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".
Andrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).
WHO DEFINES “WHO”?
Reply to Freund
Andrew P. Smith
Andreas Freund, a self-described physicist, has jumped into the evolution debate with a short reply to David Lane, et al., that, if I understand it correctly, provides some support for creationism. Physics is often described as the “hardest” of sciences, because it studies the most elemental forms of material existence. But ironically, it has, probably more than any other scientific discipline, offered observations that seem to undermine seriously the scientific paradigm. So I am not much surprised that a physicist would challenge in some respects the strong support for the scientific view offered by the Lanes.
However, it is one thing to suggest weaknesses in either the approach or the conclusions of science. It's quite another to imply that creationism has anything to offer in the way of a remedy to these weaknesses. Here I reply to some of the points made by Andreas. In what follows, his statements are in bold, and my replies in normal typeface.
Modern physics, as you may know, has shown that there is no [independence] between the observer and the object observed. Because science was created and is being created by the human being, there is no way of avoiding metaphysical elements in physics.
On the one hand, you claim that science has metaphysical assumptions—a point I agree with. On the other hand, you present as beyond argument a conclusion based on this metaphysically-dependent science. I find it interesting, to say the least, that you seem to accept unequivocally that there is no independence between observer and observed, while implying that the existence of metaphysical assumptions has relevance to conclusions made in other scientific domains, viz., evolutionary biology.
Let's consider one of these metaphysical assumptions underlying science: that observations that are repeatedly made by trained observers are accepted as reality. This assumption has a potential weakness. If an individual has the rare ability to experience something that most other individuals are unable to experience, that experience will not be considered reality. An example of this problem is provided by higher consciousness. Most people—or at any rate, most scientists--apparently have never experienced higher consciousness, and therefore it is not accepted as a real phenomenon by many, probably most, scientists.
On the other hand, this same metaphysical assumption of science has a great strength: it enables science to be self-correcting, to weed out many errors made by individuals. If enough scientists make a certain observation under certain conditions, that observation becomes accepted as fact, no matter how much it conflicts with previous theories or understandings.
A good example of this is provided precisely by the findings in physics that you allude to. Before the twentieth century, if a scientist had challenged the notion that observer and observed are independent, he/she would probably have not been taken seriously. But now the idea is taken seriously (at least at some levels of investigation; exactly what relevance quantum effects have at macrolevels is still quite controversial).
This example is particularly germane here, because the notion that observer and observed are independent, as I think you yourself were implying, might have been regarded at one time--indeed, still is regarded, today, by many scientists—as another metaphysical assumption of science. Yet it has now been seriously called into question. Thus the practice of science, while unable to free itself entirely from metaphysical assumptions, is nonetheless able to challenge some of these assumptions. This is a remarkable accomplishment, one that quite obviously has no parallel in creationism.
Who defines the question, who selects background information, who designs the experiment and under which boundary conditions, who analyses and interprets the results and draws the conclusions? Finally, who gets together to establish, often by consensus, what is right and what is wrong? Modern physics teaches us that this question, still often ignored, has to be included.
The “who” in your question is always plural. A single experiment and its conclusion may be the product of an individual scientist (though outside your realm of physics, I can assure you, that is extremely uncommon; in the life sciences where I work, almost all studies today are performed by large teams of researchers). But an individual experiment, as I noted earlier, must be replicated by many other individuals. This is why science is self-correcting, as I'm sure you are aware of. It corrects most individual flaws. As I also noted earlier, it may not correct flaws, or free itself from factors, that are common to most of our species. Hence the controversy over higher consciousness. But science is set up virtually to ensure that any phenomenon that can be observed by trained observers will eventually be recognized.
Some people might take issue with the phrase “trained observers”. These are the “who” that you are taking issue with. It suggests an elite, and this is correct: scientists are an elite. But the scientific body of knowledge necessary to become part of this elite has been painstakingly constructed, ultimately, from everyday observations that can be made by any human being. Any scientific finding or conclusion can be deconstructed, eventually, into such everyday observations. This has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout the history of science.
For example, there was a time when the notion of forms of life invisible to the naked eye, some of them living within our own bodies, would have been considered fantastic. But now any grade school student can verify their existence with a microscope. And the same principle is used to verify the existence of molecules and even atoms. The scientific edifice, as I'm sure I don't have to tell you, is built on observations made through the senses. No mater how complex and sophisticated the theories that are created from these observations become, they ultimately live or die on the basis of our senses.
So criticism of any specific conclusion of science is only consistent and coherent if it is based on observations of the senses. A creationist may argue that god is beyond the evidence of our senses, and so science is unable to recognize that god exists. From a purely scientific point of view, I have no problem with this view. But when creationism goes further, and argues that this god has effects on the sensory-based world of evolution, they must support their arguments with sense data. Like most scientists, I believe they have not successfully done this.
The illusion of "objective science", even if the frames are accurately set, must be transcended. It is the physics itself that comes to this conclusion!
Again, I note the paradoxical nature of your conclusion. You claim that there is no such thing as objective science, yet you seem to regard a specific set of findings in physics as so certain that it might as well be called objective.
Most scientists, in my experience, don't claim to be seeking the truth; the “illusion of objectivity”, I think, is somewhat overstated.. Most scientists claim to be seeking facts, which are quite a bit different from truth or even objectivity. It is a fact that an airplane will crash (if it even gets off the ground) if its design does not reflect certain basic principles of physics. It is a fact that certain types of illnesses are caused by bacteria, which can be killed with antibiotics. It is a fact (though I must say, a very curious one), that many people who routinely and unquestionably show their support for the scientific method by flying in airplanes or visiting a doctor, will question that same method when it comes to a conclusion they personally are not comfortable with.
In other words, agreed, we don't know the reality underlying what science tells us—or even if the notion that there is an underlying reality is a coherent one. All we can say is that scientific facts such as evolution, like airplanes or modern medicine, are validated by their usefulness. To say that evolutionary theory is just a creation of a great many intelligent minds working over many years is to say that human beings and animals and rocks and trees and everything else we call the world is also just a creation. Since all of this is just a creation, we may be suffering from an enormous illusion in believing in it; but the point is, as long as we are embedded in this illusion, science provides us with very useful rules on how to survive in it.
Creationism, to the best of my knowledge, does not provide useful rules for survival. So even if both science and creationism are based on metaphysics, I find science's metaphysics preferable. Without science, the human race might not have survived to this point, and if there were no human beings, I guess there couldn't be any creationism, either, could there? Kind of biting the hand that feeds them, aren't they?
In fact, it seems to me that creationists are in a bit of a pickle here. If an intelligent force guided evolution to create human beings, why did it produce so many humans who don't believe that this intelligent force exists? Did something go wrong in the plan? Does this just reflect the limitations of the particular intelligence involved? Or does God just enjoy watching creationists tearing their hair out?
On the other hand, scientists find no conflict whatsoever between their belief that no such force exists (or at any rate, has not yet been convincingly proven to exist), and the fact that creationists do exist. The existence of creationist beliefs by no means falls beyond the ability of science to explain. In fact, some scientists are actively researching exactly why beliefs like creationism did evolve.
Scientists take everything that they observe as data that need to be explained. So even if they don't agree with creationists, they readily acknowledge their existence, and seek to explain it. Creationists, while continuing to insist that human beings were created according to a plan, have yet to offer any explanation as to why so many people don't believe that such a plan exists.
If Wilber says that love is at the origin of evolution, I would accept this without any problem. If somebody objects that this statement is non-scientific, I would say: get out of your belief that there is no place for love in science and try to formulate your questions to nature on a more expanded scheme. Be more imaginative and try to see science not just as a search engine for understanding the functioning of nature, but as an integral and unseparable component of the deep and loving wish to take part in the creation of our reality and to experience truth implying the whole of your being. Like an artist who perfections playing techniques to express the beauty of a composition. Is Aristotle's "WOW" non-scientific?
There is quite a big difference between accepting that there is a place for love in science (as a scientist myself, I can say that I, and all my colleagues I'm aware of, share a deep love for the profession), and saying that love is a drive that long preceded human beings and guided evolution to their emergence on earth. Yes, great new discoveries are shot through and through with emotion, and perhaps a touch of something beyond both thought and emotion. That does not mean that atoms are emotional, or spiritual, and that this emotion or spirit helped create molecules.
One of the most obvious and incontrovertible facts about evolution is that new properties emerge. You can't use the existence of these new properties to explain how evolution occurred before they evolved. We certainly can and should debate how they did evolve from a time when they did not exist, but reasonable answers to these questions do not require that the same property was really there all along.
How is that human beings have evolved language? Is language a universal force, driving all of evolution? It could certainly be a very powerful one if it were. If atoms could communicate to each other in language—I see that you have the complementary features I'm looking for, let's hook up!—imagine how quickly evolution could have occurred. Wilber's tea party scenario, we might call it (though I think evolution would have occurred even faster in a bar).
Nobody suggests that language is a universal evolutionary drive, because the notion is so obviously absurd. Wilber's mention of a tea party is his way of sarcastically alluding to this absurdity. But is the concept of love any less absurd? On the contrary, if love is to do all the evolutionary work that Wilber seems to claim that it has done, it would need to be far more powerful and specific than human language.
I think love gains traction among many intelligent people, even like Wilber and apparently Andreas, because it is so vague, and has so many different meanings to so many different people. Just because we don't view love as highly specific in the way we do language, we can fool ourselves into thinking that love could operate at lower levels of existence, where we would never seriously consider the possibility of language operating. Frankly, I think this view demeans love. It implies that it is far less profound than language.
I find it particularly ironic that Wilber would express this notion, because in other writings, he has proposed a somewhat different view that provides an alternative way to think about evolution. He has often emphasized that while analogies exist between different forms of life, lower levels never express all the properties of higher ones; that higher life has something more. I agree with this completely; I think it is one of the most important principles of hierarchical dev elopement, supported by reams of evidence. So rather than love, we can say that evolution began—as David Lane notes—with certain well-established forces that do exist between atoms, and which result in the formation of certain simple molecules.
It would be a huge mistake to equate these forces with love. Yet they can be seen as a lower level analogy of love, or of emotions in general, in that they have a basic polarity—positive and negative, or attractive and repulsive. This polarity is still a far cry from complex human emotions. But as molecules are formed, then macromolecules, cells, organisms, and so on, higher properties emerge, all with this basic feature of polarity, ultimately including human emotions.
This scenario doesn't necessarily mean that everything we are can be explained ultimately in terms of material processes, as most scientists believe. It may not explain consciousness, and without consciousness, there might be no love as we humans understand it. But if simple physical processes can evolve into more complex ones, then perhaps simple forms of consciousness can evolve into more complex ones. The point is, an intelligent force is not needed to provide greater complexity. What we call love or spirit today might have begun as a very rudimentary property that became vastly more complex over time.
I am puzzled to see that this fight of evolutionism against creationism is still going on. We know [there] is always room for "one and the other" instead of "one or the other" if we are willing to set aside our ego. If you ask the question to nature: is the electron a particle with a certain mass or is it a wave without mass showing interference phenomena? Nature kindly replies: "As you like, my dear, choose your experiment". And it can be both, depending on how you set up the experiment.
If you are trying to compare evolution vs. creationism to particle vs. wave, I think that's a very poor analogy. Particle vs. wave is paradoxical, because two lines of evidence, each very heavily supported by observation, come into conflict with each other. There is no such conflict between evolution and creationism, because creationism is not based on observations. At best, it's based on dissatisfaction that the available observations are sufficient to support the notion of evolution. But even if that point were accepted, it would not make evolution vs. creationism paradoxical. It would just make the issue unresolved.
I agree with you that sometimes “either/or” is the wrong assumption, and that we need to seek a synthesis that incorporates both and goes beyond both. But sometimes “one or the other” is an unavoidable fact of life, at least during certain phases of our knowledge. Aren't you advocating that same attitude when you suggest that we “set aside our ego”? Can we keep our ego and not have it at the same time? If your answer to that question is yes, why do you suggest we set it aside? What about metaphysics? Can we have it and not have it at the same time?
“Is my existence or non-existence really that important and if yes, don't you have learned from the past that this leads to war and misery?"
I think the question of whether God exists is of far more importance to creationists than it is to scientists (most of whom probably tend to agnosticism). Not all wars and misery are rooted in religious differences, of course, but those that are almost always result from competing religious views. I am not aware of any past wars resulting from a conflict between science and religion.
One might interpret the ongoing conflict between the West and (some proponents of) Islam in these terms, but then one has to ask why so many other religions have been able to coexist with Western civilization. And if one wants to equate religion with metaphysics, and therefore argue that modern science at root is just another religion, one has to ask why some Islamists are so willing to embrace the products of this “religion” in its war against the West. The internet is an outstanding example of a product of science, yet anti-Western Islamists make free use of it in their war against the West. It is rather like someone denying that money is earned through hard work, then cheerfully stealing the money obtained through someone else's hard work. If this is a religious war, it has no precedent in the history of civilization.
Most scientists simply go about their business collecting observations, without making a big deal about whether these observations prove that God does or does not exist. Richard Dawkins, to be sure, along with a few other outspoken scientists and philosophers, is exceptional. He believes science is incompatible with any of the usual conceptions of God, and expresses his view very forcefully. But that is mostly because of the large number of people who continue to deny the most basic facts about evolution.
In other words, it's mostly the creationists who insist on framing the question in either/or terms: either evolution or god. As I said earlier, there is no conflict between God, per se, and science. The conflict only emerges when God is used to explain certain scientific findings. I agree with the Lanes that many of these scientific findings do not require the existence of God to explain. While there are still mysteries that lie beyond the ability of science to explain, and may always be that way, simply waving one's hands and saying that God explains them doesn't address the problem.
Granted, a view of God who has no impact at all on our sensory world is not very satisfactory. Perhaps there is another, more sophisticated view of God that can be integrated with science's view of evolution. In fact, I have suggested such a view in my previous posting here, Does Evolution have a Direction? Maybe what some call God, is a higher form of consciousness that has been created gradually through evolutionary processes, and is simply the emerging new, higher level as seen from those on the previous level.
This view, like any other, has its problems and its critics. But at least it doesn't deny basic evolutionary facts, nor does it propose anything inconsistent with evolution as science currently understands it. All the various forms of creationism in play today do suffer from these inconsistencies, and will continue to be rejected by most scientists on this basis.
1. David Lane's article that set off this debate, Frisky Dirt, did not make what I think is a very important distinction among different kinds of Creationism. There are many varieties, and different forms may have very different implications, and very different views of science.
2. Wilber might argue that only today are some people beginning to awaken to this plan. Just as human beings today are the first species to realize that they are the products of evolution, humanity of the future will realize that this evolution is a grand plan with the purpose of life to become increasingly more conscious of itself.
3. Others at this site have also fallen into what I regard as the trap of believing that particle/wave duality has analogies at higher levels of existence. See, for example, Edwards (The Integral Cycle of Knowledge, 1999) and Goddard (Consciousness and the Holonic Infrastructure, 2003).