Read "Climbing the Stairway to Heaven", my 7-part review of Wilber's The Religion of Tomorrow (2017).
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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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‘Of Course it's Transcendent but also Immanent’

Ken Wilber's Evolutionary Theology

Frank Visser

You either postulate a supernatural source of which there are two types. One is a Platonic given and one is basically theological—a God or intelligent design—or you postulate Spirit as immanent—of course it's transcendent but also immanent—and it shows up as a self-transcending, self-organizing drive within evolution itself. And then evolution is Spirit's own unfolding. Not in super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain. —Ken Wilber
This is an interesting and even pertinent question within the context of Wilber's oeuvre, and not something that can be passed by lightly.

I have argued many times that Ken Wilber doesn't offer an evolutionary theory—contrary to his claims he even has "the only theory that can actually explain the mysteries of evolution satisfactorily"[1]—but an evolutionary theology. To drive this point home it is instructive to discuss the work of a theologian who has expressed similar (but also quite different) points of view. Arthur Peacocke, who was both a physical biochemist and an Anglican Priest, argued in his God and the New Biology[2] that "one should speak of the world, of nature, of all-that-is, as being 'in God', rather than of God as 'in the world'... the whole world takes on a new value and significance—not simply because it resulted in us, but because it is an expression of God in action..." (p. 129). The book is listed in the bibliography of SES.

Arthur Peacocke
Arthur Peacocke (1924-2006)

This ties in with Wilber's use of the phrase "evolution as Spirit-in-action", which is a theology pure and simple, notwithstanding any difference he may have with the fundamentalist creationists. Peacocke's work shows that one can have a theology that embraces most if not all of science and doesn't see God as something "in the world", but sees everything as existing "in God". As the quote from Wilber at the top of this essay shows, he makes a spurious distinction between theology (i.e. creationism or Intelligent Design) and his own more sophisticated view that a transcendent Spirit is immanent in nature and evolution, but we will show that this view shares the same problems and faces the same challenges as its fundamentalist cousin: how should we conceptualize the relationship between this God/Spirit and evolutionary processes?

This is an interesting and even pertinent question within the context of Wilber's oeuvre, and not something that can be passed by lightly or covered in video clips or footnotes. If there is such a Spirit behind everything—and therefore including evolution—what exactly does it mean for the processes we observe in nature and try to explain in science? Does it clarify anything to add such a transcendental dimension, or is it merely a religious attempt to stand up to science? Is Wilber, c.q. the integral community capable of reasoning about this, instead of getting defensive or even aggressive when these questions are raised?

‘There Is No Other Mechanism’

Peacocke's grasp of evolutionary science is much stronger than Wilber's. Compare for example Wilber's "The standard, glib, neo-Darwinian explanation of natural selection—absolutely nobody believes this anymore"[3] from Peacocke's: "There are different views about the rate and mechanism of evolution and some of these question inter alia the validity of Darwin's own belief that evolution occurred by the gradual, slow accumulation of change." (p. 34) Or compare Wilber's continous insistence that Darwinian evolution is merely based on chance (hence covering its ignorance about its real causes) to Peacocke's "Darwin regarded as 'natural' the selection effected by the environment operating on the spectrum of individual differences present in any biological population of a given species... changes he regarded as random with respect to the needs of the organism in relation to its environment." (p. 34) A solid and elementary understanding of what biologists understand as 'randomness' and not a hint of insinuating that they misunderstand or misapply that term.[4]

This doesn't mean evolutionary science knows everything about evolution now, far from it, but the foundation is there. Listen to Peacocke about where we stand now:

God and the New Biology
Again and again, the evolutionary hypothesis (if that is what we still prefer to call it) has survived the test of consistency with observations of a kind unthinkable even four decades ago when the 'modern synthesis' first emerged. This does not preclude controversy about the tempo of, mode of and constraints upon evolution, but it renders entirely reasonable our basing our philosophy and theology on what we can presume to be the 'fact' of evolution, including human evolution. (p. 38-9)
What of the mechanism of natural selection of the more rapidly procreating mutant forms through the mutual interplay of whole organisms and their environments? The neo-Darwinian 'modern synthesis' is extraordinarily powerful and represents an integration of a wide range of well-established and well-understood processes in genetics, molecular biology, population genetics, paleontology and ecololgy. There is no other mechanism for evolutionary change in living organisms that can remotely rival it in its comprehensiveness and cogency especially in view of our now sure knowledge of the prime role of the nucleic acids in the genome as the carriers of hereditary information from generation to generation." (p. 39)
That controversy should exist within neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology is not at all surprising in view of the quite amazing complexity of what appear superficially and phenomenologically to be the simplest biological processes and structures and their evolutionary history (p. 40)
These debates and controversies merit some description if only to indicate the continuimg fruitfulness, as with all good scientific theories, of Darwin's original insights and the range of questions about evolution still open, both within an evolutionary perspective and, more particularlly, with a neo-Darwinian interpretation of evolution. It will transpire that even proposed new mechanisms are usually regarded as additions to the modern synthesis rather than as alternatives to it. (p. 41)
Discussion of such developments and openness to them is a proper characteristic of any active science, but is frequently misunderstood by the popular and, more reprehensibly, the intellectually sophisticated media to represent, in this case, another attack on the status of the whole theory of evolution and of Darwin's explanation of the basic mechanism by which it occurred. I hope the foregoing account makes it clear that one can still regard the neo-Darwinian modern synthesis as the established core of the explanation of evolution while at the same time being open to new developments that, including it, yet go beyond it conceptually and empirically in order to encompass the many unsolved mysteries of the biological world. (p. 50)

Five times yes! Peacocke wrote in the mid-eighties of the last century, before the Extended (or "Post-Modern") Synthesis took off, but he captures admirably how we should situate current biological controveries within the standard Darwinian paradigm. Remember, Wilber, with his lazy scholarship, just quotes an obscure source (apparently with approval and implying a wider consensual agreement that simply doesn't exist) telling us "To the average biologist this sounds shocking, but the conclusion, of those whose specific field is the theory of scientific knowledge is straightforward, 'Darwin's theory . . . is on the verge of collapse.'"[5]

Rather than continuing to quote from Peacocke I just want to highlight how the integral discourse about the "integration of science and religion" could have started from a so much more solid reporting on science!

Rather than continuing to quote from Peacocke I just want to highlight how the integral discourse about the "integration of science and religion" could have started from a so much more solid reporting on and presentation of science! Peacocke in no way flirts with Intelligent Design a la Wilber to expose the "loopholes" of Neo-Darwinism so he can replace it with his own religious views.[6] He knows better.

Peacocke touches on many fields of science, one of which is relevant in the context of Wilber's reporting on science. When discussing the work of Ilya Prigogine he notes:

The work of Prigogine and Eigen and their collaborators now shows how subtle can be the interplay of chance and law (or necessity), of randomness and determinism, in the processes that lead to the emergence of living structures. These studies demonstrate that the mutual interplay of chance and law is in fact creative within time, for it is the combination of the two that which allows new forms to emerge and evolve... This interplay of chance and law appears now to be of a kind that makes it 'inevitable' both that living structures should emerge and that they should evolve—given the physical and chemical properties of the atomic and sub-atomic units in the universe we actually have. (p. 64)

Again, yes! This purely naturalistic attempt to explain the complexities of nature contrasts sharply with Wilber's claims that explanations of both the origin and evolution of life based on chance show they are highly improbable occurences, that require "something other than chance" to be invoked, such as his Eros-in-the-Kosmos or Spirit. Wilber even claims that Prigogine's groundbreaking (and Nobel Prize winning) discoveries supply evidence for exactly that hypothesis—in my opinion a highly questionable knowledge claim.[7]

‘An Ultimate Creative Reality’

In 2007 Peacocke won the Templeton Prize, which was originated in 1972 "to recognize discoveries that yielded new insights about religion especially through science." At the Templeton page devoted to Peacocke one finds this quote: "Science encourages us to go on asking "Why?" both in the ancient and perennial form of "Why is there anything at all?," which has evoked the postulate of an Ultimate Creative Reality that is the Source of all being and becoming." Given Peacocke's acceptance of the scientific approach to evolution, one wonders how he reconciled this with his Anglican religious beliefs.

Like many theologians before him (including Whitehead, who has had a strong influence on Wilber), Peacocke met the challenges posed by Darwinian science by reconceptualizing God. Instead of being just a Being divorced form his creation, process theologians see Him also as present in the processes of Becoming. And this includes evolution. He doesn't even object to being called a "materialist", as long as we understand that we still don't know exactly what matter is:

The whole sweep of cosmic evolution can be regarded as revealing, as the aeons unfold, that of which matter is capable when it adopts new forms of organisation... Each level of the development of the cosmos can, it appears, legitimately be regarded as a manifestation of the potentialities of matter which have been implicit in it from the beginning in its simplest forms and have only gradually unfolded...
There are good scientific grounds for stressing the continuity of the physical with the biological world, so perhaps the cosmic process may be described as 'materialistic', provided the term is understood in the light of this. However, the qualification of 'materialistic' just made may in the end be so drastic that some other less misleading term becomes necessary. For 'matter' appears to be far more suble and its potentialities far richer and more diverse than can be inferred from observations made at any single particular level of the development of the cosmos, especially the simplest and least complex. (p. 94)

But how to insert God into this fully naturalistic worldview? This is how a theologian's argument usually goes—involving a considerable amount of doublespeak. God is not so much the Creator (who created all things in the past once and for all) but, even if he is ultimately a transcendent Being, also the very creativity of the universe:

So, if we identify the creativity of the world with that of its Creator, we must emphasize that God is semper Creator, all the time creating—God's relation to the world is perennially and eternally that of Creator. But to speak thus is to recognize also that God is creating now and continuously in and through the inherent, inbuilt creativity of the natural order, both physical and biological—a creativity that is itself God in the process of creating. So we have to identify God's action with the processes themselves, as they are revealed by the physical and biological sciences, and this identification means we must stress more than ever God's immancence in the world...
In theological terms, God's immanent creative action in the world generates within the created order a being, the human being, who becomes self-aware, morally responsible, and capable of himself being creative and responding to God's presence. Thus the natural, biological and human worlds are not just the stage of God's action—they are in themselves a mode of God in action...
What we see in the world is the mode of God's creativity in the world." (p. 96)

At such a point in the discussion the lights go out with me. If God is identified with nature's processes, how do we distinguish between gravity and divine gravity, selection and divine selection, extinction and divine extinction (not to mention cancer and divine cancer)? We can't. Peacocke sees possibilities for God to express himself in the world through the processes of chance, which always go hand in hand with those of necessity. But this is inconstent: if God is in everything we see, he would be in the lawfulness of the world as well—and hence undistinguishable from an absent God.

But the reasoning is similar to that of Wilber, when he claims Spirit is both transcendent and immanent, and in his immanent aspect "the self-transcending, self-organizating drive in evolution."[8] But that very type of generic drive is altogether alien to the scientific view of evolution. How does it show itself in the phenomena we can observe? In some phenomena but not in others? Or in all phenomena?

You either postulate a supernatural source of which there are two types. One is a Platonic given and one is basically theological—a God or intelligent design—or you postulate Spirit as immanent—of course it's transcendent but also immanent—and it shows up as a self-transcending, self-organizing drive within evolution itself.[8] And then evolution is Spirit's own unfolding. Not in super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain.

Again, this is theological doublespeak, where Spirit is both transcendent and immanent, and evolutionary science is affirmed and denied at the same time—passing for deeper insight. Peacocke ends his book by adding that God is also "exploring" the possibilities nature offers (which he is himself?), which should explain the diversity of nature. On top of that, He also "suffers with creation and in the creative process" (p. 132) because we as free human beings might not always follow his purpose. We have left the fields of science here and entered that of theology.

In this and the last essay we discussed two religious authors (Peacocke and Ken Miller[9]), one a professional physical biochemist and one a professional cell biologist, who embraced the findings of evolutionary science without any reservation. At the same time, Wilber, who has never completed his PhD in biochemistry, and has never been a practicing scientist in these fields, claims to be on top of it and feels free to misrepresent and ridicule evolutionary theory at every occasion. He also sees the process of evolution itself as evidence for Spirit. He introduces an "intra-natural" Spirit into evolution, which no scientist will agree with. Calling Spirit "immanently natural" is doublespeak. Why not just deal with natural processes alone?

That is Ken Wilber's evolutionary theology. It has nothing to do with science. God and the New Biology ends with an 28-page appendix on on "Thermodynamics and Life"—to underscore Peacocke's expertise on this imported topic when it comes to the question how evolution is powered. Again, in sharp contrast to Wilber's appalling lack of the same, when he is throwing around book titles such as Prigogine's Order out of Chaos to make his points about Eros. "New Biology" these days is so much more than complexity science, fields both Peacocke and Wilber focus on (ranging from endosymbiosis, to epigenetics to evo-devo and much more). Science has moved on.

It is curious that in the eighties, Wilber was very stern on every New Age attempt to suggest that quantum physics had anything to do with Spirit (see his Quantum Questions[10]). Why does he take such a different stance when it comes to biology? Why would evolutionary biology need Spirit to explain its phenomena? Why not just respect and integrate the findings of his varied and ever progressing field? Invoking the Divine for every novelty we see emerging in evolution is not productive, anti-discovery and actually rather lazy. And yet, that's the refrain Wilber ends with when he quotes theologian Whitehead's phrase "the creative advance into novelty".[11]

But for Whitehead, he had what he called "three ultimates". These are three things that you have to have before you can even get a universe up and running. And one was... the first was just "the One", the next one was "the Many", and then the third one was, and that's so interesting, "the creative advance into novelty". and that's such a brilliant thing to say. Because this is inherent in the universe.


NOTES

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

[2] Arthur Peacocke, God and the New Biology, London, Dent & Sons, 1986.

[3] Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, Boulder, Shambhala, 1996, p. 22-3.

[4] Ken Wilber, "Re: Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution", www.kenwilber.com, December 04, 2007. See also: Frank Visser, "Why Self-Organization is Not a Cosmic Drive", www.integralworld.net, December 2017.

[5] Ken Wilber, Up from Eden, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981, p. 304. See also: David Lane, "Confused from Eden", www.integralworld.net, November 2019.

[6] Frank Visser, "The "Loopholes" of Neo-Darwinian Theory", www.integralworld.net, July 2018.

[7] Frank Visser, " Looking Closer at Ilya Prigogine", www.integralworld.net, August 2019.

[8] Ken Wilber, "Ken Responds to Recent Critics", www.kenwilber.com, 2006. The quote is from an audio file linked in this PDF to Integral Naked (now defunct), but can be accessed here.

[9] Frank Visser, "Ken Wilber's Anti-Evolution Evolutionism", www.integralworld.net, March 2020.

[10] Ken Wilber, Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists, Boulder, Shambhala, 1984.

[11] Frank Visser, "An absolutely obvious look at how evolution actually operates", www.integralworld.net, October 2018.

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Arthur Peacocke, formerly a biochemist and a member of the theology faculty at Oxford University, was honorary canon of Christ Church Cathedral at Oxford and a past winner of the Templeton Prize. (meaningoflife.tv)






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