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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 100+ essays on this website.
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That Type of Eros Goes Without Saying

A Response to Phil Anderson

Frank Visser

How on earth would desire, or interiority as such throw light on the question of how complexity has emerged in our universe?

Phil Anderson recently posted many comments to my latest essay "The Integral Zeppelin"[1], in which I had summarized some of the scientific challenges to Wilber, especially in the wide areas of cosmological and biological evolution. What makes the universe tick? How did complexity emerge, both in the domain of matter as in that of life? How did, more specifically, adaptive complexity arise in biological organisms, that are so exquisitely attuned to their environments? This is the question Wilber has approached from a spiritual perspective. His slogan is that evolution is "Spirit-in-action", meaning that Spirit (or "Eros" as Wilber is fond of calling it) is somehow involved in these processes.

I have argued against this position multiple times, by stating that this does not in the least clarify the natural processes we can observe around us. The Why, How, When and What are here completely mysterious. Wilber obviously does not present this as a scientific hypothesis, but on the other hand neither does he mean this as mystical poetry. He often brings up this notion of Eros in the context of scientific topics. In this he is no different from Intelligent Design, which deals with scientific subjects only to suggest or imply that "something else" is going on behind the scenes.

In quasi-scientific language, taken from the field of complexity science, Wilber has phrased his position as follows:

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.[2]

Anderson has now helpfully summarized his main points of contention in the essay "Legitimising Eros in Evolution", and has fleshed out his ideas more fully.[2] His intention was not so much to defend Wilber but to clear up some misunderstandings about what Wilber might have had in mind with his "Eros-in-the-Kosmos" notion. He further argued that Wilber and his critics might perhaps look at the subject from opposite perspectives, which would make it almost impossible to find a common ground. An integral approach would of course try to do justice to these perspectives.

It is a bit of a awkward situation when Ken Wilber has been challenged on these points for two decades, but apparently has not deemed it necessary to reply to these challenges. So any reply-by-proxy that looks at these matters form both sides is highly welcome on Integral World. Anderson has devised his own integral system, as you can read in his first, long essay published on Integral World.[3] So what follows represents more his own thinking than that of standard integral philosophy. He also opines that much of the controversy about Wilber's views on evolution might be due too much heady abstraction and intellectualization. Anderson proposes:

I simply intend to defend the basic proposition of asserting the existence and necessity of Eros in evolution which I shall do in the most down to earth, uncontroversial way possible.

Eros versus Darwin?

The basic framework Anderson uses is the dichotomy between first-person, felt feelings and third-person, objective science—what Integral Theory would call the Left-Hand and Right-hand quadrants. Eros, as the world of human drives and desires, belongs typically to the Left-hand quadrant. Natural selection, the core of neo-Darwinism, is a scientific theory belonging to the Right-Hand quadrants. How could they possibly connect? But they obviously do, for as Anderson points out, without the will to survive, without a desire for food or sex, evolution itself would come to a halt:

Is “will” a necessary aspect of Darwinian evolution? Clearly yes—this subjective aspect of being plays a necessary supporting role to natural selection since without the will to survive, life stops struggling to survive and the process of natural selection and Darwinian evolution therefore ceases because the process is predicated on life struggling to survive. And my argument really is that simple. “Eros as will”, the actual 1st person experience of it, drives and predicates Darwinian evolution, without “will” the process of evolution through natural selection described by Darwin would not exist. Will, therefore, plays a necessary supporting role to Darwinian evolution.

This interpretation of Eros comes across as rather trivial, in my opinion. That type of Eros goes without saying. The fact that biological organisms, especially those with brains, experience feelings of hunger and fear, is not disputed by Darwinism at all. The point is rather, to explain how adaptive complexity not only emerges but can be passed on to future generations, slightly improving its qualities in the process. Simply feeling hunger, desire or fear doesn't accomplish that. And surely Wilber isn't taking all this trouble to argue for an Eros in the Kosmos by making this obvious point.

But Anderson continues his line of reasoning. Darwinism might be correct about natural selection, but Eros, within its own domain of interiority, might have its own "evolutionary mechanism".

While in Darwin's mechanism, survivability is tested in the objective 3rd person universe, desirability is tested in the subjective 1st person perspective of a prospective mate.
Sexual selection (Wikipedia)
Sexual selection creates colorful
differences between sexes (Wikipedia)

A much more appropriate dichotomy, in my opinion, would be that of natural selection on the one hand and sexual selection on the other. Both are standard Darwinian notions (so Darwin was integral!—but that is not the point here). In fact Darwin's main treatises On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) were precisely dealing with these two areas. So from the very start Darwin covered both quadrants! This is not to say "Darwin is integral so we have him on board."[5] To suggest that Darwinism doesn't take these subjective feelings of desire, attraction and selection into account, so as to make room for Eros, is a straw man argument.

Pursuing this line of argument further, Anderson points to the fact that the phenomenon of sexual reproduction is one of the least understood mysteries in biology. He quotes from the creationist(!) website evolutionnews.org, which references the treatise The Masterpiece of Nature: The Evolution of Genetics and Sexuality by British biologist Graham Bell. Now creationists always like to claim that science can't (yet?) explain this or that phenomenon, so they can imply or suggest God might have had a hand in it, but obviously these arguments are disingenuous. They are of the format: "science hasn't explained sex, ha!" or "science hasn't explained the origin of life, ha!"—as if these are not the biggest mysteries in the life sciences.[6] Anderson implies that Darwinism can never explain the mysteries of sex because they belong to the inner quadrant. As stated above, this is making a caricature of what evolutionary science can do.[7]

An Erotic Universe?

Speculating further, Anderson asks if Eros or interiority might be "a fundamental aspect of the universe". Fortunately he doesn't suppose atoms, or the cosmos as a whole, are conscious in the way we understand that term. But he does argue in a rather convoluted way, referencing the Spiral Dynamics color model, that since the first assertive expressions of human consciousness (called "Red" in SD terminology) created hierarchical power relationships, any hierarchical organizations we find in nature might point to a form of consciousness, however primitive: "evidence for 1st person expression does exist at the atomic scale in the form of hierarchical organisations of elemental matter." Usually the holistic hierarchies of nature are presented as a sequence going like quarks-atoms-molecules-cells-organisms. There are many possible explanations for the emergence of these higher levels of complexity, but postulating consciousness is not an obvious one.[8]

Since Anderson allocates Eros to the Left-Hand quadrant and science to the Right-Hand quadrant, there can be no conflict between both as long as we keep them separated. And here the critics are addressed in particular—they might have misunderstood Wilber's intention:

I feel this issue may have shown up in at least some of the criticism of Wilber, where Wilber claims which were essentially being made about the 1st person dimension of reality may have been construed as 3rd person objective claims, and therefore seen as contradicting science. At very least, I think some double-checking of Wilber's intended perspective would be generous.

But is Wilber really referencing 1st person realities with his notion of a Kosmic Eros? If so, why continuously introduce the concept into scientific debates about the evolution of eyes and wings? It would indeed be very transparent if he would refrain from these excursions into the fields of science. But that is most definitely not the case. Even rephrasing the notion of Eros by the more 3rd person term "self-organization" is problematic because in Wilber's hands this becomes a drive towards complexity and consciousness of cosmic proportions, even an immanently spiritual drive, which is hardly a description limited to one's own inner mind. Nor would complexity scientists subscribe to such a spiritualized notion. It is this continuous crossing of boundaries between the inner and the outer (very un-integral, in fact!), which has alerted and alarmed many of his critics.

In defense of 3rd person, objective science, he further states that science's aversion to interiority is understandable because it had to free itself from the shackles of religion, which was more oriented to the inner life. I would phrase the distinction between religion and science rather as that between absolutist, final answers and relativist, tentative answers to the questions of existence. In science, one's own preferences, fancies or favorite notions are set aside, precisely to get a clearer look at reality. But Anderson sees this as a disastrous strategy:

We ignore huge swathes of qualitatively real attributes of the universe when we look at the universe purely through a 3rd person lens while holding the 1st and 2nd person perspectives to be unimportant.

This seems an overstatement to me. Going back to an animated cosmos, Wodan in the sky, are hurricanes angry at us? Surely that is not what Anderson has in mind, but why state it this extreme? The universe wants nothing from us—and I personally find that a relief. But that must be my impoverished, nihilistic, atheist, un-integral mind (to quote some of my own critics).

Eros is "hiding in plain sight"?

Privileging Darwin over Eros, Anderson concludes, rather curiously, would be as fallacious as privileging Eros over Darwin. Fortunately, he does not take this latter idea seriously ("I myself would certainly not argue for the idea") but only brings it in to illustrate how wrong it is to privilege one perspective at the expense of the other. I do hear what he is saying here, but going back to the original questions stated at the beginning of this essay: how would desire, or interiority as such, even of cosmic proportions, throw light on the question of how complexity has emerged in our universe? I don't see how that can be done. Birds cannot "will" to have wings, nor can we "desire" to have brains. This is simply not how evolution works, or can work.

True enough, subjectivity and interiority are not yet fully understood, but introducing them into the evolutionary story at the human level is trivial, and at the cosmic level a hardly illuminating endeavor. For Anderson, Eros is "hiding in plain sight." But we don't understand mind and consciousness by blowing it up to cosmic proportions. "We are part of reality so will is part of reality" is only true for the evolved organisms, and in no way for reality as a whole.

Nor do I think, that Anderson has managed to convey what Ken Wilber had in mind with his Eros-doctrine or that the debate is clouded by too many intellectual abstractions. Wilber's intention was definitely to clarify the emergence of complexity in nature, even if only part of it (which part we will never know of course). Wilber explicitly wants to offer an explanation for things natural selection apparently cannot accomplish. Where's the theory here? What explanation? We will have to wait until Wilber clarifies that himself.

Notes

[1] Frank Visser, "The Integral Zeppelin: An Open Letter to Ken Wilber", www.integralworld.net

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

[3] Phil Anderson, "Legitimising Eros in Evolution", www.integralworld.net

[4] Phil Anderson, "A fully holonic meta-theory for the heart of Integral", www.integralworld.net

[5] Frank Visser, "Is Darwin Really 'on Our Side'? Ken Wilber's Misreading of Neo-Darwinism", www.integralworld.net

[6] Wilber expressed the same nasty and anti-scientific sentiments in his blog post Wilber, K. (2006b). "Take the Visser Site as Alternatives to KW, but Never as the Views of KW", www.kenwilber.com, June 27, 2006.

But it’s a bit of an inside joke to anti-reductionists, and it’s a joke because materialists, by their own accounts, cannot actually solve the problems of materialistic reductionism, and so they issue what Rupert Sheldrake jokingly called “a promissory note”—which says, in effect, “I cannot solve these problems today using materialism, but I will be able to do so tomorrow; I will definitely deliver on this promise in the not-too-distant future.” And as Sheldrake notes, they have been saying that for two thousand years, and they still can’t do it, but they still keep issuing the same promissory note! [emphasis in the original]

[7] A better reference would have been, even from an "integrative" source: M. Hartfield & P.D. Keightly, "Current hypotheses for the evolution of sex and recombination", Integrative Zoology 2012; 7: 192-209

[8] Frank Visser, "Looking for the Grand Sequence: An Integrally-Informed Review of Tyler Volk's Quarks to Culture", www.integralworld.net




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