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).
The Gravity of Science
Understanding Grounded Transparencies
“What is a scientist after all? It is a curious man looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what's going on.”
Science works best when we use our wildest imaginations to ponder the universe at large and then put those very ruminations to the test.
I enjoyed Don Salmon's recent essay and its somewhat cryptic prose. In some ways I took it to be a kind of Rorschach prompt, designed to underline Salmon's judicious citation of Wallace's quote, “The perceived exists in relationship to perceiving and the conceived in relationship to conceiving.”
Of course, Salmon's essay, like his earlier piece entitled Shaving Science, is also kind of a muddle and, like certain political speeches, believes it is saying something important and profound but never quite gets around to saying it so clearly that nothing gets lost in translation. Salmon hints at this when he explains why his more recent salvo is “deliberately . . . obscure . . . because of the misunderstandings apparent in subsequent integral world essays commenting on the Shaving Science essay.”
Salmon's Delphic approach is ironic, especially if he truly wants his readers not to end up confused and misread his overall intention. I am tempted to indulge him and respond in a similarly oracular fashion, but I thought it might be more useful if I took a more practical approach.
Let me start by using Frank Visser and his many contrarian Wilber essays as my template. Salmon alleges that Visser's original way of viewing Ken Wilber is “exactly the same way of viewing” Visser has brought to biological evolution. And this, Salmon argues “is in its most fundamental sense, anti-scientific.”
The first problem with Salmon's allegation is that his definition of what constitutes science may not at all be the same as what Visser (or I, for that matter) mean by the term.
One working definition that is often cited in various dictionaries is the systematic study of nature and its varying operations by observation and experiment. In other words, take a guess about how and why a certain phenomenon behaves in such a way and then see how well your map holds up under differing conditions. In addition, compete your hypothesis with other transparencies and let the most evidential purview hold sway, even if only temporarily.
In reading Visser closely over the years, I have observed that the more he has studied evolutionary biology, and Ken Wilber's reputed claims to represent the same, he has noticed a clear disparity between the two. Simply put, a closer reading of what Dawkins, Mayr, Gould, Simpson, Wilson, Carroll, Coyne, and others in the field actually write and believe is at odds with how Wilber portrays them.
This wouldn't be so obvious at first if one were not well versed in the literature on evolution by natural selection. However, Ken Wilber's misrepresentation of biology loom larger and larger the more one studies the actual writings of those he cites.
I found this to be the case and I have written several essays illustrating Wilber's discrepancies. Visser has as well and has dug deeper into the subject than he has in the past and we can see the fruit of his labor. Thus, our understanding of a particular subject evolves the more we learn about it.
There is nothing too surprising about this, and, indeed, this is how we make great progress in all fields of science, particularly in computational technologies.
Within this definitional parameter, I find nothing “anti” scientific about what Visser has uncovered, regardless of what personal feelings (or lack thereof) that may accompany such informational revelations.
But the focus of Salmon's essay is not on Visser, per se, but on me. Salmon alleges that I had “a momentary lapse” (from what, I am not quite certain) where I “with great trepidation experienced a letting go of 'viewing'” Near-Death Experiences. Given Salmon's abstruse wording (he admits the term he uses throughout his essay is “somewhat misleading”—which begs the question of why one would invoke such a term, if one laments being misunderstood in previous essays), I am not altogether clear at what he is driving at, particularly when I felt no trepidation (great or small) about penning my recent views on NDE's. I have long argued for a two-pronged approach to the issue, even if my emphases may alternate from time to time.
Salmon speaks about my “doubling back with almost breathtaking speed” to a certain form of viewing. Again, I am sure he wants to make a point, even if his prose betrays his earnest intention.
I have always felt that writing out one's thoughts is akin to map-making, just I have long argued that much of self-reflective consciousness (Edelman's 2nd nature) is a virtual simulator which plays out all sorts of scenarios about what may or may not happen in the future. It is also a fulcrum for ruminating about past adventures, foiled or successful. Within this context of my triune brain (or, to be more mystically inclined, my varying states of awareness and cognition), I have alternating ideas at differing times about the world at large and my interaction with it.
Depending on my age, the information I have accessed at that moment, and other factors, I will argue a certain train of thought (e.g., Is Consciousness Physical?). While at other times, emphasizing other areas of interest and perhaps tapping into some more emotional aspects that may have been neglected, I will engage in a different line of reasoning (e.g., The Enchanted Land). Very recently I underlined this tripartite schema in an essay entitled, “Being Skeptical of Skeptics,” where I employed a metaphor from Star Trek where I explained that we are combinatorial creatures and what we find convincing and evidential at one stage in life may seem less persuasive and convincing at a later period (or vice versa).
I don't think there should be anything too surprising about this and I don't think there is anything typically unscientific about it if we realize that all our conjectures are open to scrutiny, testing, revision, and correction. We all may have our pet biases and blinders, but what makes science a progressive enterprise (and not merely a solipsistic one) is that we vent our ideas and theories and see which ones resists falsification and which ones lack sustainability.
For example, I got heavily criticized three decades ago for my work on Eckankar which demonstrated that its founder, the late Paul Twitchell, had plagiarized a significant portion of his book, The Far Country from Julian Johnson's The Path of the Masters and With a Great Master in India. Some Eckists dismissed the findings because they believed I was a tainted source, biased in my own Indian leanings. But as I pointed out in a large number of essays, Paul Twitchell's plagiarisms can be found by almost anyone, even by devout members, regardless of how blinded I may be. The proof here is not in the messenger (I may indeed be short-sighted) but in checking the sources for one's self. Then a more consensual determination of plagiarism can be made. This happened and even Eckankar realized there were massive amount of plagiarized the material and withdrew the book from publication.
My point is that in discussing issues about consciousness and the like, it may be more fruitful to spend less time on personalities and more time on the message being conveyed. Being brought up in a household of exceptionally bright legal minds (my father was an attorney, my sister is an attorney in New York City, my elder brother Joseph is Clerk of the Court in Los Angeles, and my late brother Michael was Professor of Economics and Business at West Virginia University), I was taught that it was important to think through an argument from multiple viewpoints and that it was okay to take contrarian positions, even if they contradicted what one had argued a week prior. Why? Because (if I may bastardize F. Scott Fitzgerald famous quote about intelligence), it is important to hold contradictory ideas and still be able to function, provided one genuinely wants to understand a phenomena and not merely be an ideologue.
Let me flesh this out a bit, back in the 1990s I was teaching a large section of fundamentalist Christian students about Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. They had a very tough time swallowing this “dangerous” idea because it upended a literal interpretation of Genesis and its creation account. Yet, I realized in this midst of this that I should try to understand their worldview better by adopting their Creationist stance. So every weekday for about 10 or so years I listened religiously (the pun is intentional) to the Bible Answer Man Show which was then on 99.5 FM on my car's radio. I rarely missed a show. I also went weekly to the Sonship Christian bookstore in Fullerton where I would buy any new book on Creationism or Intelligent Design. I devoured them and got a much deeper perspective on how certain Christians viewed morphology and emergence of life on this planet.
I even entertained the idea of writing a pro-Creationist book just to see if I could make a more convincing argument than Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box or Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial. Hence, over the years I have written lots of essays which are not of the same singular persuasion. Indeed, my 1994 text entitled Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical for Garland Publishers in New York and London for their library series on religions is in some ways a schizophrenic work. In that book I took many of my published articles in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and FATE Magazine, and wrote critical addendums to each explaining how I had changed my mind over the succeeding years.
Yes, we may write essays with a tone of certainty, but this is merely a procedure to take seriously the issue at hand. That we may be wrong in our adjudications is to be expected and even welcomed. What is more elemental, I would suggest, is focusing on the message and not getting entrapped by personal vagaries, since then we sink into the abyss of “to the man” (and not to the idea) arguments.
I see no problem of a meditating Buddha being a neuroscientist, just as I see no problem of one being both a fan and a critic of Ken Wilber.
Science works best when we use our wildest imaginations to ponder the universe at large and then put those very ruminations to the test. I see nothing anti-scientific in such an approach. I have pushed the materialist position on consciousness repeatedly in a series of essays precisely because I think the more seriously we take that proposition the more productive findings we will uncover, even if those findings completely upturn the physicalist agenda. Or, to sound a more Koan-like note, and to echo Salmon's cryptic invectives, those who argue a Consciousness first (or all) position should be on the front lines of championing a purely neuronal explanation of self-reflective awareness, since by exhausting such a possibility it will liberate (not inhibit) our understanding of ourselves.
I see no problem of a meditating Buddha being a neuroscientist, just as I see no problem of one being both a fan and a critic of Ken Wilber. Dodie Bellamy once wrote a long cover story in the San Diego Reader about my research on cults and she asked, "Dave, what do you believe?" To which I answered straightforwardly, "I'm a mystical agnostic materialist. What it means is that I ultimately don't know. And in my unknowingness I like to explore how much more I don't know." She responded, "Is this a scary position?" And I replied, "I love it. I love unknowingness."
I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.
While I know this may not be the kind of consistency that one wants in a budding philosopher, but I feel quite comfortable getting up and meditating for 2 hours doing shabd yoga, reading far-out spiritual books about weird happenings in Tibet in the 1920s, and then after lunch putting on my skeptical robes and reading the likes of Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Clarence Darrow, and others. Speaking metaphorically, I do think the Star Trek Enterprise works best when both Spock and Captain Kirk are allowed to play out their respective duties. Likewise, perhaps our own epistemological potencies can be best served by allowing the believer and skeptic in us to become friends and not enemies.
I want to thank Donald Salmon for providing me with a new shave. It is always refreshing.
“The Unattainable is Attained by Its Unattainment”