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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

Essays on Bernardo Kastrup:
Part One | Part Two | Part Three

‘We don't know whether mutations are really random or not’

Reflections on Randomness
by Bernardo Kastrup

Frank Visser

At the end of my second essay on the philosophy of Bernardo Kastrup, a modern idealist philosopher, I added a video in which he gave his views on evolution by natural selection.[1] Since that's my favorite topic on Integral World since years (both from the perspective of science and that of various spiritual or creationist angles), I will comment on that video here in more detail. It is part of a series of videos called "Reflections and Meditations"[2], and this particular part is Episode 2, named "Meaningful Evolution". Though interviews never give an author's final view on a particular subject, I think Kastrup's answers are suggestive of his views on evolution.*

Kastrup: “I find it very hard to see the variety and richness of nature as the result of purely mechanical, blind processes.”

The interviewer raises five questions about evolution, and Kastrup briefly gives his opinion about them. Here's a paraphrased summary of this answers:

Five Question on Evolution for Bernardo Kastrup
QUESTION ANSWER
1. Do you believe in evolution by natural selection? There is enough evidence that speciation works through mutation and selection. But we don't know if mutation is really "random". We have no "randomness test", as it is called in information theory.
2. How would Darwinists react to your argument? Scientists would say we don't need a creative agency or telos in evolution, because mutation and selection explain everything. But "randomness" means nothing, just the absence of patterns.
3. Can evolution have a purpose? My hypothesis is that there is a creative agency in nature, that experiments, in iterative steps, in the laboratory of nature. Not a superior intelligence, but a process of emergence through feedback loops.
4. Why do scientists insist that evolution is the result of blind chance? They have to, because their materialistic paradigm requires them to believe this, although there is no evidence. Subjectively I would say: there is a pattern to mutations (even if there is no evidence for that either).
5. As the pinnacle of evolution, are we in a position to understand nature? Ironically, our brains have been optimized for seeing truth in whatever distorted or partial way that favors survival, not for understanding the truth as it is.

TWO DIFFERENT KINDS OF RANDOMNESS

Why is it, that these spiritual/idealistic authors somehow never seem to get the scientific understanding of evolution right?

Why is it, that these spiritual/idealistic authors somehow never seem to get the scientific understanding of evolution right? Evolutionary theory is most definitely not a theory of chance. The question "Why do scientists insist that evolution is the result of blind chance?" therefore betrays a deep (but common) misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. And secondly, biologists do not understand "randomness" in the way IT-professionals do. This is a huge source of confusion, especially when IT-professionals speak out on the plausibility of evolution by natural selection.

So let me repeat, lest we forget these fundamentals of evolutionary science:

  1. Evolution is not only a matter of blind chance but of random variation and non-random selection.
  2. Biologists use the concept of randomness in a very specific sense (different from IT-professionals).

To quote only a handful of evolutionary theorists about this "chance" issue:

It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work.
—Richard Dawkins
An author who says, 'I cannot believe that the eye evolved through a series of accidents,' documents that he or she simply does not understand the two-step nature of natural selection.
—Ernst Mayr
"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.
—Mark Isaac, Talkorigin.org

As to the second misunderstanding, Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick at Wired, argues against this informational notion of randomness—while at the same time missing its biological meaning by calling mutations "non-random" (in the informational sense):

"What is commonly called "random mutation" does not in fact occur in a mathematically random pattern. The process of genetic mutation is extremely complex, with multiple pathways, involving more than one system. Current research suggests most spontaneous mutations occur as errors in the repair process for damaged DNA. Neither the damage nor the errors in repair have been shown to be random in where they occur, how they occur, or when they occur. Rather, the idea that mutations are random is simply a widely held assumption by non-specialists and even many teachers of biology. There is no direct evidence for it.

On the contrary, there's much evidence that genetic mutation vary in patterns. For instance it is pretty much accepted that mutation rates increase or decrease as stress on the cells increases or decreases. These variable rates of mutation include mutations induced by stress from an organism's predators and competition, and as well as increased mutations brought on by environmental and epigenetic factors. Mutations have also been shown to have a higher chance of occurring near a place in DNA where mutations have already occurred, creating mutation hotspot clusters—a non-random pattern."[3]

So bear in mind that "randomness" in evolutionary theory has a very specific meaning: without purpose, without foresight, without intention, without taking the needs of the organism into account. In that sense, indeed: "blind".

As the wonderful Berkeley evolution website explains it:

Mutations are "random" in the sense that the sort of mutation that occurs cannot generally be predicted based upon the needs of the organism. However, this does not imply that all mutations are equally likely to occur or that mutations happen without any physical cause. Indeed, some regions of the genome are more likely to sustain mutations than others, and various physical causes (e.g., radiation) are known to cause particular types of mutations.[4]

Or take the invaluable Talkorigins website:

Another way to say this is just that the changes that get encoded in genes occur with no forethought to the eventual needs of the organism (or the species) that carries those genes. A gene change (for instance, a point mutation -- a mistake at a single locus of the genetic structure) may change in any way permitted by the laws of molecular biology, according to the specific causes at the time. This may result in a phenotypic change that may be better suited to current conditions than the others about at the time. However, it probably won't. So far as the local environment is concerned, the change is the result of a random process, a black box that isn't driven with reference to things going on at the level of the environment. It's not really random, of course, because it is the result of causal processes, but so far as natural selection is concerned, it may as well be.[5]

Two Different Kinds of Randomness
INFORMATIONAL BIOLOGICAL
Randomness is the absence of any pattern, order, combination or predictability in individual events. Randomness is the absence of any relationship to the current or future needs of the organism.

A Short-sighted Watchmaker?

Kastrup, being an IT professional, and not a biologist, understands "randomness" to mean: being without pattern. But as the above examples show: this is not the scientific understanding. He then tries to argue that we don't know if mutations are random in this (informational) sense, and this leaves the possibility open for a more mind-oriented alternative in which mutations are patterned, adaptive, intentional, or otherwise guided, because evolution "experiments in the laboratory of nature", in order to find or produce ever more complex forms of life.

In this he resembles the pro-science creationist Perry Marshall (not coincidentally, also an IT-professional!), whose Evolution 2.0 I reviewed on this website.[6] Marshall also suggests that some mutations are adaptive, especially in stressful situations. This is generally known as "natural genetic engineering". This is contested by more conventional biologists, who state that such situations only raise the frequency of mutations, not their nature (but again, without any relation to the actual needs of the organism). Beneficial mutations have more chance of being generated.

It is, as always, the basic difference in the understanding of evolution: do bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics because they actively respond to this challenge, or because unintended variation and selection can do the job? See, again, the Berkeley website about the crucial The Lederberg experiment, that helped to show that many mutations are random, not directed. That was the radicality of Darwin: you can get to species without a Spirit/Creator, or the individual intentions of organisms.

Kastrup clearly seems to understand evolution is a matter of both chance and selection, but he has doubts about the capacity of selection to carry the burden of diversity and complexity. He therefore questions the randomness of mutations, and speculates that mutations can be patterned, in some semi-intelligent way (how that works in detail we are not told in this video). He seems to suggest that (some, most, all?) mutations are intentional and adaptive, even at a very low level of intelligence (so he is not simply advocating a theistic version of Intelligent Design).

Perhaps he believes in, not a blind, but a short-sighted watchmaker? Definitely a telos.

Watchmaker, Norman Rockwell
‘What makes it tick?’
Norman Rockwell

Yet, he seems to fall in the trap of mistaking the scientific explanation of evolution as a chance-only explanation, when he states that "there is no evidence" for it. But for what? That evolution is only a matter of chance? Or that mutations are always random (in the informational sense)? When randomness is understood in the proper biological sense, the evidence for natural selection is overwhelmingly clear.

Playing the paradigm-card is a bit too easy, especially when fundamental concepts of evolutionary science are misrepresented. Let's not forget all of the major discoveries in the evolutionary field (symbiosis, epigenetics, horizontal gene transfer, phylogenetics, etc.) have been made by painstaking materialistic-reductionistic researchers over many decades. Idealist/spiritualist approaches have nothing more to offer than: "Yes, but there must be something else behind it all". There is a deep dishonesty in these approaches, because by definition they can't specify what that non-material creative or transcendental principle is doing amongst the processes of nature.

As to the supposed limitations of our brains to understand truth "as it is": this might apply to the micro-world of quantum physics or the macro-world of cosmology, but the meso-world in which you and I live might be exactly what we are evolved to understand, being biological organisms. And perhaps things are not so bad, because we can also come up with mathematics and logic, hardly evolutionary relevant spheres.

His suggestion that evolution is "experimenting in the laboratory of nature" is, incidentally, not so different from the famous expression of François Jacob, the reductionistic cell-biologist who spoke of evolution as "tinkering".[7] Jacob, of course, did not believe in any Mind-at-large operating in nature, as Kastrup does as a cosmic idealist. The huge advantage of the materialist-reductionist explanation of evolution is that it doesn't require any cosmic overhead to get all these processes done. The idea that evolution proceeds without any intervention of metaphysical agencies should therefore be fully explored, before we "give up" and invoke Spirit.

In my opinion, a more accurate understanding of evolution would state unambiguously that:

1. Mutations are random in the sense of "without purpose, without foresight, without intention" (the biological meaning).
2. Mutations are not random in the sense of: uncaused, or equally likely to happen (the computer meaning).
3. The biological variation caused by random mutations is the raw material selection has to work with.
4. Selection is decidedly non-random, only those mutations get selected that provide survival advantage in a given environment.
5. When mutation looks adaptive or intentional, this only seems to be the case, for it is due to a heightened mutation rate.

Ken Wilber on Random Mutations

Now truth be told, there is a rationality and decency in this interview with Kastrup, you will never encounter when Ken Wilber speaks about evolution or is interviewed on Integral Life. Kastrup clearly states where he differs with (his understanding of) the scientific approach, and concedes that his own theory is based on subjective feelings ("I find it very hard to see the variety and richness of nature as the result of purely mechanical, blind processes.") and that he has, in fact, no evidence for it. Wilber, in contrast, brushes aside the scientific picture of evolution in a few caricatures and brags to have "the only theory that can explain the mystery of evolution."[8]

As is well known, Wilber doesn't like the Darwinian story about how evolution works at all. He simply and repeatedly invokes an unspecified principle in nature—called "Eros" or "self-organization" or "a creative advance into novelty"—and links that principle explicitly to Indian-esoteric metaphysics, especially their views on involution and evolution. He also often creates a false dichotomy between chance on the one hand and complexity on the other, implying that science can only deal with chance, and "something else" is needed to explain complexity. Such as self-organization.

In an older 2007 blog post[9] Wilber even tried to make fun of the biological notion of randomness, in an email conversation with Alexander Astin, "one of the foremost scholars on higher education in the world", clearly demonstrating they did not understand it properly.[10] Both, too, opined that "random chance" is a meaningless concept, that covers up our ignorance of what is really going on during mutations. In this email exchange Astin explains his (statistical) understanding of randomness:

All of this brings to mind what I see as the Achilles Heel of the whole Evolution-Flatland position: the notion of "random" mutations. I've taught statistics for many years, and we use the term in a very specialized way, much like quantum theorists: We can't predict any given ("random") event, but in the aggregate a large number of such events leads to a very predictable result. But genetic mutations in the aggregate never produce anything as orderly as the normal curve. How is any whole organism or the totality of all living things a "predictable" event?

But here's the real problem for the geneticists: any statistician knows that the word "random" doesn't explain or account for anything. It simply describes a situation where the observer/investigator is unable to find any causal antecedent for the event in question. But SOMETHING must have caused it... When they embrace the concept of "random" mutations, then, many geneticists think they are somehow explaining something, but in fact they are implicitly admitting that "we don't have a clue as to why this particular mutation happened at this particular time."

Why the embattled Creationists haven't seized on this one is beyond me, since it leaves a huge hole in evolutionary theory.[9]

To which Wilber adds, on this blog post: "Yes, you have hit the nail on the head." Painful, indeed.

Notice the implicit support for the "embattled" creationists in this comment, as if they are surrounded by enemies. And also the proverbial "huge hole in evolutionary theory", which Wilber frequently mentions, without being able to either substantiate it or fill up that hole with a believable alternative theory. It is the same blog post in which he lamely retracted his absolutistic statements done in A Brief History of Everything (1996) about the impossibility that eyes and wings could have evolved by natural selection alone (replacing it with another candidate: the immune system).

Notice also the condescending mind-set with which criticism tends to be approached by Wilber & co.: "I'm sure you don't have either the time or the inclination to read much (or any) of his stuff [on Integral World] (neither do I), but I was curious about this particular one and checked it out." Hasn't improved since then, I am afraid. There is still no awareness that criticism needs to be taken seriously if Integral is ever to grow up beyond the level of merely disseminating trendy psycho-spiritual ideology.

Notice also the pretense of having expertise in this particular field: "every statistician knows...". Neither Wilber nor Astin (nor Kastrup) are evolutionary biologists, and yet they claim to know it all better than evolutionary science specialists.

To sum up: yes, statisticians and IT-professionals might use the concept of randomness "in a very specialized way", but this is precisely irrelevant when it comes to understanding biological evolution. As we have seen, "randomness" is not used by biologists to explain the precise workings of mutations, but to indicate that, whatever causes them, they are not related to the immediate or future needs of the organism.

And when the first step is wrong, the rest of the discussion becomes irrelevant.

NOTES

[1] I have written on Bernardo Kastrup in two recent essays:

[2] The series "Reflections and Meditations" (2012) can be found on YouTube:

  1. The Limits of Science
  2. Meaningful Evolution
  3. Real or Imagined?
  4. Reality as a Shared Dream
  5. The Mind and the Brain
  6. The Rise of Self-Reflection

[3] Kevin Kelly, "Fully Random Mutations" [What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?], www.edge.org, 2014.

[4] "Mutations are random", evolution.berkeley.edu.

[5] John Wilkins, "Evolution and Chance", www.talkorigins.org, April 17, 1997.

[6] Frank Visser, "Our DNA as Proof for God's Existence?, Review of Perry Marshall's "Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design", www.integralworld.net, January 2017.

[7] Francois Jacob, "Evolution and Tinkering", Science, 10 Jun 1977.

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

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.

Notice how Wilber is claiming to have a theory superior to science—except that it isn't a theory at all, but a theology.

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

[10] More on this defense by Wilber/Astin of his understanding of evolution:

ADDENDUM

*Kastrup referred his Facebook friends to this video, for a summary of his views on evolution: "For my own views on the subject [of evolution], check essay 4.6 (page 113) of my book 'Brief Peeks Beyond,' or a summarized version in this old video".

In Brief Peeks Beyond (2015) we read in paragraph 4.6 called "Darwinian evolution: an open door to purposefulness":

In this essay I will make the case that there is no convincing evidence that the mutations at the root of evolution are random, which opens up the possibility that evolution is a purposeful natural process.

And in an essay posted by him about this video, based on the video comments he got, he clarified his position as an "obvious possibility" and a "reasonable scenario", even though there is no evidence for it.[1]:

The first thing to highlight is that the main thrust of my argument is not a new hypothesis for the processes underlying genetic mutations, but, instead, to point out that there is no evidence for what neo-darwinists casually peddle as established truth: That the genetic mutations that get selected for—or not—by natural selection are random at origin; that is, entail no identifiable pattern. There is simply no evidence for this. In order to get such idea across, I contrast this with the obvious alternative possibility: That there is an underlying, as-of-yet undetected pattern in the mutations.... (bold emphasis added)
When we state that a process is 'random,' all we are stating is that we cannot identify a pattern in such process. This can say something about the process (i.e. it has no pattern) or about ourselves (i.e. we are not able to see the pattern). In the absence of objective evidence, it seems more appropriate to me that we remain cautious and state simply that, so far, we have been able to detect no pattern behind the genetic mutations at the basis of evolution, and that we currently do not see any strong-enough reason to believe there is one. This is accurate, cautious, fair, and leaves the appropriate doors open. To state—or worse, to teach in science classes in schools—that the mutations are random is, in a fundamental way, analogous to teaching religion: It's just a belief, no matter how reasonable and even necessary it may sound to neo-darwinist ears. (bold emphasis added)

Yet, in the absence of any evidence, he ventures an alternative hypothesis by adding Bohmian quantum physics to the mix:

The scenario here is one where a hypothetical, underlying intelligence interwoven in the fabric of the universe (or identical to the universe itself) is experimenting in the laboratory of nature, using natural selection as its evaluation function. In the process of experimentation, it does make many mistakes: Mutations that are useless or destructive are continuously tried out. But through such iterative trial-and-error, it learns and gets ever closer to its telos.

While the caution he displays in providing an alternative hypothesis is admirable, this amounts to a view of "guided mutation", based on a misunderstanding of the concept of randomness, as we have argued above. It is freely admitted by evolutionary biologists that mutations are non-random in the informational sense (but, as we have stressed, random in the biological sense).

But purposeful mutations is an entirely different matter.

NOTES

[1] Bernardo Kastrup, "Meaningful Evolution", www.bernardokastrup.com, July 15, 2012.



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