universe. England said this restructuring effect, which he calls dissipation-driven adaptation, fosters the growth of complex structures, including living things. The existence of life is no mystery or lucky break, he told Quanta in 2014, but rather follows from general physical principles and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”
Brown also quotes Charles Darwin, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and futurists such as Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil, Kevin Kelly, among others, who were precursors to Kirsch's computer breakthrough.
The underlying agenda for Kirsch is epitomized in a line from his favorite poem from William Blake where he prophesizes that there will be a time when, “The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns.”
Edmond Kirsch is an atheist, whereas the world he is fighting against is still in the thralls of religious dogmatism. Dan Brown's Origin is ultimately a novel about the conflict between science and religion.
In the midst of the narrative stands Robert Langdon, the main character in five of Brown's novels, including this one, who reveals near the very end of the book that he is a believer in intelligent design even though he is a strong advocate for all things scientific. In the triangular complex of Origin, there are three angles being played out that, interestingly, echoes the sociologist, Peter Berger's tripartite thesis in his 1979 book, The Heretical Imperative.
The Dogmatic Stance, what Berger calls the Deductive Option
The Skeptical Stance, what Berger calls the Reductive Option
The Agnostic Stance, what Berger calls the Inductive Option
Dan Brown swirls his plot around these three positions, though it is obvious from his writing that he disdains dogmatism. I suspect that Brown himself is probably more aligned with the second option than he cares to admit in his novel (fear of losing potential buyers and readers?), since he keeps his alter ego, Robert Langdon, hedging his bets by arguing that there must be a clear distinction between a code and a pattern. A pattern, Robert Langdon argues, arises mindlessly, whereas a code is designed and intentional. DNA, Langdon suggests (not wholly convincingly, by the way) is a code and therefore implies a design.
a universe without ultimate meaning?
Ken Wilber and Robert Langdon don't want a cosmos void of purpose or direction.
This distinction between code and pattern, I reflected while reading the book, brings to mind Ken Wilber's Eros theory about how life moves through a series of holonic developments over time to manifest the inherent Sat (truth) Chit (existence), Ananda (bliss) of the multiverse. In Wilber's cosmology, Eros is the driving force behind evolution and is Love-Intelligence brimming to manifest in time.
Wilber's whole Integral Model is predicated upon intelligent design, since without it he is left to contemplate a universe without ultimate meaning. As Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize winning physicist and science historian of late, famously penned,
“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
Ken Wilber and Robert Langdon don't want a cosmos void of purpose or direction and thus in their respective careers (real and fictional) have searched for codes in the midst of chaos. But the computer pioneer, Edmond Kirsch (including most of the scientific establishment which, I venture to guess, would side with him and not Wilber and company) in a paradoxical twist develops a sophisticated computation program (a code?) on a state of the art quantum computer, aptly named E-Wave, which reveals that everything that appears to be the product of intelligent design is not. No codes, just patterns. No intelligence, just the laws of physics. No Eros, just probability.
Jack Crittenden, a long time supporter and fan of Ken Wilber, once opined that in “The 21st century literally has three choices: Aristotle, Nietzsche, or Ken Wilber.”
Well, literally speaking, Jack Crittenden is wrong. In the 21st century there are innumerable choices and Ken Wilber doesn't necessarily have to be one of them, particularly if he continues to grind out fatuous speculations that have more in common with medieval theology than current science. It is perhaps a bit too unnerving and revealing to realize that an imaginary character in an overwrought book of fiction serves as a wiser guide to where we came from and where we are going than anything Ken Wilber has written in his extensive oeuvre over the past forty years.
Edmond Kirsch, even if he is a wholly invented character, reminds us anew that novels may offer us more truthful pathways to how the future may unfold than New Age theologians who dress up their offerings in pseudo-scientific garb.
 "Miller-Urey experiment", Wikipedia, "After Miller's death in 2007, scientists examining sealed vials preserved from the original experiments were able to show that there were actually well over 20 different amino acids produced in Miller's original experiments. That is considerably more than what Miller originally reported, and more than the 20 that naturally occur in life."