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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.


For Crying Out Loud

Ken Wilber Repeats Vaporous
Arguments about Evolution

Frank Visser

“One thing for sure about evolution is that, as the Intelligent Design folks have aptly pointed out, it cries out for a spiritual explanation...”
—Ken Wilber

In a recent teaser essay "Toward a Fourth Turning" on his forthcoming ebook The Fourth Turning: Exploring the Future of Buddhism (explicating an "Integral Buddhism", following on the traditional phases of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana), Ken Wilber argues that any believable future religion should be "on friendly terms with science". More specifically, it needs a "Meta-theory of Spiritual and Scientific", which defines how these two antagonistic (or complementary, depending on your approach) fields of knowledge and experience relate to eachother. Whatever approach one chooses, it will be "speculative and philosophical", but according to Wilber it should at least include three features: it should make a distinction between structures (of development) and states (of consciousness), it should advocate shadow work, and it should have a meta-theory of the relationship between science and sprituality.

Wilber has devoted one of his books, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion (1998) to precisely this question. To my knowlegde, the thesis of this book has not been picked up by the science-and-religion field. What attracted me in Wilber's view is that he redefines the fields of science (in the narrow sense) and spirituality (in the mystical sense) and relates them to those of exteriority and interiority, and as to those two fields, nobody will argue that they are incompatible, antagonistic or at war with each other. Mind and body harmoniously work together, whatever explanation we offer for this process. (Of course, just declaring these areas to exist doesn't explain their interaction in any way. Wilber's "explanation" of the mind-body problem is in the end trans-rational and transcendental). Evolution doesn't feature prominently in this book, other than that, in Wilber's neo-Hegelian view:

Evolution is simply Spirit-in-action, God in the making, and that making is destined to carry all of us straight to the Divine. (p. 104)

Obviously, there are different ways to bring science and spirituality together, and Wilber is clearly no fan of the quantum approach (as should have been clear from his early publication Quantum Questions, 1984), which tries to anchor spirituality to the micro-level of quantum and observer effects, thereby confusing human consciousness with Universal Spirit. Instead, he is in favor of a more mystical view of evolution, in which

one can see in the miracles of evolution an Eros, or Spirit-in-action, that is indeed miraculous.

I quote the relevant paragraph from Wilber's essay in full here:

Much more believable are spiritual theorists who, like Michael Dowd, believe that one can see in the miracles of evolution an Eros, or Spirit-in-action, that is indeed miraculous.

One thing for sure about evolution is that, as the Intelligent Design folks have aptly pointed out, it cries out for a spiritual explanation (though not for one taken only from the Bible).

To get one species from another requires several mutations. It's well-known that the vast majority of mutations are lethal, so we would have to have several extremely unlikely mutations all occurring at once in the same animal. But even more unbelievable, the exact same number and type of mutations would have to occur in another animal of the opposite sex, in order for them to procreate and pass on the new mutations. And even more unbelievable yet, these two would have to find each other—what if one is in Siberia and the other in Mexico?

The odds of all of those happening is basically zero.

At the very least, as people like Stuart Kaufman [sic] have suggested, there is a fifth force in the universe (in addition to strong and weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational), something like a drive to self-organization (in other words, an Eros) that is actively winding the universe up. That would at least give the likelihood of the emergence of new and higher levels of complexity a fighting chance.

To my mind, seeing evolution as Spirit-in-action is primarily Wilber's own view of things—recall that his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995) carried the subtitle "The Spirit of Evolution". Notice the use of "miracles" and "miraculous" at the very start of this paragraph, in which Wilber wants to prepare his readers to accept the view that indeed, strange things are happening here. For sure, not exactly a way to get "on friendly terms with science". The sentiment that the diversity of life in all of its manifestations is a wonderful process—"the greatest show on earth" as Dawkins would have it—is something all scientists would agree with, but only as a point of departure for the investigative process—resulting in a true theory that explains the phenomena at hand—not the end of it. Real scientists have "an apetite for wonder", but don't leave it at that.

Wilber is replacing the "philosophy of oops" (his caricature of science) with his "philosophy of wow!".

Contrary to what most people think, science doesn't kill the mystery of existence. In a public dialogue held in 1999 called "Does Science Kill the Soul?" between Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, this question was answered in a qualified way. Yes, if we understand "soul" to be a mysterious "something" that supposedly explains the phenomena of mind and consciousness, No, if we understand it as a "soulful" or poetic approach to life.

During this session, attended by an audience of 2300 people, Dawkins pointed out a common strategy among spiritually minded authors, which is employed by Wilber as well in his essay:

“There's a cheap debating trick which implies that if, say, science can't explain something, this must mean that some other discipline can.”
—Richard Dawkins
There's a cheap debating trick which implies that if, say, science can't explain something, this must mean that some other discipline can. If scientists suspect that all aspects of the mind have a scientific explanation but they can't actually say what that explanation is yet, then of course it's open to you to doubt whether the explanation ever will be forthcoming. That's a perfectly reasonable doubt. But it's not legitimately open to you to substitute a word like soul, or spirit, as if that constituted an explanation. It is not an explanation, it's an evasion. It's just a name for that which we don't understand. The scientist may agree to use the word soul for that which we don't understand, but the scientist adds, "But we're working on it, and one day we hope we shall explain it." The dishonest trick is to use a word like soul or spirit as if it constituted an explanation.

Replace "soul or spirit" with "Eros" and "mind" with "evolution" and it becomes immediately clear that Wilber's favored spiritual theory of evolution is intellectually sterile—like all forms of creationism.

Remarkably, Wilber continues his argument by using almost the exact phrases he used in A Brief History of Everything (1996) to argue for the need for a spiritual explanation of the existence of eyes or wings. On Integral World there's a whole library of criticism related to this dubious "argument", culminating in my ITC 2010 paper "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered", in which I concluded:

Ken Wilber has engaged neo-Darwinism basically only once in his complete oeuvre spanning three decades and twenty plus books, by giving specific examples of organized complexity, such as eyes and wings, that supposedly cannot be explained by natural selection (contrary to what leading scientists such as Dawkins spell out to the public at that same time). And now, a full decade later, these biological examples are to be understood in a purely metaphorical sense, merely illustrating the "extraordinary capacity of creative emergence that is intrinsic to the universe"? Has science turned into poetry?

And here, in 2014, Wilber again tries to impress his readers with a story about the unlikelihood of the required mutations happening at the same time in different members of the same species. (Note that he has moved on from doubting the validity of evolutionary theory's capacity to explain eyes and wings, which not even creationists attempt to do these days anymore, to the question of the origin of species). I am sure that, when pressed for specifics and details, Wilber will state it was just meant to be poetry about the complexity of existence.

Evasion, indeed.

Evolution "cries out for a spiritual explanation"? For crying out loud! Has Wilber picked up nothing at all from the debates surrounding his attempts to discredit science and introduce his spiritualized notions of evolution? And seriously, does Wilber imply or suggest here that the millions of species that live or have lived over the past half a billion years have been designed or intended by Spirit before natural selection could take over their fine tuning into subsequent variations? Is Spirit actively directing or tweaking the behavior of mutations? What exactly is it?

Is Ken Wilber willing to defend this notion of a spiritual Eros in a scientific arena? Like the creationists, Wilber never gets specific about the explanatory value of Eros. When will the integral community awaken from its gullibility, and point out the weakness of this "argument"?

As an aside, is Stuart Kauffman—often mentioned by Wilber as an ally—proposing self-organization as a "fifth force" in physics? Or is this again Wilber's preferred terminology put into his mouth?

What these considerations overlook is that in the Tree of Life, even large branches started out as twigs.

In the standard model of evolutionary theory, new species start off as variations of an existing species, and then, when time goes by, diverge even further into new species. Opponents of Darwinism often concede that variations can be explained by natural selection but species (or even genera, classes, phyla, etc. cannot)—they make a difference between micro-evolution and macro-evolution, and Wilber uses the same strategy in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (p. 10):

Apart from the specifics of natural selection (which most theorists now agree can account for microchanges in evolution but not macrochanges), there are two things that jumped out in the Darwinian worldview, one of which was not novel at all, and one of which was very novel. The first was the continuity of life; the second, speciation by natural selection.

Micro-evolution can be tackled through scientific explanations, macro-evolution supposedly needs some other hypothesis, preferably a spiritual one. What these considerations overlook is that in the Tree of Life, even the larger branches started out as twigs. We can't artificially separate current twigs (variations) from larger branches (species, classes, phyla, etc.), as if they require a different explanation.

Gert Korthof, 'Common Descent: It's All or Nothing'

Source: Gert Korthof, "Common Descent: It's All or Nothing", chapter 3
of Why Intelligent Design Fails, posted on

Again, we should turn to the scientific literature on speciation to see how scientists approach these topics. We consulted two essays of the's Education Knowledge Project, "Mutations are the Raw Materials of Evolution" and "Speciation: The Origin of New Species"—both belong to the "Basic" knowledge level of evolutionary theory, according to Nature Education's classification. Even on that level, science is more interesting than Wilber's amateuristic arguments about how mutations work. For starters, mutations occur in populations sharing the same environmental conditions—so much for Siberia and Mexico being a problem (though geographical separation is a major cause of speciation indeed).

This essay by Wilber adds proof to my thesis that assessing the validity of Wilber's ideas requires a differential approach. Where he may be brilliant or at least innovative in the area of what he calls the I-space of consciousness (and the current essay on Buddhism would qualify as an example), his ideas related to the We-space of culture and politics are contested, and his suggestions related to the It-space of science (to which evolutionary theory definitely belongs) are less than convincing or even outright wrong.

Why bother about possible misunderstandings on the part of Wilber regarding evolution, when he's offering us what amounts to a whole new religion of Integral Buddhism? David Lane once wrote, and I agree, in the first classic critique of Wilber's notions about evolution penned in 1996:

Although it may seem that this issue of misunderstanding evolution is a small chapter in Wilber's overall work, it is so fundamental to his thinking that it makes one question the entire edifice upon which he has built Spectrum Psychology.


Korthof, G. 2006. Common Descent: It's All or Nothing, updated chapter posted on the author's website Also in: Young, M. & T. Edis, Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism, Rutgers University Press. See also the sequel: Youg, M. & P. Strode, Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Lane, D. 2006/1996. Wilber and the Misunderstanding of Evolution,

Visser, F. 2010, The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered,

Wikipedia, Relationship between Science and Religion,

Wikipedia, Self-Organization,

Wikipedia, Stuart Kauffman,

Wilber, K. 2014, Toward a Fourth Turning,

Wilber, K. 1998, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, Random House.

Wilber, K. 1984, Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists, Shambhala, New Science Library.

Young, M. & Taner Edis, 2004, Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism, Rutgers University Press.

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