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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.

Something Rather Than Nothing

Where Wilber and Science Part Ways

Frank Visser

if we can't explain that Deeper Order, what's the point of invoking it as an "explanation" of the reality we see around us?

The concept of Nothing has caught on in recent popular cosmological literature. The idea that the universe has resulted from a mysterious Nothing, is taken seriously by many physicists.[1] What is more, Something may not only have come from Nothing, it may actually be Nothing, depending how you look at it.[2] To the perennial question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" science would answer these days: Nothing is unstable, and Something is bound to arise, given the Universe as it is. The question is no longer the big Mystery it was thought to be, requiring spiritual explanations.

How does this compare to Wilber's musings about our cosmic beginnings?

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

On the very first page of Wilber's magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995) he contrasts the materialistic, mechanistic view of science—mockingly called by Wilber the "philosophy of oops", which he considers to be "about as infantile a response as the human condition could possibly offer"—with his own spiritual outlook on life, which has been inspired by the wisdom of the ages. It tells us that "something else is going on, something quite other than oops". It is worth quoting this key passage in full, for it shows how Wilber tries to position and justify his integral project vis-a-vis science—and ridicule science in the process:

It is flat-out strange that something - that anything - is happening at all. There was nothing, then a Big Bang, then here we all are. This is extremely weird.

To Schelling's burning question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?," there have always been two general answers. The first might be called the philosophy of "oops." The universe just occurs, there is nothing behind it, it's all ultimately accidental or random, it just is, it just happens - oops! The philosophy of oops, no matter how sophisticated and adult it may on occasion appear - its modern names and numbers are legion, from positivism to scientific materialism, from linguistic analysis to historical materialism, from naturalism to empiricism - always comes down to the same basic answer, namely, "Don't ask."

The question itself (Why is anything at all happening? Why am I here?) - the question itself is said to be confused, pathological, nonsensible, or infantile. To stop asking such silly or confused questions is, they all maintain, the mark of maturity, the sign of growing up in this cosmos.

I don't think so. I think the "answer" these "modern and mature" disciplines give - namely, oops! (and therefore, "Don't ask!") - is about as infantile a response as the human condition could possibly offer.

The other broad answer that has been tendered is that something else is going on: behind the happenstance drama is a deeper or higher or wider pattern, or order, or intelligence. There are, of course, many varieties of this "Deeper Order": the Tao, God, Geist, Maat, Archetypal Forms, Reason, Li, Mahamaya, Braham, Rigpa. And although these different varieties of the Deeper Order certainly disagree with each other at many points, they all agree on this: the universe is not what it appears. Something else is going on, something quite other than oops.... (p. 3)

What Wilber doesn't seem to realize in this passage is that this argument can backfire, for one could with equal right ask and repeat the question: Why is there Spirit, Tao, God, Geist? Wouldn't that lead to the same "Oops" response? To the same "infantile" response: "Don't ask"? For who actually created the Creator? And if we can't explain that Deeper Order, what's the point of invoking it as an "explanation" of the reality we see around us? With the added drawback that the religious answer cannot specify any of the details, where the science answer at least attempts to do so—and succeeds remarkably well, as we will see below.

Given that that's the case, isn't it much more economical and fruitful to explore what the so-called "scientific philosophy of Oops" actually has to say about reality? That turns out a rich and rewarding adventure indeed, paradoxically coming to the same conclusion as Wilber: "The universe is not what it appears. Something else is going on..." But on a much sturdier empirical foundation...


For example, cosmologist and vocal atheist Lawrence Krauss' recent book A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing (2012) explores both the history and the latest findings of cosmology and defends the idea that science has actually quite a lot to say about how the world came about.

It all started with a lecture held in 2009, sponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and which can be viewed on YouTube (it went truly viral and has received around 1.7 million views by now, which is remarkable for an abtruse topic like this).

First enjoy the original, before I try to summarize the message of Krauss. The lecture lasts about an hour and is worth listening to, give the brashness and liveliness of Krauss' presentation:

Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing.

“It turns out that in a flat universe the total amount of energy is precisely zero... What is so beautiful about a universe which has a total energy of zero? Well, only such a universe can begin from nothing. And that is remarkable. Because, the laws of physics allow a universe to begin from nothing - you don't need a Deity!”
—Lawrence Krauss, Lecture Richard Dawkins Foundation, 2009 (video 32:48-33:18)

This lecture went online and generated a lot of responses, from many corners both theist and atheist, and Krauss decided to elaborate his ideas into a book including and responding to this feedback he got. In the book, he also provides historical background to the question of the origins of our universe. In less than 200 pages, the reader is educated into how science regards this perennial questions these days.

Not that science has the final answers. For Krauss writes in his Preface:

The purpose of this book is simple. I want to show how modern science, in various guises, can address and is addressing the question of why there is something rather than nothing: The answers that have been obtained—from staggeringly beautiful experimental observations, as well as from the theories that underlie much of modern physics—all suggest that getting something from nothing is not a problem. Indeed, something from nothing may have been required for the universe to come into being. Moreover, all signs suggest that this is how our universe could have arisen. (p. xiii)

For sure, required reading for those integralists, who think they have science in their pockets—read: have safely put it into one of the Right-Hand quadrants of the Wilberian AQAL model—and can move on to wider integral and spiritualist speculations.

The "Why" in the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is turned into a more approachable How-question by Krauss: "How is there something rather than nothing?" If we can reconstruct the processes at the time of the Big Bang or very close to it, we can reach alternative explanations that have more plausibility than the spiritual "explanations" of the past.

Krauss, being an atheist, writes that plausibility is the most we can aim for in theses domains of science:

Just as Darwin, albeit reluctantly, removed the need for divine intervention in the evolution of the modern world, teeming with diverse life throughout the planet (though he left the door open to the possibility that God helped breathe life into the first forms), our current understanding of the universe, its past, and its future make it more plausible that "something" can arise out of nothing without the need for any divine guidance. Because the observational and related theoretical difficulties associated with working out the details, I expect we may never achieve more than plausibility in this regard. But plausibility itself, in my view, is a tremendous step forward as we continue to marshal the courage to live meaningful lives in a universe that likely came into existence, and may fade out of existence, without purpose, and certainly without us at its center. (p. 147-8)
Lawrence Krauss
“Getting something from nothing
is not a problem.”

The most remarkable conclusion drawn by Krauss is that Nothing, for from being the emptiness imagined by past philosophers and theologians, actually is a Something of its own. "Empty" space brims with energy and potentiality! The energy of empty space (nothing) gets converted to the energy of something". So Nothing, in the modern understanding of science, is not really nothing. We can theorize about this "nothingness" which existed at the base of the universe. Not to mention that idea that the total energy of the whole cosmos is zero! That greatly changes the feasibility and the magnitude of the task of creating a cosmos.

In the final chapter Krauss comes to the conclusion that in the end its the search that matters, and not the final theory of everything—if there can every be one:

Why is there something rather than nothing? Ultimately, this question may be no more significant or profound than asking why some flowers are red and some are blue. "Something" may always come from nothing. It may be required, independent of the underlying nature of reality. Or perhaps "something" may not be very special or even very common in the multiverse. Either way, what is really useful is not pondering this question, but rather participating in the exciting voyage of discovery that may reveal specifically how the universe in which we live evolved and is evolving and the process that ultimately operationally governs our existence. That is why we have science. We may supplement this understanding with reflection and call that philosophy. But only via continuing to probe every nook and cranny of the universe that is accessible to us will we truly build a useful appreciation of our own place in the cosmos. (p. 178-9)

Now go back to Wilber's original statement about this fundamental question why there is something rather than nothing:

It is flat-out strange that something - that anything - is happening at all. There was nothing, then a Big Bang, then here we all are. This is extremely weird.

This would exactly be the point where scientists start their investigations—and where Wilber ends his. This is where Wilber and science part ways.


[1] Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, Free Press, 2012.

[2] Amanda Gefter, Tresspassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, Bantam, 2014.

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