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.

‘Such stuff as dreams
are made on’

Reply to Salmon

Frank Visser

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148-158
It just happens to be the case that when the right conditions are met, these things occur in Nature.

In several essays and comments on Integral World Don Salmon, starting with his "Shaving Science with Ockham's Razor", has argued that there is something deeply wrong with the dominant scientific worldview. It thinks it covers all of reality, when in fact it deals only with what can be perceived by the senses and measured quantitatively. Contrary to the naive belief that science deals with an objective reality, which exists independently from us, Salmon argues that all we know about reality is mediated through our own consciousness. Even so, he denies he is aguing for a form of idealism or spiritualism. He just wants to claim "that science does not provide evidence which precludes the existence of a non-material reality." But quite unexpectedly, in an endnote he even declares "nothing I've presented in this paper precludes the conclusion that materialism or physicalism may in fact be the best foundation for scientific endeavor."

Some Integral World authors have responded to Salmon's essay (David Lane, Andy Smith, Elliot Benjamin, myself), but according to Salmon they have misunderstood his intentions. In "Shaving Science with Ockham's Razor: The Sequel" he clarifies these as "advocating an open-minded, agnostic stance toward ‘the way things are’, and criticizing science not as ‘wrong’ but simply as veering too far in the direction of proclaiming a certain ‘view’ which in itself, had no scientific basis." And in his latest contribution to Integral World "Why Can't Rabbits Turn into Roller Coasters?" he focusses on what he sees as the "absurdity of “laws of nature” arising “by chance” in a dead, mindless, non-sentient universe." To clarify his position further, he comes up with 12 theses, which we will comment upon below.

I don't have the illusion that Salmon will feel understood—but what can you do?

I detect two claims in Salmon's essays, one moderate and reasonable and one more extreme and less reasonable. The moderate claim is that science is useful but limited in its attempt to explain all of reality. The distinction between science and scientism comes to mind. Where science can only pass judgement on what falls within its own domain, and should be agnostic on what falls outside it, scientism declares the domain of science to cover all or reality. If we first limit our perception to what can be registered by the senses, we shouldn't be surprised that we will never encounter anything super- or extra-sensory. Even if it existed, science wouldn't be the proper method to find this out. Fair enough.

The next question would then be: do we have any reason to suspect that behind the reality we perceive, something like spirit, consciousness or design is present?

Hurricane, Tropical cyclone
Hurricane Isabel (2003) as seen from orbit
during Expedition 7 of the International Space Station

That very much depends on the domain of existence we study. For the cosmos as a whole, a materialistic approach seems the most adequate to me. There is no added value to supposing that the Sun is conscious, let alone the Cosmos as a whole, for all we know and can see the behavior of the Sun can be fully understood on materialistic principles. The same is true for my favorite example of a hurricane: it is a natural phenomenon of vast and often destructive proportions, which is the result of large differences in pressure and temperature, and which persists for several days or even weeks, until it dies out above land, because it is cut of from its main supply of energy. This type of self-organization is in no way better understood if we presuppose a "Spirit of the hurricane" or even a "tendency towards self-organization". It just happens to be the case that when the right conditions are met, these things occur in Nature. And contrary to the common conception that these phenomena contradict the Second Law of Thermodynamics—which predicts that order dissapears in the long run—they affirm it, for hurricanes are ways Nature has devised to even out heat and pressure differences.

So yes, even if it is true that science isn't able to detect a hypothetical "Sprit of the hurricane" because of its self-imposed methodological limitations, that doesn't mean it might just as well exist. Salmon would protest against the "absurdity" that these complex natural phenomena are the result of "blind, mindless processes", but why exactly? Is that more absurd than postulating a conscious hurricane?

For the domain of life, it has long been thought that it cannot be explained without the existence of some Life Force animating all living things. For how on earth could mindless matter alone create the wonderful diversity of nature? The discovery of DNA has dealt a blow to these vitalistic notions from which they have not recovered (but compare Sheldrake's controversial theory of morphic resonance). The field of evo-devo has clarified the mysteries of embryological development by pointing to the role of regulatory genes. For the domain of mind, which directly concerns us for we apparently have one, a materialistic explanation is still on the horizon. But given the extreme rarity of self-consciousness within the cosmos at large, it would be premature to doubt that science would never be able to fathom this mystery or to base a metaphysical worldview in which consciousness is central on this peculiarly human phenomenon.

Some unorthodox evolutionists—most notably Elisabeth Sahtouris—say that, in stead of projecting our notions of mechanisms on the universe at large, we should see the cosmos as alive and even conscious. But this dilutes our definitions of life and consciousness beyond recognition. Is the cosmos procreating, does it have a sex life, does it need food, as living organisms by definition do? Does the cosmos harbour thoughts and feelings, does it pay attention to us, to anything at all, as is the hallmark of being conscious? I have never found these speculations convincing, however comfortable and uplifting they might otherwise be.

I am not saying Salmon endorses all these ideas, but his resistance to scientism puts him in the same camp as these thinkers who see life and consciousness as being central aspects of the Universe. Science, on the other hand, takes a more modest stance: for all we know life exists only on our planet Earth, and self-consciousness has arisen in only a few out of millions of species. Quite a different view of things!


Let's turn to Salmon's 12 theses which are meant to clarify his position regarding science. For his elaborations, please consult the original "Rabbits into Rollercoasters" essay.

  1. Is the sound of a bell in a dream physical?

    No, but the experience of hearing in a dream can be caused by physical brain processes. In our waking life, we conclude that there's an objective world around us, independent of our minds, because that's the most reasonable conclusion (compared to: we are all in a collective dream, dreaming up the cosmos).

  2. If you can’t tell the difference between waking and dream, maybe waking is more like dream than we think

    Dreams are subjective constructions of the mind, waking we process impressions from the outside world which have reached us through the senses. Though our knowledge is always human knowledge, i don't see any need to suggest it is dreamlike in the same way that dreams are. For myself, I have never been tempted to think I am dreaming while awake.

  3. Why Introduce Physicalist Ideas at All?

    Well, the notion of matter as independent from our mind is far from outrageous. The sun comes up every day, regardless if we, or at least somebody, looks at it. "The tides come in, the tides go out", as skeptic Michael Shermer phrases it. We have increasingly understood through science these regularities found in nature.

  4. Pseudo-Physicalism as a tactic

    The focus on matter was a tactic, says Salmon, to avoid the wrath of the Church which had confiscated the domain of the human soul. But hadn't the Church crossed a line by declaring the Earth to be flat and in the middle of the Universe? Wasn't that exactly none of her business?

  5. The Origin of Physicalism

    Salmon considers physicalism "the most extraordinary claim ever made in all of human history", compared to which claims by gurus or psychics (or Wilber) look pale. But for the domains of life and matter I wouldn't be so sure of that. Isn't it not just a matter of economy to attempt materialistic explanations of these vast domains before turning to spiritual solutions—and only if nothing else works?

  6. Ignoring experience for the time being is not a problem as long as we remember it’s a tactic

    I would rather call it a reasonable focus, especially when the outer world is concerned. When it comes to inner experience, this method is less than helful, and a multi-disciplinary effort is needed. Some philosophers think consciousness can't be understood by consciousnes. Some think it can—we'll have to see.

  7. “God”—the source of “laws of nature”?

    In the past, laws of Nature were seen as proclaimed by God. Nowadays, we can't get away with this solution. Perhaps "laws" is a wrong metaphor, for they presuppose a lawgiver? (Natural selection has a similar problem: we know human selection, but does Nature really "select"? We know man-made laws, but does Nature really have laws like that?)

  8. Without “God”, the god of chance “creates” (??) the laws of nature, which have been denoted to observable patterns

    Salmon considers the concept of laws of nature to be "inexplicable within a mindless, unconscious, non-living world". Is that because in his mind they can only be given by a Law-giver? Is the alternative metaphor of "habits" (Sheldrake, Wilber) any better, where they presuppose a Self having these habits?

  9. The absurdity of believing the patterns arising by chance can persist unchanged for billions of years in a mindless, dead, non-conscious universe

    What's so absurd for patterns to persist, if there is no force in Nature that prevents this? Why can't galaxies be like hurricanes on a cosmic scale, self-organized structures that have a life span of its own, even if that lasts billions of years? Salmon declares this to be absurd, but why?

  10. In a dead, mindless, unconscious universe, there is no reason why the patterns couldn’t stop altogether, or at least, change radically at any moment—and don’t try to refute this (as so many have) using (unwittingly) the laws of nature as the basis for your refutation!

    Salmon takes mindlessness to be idential to capriciousness, but it beats me why he does this. Is he dreaming? In dreams, the laws or regularities of Nature can be suspended just like that, but in the real world? Really? Seriously?

  11. Why are we not astonished every moment, that these patterns all around us persist and persist and persist? And why aren’t we even more astonished that we’ve been conditioned by the fundamaterialist/physicalist faith to believe these patterns arose and continue—just by chance (yes, I know, because of the laws of nature, right?)

    Salmon here endorses the philosophy of WOW! Wonder is at the start of science, not the end. And science doesn't kill the wonder, as is often assumed, it it enhances it with knowledge. Should we really be surprised that the Sun comes up every morning, now that we understand these laws of physics? Might the Sun really decide one day NOT to rise? What magical worldview is that?

  12. Given the above, there’s absolutely no reason—at least, as long as we cling bitterly (thank you President Obama) to our physicalist faith—why at any moment, a rabbit might not turn into a roller-coaster

    Only in your dreams, Don.

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