Do you like this website?
Please support Integral World!
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

powered by TinyLetter
Today is:
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded 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.

From Hydrogen to Humanity

Religion and Science Argue About
What Really Happened in Between

Frank Visser

Is it possible at all to draw metaphysical conclusions from these empirical facts, or do they only exist in the eye of the beholder?

Traditionally the ultimate question is: why is there something rather than nothing? Interesting as this may be, my interest is in the question that follows: how could this "something" grow into such a complex thing as a human being? We went from Hydrogen to humanity. What really happened in between? A religions view would say: there is mystery at every step; it is impossible to understand this sequence in a naturalistic sense. Contrary to this, a scientific view would say: let's break this long sequence up in smaller steps. Let's investigate and see how far we can come.

Ken Wilber, more often than not, has employed the religious rethoric to bolster a spiritual view of reality:

Now, Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory holds that all these transformations upward were just the result of chance and randomness. But there is no way in hell that the universe went from atoms to Shakespeare out of random stabs. This is an extraordinarily driven process. (EnlightenNext, nr. 47, 2011. "The Cosmic Dimensions of Love")

The interesting word here is "driven". This seems to refer to a continuous, pervasive, built-in force that drives us towards complexity, consciousness and even compassion. Typically, it doesn't provide any specifics as to how this drive operates. Wilber ultimately sees this as a divine phenomenon, which is behind the processes of involution and evolution:

And the story of involution is simply the story of how the higher modes came to be lost in the lower—how they came to be enwrapped and enfolded in the lower states. Involution, or the enfolding of the higher in the lower, is the pre-condition of evolution, or the unfolding of the higher states from the lower. (The Atman Project, 1980, p. 160-1).

Wilber has never tried to understand this cosmological and biological process as to its mechanism, other than in a rather vague way:

It is not a universe becoming more and more dispersed and separated and isolated. It is a universe coming together in higher and higher wholes. Until we finally come to the human brain, which has more synaptic connections than there are stars in the universe. (Conscious 2, "Integral in Action", 2015).

Don't expect details from Wilber, he's more at home in abstractions such as "transcend-and-include" and "holons all the way down". He's a philosophical and mystical creationist.[1]

Design, Intervention, Intention

There are other ways to conceptualize a spiritual element in evolution or the cosmos at large. The Roman Catholic Church has accepted the doctrine of evolution, except when it comes to us human beings. In the case of humans God has intervened to add a soul to the primitive ape-man. Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer of the doctrine of evolution by natural selection, voiced the same opinion. He thought it was "utterly incomprehensible" that our spiritual faculties could have evolved by natural means.

Fig. 1 - Possible mechanisms at work during cosmic and biological evolution, according to the narratives of religion (left) and science (right).

Creationism traditionally held that all biological organisms were created, designed, and did not have an evolutionary history behind them. Modern day creationists, those belonging to Intelligent Design often concede parts or almost all of evolutionary theory when they accept the common descent of all life forms, even though they might retain some "interventionist" belief that God has tweaked some genes or configured some molecules at crucial moments in time. Again, no specifics are (or could be) given about how this could have worked.

Others, such as Ervin Laszlo and Perry Marshall, accept most of evolutionary theory, but hold that God has designed the parameters of the cosmos in such a way that a universe could have formed that was "fine-tuned for life", as the saying goes. Laszlo doesn't see any conflict between design and evolution: the universe is simply "designed for evolution"! This, again, leaves the question open how such a fine-tuning could possibly have been accomplished. God may have super-powers (according to those who believe in him), but is he really capable of setting the cosmic parameters to dozens of places behind the comma?

The Fine-Tuning Argument for God
The Christian God fine-tuning the many parameters of the cosmos. Is this really a believable option to explain the status of our cosmos?

There is another problem involved here. Whatever may be "behind" the Big Bang, how plausible is it that this Reality is the Christian God? As David Hume observed in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

Philo, Hume’s spokesman in the Dialogues on Natural Religion, agrees by the end that the more likely hypothesis is that the world was created by some sort of intelligent being or beings. But he points out that this doesn’t in and of itself provide much evidence for the Christian God—or the God of any other religion, he might have added. How do we know it was one God, and not a committee? How do we know it is benevolent, when the evidence on that issue is so mixed? It’s going to take quite an argument to get from fine-tuning to not coveting they neighbor’s wife and closing bars on Sundays and the other things some people think they know that God wants us to do.[2]

That which produced the Big Bang, whatever it might be, might very well be a hellish, human-unfriendly sea of energy, if you ask me.

Those who glibly talk about design in evolution need to realize that design not only needs to be thought out (the mental part), but also needs to be realized or implemented in physical form to be of any use. This is where Intelligent Design fails to substantiate its claims that complex biological organisms or organs (or molecules!) have been designed—how have they been manufactured? Where? When?

Still another option to save the spiritual element in evolution is to claim that organisms intend to evolve. Or more sophisticatedly, they are able to "naturally engineer" their genomes, so that favorable mutations are more likely to occur. This is called "adaptive mutation". It seems to have been established scientifically in some cases, though this "intentional" interpretation is contested. But how can cells possibly "know" what gene to retrieve from their genomic database and alter before they save it again? Especially since genes turn out to have multiple effects? Put more simply: did whales reallly become whales by intentional effort?

Selection, Variation, Environment

In contrast, science holds that changes in the environment, genetic variation and selection are the prime movers of the evolutionary process. Without the comet which wiped out the dinosaurs, would we really have been here? Since variation always occurs in nature, slightly more adapted organisms have more chance to pass their genes on to their offspring, thus increasing their capacities to survive and thrive. About the sources and mechanisms of variation much controversy may be present among scientists, they all believe this is basically what it takes to get to us humans.

When we draw a straight line between the Big Bang and the formation of the first atoms on the one hand, and us human beings, who are relative late-commers in evolutionary time, on the other. several moments have been decisive. First, of course, the creation of life itself on earth, or more precisely: bacteria. For billions of years only bacteria existed on earth. This could still have been the case if after a long time, the nucleated or eukaryotic cell had not emerged, which was much bigger and powerful than bacteria. The crucial question to ask, in this context, is: was this a case of design, intervention or chance?

An unbridgeable chasm exists in nature between bacteria and all other forms of life. Why that is the case is still an unsolved mystery in biology, but scientifsts are working on it. Where did the impetus come from to create cells-with-nucleus? Creationists love to exploit the complexity of the cell as "evidence" for design. Another big divide is between these one-celled organisms and complex life, which started off abundantly around the so-called Cambrian Explosion, about half a billion years ago. Again, what caused this explosion of complex life? Chance, environmental changes or divine intervention? Creationists are of course eager to chose the second option.

Fig. 2 - Possible moments of spiritual intervention exploited by creationists.

Is it possible at all to draw metaphysical conclusions from these empirical facts, or do they only exist in the eye of the beholder?

If this was a case of divine intervention, why did God wait so incredibly long to add a nucleus to some of the bacteria (who lack a nucleus)? Or if it was a case of up-front design, how can this possibly be realized (with a timer?)? Chance seems to be the more likely "explanation", as science has suggested that some bacteria entered another organism (possibly a microbe called archeae), or was engulfed but not digested by the latter and permanently stayed and multiplied inside this cell (endosymbiosis), and thus enabled the tiny cell to grow in size and capacities.

Yet again another threshold was crossed when primitive human beings started to develop language and culture. Some see this as evidence of a divine intervention or some kind of "third big bang" after the first two of matter and life. But is this really a believable option in our high tech days of space ships and artificial intelligence? Isn't it much more likely that a growth in brain volume and the evolution of the larynx made language and culture possible, with its immense possibilities for mutual cooperation and understanding?

Creationists often use statistical arguments to argue for a spiritual origin of life—Wilber is no exception here:

Calculations done by scientists from Fred Hoyle to F.B. Salisbury consistently show that twelve billion years isn't enough to produce even a single enzyme by chance. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 1995 ,p. 26)

But if it is implausible that DNA curled up spontaneously, how much more plausible is it that some unidentified and unspecified Cosmic Spirit produced the same result?

For the moment, I side with science 100% percent when it comes to solving this mystery of how we came to be, simply because "design" and "fine-tuning" are empty of content, when there is no possibility to specify how it would possibly work. I am fine with having no ultimate answers, and I doubt if those who claim to have them—both in religion and science—can point to any believable evidence. What is especially rewarding is that science almost on a daily basis presents us with interesting options to contemplate and real progress in our understanding is made.

Religious people already know the answers—they think—and can only argue about what science can't do (a favorite tactic of Ken Wilber). Science is trying to find these answers, and is always ready to admit its failures. A world of difference. It is sometimes countered that "science is a belief as well", but this overlooks this inherent element of fallibility.


[1] Frank Visser, "Ken Wilber's Creationism",, March 2019.

[2] John Perry, "The Fine-Tuning Argument for God",, August 6th, 2015.

Comments containing links will be moderated first, to avoid spam.

Comment Form is loading comments...