An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

powered by TinyLetter
Today is:
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
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.



And Some Sobering Comments

Frank Visser

But then again, it seems to me that the integral field has long ago lost interest in science. All effort goes into the spreading of an integral ideology.

One of the favorite theories of Ken Wilber, voiced on many occasions, is that Love makes the world go 'round, from the origin of the Kosmos to the evolution of life on Earth. For example, the past "Integral Spirituality Experience" Conference on "The Future of Love" was announced on the Integral Life website (June 9, 2010) with the following introductory text ("Love and Evolution"):

In preparation for this year's Integral Spiritual Experience conference on The Future of Love, Ken offered us some of his own thoughts on the topic—but in order to uncover love's future, Ken decided to explore love's past. In fact, he looks all the way back to the Big Bang, retracing love's role throughout the history of evolution. Rather than just a mere human emotion, love is cast as a central driving force in the Kosmos—the force of Eros itself, pushing all of us along our inevitable return to Spirit.

Love was here long before we were. It was here when this universe first exploded into existence. It was here when atoms first began to form molecules. It was here when those molecules first began to form cells. It's been here every step of the way—in fact, love is so fundamentally woven into the fabric of this universe that some even posit it as the fifth elementary force in the universe: the force of self-organization through self transcendence.

Inspiring and compelling as these narratives might be—and disregarding for the moment the grandiosity of musing about a fifth force—they are far removed from the much more sober, but no less exciting insights of science. For one thing, cosmic cooling and the fundamental force of gravity, followed by local and intensely hot pockets of star-formation, go a long way in explaining the origin of solar systems and planets.

I would like to call this disconnectedness from science and the spirit of scientific debate "integral inflation"—or "intoxication" if you will—the tendency to generalize from something that might or might not be true for us human beings, such as the human emotion of love, to evolutionary or even cosmic proportions.

But then again, it seems to me that the integral field has long ago lost interest in science. All effort goes into the spreading of an integral ideology. My critical 2010 Integral Theory Conference paper on Wilber's mistaken views on evolution has not received any response from integral corners. Not one.[1]


And exceptions only prove the rule—local conditions should not be seen as paradigmatic for the cosmos as a whole.

Though life on Earth may present a spectacle suggestive of an upward trend towards higher consciousness, the cosmos at large is definitely under the sway of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that, in the end, the cosmos will cool down in an unavoidable "heat death". Energy tends to be dissipated. Everything burns up. Therefore, as this is sometimes expressed, on the whole, disorder will increase and order will decrease.

Please bear in mind that "disorder" in this context does not mean chaos, but the absence of any order. It is a state of perfect equilibrium. However, there can, under special circumstances, be local exceptions to this general rule. And that's an important distinction: exceptions only prove the rule—local conditions should not be seen as paradigmatic for the cosmos as a whole.

The terms "entropy" and "negentropy", its opposite, are often used in this context. This is a deep subject, but in general it can be said that entropy is a measure for equilibrium, homogenization or dissipation. Says Wikipedia:

Entropy is the thermodynamic property toward equilibrium/average/ homogenization/dissipation: hotter, more dynamic areas of a system lose heat/energy while cooler areas (e.g., space) get warmer / gain energy; molecules of a solvent or gas tend to evenly distribute; material objects wear out; organisms die; the universe is cooling down. In the observable universe, entropy - like time - runs in one direction only (it is not a reversible process).

Not a favorite topic in the integral literature, that centers on an onward and upward growth in consciousness and culture, driven by Spirit or Eros...[2]

Sometimes, that "minor detail" about the fate of the universe is conceded by integralists, but quickly contrasted with the apparent upward trend of life on earth, suggesting there are at least two major Forces at play (could they be called Thanatos and Eros?). And yes, on planet Earth, evolution seems to defy the laws of entropy: order seems to increase, not decrease. As it is sometimes expressed: life feeds on negative entropy ("negentropy"). How can this anomaly be explained? Is anything transcendental or spiritual going on here?

Seldom, if ever, do we hear from integralists about the simple fact that the laws of entropy are true only for closed systems. And our Earth is not closed in that way at all: the Earth is an open sytem. The Sun keeps pouring energy on the Earth's surface every second of our lives.

That changes everything.

As usual,, an online repository about questions related to Darwinism, admirably clears up that misunderstanding:

The Sun
The sun provides more than enough
energy to drive things.
However, they neglect the fact that life is not a closed system. The sun provides more than enough energy to drive things. If a mature tomato plant can have more usable energy than the seed it grew from, why should anyone expect that the next generation of tomatoes can't have more usable energy still? Creationists sometimes try to get around this by claiming that the information carried by living things lets them create order. However, not only is life irrelevant to the 2nd law, but order from disorder is common in nonliving systems, too. Snowflakes, sand dunes, tornadoes, stalactites, graded river beds, and lightning are just a few examples of order coming from disorder in nature; none require an intelligent program to achieve that order. In any nontrivial system with lots of energy flowing through it, you are almost certain to find order arising somewhere in the system. If order from disorder is supposed to violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics, why is it ubiquitous in nature?

So we should be careful not to invoke cosmic forces to explain life's complexity too soon—if at all. That's a simple principle of economy in science.

Indeed, a good way to illustrate the meaning of entropy, order and disorder is the weather system. Without the energy input of the sun, all high and low pressure areas in the earth's atmosphere would quickly even out. Not a stir of wind would be felt. Entropy or disorder would increase. It is not that nature strives to reach this equilibrium, it's just that this equilibrium is the result of letting nature's forces have their way. However, with the energy input of the sun, we see hurricanes and thunderstorms, ice and snow, as well as rain and fog—complex weather phenomena which represent an increase of order in the atmosphere. And that, even purely in the physical sphere!

We don't invoke a weather God to explain these phenomena, though Wilber is perhaps tempted to do so.


There's nothing like a strong collective to beat the competition. So competition in the end still rules.

But the inflation doesn't stop there. If life on earth is pushed forward, however gently, by a cosmic force of Eros, why are so many organisms not evolving at all? After all, there are still bacteria around, by the zillions, not to mention fish, amphibians, reptilians and so on. It's is only some line of evolution that seems to "move forward", leading to us humans as a temporary pinnacle of evolution (that is, if you take consciousness to represent the purpose of evolution).

That means that either this cosmic Force is too weak to push all organisms upward in the evolutionary scale, or some wholly different mechanisms are at play here. And in that case, if special conditions for live are so important, why can't they be the whole story? I would definitely vote for the second option.

What if more consciousness is not so much the goal of evolution, but something that gets selected for in the struggle for life? After all, being able to plan future actions or imagine possible dangers increases one's chances at survival considerably. (On the other hand, most organisms don't need any self-consciousness to survive at all, they can do very well without, and have done so for hundreds of millions of years. In that sense, consciousness is a luxury.)

Sometimes, it is argued that it is not so much competition that drives evolution, but the opposite tendency of cooperation. After all, evoluton seems to demonstrate an increasing capacity to work together, as in the case of atoms becoming molecules, single celled organisms becoming multi-cellular and individual human beings forming collectives.

Here again, a crucial fact is overlooked: there's nothing like a strong collective to beat the competition. So competition in the end still rules. Recently, John Stewart has defended this notion of cooperation as a major, if not the major, drive behind evolution, in his Evolution's Arrow, working fully within a Darwinian mind set. Mind you, he does not say that there's a drive towards cooperation in evolution, at most a large scale trend, and only as a reconstruction after the fact.

In a similar vein, many point to the work of the wonderful late Lynn Margulis, who was one of the first to defend this notion of cooperation against that of competition, which is usually stressed by the "orthodox" neo-Darwinists. (With this, she implied a gender difference between evolutionary theorists, where male theorists favor competition whereas female theorists love cooperation). What is more important, she was the first to popularize the notion that plants and animals are the result of "endosymbiosis" between primitive single-celled organisms and bacteria.

A representation of the
endosymbiotic theory.

That sounds all very homely and cosy, until one realizes that this symbiosis might have started as a half-digested dinner: instead of being fully digested by single-celled organisms, some bacteria survived this and found a new home within these organisms. So rather then an in-built tendency in evolution, this type of cooperation turned out to have survival value and was therefore selected by Nature.

Effectively, this made all complex evolution possible. Evolution had stagnated for billions of years, during the Age of Bacteria, but because of this endosymbiosis, complex plants and animals could be formed. Some bacteria had figured out how to transform solar energy into sugars—these became the chloroplasts in plants. Some bacteria had learned how to digest sugars to release energy—these became the mitochondria in animals. Both were no longer able to exist outside their host organisms. Bacteria, in and by themselves, could not make the step towards complexity.

Says Wikipedia on these endosymbionts:

According to endosymbiosis theory, an anaerobic cell probably ingested an aerobic bacterium but failed to digest it. The aerobic bacterium flourished within the cell because the cell's cytoplasm was abundant in half-digested food molecules. The bacterium digested these molecules with oxygen and gained great amounts of energy. Because the bacterium had so much energy, it probably leaked some of it as Adenosine triphosphate into the cell's cytoplasm. This benefited the anaerobic cell because it enabled it to digest food aerobically. Eventually, the aerobic bacterium could no longer live independently from the cell, and it therefore became a mitochondrion. The origin of the chloroplast is very similar to that of the mitochondrion. A cell must have captured a photosynthetic cyanobacterium and failed to digest it. The cyanobacterium thrived in the cell and eventually evolved into the first chloroplast. Other eukaryotic organelles may have also evolved through endosymbiosis; it has been proposed that cilia, flagella, centrioles, and microtubules may have originated from a symbiosis between a Spirochaete bacterium and an early eukaryotic cell, but this is not widely accepted among biologists.

So it is not so much that love rules the universe, or even life on earth, but that for whatever reason forms of organical complexity or cooperation between organisms are favored by natural selection. There's no need for a Force in Nature that pushes them towards that goal at all.

We've come a long way from sweeping statements about the cosmos or evolution, to a much more sobering look at how things really come about in nature. Yes, evolution produces lines of progress, in some respects, but not in others, and it need not be a taboo to acknowledge this, for fear of returning to the pre-Darwinian full scale evolution-as-progress notion. But we are not helped by inspiring narratives that gloss over these interesting details of evolution.

What is more, we need to be on guard to ward off these pernicious integral inflations. They cloud our view of truth in the name of an otherwise uplifting philosophy of life.


[1] Two recent integral books promote the idea of evolution as progress or growth in consciousness: the recently released Evolutionaries by What is Enlightenment editor Carter Phipps, and the book Evolution's Purpose (expected Fall 2012) by Steve McIntosh. We will review these for Integral World. We do this in the spirit of a healthy dialectic, to represent the position of "reductionistic" science which more often then not gets misrepresentated in the integral literature.

[2] See also: Steve Nickeson, "Integral Dissipation",

Comment Form is loading comments...