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".
Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.
Why Ken Wilber Doesn't Get the Cosmic Energy Economy
The following statements by Ken Wilber betray his uninformed, confused and uninterested understanding of the questions of science.
Imagine a large dammed lake, with a hydroelectric water plant making use of the energy generated by the continuous downwards stream of water, due to the laws of gravity. As long as the lake contains enough water, this continuous waterfall will never stop. Nearby, a hydroelectric plant is built which harvests this downwards stream of energy, so that electricity is generated that can be put to any possible use. One of its applications is a mechanism that transports buckets of water upwards, to the top of the dam. To the casual and non-technical observer this looks paradoxical: the full force of the water from the waterfall goes downwards, but the buckets are transported upwards. How is that possible? Of course, their is no mystery here. The energy represented by the water mass going down by far outweighs the energy needed to power the transportation mechanism upwards. Overall, energy is still used up, consumed, and converted to heat. There is no paradox here at all. Every step can be explained rationally using the principles of physics.
Now imagine a world-class philosopher who is very much interested in this upward going mechanism. It seems to go "upstream" so to speak, "against the tide", and to contradict our common sense. Imagine that he would say: "it is said that water falls downwards, but that's ridiculous! It goes up! Simple observation shows us that something other than gravity is pushing the buckets of water upwards. This cannot be denied. Whatever they say to you, this is proof of an upward spiritual drive in nature, which takes these buckets from the ground floor the top of the dam. There is no way in hell these buckets get there by themselves. There must be a pervasive force in nature that brings these buckets back to the source from where they came: the water reservoir of the water dam. Science knows nothing about this. It has no clue, because it is caught in flatland, reductionistic materialism, objective exteriorism, Lower-Right surfaces, meaningless realms of random ramblings. Flatland is the biggest roadblock to deeper understanding. But with the eye of spirit I can see and witness to the ever-present nature of this upward drive, otherwise known as Eros. Let's just say there is an Eros in the Kosmos."
Wouldn't you think these sweeping claims by our world-class philosopher would be looked upon with suspicion by the scientists and engineers who constructed both the water dam and the hydroelectric plant as so many tales told by an idiot, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"? Wouldn't they tell himif he would care to listenthat he has missed both the nature of the downward falling water mass and its potential energy, and the mechanism of the hydroelectric turbine that harvests this energy to power the conveyer belt that brings the heavy buckets of water to the top of the dam? And that at no step in this process do we encounter miraculous jumps that require us to introduce spiritual, quasi-natural forces that supposedly can do the job? That, by doing so, we forfeit every chance of really understanding how this whole mechanism works and how well-thought out this whole constellation is? And that, even if the turbine generates useful energy, it is fully dependent on the continuous supply of water coming downwards from the the dam and that, the moment this power-supply is cut off, the hydroelectric plant will stop working and can no longer do its work?
Still, this is pretty much how Ken Wilber has commented on the way the cosmos works, what makes it tick, and how we have to explain the obvious emergence of complexity in nature. Is this an unfair comparison? Let's see by quoting from some of Wilbers printed and online words. I specifically do include his statements done in online offerings, even though it could be said that they might be less careful and therefore unfit to be used for criticizing his views. On the contrary, I suspect these informal, conversational statements reflect his true views, which he might tone down when converted to the printed page. But before quoting extensively from his work, let's summarize his views in our own words. Ken Wilber downplays (or denies?) the pervasive influence of physical processes such as gravity and entropy in stellar and biological evolution. He postulates an "explanation" for the apparent rise of complexity and consciousness we witness in evolution that is immune to any scientific validation. He feels science, when "left on its own", simply cannot deliver the goods. Thus, he misses out both on the downward (disorder increases overall) and the upward (order increases in local circumstances) processes in Nature and their intricate connection. We are not talking here about ultimate truths, but about scientific explanations of the meso-world we live in, constrained by the intellectual capacities conferred on us by evolution.
On many occasions, Wilber has questioned the validity of the scientific truism that the universe is using up its energies, mostly by burning up its stars, through which the generated heat gets dispersed into the icy-cold expanse of space. This unavoidable increase of entropy (disorder) has been codified in what is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In his words: "the universe is not running down, it is running up". It isn't always clear if Wilber wants to argue for an upward-going process next to the cosmic entropic process, which under some circumstances can generate life (and mind) in a universe that is heading for heat death, or that he presents this upward going process as the fundamental force in nature, a fifth force of complexity, next to the four more familiar forces. And sometimes, in his more careless moments, it seems that he generalizes the undeniable increase of complexity in biological evolution to the cosmos at large, as if Eros-in-the-Kosmos reflects THE cosmic law Integral Theory has disclosed to us. He has never actually fleshed out these views enough, in his written or spoken offerings, in a consistent and well-argued way, to allow for a systematic critique. Instead, more often than not, he has resorted to the poetic language of metaphor, which tells us that "something other than chance is pushing the universe", something decidedly spiritual in nature. However, I will attempt a reconstruction of this views and a reasoned criticism. We have to start somewhere.
Wilber has his own version of a downward/upward-dynamic but in his case, the downward movement is a movement from Spirit to matter (called "involution"), whereas the upward movement is one from matter back to Spirit (called "evolution"not to be confused with the scientific conception of evolution). The upward movement is a veritable return, in which we return to the Source (Spirit) we once came from. So the upward movement is as much pushed as it is pulled (Wilber is fond of using the metaphor of a rubber band, that pulls us home). It is obvious that this dynamic is wholly beyond any scientific verification. The only reason Wilber thinks he is justified in holding on to this outmoded scheme of existence is that, in his words, believing in evolution without its counterpart involution is "incoherent". But that is the case because, and only because, Wilber needs involution to get his evolution project off the ground in the first place. This view of evolutionary phenomena is seen by contemporary scientists as pre-Darwinian and even mystical. It presupposes what it tries to explain and is in that sense merely question begging. As Richard Dawkins phrases it, briefly, in his recently published Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist (2017), before moving on to more promising views of evolution, regarding such a view of evolution as having a built-in drive towards perfection: "To the modern mind this is not really a theory at all, and I shall not bother to discuss it. It is obviously mystical, and does not explain anything that it doesn't assume to start with."
As in the case of the hydroelectric plant, this spiritual worldview works as a filter that prevents him to fully understand both the vast cosmic processes of increased entropy (after all: all stars will finally run their course and use up all their available energy) and the apparent paradox presented by the evolution of biological complexity. Because Wilber "knows" what drives this fascinating process, he is not really interested in the finer details. Of course, he will occasionally allow for some natural selection here and a dose of contingency there, but overall, for him the whole cosmological and biological (not to mention cultural) evolutionary process is intensely driven, by Spirit. This explains his un-informed treatment, in unsystematic passages in his many books, of the processes of natural selection, biological morphogenesis, and species formation, to mention only a few of the relevant topics. Instead, whenever he takes the trouble to mention these specifics at all, he turns to ridicule and straw-man arguments, implicitly telling his readers that they don't have to worry because he is on top of all these scientific subjects. Ken Wilber misses the point big time: in the end there is no contradiction between the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the evolution of life. The contradiction is only apparent, hence it is called a "paradox", for a paradox is an apparent, but not real, contradiction.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ENERGY FLOWS
Of course, this paradox has been noted by scientists for many decades and even centuries. How can life evolve towards higher complexity when Nature's processes seem to head towards a flat and monotonous end-state of cold equilibrium? The solution lies in the all-important distinction between local and global dimensions. Local islands of complexity can very well exist and thrive in the midst of an ocean of disorder, as long as they are supplied with high-quality energyin our case the energy of the Sun. What is more, these pockets of complexity can only exist thanks to this vast ocean (compared to the water reservoir in our example of the dam). Now that is where it gets interesting to me. It is not so much that here and there, life can work its way upstream and in that sense contradict that Second Law, but that complex biological organisms more are more efficiently able to harvest and process high-quality energy to convert it to heat. This is such a vastly different perspective that we have to leave the field of Integral Theory to get even a glimpse of its magnitude. We need to turn to the field of Big History, in which this cosmic and biological energy perspective takes center stage. That's why I have written several essays exploring the interface between Integral Theory and Big History.
The quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger hinted at these dimensions in his classic What is Life? (1943), which prefigured not only the discovery of the structure of DNA (he thought of it as an "aperiodic crystal", i.e. a crystal that doesn't just repeat certain configuration patterns but allows for divergences) but also the importance of energy flows in the context of life. As a quantum physicist he knew that out of the chaotic quantum realm orderly processes could arise (our laws of nature in the meso-world), because these chaotic processes evened out when viewed from a larger perspective, which he called "order from disorder". But genes, even if their structure wasn't yet discovered during the Second World War, were just thought to be too small to benefit from this order-from-disorder conversion, so they must contain order themselves: this he called "order-from-order". Eventually Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule and could create a mechanistic model of gene duplication and heredity, in which its hifi-accuracy was explained.
When the focus is on energy-conversion in living organisms, we can postulate that nature selects those organisms who manage best to harvest energy from every source available. In the dim pasts of evolution, in the depths of the oceans, chemical energy contained in rocks and sediments was the main source of energy for primitive life forms. Later on, when life took to the surface and to the land, sunlight became an important source of energy, followed by oxygen, which greatly enlarged the size of biological organisms. Still later, complex organisms took to eating eachother so that flesh became the main fuel of development. And later on, early humans invented the use of fire, to cook their food for more efficient energy-use, which allowed them to spend time on other things besides searching for food. Again and again, it turns out that those who manage to profit from the available energy sources thrive and survive. Of course, our modern energy use has grown to such proportions that some or our energy sources are in danger of being depleted. And as a result of this, we heat up the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels to our own convenience, to maintain a luxurious life-style. But then again, Nature knows best how to "waste" energy, if we consider the stars at night and their immense unused output of heat and light.
QUANTUM REALITY TO THE RESCUE?
Some integralist would agree with my assessment that Ken Wilber has missed out on major fields of science, but claim that he would do best to include unorthodox views of physics into his model. Perhaps the mysterious influence he ascribes to his Eros-in-the-Kosmos could better be understood as the workings of the implicate order, or morphogenetic fields, or some "non-local" quantum effects. Some even say that the cosmos is an open system which receives a continuous stream of energy and information from outside its horizon, which could explain the growth towards biological complexity. It's not that I object to including the quantum domain in our reasoning, but that should be carefully done and not in one sweeping gesture. Of course the quantum domain lies at the foundation of our observable worldthat goes without sayingbut that would be a trivial statement. Do quantum processes therefore serve to explain the problems of biology, psychology, economics, and all of the other "special sciences"? Of course not. When we introduce quantum processes in our model this should explicitly be done in a non-trivial way. It should clarify a specific problem, or a specific process, in a way that cannot be done by more classical approaches. As of now, those who introduce these domains into the picture have failed to do so in any specified way.
A much more scientific and careful approach can be found in the new field of quantum biology, pioneered by the authors of Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (2014). Here, we don't encounter sweeping claims covering all of biology or physics, but instead careful caveats of scientists doing real researchdefinitely not quantum-woo. It turns out that photosynthesis, the sense of smell, bird migration and other areas occasionally or structurally make use of quantum processes. The best way to introduce this work is through a TED-talk of one of its authors, Jim Al-Khalili, titled "How Quantum Biology Might Explain Life's Biggest Questions":
I am bringing this up as only one example because it contrasts so strongly with the approach to science adopted by Ken Wilber and his "New Science" interpreters. Here again, work is done from the bottom-up, with many dead-ends and failures, and occasional successes, instead of preaching top-down metaphysical or mystical schemes of thought, that fail to specify any detailed workings of Nature. The defense that we can't be specific yet because these fields are so new is refuted by the above video. It is only by being specific and open to falsification that these new approaches have any chance to stick and become part of the knowledge base of settled science.
The authors of Life on the Edge argue that, on top of general thermodynamic considerations of how life utilizes available energy sources we should take a look at quantum principles that might facilitate this process. Sometimes, evolution just gets "free order", so it doesn't have to painstakingly rely on chance and selection. Soap bubbles are a good example of how self-organization works in nature: because of the way water-loving and water-avoiding molecules pair up, bubbles "spontaneously" form (as a precursor of proto-cells?) under the right conditions, without any need of a mystifying "self-organizing drive" à la Wilber. In the same way, these quantum speculations clarify our understanding of Nature, without any need to introduce grand schemes in which the quantum vacuum becomes a Cosmic Mind responsible for the manifold organisms of Nature, or extra-cosmic influxes of information and energy supposedly govern biological evolution.
Does it matter if Integral Theory would jettison its involution/evolution cosmology and more closely align itself with a scientific understanding of the cosmos? It would definitely lose its most characteristic dynamic and flavor, for in the integral view of things, evolution in cosmos, nature and culture is driven by Eros or Spiritor in more naturalistic terms: by an innate drive towards self-organization. It would also impact the more religious interpretations of this view of evolution, in which the evolutionary "impulse" can be sensed and aligned with, and it is even said to drive humanity upwards to higher levels of mutual understanding and compassion. This decidedly optimistic view (for God is on our side, isn't S/He?) would have to be replaced by a more sobering view, in which development and evolution still happen, but not in any way as a guaranteed result.
On our local, earthly scale, evolution is real. It would be more a matter of seeing and grabbing opportunities, both in nature and culture, whenever they come along. As Spiral Dynamics phrases it: we can grow cognitively when confronted with new and more complex "life conditions". This sets us on a much more scientific trail, for the many energy sources harvested by living organismsdue to the availability of light, oxygen, flesh or firecan be seen as different and subsequent evolutionary life-conditions on Earth. Perhaps most strikingly, the integral cultural project could more easily fail, for it is no longer backed by cosmic or divine forces, but would be left to our own talents and persistence. Ken Wilber recently even tried to make sense of the election of Donald Trump by introducing his spiritual notion of evolution, but hopefully this pseudo-scientific discourse would be discredited by a more scientific perspective.
Against this background, the following statements by Ken Wilber betray his uninformed, confused and uninterested understanding of the questions of science (quotes are taken from essays on Integral World - sources can be found in these essays):
And the whole notion of the universe as 'running down' is ridiculous. I mean, it is NOT!
From quark to atoms to molecules... to brains... the universe is 'winding up'.
Evolution is driven by Eros, not by random mutation and natural selection.
It is not a universe becoming more and more dispersed and separated and isolated. It is a universe coming together in higher and higher wholes.
This split the world of science into two utterly incompatible halves: a biology describing the world winding up, and a physics describing a world winding down. The two arrows of time...
The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that in the real world, disorder always increases. Yet simple observation tells us that, in the real world, life creates order everywhere: the universe is winding up, not down.
But this is not the full story, for while the universe is winding down, it is also winding up, bringing forth new forms from old, adding new layers of complexity where there was once only an empty vacuum.
This seems to be the general overall thrust of evolutionand one of the things that is certain about it, is that it won't give up. It simply is there, with an extraordinary power, in the entire cosmos. If you want, the entire Spirit, an infinitely powerful Force, "Eros in action" is covering all of these areas.
Something other than chance is pushing the universe. For traditional scientists, chance was their god. Chance would explain it all. Chanceplus unending timewould produce the universe. But they don't have unending time, and so their god fails them miserably. That god is dead. Chance is not what explains the universe; in fact, chance is what that universe is laboring mightily to overcome. Chance is exactly what the self-transcending drive of the Kosmos overcomes.