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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.
SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY FRANK VISSER

Shakespeare
Ken Wilber: “There is no way in hell that the universe went from atoms to Shakespeare out of random stabs. This is an extraordinarily driven process.”

‘No Way in Hell’

Ken Wilber on the Naturalistic
Approach to Evolution

Frank Visser

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. —Ken Wilber[1]
The deepest problem with Wilber's dealings with science is that he plays the chance-card and the mystery-card.

I have criticized Ken Wilber in many essays on this website. Let me try to see the world from his shoes. Here's my take on Ken Wilber's experience and view of reality, in my own words:

Life is so mysterious and complex, it can't possibly be the result of mere chance. I see its evolution as evidence for a Spirit behind everything. This Spirit is not only the transcendent Ground of All Being, but is also active as an immanent force. Let's call it "Spirit-in-Action" or Eros. Not as a metaphysical force, but an intra-natural force. Something like Kauffman's "self-organization", or Prigogine's "order-out-of-chaos". Nothing special.

Just a slight tilt in the cosmos towards complexity and consciousness. The universe is not winding down; it is really winding up! Besides, I have meditated all my life and have contacted this Spirit myself. With my Eye of Spirit I can see Spirit is behind everything, both as Ground and Path. Science cannot grasp this vision, it sees everything as the result of chance alone. But some daring scientists go at least in the right direction.

I am paraphrasing of course, But there's a lot to unpack here.

neo-perENNIALIST SPECULATIONS

First, why would meditative experience have any bearing on external reality? With what right can we draw metaphysical conclusions from introspective experiences? Why would meditative states be equal to the World Ground, or connect us to the World Process? Apart from extreme hubris on the side of those making these knowledge claims, it is highly unlikely that we can draw such far-reaching conclusions from the most subtle human experiences. What if two meditators disagree on this topic? Is one of them not enlightened enough?

Wilber counts himself to the school of "neo-perennialism" (his term), meaning that where the old perennialsts (the ancient mystics) could contact the World Ground, they had no idea of the concept of evolution. It is only since a few centuries at most that we have some clear idea about how evolution proceeds, he believes.[2] But how could the Ancients have missed this fundamental fact of nature, if they were so enlightened? And do these neo-perennialists actually have an accurate understanding of evolution? I don't think so. They have an evolutionary theology, not a theory.

As a case in point, take Brad Reynolds' 3-part defense of Wilber (while, ironically, at the same time criticizing him because he "has possibly shown a weakness in presenting an adequate argument"):

Since Wilber sees with the Eye of Spirit, he is trying to indicate that the universe (of relative conditions, including biological evolution) is the abundant overflowing of the Absolute One Divine Reality (which is Unconditional). Thus, Wilber, in agreement with Whitehead, metaphorically says: “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.” Perhaps, IF Visser could see with the Eye of Spirit more adequately, he would be inclined to correct Wilber's misstatements with a more advanced articulation of the Integral Vision grounded in transpersonal awareness. Indeed, this would be the way out of this predicament: to examine the scientific understanding of biological evolution with an awareness of its divine condition too; we could use such an integral champion, even if Wilber has possibly shown a weakness in presenting an adequate argument.[3]

If, as Reynolds claims, Wilber does not present his Eros-in-the-Kosmos as a "force" in nature (which I contest) it is at least, apart from being its Ultimate Condition, a Mover or Attractor with real effects and consequences in the relative world. Otherwise, Spirit would not make any difference. It would not be informative to just say "Spirit is everything-that-is-arising", for that would include both growth and decay, evolution and entropy, the universe winding up and winding down. No, Wilber explicitly introduces his concept of Eros to explain how in cosmic and biological evolution things apparently seem to move in the direction of more complexity and consciousness. As such it is a knowledge claim that enters the domain of science, and has to deal with competing, and more empirically founded, concepts of evolution.

Wilber can't make his case based on his own spiritual status alone, so he deploys various strategies: (1) claim that science can't explain the complexities of nature, at least not fully, (2) claim some daring scientists support his view of a spiritual view of things, and (3) present his own view as a better, or even "the only" theory that can explain nature's complexities. All these strategies can easily backfire. What if (1) science can explain something after all? (2) these scientists turn out to undercut your spiritual views, by providing a naturalist explanation?, and (3) your own theory turns out to be mere mystical poetry, which raises more questions than it answers?

Let's take these strategies one by one.

1. Falsely claiming failures of science

Wilber has a long history of claiming—without providing references to research, or quotes, or anything specific to go by but his own authority–that science has failed (until now) to sufficiently explain something: the evolution of the eye, of the bird's wing, of the human immune system, the processes of speciation, of regeneration, of morphogenesis. Not showing the slightest acquaintance with population dynamics, he has ridiculed the theory speciation by natural selection (still the cornerstone of modern evolutionary biology, though difference of opinion exists as to its relative weight):

Female in Mexico, male in Siberia... how in God's name do we get them together, and all of those dozen or so mutations have to occur simultaneously, and non-lethally, and without even being tried... and that those are somehow going to get together... How? Not explained. How they come together in the first place, not explained.[3a]

And by stating that the scientific view of evolution is primarily a matter of "chance and randomness", he has displayed an abysmal understanding of evolutionary theory. From Talkorigins.org:

"The theory of evolution says that life originated, and evolution proceeds, by random chance."
There is probably no other statement which is a better indication that the arguer doesn't understand evolution. Chance certainly plays a large part in evolution, but this argument completely ignores the fundamental role of natural selection, and selection is the very opposite of chance.[3b]

He generally concludes these informal presentations with "science has no answer" or "nobody has a clue". Implying that he does have an answer and an explanation—but as it usually turns out, not a scientific one.

He has failed to stress that science, by definition, doesn't have final answers, but that science books progress every day and that the scientific method, as a collective effort, is the only reliable method of investigation we have. In contrast, making sweeping visionary or poetic statements about reality is not considered to be a reliable method. It looks like Wilber has no real affinity to any field of evolutionary science, and prefers to play his abstract classification games by presenting a meta-theory in which the various academic disciplines fit. This is fine as far as it goes, until he steps into a specific field of science, such as evolutionary biology, and makes empirical statements.

A much more productive approach would be, in my opinion, to closely follow the current developments in science and point to any directions that fruitful further research can take. So before one decides to "include" a field of science, it is perhaps a good idea to first deeply acquaint yourself with its landscape and developments. Otherwise "transcend-and-include" can very easily devolve into "transcend-and-distort".

2. Falsely claiming support from science

Another tactic of Wilber is to suggest—again, without providing references to research, or quotes, or anything specific to go by but his own authority–that science has confirmed some of his spiritual ideas about reality. This is a popular strategy among Vedic evolutionists, but on closer inspection it usually breaks down.[4] Contrary to science, they introduce a non-quantifiable and non-qualifiable spiritual factor (Brahman, Spirit, Eros, Mind, etc.) above and beyond the processes of nature. How this would work in practice is not clarified—nor can it be, by definition.

Wilber has claimed support or at least affinity to several famous scientists, such as Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine, theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman, but also of counter-cultural scientists like Rupert Sheldrake or even Indian gurus, such as Mahendra Kumar Trivedi. As for this latter person, Wilber boasted that

Mr. Trivedi has an empirically demonstrated capacity to alter the atomic and molecular structure of phenomena simply through his conscious intentionality. The number of experiments done on this capacity (known in Sanskrit as shaktipat) that have been done in coordination with Mr. Trivedi is quite extraordinary—so far, over 5,000 empirical studies by universities and scientific research organizations all over the world.[5]

And he prefaced this with special emphasis, using "science" or "scientific" several times:

What I am claiming—and supporting—is that Guruji's [Trivedi] capacity to conduct and transmit universal spiritual energy (or "shakti") is utterly remarkable, as proven by scientific experiments themselves. It is these direct, specific, scientific experiments and their results that I am reporting, and on which I am basing my endorsement. This is a scientific conclusion, not a spiritual one (although, of course, you are free to make those as well—but I am reporting the direct science, which is indeed astonishing).[5] (emphasis added)

Ken Wilber on Trivedi
Ken Wilber, "A Narrative on Guruji", www.kenwilber.com, June 21, 2010.

When it turned out Trivedi's results were highly questionable, Wilber withdrew this support, but it speaks to his gullibility that he wrote these glowing reviews in the first place. His blog post on www.kenwilber.com about Trivedi got removed.

As I have documented extensively elsewhere on Integral World, neither Prigogine's nor Kauffman's work provides direct support for Wilber's spiritual views. When pressed for some precision he more or less conceded that.

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.[6]

But in popular presentations, he continues to flirt with their support. So which is it?

Recently he has had a conversation with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, a group selectionist who is also an admirer of Teilhard de Chardin, and commented that Wilson is "comfortable" with his views. But in this online discussion between these two gentleman no evolutionary nuts were cracked and most of the time was spent on exploring the four quadrants.[7] Wilson told me that he was less interested in the theoretical issues he could have with Wilber than in the larger vision for society he presents.[8]

3. Falsely claiming superiority to science

If the previous two strategies don't work well, Wilber resorts to promoting his own "theory". Without further ado, in his latest work The Religion of Tomorrow (2017) he simply claims to have the best theory to explain evolution:

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.[9]

What does not occur to Wilber at all is that a theory usually clarifies a process by specifying steps or mechanisms, that produce the phenomena we observe. For example, we can explain why the wind blows by seeing that high and low pressure areas are produced by the solar influx of heat on the earth's atmosphere, and wind tends to move from high to low pressure areas. The rotation of the Earth adds more complexities to this, but all this can be worked out and understood. We don't explain the wind by postulating that it has blow-power or wind-power—and this is more or less the status of Wilber's theorizing efforts.

He is confusing the feelings of wonder which most if not all scientists feel when confronted with natures complexities, with the final explanation for it. Thus "wowing" his readers into a mysterious universe, full of inexplicable phenomena, which just "cry out for a spiritual explanation", is his favorite tactic. Replacing theory with poetry of vision or feelings is not going to work.

This leads to an ambiguous relationship to science. On the one hand he wants to include the widely accepted truths of the various fields of science into his meta-model. But on the other hand he wants to have the upper hand by being able to disclose a Spirit behind it all. He argues that the notion of Eros is needed to explain "at least part" of the complexities of nature:

Rather, there is a 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.[10]

Unfortunately, which part is explained by this "hypothesis" is never specified. Did Eros produce proto-wings and did natural selection take over from there? We are never told. Eros has zero explanatory power. The deepest problem with Wilber's dealings with science is that he plays the chance-card when reporting about science, and the mystery-card when presenting his own views. None of these are really helpful in clarifying "the complex forms that we see in evolution".

For Wilber, evolution is the main act of the cosmos, divinely driven and ultimately mysterious. For science, it is merely the magnificent by-product of various natural processes, such as entropy, variation and selection.

A DIFFERENT VIEW OF REALITY

"There is no way in hell", says Wilber, "that the universe went from atoms to Shakespeare out of random stabs." Fine. But nobody claims such a thing. Science is exploring the ways in which chance and necessity create complexity and consciousness. Wilber's literary efforts in that direction have been less than solid, given his chosen method of popular presentation, his tendency to exaggerate and his immunity to challenges.

The intellectual apathy of the integral community regarding questions of science only intensifies this problem, instead of providing a much needed corrective.

And, indeed, this is "an extraordinarily driven process". Not by mysterious forces outside the domain of science, but by energy gradients in the visible cosmos. For Wilber, evolution is the main act of the cosmos, divinely driven and ultimately mysterious.[11] For science, it is merely the magnificent by-product of various natural processes, such as entropy, variation and selection.

Nature is not pushed upwards by mysterious forces, but constructs higher forms of complexity on the foundation of older ones—like we build skyscrapers. We are therefore much more vulnerable and fragile then we ever thought, and can’t rely on cosmic help. This is my view of reality, inspired by science. It is a world I can live with.

NOTES

[1] The Guru and the Pandit [Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen], "Eros, Buddha, and the Spectrum of Love", EnlightenNext, nr. 47, 2011 (taken offline).

[2] Ken Wilber, The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad, Shambhala, 1997, p. 62-63.

[3] Brad Reynolds, "Real Integral vs. Fake Integral, Transcending-Yet-Including the Knowledge of Science, Part Two", www.integralworld.net, January 2019.

[3a] Ken Wilber, "Taking evolution into account", 2014, Fourth Turning Conference, video #4. Reposted on integrallife.com, December 19, 2017.

[3b] Mark Isaak, "Five Major Misconceptions about Evolution", www.talkorigins.org, updated October 1, 2003.

[4] Frank Visser, "Ken Wilber and Modern Vedic Evolutionism", www.integralworld.net, September 2019.

[5] Ken Wilber, "A Narrative on Guruji", www.kenwilber.com, June 21, 2010 (no longer accessible, but this blog post is still available from the Internet Archive).

See also: Andy Smith, "We All Wanna Change the World, A Scientific Analysis of the Claims of Mahendra Kumar Trivedi", www.integralworld.net, January 2014, which provides a critical review of these outrageous claims (by both Trivedi and Wilber).

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

[7] David Sloan Wilson and Ken Wilber, "Evolving a Multi-Cellular Society", www.integrallife.com, June 13, 2019.

[8] David Sloan Wilson, personal communication, Twittter.

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

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

[11] It is interesting to see how often Wilber uses creationist arguments to argue against neo-Darwinism. Here's a great overview, listing hundreds of claims, with references and detailed refutations:

Mark Isaak, "Index to Creationist Claims", www.talkorigins.org, updated 5 Nov 2006.

CODE CREATIONIST CLAIM USED BY WILBER
CA100.1. Evolution leaves lots of things unexplained.
CB010. The odds of life forming are incredibly small.
CB101. Most mutations are harmful.
CB200. Some systems are irreducibly complex.
CB301. The eye is too complex to have evolved.
CB340. Organs and organ systems would have been useless until all parts were in place.
CB420. Evolution does not explain art [Shakespeare].
CB610. The first individual of a new species would not find a mate.
CB902. Microevolution is distinct from macroevolution.
CB921.1. What use is half an eye?
CB921.2. What use is half a wing?
CF001. The second law of thermodynamics prohibits evolution.
CI009. Evidence for design disproves evolutionary mechanisms.






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