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
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Adventures in Nonsense
Simply put, when it comes to the transcendent we can postulate any sort of nonsense that we wish and rest assured that it cannot be wholly disproven.
In the Fall of 1981 while I was teaching at Chaminade College Preparatory, a Catholic High School in the San Fernando Valley, Gumby fever had taken hold of hundreds of students who couldn't get enough of Art Clokey's Claymation creation.
So when it was announced in the local newspapers that Art Clokey was going to attend a Gumby film festival in Santa Monica (barely 30 minutes away), a number of Chaminade students and myself made the pilgrimage. We were not disappointed as the theatre was packed and some classic Gumby and Pokey cartoons from the past were shown with all their bendable glory.
However, something very odd occurred at the end of the show. Instead of a Gumby montage or a Pokey homage, we saw Sathya Sai Baba, the famous guru from India, performing what appeared to be some sort of divine miracle as he was pulling enormous amounts of ash out of a small vase. It was an impressive sequence, even if a bizarrely juxtaposed one. None of the students knew what to make of it since they had never heard of Sai Baba nor seen any of his alleged divine manifestations.
Art Clokey then came on stage to explain what we had just seen. He told us that he had gone through a rough patch in his life and decided to go to India on a spiritual journey. He took Gumby with him and, accordingly, when he met the famed Sathya Sai Baba, the master magically produced vibhutti (sacred ash) and directly spread it over Gumby, declaring that "Gumby was the incarnation of spiritual love."
Shortly thereafter, Art Clokey claims that his life turned around and that Gumby toy sales increased. As the Gumby and Pokey Claymation website explains it,
"Clokey remarried in 1976 and three years later, he and his new wife Gloria traveled to Bangalore, India to visit a guru named Sathya Sai Baba who supposedly had amazingly magical powers. For some reason, Clokey brought a Gumby doll along to their audience with the guru. 'I stood there with Gumby and he did this circular motion with his arms,' Clokey says. 'Out of nowhere he materialized this sacred ash. He plopped it right on top of Gumby. When we came home again, things started to happen.' Gumby toy sales began to pick up, and then Eddie Murphy started doing a continuing Gumby skit on Saturday Night Live. Suddenly, the phone started ringing and Gumby was hip again. Clokey went on a lecture tour and received an $8 million contract with Lorimar for a new Gumby series. He started work on Gumbythe Movie.' Gumby is a symbol of the spark of divinity in each of us, the basis of the ultimate value of each person. Eddie Murphy instinctively picked up on this when he asserted, 'I'm Gumby, dammit!' wrote Clokey in 1986. 'When people watch Gumby, they get a blissful feeling. Gumby loves you. We love you. That's about all I can say.'"
Later on when I was talking to a Sathya Sai Baba devotee from India I was informed that a tiny shrine was created for Gumby who was worshipped as a divine icon and some spiritual aspirants performed puja to his image in the belief that Gumby was given special powers to help one in their meditation and sadhana.
Of course, whenever I retell this incredulous tale to my college students they invariably laugh as if it was the most absurd thing they have ever heard. But then I remind them that almost all religious claims sound odd from an outsider's perspective, whether it be a virgin birth, transubstantiation, or extraterrestrial beings imprisoned around volcanoes 75 million years ago. Yet, in most of these cases the common denominator is that they involve something paranormal, metaphysical, or transcendent. The problem, though, with such claims is that they tend not to be testable since they are more often than not predicated upon faith and belief and not necessarily on evidence or proof. This isn't surprising since most devotees are not attempting to scientifically validate their respective beliefs.
I bring up the subject of Gumby and the spiritual claims surrounding him because I am often asked in class about the verdicality of certain metaphysical claims that abound in religious mythologies. My usual rejoinder is that we don't want to enter into "Gumby Land" when doing philosophy, since most of these kinds of questions (how many angels can sit atop an empty coke top?) are literally non-sense (in the precise definition of that term as first coined in the 17th century).
The Gumby Land Mantra: "You are not even wrong!"
Wolfgang Pauli, the noted physicist who won a Nobel Prize for his work in subatomic physics, is credited with the famous German witticism, "Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!" which translates in English as "Not only is it not right, it's not even wrong!"
Pauli's acerbic comment, apparently directed at an exceptionally unclear physics paper he had received for review from a young budding scientist, has been widely cited as a shorthand version of Karl Popper's principle of falsifiability in science. Essentially, any hypothesis or theory must be open to experimental confirmation or refutation. If such an idea cannot be falsified then it remains in the realm of speculation. In other words, while we may postulate any host of theories about why such and such works this way or that (using our imagination to the fullest), if we wish to gain scientific credibility we must rationally and empirically test our claims in this world. The reason science has made such enormous progress is precisely because it tests its claims and allows for a record of successes and failures, always realizing that our knowledge is tentative and open for revision. Undoubtedly there are several areas in science, such as string theory, which provide rich possibilities (coupled with some remarkable mathematical breakthroughs) that have yet to be properly tested, but even here scientists agree that progress can only be made if and when differing hypotheses can be rigorously verified.
However, some religious claims seem, at least on the surface, to be resistant to such testing or, even worse, so muddled and abstract that they cannot offer a pathway in which they can be verified positively or negatively. It is this latter quality (which to be fair is also rampant in almost all human affairs, including science) to which Wolfgang's terse criticism of "not even wrong" is most aptly applied.
W.V. Quine, the well-known mathematician and philosopher from Harvard, once quipped, "Theories face the tribunal of experience as a whole." Put differently, science is the process by which alternative theories and ideas compete against each other in the empirical and rational world and in an almost Darwinian fashion (caveats do exist here, as any sociologist of knowledge will warn us) where the winner is the one who can survive the gauntlet of repudiations. Naturally, the theoretic battles never cease and even the most lauded of winners (from Newton's theory of gravity to Einstein's theory of relativity) are constantly facing new challenges and modifications, even if they retain some sort of familial resemblance from their earlier ancestral forms.
I have in my academic career come across a plethora of Gumby Land ( Pauli's "not even wrong") examples in the borderland areas of religion and mysticism which wish to be regarded as viable science but which on closer inspection turn out to be anything but.
Wilber has a long track record of not even properly considering reasoned criticisms of his position.
One of the more recent and virulent illustrations of Gumby Land thinking comes from Ken Wilber, the popular New Age theorist, who both in print and in a series of audio lectures/interviews has claimed that love and creativity is what drove the big bang and which to this day is the driving force behind life and evolution. While it may be understandable to say such things as a religious or emotional expression, Wilber goes much further and alleges that there is a genuine scientific aspect to his loved filled creationism. Frank Visser, myself, and others have in a series of articles heavily criticized Wilber over his misunderstanding of evolutionary biology, but the real underlying problem with Wilber's intelligent design postulations is that due to their extreme generalizations and mythological layering they cannot be falsified in any meaningful way. In point of fact, Wilber has a long track record of not even properly considering reasoned criticisms of his position and has tended to engage in long rants about how "on top of the latest research" he is, forgetting in the process that it isn't about him but his theories that generate such heated disagreement. Wilber doesn't have empirical support for his "it is all love" hypothesis about the Big Bang and the like. He has his beliefs on the subject, no doubt, but his integral theory about the creation of the known and unknown worlds is pure Gumby Land and as such qualifies under the Pauli banner of "not even wrong."
This doesn't mean that Wilber couldn't refine his creationist musings and posit some viable hypotheses that could indeed be tested and thus qualify under this "could be wrong" rubric. But in order to do that Wilber would have to focus more time on generating falsifiable experiments that don't merely rely on castigating fellow skeptics with such muddled banter as, "But I suppose it should be pointed out that many of the ideas these critics offer are in fact at a green or orange altitude, and not even teal or turquoise altitude…." Wilber's descent into color coding his critics is, as some commentators have already pointed out, a new form of intellectual racism. Instead of debating the nuanced merits of an argument (which takes time and patience) Wilber has, ironically, developed a reductionistic (and somewhat absurdist) methodology whereby both the critic and his/her criticism is a priori relegated to a questionable rung in his Integral ladder.
Wilber also indulges in a series of sleight of hand statistics that are part and parcel of his Gumby Land leanings. For instance, Wilber writes,
"Integral Institute is a sanctuary for second- and third-tier consciousness. And this means, a sanctuary for anybody who can rise to their own highest potential. That 2% really means the highest 2% of your very own being. Absolutely every single person is capable of rising to their own second-tier awareness (and third tier as well in this Great Liberation), rising to their own greatness, and that is what I-I is all about, rising to your own highest 2%, your own highest Self, and meeting there your own extraordinary greatness. Do you want to be part of the herd, or part of your own greatness? Every single one of you can rise to your own genius, every single one of you can do this… "
Again, such rhetoric is often employed in business advertisements when attempting to win new consumers, but as such it hardly qualifies as something which is truly quantifiable. How does one go around testing to see which is or isn't the "2% of your highest Self"?
Or, in another context, Wilber employs another questionable statistic,
"Run the numbers. Even if we say there were only one billion Chinese over the course of its history (an extremely low estimate), that still means that only one thousand out of one billion had graduated into an authentic, transformative spirituality. For those of you without a calculator, that's 0.0000001 of the total population. And that means, unmistakably, that the rest of the population were (and are) involved in, at best, various types of horizontal, translative, merely legitimate religion: they were involved in magical practices, mythical beliefs, egoic petitionary prayer, magical rituals, and so on-in other words, translative ways to give meaning to the separate self, a translative function that was, as we were saying, the major social glue of the Chinese (and all other) cultures to date."
While I might understand a preacher using such numbers hyperbolically to rouse his congregation, what doesn't quite compute is how Wilber derives such exacting numbers in the first place. Are we really supposed to derive statistical extrapolations about the spiritual state of billions of sentiment human beings on the planet earth because of two Zen master interviews that Ken Wilber has conducted? Is this a testable claim or just a hyped form of misusing math to win new converts?
Of course, given this kind of methodological anarchy, where numbers and colors intertwine under the pretense of "integral" science, then maybe worshipping Gumby makes more sense than we realize. Or, perhaps not even being wrong is what we get when we confuse our mystical endeavors with objectivist science.
This leads us to the inherent difficulty in absolutely disproving metaphysical propositions since we do not have access to such rarified realms if they do indeed exist. For instance, it may well be true that Gumby and Pokey are divine beings who are dispensing untold blessings from their astral habitat, but we have no way of confirming beyond any reasonable doubt that such is the case. Just as we cannot disprove that karma and reincarnation are really morally operative or that original sin is why human beings suffer and die. Simply put, when it comes to the transcendent we can postulate any sort of nonsense that we wish and rest assured that it cannot be wholly disproven. Gumby Land, in other words, offers us an infinite set of possibilities-the vast lot of which can neither be tested nor proven. Bertrand Russell, one of the great polymaths of the 20th century, captured the fallaciousness of this sort of reasoning when he opined in 1952 in an unpublished essay,
"Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."
Six years later, Russell elaborated,
"I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely."
Russell's argument on closer inspection is a pragmatic one (since, given his example, it may indeed be possible one day to find out if there is a china pot revolving in an elliptical orbit between Earth and Mars) and underlines how much of science is a practical and common sense approach to unraveling the complicated workings of the cosmos at large. Yet, the pathways to such unravelings are often counter intuitive and in some instances defy our common sensibilities. This was brought into sharp focus with the development of quantum mechanics during the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, science's ultimate successes are precisely when it can proffer experimental evidences and/or testable predictions for its theories. If science cannot do that, then it remains in the impasse zone, like string theory, where it can only offer promissory notes but no cash in hand.
Because of the plasticity of human consciousness we have the wonderful ability to virtually simulate all sorts of fantastic adventures and, undoubtedly, this vast imaginative capacity has greatly improved our survival chances in a world of competing animals, instincts, and options. But when we ground such musings in this empirical arena and overlay them with what the world portends and offers up we oftentimes find that our maps have gaps. It is when those gaps are acknowledged that progress can be made since then and only then can we tinker and improve upon our limited knowledge systems.
To better understand the progressive differences between science and religion all one has to do is ponder how often a holy book changes over time and compare it to how often a chemistry or biological textbook gets altered or modified. Where the former may change very little, if at all after a set period of time (e.g., the Quran, the New Testament, the Guru Granth Sahib), the latter is under immense pressures (from an array of new research and findings) to update its data and discoveries year to year, if not month to month. Arguably, the stark contrasts between religion and science can be best summarized by looking at how willing each of them are to admit to being wrong and how transparent they are in providing such admissions, particularly with regard to core doctrines or theories.
Invariably I have a student in one of my college courses on science and religion who wishes to propose a metaphysical explanation for a naturalistic event, whether it is a new stylized version of creationism or a subtler than quanta interpretation of disease. My rejoinder is that in order to do science properly (even if we allow for the wildest of speculations at first) we have to ultimately find ways to verify our proposals in the sensible world. If we fail to do such, then we are literally in Gumby Land where belief and faith hold sway (and imaginary beings hold court), but where doubt and reason are regarded as unwelcome enemies trying to undermine the unchecked fantasies of a brain designed to conjure up all sorts of nonsense in its virtual simulations-simulations which if held too firmly mislead us into an illusory conflation of what may truly be correlative or even causative with what is merely the remnant exhaust of an excited cerebral hemisphere too addicted to its own dopamine to grasp the simplest of observations.
The most fundamental of observations for which science is constantly reminding us anew is that what we think to be true may not be so.
The most fundamental of observations for which science is constantly reminding us anew is that what we think to be true may not be so and therefore inviting other minds to participate and cross check what we observe can lead to all sorts of unexpected results, ranging from the discoveries of new planets to new medicines. But in order to allow for a participatory understanding of the universe (and not merely our solipsistic version of it) we are required to do that most radical of things: we must be willing to confess our own ignorance and be willing to follow the lines of evidence wherever it my lead us, even if in its sojourn it upturns our previously held cherished ideas or truths.
As Richard Feynman, one of the chief architects behind Quantum Electrodynamics, once illuminated,
"It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man."
And perhaps, in light of Feynman's elucidations, we unearth that the real danger of Gumby Land is that instead of liberating our thinking and setting our sails off to vast uncharted waters, it can curtail our understanding of reality by not demanding enough of our premonitions and our musings. Nature's selective process demands, even if we are not up to the task, that we be tested time and time again to see if we can survive its unending gauntlets. So too does science demand that our guesses and theories be vetted lest we succumb to a premature and smug acceptance of our own narcissistic predilections. Our task is as Feynman stressed
"to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another."
Additionally, Feynman's most famous dictum reminds us of an often ignored truism,
Richard Feynman on Science
It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honestya kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalidnot only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they workedto make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.