Ken Wilber: “The whole notion that the universe is 'running down' is ridiculous.”
Some Reflections on
“Integral in Action with Ken Wilber”
On Saturday October 10th, 2015, Conscious 2 (an online platform for mindfulness, yoga and spiritual teachings) presented a 3-hour interview by Alex Howard with Ken Wilber on his life and work called “Integral in Action with Ken Wilber”, which was recorded in Wilber's own loft in Denver before an audience of invited students. It was the kick-off for a 6-month online conference called "Integral in Action". Presented as a Q&A session, it was (of course) mostly a monologue by Wilber, punctuated by safe questions such as "What do you think of art?" Here are some of my own, related to the integral worldview.
“But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope.”
Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington
In these three hours Wilber covered a host of topics, ranging from his own intellectual development, his first writings as a 23 year old kid, his early success, and subsequent huge literary output of 25+ books on psychology and spirituality (loosely presented as a Theory of Everything). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1996) was a first landmark in presenting a truly integral philosophy and was followed by further refinements. Originally planned as the first volume of a so-called Kosmos trilogy, the second volume will appear next yeartwenty years after it's opening volume. In the integral philosophy, all human knowledge is brought to a synthesis, a "super map", in "which nothing fundamental is left out". Premodern traditions, modern science and postmodern approaches all find their place in an all encompassing framework, called AQAL for short (for "All Quadrants, All Levels").
We won't go into the details of this model, and we will also briefly mention that Wilber's ideas on psychology and spirituality are often inspiring and innovative. This is where his expertise fundamentally lies. It's where he applies this developmental model of consciousness to society at large, suggesting that cultural development follows roughly the same steps as individual development, or when he reaches out to the cosmos at large, in which he sees a principle at work (Eros) that drives both cosmic evolution, biological evolution and human history, that he is on less safe ground. Blowing op a developmental model to such a grand scaleeven if being an aggregate of close to 200 modelsis asking for trouble, or at least criticism from these fields of knowledge. My own focus on Integral World has been, in the past decade, on Wilber's treatment of evolutionary theory, and on his ideas about "what makes the cosmos tick".
According to Wilber, science has it all wrong when it proclaims that "the universe is winding down", as we will see in detail below. This casual phrase refers to the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics, of which it has been said that if your theory violates the Second Law, "there is no hope for you". Here's a graphic quote from Eddington:
The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation. Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1927), Wikipedia.
Arthur Stanley Eddington
“... entropy always increases... ”
This quote requires some explanation, for those not versed in the jargon of physics. Here's a popular definition from Rudolf Clausius: "The entropy of an isolated system not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium." Entropy is the phenomenon that Nature strives for equilibrium (there are many other ways to state this law, but this is a homely one). Atmospheric currents always go from a high pressure area to a low pressure area. Your cup of hot tea always cools when you leave it on the table, and will never heat up by itself. Ink will disperse in water when you pour it in a bucket. And so on. From a situation where the difference between two states or conditions is highly marked ("far from equilibrium"), the difference will decrease more and more until a state of perfect equilibrium has been reached.
Interestingly, only in a conditions far-from-equilibrium work can be done (i.e. a sailing ship can sail due to differences in air pressure, i.e. when there is "wind"). So even though the end goal of natural phenomena and processes will be a state of stale equilibrium, or "heat death" when it comes to the cosmos at large Wilber's "winding down"whenever gradients occur within the cosmoswhich can be in temperature, chemistry of any other dimensioninteresting things become possible. But note this can only happen in open systems, such as the Earth, which receive a continuous influx of energy from the Sun. The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to closed systems only. If the Sun stopped burning, life would disappear very soon indeed. The Eros Wilber postulates to explain complexity is in reality the solar energy (as gravity is the main driver of the genesis of the elements in the super-hot core of stars). Recently, origin-of-life theorists have pointed to hydrothermal and chemical gradients that might have been crucial in the emergence of life in deep-sea vents. The crucial thing here is the influx of energy, without which nothing would be possible.
EROS VERSUS CHANCE AND CHAOS?
It is truly astonishing that Wilber still keeps peddling this infantile story about how everything came into existence.
So where, then, does complexity come from, if all of Nature is bent on reaching a state of dull equilibrium? That is an interesting question that deserves to be treated in several conferences. Science is working hard, and successfully so, on answering that very question. Wilber will not tell you very much about it. He is not bothered at all by Eddington's admonition. He claims that there's a force in the Universe, called Eros, which goes against the forces of chance and chaos, to produce ever more complex wholes, and every more conscious unities, as we can observe, so he argues, in the sequence from atoms to molecules to cells, all the way to the complex human brain, which has more connections than there are stars in the universe.
"Evolution itself is driven by the creation of increasing, holistic, increasing wholes, increasing unities.
And the whole notion of the universe as 'running down' is ridiculous. I mean, it is NOT!
It started with the Big Bang with strings and quarks.
Over tens of thousands of years quarks started to come together as sub-atomic particles. That's an increase in wholeness.
And then thousands of years later sub-atomic particles started to come together as atoms. Another increase in wholeness.
Thousands of years laters these atoms come together and form molecules. Another huge leap in wholeness!
And then in a staggering leap, at some point, dozens of very large molecules, just hanging around together, and a cell wall dropped around them, and a living cell emerged.
And then those cells became multi-cellular organisms, they were very simple at first, got more complex, added neurocords, added reptilian brain stems, added paleo-mammalian limbic systems, added neocortex...
Ehm, THAT is a universe winding UP. It is not a universe winding DOWN.
It is not a universe becoming more and more dispersed and separated and isolated. It is a universe coming together in higher and higher wholes.
Until we finally come to the human brain, which has more synaptic connections than there are stars in the universe." (50:00-52:00 minutes in the video).
It is truly astonishing that Wilber still keeps peddling this infantile story about how everything came into existence. It doesn't have the slightest connection to what science has painstakingly unraveled about the genesis of the elements or the complexities of biochemistry. Apparently, this explanation satisfies the integral audience. He doesn't make the elementary distinction between a local increase in order facilitated by a global increase of disorder. No, it is "the universe is winding down" or "the universe is winding up".
For a scientific view of the most probable view on the ultimate fate of the universe, see paragraph "The Future Looks Black" of my essay "Is the Universe Really Winding Up?".
“We, as complex creatures, desperately need
to know this story of how the universe
creates complexity, despite the Second Law.”
Reality is much more complex, and much more interesting! The field of Big History might have so much to offer in bringing solid scientific facts to the integral table. As David Christian, one of the founders of this discipline, stated it: “We, as complex creatures, desperately need to know this story of how the universe creates complexity, despite the Second Law... And why complexity means vulnerability and fragility.” For sure an interesting area for comparative research. Note the difference in tone where Wilber seems to almost deny the Second Law“the universe isn't winding down, it is winding up”, in favor of his Erotic Universe, where Christian sees complexity arising "despite the Second Law".
This rather careless statement“evolution itself is driven [by Eros]”implies that science cannot handle any increase in complexity and consciousness (except perhaps the so called complexity and chaos sciences, which Wilber thinks are on board with his integral model), but that with the help of the postulated Eros everything becomes comprehensible. Everywhere he sees a "drive towards self-organization", which explains the occurrence of growth in complexity and consciousness.
I have argued on many occasions, that this view is highly problematic. First, a postulated "drive-towards-self-organization" explains nothing. Why do giraffes exist? Self-organization. What produces Uranium? Self-organization. Why do we develop? Self-organization. Very soon, this becomes an empty notion. Second, the notion of self-organization, when used as a catch phrase to "explain" complex phenomena, overlooks that these phenomena only occur when certain conditions are met. You can self-organize as much as you want, but without the proper conditions being met you won't come very far.
Even if Eros produced life on earth, why did it fail on other planets on our Solar system, which look inhospitable and barren to our human eyes? Is this force not strong enough when conditions prevail that prevent the emergence of life. And this is the third objection I have against the poetic notion of Eros, it can't be specified or quantified. Is it interfering with the pervasive force of entropy here and there, to produce human beings from apes (as Wallace thought)? Or is it a much bigger force fully balancing the forces of decay? Furthermore, the notion of a "drive" seems incompatible with that of "self-organization". Either an organism is driven by an external force, or it "self-organized", but you can't have it both ways. (It doesn't help that Wilber sees Eros not as an external force, but an "intra-natural" force of Nature).
I have often used the example of a hurricane, which can be seen as the result of self-organization in nature. But it makes no sense to suppose there is a "drive towards hurricanes" in nature, that would be an empty gesture. It is only when certain conditions are met, and these can be precisely formulated, like sea water temperature, air temperature, air pressure and so on, that hurricanes emerge, grow, rage and die out when they reach land. So conditions are of prime importance in explaining the origin and workings of so called self-organized systems.
What's even more interesting, but now we go deeper into fields of science than Wilber will every go, is that these examples of self-organization don't violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but, on the contrary, efficiently help it in its many workings. For hurricanes turn out to be very efficient systems to reduce differences in air temperature and pressure. Now it definitely becomes interesting! Rather than having two opposing forces, one heading towards decay and equilibrium, the other towards organization and complexity, which is able to do work, we have a local form of self-organization, which is surrounded by a sea of entropy, in the form of dispersed heat. The example of our solar system is always instructive. It's because the Sun pours its energy on our Earth every single second things on Earth become possibleeven if the Sun is burning itself up. So the origin of complexity cannot be explained without looking carefully at what energy exchanges occur. Local complexity can therefore not only coincide with global entropy, it is made possible by it!
When we look up at the stars at night, we see
energy depletion at work on truly massive scales.
When we look up at the stars at night, we see energy depletion at work on a truly massive scale. Every single star is burning itself up, relentlessly and unavoidably. Even our own Sun, an average star, will go dark after its life time of 10 billion years (we are about half-way, so don't worry). What is more, stars turn out to be very efficient means of creating disorder, in the form of intense heat which is dispersed into the stone-cold universe. How did they come to be then? Not by some cosmic and creative drive-towards-stars, but by gravity, another prime law in the universe.
One can say the universe is a big battery charged by gravity and depleted by entropy.
Turning to life on Earth, it is easy to construct a sequence from simple to complex life forms and postulate a "drive towards complexity" to "explain" it all. But does it explain anything? Or does it describe at most what seems to be the case, only at first glance? I am reminded of an example Wilber has used in the past to make his point about Eros being behind the workings of Nature. In an earlier video presentation he argued that the whole sequence from Hydrogen to Helium to Lithium... all the way to the heaviest elements represents a mysterious, almost transcendental process, which defies any reductionistic explanation. Never mind that science has painstakingly unraveled the nuclear processes in the core of exploding stars which gave rise to all the known chemical elements... So much for Eros as explanation, or even a useful description of what's going on.
“I feign no hypotheses”
Our very bodies are made of elements cooked up in the heat of exploding stars. Isn't that more than enough to feel connected to the universe?
So it's not so much that I object to the notion of progress or progression in the cosmos and Nature, it's just that "Eros" might not be the best explanation for it. Likewise, nobody denies that things fall down, but the theory of gravity is not by all accounts the best explanation. Some physicists even say bluntly "gravity does not exist". Newton was accused of introducing occult forces with his idea of gravityaction at a distance across empty space, with no material intermediary?but he kept silent on its deeper cause and replied "I feign no hypotheses".
For Wilber, evolution is a matter of "transcend and include, transcend and include, transcend and include"his favorite mantra which seems to apply to all phenomena on the realms of matter, life, mind and culture. But does it help stating that amphibians transcend (and include) fish, or reptiles transcend (and include) amphibians, and mammals transcend (and include) reptiles, except in a very general and abstract sense? How exactly does that explain the intermediary steps between these classes of animals, which science, again, has painstakingly unraveled and studied? For Wilber all this only goes to prove the existence of a transcendental Eros in Nature. For me, this amounts to giving up on finding a naturalistic cause. It's no coincidence Wilber has never really engaged the fields of astronomy or evolutionary theory, for it would endanger his facile and sweeping statements of what principles govern these realms of Nature.
When it comes to the domains of mind (and culture) and spirit, Wilber is on firmer ground, and as said, his ideas are often interesting and inspiring. Even then, I would not accept them uncritically. Claiming deeper knowledge without real expertise which has been tested on the ground is a dicey affair. This certainly applies to world politics, about which Wilber has often made some general statements. But with all the knowledge he claims to have of human cultures, past and present, where was his analysis of the War in Iraq and its disastrous consequences? Instead, he insinuated back then that those opposing this war were in fact Saddam-enablers... (I am serious).
The interface of mind and spirit is Wilber's stronghold, and we would do well to study his ideas here carefully. He certainly has a point that spiritual traditions not only consist of fundamentalistic belief system (we can do without them, thank you) but also contain spiritual disciplines, practical technologies, which offer ways of transcendence such as meditation, which could benefit even modern and postmodern humanity. He favorably mentions Sam Harris in this context, a "new atheist" who explicitly (and surprisingly to many) promotes meditation, and laments the effort of Dawkins, Hitchens and Hawking to simply "bash religion as such".
That does not mean, however, that modernity should uncritically accept notions of the World-Ground or Ultimate Reality that meditators can supposedly contact in their introspective moods. Wilber is fond of stating this as "being one with the manifested universe"how realistic is that? Or even worse, notions of spiritual forces behind evolution, such as Wilber's Eros, which are presented by him as the deepest Truth in Nature. Not to mention an "evolutionary spirituality", interpreted by Wilber as the Religion of the Future, which aligns human beings with the Force of Creativity that goes all the way back to the Big Bang. Here spiritual story telling has replaced the sober and solid analysis of science.
It is in these wider areas, I feel, that Wilber exemplifies a case of "integral overstretch", which damages his reputation of an otherwise interesting integrationist. In my opinion, Wilber would be best served by students who question his many claims and statements instead of taking his philosophy as a psycho-spiritual model with cosmic proportions and applications. In the video, Wilber related that he quit a promising career in medical science because it didn't give him what he wanted: creativity and meaning. Four decades later, he has created a literary universe full of creativity and meaning.
But what's wrong with a universe that doesn't want anything from us? That just is there, in its majestic expanse? Without it, we would not have been here in the first place. Our very bodies are made of elements cooked up in the heat of exploding stars. Isn't that more than enough to feel connected to the universe?
SOUND BITES BY KEN WILBER FROM THE VIDEO
“We cannot afford NOT to study integral philosophy. It is about realities becoming more and more important in history.”
“Studying medicine at Duke didn't give me what I needed: meaning, creativity.”
“We have created a composite map of the world, a 'super map'.”
“The integral model is basically complete, nothing fundamental is left out.”
“From quark to atoms to molecules... to brains... the universe is 'winding up'.”
“Evolution is driven by Eros, not by random mutation and natural selection.”
Thermodynamics is a branch of physics that studies the movement of heat between different objects. Thermodynamics also studies the change in pressure and volume of objects... Thermodynamics is useful because it helps us understand how the world of the very small atoms connects to the large scale world we see everyday.
The second law of thermodynamics states that whenever energy is transformed from one form to another form, entropy increases and energy decreases. In other words: over time, differences in temperature, pressure, and density tend to even out in a horizontal plane, but not in a vertical plane due to the force of gravity.
A real life example of an open system is the Earth. The surface gets a lot of energy from the Sun every day. This allows plants to grow and water to stay liquid. If we took away the Sun, plants would die and water would freeze up because the surface of our planet would be too cold.
Entropy: Embrace the Chaos!
“Life is chaos. The whole universe is chaos... The universe tends towards disorder. But why, why, is the universe structured in this terrible and callous way?”
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