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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 175+ essays on this website.

science and religion

On Having It Both Ways

A Reply to John White

Frank Visser

This, I believe, is where an "enlightened" view of evolution fails to deliver the goods.

John White, former literary agent of Ken Wilber and author in his own right, sent me the chapter "Evolution: An Enlightened View" from his book in progress Introduction to Enlightenment 101.[1] He had been in contact with Brad Reynolds, who has written on this topic for Integral World himself[2], and who forwarded him to Integral World. Both White and Reynolds defend a Wilber-inspired spiritual view of evolution. I have recently published a longread criticizing this point of view systematically and extensively.[3] Since the chances that Wilber will respond to this critique are close to zero, I am always pleased to engage those who defend him in this debate. And since White's chapter is concise, I will try to be as concise as possible to formulate my objections. So this will be a shortread.

Both Reynolds and White reject the mythic-creationist view, in which some Deity creates species and the cosmos at large. However, they consider the rational-scientific view to be good as far as it goes, but essentially incomplete and in need of being transcended by a mystic-spiritual or perennialist vision. There's a stage-like succession here: in the past everybody embraced the mythic tenets of his or her local religion, in the present the scientific worldview as replaced this religious and metaphysical ideas (at least in the more developed and educated cultures around the world), but in the future we need a still wider outlook on reality, including Spirit. Not as a Deity but as the Ground of All Being. And where science is superior to mythic-religion, this mystic spirituality is again superior to science. I think that summarizes their point of view very well.

In an earlier essay "Demystifying Evolution" I used the following table[4]:

Species have been created by God All species have a common ancestor Evolution is driven by Spirit/Love/Eros

In my understanding, the integral-mystical view doesn't escape the weaknesses of the creationist position. It doesn't matter if one's religious view is crude or sophisticated: in both cases non-empirical factors are introduced into the scientific debate, which can in principle never be verified. Nor do they provide any real explanation or clarification or specification of the evolutionary processes observed by science. Whoever tries to "integrate" science and religion wants to have it both ways. Evolution is true but yet Spirit/God plays some kind of unspecified role in it. This is usually called "evolutionary theology" or "theistic evolution", or as White prefers "evolutionary spirituality". But, species have either been created or evolved—tertium non datur I would say.

In my opinion, two different versions of this integral-perennialist view are possible. Spirit is either intrinsic to the cosmos, as the ground of everything that is, or it is something that occasionally intervenes in the processes of nature. This is how Reynolds summarized (and commented upon) my point of view.[5]

Visser absolutely does not like “Spirit” or anything other than measurable physical forces to be responsible for our universe. Thus Visser suggests two variants on what he sees as the error of seeing with the Eye of Spirit—actually based on his misinterpretations:
(1) That there is a “spiritual force of energy”—in other words, some kind of physical force—that somehow “occasionally intervenes in evolution.” Yet, this view is misreading what is being suggested by a genuine transpersonal or spiritual perspective. Granted, it is a valid critique of what “creationists” or traditional religious people who support “Divine Intelligence” theories, etc. suggest through symbolic metaphor that there is a Deity-God who has his or her hand on how creation goes, even if much of Nature is proceeding by natural selection; but this is not Wilber's view nor that of a true Integral Vision. Hence, Visser asserts an alternative, and more accurate representation of what is being hinted at:
(2) That this “spiritual force” is “conceived” to be “intrinsic to evolution or the cosmos at large” (in Visser's words). Yet seeing “Spirit-in-action” or the manifesting action of the Divine Reality as “creating,” actually, more like blossoming or issuing forth a vast psycho-physical universe (or pluridimensional Kosmos), is simply a way to articulate in words that the Nondual Godhead is ultimately responsible for our universe and human existence. These are not ideas or theories being proposed from advanced philosophies, mental hypothesizing, personal beliefs, or found in written texts, but rather they are spiritual revelations gained from the mode of knowing that arises when the Eye of Spirit is opened and Real God is known for real, in truth.

It is interesting that two Wilber scholars differ so much on their interpretation of Wilber's spiritual view of evolution. In my interpretation Wilber's view is #1, because again and again he presents Spirit/Eros as someting that fights against chance, entropy, degeneration and is the force behind all evolution towards complexity and consciousness. It is his "neo-perennialism" as I have explained in my longread. It is a dynamic view of Spirit, not a traditionally static one. Reynolds leans more towards #2, in which "Nondual Godheid is ultimately responsible for our universe and human existence." Where he concedes that Wilber sometimes seems to support #1, he sees this as a temporary lapse, which should be corrected (for which he applauds my efforts). Where he seems to support #2, I see this as an empty knowledge claim: if Spirit is behind both evolution and degeneration, what difference does it make to postulate Spirit? How would we notice its absence or presence?

Let's see how White has handled this ambiguity in Wilber's writings.

On the basis of my reason, research and personal experience with enlightenment traditions, I reject the part which prohibits supernaturalism. From the perspective of enlightenment, all is divine and everything in the cosmos is the work or play of God the Creator-Spirit—what America's founders, in the Declaration of Independence, called "nature's God." Nature is God in material form; God or what might be called Supernature infuses and pervades all of nature.
That means evolution is a divinely driven process by which God as Spirit expresses itself through the production of evermore complex forms. Natural processes are really acts of God. The process of change in nature from a lower, simpler or worse state to a higher, more complex, better state (which is how Mr. Webster defines evolution) does not happen because blind forces and random events propel it on the basis of mere chance. They happen because God wills it intelligently, creatively and lawfully—that is, according to first principles and laws.
Science has recognized some of the laws of the cosmos, but has not yet recognized the lawmaker. God is the motive force of evolution. God is the origin-source of all life. God is the creator-artist behind the entire panorama of the cosmos. Yet God is not a mythic deity or anthropomorphic figure. God is the Ultimate Reality of all existence, which is Consciousness, and thus the sages say it is infused with intelligence.

He seems to combine two notions here: "God or what might be called Supernature infuses and pervades all of nature" and "God as Spirit expresses itself through the production of evermore complex forms". In this second view "God is the motive force of evolution." So God as the Lawmaker can have two meanings: in the deistic sense of Someone who has set up a bunch of laws that from then on run its course, or an active and involved divinity which actually makes a difference in the real world. To split some metaphysical hairs: a Creator-Artist is different from an Ultimate Reality.

White even borrows the notion of "special creations" form the creationists, at least those who have more or less come to accept the facts of evolution as a gradual growth in complexity (however we want to explain this process).

I have no problem with that creationist claim [of occasional special creations]. From my perspective, it doesn't matter whether the various human species were natural mutations or special creations. There is another view which allows that. Specifically, it says that evolution is divinely initiated, divinely guided and divinely destined. God is the motive force of all history, including evolutionary history. So evolution is really another mode of God's action in nature. That does not change, whether Darwin is ultimately proven right or wrong, i.e., whether natural selection, mutation or special creation eventually supplies the mechanism by which new species arrive on scene. From the point of view of enlightenment, science's godless chance "mutation" is actually God's "special creation" occurring through processes which simply are not yet fully perceived and understood by science.

But really, one can't have it both ways. Either human beings evolved from apes through mutation and selection (which was the view of Charles Darwin), or they emerged as a special creation (which was the view of Alfred R. Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, later in his life). Either evolution is guided or it is unguided. What could it possibly mean that natural laws and processes are actually divine interventions and intentions? Is God also behind gravity, cancer, entropy, AIDS, Covid-19, mass extinctions or global warming?

This sums up White's view of spiritual evolution perfectly:

Enlightenment sees the paradoxical coexistence of both perspectives: Spirit in action, working through the laws of nature as science comes to understand them.
Introduction to Enlightenment 101

In my opinion this is an awkward compromise between the scientific and the religions view of evolution. There have been millions of species, were they all special creations? Or are only the "major transformations of evolution" due to such a divine intervention? Incidental bursts of "creativity" perhaps, such as the Cambrian Explosion (a favorite example of the creationists)? Or is the Divine just some generic push behind all living beings that urges them towards complexity and consciousness? More or less like Wilber's "Eros in the Kosmos" notion? Then why didn't all fish go on land, or why didn't all apes leave the trees? Why did only a minority of species evolve? And if there is really such a generic drive, why is that so impotent on the Moon or Pluto? Why does it need very special conditions—"Goldilocks conditions"—to be effective at all? The list of basically unanswerable questions is endless.

This, I believe, is where an "enlightened" view of evolution fails to deliver the goods. What do we gain by adding Spirit to the equation (either as occasionally intervening or permanently pervading everything)? If that explains the "why" of evolution, as White claims, in contrast to the "how" of evolution that science studies—a claim Wilber also has made on several occasions—aren't we presented here with just another myth, however lofty and sophisticated? It has been claimed that to see the truth of this you need to be enlightened or have your Eye of Spirit opened. In that case, Spirit is just in the Eye of the Beholder. That does not mean it is without value. It is an uplifting view capable of providing meaning in an otherwise meaningless world, but it adds next to nothing to our understanding of evolution.

A static Spirit makes no difference; a dynamic Spirit is scientifically meaningless.


[1] John White, "Evolution: An Enlightened View", www.integralworld.net, September 2020. An introduction to this book can be found on Amazon.

[2] Brad Reynolds, "Integral Evolution: A Neo-Perennial Philosophy", www.integralworld.net, November 2019, and many other essays.

[3] Frank Visser, "Ken Wilber's Problematic Relationship to Science", Integral Review, vol. 16, nr. 2, August 2020.

[4] Frank Visser, "Demystifying Evolution: How do Creationism, Darwinism and Integralism Compare?", www.integralworld.net, March 2015. (Check out that essay for the famous debate between creationist Ken Ham and "science guy" Bill Nye!)

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

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