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, a psychologist of religion, founded in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.


Theories are

Reply to Salmon

Frank Visser

I am not saying Dawkins is the last word, but he is definitely the first. And if the first word is misspelled, all we are left with is ideology.

Don Salmon has contributed widely to Integral World in the past months (thanks Don!), both to the Reading Room and the online forum of this website. His essay "Shaving Science with Occam's Razor" generated a lively debate circling around the question: what if anything does science teach us about reality?, as the essay was subtitled. It's premise was stated as follows:

PREMISE: There are no scientific findings which preclude considering consciousness as a causal factor in the universe. Nor are there findings in any area of science—including quantum physics, parapsychology or near-death experience research—which require the consideration of consciousness as a causal factor (both of these statements are in regard to current scientific methodology).

One of the main conclusions of that essay was:

Rather than presenting us with reality, the most we can say is that scientists have classified, correlated, and ultimately, measured the data received by our senses.

I did not respond to that essay personally, because though it was well crafted and documented, it left me with the feeling: if science isn't able to bring us into contact with reality, what else can? Does that imply religion or spirituality is in a better position to achieve that goal? That is a case that has to be established separately and independently. True, atoms may in the end turn out not to exist as we thought, or quarks for that matter, but science provides us and keeps providing us with useful and testable fictions (models) about reality—can religion or spirituality trump that feat?

The words attributed to Occam are "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity" (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem). It's the "beyond necessity" clause that counts here. Does it help us in understanding the reality around us when we posit a consciousness behind the Sun? I don't think so. And behind evolution, as some followers of Lamarck would say? Perhaps, perhaps not, but unlikely. And within our own minds? Well, yes, that's where the phenomenon of consciousness is found in the first place.

True, the phenomenon of consciousness hasn't been explained in any believable way yet, but does that reallly warrant a sceptical attitude towards what science has to tell us about reality?

Evolution, again

In a recent contribution to IntegralWorld, "Ken Wilber's Evolutionary View Gets a Trim with Ockham's Razor", Salmon has turned his attention to the subject of evolutionary theory, a subject that has intensely engaged my mind for the past few years, especially within the context of Wilberian philosophy. Salmon writes in his opening paragraph:

Several writers in the world of Integral World have contributed criticisms of Ken Wilber's views on evolution, variously referring to these views as "creativism", as "a new form of creationism," or as just plain pseudo-scientific nonsense.

I'd like to offer some perspectives on the evolution of consciousness that do not—as far as I'm aware—conflict in any way with the mainstream scientific notions of evolution. However, they do, I think, suggest another way of looking at evolution.

Let me clarify up front what was my agenda, if you will, with publishing my essays on Wilber's views on evolution. What was denied, or challenged, was the view, as argued by Wilber on several occasions, that since evolution is a matter of mere chance according to science, and chance cannot deliver the goods of complexity, then something else—some spiritual force or Eros—must be behind the whole process at large to get evolution going. Dawkins has correctly pointed out that this is a case of faulty, creationist logic, for the simple reason that science explains evolution not by chance alone, but by chance-and-selection (see my "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered").

I am not saying Dawkins is the last word in evolutionary theory but he is definitely the first. And if the first word is misspelled, all we are left with is ideology and rhetoric about the supposed shortcomings of science. Premature conclusions about what drives evolution are the opposite of really engaging that particular field of science. And Ken Wilber fails to do exactly that in his writings on evolution. Nor has my challenge been countered by any voice from within the integral community, not even by those who have studied this field professionally.

Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould

Back to Salmon. He confesses that, being taught about evolution mostly by Stephen Jay Gould's popular writings, he was surprised to discover that some or even many biologists were not unwilling to argue that there is some form of progress in evolution. And even Gould, the arch-opponent of simplistic progressionist views of evolution—in which evolution is a process from simple beginnings to more complex beings, culminating in selfconscious human beings—is quoted by Robert Wright as having written:

"You might think that when he says progress is not a general evolutionary trend, he is saying that evolution doesn't tend to produce more and more complex forms of life over time. But he isn't. He concedes that the outer envelope of organic complexity may tend to rise—that 'the most complex creature may increase in elaboration through time.' Nor is he saying that the average complexity of all species shows no trend. 'Life's mean complexity may have increased,' he allows."

So, if even Gould is willing to acknowledge that evolution is progressive, the case seems to have been made conclusively. Or?

Looking up that quote from Gould in his book Full House (p. 170-1) immediately reverses the meaning of that statement:

All the earliest forms of life in the fossil record are prokaryotes—or loosely "bacteria". In fact, more than half the history of life is a tale of bacteria only. In terms of preservable anatomy, bacteria lie right next to the left wall of minimal conceivable complexity. Life therefore began with a bacterial mode. Life still maintains a bacterial mode in the same position. So it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be—that is, until the sun explodes and dooms the planet. How then, using the proper criterion of variation in life's full house, can we possibly argue that progress presents a central defining thrust to evolution if complexity's mode has never changed? (Life's mean complexity may have increased, but see chapter 4 about why means are inappropriate, and modes proper, as measures of central tendency in strongly skewed distributions). [emphasis added]

Means are notoriously sensitive to extreme values, while modes are not. This statistical distinction means that the greatest number of organisms are still bacteria, though some—and in fact very rare—organisms have evolved to higher complexity.

Incidentally, Wrights discussion of this particular topic is worth reading in full. The following remark is relevant to Wilber's quasi-mystical theory of Erotic evolution:

Okay. So in what sense doesn’t complexity tend to grow via natural selection?

For starters, a few species have gotten less complex through evolution. And many species have gone long periods with little if any growth in complexity. Bacteria showed up billions of years ago, and there’s a lot of them still around, evincing no aspiration to climb higher on the tree of life. This point is widely accepted by biologists, as is its upshot: that “orthogenesis”—some sort of mystical inner impetus toward higher complexity, pervading all of life—doesn’t exist. Surely Gould is saying more than this?

It doesn't help that Wilber has rephrased his mystical or superphysical Eros as an "intra-physical" principle behind evolution, for in both cases the boundaries of science are crossed.

So when biologists are asked if evolution is progressive, their answer is more often than not a qualified "yes". But it's precisely that qualification that counts. Salmon quotes Richard Dawkins from his book The Ancestor's Tale, where he turns to this issue of progress in evolution:

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins
"...I have long wondered whether the hectoring orthodoxy of contingency might have gone too far. My review of Gould's Full House [Human Chauvinism and Evolutionary Progress] (reprinted in A Devil's Chaplain) defended the popular notion of progress in evolution: not progress towards humanity—Darwin forfend!—but progress in directions that are at least predictable enough to justify the word. As I shall argue in a moment, the cumulative build-up of complex adaptations like eyes strongly suggest a version of progress—especially when coupled in imagination with of the wonderful products of convergent evolution." [emphasis added]

So there's still a wide gulf between the acknowledgement by biologists that progress has occurred in some respects and dimensions, and presenting a theory of evolution driven by Spirit and culminating in the glorious state of mankind.

All theories are confessions

If one feels that Spirit is needed to make the whole universe work and get evolution going in the first place—and this is the upshot of many of Ken Wilber's statements on this topic—it is more than likely that one studies the scientific literature with colored glasses, glosses over important discoveries and paints an unduly gloomy picture of the nihilistic world according to science. (To cure that, just read The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, Dawkins' latest book, written for children, and your fascination with science will return.)

The same, of course, goes for the opposite: currently my feeling is that more is gained by exploring the relative knowledge of science than by resorting to quasi-mystical views of evolution that lack any grounding in reality. What is more, that this spiritualist background actively prevents one from seeing what has been accomplished in this field so far—be it "endosymbiosis" (a field pioneered and championed by the late, "wonderfull, impossible" Lynn Margulis—if anything read "Gaia is a Tough Bitch"), "evo devo", or "epigenetics", to name some of the exciting new fields of study.

I confess.

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