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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber



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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 150+ essays on this website.
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Ken Wilber and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

Frank Visser

Reification (also known as concretism, hypostatization, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete real event or physical entity.[1]

In all of Wilber's dealing with the topic of evolution he has had the habit of mixing poetry with science, resulting in a deep ambiguity about his intended meaning. Here's an example from Integral Spirituality, where he argues for the need to postulate an upward drive in the cosmos towards complexity and consciousness:

That drive—Eros by any other name—seems a perfectly realistic conclusion, given the facts of evolution as we understand them. Let's just say there is plenty of room for a Kosmos of Eros.[2]

Now, "Eros" is a poetic description that stands for attraction, love, passion, among other things, but "facts" belong to the world of science. So is Wilber offering a scientific theory here, or is he being poetic? Does he even notice the contradiction?

What is more, "drive" is an outdated concept even in psychology, but few philosophers would apply it to evolution or even the cosmos at large. Wilber does so without hesitation. Again, does he realize he is mixing language games here?

Similar examples can be multiplied with ease:

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.[3]

Here, he seems to offer an explanation for the emergence of complexity, it is "an extraordinarily driven process", but we are left in the dark as to its mechanism, within a largely evocative statement.

But Wilber definitely is after explanations:

The existence of evolution is doubted by few modern thinkers. What is not as obvious, or agreed upon, is the actual mechanism by which this rather miraculous evolution occurs. Fewer and fewer researchers believe that the standard neo-Darwinian explanation of chance mutations and natural selection are enough to provide a believable account. There is just too much novelty, creativity, and non-random elements in evolution, to pass it all off as chance.[4]

The neo-Darwinian explanation of chance and selection is questioned, and some sort of alternative is offered in the direction of "novelty" and "creativity", concepts he derived from Whitehead, the famous process-philosopher.

As Sean Hargens explained in an early essay posted on Integral World where he discusses Whitehead's critical reception by Wilber:

Creativity! That is the cosmic interval between matter and form. Creativity is the Ultimate Ground out of which matter emerges into form. This mysterious process of emergence is the driving force behind the Kosmos. Somehow, matter (and I will argue consciousness) is destined to organize itself into more and more complex forms...
It is not enough however, just to spot "emergence." After all, emergence does not explain anything; it only describes what in fact happens. The explanation, in Wilber's assessment, has to lie in something like Whitehead's notion of creativity. Creativity is seen as a feature of the Kosmos that accounts for emergence, but which itself cannot be accounted for. Wilber (1995) appeals to Eros and states, "Who knows, perhaps telos, perhaps Eros, moves the entire Kosmos, and God may indeed be an all-embracing chaotic attractor, acting as Whitehead said, throughout the world by gentle persuasion toward love?" (p. 78). Both Wilber and Whitehead agree that the Kosmos is driven by creativity and novelty and see evolution as the process of holons emerging hierarchically.[5]

Again, it is emphasized we should go for explanations, not just descriptions, but what we get is a mix of sciency concepts like attractors and evocative phrases like "gentle persuasion towards love".

This isn't going anywhere.

Yet, Wilber keeps insisting on this point that his spiritual view of the cosmos is superior to the standard neo-Darwinian explanations. From his latest book The Religion of Tomorrow:

But the notion of a prior involutionary force does much to help with the otherwise impenetrable puzzles of Darwinian evolution, which has tried, ever so un-successfully, to explain why dirt would get up and eventually start writing poetry. But the notion of evolution as Eros, or Spirit-in-action, performing, as Whitehead put it, throughout the world by gently persuasion toward love, goes a long way to explaining the inexorable unfolding from matter to bodies to minds to souls to Spirit's own Self-recognition.[5]

Yet again, we have Wilber here claiming the explanations of science fall short, but poetic notions of Eros and love are supposed to be more promising.

We get hints here and there about this drive behind evolution:

This seems to be the general overall thrust of evolution—and one of the things that is certain about it, is that it won't give up. It simply is there, with an extraordinary power, in the entire cosmos.[6]

So we learn that this drive behind evolution has a "general overall thrust", which is immediately personified ("it won't give up"), and it has "extraordinary power". Again, poetry takes over.

A somewhat longer quote, from the same video, "Taking evolution into account":

So what we are really have to backup and look at is the idea that somewhere in the cosmos, is it just a drive to fall apart? What we see as evolution moves—from dust to Shakespeare—is a winding up. There is some sort of force, of upper evolutionary drive, that is behind this extraordinary capacity that evolution has produced. Again, from quarks and strings and atoms, to you!
That is not a random process! There is no way in hell that is a random process. So one of the ways to talk about this is as "Spirit-in-action".
And so Spirit-in-action becomes the very means and mechanism whereby the manifest universe is manifested by Spirit. So what we have is an actual intermediate mechanism that helps us understand how something comes out of nothing. How this extraordinary, marvelous, unbelievably gorgeous universe has come into being. As Spirit-in-action, as an inherent self-organizing drive, as something that is vital, conscious, creative.
Whitehead said there are only three categories needed to get a universe going. One was the concept of "the One", one was "the Many", and the third was "the creative advance into novelty". And if you look at evolution on the whole, that is primarily what you see.[7]

“What we see as evolution moves—from dust to Shakespeare—is a winding up.”

The knowledge claims are clear: there is an unspecified drive in the cosmos, an "upward" evolutionary drive behind it all. And we are not just talking evolutionary biology, no, quarks and strings and atoms are involved as well!

And mark this well: this is all offered as "the very means and mechanism" in which an universe comes forth. It is even specified as "an actual intermediate mechanism that helps us understand how something comes out of nothing".

Wilber has a peculiar notion of what "understanding" means... Nothing is clarified.

A final example:

Modern science now believes that evolution touches essentially everything in existence (even though it is lagging behind theoretically on exactly how to explain this)...
You can even see evolution as driven by "Spirit-in-action," which I think is the only theory that can actually explain the mysteries of evolution satisfactorily.[8]

Read the intellectual pretense of that last sentence carefully, "the only theory that can actually explain the mysteries of evolution satisfactorily". And all this is claimed without ever having covered any current school of evolutionary thought in any of his voluminous writings. And it is science that is "lagging behind"?

Wilber just has "the only theory". And what is that theory? "Creativity" is an absolute category. It can't be explained any further. It is, in fact, Spirit, or God.

It is not even a theory.

No hint of a believable mechanism is offered; not even an "intermediate mechanism"—whatever that may be. The intellectual vacuity of Wilber's proposals regarding evolution and how it can best be understood is stunning. It is only matched by his frequent insistence that he is on top of that particular field of science.

WHITEHEAD'S ‘MISPLACED CONCRETENESS’

Alfred North Whitehead is known as an exponent of process philosophy, a highly abstract field which has few adherents these days. But Wilber has found inspiration in Whiteheads writings, especially when it comes to explaining the "creative advance into novelty" that supposedly is a basic feature of reality. Whitehead's work was taken up by Charles Hartshorne, and in turn by David Ray Griffin, with whom Wilber has even corresponded about what he saw as some shortcomings of Whitehead's philosophy.[5]

Here's a general description of what this process philosophy amounts to:

Process philosophy—also ontology of becoming, processism, or philosophy of organism—identifies metaphysical reality with change. In opposition to the classical model of change as illusory (as argued by Parmenides) or accidental (as argued by Aristotle), process philosophy regards change as the cornerstone of reality—the cornerstone of being thought of as becoming.[9]
A.N. Whitehead
A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947)

I won't go into the intricacies of Whitehead's philosophy here, but one thing struck me as relevant while consulting online sources about him. He came up with the expression "fallacy of misplaced concreteness".[9a] Now, within Whitehead's philosophy this has a very specific meaning. My take: we take objects like the sun and the moon to be permanent, but in fact they have a life cycle, even if a very long one. It would be more true to see them as processes of origin and decay. In that sense, seeing them as solid objects is a fallacy.

However, Charles Darwin's contribution was exactly that: to expose the fallacy of seeing species as immutable and fixed. Instead, in his On the Origin of Species (1859) he suggested that species had evolved... from earlier species. To believe in immutable species is called "essentialism", another fallacy that evolutionary theory dispensed with. There was a time when dogs were not dogs, but wolves. There was a time when we humans weren't humans yet, but apes (which, technically, we still are).

The fallacy of misplaced concreteness can also, I believe, be interpreted as the human tendency to take abstractions to be real things that can be causally effective. The fact that we have the word "soul" doesn't mean there is a soul, or the word "consciousness" doesn't imply (much less prove!) that there is such a thing as consciousness. We can call it a "misplaced realism". And the frequent use of "Eros" by Wilber might convince his readers that there is such a "thing" operative in nature, even with great power! But we should be really, really careful with these reifications.

Still another area where we should be on guard for the danger of reifications is where meditative experiences are used to make metaphysical and especially categorical statements about the World Ground or even world processes such as evolution. Why would stilling the mind make us an expert in that field? Wilber can eloquently speak about the here-and-now moment being "beyond space" and "beyond time", and therefore qualifiable as "infinity" and "eternity", but several epistemological bridges are naively crossed that way without any reservations.[10]

And coming up with the word "Eros" doesn't imply, nor prove, that there is such a Force in nature, much less that it does what it is supposed to do in Wilber's vision: create complexity and consciousness. Much less should we follow Wilber in his argument that the fact of evolution as such is "more evidence for creative Eros":

Rational reasons to believe in this miraculous spiritual dimension to Reality include the following; (a) the "creative advance into novelty" that is demonstrated by evolution itself and is inexplicable by mere "chance mutation" (the evolution from strings to quarks to subatomic particles to atoms to small molecules to massively interconnected molecules to asexual cells and early organisms—just for starters—is an awful lot of evolution in a universe that is supposed to be "running down" but can easily be seen as yet more evidence of creative Eros or Spirit-in-action, "a self-organizing self-transcendent drive," as Erich Jantsch put it)[11]

Again, we should resist these easy proclamations covering many fields of science, when no attempt has been made to really get acquainted with these fields. Even more so when it is apodictically proclaimed that evolutionary novelty is "inexplicable" by scientific principles, and that the suggested spiritual alternative explanation is more or less self-evident ("can easily be seen").

I have never seen such appalling intellectual laziness. From a world famous philosopher we should expect more.

‘an extraordinarily driven process.’

One last thing I would like to distill from Wilber's statements regarding evolution, even if they are scientifically useless. It illustrates in my opinion why his views can never be seen as scientific. Wilber has argued that even matter has an "inherent drive" towards complexity. As he phrased it recently:

That's why Prigogine, Nobelprizewinner in 1967 or so... the research he did demonstrated absolutely beyond a shadow of doubt, that even dead and insentient matter, if you push it far from equilibrium, it will escape its turmoil by jumping to a higher level of self-organization. Matter does that inherently! That is built in to it! You don't have to do something special, a funky thing to get it up and running.
And of course we would say, the four quadrants are there from the beginning, everything has an outside and an inside, and there's an individual and collective, and in particular you have these interiors and exteriors, and there's an Eros, it is driven upwards, that is active in basically any holon in existence. Including dead and insentient matter![12]

Science agrees that evolution and life itself is driven, but not by unspecified forces inherent in matter. They are fuelled by energy coming form our sun, which gets captured by molecules in living organisms to build structure. So instead of looking for inherent drives in matter, it looks for energy flows through matter, resulting in structure and complexity. And where Wilber can only explain his insights using poetry, science replaces this with theory. It can specify under which conditions complexity arises and under which conditions it will fail to do so.

But what about the use of metaphors in science?, one can legitimately ask. Isn't "natural selection" precisely such a metaphor as "Eros", since there is no real Selector in nature? Again the difference is vast. Eros as metaphor doesn't bring us any closer to actual mechanisms (notwithstanding Wilber's claims about the "intermediate mechanisms" he proposes) evolution works with. Natural selection stands for a body of arguments that closely mirror empirical processes: population growth, scarcity of food, natural variation, genetic inheritance, survival of the fittest, etc.

The concept of Eros does not have that empirical grounding. What processes can be explained by Eros? There isn't even the beginning in Wilber's work of such an explanation. Thus, a theory of everything ends up explaining nothing at all.

When Wilber quotes a celebrity from science, it is often in an attempt to bolster his own spiritual views, even if they are never shared by them. And in the case of Prigogine he mistakenly assumes his work supports his views, because Prigogine knows fully well that order out of chaos will only arise under the proper energy conditions. Wilber should be much more explicit that he gives a certain interpretation of Nobel Prize winning scientific work being done, without claiming that his own interpretation proves something "absolutely beyond a shadow of doubt". This is silly rhetoric that can only impress the science-illiterates.

I can only agree with Scott Parker when he writes on Wilber: "His flattery of the fields of scholarship is a cheap insult to the real scholars: they are recognized insofar as they fit his view."[13] Even if, in the case of Ilya Prigogine, they don't even fit his view.

Even so, both the Wilberian and the scientific views of life are dynamic, process-oriented, "extraordinarily driven" in a fundamental sense. But the difference is vast. Wilber's processes are driven by Spirit, which works in the dark and unseen. Science's drives work in broad daylight, they are the external energy flows and molecular processes that can and have been measured and observed. Wilber wants the cosmos to go upward, where science holds the opposite view: the cosmos slowly cools and expands into a downward process.

WILBER SCIENCE
UPWARD (EROS)
occasionally downward (entropy)
DOWNWARD (ENTROPY)
occasionally upward (life)
INTERNAL DRIVE
inherently present in matter
EXTERNAL DRIVE
energy flows through matter
METAPHYSICAL
even though minimalistic
NATURALISTIC
but not yet final answers
Differences between Wilber's view of life and that of science.

For Wilber, the growth to complexity is the rule, and decay and entropy the exception. For science, life is the exception, in a universe that winds down and cools. For Wilber, life is miraculous, driven by forces he can't and will never specify. For science, life can in principle be explained, though it is still far from attaining that goal.

But even so, in the science view, complexity still can emerge when energy gradients are captured. And while there is no evidence whatsoever for a cosmic upward drive—least of all does the process of evolution itself provide such evidence—there is abundant scientific evidence for the Second Law and the role played by energy gradients in the emergence of complexity.[14]

That is a paradox Ken Wilber still has to come to terms with.

NOTES

[1] "Reification", Wikipedia.

[2] Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality, Shambhala, 2006: 236n.

[3] EnlightenNext, nr. 47, 2011. "The Cosmic Dimensions of Love".

[4] Ken Wilber, Introduction video "How to Manifest a Universe", keynote presentation by Ken Wilber at the 2012 Integral Spiritual Experience "Kosmic Creativity" conference, May 27, 2014 (members only).

[5] Sean Hargens, "Integrating Whitehead", www.integralworld.net, April 2001.

[6] Ken Wilber, "Taking evolution into account", 2014, Fourth Turning Conference, video #4. Reposted on integrallife.com, December 19, 2017

[7] For a longer commentary from my side, see: Frank Visser, "Ken Wilber on the Power behind Evolution, Casting Doubt on the Contributions of Neo-Darwinism Is a Dishonest Creationist Strategy", www.integralworld.net,

[8] Ken Wilber, The Religion of Tomorrow, Shambhala, 2017, p. 14.

[9] "Process philosophy", Wikipedia.

[9a] A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Free Press (Simon & Schuster), (1925) 1997, p. 51.

[10] See: Tim Freke, "Tim Freke & Ken Wilber Discussion | What is Life?", www.youtube.com, 12 Jul 2019.

[11] Ken Wilber, The Religion of Tomorrow, Shambhala, 2017, p. 498.

[12] Ken Wilber and Corey De Vos, "Kosmos: An Integral Voyage", www.integrallife.com, July 16, 2019.

[13] Scott Parker, "The Case of Wilber", www.integralworld.net, January 2018.

[14] Frank Visser, "Eros in the Kosmos", Mechanism, Metaphor or Something Else?", www.integralworld.net, September 2017.





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