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).
Quantum Theory and the Transcendent
PREFACE | April 26, 2015
I have always felt that Ken Wilber was at his best when he wrote as a skeptic, particularly when applying his considerable wit to all things New Age.
I wrote the following article 30 years ago. It was published in FATE Magazine where I had written a number of articles and book reviews in order to help pay for graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, where I was pursuing my Ph.D. in the Sociology of Knowledge. At that time I was asked to review a number of works on the paranormal and I received a large assortment of books ranging from astrology to Near-Death experiences. Later in that same decade (the 1980s) I was asked to teach a graduate course on parapsychology at the University of Humanistic Studies in San Diego (later to be located in Del Mar), California. This was a heady time since many books had come out trying to connect quantum theory with ancient mysticism. A number of them were best sellers, including Michael Talbot's breezy Mysticism and New Physics and (his 1991) The Holographic Universe. [Sidenote: Michael Talbot died at the young age of 38 in 1992.]
Quantum fever spread through the New Age community in the late 1970s primarily because of Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics and Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters. There was such a bonanza of books and magazine articles discussing the quantum connection to mysticism that the editor of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology commented as early as 1983 that the field was already overly saturated. When Ken Wilber entered the fray in the late 1970s and 1980s he came in as a breath of fresh air and as a voice of mature reasoning. He also doused the overly heated proceedings with skeptical coolness, pointing out that most of the correlations were either trivial or inaccurate. Ken Wilber was just emerging as a well-known author (he had penned The Spectrum of Consciousness, No Boundary, The Atman Project, and Up From Eden around this time) and I found his skeptical voice on this subject to be spot-on. He seemed to be the only grown-up in the party and he was basically saying the quantum-holographic/mystic connection was mostly hype without substance.
I have always felt that Ken Wilber was at his best when he wrote as a skeptic, particularly when applying his considerable wit to all things New Age. He was tremendously insightful, even if one found him disagreeable, in such books as The Holographic Paradigm, Quantum Questions, Eye to Eye, and A Sociable God (all written within three or so years of each other). As I have mentioned previously, I first met Ken Wilber in 1983 at the annual transpersonal psychology conference held in Monterey. It was an accidental meeting since he bumped into us asking for directions to a particular meeting hall. We began a friendly association for a number of years and I have used his books in a large number of my courses both at the graduate and undergraduate level. It was in this context (as an appreciative reader of all things Wilber) that I wrote the following article for FATE Magazine (mid-1980s).
What I find perhaps most interesting, however, is how the latest breakthroughs in quantum theory have blurred the dividing line between the mirco and macro worlds. It is no longer possible to categorically state (as I mistakenly did in the following piece) that quantum mechanics only applies to the subatomic, since even the very food we eat is dependent upon quantum mechanical interactions (see the film I made at the end entitled on the quantum mechanical effects on photosynthesis). Most surprising, at least for me, is how interest in the quantum-mystical connection has exponentially evolved and not died out as a topic of interest.
Indeed, there are now whole conferences devoted to understanding how consciousness may be the result of tiny quantum interactions (see Roger Penrose's series of books and articles on this subject, including The Emperor's New Mind). We now have a cottage industry of books devoted to this subject and I see no downturn in the near future. It appears our day-to-day lives are indeed impacted by the quantum world, where even our sense of smell (so rudimentary to almost all animals) is the result of quantum interactions for which we remain completely unaware. Even the idea of the universe being a hologram (something Pribram proposed, almost in jest, nearly 40 years ago) has garnered support from even the most cynical of physicists. For a good primer on the latest developments in quantum therory and its elemental place in our existence, I highly recommend reading Michael Brooks 2015 book, At The Edge of Uncertainty, along with Brian Greene's and Sean Carroll's numerous books on physics.
New Physics and Ancient Mysticism (circa mid-1980s)
Who is right in this quantum debate? The physicist with mystical leanings? Or the physicist with materialistic purviews?
Although science and religion has been divorced from each other for several centuries, in more recent years there’s been a major push for a reunion. This remarriage is being proposed by number of important scientists and thinkers, including physicist Fritjof Capra, neuropsychologist Karl Pribram and Brain/Mind Editor Marilyn Ferguson. They believe that the findings of new physics substantiate ancient mysticism. Indeed several books that espouse this dynamic idea have become best sellersThe Tao of Physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters and the Aquarian Conspiracy.
Do the new physics and ancient mysticism, seemingly opposite disciplines, intersect?
Yes, according to Michael Talbot, author of Mysticism and the New Physics, who argues that the discoveries of quantum mechanics after the turn of the last century point to the non-objective nature of the world. In other words, what mystics have been saying all along (that there is no separation between the observer and the observed) is proved by theoretical physics.
No, argues John Wheeler, well-known physicist at the University of Texas who brands the attempts to unify mysticism with physics as “moonshine", "pathological science" and "charlatanism". Moreover he states
"in the quantum theory of observation, my own present field of endeavor, I find honest work almost overwhelmed by the buzz absolutely crazy ideas being put forth with the aim of establishing a link to a quantum mechanics and parapsychology.”
Who is right in this quantum debate? The physicist with mystical leanings? Or the physicist with materialistic purviews? Surprisingly the answer is neither, for the quantum debate is essentially an illegitimate argument contends Ken Wilber, noted transpersonal therapist who is both a practicing mystic (Zen Buddhism) and a distinguished scientist (in psychology and biochemistry).
Wilber comments, “Modern physics neither proves nor disapproves, neither supports nor refutes a mystical spiritual world view. There are certain similarities between the worldview of the new physics and of mysticism but the similarities, where they are not purely accidental, are trivial when compared with the vast found differences between them. To attempt to bolster a spiritual worldview with data from physicsold or new--is simply to misunderstand entirely the nature and function of each. As Einstein himself put it, “The present fashion of applying the axioms of physical science to human life is not only entirely a mistake but also has something reprehensible in it.”
Wilber asserts that although several of the world’s great physicists may have embraced mysticism in their private lives almost none of them have felt that there discoveries in science substantiated religion, rather each domain has its own method and domain of observation. Physics: matter; biology: life processes; psychology: mind; religion: spirit. And, as such, the findings of one field can ad hoc be applied to another (such as equating psychology with biology, etc.). Though there are similarities to be found and connections to be made when appropriate, the differences are so vast that each discipline must be kept separate so the effectiveness of its own method of study will not be diluted. For example, it would be absurd and nonproductive for a physicist to examine molecules using the principles of psychoanalysis. Likewise it is equally inane to explore human motivations and meanings solely in terms of kinesiology (the principles of mechanics and anatomy in relation to human movement).
This simple hierarchy of knowledge has been overlooked by many of the writers on the union of mysticism and new physics. When Michael Talbot writes that consciousness and the material universe are linked by some fundamental physical mechanism, for instance, he thinks he’s doing a great service to mysticism. In fact, he’s actually contradicting the insights of mystics who contend that it is spirit not matter that unifies consciousness with the universe.
This pernicious reductionism (the tendency to explain complex events by their simpler components) is actually worse for mysticism’s cause than the damage done by more materialistic scientists who have ignored the subject. This is because, whereas physicists have refused to explain the insights of mystics in purely mathematical terms, Talbot and his peers elaborate upon a simplified theory, often erroneously using the discoveries of the physics and neuropsychology.
A good illustration of this type of mistake is found in the misapplication of Erwin Schrödinger’s famous cat thought experiment. On the subatomic level particles act in ways much queerer than we expect or in some ways than we can even understand. The interaction of infinitesimally small bits of matter is literally a world all of its own, complete with special quirks and rules. To better help lay persons understand this strange universe of the quantum, physicist Erwin Schrödinger developed a thought experiment which is now known infamously as "Schrödinger’s cat".
Imagine that a cat is put into it glass box. Poisonous gas, which has a 50% chance of being released and killing the animal, is also enclosed. The odds in this case are determined by a random event (the radioactive decay of a particle). After an hour so you come back to learn the result. Is the cat dead or alive?
Now on our level of reality and that of classical or Newtonian physics we would find the animal either living or dead but never both at the same time. Yet, according to some quantum theories the cat (which, in this case, represents a wave function on the subatomic level) is both alive and dead at the same time. That is, particles may have an existence contrary to our normal perceptions. They may move in two directions at the same instant, they may be in two places at the same time without traversing space and so forth. Here is a veritable twilight zone of time/space warps.
The problem, however, with Schrödinger’s cat is that as a thought experiment it applies only to the subatomic level. Talbot and other New Age writers want to apply the quantum discovery to our everyday lives as if this special reference has practical implications for existence. Hence when John Wheeler talks about his Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum waves (each function splitting off into an real, albeit incomprehensible, universe), Talbot seizes upon it as proof for mysticism’s claims that there’re higher states of consciousness, forgetting in the process that Wheeler’s theory and Schrödinger’s are meant to apply only to the subatomic domain. Such nefarious extractions do not buttress mystical insights but only convolute them.
Another example of how the latest findings in science or misused to support a mystical outlook is found in the much touted holographic paradigm, which attempts to explain such diverse mental phenomena as long-term memory and ESP.
Karl Pribram, distinguished neurosurgeon-psychologist at Stanford University, believes that our brain operates very much like a hologram, which is a three-dimensional image created by recording the interference wavelike patterns around a given object A good example of the lifelike qualities of a hologram is shown in the scene in the movie Star Wars, where the captured princess sends a message through her trusted robot companion in the form of a holograph. The unique aspect of a hologram is that each part a miniature replication of the whole is contained. Unlike a photographic plate which splits up into several distinct pieces when broken a hologram cannot be divided without each separate units containing all the information of the whole.
Our central nervous system, according to Pribram, are great processing filters which mathematically construct reality out of a timeless and spaceless frequency domain. Pribram elaborates, “It isn’t that the world of appearances is wrong; it isn’t that their aren’t objects out there on one level of reality. It is that if you penetrate through and look at the universe through a non-lens system in this case a holographic system, you arrive at a different view, a different reality. And that other reality can explain things that hitherto remain inexplicable scientifically, such as paranormal phenomena. In terms of holographic of holographic theory, all those events (such as ESP and out of body experiences) are plausible if the brain can somehow abrogate its ordinary constraints in getting access to the implicate order (frequency domain). It is mind-boggling. In the frequency domain time and space become collapsed. In a sense, everything is happening all at once synchronously.”
Naturally, consequences are extensive. If Pribram is correct every object we behold from the neighbor next door to Mount Everest is a vision projected within the confines of the brain. Outside our neurological chambers these images as such do not exist. In a sense we are seeing our own central nervous system and its responses to exterior stimuli, not the world as is.
Pribram goes one step further in his holographic analysis and poses the question, “Could it be that the universe itself is a hologram? If so, as parts of the indivisible hologram do we have access to the Whole Itself (God/Absolute Reality).”
Marilyn Ferguson comments, "He [Pribram] suggested that transcendental experiences-- mystical states-- may allow us occasional direct access to that realm. Certainly subjective reports from such states often sound like descriptions of quantum reality. . . . Bypassing our normal constricting perceptual modes--what Huxley called the reducing valve--we may be attuned to the source or matrix of reality. . . .”
Finally we have a scientific theory which supports mystical visions! The holographic reality looks to be almost identical to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment.
Ferguson states further: “And perhaps the most extraordinary ancient description of a holographic reality is in a Buddhist sutra, ‘In the heaven of Indra there is said to be a network of pearls so arranged that if you look at one you see all the others reflected in it. In the same way each object in the world is not merely itself but involves every other object and in fact is every other object.'"
But does the holographic paradigm really substantiate mysticism? Again, according to Wilber, the answer is no.
But does the holographic paradigm really substantiate mysticism? Again, according to Wilber, the answer is no. In point of fact, it offers no proofs whatever. Rather the paradigm indicates that the brain may have different ways of storing memory, a holographic system being just one of them. As for Pribram’s frequency zone, where space and time become collapsed, it does not necessarily refer to the transcendent state described by mystics. Though the languages is similar (no time/no space), the former is concerned with memory storage, the latter with spiritual insight. As Wilber puts it, “How one could jump from a blur of one’s own memory to crystal consciousness that transcends mind, body, self and world is not made clear at all. It is a wild theoretical leap to move from personal memory is holographically stored to ‘therefore all lines are part of a transpersonal hologram.’”
Thus a tragic flaw in trying to prove mysticism with scientific findings is that we end up discounting the testimony of the mystics themselves who categorically state that the path to God is not through reasoning, logic, mathematics or any device of the verbal mind; it is through spiritual practice, meditation, prayer and loving devotion.
The result in such haphazard endeavors is an oversimplification of transcendental phenomena, best grasped not by rational speculation but by intensive spiritual discipline. As Wilber points out the danger is in the false belief that all one has to do is become a mystic is to study quantum mechanics or neurophysiology. Similarly, there’s mistaken notion that anyone studies subatomic matter is automatically a mystic.
The explanations for the strange paradoxes in the new physics and neuropsychology, like Schrödinger’s cat and Pribram’s holographic paradigm do not automatically apply to the macro world of our day-to-day lives. Just as we wouldn’t equate our domestic troubles with the interactions of excited electrons, we shouldn’t try to compare the unique properties of quantum waves with the mental potentials of mankind.
Wilber says, “Planck’s view, if I may summarize it, was that science and religion deal with two different dimensions of existence, between which, he believed, there can be properly be neither conflict or accord, anymore than we can say, for instance, that botany and music are in conflict or accord. The attempts to set them at odds on the one or reunify them on the other hand are founded on a misunderstanding, or more precisely, on a confusion of the images of religion with scientific statements. Needless to say, the result makes no sense at all.”
Interestingly, the one area mystics and strict empirical scientists agree is in their mutual refusal to unify science religion. Perhaps Jeremy Bernstein, particle physicist, says it best when he writes, “If I were an Eastern mystic the last thing in the world I would want would be a reconciliation with modern science [because] to hitch a religious philosophy to a contemporary science is a sure route to its obsolescence.”
Wilber adds, “Genuine mysticism, precisely to the extent that it is genuine, is perfectly capable of offering its own defense, its own evidence, its own claims and its own proofs.”
Religion and science, contrary to what most people believe, were divorced for very good reasons. They were never compatible; hence not only was their reunion ill-advised but it postponed for centuries the mature developed of their respective talents. To insist now on a remarriage because their progenies in physics and eastern mysticism bear a striking resemblance to each other betrays the essential fact that they arise from an entirely different set of principles and assumptions. It is better for us to appreciate that fact--that science and religion do not belong together--and not forge crucibles which in the end cause more harm than good.
Scientific discovery theories and their alleged correlations with mysticism