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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.

Eros as Skyhook

Ken Wilber Meets Daniel Dennett

Frank Visser

‘Why should the excellence of anything have to rain down on it from on high, from something more important, a gift from God?’
—Daniel Dennett

In 1995 Ken Wilber's published his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (the planned first volume of the Kosmos-trilogy, the second volume of which now seems to be in its final editing phase). In Wilber's visionary work, evolution is pictured as driven, if not by Spirit itself, than at least by some "intra-natural", Divine force of Eros, which alone can assemble myriads of scattered atoms into the magnificent complexities of conscious beings. Doesn't that make eminent sense? How else could complexity have arisen, especially since the main trend in nature—following the Second Law of Thermodynamics—is that order, in the long run, disappears.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

In that same year, another major study of evolution was published, but this time from the strictly scientific, "reductionist" position. Philosopher Daniel Dennett published his Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995). Wilber's and Dennett's views on evolution are diametrically opposite. Wilber's efforts in this area have served only one purpose: to suggest or insinuate that a purely scientific view of evolution isn't enough to explain the "creative emergence" of Nature. The examples Wilber has given of the failures of science are well-known: eyes, wings, the immune system, tadpoles... the list is endless. Not that Wilber has covered much of evolutionary science and its findings in his works, far from it. Apparently he feels justified in only implying that science needs some help in this regard, by handing out some catchy examples (without providing any reference to research). Dennett, on the other hand, confidently defends the "reductionist" approach, which sees the opposite alternative as a non-starter. For if God, or Spirit , or Eros has had a hand in the magnificent complexities of science, that would spell the end of science.


Given the integralist disdain for "reductionistic" arguments, it seems opportune to follow Dennett's reasoning more closely. After all, he is the iconic defender of the reductionistic approach to life and consciousness. In Chapter 3 called "Universal Acid", he mentions in passing the traditional outlook on Nature described by Arthur Lovejoy as a Great Chain of Being. In his earlier works, Wilber had promoted this idea as the context and backbone of his developmental model, though in recent times he prefers a "post-metaphysical" interpretation of this worldview.

In Dennett's terminology, Darwin's work can be read as an assault on the "Cosmic Pyramid", the notion that behind all the chaos and order we see in Nature, the Hand of God is present (figure adapted from Darwin's Dangerous Idea, p. 64):

O r d e r
C  h  a  o  s
N  o  t  h  i  n  g

In the traditional view, God is behind everything, all of creation. His Mind designed all beings, and created order from chaos. This is sometimes called the mind-first approach. We can, however, see the circularity of this explanation. If it took intelligence to create intelligence, what created the original intelligence? If God created everything, what created God? This brings us no further. Darwin, on the other hand, took the opposite approach:

Give me Order, [Darwin] says, and time, and I will give you Design. Let me start with the regularities of physics—and I will show you a process that eventually will yield products that exhibit not just regularity but purposive design. (p. 65)

Both views take an evolutionary approach, but Wilber sees evolution as driven by Eros, all the way from the level of atoms up to that of human consciousness, where Dennett sees order as arising from disorder, following natural processes.

Dennett raised a fundamental question, addressed to those who reject reductionism as superficial and threatening to their spiritual points of view:

Why, we might ask..., would its being a by-product of mindless, purposeless forces make it trivial? Why couldn't the most important thing of all be something that arose from unimportant things? Why should the excellence of anything have to rain down on it from on high, from something more important, a gift from God? Darwin's inversion suggests that we abandon that presumption and look for sorts of excellence, of worth and purpose, that can emerge, bubbling up out of "mindless, purposeless forces". (p. 66)

Wilber, for one, is deeply skeptical of the idea that the higher can come out of the lower. As he is fond of saying: "Why would dirt get up and write poetry?" That, however, is a deeply un-evolutionary point of view. Poetry comes out of the ability to use metaphors. Which comes out of the ability to use images. Which comes out of the ability to retain sensory images. Which.... well, you get the idea. Leaving out all these many intermediate steps might do well as a rhetorical device, but it doesn't count as scientifically acceptable reasoning.

Concerning the supposed contradiction between evolutionary growth towards complexity and the Second Law, Dennett writes:

In physics, order or organization can be measured in terms of heat differences between regions of space time; entropy is simply disorder, the opposite of order, and according to the Second Law, the entropy of any isolated system increases with time. In other words, things run down, inevitably. According to the Second Law, the universe is unwinding out of a more ordered state into the ultimately disordered state known as the heat death of the universe. (p. 68-69)

This notion of science—a virtual consensus—Wilber has recently ridiculed in an online talk ("Integral in Action with Ken Wilber", Conscious2, October 10th, 2015):

The whole notion that the universe is 'running down' is ridiculous.

But Dennett continues his investigation:

What, then, are living things? They are things that defy this crumbling into dust, at least for a while, by not being isolated—by taking in from the environment the wherewithal to keep life and limb together. (p. 69)
A designed thing, then, is either a living thing or a part of a living thing, or the artifact of a living thing, organized in any case in aid of this battle against disorder. It is not impossible to oppose the trand of the Second Law, but is is costly. (p. 69)

We have mentioned this crucial concept many times in our discussion of the views of Big History: energy use is what matters most in the universe. It is not a trivial thing in the sense that we just have to eat to live. Life is defined by the capacity to extract energy from its surroundings. This is an opportunity Wilber has never explored. Instead, he is looking for cosmic "drives" that push evolution from a state of disordered nothingness to ordered design.

There is another reason Dennett values the idea of reductionism:

Only a theory with the logical shape of Darwin's [complex things have evolved from simple things] could explain how designed things came to exist, because any other sort of explanation would be either a vicious circle or an infinite regress [who designed the designer?] (p. 70)

In the reductionist view of evolution, consciousness is the outcome of evolution, its result, made possible by complex physical phenomena such as brains. In the spiritual or quasi-spiritual view of evolution, consciousness is posited somehow at the beginning, as the source of all apparent design. The question how this primordial consciousness acts on unordered matter is never satisfactorily answered.


Dennett approaches the products of evolution from the standpoint of Research and Development. Complex biological organisms (and their magnificently complex organs) exhibit a lot of design. But how could unintelligent processes create intelligence? For Dennett it is clear that "explaining" intelligence out of previous intelligence is just begging the question of how intelligence originated in the first place. Darwin avoided this trap:

Darwin's shows us how to climb from "Absolute Ignorance" (as his outraged critic said) to creative genius without begging any questions, but we must tread very carefully, as we shall see. (p. 74, emphasis added).

How "question begging" is Wilber's notion of Eros, as the prime drive behind evolution, actually? For Wilber, evolution is essentially a spiritual phenomenon, of which science can only scratch the outer surface:

Thus evolution, far from being an antispiritual movement—as so many Romantics and antimodernists and virtually all premodern cultures imagined—is actually the concrete unfolding, holarchical integration, and self-actualization of Spirit itself. Evolution is the mode and manner of Spirit's creation of the entire manifest world, not one item of which is left untouched by its all-encompassing embrace.
Henceforth, any spirituality that did not embrace evolution was doomed to extinction. Modern science, after the collapse, would reject the spiritual nature of evolution but retain the notion of evolution itself. Modern science, that is, would give us the exteriors of evolution—its surfaces and forms—but not its interiors— including Spirit itself. But even science would realize that evolution is universal, touching everything in existence, and, as Daniel Dennett put it, "like 'universal acid,' evolution eats through every other explanation for life, mind, and culture." How could it not, when it is actually Spirit-in-action, and Spirit embraces all? (The Marriage of Sense and Soul, 1998, p. 110)

It doesn't help if Wilber phrases this insight nowadays in more "post-metaphysical" language: Spirit—even if conceived as the Buddhist emptiness or suchness—is still running the show for him. For reductionists like Dennett and Dawkins, evolution itself is the "greatest show on earth".

From the standpoint of intellectual economy (and honesty) it is advisable "to tread very carefully", as Dennett advises us, and resist the temptation to declare the manifold wonders of Nature as the result of a cosmic or spiritual Force.

It is interesting that Dennett (following Darwin) retains the vertical arrangement of the traditional Cosmic Pyramid, with the difference that it is now a measure of "designedness" or complexity, having evolved from below, instead of as a measure of spirituality. (One might compare this to Wilber's notion of "altitude", which also is based on some "verticality" in Nature, even if he has rejected the metaphysical doctrine of the Great Chain of Being as ontological levels).

Dennett introduces the distinction between "cranes" and "skyhooks"—which is worth exploring in more detail here. Skyhooks are like the gods in ancient plays, that intervened like a deus ex machina, a sudden twist of plot, to bring a play to a conclusion. They do work, but in a totally inexplicable way. Cranes, however, do the same amount of work, but "they do it in an honest, non-question begging fashion." (p. 75):

They are expensive, however. They have to be designed and built, from everyday parts already on hand, and they have to be located on a firm base of existing ground. Skyhooks are miraculous lifted, unsupported and insupportable. Cranes are no less excellent as lifters, and they have the decided advantage of being real... Cascading cranes is a tactic that seldom if every gets used more than once in real-world construction projects, but in principle there is no limit to the number of cranes that could be organized to accomplish some mighty end. (p. 75)

Contrary to Wilber's suggestion that there is no reason the "dirt would get up and write poetry", Dennett believes Nature has evolved in tiny steps, that can be reconstructed as the works of millions of natural cranes. Wilber's Eros, however, is one big Skyhook, which seems to do all the work that natural processes on their own could not accomplish.

Could evolution really have worked in this bottom-up way? It seems unbelievable:

It does seem incredible. Could it really have happened? Or did the process need a "leg up" now and then (perhaps only at the very beginning) from one sort of skyhook or another? For over a century, skeptics have been trying to find a proof that Darwin's idea just can't work, at least not all the way. They have been hoping for, hunting for, praying for skyhooks, as exceptions to what they see as the bleak vision of Darwin's algorithm churning away. And time and again, they have come up with truly interesting challenges—leaps and gaps and other marvels that do seem, at first, to need skyhooks. But then along have come the cranes, discovered in many cases by the very skeptics who were hoping to find a skyhook. (p. 77)

Hasn't Wilber exactly been doing this in all of his dealings with evolutionary theory: find a case (the human eye, the bird's wing, the immune system) that could NOT be explained, at least not fully by evolutionary theory. So that at least some kind of skyhook (like Eros) would be at least a plausible idea?

For integralists it is easy to dismiss Dennett's proposals as "reductionism"—"quadrant absolutism!"—interesting details perhaps, but never capable of providing the complete picture of evolution. So convenient, if you can push aside all the science patiently has discovered, as "not enough", and to hold on to one's favored spiritual explanations. I, for one, have lost interest over the years in such cheap and easy spiritual narratives.

Compare Dennett's almost 600 page treatise devoted wholly to the tenets of Darwinism to Wilber's almost equally voluminous treatise on "the spirit of evolution", containing only a handful references to evolutionary principles (when giving out the Twenty Tenets of evolution), and never any reference to biological research. What would give you more confidence in believing its statements? Haven't you noticed that in all of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality there is nothing to be found about sex—not in the sense of human relationships (that was planned for the next volume) but even worse, nothing about the evolutionary history of reproduction? Exactly nothing?

Looking for a scientific explanation of evolutionary complexity is in the end more rewarding:

The passion that drove the research [of critics of Darwinism] was the hope of finding a skyhook; the triumph was finding how the same work could be done by a crane. (p. 80)


‘It is simply the commitment to non-question begging science without any cheating by embracing mysteries or miracles at the outset.’
—Daniel Dennett

Dennett concludes the chapter with a few remarks about reductionism. It has often been used as a term of abuse:

Those who yearn for skyhooks call those who eagerly settle for cranes "reductionists," and they can often make reductionism seem philistine and heartless, if not downright evil. (p. 80)

Reductionism, however, comes in many varieties. There is what Dennett calls greedy reductionism, which seeks to explain anything to its lowest component (e.g. sub-atomic particles), and there is proper reductionism, which understands that question-begging explanations are just not part of science. No sane reductionist is really looking for "A Comparison of Keats and Shelley from the Molecular Point of View", as he humorously states (p. 81). The same is true of the term "mechanicism", as a despicable way of explaining the phenomena of life. But even a Sheldrake, with his morphogenetic field, postulates a "mechanism" behind observed phenomena, in the form of non-specified invisible fields. There is simply no other way to get to an explanation.

Most people who are afraid of reductionism think it will remove all mystery and meaning from existence. Others consider finding the scientific truth behind existence a meaningful enterprise in itself. A more "more reasonable and realistic fear", Dennett concedes, "is that the greedy abuse of Darwinian reasoning might lead us to deny the existence of real levels, real complexity, real phenomena." (p. 83)

Dennett specifies his understanding of reductionism:

We must distinguish reductionism, which is in general a good thing, from greedy reductionism, which is not. The difference, in the context of Darwin's theory, is simple: greedy reductionists think that everything can be explained without cranes, good reductionists think that everything can be explained without skyhooks.

There is no reason to be compromising about what I call good reductionism. It is simply the commitment to non-question begging science without any cheating by embracing mysteries or miracles at the outset. (p. 82)

Those who postulate a cosmic drive towards complexity in evolution (biologically and cosmologically), such as Wilber does, need to explain why there are still fish, or amphibians, or great apes, for that matter. Why didn't everything evolve to the level of present human beings? Was Eros to weak to push everything onwards and upwards? Those who deny such a drive—and that's the standpoint of reductionistic science—need to explain why anything has evolved at all. Science goes a long way into accomplishing this, for the first Hydrogen atoms to the present. In the end, its all about where the burden of proof lies.

The question I would want to leave in the readers mind is: to what extent is Wilber's Eros just a convenient Skyhook? Has he carefully considered the Darwinian case, or has he prematurely decided on a spiritual narrative, however post-metaphysically rephrased?

How question-begging is it, in fact, to say, as Wilber does:

To say that the manifest universe is evolving is not necessarily to endorse all of the neo-Darwinian view of evolution... I'm no fan of Intelligent Design, either, which is just Creation Science in drag. But you don't need an intelligent designer to realize that evolution seems to involve some sort of "creative allure," or what Whitehead called "the creative advance into novelty." That drive—Eros by any other name—seems a perfectly realistic conclusion, given the facts of evolution as we understand them (sic). Let's just say there is plenty of room for a Kosmos of Eros." (Integral Spirituality, 2006, p. 236, fn.)

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