INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.
SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY FRANK VISSER

Why Self-Organization is Not a Cosmic Drive

Ken Wilber Fails to Understand the Basics of Evolution

Frank Visser

The universe is slightly tilted toward self-organizing processes, and these processes—as Prigogine was the first to elaborate—escape present-level turmoil by jumping to higher levels of self-organization, and I see that "pressure" as operating throughout the physiosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere.[1]
—Ken Wilber, "Re: Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution", 2007
[Ken Wilber's] vitalistic and teleological understanding of reality... is deeply at odds with the modern evolutionary synthesis.
—Wikipedia, "Ken Wilber"
One of the main pitfalls in this process [of integral model building], and one which we both unfortunately believe that many components of Wilber’s integral theory fall into, is when limited data is utilized to reach spurious, or at least largely untested, truth claims.[3]
Elijah J. Petersen and Mark E. Jaruzel II, "Argumentum ad Wilberiam", 2013
So we have the sad spectacle here of two gentlemen chatting about evolutionary theory without the slightest expertise.

A decade ago Ken Wilber published an email reply on his personal website[1], that aimed to counter the criticism his work had received regarding his (mis)interpretation of the doctrine of evolution. It is a unique blog post, for many reasons. It is probably the only occasion Wilber took the trouble to publicly clarify his position on evolution taking into account what critics have said about his lack of even an elementary understanding of the subject. That, in itself, is rather weird. Evolution being the central metaphor of Integral discourse, both in nature and culture, and even the cosmos at large, it would befit an author of Ken Wilber's stature, to argue for his position in the clearest possible way, thereby taking as much as possible into account any objection that can be raised against it. As readers of Integral World know by now, this has never happened—nor will it ever happen. Wilber is content to promote a spiritual view of evolution—as "Spirit-in-action"—and to pronounce it correct by declaration.[2]

To facilitate understanding the statements Wilber made in this blog post, I reprint it here in full:

Re: Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution
December 04, 2007 20:51

I’ve seen these types of similar criticisms raised by a few individuals now and then. The following brief response to these critics is by Alexander Astin, one of the foremost scholars on higher education in the world. You may remember the poll of college students that found 75% said that “religion is important or very important in my world,” conducted by UCLA. Alexander (Sandy) was the lead researcher on that study.

The following is his response to a recent criticism which suggests that I don’t understand evolution because I don’t understand that previous individual mutations are carried forward—but of course I understand that, it’s evolution 101 (in which I have a graduate degree!—the biochemistry of evolution). But my point lies in a different direction, which is what these critics miss: the necessity of a self-organizing force (or Eros) intrinsic to the universe. So here is a brief response back to Sandy, agreeing with his criticism of these critics and then adding my own vis a vis Eros, so that the universe, as Eric Jantsch put it, is indeed “self-transcendence through self-organization.”

Ken


-----Original Message-----
From: Alexander Astin
Sent: Monday, December 03, 2007 1:26 PM
To: Ken Wilber
Subject: some evolution issues

Dear Ken:

Lena and I are are enjoying a bit of R & R in (rainy) Kauai, and I just received the message (below) from Frank Visser's Integral World. I'm sure you don't have either the time or the inclination to read much (or any) of his stuff (neither do I), but I was curious about this particular one and checked it out. It challenges your opening paragraphs for SES [Sex, Ecology, Spirituality], which I've always treasured for their insight (and humor). But the challenges seem utterly unconvincing, even though they rely on a number of renown geneticists (Gould, etc). They challenge your example of the evolution of the bird wing, basically arguing that the 100 mutations DON'T have to occur all at once, claiming that each one occurs independently because EACH one is functional to survival! How probable is THIS? (Maybe the half wing helps them run faster?) Or do I somehow have their argument wrong? You can find the discussion by clicking the site under "WILBER WATCH BLOG," scrolling down to DAVID LANE, and Clicking on "Wilber and the Misunderstanding of Evolution."

All of this brings to mind what I see as the Achilles Heel of the whole Evolution-Flatland position: the notion of "random" mutations. I've taught statistics for many years, and we use the term in a very specialized way, much like quantum theorists: We can't predict any given ("random") event, but in the aggregate a large number of such events leads to a very predictable result. But genetic mutations in the aggregate never produce anything as orderly as the normal curve. How is any whole organism or the totality of all living things a"predictable" event? But here's the real problem for the geneticists: any statistician knows that the word "random" doesn't explain or account for anything. It simply describes a situation where the observer/investigator is unable to find any causal antecedent for the event in question. But SOMETHING must have caused it. (In fact, your metaphor "oops" is a perfect substitute term for randomness.) When they embrace the concept of "random" mutations, then, many geneticists think they are somehow explaining something, but in fact they are implicitly admitting that "we don't have a clue as to why this particular mutation happened at this particular time." Why the embattled Creationists haven't seized on this one is beyond me, since it leaves a huge hole in evolutionary theory.

Hope you're well.

Lena and I send our love.

Sandy

Alexander W. Astin
Allan M. Cartter Professor Emeritus &
Founding Director
Higher Education Research Institute
University of California, Los Angeles

From: Ken Wilber
Sent: Tuesday, December 04, 2007 5:22 PM
Subject: FW: some evolution issues

Hi Sandy,
Yes, you have hit the nail on the head. A few critics have criticized my understanding of evolution by focusing on an occasional metaphor that I use and taking that for my actual understanding. One case is exactly the one that you give--namely, a wing taking "100 mutations" to form. I have no belief whatsoever that the wing actually took 100 mutations—that's just a way to state what you are stating, and also, more generally, that the complex forms of evolution that we see—such as the immune system—are not the products of mere chance mutation and natural selection. Rather, there is force of self-organization built into the universe, and this force (or Eros by any name) is responsible for at least part of the emergence of complex forms that we see in evolution.

I am not alone is seeing that chance and natural selection by themselves are not enough to account for the emergence that we see in evolution. Stuart Kaufman and many others have criticized mere change and natural selection as not adequate to account for this emergence (he sees the necessity of adding self-organization). Of course I understand that natural selection is not acting on mere randomness or chance—because natural selection saves previous selections, and this reduces dramatically the probability that higher, adequate forms will emerge. But even that is not enough, in my opinion, to account for the remarkable emergence of some of the extraordinarily complex forms that nature has produced. After all, from the big bang and dirt to the poems of William Shakespeare is quite a distance, and many philosophers of science agree that mere chance and selection are just not adequate to account for these remarkable emergences. The universe is slightly tilted toward self-organizing processes, and these processes—as Prigogine was the first to elaborate—escape present-level turmoil by jumping to higher levels of self-organization, and I see that "pressure" as operating throughout the physiosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere. And that is what I metaphorically mean when I use the example of a wing (or elsewhere, the example of an eyeball) to indicate the remarkableness of increasing emergence. But I don't mean that as a specific model or actual example of how biological emergence works! Natural selection carries forth previous individual mutations—but again that just isn’t enough to account for creative emergence (or what Whitehead called “the creative advance into novelty,” which, according to Whitehead, is the fundamental nature of this manifest universe).

Also, as you point out, referring to random chance really means "I have no idea what is going one here"--and that is really what, in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, I call the "philosophy of oops," as you rightly note. This is a huge hole in the mere chance and selection argument. These items are all meant when I use the metaphor of a 100 mutations. I am fully aware that selection carries forth each previous selection (which still has problems in itself—as you point out, why would a half wing make running easier???), but even if you give that to the evolutionists (which I am willing to do), it still has this gaping hole in it.

The alternative is to see some sort of Eros operating in the universe. It doesn’t have to be a metaphysical force, just an intrinsic force of self-organization. As Jantsch put it, evolution is “self-transcendence through self-organization.” This is exactly the point Prigogine was making with dissipative structures, and exactly the point I am making when referring to wings or eyes: they are metaphors and examples for this extraordinary capacity of creative emergence that is intrinsic to the universe (exactly as Whitehead explained it). So, no, I don’t take this criticism of my work seriously, although it is a good example of flatland thinking, as you note.

Thanks for noticing this”. All best, Ken

A CONFUSING LIST OF ERRONEOUS NOTIONS

This whole exchange—if you have made it so far—cries out for a closer reading.[4] The Integral World publication that started it off, was David Lane's "Ken Wilber and the Misunderstanding of Evolution", which was a repost in 2006 of an essay Lane posted on his website The Neural Surfer around 1997, a year after Wilber's A Brief History of Everything (1996) came out. The book contains some very questionable paragraphs on evolutionary theory in which Wilber questions the neo-Darwinian explanation for the slow and gradual evolution of human eyes and birds' wings, and suggests some spiritual force is at work in evolution. (Part I is called "Spirit-in-Action", Part II "The Further Reaches of Spirit-in-Action" and Part III "Flatland"). In the email exchange with Astin, Wilber refers to this wing example.

In his introductory paragraphs of his blog post, Wilber mentions that Alexander Astin is a renowned social scientist, who was the project leader of a survey among young people which concluded that many find religion to be an important area of life.[5] What relevance this has to the topic at hand escapes me. It would be more relevant to discuss these subjects with a specialist in evolutionary theory, but somehow this has never crossed Wilber's mind. And with reason, he would not stand a chance. He seems to think, that having "a graduate degree" in the biochemistry of evolution is enough justification to voice his unorthodox opinions about it.[6] As a social scientists, Astin is trained in statistics, and he feels justified to comment on the meaning of "random" when used in expressions such as "random mutations". Let's see how he fares. Wilber agrees apparently with the pronouncements of this "authority"—"agreeing with his criticism of these critics"—before he adds his own favorite thesis of a self-organizing drive in the universe.

But first notice the condescending remarks of Astin regarding Integral World. Apparently he had received notice from Integral World about the posting of David Lane's essay on Wilber's misunderstanding of evolution but this essay was posted on December 20, 2006. Was Astin perhaps subscribed to the Integral World Newsletter? Be that as it may, he suggests to Wilber in a conspirational way: "I'm sure you don't have either the time or the inclination to read much (or any) of his stuff (neither do I), but I was curious about this particular one and checked it out." This is the kind of aloofness towards criticism that has plagued the Wilber scene for decades. But at least Astin was "curious about this particular one" (whatever the posting may have been). This behavior is quite typical: critics usually don't get named or even quoted, they are simply dismissed with a few sweeping statements, such as in what follows. Astin does refer to the "opening paragraphs of SES", which apparently have been challenged in this unspecified posting, and the term "Oops", which refers to Wilber's characterization of the reductionistic approach of science.

It is worth quoting in full:

To Schelling's burning question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?," there have always been two general answers. The first might be called the philosophy of "oops." The universe just occurs, there is nothing behind it, it's all ultimately accidental or random it just is it just happens—oops! The philosophy of oops, no matter how sophisticated and adult it may on occasion appear—its modern names and numbers are legion, from positivism to scientific materialism, from linguistic analysis to historical materialism, from naturalism to empiricism—always comes down to the same basic answer, namely, "Don't ask."
The question itself (Why is anything at all happening? Why am I here?)—the question itself is said to be confused, pathological, nonsensical, or infantile. To stop asking such silly or confused questions is, they all maintain, the mark of maturity, the sign of growing up in this cosmos.
I don't think so. I think the "answer" these "modern and mature" disciplines give—namely, oops! (and therefore, "Don't ask!")—is about as infantile a response as the human condition could possibly offer.
The other broad answer that has been tendered is that something else is going on: behind the happenstance drama is a deeper or higher or wider pattern, or order, or intelligence. There are, of course, many varieties of this "Deeper Order": the Tao ,God, Geist, Maat, Archetypal Forms, Reason, Li, Mahamaya, Brahman, Rigpa. And although these different varieties of a Deeper Order certainly disagree with each other at many points, they all agree on this: the universe is not what it appears. Something else is going on, something quite other than oops... [7]

This opening statement conveys Wilber's Weltanschauung perfectly. "Something else" is going on here... Later in the same book he states it in different words:

In other words, something other than chance is pushing the universe. For traditional scientists, chance was their god. Chance would explain it all. Chance—plus unending time—would produce the universe. But they don't have unending time, and so their god fails them miserably. That god is dead. Chance is not what explains the universe; in fact, chance is what that universe is laboring mightily to overcome. Chance is exactly what the self-transcending drive of the Kosmos overcomes.[8] —Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, 1996, p. 26

Notice the frequency of the term "chance" here. For Wilber it is either chance or Spirit, chance or God, chance or "something else". But as I argued in my paper on Wilber's treatment of Darwinism, which was presented at the 2010 Integral Theory Conference:[9]

The alternatives "Eros" or "Oops", as presented by Wilber on the very first page of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995, p. vi), to designate the spiritualist and reductionistic outlook on life, are therefore a case of a false dichotomy. By equating science with chance Ken Wilber presents a straw man argument.

For science does NOT claim that evolution is a matter of chance, or chance alone. That, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins famously remarked, is "grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious".[10] Chance obviously plays a large role, but there are other forces that "overcome" chance, such as: natural selection, gravity or, yes... self-organization. So there are many naturalistic candidates for this chance-overcoming force in nature!

The properties of water

Let's start with a simple example. When H-atoms collide with O-atoms, and H2O is formed, this is a case of "spontaneous" self-organization. But we might as well say: a case of natural law. For Oxygen tends to be "hungry" for electrons, and Hydrogen is more than "willing" to provide these. Of course, the intentional language is purely metaphorical. It just so happens, that the outer orbits of Oxygen have room for two extra electrons, and two Hydrogen atoms can provide these. What is more, because Oxygen pulls these electrons a tiny bit harder than Hydrogen, the overall water molecule is polarized into a positive and a negative side. These hydrogen bonds are responsible for the properties of water and many biological molecules. Water has properties not present in either Hydrogen or Oxygen separately, but these new properties can be clarified by understanding the atomic configuration of the water molecule.

What is of prime importance is that these facts have been unraveled by science by asking questions, not by declaring: "Oops, we have water!". We are not asking here about ultimate questions—such as: why is there anything at all? Or: where do these laws come from?—but about proximate questions raised in biological and chemical research. How did eyes or wings originate? Why does water have the properties it has? We might not even know what atoms ultimately are! That doesn't matter. The atomic model is useful in explaining the properties we observe water to have. For all practical purposes that is enough for science. This distinction is important, for Wilber carelessly mixes ultimate questions ("Why is there anything at all?") with proximate questions of science, when pointing to eyes and wings as supposed evolutionary mysteries. And when it comes to asking questions: it is precisely the "spiritual" approach which invokes mysterious First Causes that tells us: "Don't Ask!".

In fact, Astin mentions the example of the bird's wing in this context and considers the challenges to Wilber's opinion "utterly unconvincing". Let's see. In A Brief History of Everything Wilber had claimed that a biological complexity such as a bird's wing cannot possibly be the result of natural selection, because it would require a hundred mutations to happens all at once, not only in one proto-bird, but in another one of the opposite sex as well. And the two need to run into each other, have courtship and mate, before this could possibly be passed on to future generations. A statistical impossibility. (Wilber: "Talk about mind-boggling. This is infinitely, absolutely, utterly, mind-boggling", Brief History, p. 23). He rhetorically asks Wilber:

But the challenges seem utterly unconvincing, even though they rely on a number of renown geneticists (Gould, etc)[Stephen Jay Gould was a paleontologist, not a geneticist, FV]. They challenge your example of the evolution of the bird wing, basically arguing that the 100 mutations DON'T have to occur all at once, claiming that each one occurs independently because EACH one is functional to survival! How probable is THIS? (Maybe the half wing helps them run faster?)

Actually yes. Astin seems to be unaware here of even the most elementary research into the evolution of flight. As I quoted one scientific source in my evolution paper: "An article by Kenneth P. Dial and two co-authors in the May 2006 issue of BioScience summarizes experimental evidence indicating that ancestral protobirds incapable of flight could have used their protowings to improve hindlimb traction and thus better navigate steep slopes and obstructions. By using their protowings in this way, they would presumably have had an advantage when pursuing prey and escaping from predators."[11]

So we have the sad spectacle here of two gentlemen chatting about evolutionary theory without the slightest expertise when it comes to details, but convinced that the case for evolution is closed for them after this brief and casual email exchange.

Then we come to what Astin considers to be "the Achilles Heel of the whole Evolution-Flatland position: the notion of random mutations." He even points to quantum physics to make his point. Since he has taught statistics for many years his opinion might carry some weight. But that turns out not to be the case. Astin reasons as follows:

But here's the real problem for the geneticists: any statistician knows that the word "random" doesn't explain or account for anything. It simply describes a situation where the observer/investigator is unable to find any causal antecedent for the event in question. But SOMETHING must have caused it. (In fact, your metaphor "oops" is a perfect substitute term for randomness.) When they embrace the concept of "random" mutations, then, many geneticists think they are somehow explaining something, but in fact they are implicitly admitting that "we don't have a clue as to why this particular mutation happened at this particular time." Why the embattled Creationists haven't seized on this one is beyond me, since it leaves a huge hole in evolutionary theory.

Since when does randomness mean that phenomena have no cause? Of course they have! When throwing dice the outcome is both random and caused. The fact that we don't know why in a particular case the number "2" came up doesn't alter that fact at all. And it isn't relevant to the biological concept of randomness. Of course in one particular case every atom in the dice contributed in the end to the result of having a "2" on top, but that doesn't alter the fact the each new throw again generates a random result (assuming the dice are pure). Now when biologists use the term "random" in "random variations" what they mean with this term is not that these mutations are uncaused or that we pretend we know their cause, but that it doesn't matter what their cause is since these causes don't have a particular future biological organ or organism in mind. As the TalkOrigins Archive explains:

"Genetic changes do not anticipate a species' needs, and those changes may be unrelated to selection pressures on the species. Nevertheless, evolution is not fundamentally a random process."[12]

Again, a very simple online search could have answered these basic questions about the precise role of chance in evolution. Why this not-knowing the actual cause of mutations would be "a huge hole in evolutionary theory" is beyond me.

This rich online repository of basic objections to Darwinism and their answers give more valuable information about the misuse of the concept of chance among creationists (and, apparently, integralists as well). This source further quotes Dawkins as saying

"It is not necessary that mutation should be random for natural selection to work. Selection can still do its work whether mutation is directed or not. Emphasizing that mutation can be random is our way of calling attention to the crucial fact that, by contrast, selection is sublimely and quintessentially non-random. It is ironic that this emphasis on the contrast between mutation and the non-randomness of selection has led people to think that the whole theory is a theory of chance."[13]

And commenting on the widespread but mistaken notion that the theory of evolution says that life originated, and evolution proceeds, by random chance, we find here:

"There is probably no other statement which is a better indication that the arguer doesn't understand evolution."[13]

Ken Wilber is very fond of statistical arguments that supposedly prove that evolution by random chance and natural selection won't work, but apparently he has never bothered to consult these sources of information. He doesn't even seem to be aware there is a problem with his creationist reasoning.

"Self-organization built into the universe"

Without any specifics about the What, How and When, he claims a "mature" answer to the Why of things.

Then Wilber offers his own solution to the problems of biological complexity and seems to backtrack about his earlier (quite apodictic) statements about the way the bird's wing could have—or could NOT have—evolved. The example of the bird's wing has been misunderstood, he claims, because "an occasional metaphor" has been mistaken for his "actual understanding":

A few critics have criticized my understanding of evolution by focusing on an occasional metaphor that I use and taking that for my actual understanding. One case is exactly the one that you give--namely, a wing taking "100 mutations" to form. I have no belief whatsoever that the wing actually took 100 mutations—that's just a way to state what you are stating, and also, more generally, that the complex forms of evolution that we see—such as the immune system—are not the products of mere chance mutation and natural selection.

But wait a minute! An author carries responsibility for his use of metaphors, especially when they occur in the context of the very few occasions in his oeuvre in which he steps down a little bit to the level of scientific detail. One cannot tell an intricate story about simultaneous mutations being necessary for evolutionary emergence to happen ("It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing..."), and then when challenged deny in absolute terms ("I have no belief whatsoever that the wing actually took 100 mutations") one has suggested anything of the kind.

So what is it now? This is simply irresponsible.

The passage on eyes and wings now take on a metaphorical significance only. One thing Wilber is certain of: these complex organs (and the human immune system) "are not the products of mere chance mutation and natural selection." Has he consulted and studied the voluminous research literature on the evolution of eyes, wings and immune systems? Apparently not, for he would not have been able to make these silly categorical statements.

Ken Wilber proceeds:

Rather, there is [a] force of self-organization built into the universe, and this force (or Eros by any name) is responsible for at least part of the emergence of complex forms that we see in evolution.

The trouble with these "theistic evolutionist" arguments (and Ken Wilber belongs definitely to this category) is that they can never provide specific information as to which parts of these complex forms supposedly are the result of this unspecified force of Eros. This is no minor shortcoming. It boils down to dismissing the efforts of science to clarify these intricate details in favor of a non-intelligible cosmic force. Talking about "Don't Ask!"...

As is the case with the field of evolution, Wilber has also covered the fields of complexity science and self-organization in his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, but that doesn't mean he has understood these concepts correctly. Self-organization definitely happens, in many different fields and context, but that doesn't mean all these different phenomena are cause by one and the same "force".[14] Even more importantly, this doesn't mean self-organization can be explained (?) by postulating such a universe drive. In fact, the opposite is the case. When such an unspecified universal drive is introduced, nothing is explained or clarified at all.

To find allies for his eccentric notion of evolution and self-organization, Wilber then points to theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman "and many others" (who go unnamed):

I am not alone is seeing that chance and natural selection by themselves are not enough to account for the emergence that we see in evolution. Stuart Kaufman and many others have criticized mere change and natural selection as not adequate to account for this emergence (he sees the necessity of adding self-organization).

Now it is true that Kauffman et al. have criticized neo-Darwinism for its suggestion that natural selection is the only mechanism behind biological complexity. But that has never been maintained, not even by "ultra-Darwinists" such as Dawkins and Dennett. They only claim that natural selection is the main source of biological complexity, which doesn't exclude supplemental mechanisms such as self-organization.

This is a far cry from promoting self-organization as a cosmic drive in nature. It only goes to show that natural selection is sometimes helped greatly by self-organizing mechanisms that provide survival value. It doesn't mean at all that something mysterious is going on. Like in the example of H2O used above, the formation of water molecules is not so much the result of chance but of electrochemical forces in nature. Given these forces, water molecules "spontaneously" form, but the suggestion that something transcendental expires here ("emergence!") is not very helpful.

Briefly attempting to counter the criticism that Wilber doesn't understand evolutionary theory, he continues:

Of course I understand that natural selection is not acting on mere randomness or chance—because natural selection saves previous selections, and this reduces dramatically the probability that higher, adequate forms will emerge.

One has to read this, and again, to get the sinking feeling that Wilber is completely lost in his own fabrications about evolution. "Natural selection is not acting on mere randomness or chance"? Natural selection is exactly acting on random variations! Every elementary textbook on evolution will teach you that evolution is a two-fold process of (at least) random variation and non-random selection. On the educational website "Understanding Evolution" of Berkeley University we find a wealth of information about the mechanisms of evolution: mutation, migration, genetic drift and natural selection.[15]

Because Wilber conspicuously leaves out the notion of variation, he doesn't seem to understand that selection saves novel emergences and passes it on to future generations. Instead, he opines "natural selection saves previous selections" (??) which supposedly "reduces dramatically the probability that higher, adequate forms will emerge."[16] This is utter nonsense. The processes of variation and selection ensure that novelty can occur and is preserved.

But even that is not enough, in my opinion, to account for the remarkable emergence of some of the extraordinarily complex forms that nature has produced. After all, from the big bang and dirt to the poems of William Shakespeare is quite a distance, and many philosophers of science agree that mere chance and selection are just not adequate to account for these remarkable emergences. The universe is slightly tilted toward self-organizing processes, and these processes—as Prigogine was the first to elaborate—escape present-level turmoil by jumping to higher levels of self-organization, and I see that "pressure" as operating throughout the physiosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere.

After having concluded to his own satisfaction that natural selection is incapable of producing the emergence of biological complexity Wilber offers his favorite silly argument that a transcendental force is needed to make the jump "from the big bang and dirt to the poems of William Shakespeare"—as if this process hasn't taken billions of years and counts innumerous small steps.

To claim that "many philosophers of science agree that mere chance and selection are just not adequate to account for these remarkable emergences" without naming them is again vintage Wilber. Introducing Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel Prize winning scientist, into his discussion within the same sentence into which he declares self-organization to be a universal process is irresponsible. For one, Prigogine was an expert in near-equilibrium thermodynamics (NET) but did not hold a spiritual worldview, nor did he advance a spiritual "explanation" for the phenomena he observed.

But confidently, Wilber suggests that Ilya Prigogine (and Erich Jantsch[17]) made "exactly the same point":

The alternative is to see some sort of Eros operating in the universe. It doesn’t have to be a metaphysical force, just an intrinsic force of self-organization. As Jantsch put it, evolution is "self-transcendence through self-organization." This is exactly the point Prigogine was making with dissipative structures, and exactly the point I am making when referring to wings or eyes: they are metaphors and examples for this extraordinary capacity of creative emergence that is intrinsic to the universe (exactly as Whitehead explained it).

Wilber is content to offer his theological and teleological solution: "some sort of Eros" is operating in the universe—which he disingenuously tries to give a low profile by stating "it doesn't have to be a metaphysical force, just an intrinsic force of self-organization." But of course, such an "intrinsic force of self-organization" is not something one can propose offhandedly! No scientists will even consider this as a workable hypothesis. As I usually say: "What's this force doing on Pluto?" Not much? Why not? Missing the proper conditions?

Wilber's final comment nails his anti-scientific stance, his inability to deal with reasonable criticism and exhibits his total lack of expertise. He considers it possible to just ignore what science is trying to tell him:

So, no, I don't take this criticism of my work seriously, although it is a good example of flatland thinking, as you note.

Wilber is not offering us a model to explain biological complexity: "I don't mean that as a specific model or actual example of how biological emergence works!" Instead, he postulates a quasi-physical force ("pressure") that supposedly is "operating throughout the physiosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere", and which is responsible for "at least part of the emergence of complex forms that we see in evolution". Without any specifics about the What, How and When, he claims a "mature" answer to the Why of things. To paraphrase Wilber, "no matter how sophisticated and adult it may on occasion appear", this ultimately boils down to the belief that "God/Spirit did it". In our modern times, this simply isn't good enough.[18]

-0-0-0-0-0-

As the years go by, I am really wondering when—if at all—we are really going to have this long overdue conversation about the validity of Wilber's pronouncements on evolution. In an ideal speech situation (Habermas, anyone?) rational arguments could be exchanged so that positions can be refined and reconsidered where needed. A dogmatic-theological atmosphere so prevalent in Wilber's circle prevents this from happening any day soon.

NOTES

[1] Ken Wilber, "Re: Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution", December 04, 2007, www.kenwilber.com

[2] A true mark of pseudo-science. Where science tries to find out if a theory is true; pseudo-science tries merely to prove it is true. See: Matt Young & Paul Strode, Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), Rutgers University Press (May 15, 2009)

[3] Elijah J. Petersen and Mark E. Jaruzel II, "Argumentum ad Wilberiam: How truthiness and overgeneralization threaten to turn integral theory into a new scholasticism", Journal of Integral Theory & Practice, June 2014, Vol. 9 Issue 1, p154. Paper originally presented at the Integral Theory Conference, July 20th, 2013.

[4] A minor detail: it is unclear what the "Re:" at the beginning of the blog post title refers to. This can mean "regarding" or "about" or "with reference to", but the context is unclear. Wilber's response to Astin carries a "FW" in it's subject line, which means "forward", so this was not a direct reply to Astin's mail. Whatever the case, this published mail exchange, complete with date stamps and colloquial language, is all we can go by to decode Wilber's view on evolution.

[5] This most probably refers to: "The Spiritual Life of College Students: A National Study of College Students Search for Meaning and Purpose", Higher Education Research Institute, 2003. It is unclear where the 75% comes from which Wilber mentions, but probably it is based on the fact that 15% of the subjects showed no interest in religious/spiritual matters, and 10 % mentioned to be doubting about it.

[6] Ken Wilber has a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry and was offered a scholarship in biochemistry/biophysics at the University of Nebraska. F. Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, 2003, SUNY Press, p. 22. As Wilber once formulated it in a post on the Integral Naked website: "Folks, give me a break on this one. I have a Master’s degree in biochemistry, and a Ph.D. minus thesis in biochemistry and biophysics, with specialization in the mechanism of the visual process. I did my thesis on the photoisomerization of rhodopsin in bovine rod outer segments. I know evolutionary theory inside out, including the works of Dawkins et al.... Instead of a religious preacher like Dawkins, start with something like Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. And then guess what? Neo-Darwinian theory can’t explain shit. Deal with it.... ." Quoted in: Geoffrey Falk, Norman Einstein: The Dis-Integration of Ken Wilber, Million Monkey Press, 2008, p. 8.

Wilber's term "PhD. minus" is sometimes called ABD (All But Dissertation), but it is downplaying the importance of the dissertation. I found a relevant comment on academia.stackexchange.com: "ABD is just silly, IMO, and I'd avoid using it like the plague. To me, it carries nothing but negative connotation. First, defending a dissertation is too big to be an "all but". It's the culmination of a serious academic experience. I've seen plenty of students get to that point only to have the degree disappear. Next, the dissertation and the defense is a big step. Not being able to get your act together to write and defend when you're at the "all but" stage is a sign to academics that something is not quite right. Finally, even if everything is going perfectly, and you've completed the research and writing it up will take the normal amount of time, then using an artificial title makes it look like you're anxious to have a title."

[7] Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Shambhala, 1995, Introduction, p. 3.

[8] Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Shambhala, 1995, Introduction, p. 26.

[9] Frank Visser, "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered", www.integralworld.net.

[10] Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable, p. 67

[11] Resarch reported in ScienceDaily: What Use is Half a Wing in Evolution of Birds?, www.sciencedaily.com, May 1, 2006

[12] John Wilkins, "Evolution and Chance", www.talkorigins.org, April 17, 1997.

[13] Mark Isaak,. "Five Major Misconceptions about Evolution", www.talkorigins.org, October 1, 2003.

[14] "Self-organization, also called spontaneous order (in the social sciences), is a process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of an initially disordered system. The process is spontaneous, not needing control by any external agent. It is often triggered by random fluctuations, amplified by positive feedback. The resulting organization is wholly decentralized, distributed over all the components of the system. As such, the organization is typically robust and able to survive or self-repair substantial perturbation. Chaos theory discusses self-organization in terms of islands of predictability in a sea of chaotic unpredictability.
Self-organization occurs in many physical, chemical, biological, robotic, and cognitive systems. Examples can be found in crystallization, thermal convection of fluids, chemical oscillation, animal swarming, and artificial and biological neural networks." Wikipedia, "Self-organization", www.wikipedia.org

[15] "Welcome to Evolution 101!", Understanding Evolution, evolution.berkeley.edu

[16] The (erroneous) claim that selection can only preserve past emergences is similar to Sheldrake's claim that morphic resonance can only preserve past forms, but not the emergence of new forms—which is the essence of evolution. As he writes in A New Science of Life (1981): "The hypothesis is concerned with the repetition of forms and patterns of organization; the question of the origin of these forms and patterns lies outside its scope." Sheldrake, too, thinks this can only be explained by some general notion of "creativity": "The origin of new forms could be ascribed either to the creative activity of an agency pervading and trancending nature; or to a creative impetus immanent in nature; or to blind and purposeless chance. But a choice between these metaphysical possibilities could never be made of the basis of any empirically testable scientific hypothesis. Therefore from the point of view of natural science, the question of evolutionary creativity can only be left open. (p. 150)"

[17] Erich Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution, Pergamon Press, 1980.

[18] For more discussion on self-organization, Prigogine and Eros, see also: Frank Visser, "I Would Not Bet Against Eros...: Ken Wilber's General Theory of Evolution: Cosmological, Biological and Cultural", www.integralworld.net.

CRASH COURSE EVOLUTONARY THEORY

Understanding Evolution, Berkeley




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