Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Martin Erdmann is a German writer, poet, retired lecturer of Heidelberg University. He completed studies of English, French, and of legal science, both at the University of Heidelberg. He wrote several books in German focusing on the illusion of the I or Ego. As a cofounder of the German Spiritual Emergence Network (S. E. N) he provided counseling to people undergoing spiritual crises. For several years now he has conducted seminars on Advaita-Vedanta. (email: email@example.com Homepage: www.satsa.de)
Ken Wilber's crevolutionism
There are two incompatible strings of arguments running through Ken Wilber's oeuvre as portrayed by the two lists of items below referring to the Dual World and to Nondual Being. Dual World: (1) Evolutionism, (2) Chain, (3) Continuity, (4) Inclusion. Nondual Being: (1) Creationism, (2) Missing Link, (3) Discontinuity, (4) Transcendence. The dual list and the nondual list are opposed to each other. Wilber, however, tries to show that there is an evolutionary process running through existence consisting of both the items of the dual and the nondual list. Thus we find an evolutionism, which is a creationism, so that it is neither one nor the other. It is a crevolutionism rather, which is a strange hybrid of thought reflecting Ken Wilber's strangely conflicting enterprise. (2) There is a chain composed of missing links, (3) a continuous thread consisting of discontinuities only. (4) We see an inclusion which is a transcendence, in which nothing can be found to be transcendentally included.
Does trans-cend mean in-clude?
Wilber's self-contradictory evolutionary theory was doomed to failure from its very beginning, no matter whether neo-Darwinism is right or wrong.
Central to Wilber's work are "different but continuous dimensions" of existence. (1997: 39) Wilber himself gives 13 dimensions (1999: 64) running through more comprehensive layers of existence, described as "matter, mind, and spirit", or more specifically as "matter, life, mind, soul, and spirit" (1997: 39) Each level of Wilber's evolutionary scheme "has an inside and outside in both individual and collective forms - thus giving us the four dimensions (or 'four quadrants') of each level of existence." (1999: 63) Thought impulses, for example, will occur on some sub-level of mind (individual interior), manifesting themselves as chemical-physiological processes - synapses, brainwaves, endorphin release - in the neocortex (individual exterior). They will, in due course, lead to elaborate communicative systems (interior collective) to be ultimately reflected in social structures, leaving such physical traces as roads, and traffic lights, churches and libraries, all those tools and artifacts, which, in the final analysis, are nothing but symbols of thought perpetuated, mere concepts socially materialized. (exterior collective)
According to Wilber's evolutionary scheme each higher level – of matter, life, mind, soul, spirit - transcends but includes its predecessor" (1998a: 36), a theme recurring in different versions throughout his later opus. He also speaks of the higher level as "enveloping or enfolding its juniors" (1998a: 59), as "incorporating" its predecessors. More specifically he states: "As a more encompassing stage...emerges, it includes...the capacities and patterns...of the previous stage...and then adds its own unique (and more encompassing) capacities." (1998a: 41) So "evolution goes beyond what went before, but...must embrace what went before.” (1996: 41) Ultimately it is "Spirit...unfolding itself in each new transcendence, which it...enfolds into its own being at the new stage." (1996: 41) Thus It "transcends and includes, brings forth and embraces, creates and loves...different ways of saying the same thing" (1996: 41)
We see, for "including" the concepts of "enveloping, unfolding, embracing, incorporating" serve as synonymous words, whereas "transcending" is applied together with "bringing forth, creating, going beyond" as synonymous concepts. The list of synonyms could be extended by quoting from Wilber's later opus. This does not change the basic issue, though, which has remained unaltered throughout his writing.
The question is whether the concept of "including" and its equivalents go together with "transcending" and its equivalents. Can something that has been trans-cended be at the same time in-cluded, enveloped, embraced? Wilber is perfectly convinced that it can.
Does half-wing mean dinner?
So in A Brief History of Everything Wilber - to support his concept of transcending stages - claims again that "evolution is a wildly self-transcending process....which incorporates what went before....and then adds incredibly new components.” (1996: 23) Now to substantiate the view of his transcending dimensions, Wilber rejects the current scientific notion of an evolutionary process.
“Take the standard notion”, for example, “that wings simply evolved from forelegs”, comments Wilber.
“It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg—a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing—you can't run and you can't fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. This will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once in one animal—and also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings.
“"Not to sound like a groggy professor"”, comments David Lane, “
but if Wilber turned in the above quote to me as a college student trying to explain the current view of evolutionary theory, I would give him an 'F' and ask to see him in my office. Why? Not because there can't be healthy debates about evolutionary theory, but because Wilber has misrepresented the fundamentals of natural selection.
“Wilber “, comments Visser ["The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered"],
“does not seem to be aware that the example of the wing or the eyeball, and its evolutionary 'impossibility', has been one of the classic objections since the days of Darwin—leading to the famous phrase "What Good Is Half a Wing?"—which have repeatedly been refuted. According to Sarkar (2007), even Intelligent Design defenders no longer use the example of the eye or the wing, knowing fully well that it is no longer valid…
Says Visser, who continues to comment on a comprehensive list of literature, which the reader may consult for a detailed account of the intermediate forms wing and eye went through in their process of evolution.
When Visser says, “the layman-reader is left to trust Wilber on his word”, he implies that the professional scientist will examine the matter more closely not to be duped by Wilber's flawed view of Darwinism.
So let us see what Roger Walsh, “one of the leading researchers of meditation, altered states of consciousness, and…transpersonal psychology (1998b: 30)” has to say on the issue. “Darwinian Theory”, so he writes,
“exerted a chilling effect on the vision of evolution. Natural selection allowed science to deny any sort of eros or transcendent/emergent drive in nature. More recently this denial has been called into question because it is now apparent that although Darwinian natural selection can account for microevolution, it has a much more difficult time accounting for macroevolution; the great evolutionary leaps and breakthroughs such as the production of functional wings”.
This is Roger Walsh's account, taken from his article “Developmental and Evolutionary Synthesis in the Recent Writings of Ken Wilber” published in Ken Wilber in Dialogue, (1998b: 50)
So Walsh truly believes in the accuracy of Wilber's report of this “wildly self-transcending process” from no wing to 100 % wings. For Walsh this is a fact, which science—in its disbelief in this transcendent/emergent drive—has a hard time to account for. In his response to his deliberations, Wilber states that Walsh's article, giving a summary of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995) specifically, “is fair, accurate, and informative, and, beyond that, a model of academic exposition and excellence” (1998b: 359).
In a course conducted by David Lane it would be an “F” again for these “great evolutionary leaps and breakthroughs such as the production of functional wings.” So Roger Walsh, who is an M.D. and Ph.D., is another student of the science of evolution, whom David Lane might like to see in his office.
“Ken Wilber in Dialogue, collected the views of many…critics, allowing Wilber to engage them all”, writes Andrew Smith ["Contextualizing Ken"], “But I found it illuminating”, he continues, “that he did not concede a single substantive point to any of these critics, and that he identified a single writer out of them whom he felt completely understood his system—the only writer who made no real criticisms of his system at all”, says Smith referring to the highly esteemed Roger Walsh.
50 % wing, 50 % eye-sight does not mean that the animal is dinner, as Wilber and Walsh try to make us believe. Half-wing is not lethal. It does in no way mean that the species will become extinct. Flying frogs possess a webbing between the toes, flying lemurs have a membrane between legs and tail, flying lizards possess a fold of skin, flying squirrels have a membrane extending from each side of the body. The webbing, membrane or fold of skin when erected or extended serve as wings, giving the animal a gliding capacity leading to adequate survival chances.
When Wilber says “a half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing—you can't run and you can't fly”, he implies that wings exclude legs. Science has shown, however, that wings developed from forlegs. With the two legs transmuted into wings another two legs remain for the animal to hop and run with. In order to survive the animal does not need 100 %, not even 50 % of wings. As a matter of fact it does not need any wings at all. Two legs may very well suffice to give the animal adequate survival chances.
There are about forty flightless birds in existence to-day, the best known being the ostrich. With its two long legs it has the ability to run at maximum speeds of about 45 mph. So it does not have to rely on a capacity to fly to escape predators.
Kangaroos use hopping as a means of locomotion. A speed of up to 44 mph can be attained over short distances. Thus two legs only, and no wings to fly with, does not mean that the animal is dinner, as Ken Wilber tries to convince his readers.
What applies to the wing is also valid for the eye, says Wilber. So he wants to make us believe, first there was no eye, then in a huge leap there was a fully developed eye. It cannot have happened otherwise, says Wilber, because with 50 % eyesight the animal is dinner again.
Now every normal German or American adult will be able to tell you that different animals—cats, eagles, insects—possess different degrees of eyesight, and that 50% eyesight is definitely better than total blindness. So also a limited eyesight has an adaptive value in the animal's evolution.
I myself have only 50 % eyesight, which according to German medical requirements is enough to drive a motor-car without using glasses. I have no wings to fly with, only two legs to walk and run with. Now, with my 50 % eyesight I am not dinner, no matter where I drive or go; but maybe this is so, because nobody wants to have me—for dinner. So this time at least I am glad not to be wanted.
Now seriously, I truly believe that nobody has done as much as Wilber to open the eyes of western psychology to the insights of the wisdom traditions of the East. This holds true for major portions of Wilber's writing at least. His books, however, also contain these statements, which are quite obviously wrong, and I believe that these parts of his writing do more harm than good. If Wilber is not more accurate about the results of empirical research, then why should empiricists, materialists, why should "personal" psychotherapists believe in his "trans-personal" stage or wave theory?
For, whatever your view of these things may be, you cannot deny that any of these new faculties, eyesight or wing-capacity, however limited they may be, have an adaptive value, thus adding to the animal's survival chances, which Wilber and Wilberries do not want to see. So they believe, first no wings, no eyesight, then – oops – fully grown wings, fully developed eyesight.
Is “no-eye” included in eye?
Now—in Wilber's scheme—the eye that transcends incorporates the previous stage, which is the “no-eye” that has been transcended. The “no-eye”, however, is a zero, a void, a non-entity, something that does not exist. Thus for the eye that transcends there is nothing to be included, incorporated. This shows that the concepts of transcendence and inclusion are mutually exclusive.
Wilber draws on his wing and eye example to have his transcending quality scientifically validated. Science, however, showed that there were so many intermediate forms leading to a fully grown wing or eye. So for science there is no room for a transcending quality to come in.
Let us assume, however, neo-Darwinism is wrong. There were no intermediate forms; there was just this gigantic leap from no eye, no wing, to 100 % eyesight, to 100 % wing, as Wilber postulates. So we have a wing, an eye now that transcends no wing, no eyesight.
This is so, if we take the concept of transcending per se, which is the way it is applied in common language. This, however, is not the notion of transcendence which Wilber supports. His transcendence does not come alone. It is inseparably linked to an include. For him there is no transcendence as such. It is always transcend/include. No eyesight is not included in 100 % eyesight, though. Thus Wilber's concept of transcend/include remains a contradiction in terms. So it did not help Wilber to invoke this huge leap from no eyesight to 100 % eyesight. Even if he were right, there is no way to have his non existing eye-sight included in his transcend/include scheme.
Neo-Darwinism refutes Wilber's transcending quality. By linking his transcend to an include Wilber himself repudiates his transcending quality. So it does not matter whether neo-Darwinism is right or wrong. Wilber's self-contradictory evolutionary theory was doomed to failure from its very beginning, no matter whether neo-Darwinism is right or wrong.
You cannot hang life on a wall
Wilber's wing/eye example deals with a minor subdivision of his evolutionary scheme. Let us turn now to a spectrum of his major planes of evolution "reaching from matter to life to mind to Spirit." (1996: 36) "Each level transcends and includes its junior dimension", (1996: 36) says Wilber again, and referring specifically to the matter (cosmos) and life ( bios) stages, he adds: "Autopoiesis (or self-replication) occurs only in living systems. It is found nowhere in the cosmos, but only in the bios. It's a major and profound emergent—something astonishingly novel" (1996: 19) Thus life "includes its predecessor", which is matter, "and then adds its own emergent qualities, qualities that are not found in the previous dimension" Thus life "transcends and includes" matter, so we hear again. (1996: 36)
Life that transcends matter does not include matter, though. You cannot incorporate something that can be seen and touched in an essence that evades all sensory perception. You can incorporate, include a stone in a wall. You cannot incorporate a stone in life.
The other day, in an art exposition, I saw a surrealistic painting portraying a red and blue color hanging on a wall. It was not a picture with red and blue colors in it, but in the picture the colors themselves were absurdly hanging on a stone-wall. Now imagine life hanging on a wall! What do you see? Nothing, right, for there is nothing, not a red and blue color even, to be attached to our wall. The same thing applies the other way round. So there is no brick nor cement that could be attached to life's essence. From the standpoint of science, which Wilber draws on in his deliberations, matter cannot be included, incorporated in life. Bios cannot embrace, envelop matter.
Now Wilber does not speak of life in terms of an immaterial substance, but of life manifested as data to be perceived and analyzed. But even here there is no way for cosmos to be incorporated in bios, for the very reason that bios trans-cends cosmos, as Wilber states. So his autopoiesis is an "emergent, new quality", which is an exclusive characteristic of "bios", which "is found nowhere in the cosmos". That is why in the realm of bios poor cosmos will find nothing to be included in.
There is no connecting link between the two spheres of existence; there is a missing link, a discontinuity only, which sets the two phenomena apart on different planes of evolution. Scientifically speaking, matter and life represent qualities that do not agree, so one cannot be included in the other.
How often are three fingers included in two feet? The answer is fingers are not at all incorporated in feet for the sake of being fingers. Only toes are included in feet, and fingers are not toes, so there is nothing to be enveloped, embraced by our two feet. Inches are not included in pounds.
As seen from a scientific perspective, which Wilber embraces, matter is not enveloped by life, because it is no-life, so there is nothing to be included, incorporated, embraced.
What applies to life transcending matter applies to all the stages of Wilber's evolutionary scheme. The lower level is not included in the higher level or, seeing things upside down, “a higher level process or entity cannot be reduced to a lower level process because the reduction will always leave out the emergent property not contained in the lower level process”, states Jeff Meyerhoff in Bald Ambition. . ["Holarchy/The Twenty Tenets"]
So transcend does not go with include. Throwing them both together in one linguistic heap, we have a kind of triclude, which is neither one nor the other. Wilber's conception of a transcend/include is an artificially made up notion, existing only in Wilber's own mind.
A “self-transcending process....with leaps in a quantum-like fashion” is in line with the creationist's view of existence. So Wilber, who embraces this self-transcending process, embraces the creationist's vision of life. His creationism, though, is presented in terms of his own spiritual evolution. He upholds a creationism, which proceeds, as he states, by “mechanisms that absolutely nobody understands”. (1966: 22) At the same time he supports his own spiritual evolution with the lower included, incorporated in the higher, which for Wilber is something that can be analyzed, can be clearly understood. Put differently, Wilber says that everything is closely interconnected to reveal itself to our understanding, an understanding, however, that believes in quantum leaps, which escape our understanding.
Only an evolution with intermediate forms—of wings or eyes, for example—means that the earlier stage is included in the later stage, which represents the current evolutionist's stance as upheld by neo-Darwinism. This is a view, which Wilber does not espouse, because it contradicts the newly emerging qualities of his transcending vision. So he discards neo-Darwinism, with its well founded exploration of the subject, as a mere glib. Wilber's transcendence, however, implies inclusion, an inclusion which Wilber wanted to have validated in the eyes of science. So Wilber has the idea of a scientifically verified inclusion rejected to have it superseded by his own inclusion, which is an inclusion that is nowhere to be found, except in Wilber's own mind again.
Wilber, says David Lane, has “more in common with creationists than evolutionists, even though he is claiming to present the evolutionists' current view.” [Ken Wilber and the Misunderstanding of Evolution") We see it is not a question of how much of a creationism or an evolutionism Wilber advocates. The problem is that Wilber wants to have them both united. He wishes to have an evolutionism, which is a creationism, which is an evolutionism. So we have a kind of crevolutionism now, which again is neither one nor the other.
The philosophy of “oops”
In his introduction to Sex, Ecology, Spirituality Wilber elaborates on this philosophy of “oops”, which states that first there was nothing, then this Big Bang occurred, thus the world, thus creation arose. Hence something emerged from nothing, which is logically absurd. From this it concludes that there is no way to grasp the origin of the universe, utterly no way to understand how it all happened. So “don't ask”, it says, “the universe just occurs...it just is...just happens—oops.” (1995: vii) Now Wilber is firmly convinced that this philosophy of “oops...is about as infantile a response as the human condition could possibly offer.” (1995: vii) So he sits down to write his 900 page opus in order to show that there is a “Deeper Order” (1995: vii) behind the universe, that there is an “evolutionary thread” (1995: viii), a “Great Chain of Being” running through existence, “a rich tapestry of interwoven levels reaching from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit”, with a “senior level” that “envelops or enfolds its junior dimensions....so that everything....in the world is interwoven with every other.” (1998a: 6/7)
A chain composed of missing links
Then Wilber says, “each of the items labeled in the various quadrants can also be referred to as a holon (2007: 34),” which means, “each whole is simultaneously a part, a whole/part...Reality is composed, not of things nor processes nor wholes nor parts, but of whole/parts, of holons.” (1995: viii) There are “holons in the cosmos, in the bios, in the psyche, and in theos”; to be found on an “evolutionary thread that connects them all, unfolds them all, embraces them all, endlessly.” (1995: viii) “These are qualitatively distinct levels of organization”, adds Wilber, “arranged in a nested hierarchy (or holarchy) of increasing holistic embrace (each level transcending but including its predecessors…).” (2000: 7) So “each whole is simultaneously a part, a whole/part, a holon” (1995: viii) in Wilber's evolutionary scheme.
The eye, which is a whole, emerged in a huge leap from no eye, says Wilber. Thus before the eye, there is no eye to be found. The “no-eye” is not a whole, however. It is a hole really, which, in terms of Wilber's evolutionary scheme, becomes part of a transcending whole, which becomes a hole again to be become part of the next higher whole. So it goes on, all the way up and all the way down on Ken Wilber's evolutionary ladder. Thus we do not have a whole/part, we have a whole/hole, with all the wholes turning into holes in Ken Wilber's integral scheme. Wilber's “tapestry of interwoven levels reaching from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit”, (1998a: 6/7) it is not a tapestry consisting of wholes. It is a tapestry composed of holes.
First we have a transcend/include. Then Wilber replaces the transcend by a whole, the include by a part. There is nothing to be included in the transcending quality, though. So there is nothing to become a part of the transcending whole. What we have is a triclusion, leading to a crevolutionism, to be embedded in a hole-ism, with always another gap, another hole to be seen in Wilber's evolutionary hole-archy.
“What follows”, from this holistic theory, Ken Wilber continues to say,
“are twenty basic tenets (or conclusions) that present what we might call 'patterns of existence' or 'tendencies of evolution'…that…make this universe a genuine uni-versum ('one turn'), or an emergent pluralism underguided by common patterns—the 'patterns that connect'” (1995: 32)
Rightly considered, it is not a uni-verse, though, it is a multi-verse with so many disconnected patterns in it. So we do not have to go into these twenty tenets, for in the end there will be no uni-versum of thought, no uni-versal theory revealing itself, as Ken Wilber tries to make his readers believe.
Wilber's theory is composed not of things nor processes nor wholes nor parts, but of holes. There are holes in the bios, in the psyche, and in theos, linked together on an evolutionary thread consisting of holes, of missing links only.
Wilber wants to lead his readers out of a world with nothing but sensory data, colorless "ITS roaming a one-dimensional flatland." (1998a: 56) to awaken them all to "the power and the glory of the world Soul, the wonder and the beauty of it all.”
I do not see any wonder or beauty, though, in an approach, in which a contradictory include is replaced by a conflicting part, to have an integral scheme dis-integrally verified.
Ken Wilber throws creationism and evolutionism into one linguistic soup. What is left is a crevolutionary broth, for the reader to be imbibed, who has this One Taste, which is Ken Wilber's taste.
Wilber, K., Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Shamballa, Boston, 1995.
Wilber, K., A Brief History of Everything, Gill & Macmillan Ltd, Dublin, 1996.
Wilber, K., The Eye of Spirit, Shamballa, Boston, 1997.
Wilber, K., The Marriage of Sense and Soul, Random House, New York, 1998a.
Wilber, Ken Wilber in Dialogue, Quest Books, The Theosophical Publishing House, 1998b.
Wilber, K., ONE TASTE, The Journals of Ken Wilber, Shamballa, Boston, 1999.
Wilber, K., Integral Psychology, Shambhala, Boston & London, 2000.
Wilber, K., 2007, Integral Spirituality. Integral Books, Boston & London.