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.
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Triple Skeptic

Finding Truth among Science and Religion

Frank Visser

Skepticism (American English) or scepticism (British English) is generally any questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief. (Wikipedia)
One's own views are always tentative, and have to be replaced when something better comes along.

The modern-day materialistic approach to science is often called "skeptic" because it stands skeptical towards all knowledge claims that cannot be verified empirically. This relates especially to claims of the paranormal, but can include the larger field of religion and spirituality as such. Spiritualists have often countered that such a limited worldview is unwarranted. Isn't there more between heaven and earth than we can dream of? Ken Wilber has framed this reductionistic approach as "flatland" and has argued for many years that this epistemological straight-jacket should be loosened up to account for all our experiences—including interiority and spirituality (and most probably, the paranormal as well).

As the skeptics have organized themselves into skeptical organizations, Rupert Sheldrake has started a "Skeptical About Skeptics" website, featuring articles that highlight the "dogmatism of science". In an Edge.org contribution from 2008 called "The Skepticism of Believers" he describes the religious roots of skepticism. It is often a useful tool to expose the fallacies of other beliefs than one's own. This website seems to deal with the opposite topic: "the belief of skeptics". Is materialistic reductionism an ideology? This can easily be generalized to the statement "science too is a religion", and in our relativistic culture many take that point of view. That is, of course, untrue. Science works its way towards truth, whereas religion starts with a certain truth and tries to defend it—often against the facts. This is not to deny that some scientists might religiously hold on to their favorite paradigms. But that doesn't make science a religion.

In the Edge.org contribution Sheldrake makes an interesting observation:

Creationists opened my eyes. They use the techniques of critical thinking to expose weaknesses in the evidence for natural selection, gaps in the fossil record and problems with evolutionary theory. Is this because they are seeking truth? No. They believe they already know the truth. Skepticism is a weapon to defend their beliefs by attacking their opponents.[1]

But skepticism should of course first and foremost be directed at one's own beliefs. That should be the essence of the scientific approach. As David Lane recently wrote on Integral World: "Perhaps the greatest lesson of all in science is that admitting to one's mistakes is in itself no mistake."[2] In practice, this almost never happens. Scientists form their basic convictions at a relatively young age in their career, and seldom change their points of view on the subjects they study.

Ken Wilber, too, often suggests that there are severe limitations to neo-Darwinism, and that creationists, or proponents of Intelligent Design, are helpful in pointing out these flaws—even if we don't want to go along with their fundamentalist notions of religious truth. His basic position on how to assess (or strategically use?) Intelligent Design (ID) can be found in a footnote (!) in his book Integral Spirituality :

Proponents of ID have one truth on their side: scientific materialism cannot explain all of evolution (it can explain pretty much everything except major holistic transformational leaps). With that, I quite agree. But all that is required to get and keep evolution moving forward is a minimalistic Eros (as an involutionary given). This force of creative advance into novelty is one form of Spirit-in-action, and that Eros is all that is then required for evolutionary theory to work just fine. That's why evolution shows so many fits and starts; it's a creative artwork, not an intelligent engineering product (because if so, tat Engineer is an idiot). The proponents of ID parlay their one little truth into the demand that the Jehova of Genesis be that Eros, and there is not the slightest evidence for that anywhere in heaven or on earth.[3]

I have always wondered why Wilber seems to think these fundamental questions can be relegated to a couple of footnotes. I have also challenged his particular "answer" to how things have originated, most recently in my 7-part review of Wilber's latest book The Religion of Tomorrow (2017)

So we have several layers of skepticism, all meant to defend some positions and criticize others (but rarely to clarify one's own position):

  • Religious belief - In pre-scientific times the world was flat, the heavens spoke of God's grandeur, and our place in the Divine Plan was clear. We had to live a pious life to be admitted to heaven, or otherwise suffer a sorry fate. This worldview has lost to science.
  • Skepticism - The founders of science questioned the religious belief of their times (and often held on to some of them as well). Above all, they demanded proof and evidence. The materialistic worldview was the result of all these efforts of finding truth.
  • Skeptics of skepticism - Some modern-day authors—ranging from New Age authors to atheistic philosophers[4]—question the validity or completeness of the scientific-reductionistic worldview. More often than not, they offer some sort of wider view.
  • Skeptics of the skeptics of skepticism - However, these "alternative worldviews" (if they are fleshed out at all by these critics) more often then not have their own problems. I have detailed by criticism of Wilber's "Eros-theory" of the cosmos and evolution in many essays.[5]

Where will this end? Of course, my objections to Wilberian evolutionary theory (or should I say "mythology"?) can (and should!) be questioned as well. That is how the knowledge quest proceeds. But it is good to realize what worldview we are defending (consciously or not) when we question the truth claims of a competing worldview.

And of course, science never has final answers. So critiquing science because it doesn't have them, is a bit disingenuous. Especially when the answers one has to offer are questionable as well. An Intelligent Designer? An Eros in the Kosmos? A Spirit of Evolution? A Spirit-in-Action? Have these notions ever provided us a single insight into how things actually work and have come about in Nature?

A general objection to these doubly-skeptical critiques of science would be: postulating a spiritual factor in the universe and in evolution, and assuming it has any noticeable effect in the real world, can be of two varieties. Either directed or distributed.

  • A directed influence in nature is believed in circles of "theistic evolution". Even Wallace, the co-creator of the theory of natural selection, believed that human beings were not the product of natural evolution but of some divine intervention. But how in this vast cosmos of billions of stars in billions of galaxies can a believable case be made that some extra-cosmic Spirit or God as intervened in natural processes, so that we could become conscious and rise out of the animal world? One visit to a local planetarium would cure one of these notions. Really, how likely is this? Zooming out from our little planet Earth, very soon the Earth, nay even our Solar System, can no longer be found among the myriads of galaxies. Would a Cosmic Spirit really take the trouble to point a beam of creative energy to this speck of dust (not to mention concern itself with a certain biological species, or with a favorite group of followers)?
  • The alternative view, which I call distributed, is one to which Ken Wilber is inclined. The spiritual "drive" or "influence" behind natural processes is imagined to be a kind of "fifth force of nature", responsible for the growth in complexity and consciousness which some see happening in evolution.[6] This has the great advantage that at no point one has to come clear about when and how divine interventions (the Cambrian Explosion?, the emergence of human beings?) were actually done. The idea is that there is a subtle but pervasive "upward push" in nature that explains both development and evolution in nature and culture. The biggest problem with this vision is that the process falls flat when proper conditions are not available. Why did life only arise on Earth, as far as we can tell, at least in our Solar System, and not on the Moon, on Saturn and its moons, or on comets? Is Spirit not strong enough to accomplish its goals, in the absence of favorable circumstances?

For myself, I have grappled with the questions of evolution and physics for more than a decade now, and have come to accept the scientific approach, even if it doesn't have the final answers as to how life or the cosmos began—though there is no shortage of speculations. I have studied alternatives offered from the fields of alternative spirituality and philosophy, but none of them deliver the goods for me. That is not to say that opposite views cannot be refreshing and are not a great reminder that one's own views are always tentative, and have to be replaced when something better comes along.

That, I guess, makes me a triple skeptic.

NOTES

[1] Rupert Sheldrake, "The skepticism of believers", Edge.org, 2008.

[2] David Lane, "Four Scientists Who Changed The World", www.integralworld.net, 2018.

[3] Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Post-Modern World, Integral Books, 2006, pp. 241-2 (Appendix II: Integral Post-Metaphysics). In a 2005 blog post (now taken offline) he expressed the same idea more graphically:

The problem is that creation scientists—who are almost entirely Christians—after having convincingly demonstrated that neo-Darwinian theory has loopholes large enough to drive several Hummers through—then try to prove that Jehovah is in one of the Hummers. But, of course, the fact that neo-Darwinian theory cannot explain the central aspects of evolution, does not mean that a specific type of God can. But they never would make the kind of headway they have unless neo-Darwinian theory is the piece of Swiss cheese that it is. (Vomitting confetti, Friday, May 27, 2005).

[4] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, 2012. See also my review: "Biased Toward the Marvelous?", www.integralworld.net, April 2014.

[5] Frank Visser, "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered: Relating Ken Wilber's View of SpiritualEvolution to the Current Evolution Debates: Relating Ken Wilber's view of spiritual evolution to the current evolution debates", August 2010, www.integralworld.net

[6] Frank Visser,"Eros in the Kosmos: Mechanism, Metaphor or Something Else?", www.integralworld.net



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