Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Frank 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 many essays on this website.
Wilber and Laszlo
Two Authors of Evolutionary Fiction
It would be too easy to say that both Wilber and Laszlo are far too sophisticated to be called "creationists".
With the first Integral European Conference next month in May 2014 coming up, I thought it might be useful to explore the writings of one of the keynote speakers at the conference: Ervin Laszlo, a former concert pianist, famous systems theorist and founder of several cultural-scientifc organizations. To name a few: the General Evolution Research Group, a Cold War inspired 1984 initiative with the aim "to use the chaos theory then coming into vogue to develop a new general theory of evolution that might serve as a road map for our species", and the Club of Budapest, founded in 1994, of which the stated aim is "to expand beyond the exclusively scientific purpose of The General Evolution Research Group to try to mobilize the full cultural resources of humanity to meet the future challenges." Furthermore, Laszlo has published about 75 books and over 400 papers, and is editor of World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research.
My second thoughts about Ken Wilber's take on evolutionary theory have been documented on this website over the years. In my previous essay ("Why Integral Theory is Not a Theory of Everything") I suggested that Wilber may be considered strong in the I-domain of psychology and spirituality, moderately strong in the We-domain of culture and society and weak in the It-domain of sciencegiven his dubious statements on astronomy and biology. Laszlo's orientation is decidedly more science-oriented, especially quantum physics features prominently in his work (though his critics speak of "quantum woo"). For he postulates an "Akashic" field in the cosmos, which supposedly contains all the information that informs cosmic and biological evolution (Laszlo uses the term "in-formation" coined by David Bohm). His 2004 book Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything shows that he, like Wilber, is using the label "integral" as well for his general approach (where Wilber changed his into "evolutionary" it seems to me).
"Laszlo a lightweight"
So we have here an artist-philosopher-scientist who has pioneered a non-mainstream view of evolution over many years, which covers not only the biological domain, but also those of human culture and society, and which uses concepts taken from quantum physics, Eastern or esoteric spirituality. Laszlo's efforts have also been oriented to changing human consciousness and culture, towards a more sustainable future for the human race. His ideas, however, are practically ignored by mainstream science, but have been picked up by idealistic segments of society. It would be interesting to make a full comparison with Wilber, with whom he shares more or less the same fate. Brian van der Horst once compiled a comparative presentation for a French 2008 conference called "Integral Theories of Everything: Ervin Laszlo and Ken Wilber" (PDF, 10MB), which is worth going through, to get a feel for the impressive literary output of both gentlemen. His comparison is descriptive more than evaluative, in that he doesn't go into the validity of the integral theories proposed by them.
How have Wilber and Laszlo responded to eachother's work? In Appendix III of Integral Spirituality (2006, p. 290-293) Wilber briefly gave his opinion of Laszlo, using terms such as "embarrassing" and "subtle reductionism" and compares him negatively to Edgar Morin, another science-oriented integral philosopher. His main objection to Laszlo's brand of integral theory is that it covers the It-domain, but not the I- and We-domains of subjectivity and intersubjectivity. He rather unkindly quotes the late Francisco Varela in passing, who, according to Wilber, considered Laszlo a "lightweight". (Both were editors for the New Science imprint of Shambhala Publications, which published Laszlo's Evolution: The Grand Synthesis, 1987). Laszlo, in turn, considered Wilber's integral theory to be more descriptive than explanatory (see also Scott Parker's essay "Is Wilber's Integral Integral?" on this website). In an Integral Review essay (2006) Laszlo commented on Wilber ("Rationale for an Integral Theory of Everything") stating that an genuine Theory of Everything (or TOE) should cover more than physics alone:
Ken Wilber, who wrote a book with the title A Theory of Everything, agrees: he speaks of the "integral vision" conveyed by a genuine TOE. However, he does not offer such a theory; he mainly discusses what it would be like, describing it in reference to the evolution of culture and consciousnessand to his own theories. An actual, science-based integral theory of everything is yet to be created.
Wikipedia mentions two instances of a comparison between Wilber and Laszlo:
In an essay, Stan Grof compared László's work to that of Ken Wilber, saying "Where Wilber outlined what an integral theory of everything should look like, Laszlo actually created one."
Be that as it may, both authors aim at a "general theory of evolution", which covers not only the biological domain, but also the domains of mind, culture and society. My objections to Wilber's take on biological evolution have been that, in order to promote his spiritual theory of evolution ("There is an Eros in the Kosmos", a cosmic "drive towards self-organization"), he caricaturizes the neo-Darwinism point of view beyond recognitiona strategy well known among creationists and spiritualists. By stating that science tries to understand the complexities of biological evolution as wholly based on random chancea ridiculous simplificationhe can claim that "something other than chance is pushing the universe". That "something other", in Wilber's universe, is Eros.
How does Laszlo's general theory of evolution compare to this? Is it more grounded in science? Does it avoid the pitfalls of creationism and Intelligent Design and does it faithfully represent neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory?
Why the Controversy?
Both Wilber and Laszlo claim to be scientific, and at the same time transcend the boundaries of conventional science.
Googling the question I stumbled on a column written by Laszlo for The Huffington Post, for which he is a frequent contributor, which was called "Evolution Presupposes Design, So Why the Controversy?" (Posted: April 15, 2010). I assume this blog posting can serve as summary of Laszlo's take on biological evolutionand his stand in the current creationism/evolution-debates. Wilber occasionally refers to Intelligent Design authors implying that, though he doesn't subscribe to their Christian fundamentalism, he claims they have a point in exposing the shortcomings of neo-Darwinism. In Wilber's view, biological organisms are "designed" in the sense that evolution is guided by Eros, a force which is responsible for creating noveltyoften left unspecified. Something science supposedly cannot account for.
Let's turn to Laszlo to see what he comes up with. Here are his concluding remarks on the topic:
In the final count the evolution of life presupposes intelligent design. But the design it presupposes is not the design of the products of evolution; it's the design of its preconditions. Given the right preconditions, nature comes up with the products on her own.
So Laszlo too, while not endorsing vulgar creationism, argues for a fine-tuning of the cosmos, so that evolutionand in the end human consciousnesscan evolve. This cosmic fine-tuning is a separate topic, which we will save for a later essay.
But there's something really interesting going on here. There's a tendency for spiritually-minded authors on evolution to retreat more and more to this question of cosmic fine-tuning, now that the complexities of biological evolution turn out to be explainable more and more in naturalistic terms. They go from the human eye, or the evolution of wings (popular creationist examples in Darwin's time) to the immune system, or other biochemical complexities (cf. Behe's Darwin's Black Box), to the origin of life, or finally to the origin of the universe. With every step science gains ground and increases its explanatory reach they have to retreat further back. Wilber has gone down that road over the past years. In A Brief History of Everything he still used the example of eyes and wings, in subsequent years he pointed to Behe's book, as if biochemistry would provide the answer, and in the end he pointed to the origin-of-life question as decisive. I haven't heard Wilber about cosmic fine-tuning yet. Laszlo, who knows much more about evolution than Wilber, jumps to this last resort right away.
But in the end, I think there's a simple question to ask: do these authors really believe that Someone/Somethingbe it Eros or Spirit or Akasha, or whatever favorite notion one has of Ultimate Realityhas fine-tuned the cosmos, so that 14 billion years later some monkey could descend from the trees to become human? Or that Spirit or Eros is folding up proteins, splitting species or initiating the spreading of mammals, because Nature supposedly cannot accomplish this on Her own? How likely is that?
Would Laszlo imply that, given the way the cosmos has been set up, cosmological and biological evolution can produce complexity and diversity on its own? After all, he writes in his Huffington Post column: "Given the right preconditions, nature comes up with the products on her own." But no, Laszlo plays the chance-card as well regarding the complexities of biological evolution. For in the same Huffington Post column he writes:
But the creationists question that the stupendously varied panoply of life arose from mutations in the genome occurring by chance with the resulting organisms fitting by chance into environments where they can reproduce better than their predecessors. Such a chance-mutation and lucky-environmental-fit process is surely too "hit or miss" to have created the complex web of life in the biosphere. The theory that affirms it is bound to be false.
An elementary reading of books on evolutionary theory (Dawkins, Coyne, Mayr) shows that neo-Darwinism does not solely rely on chance for an explanation of evolutionary complexity. It relies at least on two principles: random chance and non-random selection. And please note "random" doesn't mean uncaused or unstructured, it just means that mutations lack foresight. For not just anything gets selected, but only the "fittest" or most well-adapted organisms.
As Dawkins graphically has put it, in his book Climbing Mount Improbable (1997):
It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work. You don't need to be a mathematician or physicist to calculate that an eye or an hemoglobin molecule would take from here to eternity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck. Far from being a difficulty peculiar to Darwinism, the astronomic improbability of eyes and knees, enzymes and elbow joints and the other living wonders is precisely the problem that any theory of life must solve, and that Darwinism uniquely does solve. It solves it by breaking the improbability up into small, manageable parts, smearing out the luck needed... (p. 67-68)
A general pattern seems to emerge here, when we consider these non-mainstream approaches to evolution. Both Wilber and Laszlo claim to be scientific, and at the same time transcend the boundaries of conventional science. Both misrepresent evolutionary theory as a theory based on chance alone. And since chance obviously cannot explain the complexities of nature, the stage is set for the introduction of something else that is the opposite of chance: a Kosmic Eros in Wilber's case, and an information-rich Akashic Field in the case of Laszlo.
The saddest thing is that they miss the first fact about evolutionary theory. I am not saying that Richard Dawkins is the last word about evolution, but he is definitely the first word. And if you misspell the first word, all that is left is ideology. Or as I would like to call it: evolutionary fiction.
Engaging the Field of Science
Wilber and Laszlo have never confronted the radicality of Darwin's vision: evolution is possible without a spiritual drive behind it.
My point is not that neo-Darwinism has all the answers, far from it, but that in their desire to transcend "reductionistic" and "materialistic" science, both Wilber and Laszlo never really engage this major field of science. For Laszlo I can't vote, because I haven't gone through his 75+ books, but about Wilber I am pretty sure where he stands. They use the same rhetoric weapon: by suggesting to their readers that science cannot explain X, because it can only come up with "random chance", they imply that their own favorite solution can. And since their readers are not well-versed in the details of evolutionary theory, their discourse will be convincing and even flattering. For, hey, we can live a spiritual life, and still be fully scientific!
So many books are around and readily available that refute these facile attacks on evolutionary science, and also take the trouble to argue with creationists and Intelligent Design authors. To name a few: Why Intelligent Design Fails (2006) by Young & Edis, Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails (2009) by Young and Strode, and God, the Devil and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory (2007) by Niall Shanks (with a foreword by Richard Dawkins). The last book also deals with the argument of cosmic fine-tuning that is advanced by Laszlo and others, and gives a solid refutation.
It would be too easy to say that both Wilber and Laszlo are far too sophisticated to be called "creationists", for two reasons. First, most ID authors go into extreme mathematical (Dembski) or biochemical (Behe) detail to make their points, much more than Wilber and (probably) Laszlo do. And second, the structure of Wilber's and Laszlo's arguments against conventional science is similar to those of creationists. Science supposedly cannot explain something and therefore my alternative is true. Wilber and Laszlo have never confronted the radicality of Darwin's vision: evolution is possible and can be explained without taking recourse to a spiritual drive behind evolutionbe it Eros or the Akashic Field.
The same goes, incidentally, for the notion of a cosmic "drive towards self-organization" that Wilber's postulates to explain the complexities of evolution. Again, self-organization theory explains these fascinating phenomena without taking recourse to spiritual drives or forces. It doesn't really help that Wilber tries to sanitize or naturalize his terminologynow that he has become "post-metaphysical"by saying in 2006 (see: "Ken Responds to Recent Critics", posted on www.kenwilber.com and which links to an audio file, that has apparently been take offline, though it can be accessed here) that:
You either postulate a supernatural source of which there are two types. One is a Platonic given and one is basically theologicala God or intelligent designor you postulate Spirit as immanentof course it's transcendent but also immanentand it shows up as a self-organizing, self-transcending drive within evolution itself. And then evolution is Spirit’s own unfolding. Not a super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain.
To give a simple example of self-organization (my favorite): a hurricane occurs when certain meteorological conditions are met: warm ocean water, the proper latitude to produce circular winds, and most importantly: a continuous influx of energy. Hurricanes feed on their environment, grow, thrive and die, when they move from water to land, generating enormous amounts of energy in the process. Some live for days or weeks. On Jupiter, there's one being in existence for over four centuries! They emphatically do not arise because of some "intra-natural" or "immanently natural" "self-organizing, self-transcending drive". That's missing the whole point of self-organization.
Wilber often refers to Kauffman as an allywhile never going into details about how exactly their individual worldviews might differ. For example, in a 2007 blog posting "Some Criticism of My Understanding of Evolution" he suggested that
I am not alone is (sic) seeing that chance and natural selection by themselves are not enough to account for the emergence that we see in evolution. Stuart Kaufman (sic) and many others have criticized mere change [chance?] and natural selection as not adequate to account for this emergence (he sees the necessity of adding self-organization). (kenwilber.com, December 04, 2007)
These slippery moves are rather disingenuous. Note, for example, that the reader might get the impression that Wilber now fully understands evolutionary theory after all (he does include "selection" now, but does he also understand this is non-random in its workings?) or that Kauffman shares his "spiritualized" interpretation of self-organization, which is most definitely not the case. And self-organization might definitely help in the origin of complexity, but it doesn't create dinosaurs, elephants or pinguins.
In his book The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution (1993), Stuart Kauffman calls his approach "the physics of biology". And in At Home in the Universe (1995) he continues "I believe that life itself is an emergent phenomenon, but I mean nothing mystical by this." (p. 24) And, "The theory of life's origins is rooted in an unrepenteant holism, born not out of mysticism, but of mathematical necessity." (p. 69) Hardly a transcendental programme! Obviously, then, we really need to study for ourselves, and not just rely on Wilber's reporting skills on science.
Ironically, Kauffman doesn't think life is the unlikely freak accident spiritual authors want it to be, so that their spiritual Something can come to the rescue. On the contrary, he sees it as the inevitable result of collective molecular processes. "We are the expected" is his motto. And: "I hope to persuade you that life is a natural property of complex chemical systems." (p. 47) Far from gradually originating from the simple to complex, it crystallized at once so to speak:
Life emerged, I suggest, not simple, but complex and whole, and has remained complex and whole ever sincenot because of a mysterious élan vital, but thanks to the simple, profound transformation of dead molecules into an organization by which each molecule's formation is catalyzed by some other molecule in the organization. (p. 47)
What Wilber typically does is take these notions such as "evolution" and "self-organization" from science and spiritualize them, so they fit into his grand scheme. His readers get the impression this view is backed up by science, where in reality nothing could be further from the truth. His is a, quite lonely, minority position, a fact his readers might easily overlook. Only when pressed does he acknowledge thisand note the last phrase "not even a self-organizing drive":
Do I think Mayr or Dawkins or Lewontin or Kaufman believe in telos or Eros that is Spiritual in any way? Absolutely not. Virtually all mainstream theorists embrace scientific materialism. So when I say that there are leading-edge problems acknowledged by these theorists, I certainly do not mean that they believe those problems need a spiritual Eros to solve them, nor a transcendental Eros embedded in evolution, nor even a self-organizing drive. (kenwilber.com, June 27, 2006)
What Wilber typically does is take these notions such as "evolution" and "self-organization" from science and spiritualize them.
At the end of this blog posting Wilber accuses "reductionistic" science of endlessly promising results, which are never delivered, in his opinion. So he feels justified in proposing his spiritual solutions to the problems of science. Scientists, on the other hand, object to introducing notions of Spirit or Eros to "solve" problems that are not yet fully clarified scientifically. For that is a non-starter in science. For sure, a rich field of comparative study is here to be mined by science-oriented integralists!
In sum, I would conclude that integral theorybe it of the Wilber- or the Laszlo-varietylacks a solid grounding in and a true engagement with evolutionary science. An integral conversation with cosmological and biological science is still waiting on the far horizon. Until then, all pronouncements by integral authors on evolution should be taken with a large grain of salt.
It has been suggested by some readers that other integral scholars or institutions, such as the California Institute of Integral Studies with its "Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness" department, could be instrumental in such a debate, though I am not aware where they stand in the evolution controversy. Alternatively, the field of Big History provides a complementary approach to Integral Theory, given its strong base in science: cosmology, astronomy, chemistry, biology, etc. Also, a conference setting such as the one in Budapest next May would be a perfect environment to explore these questions. I only hope integralists, who are usually bent on transforming their own lives and the world around them, will not see them as über-intellectual, without relevance for the validity of integral theory.