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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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Demystifying
Emergence

A Comparison of Harold Morowitz and Ken Wilber

Frank Visser

"True, we don't know all the details of life's genesis story, but why resort to an unknowable alien intelligence when natural law appears to be sufficient?"
—Robert Hazen, Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origin (2005)
I would argue that the concept of "emergence" could use some de-mystification, especially in integral circles.

Cosmic history started off with the simplest of all elements, Hydrogen, and then after a few billion years we got human beings. That is quite a story and many philosophers have pondered how that could possibly have happened. It is tempting, for some, to invoke a transcendental purpose behind this grand process, simply because it seems to baffle the mind to understand how tiny Hydrogen atoms could have lead to something so complex as a human brain. Ken Wilber belongs to that category, for he has often—mostly in verbal online communications—stated that this stupendous development cannot have happened "by chance alone".

A generally accepted term for this recurring generation of novelty has been "emergence". Alternatively it is said that "the whole is more than its parts", or that these emergent structures "self-organize" under certain conditions. It appeals to all, for it can be used with naturalistic or spiritual connotations. I have once even heard an integral student exclaim "I believe in emergence!". But we should be on guard against mystifying this concept, in my opinion, otherwise it will not shed any light on what has occurred in the long past of cosmic history. I would argue that the concept of "emergence" could use some de-mystification, especially in integral circles.

It is sometimes suggested that the potential for all later emergent structures and organisms was present from the beginning of time, but that is hard to believe. Are elephants "potentially present" in Hydrogen atoms? Or in any specific collection of Hydrogen atoms perhaps? No, of course not. A prerequisite for the emergence of complex organisms is the generation of dozens of elements, listed in the well-known Periodic Table of the Elements. Only with heavier, but still not so rare, elements like Carbon, Oxygen, Sulfur, Phosphor etc. can complex biological molecules be built. So let's not go too fast and go step by step and ponder the first relevant question: how did Hydrogen turn into Helium (the second element of the Periodic Table).

Or in a more homely example: how did water (H2O) get formed out of Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms? Water is wet, but Hydrogen and Oxygen don't have these properties, and that's where the phenomenon of emergence stares us in the face. Is this best be seen as a mysterious transformation, or can we really understand what's going on?

In my essay "Looking for the Grand Sequence", a review of Tyler Volk's book Quarks to Culture (2017) I compared Wilber's view of this process to the more naturalistically inclined Volk:

Where Volk's approach is markedly different from Wilber's is in the description of the way we navigate and move upward through the various levels. Let's take the simplest of examples, used by both Wilber and Volk: the emergence of the water molecule H2O. When two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atom combine into one water molecule, resulting in a new entity with features not seen in its constituting components, Wilber describes this remarkable transformation as follows (in the context of his Twenty Tenets of evolution, under the item "self-transcendence"):
"When an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms are brought together under suitable circumstances, a new and in some way unprecedented holon emerges, that of a water molecule. This is not just a communion, self-adaptation, or association of three atoms; it is a transformation that results in something novel and emergent—different wholes have come together to form a new and different whole. There is some sort of creative twist on that has gone before. This is what Whitehead referred to as creativity (which he called "the ultimate category"—the category to understand any other category), and Jantsch and Waddington called self-transcendence. (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 1995, p. 42)"
In typical Wilberian fashion, this elementary chemical process is rephrased in an almost mystical-theological frame of reference. Volk, not unexpectedly, takes a more mundane—but therefore more illuminating—approach:
"We might pause here on humble H2O, the water molecule. It looks something like a round head (the oxygen atom) with two round ears (the hydrogen atoms) sticking up at two o'clock and ten o'clock, like a simple cartoon. It is polar. Each hydrogen atom's single electron is tugged towards a powerful electron grabber, the oxygen atom, which, when solo, lacks two electrons in its own mandala. Thus, in the overall system of the polar H2O molecule, the two hydrogen ears are positively charged relative to the more negatively concentrated oxygen head.
This polarity gives the potential for weak bonds among water molecules. The hydrogen side of one molecule gets weakly linked to the oxygen side of other water molecules. These so-called hydrogen bonds among water molecules are like ribbons that form and break. Because the hydrogen bonds are weak compared to the tethering of electrons to nuclei in the atoms themselves, the hydrogen bonds play a crucial role: they make water, well, slippery, wet, watery. (Quarks to Culture, p. 64)"
Where in Wilber's "explanation" the existence of water seems almost miraculous, requiring a spiritual intervention, in Volk's analysis, the origin of water molecules becomes not only understandable but inevitable. The water molecule has filled its electron shells and has reached a preferred energy-state. Volk uses the phrase "energy repose" (p. 35). The biggest mystery in the Grand Sequence of events seems to be how individualities form collectives, which in turn become individualities in their own right. By allocating collectives to a separate stream of development, Wilber loses the opportunity to clarify these transformations—and he has to resort to mysteries. Indeed, Volk's concept of "combination" might well be a key insight here.

Another example would be an automobile. You can't drive in the parts of an automobile; you can drive a car only when it has been assembled. Does that make the properties of the car in which you can drive in any way mysterious? Of course not. Each and every component of the car can be explained as to its designed function.

The Emergence of Everything

Harold J. Morowitz
Harold J. Morowitz (1927-2016)

Checking the literature on the phenomenon of emergence I could not miss the book The Emergence of Everything (2002) by biochemist Harold J. Morowitz (1927-2016). It is a brief study in the many types of emergence we have witnessed in cosmic history, detailed in 28(!) steps. Morowitz is co-author of the voluminous and very recent study The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere (2016), which is not for the faint-hearted. The study shows that the author knows what he is talking about when discussing the origin of life problem. At the same time Morowitz was inspired by the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who saw human evolution as culminating in an "Omega Point". It would be useful to see how he integrates science and religion, compared to the integral approach of Ken Wilber.`

To put this origin of life research into perspective, one can just read Robert Hazen's Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origin (2005), which discusses the work of Morowitz in this area, and of many other researchers, in a wider perspective. Says Hazen, responding to creationists who have a "deep mistrust of the scientific description of life's emergence and evolution." (p. 77), in a section called "God in the gaps":

Such an argument is fatally flawed. For one thing, Intelligent Design ignores the power of emergence to transform natural systems without conscious intervention. We observe emergent complexity arising all around us, all the time. True, we don't know all the details of life's genesis story, but why resort to an unknowable alien intelligence when natural law appears to be sufficient?" (p. 80)

Ken Wilber, who has contributed nothing to this field other then repeating Eastern philosophies ("prana created matter")[1], once denounced this project as "promissory"[2] (quoting Sheldrake). What he fails to realize is that any attempt to introduce Spirit or some unspecified divine influence in either the origin of life or guided evolution fails to get specific about any details of the processes. One author even went so far as to claim that Spirit (as one of its lesser manifestations, Prana), is involved in cell-division.[3] This means that of the billions of cells in all the organisms of millions of species, past and present, Spirit has had a hand. This is beyond credible.

Says Wilber:

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.[4]

But which part exactly? Wilber doesn't tell us. He doesn't know. Nobody knows. Wilber would have benefitted from studying Hazen's book Genesis to get an accurate understanding of emergence, complexity and self-organization. For scientists, emergence is triggered by energy flows, not by "built-in forces", and by covering up this distinction Wilber can claim support from scientitst where there is none.

So let's list Morowitz' 28 steps one by one, with brief descriptions of their general nature (formulated by me):

The Twenty-Eight Steps of Emergence (Harold Morowitz).
STEP DESCRIPTION
1. The Primordium The Big Bang and the "first three minutes"
2. Large-scale structure Galaxies arise through fluctuations of quantum matter
3. Stars Matter contracts through gravity and starts burning
4. The Elements Heavy elements are forged in stars when they explode
5. Solar Systems A sun with its various planets forms one system
6. Planets Planets get their final layered forms, and cool off further
7. The Geospheres The lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere form
8. The Bioshpere Proto-cells with primitive forms of metabolism emerge
9, The Prokaryotes One-celled organisms arise, which live for billions of years
10. Cells with organelles: Eukaryotes Cells with nucleus and organelles arise, which can grow in size
11. Multicellularity Morphogenetic variation explodes in the various kingdoms
12. Neurons Signal-cells speed up information flow through the body
13. Two subkingdoms of animals Protostomia and Deuterostomia split off in the animal kingdom
14. Chordates and Vertebrates The backbone and brain emerge, with increasing encephalization
15. Fish Complex life started in the ocean, where it still lives on
16. Amphibians Life went on land, and and occasionally went back
17. Reptiles Eggs protect against dehydration when living on land
18. Mammals Milk feeding and prolonged care for the young
19. Arboreal Mammals Living in trees promoted the development of eyes and hands
20. Primates Increasing social organization and complexification of the brain
21, The Great Apes Living on the savannah starts off and requires different skills
22. Hominids Cognitive and social competence increased further
23. Toolmakers A great discovery: the environment can be altered
24. Language Cultural transmission of information becomes possible
25. Agriculture Settling in communities and growing in community size
26, Technology and urbanization Buildings, weapons, cities arise, warfare and trade
27. Philosophy Efforts at self-understanding and the search for larger pattern
28. The Spiritual Future emergences and seeing "the meaning of it all"

This is quite a list and Morowitz segments it broadly into the realms of the physical, the biological and the cultural (like many other authors do as well). The list could be made longer or shorter without any problem. Morowitz' expertise specifically relates to the emergence of the biosphere (Step 8), which he considers to be a ""fourth geosphere", i.e. intimately related to, and impacting, the well known other earthly "spheres" such as the lithosphere, the hydrosphere and the atmosphere, of matter, water and air respectively.

The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere

Morowitz doesn't try to structure the sequence of steps like Tyler Volk has done, who even sees harmonics between the three large realms of matter, life and mind. But he does point to cross-level parallels occasionally, for example the fact that just as two different electrons can't be in the same orbital position (the Pauli exclusion principle, which lies at the base of all chemical complexity), two different species can't occupy the same ecological niche: "Competitive exclusion is a major pruning rule in the emergence of biological taxa." (p. 134). The long and slow process of hominization (the emergence of Homo sapiens) is covered in fascinating chapters. Barriers to interbreeding change from purely biological to increasingly cultural, but the exclusion principle continues to be operative, resulting in "pseudospecies". However, "truly living together in peace requires interbreeding", says Morowitz.

Like other Big Historians Morowitz focuses on the emergence of human beings during evolution. But other than these authors he offers a wealth of insight into how chemistry became biology, often through various ways and failed attempts. And other than Ken Wilber he breaks the whole process down into small, manageable steps. Instead of capitalizing on the ignorance of his readers, he offers them knowledge, that makes each of the emergent steps less miraculous, more understandable.

Each of these steps introduces something new, by definition, and this novelty Wilber often relates to a transcendental view of cosmic history. Quoting Whitehead creativity and novelty become absolutes which cannot be analyzed any further. This approach does not encourage wrapping your head around the mechanisms, selection or pruning rules etc. that may have accomplished stage-transitions. Morowitz excels here.

He is also acutely aware of the many different processes that have generated new emergences. The emergence of molecules, planets or language, for example, cannot possibly have had the same underlying cause. Abstracting from these steps by using generic concepts such as "transcend-and-include" might look enlightening at first sight, but very soon turn out to be empty abstractions.

The interesting question is: what drives this whole process—if anything at all? Is it driven in some way, or does it all happen "by itself"? Or is that "drive to self-organization" essentially spiritual? It is a confusing subject much in need of clarification.

Adding the Spiritual Dimension

The Emergence of Everything

Where Wilber usually phrases his view of cosmic evolution within an esoteric scheme of involution and evolution, in which Spirit/Eros powers cosmic, biological and cultural evolution, Morowitz tries a different option. He doesn't see God/Spirit as acting in any way in the universe we experience. Instead he segments the divine aspects using the concept of the Trinity. As he sees it, the laws of nature are the "immanent God", and these operate under "rules of selection" (the "Spirit"). And he concludes: "We Homo sapiens are the mode of action of divine transcendence." (p. 193)

Here's how Morowitz relates the three Persons of the Christian Trinity to the various processes of nature:

If we identify the immanent God, the mysterious laws of nature, with God the father, then emergence will be the efficient operation of that God, which Christianity views as the Holy Spirit... Twelve billion years downstream when Home sapiens emerges as the result of the operation of the natural laws, we may think about God in human affairs, which resonates with the Trinitarian ideas of the Son or man in the biblical image of God. (p. 23-24)

This is quite different from Wilbers story which sees "immanent Spirit" as playing an active role in evolution, where Morowitz sees the laws of nature as "divine" in itself. A subtle difference!

Trinitarian speculations abound in the spiritual-esoteric literature. For example, we can compare Morowitz' views with those of Ken Wilber ("The Three Faces of God") and Theosophy (cf. Anne Besant's Esoteric Christianity, 1901—which incidentally is much more sophisticated and inline with the world religions than any modern version) as follows:

Trinitarian Speculations in Natural Theology
THE TRINITY MOROWITZ KEN WILBER THEOSOPHY
1st PERSON:
FATHER
the immanent God, mysterious laws of nature the deepest Self of the universe deepest Self of the universe
2nd PERSON:
SON
human beings as a form of divine transcendence The universe as Other/Thou the driving force of evolution
3rd PERSON:
HOLY SPIRIT
the pruning or selection rules, emergence Spirit in evolution and culture the formation of matter

There isn't much consensus here. For example, where Wilber and Theosophy speak of a deepest Self in the universe, Morowitz says with "the mysterious laws of nature", and presents (his Teilhardian inspiration notwithstanding) a wholly naturalistic point of view. But where Wilber sees evolution as driven by the Third Person of "Spirit-in-action", in Theosophy this is decidedly a function of the Second Person of the Cosmic Christ.[5]

As for myself—and this will not come as a surprise to readers of Integral World—I don't think we need any of these speculations to clarify the workings of nature. A spirit behind evolution is not necessary, a Thou in the universe seems imaginal to me and the deepest Self of the universe a delusional aspect of mysticism. That doesn't mean I reject spirituality as a human mode or experience, but I don't thnk we need to accept its far out ontological conclusions. In that sense I resonate with Stuart Kauffman who said that the wonders of nature are "God enough for me".

Further, he sees Teilhards'"noosphere" realized in the World Wide Web or Internet. If Morowitz calls the biosphere the "fourth geosphere", due to its close relationship to the other three geospheres, he might have called Teilhard's noosphere the "fifth geosphere". This might sound a bit too reductionistic, until you realize that Silicon-based chips are used in Internet devices, while "more than 90% of the Earth's crust is composed of silicate minerals, making silicon the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust (about 28% by mass) after oxygen." (Wikipedia).

He discusses Artificial Intelligence and generic engineering, but aims at an interpretation of the cosmic process as a whole in the final chapters: Contrary to Wilber's quasi-spiritual claim that "something other than chance if pushing the universe", he states:

I hope that the previous chapters have demonstrated that the emergences are not completely matters of chance, but are governed by physics, chemistry, geophysics, ecological principles and other laws of science that reduce the universe of chance to zones of the probable. We are far from a complete understanding of the pruning rules, but we know that they operate at every one of a large number of hierarchies, and they do not violate the underlying laws of the physical science. (p. 192)

This brings quite a different flavor to Wilber's speculations about what makes the universe tick:

Our review of the emergences has shown that the unfolding of the universe is not totally determined; neither is it totally random. The truth must lie somewhere in between. We have to give up simplistic approaches. The world is far more complicated than was envisioned by earlier philosophers.

The status of the selection rules is not well understood. the Pauli exclusion principle looks like a law of the immanent God, yet it is at the root of an emergence. The emergence of apes from Old World monkeys looks like a response to geophysical and meteorological factors changing large-scale habitats. There are many selection rules, at least one per emergence. We have not fully classified them or explained them. However, they are determinative in the unfolding of the world.

Our task as scientists is to try to understand these rules and develop an epistemological understanding. (p. 193)

If one sees cosmic history in naturalistic or spiritualistic terms, for sure human beings are the only species that wonders about the mysteries of existence!

Emergence has in an orderly way moved from protons to philosophers. At this level there is a kind of closing of the loop, because philosophers think about the Big Bang, protons and all the other hierarchies connected by emergences. The emerging world turns inward and thinks about itself. As George Wald once said, a physicist is the atom's way of thinking about atoms. (p. 182)

NOTES

[1] Ken Wilber, "Does Quantum Physics Prove God?", www.integrallife.com, November 8, 2005.

Ken goes on to suggest that what might be influencing quantum realities is not Suchness per se, but bio-energy or prana, which may be the source of the crackling, buzzing, electric creativity that so many theorists have tried to explain at the quantum level. Of course, it remains to be seen exactly what further research does and does not support

[2] Ken Wilber, "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! So I couldn’t help laugh at the ending of Chamberlain’s post, because this is in essence his entire argument against me, and just notice how it ends:
(When Wilber quotes Lewontin he says that the book is recent. 2000 is not as recent as 2005, which is when the National Academy of Sciences published Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origin, by Harvard-educated scientist Robert Hazen. In it, Hazen discusses three possible, plausible, testable scenarios for life's origin, none of them requiring the introduction of some mysterious explanatory factor such as Wilber's "Eros" or some mysterious "drive" that "reaches into the closure principle through an opening." The scenarios Hazen presents are being tested, and while we don't have an answer today, it now appears quite probable that someday in the not-too-distant future we will.)

Perhaps the critic's "entire argument" was rather that introducing mysterious forces doesn't really help us any further? See: Jim Chamberlain, "Wilber on Evolution: A Few Notes", www.integralworld.net, June 2006. Science doesn't have all the answers, but it is the only proven method to find them.

[3] Michael Bradford, "Prana and Kundalini: Aspects of Shakti", www.icrcanada.org, no date.

There can be no doubt that the DNA contains the master plan for how every type of cell in our body is maintained and replicated. Nor can there be any doubt that the constitution of our cells determines virtually every aspect of how our body functions. But the building of a fetus in the womb is a process many orders of magnitude greater in complexity than building a protein or enzyme in a cell. If no physical mechanism can be found that can coordinate and control this process, then the only conclusion that can be reached is that it is being done by a creative intelligence that is totally unknown to science at present.
If blind, random chance is inadequate as an explanation for how the first self-replicating life forms came into being, then the only alternative is to admit that there must be an intelligent aspect to creation which somehow bridged the gulf between amino acids and the first cell.
In the sections on Prana-Shakti and Kundalini Shakti, many of the questions posed about how cell function is organized and controlled can only be answered by assuming the existence of an intelligent aspect of creation which can exert an influence on the behavior of the atoms and molecules that make up living organisms. It is this same super-intelligent controlling and organizing principle, working as Prana-Shakti and Kundalini Shakti, which must have bridged this gulf.
Although there is still no detailed answer as to how this was done, it would seem from the processes described above that these aspects of Shakti can manipulate amino acids, proteins and enzymes into certain forms of physical activity. They also seem to be able to control the release of chemical triggers. Perhaps research in the years to come will shed more light on how these aspects of Shakti work, and how they could have developed the first self-replicating life form.

Talking about "promissory notes"! (see note 2) Indeed, this spiritual approach doesn't provide any answers at all. It can only play the chance and complexity cards against science.

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

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).

But again, self-organization as understood by science is not the result of an "inner drive" but a property of matter under certain conditions, e.g. fat bubbles forming in your soup or soap bubbles in your dish washer. This is "free order" so to speak, due to the way matter behaves in certain high concentrations, not something a Spirit has manifactured for you. Again Wilber has co-opted this notion from complexity science to support his spiritual worldview. See: Frank Visser, "Is Stuart Kauffman Really Ken Wilber's Ally?", www.integralworld, October 2018.

[5] The latest development in integral trinitarianism is now one author who discerns three aspects in all of the three Persons of the Trinity, leading to a "nine-dimensional, expanded Trinity"! Ken Wilber and Paul Smith, "The Expanded Trinity: The Three Faces of God-in-Three-Persons", www.integrallife.com, December 20, 2018. Where will this integral kabbalism end? See: Paul Smith: Is Your God Big Enough? Close Enough? You Enough?: Jesus and the Three Faces of God, Paragon House, 2017.




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