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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Thinkers in an Indeterminate Cosmos


Jasmine Miranda

Herbert Spencer was a major figure in the intellectual life of the Victorian era. Spencer was known for his contributions to evolutionary theory and for applying it within his roles as a biologist, sociologist, philosopher, and psychologist. Spencer was best remembered for his doctrine of Social Darwinism, which highlighted the principles of evolution and how it applies to human societies. As an intellectual educator, he was always fascinated with the importance of employing Darwinism to the social world. He also focused on how governments rule, which eventually led him to advocate for the policies of laissez-faire because it allowed for greater competition.

Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer

Spencer was born on April 27, 1820 in Derby, England and is the eldest of 8 other siblings. His parents were Quakers, who believed in 'the light of god' and that all human beings are equal and must be equally respected. Because of what his parents valued and dearly cherished, Spencer developed a fiercely independent mind at a young age. He was educated by his father, who was a professor and taught chemistry and physics. Spencer always enjoyed watching his father prepare experiments in his labs; then soon began teaching himself about natural sciences.

Nevertheless, Spencer became fond of various things by discovering different activities and hobbies through curiosity and amusement. For example, Spencer showed some signs of being interested in electricity and worked in the field of civil engineering in his early 20s. Eventually, he grew bored from with that exclusive focus and began to shift to journalism and was drawn to political writing. As his father was a main figure growing up, many of the ideas captured in Spencer's evolutionary philosophy evolved from his dad's advice. As a man with great ambition and drive, he shared his passion about journaling that he fearlessly took his creative writing to the next step by producing books and articles in the fieldwork of biology, ethics, psychology, sociology and government policies.

Within Spencer's early lifespan, he showed a great deal of resistance to authority desired his own independence. 1851 was a significant moment in Spencer's life, as it was the year he published his very first book Social Statics. Social Statics covered an immense amount of information but “primarily dealt with conditions of social order that analyzed human progress and evolution”. As a sociologist who studied 'social relations,' Spencer provided insights on topics that targeted how people in societies mutually influence each other; from this he found a relationship with Darwin's notion of adaptation for survival.

In this specific work, Spencer also set forth on creating a moral and practical outline for individual rights that he classified as “equal freedom.” With these thoughts, Spencer applied it to not only science but ethics and government policies as well. For instance, back when Spencer advocated for a laissez-faire system and strongly believed in the notion that the government should solely only have 2 main objectives. One was to defend the nation and the people from invasion and the other was “to protect citizens and their property from criminals”.

Ultimately, Spencer did everything in his political power to put into action what he believed and popularize his theory of Social Darwinism and the term “survival to the fittest” which Charles Darwin himself (on the advice of Alfred Russel Wallace) adopted as a placeholder for “natural selection.”

In addition, A System of Synthetics Philosophy is another famous work composed by Spencer that included a structured guideline constructed from his views in biology, sociology, politics, and ethics. Interestingly, the concept 'synthetic philosophy' comes from the text as a way to help bring together a variety of data and research from the various natural and social sciences organized under the root principles of Spencer's evolutionary theory.

Moreover, not only did Spencer publish a variety of well written smaller texts, he also wrote another major work entitled The Principles of Biology, where he introduces how “human nature can be said to improve and change, then can scientifically correspond to the understanding of solid human nature.” Initially, as a biologist, Spencer viewed society as 'organic' which he implied that natural growth of an organism required liberty. Spencer developed the understanding that human societies could be viewed as some sort of organism. This signifies that Spencer not only focused his understanding of human communities, but also considered the possibility of “undermining the natural evolution of society.”

His fame eventually grew with his publications many of his admirers were radical thinkers and prominent scientists. Many aspects of his early work highlighted how he continued to branch out on topics and contrasting research that focused on Social Darwinism.

Spencer was a well-known individual during the Victorian Era who also happened to be “one of the most argumentative and most-discussed English thinkers.” Spencer saw human life as a process of evolution. He understood that humans' “moral sense and sympathy of accumulated effects” was inherited and passed on over time.

Subsequently, in his book The Principles of Ethics, Spencer showed the significance of a natural mechanism also known as an 'innate moral sense' found within human beings could arise without appealing to a god or a higher power.

On December 8, 1903 Herbert Spencer passed away in relative seclusion with a longtime illness. Spencer was eighty-three when he passed. Although he was extremely popular and well-read during most of his lifetime, today many of his views are met with skepticism or downright derision.

However, there can be no gainsaying the fact that Spencer's thought has been highly influential, even to the present day. His general philosophical outlook was one of agnosticism, though he was highly critical of organized religion. As the I.E.O.P. website elaborates,

“As a result of his view that knowledge about phenomena required empirical demonstration, Spencer held that we cannot know the nature of reality in itself and that there was, therefore, something that was fundamentally “unknowable.” (This included the complete knowledge of the nature of space, time, force, motion, and substance.) Since, Spencer claimed, we cannot know anything non-empirical, we cannot know whether there is a God or what its character might be. Though Spencer was a severe critic of religion and religious doctrine and practice—these being the appropriate objects of empirical investigation and assessment—his general position on religion was agnostic. Theism, he argued, cannot be adopted because there is no means to acquire knowledge of the divine, and there would be no way of testing it. But while we cannot know whether religious beliefs are true, neither can we know that (fundamental) religious beliefs are false.”

Perhaps the best summation of Herbert Spencer's underlying metaphysic of “unknowability” is found in the last few paragraphs of his 1867 book, First Principles:

Though it is impossible to prevent misrepresentations, especially when the questions involved are of a kind that excite so much animus, yet to guard against them as far as may be, it will be well to make a succinct and emphatic re-statement of the Philosophico-Religious doctrine which pervades the foregoing pages. Over and over again it has been shown in various ways, that the deepest truths we can reach, are simply statements of the widest uniformities in our experience of the relations of Matter, Motion, and Force; and that Matter, Motion, and Force are but symbols of the Unknown Reality. A Power of which the nature remains forever inconceivable, and to which no limits in Time or Space can be imagined, works in us certain effects. These effects have certain likenesses of kind, the most general of which we class together under the names of Matter, Motion, and Force; and between these effects there are likenesses of connection, the most constant of which we class as laws of the highest certainty. Analysis reduces these several kinds of effect to one kind of effect; and these several kinds of uniformity to one kind of uniformity. And the highest achievement of Science is the interpretation of all orders of phenomena, as differently-conditioned manifestations of this one kind of effect, under differently-conditioned modes of this one kind of uniformity. But when Science has done this, it has done nothing more than systematize our experience; and has in no degree extended the limits of our experience. We can say no more than before, whether the uniformities are as absolutely necessary, as they have become to our thought relatively necessary. The utmost possibility for us, is an interpretation of the process of things as it presents itself to our limited consciousness; but how this process is related to the actual process we are unable to conceive, much less to know. Similarly, it must be remembered that while the connection between the phenomenal order and the ontological order is forever inscrutable; so is the connection between the conditioned forms of being and the unconditioned form of being forever inscrutable. The interpretation of all phenomena in terms of Matter, Motion, and Force, is nothing more than the reduction of our complex symbols of thought, to the simplest symbols; and when the equation has been brought to its lowest terms the symbols remain symbols still. Hence the reasonings contained in the foregoing pages, afford no support to either of the antagonist hypotheses respecting the ultimate nature of things. Their implications are no more materialistic than they are spiritualistic; and no more spiritualistic than they are materialistic. Any argument which is apparently furnished to either hypothesis, is neutralized by as good an argument furnished to the other. The Materialist, seeing it to be a necessary deduction from the law of correlation, that what exists in consciousness under the form of feeling, is transformable into an equivalent of mechanical motion, and by consequence into equivalents of all the other forces which matter exhibits; may consider it therefore demonstrated that the phenomena of consciousness are material phenomena. But the Spiritualist, setting out with the same data, may argue with equal cogency, that if the forces displayed by matter are cognizable only under the shape of those equivalent amounts of consciousness which they produce, it is to be inferred that these forces, when existing out of consciousness, are of the same intrinsic nature as when existing in consciousness; and that so is justified the spiritualistic conception of the external world, as consisting of something essentially identical with what we call mind. Manifestly, the establishment of correlation and equivalence between the forces of the outer and the inner worlds, may be used to assimilate either to the other; according as we set out with one or other term. But he who rightly interprets the doctrine contained in this work, will see that neither of these terms can be taken as ultimate. He will see that though the relation of subject and object renders necessary to us these antithetical conceptions of Spirit and Matter; the one is no less than the other to be regarded as but a sign of the Unknown Reality which underlies both.

Further Reading

1. The Man Versus the State

2. The Philosophy of Style

3. First Principles


Davide Lane (ed.), The Agnostics

Often in the philosophy classes I have taught in undergraduate and graduate school, I would bring up this point of “unknowingness.” Pointing to a crumpled piece of writing paper, I would ask the class, “What is this?” Almost in unison, the students would respond, "A piece of paper." Taking this as my cue to lead into a deeper philosophical investigation of materialism, I probed further, "Yes, but what is that?” Catching my drift, one student invariably answered, “Oh, it is actually a transformed sheet of wood.”

Not wanting them to stop there, I asked, “And wood is made of what?” “It's comprised of molecules," the more scientifically oriented students would shout. Connecting to the now forgotten inner space ride at Disneyland, which takes one through an imaginary voyage inside a snowflake molecule, I queried, “But what is a molecule made of.” By this time, we had gotten down to the subatomic level, and our words began to betray our modicum of knowledge (electrons, protons, quarks, lucky charms, superstring). The final question I asked was quite simple, but given the line of investigation it led to some severe complications: What is matter?

Well, it should be obvious to the reader as it was to my class and to myself that there's only one truly appropriate response, “I don't know.” Now, this is exactly the response not only of most mystics, but most quantum physicists as well. As Sir Arthur Eddington, the distinguished astronomer put it, “Something unknown is doing we don't know what!”

To be sure, mystics have said that the world (or matter) is nothing but consciousness. But, what is consciousness? Not even a sage as enlightened as Ramana Maharshi of South India could answer that question. To such queries, Ramana would often sit in silence. Ultimately, matter leads to consciousness and consciousness to God or Nature (with a capital N) and both to Mystery. However, no matter how you define it, slice it, categorize it, blend it, intuit it, the fact remains that Reality is a Mystery, and nobody apparently (not me, not you, not Einstein) knows what that Reality is. We are sitting right in the middle of the Mystical Dimension.

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