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.

Paper presentated at the third International Big History Association Conference, University of Amsterdam, July 17th, 2016.

Integral Big History Association

Big History and
Integral Theory

Bill Bryson Meets Ken Wilber

Frank Visser

I recently (July 2016) presented the paper "Big History and Integral Theory: Bill Bryson Meets Ken Wilber" at the third International Big History Conference at the University of Amsterdam. Earlier essays on these two fields of integrative knowledge can be found here: Integral Theory and the Big History Approach (May 2013) and Integral Theory and Cosmic Evolution (December 2014). Together they form my attempt at comparing and contrasting these two comprehensive—but hardly overlapping—approaches to human knowledge.

It was a marvelous experience to meet with several people in the field of Big History (David Christian, Fred Spier and others) in an informal setting. Big History is about knowledge, but also about the love for knowledge and for teaching this knowledge to students and in high school. This love was palpable in many of the discussions I had. A good example can be found in the Bill Gates-sponsored educational website "Big History Project".

Due to time constraints, only half of this paper could be presented. This essay contains the full text.


“Because there is more light here”

First a disclaimer. I have no university affiliation. I graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion in 1987, never to return again to the university. But I did manage to publish one of my books at an academic publishing house: Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY Press, 2003). It is a summary of the work of American autodidact philosopher Ken Wilber, who has single-handedly developed a big picture model called Integral Philosophy. You can imagine that this was the highlight of my academic career ;-). In my professional life I have always worked in book publishing or website support.

Who has never heard of Ken Wilber? (About half of the people in the audience raise their hand).

This lecture is part of the "Philosophy" time slot of the conference program, and philosophy is about asking questions. Asking the right questions. About our assumptions. Our perspectives. About a bias that we might have, or an intellectual blind spot. Big History has a certain perspective on reality. It aligns itself with the objective world. Some speakers in this conference have pointed to the need to bring the subjective or intersubjective back into our vision ("Bring the Anthropos back into the Anthropocene"). Ken Wilber's model is eminently suited for pointing out how this can be accomplished.

But first a little bit of humor, to make this point clear. You must have heard of Mulla Nashruddin, a Sufi Sheik who lived in, I believe, Azerbedjan, at the border with Turkey. He was a living example that humor and Islam could go together. He could make stupid comments that turn out to be very wise. In one of his stories he had lost his housekey:

A man is walking home late one night when he sees an anxious Mulla Nasrudin down on all fours, crawling on his hands and knees on the road, searching frantically under a street light for something on the ground.
“Mulla, what have you lost ?” the passer-by asks.
“I am searching for the key to my house,” Nasrudin says worriedly.
"I'll help you look," the man says and joins Mulla Nasrudin in the search.
Soon both men are down on their knees under the streetlight, looking for the lost key.
After some time, the man asks Nasrudin, “Tell me Mulla, do you remember where exactly did you drop the key ?”
Nasrudin waves his arm back toward the darkness and says, “Over there, in my house. I lost the key inside my house…”
Shocked and exasperated, the passer-by jumps up and shouts at Mulla Nasrudin, “Then why are you searching for the key out here in the street ?”
“Because there is more light here than inside my house,” Mulla Nasrudin answers nonchalantly.

"Because there is more light here." That's probably the reason we hear a lot on this conference about complexity, but not about consciousness. A lot about the brain, but not about the mind. A lot about history and evolution but not about development. It is a view from outside. It is understandable, "because there is more light there". But it clouds our view.

This is an important point in Wilber's philosophy, we see only what our perspective allows us to see. If we decide to look only with our physical senses, we shouldn't be surprised that all we find is physical. A famous book by the Dutch brain specialist Dick Swaab is titled "We Are Our Brain". But this is a conclusion. "We See Our Brain" would be more accurate. When we decide to allow only as fact what can be perceived by the bodily senses, we will see only the brain, nothing else. But when we decide to look with our inner eye of introspection, we see emotions and thoughts. As much facts as any other fact in the outside world, but more difficult to study. But not impossible.

If we decide to widen our view on reality like this, we might find a whole new universe, a whole new area for study and research.

To make this more explicit, I would like to raise the following questions:

  • Is Big History “The Framework for All Knowledge” or only of a certain type of knowledge?
  • How does (human) consciousness and interiority in general (or even spirituality) fit into a standard Big History framework?
  • Does Big History have an externalist bias, with its main focus on the hard empirical sciences?
  • Is the Big History field as it stands capable to cover “everything”, or is it in need of complementary approaches?


Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is the founder of what has been called Integral Philosophy. He is the author of over 25 books on science, the humanities and spirituality. He has been called the most translated academic author of the United States. Whether his writings count as academic remains to be seen, for they are more properly called popular-academic. But his intention is to write about these subjects in an academically informed way. Wilber has been called an "unknown celebrity", by University of Amsterdam professor Wouter Hanegraaff, who reviewed my book on Wilber when it came out in Dutch. He is well-known in certain circles, idolized even, but outside these circles, and certainly in the wider academic field, he is practically unknown. He has also been called "the Einstein of consciousness research". But to be honest, this was by his then literary agent John White, so there's some commercial interest involved here. But even so, like Einstein proposed a foundational model about matter and energy, Ken Wilber has tried to propose an equally foundational model about consciousness.

Ken Wilber is the author of 25+ books on science, the humanities and spirituality.

As you can see, these books were written in the four decades between 1977 and 2016. They cover an enormous amount of academic fields. Usually Wilber covered one whole field in one book: psychotherapy, developmental psychology, philosophy of science, anthropology, quantum physics, sociology of religion, literary criticism, science and religion, and so on. To name only a few: in 1981 he published Up from Eden, an overview of the cultural history of mankind, from the earliest days of man, to the present modern and post-modern times. He deals with the rise of agriculture and city-life from an internalist viewpoint: describing the mental changes and developments that occurred when we grew "up from Eden" (instead of falling down from it, as the religions tell us). Big History often deals with these subjects from an externalist point of view, by dealing with developments in society, the rise of trade and commerce, complex cities and so on. This is a good example of where Wilber has something valuable to add.

His main work, to date, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, was written in 1995. It is about 800 pages, and was intended to be the first volume of a trilogy called "Kosmos". With this spelling Wilber distinguishes it from the usual spelling "Cosmos", because his worldview includes not only the realm of matter, but also of life, mind, soul and Spirit (to use the traditional terms). One could also say that for Wilber, the dimension of interiority or consciousness covers half of the map, instead of being relegated to the final frontier of human knowledge. However, the second volume of this trilogy has not yet been published, mainly do to Wilber's health problems and other considerations. Around 2000 he decided to publish the third volume first, but this has not yet happened. Rumor has it that it will be published soon. In this respect, he can be compared to one of the historical forerunners of Big History, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). As Fred Spier recounts in his Big History and the Future of Humanity, Von Humboldt was widely read in his time, and was at home in many fields of science. He tried to summarize his views on reality in a series called Kosmos, but could not finish this before his death. Here, Wilber looks like a modern day Von Humboldt, who also has tried to summarize all of the knowledge available in his time, but could not finish that project.

Special mention deserve two of Wilber's books, which have the term "everything" in their title: A Brief History of Everything (1996) and A Theory of Everything (2000). We will deal with the first of these books later in this talk. Although these titles may sound a bit over the top, Wilber's model claims to cover all of human knowledge. Not in details, for that is physically impossible, but in that sense that all categories of human knowledge are covered—not only materialist science, which he calls "flatland".


The integral model of developmental stages and states of consciousness.

This diagram show the complexity of Wilber's integral model, as it tries to cover all of the relevant dimensions of human consciousness: stages of development, states of consciousness, both normal (such as waking, dream and sleep) and cultivated states (such as ecstasy and even enlightenment). You also see the "four quadrants" in the top-right corner, we will deal with that later.

To give you some pointers to the essence of Wilber's philosophy, here are two relevant quotes, one from a professional philosopher who has written on Wilber, and one from Wilber himself:

“An important function of integral theory is to provide a coherent narrative of cosmic, terrestrial, and human development.”
--Michael Zimmerman, The Final Cause of Cosmic Development: Nondual Spirit, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics?, 2010.

"A coherent narrative of cosmic, terrestrial, and human development", that sounds very much like the agenda of Big History. As you can see from the sub-title of his essay, he compares the accepted scientific view of what drives the cosmos, the Second Law of Thermodynamics", with Wilber's concept of "Nondual Spirit". This makes Wilber's philosophy and worldview thoroughly spiritualist in nature, however he sometimes tries to downplay that, as we will see later in this talk.

“Flatland [materialistic science] accepts no interior domain whatsoever, and reintroducing Spirit is the least of our worries. Thus our task is not specifically to reintroduce spirituality… [but rather] the rehabilitation of the interior in general…”
-- Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, 1998.

Here you can see, that even if Wilber tries to formulate a spiritual philosophy, his main effort is directed at "the rehabilitation of the interior in general". As we have mentioned, science is more at home in the outer world of object, "Because there is more light here", and does not really know how to penetrate to the realms of the interior: thoughts, feelings, values, etc. So we can leave spirituality aside for the moment, as this will not be easily accepted by Big History as a valid approach, but focus on Wilber's notions of interiority.

It is impossible to do justice to the vast scope of Wilber's writings, but I just want to highlight a couple of its main ideas:

  1. Ken Wilber’s motto is: “Everyone is right”: every point of view in science, philosophy and religion contains partial truths. “Nobody is smart enough to be wrong all the time.”
  2. Integral Theory attempts to integrate these partial truths into a comprehensive and coherent philosophy.
  3. The phenomena you are able to perceive depend on the perspective you take. Sensory approaches can only see sensory reality. Introspective approaches see the mind.
  4. We need to combine as many perspectives as possible to arrive at a final conclusion about existence.
  5. Reality has an interior dimension, as well as an exterior dimension, and current scientific approaches have trouble understanding the interior dimensions of existence.
  6. Complexity, consciousness and culture have evolved, from their most primordial form to the present state, and will continue to do so in the future.
  7. This evolution of consciousness and complexity is an intensely driven process, called “Spirit of Evolution”, Eros or Spirit.

This last claim is the more controversial aspect of this philosophy—we will come to that later in this talk.

As you can see from this list, his agenda is to take as many viewpoints as possible into account, and integrate these into a coherent philosophy. This, of course, is a very healthy, position. In the fields of science, philosophy or politics, many schools of thought represent only partial truths. It is no more than reasonable to pick the grains of truth from these viewpoints and put them together into a single whole. Whether this is possible in practice at all is of course another matter.

Already in his earliest books, for example Eye to Eye (1983), Ken Wilber has proposed a philosophy of science that doesn't only incorporate the methods and findings of science proper, but also of the more "subjective" humanities and even of spiritual methods of investigation such as mediation. As he sees it, there are three types of science, which are each valid in their own right:

  • Sensory or empirical science: the eye of the flesh
  • Symbolic or mental science: the eye of reason
  • Spiritual or meditative science: the eye of spirit

Wilber's innovative suggestion: all three types of "science" follow the same procedure:

  • You follow an instruction, set up an experiment
  • You observe a phenomenon, do a perception
  • You compare your perceptions with colleagues

This way, the interior dimensions can be studied systematically and scientifically, if this wider view of science is adopted. Of course, the "facts" discovered by these two "deeper" forms of science will never be as "hard" as those of empirical sciences like physics or astronomy. But equally true is, that it is no longer simply a matter of science on the one hand, and fantasy on the other. If a certain book is studied, we can disagree on many aspects of its meaning but that doesn't mean that "anything goes". In the same way, according to Wilber meditators might discover facts about consciousness that might differ because of the cultural belief systems they work with, but that point to true facts in the interior world. This take on the philosophy of science has, to my knowledge, not been examined properly, let alone taken up by the more conventional schools of philosophy. This requires further assessment, in my opinion.

We come now to the most famous and most used aspect of Wilber's model, the so-called "four quadrants":

Ken Wilber's four quadrant model (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 1995).

According to Wilber, all human activities should be analyzed from at least four corners: (1) the interior-individual or subjective, (2) the exterior-individual or objective, (3) the interior-collective or intersubjective, and the exterior-collective or interobjective. This way, we cover all of the relevant aspect. Most approaches to human experience and behavior favor only one of these quadrants. When you state "we are our brain" you favor the Upper-Right quadrant. When you say "thoughts have nothing to do with the brain" you favor the Upper-Left quadrant. But of course, both of these aspects are relevant (we will discuss Wilber's original take on the notorious mind-body problem later in this talk). But he doesn't stop here: Wilber claims all manifestations of consciousness always have a cultural and societal component. We can only think if we have learned the language of our culture. And what we think about is often determined by our position in society (a Marxian point of view Wilber has incorporated into his model.) But all quadrants are relevant in his opinion and none should be privileged. This model can be used as integrative model for the humanities, and safeguards us for any narrow or limited approaches.

Recently, in Integral Spirituality (2006), Wilber has refined this model in the sense that each of these quadrants in itself have an inner and an outer aspect, resulting in eight so-called "primordial perspectives":

Ken Wilber's eight "primordial perspectives" (Integral Spirituality, 2006).

We will skip this for now, for time doesn't allow us to go into these subtle details. But you get an idea of how Wilber views the various approaches in the humanities.

Now we come to an important point. For Wilber applies this model not only to us humans, though that is the most obvious way to do at first, but to all of reality. He does this by adding an evolutionary dimension, in the sense that all of these four quadrants go all the way back to the first cell of life, and even to the first atom. This view is called panpsychism in philosophy and represents a minority standpoint. But it allows Wilber to acknowledge that not only do we have consciousness, but lower organisms as well, even if they will have their own version of it. In his view, consciousness is not something that "pops out" as an "emergent" (a popular but not very informative term) from organisms with a sufficiently developed brain, but runs parallel to all of material evolution. So cells respond to their neighboring cells and are in that sense "conscious". Even atoms react to their atom neighbors and in that sense can be thought to have some kind of interiority—though this is so far removed from our type of consciousness that this terms is perhaps no longer appropriate. Wilber's take on this is pragmatic, he doesn't care where exactly we draw the line between conscious and non-conscious, all he cares about is that consciousness or interiority have a long evolutionary history. I think this is a very valid and fruitful approach.

This results in the following, highly complex diagram, which delineates the many stages we have gone through all the way from the Big Bang to the present time:

Ken Wilber's four quadrant model in evolutionary context.

With the help of this diagram, you can correlate stage of development with brain processes, types of society and types of culture. A magical culture, for example, is typical for tribal forms of society, in which magical and symbolic thinking are predominant, which are based on the reptilian part of our brains. The same holds true for all possible stages of development, be it individual or social. It is a magnificent vision, but this of course cries out for a critical examination. Have these details been crammed into one single scheme to make them fit? Especially in the very first stages of cosmic development, Wilber's model ascribes "prehension" or primitive consciousness to atoms. Big Historians following the conventional theories of material evolution will question what's the added value of this. It's interesting to mention that Wilber's cosmological speculations, which occur mostly in his main work Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995), are based heavily on the work of Erich Jantsch, especially his The Self-Organizing Universe (1980). Jantsch was one of the first to make a distinction between micro- and macro-evolution, which he saw as running in parallel to each other. Wilber has adopted this notion and refined it further.

“Something other than chance...”

A summary of Ken Wilber's cosmological vision in one sentence.

We now come to the more controversial—and questionable, in my opinion—aspects of Wilber's philosophy. Regarding the fashionable concept of self-organization, Wilber has an understanding that is at variance with the sciences of complexity in which it originated. For example, he has stated:

“[T]here is a force of self-organization built into the universe, and this force (or Eros by any name) is responsible for at least part of the emergence of complex forms that we see in evolution… After all, from the big bang and dirt to the poems of William Shakespeare is quite a distance, and many philosophers of science agree that mere chance and selection are just not adequate to account for these remarkable emergences.”
-- “Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution”, , December 4th, 2007.

Self-organization is interpreted here to be a force, a drive, which is active both in the cosmos as well as in evolution (and in history). In that sense Wilber is a neo-Hegelian, we discerns the activity of Spirit, both in natural as in cultural evolution. In my understanding, however, self-organization, by its very nature, does away with the notion of forces or drives, otherwise it would not be self-organization in the first place. A hurricane emerges under the proper conditions of heat and pressure, but there is not a mysterious "drive towards hurricanes" in nature. Without these very specific conditions, hurricanes just don't occur. And if these conditions change to the worse, as happens due to global warming, the hurricanes will get stronger and ever more destructive. This is not because a supposed "drive" or "force" behind them has grown stronger.

When pressed to clarify what he exactly meant by Spirit within the context of evolution, he stated in a private session with this close students, that whenever you try to formulate an alternative to materialistic science (and this is emphatically what Wilber's project amounts to):

“You either postulate a supernatural source of which there are two types. One is a Platonic given and one is basically theological—a God or intelligent design—or you postulate Spirit as immanent - of course it's transcendent but also immanent - and it shows up as a self-organizing, self-transcending drive within evolution itself. And then evolution is Spirit's own unfolding. Not in super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain.”
-- Ken responds to recent critics,, (ca. 2006).

I have argued on various occasions (on that this view of an "intra-natural" drive in nature that supposedly accounts for the complexities of nature and culture doesn't make sense. First, no physicist would accept any of such "intra-natural" forces, so even if the formulation looks quite naturalistic (and "post-metaphysical", the label Wilber uses for his philosophy), it definitely isn't in the eyes of science. Second, this understanding of a drive behind evolution is decidedly pre-Darwinian, for Darwin's radical point was the biological complexity could be explained without such a notion. And third, if we explain life's complexities with the concept of a spiritual drive (or Eros), how does such a drive work out on the Moon? And on Pluto? And on the Sun (to limit ourselves to our solar system for the moment)? Is that because the special conditions for live are not present on those heavenly bodies? But if these special conditions are so important, why postulate a mysterious drive in the first place?

This is a discussion I have tried to have with Wilber (and his students) for about two decades—but without success. The difference between Big History and Integral Theory in this particular respect are most striking. Big History, following the approach of science, believes that complexity is the result of "energy flows through matter", under very specify conditions (called "Goldilocks conditions"). Life can only emerge within certain limited ranges of temperature, Oxygen concentrations, gravitational force etc. If these conditions are not met, life will simply not emerge (as far as we can tell, for we have only one example of life on Earth here). Integral Theory, while verbally including the results of science ("but without its reductionism"), adds a hypothetical cosmic drive which is responsible for ("at least part of", as Wilber explains it) of the complexities of nature. In this respect I fully side with Big History, and science, for Wilber's speculations put him in the camp of creationism:

Wilber follows the same logic in his rhetoric as the creationists:

  • Science tries to explain evolutionary emergence with chance.
  • Chance is not capable of explaining evolutionary emergence of complexity.
  • Therefore, “something other than chance” is needed (i.e. Eros) to explain complexity.

Assuming that science bases all of its understanding on chance alone is a straw-man argument often used by creationists. But science does none of this. To give only one example, compare this quote from Wilber (which might summarize his cosmic vision) with another one from Richard Dawkins, who has specifically dealt with this chance-argument:

“Something other than chance is pushing the universe… Chance is exactly what the self-transcending drive of the Kosmos overcomes.”
-- Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything (1996)
“It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work.”
-- Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable (1997)

To conclude this section, this shows that, in my opinion, Wilber's insights might be valuable and even brilliant in the field of the humanities (mind and culture), but are highly questionable in the fields of life and matter. He has seemed to overreached himself in wanting to create a true Theory of Everything.

There's no better way to bring this crucial and fatal misunderstanding of evolutionary theory home then, again, with humor:

The religious straw-man argument agains evolutionary theory.

I hope I have given a fair presentation of the major tenets of Wilber's philosophy, as far as they are relevant in the context of this comparison between his model and that of Big History. We can now turn to a more precise comparison of the two integrative approaches to human knowledge.



In 2003, travel author Bill Bryson published a popular treatment of the field of Big History under the modest title A Short History of Nearly Everything. Wilber's most popular book to date has an almost identical title: A Brief History of Everything (1996). At the same time, these two books couldn't have been more different!

Ken Wilber Meets Bill Bryson
Two iconic "everything" books—with almost no overlap.

The irony here is that there's almost no overlap between these two books. That can only mean that none of these books really covered "everything". We will try to solve this mystery by examining the fields of research these two titles have covered, and why both of these authors feel their works warrant such a wide-ranging title. But for sure, "everything" doesn't always mean "everything"!

Bryson's book is a delight to read. He not only deals with what we know in science, but also how we have come to know it. He starts with the Big Bang, and then chronologically works his way through cosmology, astronomy, geology, biology, to the rise of humans—the “restless ape” as he calls them. In one sense, Wilber's book starts where Bryson leaves of: at the dawn of man. Wilber deals with the development of the human mind over ten thousands of years, from archaic man through magical culture, mythic-fundamentalist empires and modern and post-modern city-man. There is much more granularity here when it comes to human culture than can be found in Bryson, or much of the Big History literature for that matter.

Summarizing the approach of these two authors I would say that Bryson covers “everything that can be observed", where Wilber's focus is on “what can be experienced”. As said in the beginning, if we limit ourselves to what can be seen, we see only so much, but if we allow our vision to widen itself to include other modes of experience, we see more of the outer and inner worlds. Big History and Integral Theory are like intellectual galaxies at a certain and safe distance from each other. What would happen if these two entities would merge? Would they just pass through eachother, or would they form a new, larger unity? Or would one suck up the other, as happens with black holes that get too near?

It is interesting to see if both schemes can accommodate the other. When Integral Theory is integrated into the Big History scheme, it is probably relegated to the phase of human culture. Integral Theory has a few interesting things to say about this phases of cosmic history, but very soon loses its relevance when the previous eras of matter and life evolution are concerned. Conversely, if Big History is integrated into Integral Theory, it would probably be situated in the lower-right quadrant, with its heavy emphasis on collective-exterior developments such as society, systems and the natural environment. Neither of these two solutions seem satisfactory, both systems would feel "reduced" to the other.

How to integrate Integral Theory and Big History—if at all?

We have encountered the distinction between interior and exterior reality a few times by now, and we run here smack into the notorious mind-body problem. Is there such a thing as "mind"? Are we not "just" a brain? Or is this purely a matter of what we choose to see? In his book Integral Psychology (2000) Wilber has discussed this philosophical conundrum in a fresh and innovative way. He first suggests that there are basically two options in this area: (1) the pre-modern or dualistic idea of a soul, which is independent of the body, and (2) the modern or monistic conception which allows only for the existence of the body/brain. None of these viewpoints have resulted in an intelligible conception of consciousness. The dualistic position is incapable of clarifying how an immaterial soul could ever influence the material body, and vice versa. Except in some fundamentalist religious quarters no one believes this anymore. But the opposite view of monistic materialism fares no better. Nobody in the world have as of yet been able to clarify how consciousness can arise out of material brain processes. It just does not make sense. Body and brain secrete many substances, but consciousness is not one of them. Often the term "emergence" is used here to wave aside this problem, as if consciousness emerges whenever brains have become complex enough, but this is not the same as giving a rational explanation.

In some areas of philosophical thought a third option has been proposed, that avoids the extremes of both dualism and monism. It has variously been called "double-aspect theory" or "dual-aspect theory" or "neutral monism". Thomas Nagel, a philosopher who shows many affinities with Wilber (minus the spiritual dimension), is a case in point. The idea here is that both mind and body, whatever they are, are two aspect of a third Something. Wilber's "solution" might be classified as belonging to this category. For him, the Left- and Right-Hand quadrants always go hand in hand, and are aspects of Spirit. Of course, while this may look balanced and gives equal due to both interior and exterior reality, it runs head-on into the problem of what this third Something could possibly be? What on earth (or heaven) can have such different aspects as mind and body, given that they have such a different ontology? We are back to square one here, in my opinion, and are faced with a massive lack of understanding. Philosopher of mind David Chalmers has remarked that the mind-body problem isn't solved at the moment, in the sense that there is no proposed solution that has been accepted by all members of this community.

Philosophy of mind, dualism, monism and dual-aspect theory
The mind-body problem—three fundamental options, but no solution in sight.

Are there any cross-domain concepts at all, that hold true in the domains of matter, life and mind alike? "Emergence" is sometimes offered as a candidate, but in my opinion is empty of content. Some point to entropy or energy-use, but as much as these concepts apply to the realms of matter and life, they seem pale and abstract when applied to the complexities of human culture. What good is it to know how stars and galaxies originate, when we are faced with the current day situation of Western culture being attacked by fundamentalist groups, leading to an explosive world situation not easily understood, let alone remedied? I believe Wilber's model is promising when it comes to solving these "wicked" problems, such as global warming. On the other hand, Wilber's favorite cross-domain concepts of "transcend-and-include", the more poetic "Eros in the Kosmos" or the more philosophical "creative advance into novelty" (Whitehead's term) are nice as placeholders but in no way offer any intellectual clarification.

If I were to summarize the strong points of both approaches it would be that Big History is grounded in the empirical sciences, and is basically a repository of "settled science". Integral Theory, on the other hand, gives a deep overview of the humanities, and a key to understanding the cultural conflicts our modern world finds itself confronted with. Big History, however, seems to lack a language for these typically human problems. And are not all global problems human problems in the first place? Finally, a severe drawback for Integral Theory as I see it is its insufficient grasp of cosmology and evolutionary theory. What doesn't help either is that the integral community has shown characteristics of a cultic milieu—although this may be decreasing as time passes and Wilber's personal influence on this school of thought is waning.

I do think that the interface of Big History and Integral Theory is a fruitful area for further study and reflection. Even if they are not easily reduced to each other, by comparing these two inter-disciplinary approaches to human knowledge and experiences potential biases and blind-spots can more easily come to light. If they continue to bask in their own glory this will not happen any time soon.

Thank you for your attention, and for coming to this lecture in the first place!


David Christian at the World Economic Forum, 21-24 January 2015

“According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the tendency of the Universe is for simplicity. There are no drivers for complexity… And since the universe tends to wind down, constant energy input is needed for complexity.”

David Christian at the TED2011 conference (6,230,554 views)

“How does the universe create complexity given the law of entropy?... with great difficulty. And with every next step, the going gets tougher.”

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