at5 Why We Need a Secular Integral, Frank Visser
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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.
SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY FRANK VISSER

Why We Need a Secular Integral

Frank Visser

TWO ASPECTS OF INTEGRAL

Integral Theory has two aspects that don’t go very well together:

  • Classifying current knowledge, from the various sciences. This has resulted in the nifty AQAL model, with its myriad applications. The idea is to assemble all valid types of knowledge. We might call it "exoteric integral."

  • Claiming superior knowledge, which is at variance with all of the sciences. This has resulted in the more esoteric involution/evolution doctrine, evolution as Spirit-in-action, Eros-in-the-Kosmos etc. We might call it "esoteric integral."
But you cannot claim support from scientists that don't share your point of view.

The problem comes to the fore most clearly in the field of evolutionary biology, which studies the emergence of biological complexity. Instead of fleshing out evolutionary theory in the Lower-Right (exterior-collective) quadrant, or even better, present an “integral biology” which covers all major schools of that scientific discipline, Wilber has chosen not to explore this area but import Eastern-esoteric evolutionary concepts.

In dealing with evolutionary science he has been content to note, that evolution works not in steps but in jumps (Brief History), or with complexity science that matter sometimes shows a tendency to “wind up” (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality). That’s enough for him to suggest Spirit is behind all this, even if he concedes when pressed that no scientist supports this notion, not even the complexity scientists.

When pressed for clarification of his views on evolution, Wilber admitted as much:

Do I think Mayr or Dawkins or Lewontin or Kauffman believe in telos or Eros that is Spiritual in any way? Absolutely not. Virtually all mainstream theorists embrace scientific materialism.[1]

In fact, these scientists have very different, completely naturalistic solutions for these phenomena.

This view is seldom if ever challenged in the integral community. This could mean the integral audience is neither interested nor informed, or both, about science. In the end this results in an unreflected ideology. The deafening silence and non-response to these concerns coming from Wilber is telling. But read on below.

My criticism of Wilbers views on evolution have sometimes met with the following response: integral theory is a meta-theory, so it is not a theory of facts, but a theory of theories. So it is irrelevant if Wilber is correct or incorrect about this or that fact of nature. He should be evaluated on the merits of his meta-theory.[2] This might be true for the first aspect of integral (the AQAL map), but when it comes to its more esoteric aspect, Wilber has made claims about the improbability of life or the evolution of species that definitely enter the empirical domain.

Let's give an example of this, to get a feel for what a scientific approach means.

PUNCTUATED EQUILIBRIUM

PUNK-WHAT ??? Here is the link to Wilber.

It is a theory proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould to explain why species sometimes (or rather frequently) seem to change rather abruptly during evolutionary history, after long periods of stability (called stasis).

Creationists have jumped upon this theory assuming it disproves gradualist Darwinism, whereas it does nothing of the kind. Wilber tried to do the same and in A Brief History of Everything (1996) he even used the term punctuated equilibrium, but only to quickly suggest it was some kind of “quantum evolution” which nobody understood. (In fact, Wilber was the one to blunder here.):

The standard, glib, neo-Darwinian explanation of natural selection—absolutely nobody believes this anymore. Evolution clearly operates in part by Darwinian natural selection, but this process simply selects those transformations that have already occurred by mechanisms that absolutely nobody understands...

For the moment, everybody has simply agreed to call this "quantum evolution" or "punctuated evolution" or "emergent evolution"—radically novel and emergent and incredibly complex holons come into existence in a huge leap, in a quantum-like fashion—with no evidence whatsoever of intermediate forms.[3]

Note the hyperbolic language used by Wilber to make his point: "radically", "incredibly", "huge". Otherwise called wowing.

Suggesting? That evolution is Spirit-in-action. Shame on him. Shame on all integral students then and now who have let him get away with this. It is time we get educated about evolution, instead of mis-using the term at every turn. Evolution can be sudden or gradual, and even when it looks sudden to us, it may take 10.000 years to happen. In no way does that mean we need Spirit to understand the ups and downs of the evolutionary process.

Steve Gould was a staunch Darwinist, to the very (too early) end (he died in 2002).

Here's a taste of what it all entails. A good introduction to the topic of punctuated equilibrium, often abbreviated to “punk-eek”, by biologist P.Z. Myers, who has one of the worlds most popular science blogs Pharyngula (referring to an embryological stage typical of vertebrates).

P.Z. Myers: “Punctuated equilibrium needs to be explained and is actually an interesting aspect of macroevolution.”

THE EVOLUTION OF FROGS

It is not enough to throw around some famous names, and consider the matter closed.

In a recent edition of "The Ken Show", a members-only broadcast on Integral Life, Wilber touches on the topic of evolution, and again shows an astonishing lack of sophistication.[4]

In this video he states that to get evolution started, say the evolution of frogs, you can't start with one frog. You need at least have one frog of the opposite sex (his favorite joke). But what happens in nature, according to Wilber, is that when frogs evolve, "they all show up at the same time". This supposedly goes to show how important it is to take the collective dimension into account, when explaining evolution. But this is a no-brainer, for in evolutionary theory, it is populations that evolve over time, not individual animals. Populations (or gene pools) evolve as gene frequencies change; individual organisms cannot evolve. So this is rather trivial.

Besides, there isn't really a first instance of any member of a species—frog, elephant or human being, for that matter. Populations change slowly and imperceptibly over time. It is only when we reconstruct their continuous evolutionary history that we invent discontinuous concepts such as “species”. This is a wide misconception.

But of course, Wilber means something else with this example as well, for how can frogs "all show up at the same time"? Isn't that mysterious? Wouldn't that be proof of a spiritual force of Eros in evolution, that accounts for innovation and new species, where natural selection only takes care of minor variations within these species? This is Wilber's creationist view of evolution, as was clear from the start when he stated in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995):

Apart from the specifics of natural selection (which most theorists now agree can account for microchanges in evolution but not macrochanges), there are two things that jumped out in the Darwinian worldview, one of which was not novel at all, and one of which was very novel. The first was the continuity of life; the second, speciation by natural selection.[5] (emphasis added)

These "theorists" go unnamed, as usual, and it is not the received view among evolutionary biologists at all—rather, this is the strategy of creationists to discredit neo-Darwinism.[6]

In an attempt to further bolster his view of a "creative force in evolution", Wilber refers to my critiques over the years of his view of evolution—which was about time.

Disregarding all of the arguments I have made, he implies to his interviewer De Vos—who just nods brainlessly—that I am a bit behind the times, and represent an "extremely conventional" view. Authors such as Kauffman, Prigogine, and others, he claims, have written about the drive to self-organization in nature. And that, with emphasis and exhasperation, apparently seals the case for Eros.

I am always getting criticized by extremely conventional evolutioniary theorists, like Frank Visser, because I postulate Eros, an inherent novelty in the cosmos... which by the way is Whiteheads point, the "creative advance into novelty". Eros...
Stuart Kauffman, self-organizatoin is built into the universe. Eros...
Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel prize winner. "Order out of chaos". Even insentient matter, when pushed far from equilibrium, jumps into higher levels of order. Eros... (54:00)

These complexity scientists, however, do not have a spiritual view of evolution, and would never support Wilber's pet theories. They prefer to scientifically investigate the conditions for complexity to emerge. Energy flows turn out to be of prime importance. No energy flows, no complexity.

What Wilber doesn't seem to have noticed, is that complexity science is a plea to physicalize biology, not to spiritualize it, as he seems to be doing. The upshot of all this is that natural selection is not the only source of order in nature; self-organization can take a part of that heavy load as well. Where Kauffman thinks order more or less "crystallizes" just like that, given the right conditions, thus providing "order for free", Prigogine believes we can get from chaos to order given the right conditions (of being "far from equilibrium").

In his book The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution (1993), Stuart Kauffman calls his approach "the physics of biology". And in At Home in the Universe (1995) he continues "I believe that life itself is an emergent phenomenon, but I mean nothing mystical by this." (p. 24) And, "The theory of life's origins is rooted in an unrepenteant holism, born not out of mysticism, but of mathematical necessity." (p. 69) Hardly a transcendental programme! Obviously, then, we really need to study for ourselves, and not just rely on Wilber's reporting skills on science.

Ken Wilber has reconceptualized all this as a cosmic and spiritual drive of Eros. But you cannot claim support from scientists that don't share your point of view. At most you can say they seem to go "in the right direction" but even then you should argue for this spiritual extrapolation separately.

Ken Wilber on The Ken Show
“I am always getting criticized by
extremely conventional evolutionary
theorists, like Frank Visser…”

Dismissing my arguments as "extremely conventional" is all that Wilber can muster. But presenting evolution as a Spirit-driven process is as far from sophistication as you can get, when it comes to evolutionary science. It is not enough to throw around some famous names, and consider the matter closed. But unfortunately this has been the usual performance of Wilber when dealing with scientific issues.[8] As to the poor frogs, Wilber is not interested in their evolution, of course, he just uses them as an example to promote his model. But again, going into the details of this evolutionary topic brings up so much more interesting facts than Wilber can provide. Frogs developed out of lungfish about 375 million years ago, in the Devonian period. They used their lungs to leave the water and live on land. But Ken Wilber could not care less.

All is not well with integral. It needs a whole lot of more informed engagement with science[7] so as not to devolve into crypto-creationism or subjective see-erism. Perhaps we should try a Secular Integral, until this is sorted. The Integral Life video contains much more information that needs to be looked at critically. But the setting preferably needs not be a one-way download from the pandit.

NOTES

[1] Ken Wilber, "Take the Visser Site as Alternatives to KW, But Never as the Views of KW", www.kenwilber.com, June 27, 2006.

[2] This has been done as well, with a rather inconclusive outcome: Steven E. Wallis, "Does Ken Wilber offer a good metatheory?", www.integralworld.net, August 2010.

[3] Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, Shambhala, 1996, p. 22, 23.

[4] Ken Wilber and Corey de Vos, "How to Think Integrally", www.integrallife.com, September 19, 2018.

[5] Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Shambhala, 1995, p. 10.

[6] Gert Korthof, "Common Descent: It's All or Nothing", www.wasdarwinwrong.com, May 2009. This is an updated version of chapter 3 of Matt Young and Taner Edis, Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism. Rutgers University Press, 2005. See also: Matt Young and Paul K. Strode, Why Evolution Works (and Creatinism Fails), Rutgers University Press, 2009. Required reading!

[7] In the Integral Life video Wilber mentions he is in contact with a researcher (who's name I couldn't hear correctly) in the field of abiogenesis (the origin of life from non-life), who apparantly values Wilber's suggestion to take the collective dimension into account. It would be interesting to see what comes out of that, for in the blog post mentioned in Note 1, Wilber derided the efforts of science to solve this ultimate mystery of the origin of life:

"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).

This was in response to Robert M. Hazen's superb Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origin (2005), which Wilber more or less laughed away.

Was Darwin Wrong? [8] If you really want to get a balanced overview of what goes on in the field of evolutionary biology (and major types of creationism / Intelligent Design), both conventional and unconventional, see the extensive English language Was Darwin Wrong? website by Dutch biologist Gert Korthof.

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Why there was no "first" human

“There never was a first person, there never was a first rabbit, or rhinoceros, because every organism ever born belonged to the same species as its parent.”





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