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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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‘Spiritual Science’ is a Contradiction in Terms

Response to Steve Taylor

Frank Visser

Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor

When unconventional religion and unconventional science are used to argue for a "spiritual science", things can become pretty confused and confusing. That at least was my experience when reading Steve Taylor's "Beyond Materialism", a summary of his new book Spiritual Science (Watkins, 20018), which is subtitled: "Why Science Needs Spirituality to Make Sense of the World". Science tries to rationally understand observed phenomena, whereas religion introduces mysteries such as Spirit or the Ground of Being or Oneness or the Absolute that supposedly permeate everything. How can these two disciplines possibly be fruitfully combined? When I encountered his book online I asked Steve if he would be able to share a summary essay for Integral World, which he kindly did. I am glad he has taken the trouble to flesh out the spiritual perspective, for it bears similarity with Wilber's worldview ("science fails, so some sort of Spirit is needed to explain phenomena"). And not irrelevant: I held ideas like this in the past so reviewing his book has been something of an internal dialogue with my own past self.

IT TAKES TWO... SCIENCE AND RELIGION

Before going into the details and claims of Spiritual Science let's first try to map the landscape of ideas and controversies we are are walking through here. We hear a lot about the clash between religion and science, creationism or Intelligent Design and neo-Darwinism, but the field is a little bit more varied, as you can see in the following table:

RELIGION SCIENCE
A
CONVENTIONAL
Creationism,
Intelligent Design

B
CONVENTIONAL
Neo-Darwinism,
The Modern Synthesis

D
UNCONVENTIONAL
Spirit, Eros, quantum, New Age, New Science

C
UNCONVENTIONAL
The Extended Synthesis,
The "Third Way"

Table 1. Conventional and unconventional approaches to religion and science. A and D often look to C for confirmation that B (Darwinism) is "broken", "dubious", "detrimental" or even "destructive"—so that a "spiritual" alternative is called for.

Here's a brief description of these four quadrants:

  • A - Creationism and Intelligent Design. Both invoke divine powers (unspecified) to explain the origin of life and of its diversity. Creationists come in various flavors: young earth creationists believe the world is only 6000 years old; old age creationists accept the scientific view of the universe. Intelligent Design uses the language of science to argue for a divine origin. "Creation science" is a term often used in these circles, but in many court cases it was ruled that they are all cases of religion, not science.
  • B - Neo-Darwinism. This is the term used for the reformulation of Darwinism resulting in the "Modern Synthesis", in which insights about genetic inheritance and mutations were incorporated. Influential spokesman is Richard Dawkins, whose gene-centered approach was fleshed out in his The Selfish Gene (1976). Other authors in this field are geneticist Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution is True, 2009) and philosopher Daniel Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1996).
  • C - Non-Darwinian biologists. This is a large and heterogeneous group of biologists who are dissatisfied with the hegemony (as they perceive it) of Neo-Darwinism. They stress the importance of epigenetics, symbiosis, horizontal gene transfer, natural genetic engineering, etc. Authors in this field are Lynn Margulis (who argued for decades for the bacterial origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts), James A. Shapiro (Evolution for the 21st Century, 2011) and Dennis Noble (The Music of Life, 2006).
  • D - New Age or New Science. This is a group of authors, equally heterogeneous, who argue for a spiritual worldview distinctive from orthodox religion, in which a spiritual Oneness pervades reality (often based on Eastern religious insights). This can take the form of "panspiritism" (Steve Taylor), "Eros in the Kosmos" (Ken Wilber), the "Tao of Physics" (Fritjof Capra) and many more. Sometimes scientific language derived from quantum physics is used, but the link between real science is tenuous at best.

CONTROVERSIES ABOUND...

There are many ways in which these four cultural worlds clash with eachother or, alternatively, see the other group as ally against a third one. Let's take them in turn, clockwise:

  • A vs. B - This is the well-known creationism/evolution debate. Both parties see the other as the enemy. Creationists deny Darwinian evolution; evolutionists deny the divine origin of species. In the Darwinian camp, many authors have written anti-religion books, e.g. Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006): Dennett, Breaking the Spell (2006) and Coyne, Faith vs. Fact {2009). From the ID-side Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box (1996) has become famous and notorious.
  • B vs. C - The controversy about the value of natural selection is mostly an internal scientific debate. As such it is healthy. Emotions run high where the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy is seen as suppressing new insights (the case of Lynn Margulis comes to mind), or when neo-Darwinists see these detractors as misrepresenting the spirit and reach of Darwin's message. In any case, whatever complementary approaches to neo-Darwinism have been developed, none provide proof for the existence of divine interventions in evolution.
  • C vs. D - There is hardly any controversy between these two cultures. What makes the Darwin-detractors interesting for this group (as well as for group A) is that they seem to provide evidence that all is not well with Darwinism. Especially Ken Wilber is fond of claiming that natural selection through mutation will never work (giving no sources or specifics, other then Michael Behe). Steve Taylor argues that natural selection in itself isn't creative and therefore lacks an acknowledgment of Spirit (which is literally Ken Wilber's point as well).
  • D vs. A - This is the clash between orthodox and unorthodox, often mystically-minded religiosity. Orthodox religion is seen as dogmatic and out of date, whereas mystical religion is presented as the religion of the future (cf. Ken Wilber's recent The Religion of Tomorrow, 2017). At most dogmatic or "mythic" religion is seen as a stage or station all human beings go through. Ironically Wilber explicitly sees Intelligent Design as an ally against reductionistic neo-Darwinism ("right questions, wrong answers").

BEYOND MATERIALISM?

Taylor starts by suggesting why materialism (as a methodological approach or a worldview?) came to be such a dominant force in Western culture. The success of Darwin, the First World War and the tendency to analyze things into its details all played a role. There is, however a simpler reason for the appeal of materialism, in my opinion. Science is pretty much an outside-view of things, and when we look outside we encounter (only) matter, not mind, soul or spirit. There is really no way around this (except perhaps in the case of a clairvoyant, who sees "more"). What is more, science should always follow the economy principle ("Ockham's Razor") which holds that we should first look for the most simple explanation, before introducing more complex principles. Materialism therefore is the first candidate that comes into view. It helps of course, that materialism has many successes to share. If we still had believed in the life-force, DNA would never have been discovered.

Conversely, when we introspect we encounter a different reality of thoughts and feelings. These can be intuited directly, though we have no clear idea what these realities are. What we do know is that they will never be accessible through any outside-view (only by their neurological correlates). For that reason Wilber has created his four-quadrant diagram which has room for both the external (Right-Hand) and internal (Left-Hand) realities. Be that as it may it is questionable if the interior should occupy equal space and weight compared to the external. After all, the physical cosmos has been around way longer than us human beings. Does that fact that we possess cognitive faculties such as thought and memory justify the postulation of a whole "inner universe"? Anyway, it is to be expected that materialistic science will have trouble explaining these inside-phenomena—if they will ever succeed at all.

Taylor lists some major "problems" with materialism. It has a detrimental effect on our sense of meaning, it has resulted in consumerism and environmental degradation and it doesn't explain that much after all: "Its explanatory power is actually very limited." In this context he points to alleged psychic phenomena, which still defy any explanation. I think the situation is even worse and better at the same time. It is not only psychic phenomena which elude any explanation, but our normal day-to-day inner life shares the same fate. But at the same time, materialistic science has been enormously successful in the fields of cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, medicine, etc. and has given us a solid understanding of at least the material aspects of the world around us.

A more important objection to this evaluation of materialism is that spiritualists often paint a gloomy and appalling picture of it. Compared to that, any spiritual alternative will be appealing. But the opposite can also be argued. Thanks to materialistic science we know that we are all connected to the first form of life, through countless generations that passed on their DNA. "There is grandeur in this view of life", Darwin said at the end of his Origin of Species, in which "from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." What spirit-mythology can surpass that?

At the end of the day, as Richard Dawkins continuously reminds us, it is not what is comforting or inspiring what counts, but what is true.

Further problems with materialism which Taylor raises are consciousness and evolution. The mind-body is notorious for its mysteriousness, and a generally accepted solution is not available. As to evolution the situation is a little bit more promising. However, he quotes a zoologist as saying that mutations are trivial, like typos, he refers to the work of Eldridge and Gould about "punctuated equilibrium" and he points to the group of non-Darwinian biologists called "the Third Way", who claim the neo-Darwinian hegemony is over. This sums it up: "as the contemporary evolutionary theorists, Gerd Müller and Stuart Newman, have put it, the Neo-Darwinian paradigm 'has no theory of the generative.'"

But really, the whole point of Darwins theory of natural selection is that it is creative! By taking out that aspect of natural selection (and treating it only as a sieve), the door is wide open for "creative" alternatives in terms of creationism or more sophisticated "creativisms".

Here's Stephen Jay Gould on "Natural Selection as a Creative Force" (whatever the non-Darwinists say, he was a Darwinist to the very end, so this means something):

Darwin's theory therefore cannot be equated with the simple claim that natural selection operates. Nearly all his colleagues and predecessors accepted this postulate. Darwin, in his characteristic and radical way, grasped that this standard mechanism for preserving the type could be inverted, and then converted into the primary cause of evolutionary change. Natural selection obviously lies at the center of Darwin's theory, but we must recognize, as Darwin's second key postulate, the claim that natural selection acts as the creative force of evolutionary change. The essence of Darwinism cannot reside in the mere observation that natural selection operates—for everyone had long accepted a negative role for natural selection in eliminating the unfit and preserving the type.[1]

It further needs to be said that these renegade biologists all work within a naturalistic frame, and they can hardly be called "post-materialists". At most they are against atomism, but they usually preach some kind of holism—materialistic in every way. (Symbiosis and horizontal gene transfer have been discovered through reductionist and materialistic means of research, make no mistake about that).

THE PANSPIRITIST ALTERNATIVE

So Taylor seems to have fallen into the trap here that controversy within the biological community in any way provides support for a spiritual view of life (see Table 1). Nothing could be further from the truth. All discoveries in biology are made with materialist methods. How would a visionary biology work at all? But Taylor goes head-on for an alternative, which he calls "panspiritism". Where "panpsychism" still cautiously speculates about the presence of proto-consciousness in the smallest particles, "panspiritism" boldly declares:

Panspiritism does suggest that spirit-force pervades all things, but not necessarily that it imbues them with an inner life.
Panspiritism suggests that the fundamental reality of the universe is not matter. There is another quality, which is so fundamental that it actually pervades matter. This quality pervades all living beings, and all non-living things, so that they are always interconnected. This quality could be called fundamental consciousness, or spirit.

This seems like a massive and unworkable assumption to explain as-of-yet unexplained phenomena related to consciousness and evolution. How could this possibly work? But Taylor declares optimistically: "The most impressive thing about panspiritism is its explanatory power." But "consciousness-everywhere" is hardly an illuminating notion, at least for me, if it can't specify any details. Fundamental consciousness pervades both the living and the non-living, but confers individual conscious only to some entities? The description Taylor gives of that "other quality pervading matter" resembles more the recently discovered Higgs field, which gives mass to matter—but then we are back into the field of science again.

Regarding evolution—a topic he has saved for last, because of its complexity—he states:

[P]anspiritism suggests that fundamental consciousness or spirit has a dynamic quality to it. Once matter arises from fundamental consciousness, there is an inevitable movement towards increasing complexity, which impels the process of evolution. This means that evolution is not a random and accidental process, but has an impetus behind it, a tendency to move towards increased complexity and increased awareness.
This also suggests that a spiritual view of evolution doesn't have to dispense with genetic mutations as an important factor. Mutations may still be the main overt way in which change occurs. The only difference is that, according to this view, beneficial mutations don't happen (or at least don't always happen) randomly. Mutations may be generated by the impetus of evolution, as a means of creating change. According to this theory, mutations occur as a part of the unfolding of the process of evolution, generating inevitable changes that lead to more complex and conscious forms.

But in the end he cautions us:

Of course, there are important areas that remain unexplained. I have not explained - and it is perhaps not possible to explain - the process by which matter arises out of fundamental consciousness, or the process by which cells and brains canalise fundamental consciousness. Nevertheless, I believe that panspiritism offers a sound basis for the understanding of the universe. It is certainly much more coherent and inclusive than materialism.

Being "inclusive" or "coherent" isn't enough for a theory to be accepted in science. There should also be a correspondence to the facts, and at least a hint of a mechanism. In the case of panspiritism it is unclear what these facts or mechanism could possibly be. Does God or Spirit now become the "Great Mutator"—as Jerry Coyne's review of The Edge of Evolution (2007) by ID-creationst Michael Behe was called—where He/She/It occasionally tweaks the DNA of organisms to push them in the right direction?

But really, what has happened to panspiritism's explanatory powers? Are we not replacing one unknown by a much bigger unknown, or even unknowable mystery? Postulating an "impetus" towards complexity in evolution (very similar to Wilber's "Eros") is begging the question. Or to put it more bluntly: cheating. If the brain doesn't create individual consciousness but just "receives" it from some other source, what could that source possibly be? And if that source is a human soul, to what world does that soul belong, and is there any government over there? And if the brain receives its signals directly from fundamental consciousness itself, how are we supposed to visualize that? I could go on an on... A whole superstructure would be needed on top of the physical world to accommodate for these processes.

Says "ultra-Darwinist" Richard Dawkins in a 1982 lecture on "Universal Darwinism", discussing the possible evolutionary theories—and I very much agree:

Theory 1: Built-in capacity for, or drive towards, increasing perfection
To the modern mind this is not really a theory at all, and I shall not bother to discuss it. It is obviously mystical, and does not explain anything that it doesn't assume to start with.[2]

This isn't science, but pure metaphysics. "Spiritual science" is a contradiction in terms.

NOTES

[1] Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002, pp. 137-141, Chapter Two: "The Essence of Darwinism and the Basis of Modern Orthodoxy".

[2] Richard Dawkins, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, 2017, p. 124. In this book Richard Dawkins knocks down Wilberian-type of explanations for adaptive complexity (closely following a typology of six possible evolutionary theories devised by Ernst Mayr in his massive The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance, 1982, p. 360). The list is as follows:

  1. Built-in capacity for, or drive towards, increasing perfection
  2. Use and disuse plus inheritance of acquired characters
  3. Direct induction by the environment
  4. Saltationism
  5. Random evolution
  6. Direction (order) imposed on random variation by natural selection





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