Geoffrey Falk is the author of The Science of the Soul, Stripping the Gurus, Norman Einstein, Rock and Holy Rollers and Hip Like Me. He studied electrical engineering and physics at the University of Manitoba. He currently divides his time between writing, software development, and music composition. See also Falk, Books, blogs and articles.
Not That There's
[Ken] Wilber is an incredibly well-informed critical analyst and popularizer of the subjects he writes about, but he is not a practicing expert in any of them. Not that there is anything wrong with that.... (Robert Sandberg, "Ken WilberThe Asimov of Consciousness")
I have been at the forefront of the debunking of Ken Wilber's ideas for just over three years by now, from the initial chapter and appendix on kw in Stripping the Gurus (April of 2005) through my publication of the "Norman Einstein" book in August of 2006, and up to the present day. Therefore, I was more than a little surprised to read, in Robert Sandberg's recent essay, "Ken WilberThe Asimov of Consciousness". that Wilber has been "losing former fans, readers, followers, and promoters" largely owing to a sense of profound disappointment on the part of such people "who take him to be or want him to be taken seriously by evolutionary biologists, academic philosophers, and practicing psychologists and neurobiologists," but who have not had that psychological need met.
I, of course, had been under the impression that Wilber had lost the best of his former supporters via a combination of his professional incompetence, academic dishonesty, raging clinical narcissism, and his egregious, inexcusable attempts at the manipulation of those who, to his mind, lack the "altitude" to understand him, as documented by myself and others like Jeff Meyerhoff in his own excellent book, Bald Ambition.
Before thanking Mr. Sandberg too profusely for correcting that apparent "misperception" on my part, however, I would like to review some of the major claims made by him in his article.
Would it be so bad to begin thinking of Wilber as a critical writer whose essential role is to popularize promising lines of thought and research as they appear on the scene. He would make an interesting talking head on MSNBC or CNN. There is a place and a need for someone who can do for philosophy, evolutionary biology, brain research, and consciousness studies what Isaac Asimov did for the subjects he took up. Why not think of Ken Wilber as the Isaac Asimov of consciousness?
Isaac Asimov understood the subjects he was popularizing, and represented them accurately in his own writings, without selectively skewing them to support his own religious biases. The same cannot in any way be said for Ken Wilber. In particular, Wilber's "popularizations" of evolution and of his own extremely simple-minded understanding of neuroscience are worth going into in some detail.
Fortunately, much of that work has already been done for us, via a recent interview of Wilber published on salon.com: You are the river. Various Salon readers, in commenting on that piece, made the following excellent points:
Wilber can prattle on about "super consciousness," "Big Mind," "Big Self," "supreme identity," or "the identity of the interior soul with the ultimate ground of being in a direct experiential state." But what he's really getting at is that he is having feelings and sensations that he really can't put a finger on and therefore must be "mystical" in some way. Does it ever occur to these purveyors of woo-woo that the feeling[s] they may be having are the result of chemicals running around in their brains?
Charlatans like Wilber will always try to convince you that certain experiential phenomenon lay outside of the domain of scientific method. That by virtue of it being personal and untestable (a dubious assertion) we should accord it some sort of status that science can't touch. This is precisely the kind of logic that dogmatic religionists have been foisting on us for hundreds of years. Wilber, like so many other new age gurus, likes to dress his touchy feely claptrap up in rational and scientific clothes. But hey, hogwash is hogwash by any other name....
Wilbur [sic] confuses feelings of transcendence that can arise from meditation/religious experiences, as well as from mind-altering substances, with primary evidence for some sort of reality. Such experiences ARE evidence for somethingthe way in which the brain reacts to certain types of stimuli/contextsand more critically, the kinds of subjective experiences that result. As such, the study of trans-rational states of consciousness can be extremely useful in understanding brain function and the neural bases of consciousness....
Wilber's rantings are nothing more than the product of his brain in hypomanic overdrive (which I'm sure is a pleasantand seemingly powerfulexperience for him) complicated by a bit of generalized seizure activity. This is producing a vision of self-superiority, resulting in his racing from one end of the intellectual universe to the other to imperially force knowledge and fantasy together by his own, self-generated laws. Unfortunately, he believes he's actually making sense of it all....
Neuroscience [like the detailed understanding of the immune system] is ... a very new field, and there's still a lot we have to learn. And yet, people like Wilber have already decided that it is impossible for us to understand his mystical experiences because they're ... well ... special....
The section that shows perhaps the best what sort of a fool he is, is his simpleton distinction between altered states of consciousness being "real" versus "just a brain state"....
Language works as a form of communication, and therefore the information is in the brain. You cannot tell tapioca from baseball in a brain state now [i.e., with today's theories and equipment], but the information has to be stored in a consistent manner. If you can remember which one you discussed yesterday, it is in principle possible to read that from your brain.
Anyone, like Wilber, who insistently fails to understand the latter point is in no position at all to "popularize" brain research.
Then add to that his confident elevation, to paranormal status, of the migraine-aura experiences of Hildegard of Bingen, and his notion that the hallucinations of Joan of Arc are worthy of deep admiration. Add his failure to understand that creative writing, poetry and music, too, obey laws which can be reproduced (as yet, imperfectly) by machines and insentient neural networks, making it completely possible for "dirt to get up and start writing poetry." And add his continual attempts to sneak Eros into evolution via self-organization or the immune system, in complete ignorance of the fact that even a creative emergence of intelligence which didn't confer a survival advantage on the organism against its conspecifics and environment at that particular period in history would get selected out of the gene pool in exactly the same way as "random" mutations get selected against.
Intelligence and biological complexity are not goals of evolution; they exist only because they confer survival value on their organisms, not because the Kosmos is "evolving to express them." Anyone who teaches that they are goals of the evolutionary process is not "popularizing" anything resembling a competent understanding of evolution.
Plus, would Eros be responsible for the complexity of all immune systems, or just ours? And when Eros created that change in our species, did it affect just one member, and then the mutation spread via a founder effect? Or was every member of Homo sapiens changed simultaneously by being "touched by its Erotic appendage"? What about the Neanderthals? Hey, maybe that's why they died out: Their immune system wasn't as complex and Erotic as ours!
OK, so Wilber is human, imperfect.
Wow, that's the sort of news flash you don't want to miss. Yet, Matthew Dallman had already addressed the same issue nearly two years ago:
[Wilber is] a grown man, he's a human, he isn't perfect, all that stuff that goes without saying because it applies to all adults (and is useless as real defense of any one person). No one is saying he burned down a real house, and thus ought be jailed. No, it is the shame of burning down his own intellectual house (as well as the bivouacs that people like me put up in order to better study his ideas) that is so tragic.
A growing number of those who have been reading Ken Wilber since the mid-1970s have begun to compare his writings with the writings of figures in various other disciplines and subjectsevolution, Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, western philosophy, politics, literature, the arts in general. A growing number of these readers are coming to see that Wilber's ideas are not all that original. OK. No blame there.
Well, now that depends. Are you saying that Wilber has taken other people's ideas and presented them in his own work as if they originated with him, without giving proper attribution, even in his voluminous endnotes? If so, that's intellectual theft, and it's very blame-worthy. But, of course, Sandberg's economical writing style does not burden us with even a single example of how kw's ideas "are not all that original," leaving us wondering what exactly he is referring to.
I have taken the liberty of annotating a different paragraph from Sandberg's article, which may be helpful should it ever be used as part of a Wikipedia entry:
In the mid [']00s a number of readers and students of Wilber's writings began to criticize his tone and style, characterizing it as arrogant, pompous, patronizing, and elitist. Some also commented on how annoyingly repetitive his writings had become. And others noted that in his otherwise interesting recorded and published interviews and dialogues, Wilber exhibits an annoying tendency to do his guest or interlocutor the "favor" of explaining what he or she really meant by translating what was just said into the jargon of AQAL.
[Wilber's] students, admirers, and those who have yet to discover his writings might be better offless subject to disappointment and delusionif they would think of Ken Wilber as the Asimov of consciousness, not its Einstein.
They would be even better off, and less subject to delusion, if they were to not think of Ken Wilber at all, and certainly not consider him as being "an incredibly well-informed critical analyst ... of the subjects he writes about."
"Incredibly well-informed" scholars are not decades behind anything resembling a competent, current understanding of the work of Jane Goodall and Konrad Lorenz. "Incredibly well-informed" scholars do not have their understanding of Spiral Dynamics dismissed by one of the founders of that system as being "impressive-sounding junk and nonsense." "Incredibly well-informed" scholars would not have their presentations (e.g., in A Brief History of Everything) of basic evolutionary theory rightly critiqued by prominent skeptics as being "a few paragraphs of half-truths and lies." (You really think Wilber can be beneficially viewed as a "popularizer" of cutting-edge ideas? You do realize that ABHOE was explicitly such "extremely popularized and simplified material for a lay audience," right?)
Quite frankly, anyone who still thinks that Wilber is "incredibly well-informed" on the subjects on which he writes is in no competent position to be giving advice as to "how Wilber might proceed to more effectively communicate and engage his critics."
There is a place and a need for someone who can do for philosophy, evolutionary biology, brain research, and consciousness studies what Isaac Asimov did for the subjects he took up.
Steven Pinker has already been doing exactly that for over a decade, now. Or have you not read How the Mind Works? (That book was "a grand synthesis of the most satisfying explanations of our mental life that have been proposed in cognitive science and evolutionary biology.") And for those efforts, he was listed as being one of the "100 most influential people in the world today" by Time magazine in 2004. He has even appeared on The Colbert Report as, if you will, a "talking head." (Alas, no word on MSNBC or CNN.)
Ah, but what you want is someone to spin those discoveries with a New Age, spiritual slant, isn't it? Sort of a What the Bleep Do We Know!? meets Max Headroom idea. Someone who will emphasize any possible woo-woo connections in current scientific discoveries, like subtle energies and rewriting evolution to include a warmed-over vitalistic force from several centuries or millennia ago:
Good morning. I'm Ken Wilber, and welcome to "Things Beyond Your Ken." Today we'll be discussing the Q-Link pendant, paranormal winds, and morphogenic fields. Rupert Sheldrake has just made an astonishing breakthrough with psychic parrots, and we'll see how that's likely to impact Internet piracy when the hundredth monkey learns about it.
Oh, and try a New Integral Koke. K-k-k-katch the wave! And the streams, and the states, and the stages, and the levels, and the lines, and the
Wilber and his work are not taken seriously by most professional psychologists, philosophers, and scientists and anyone pointing out this fact to Wilber, however directly or indirectly, formally or informally, risksas you will see shortly [i.e., in the "Wyatt Earpy" meltdown]making Wilber quite cranky.
No, what gets Wilber's quadrants in a bunch is when you go back to his original, primary sources and demonstrate that, as a simple matter of record, they do not say what he claims they say, and they do not support his integral framework in the way that he asserts they do. That, and kw's ensuing petulance and invitations for dick-sucking, has nothing to do with Old Baldy simply not being "taken seriously" by professionals in the fields which he so consistently misrepresents ... except, of course, in that the same misrepresentation and academic dishonesty should raise glaring red flags for anyone even considering taking the man's work seriously.
Wilber's "Wyatt Earpy" postings were not provoked by critics ("Visser, Meyerhoff, Cowan, maybe Falk") pointing out that his ideas weren't being taken seriously by real scholars. Rather, that integral tirade was provoked by critics pulling at the loose threads in the four corners of the Integral Quilt (pronounced "Ah-Quilt"), and demonstrating that as soon as you begin to do that, the whole patchwork thing unravels.
All of that had nothing whatsoever to do with the question of whether kw was being respected by "most professional psychologists, philosophers, and scientists." It was rather about the reasons why he shouldn't be taken seriously, and those reasons were being uncovered and explicated for the first time during and just prior to the "I'm-O.K.-You're-Not-O.K. Corral" episode. So, they couldn't even have provided a basis for any lack of respect for Wilber's ideas by competent professionals in the legitimate fields of study which the bald, once-buff man (who claims to have never had a homosexual experience) so regularly sodomizes.