An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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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.
Ken Wilber's General Theory of Evolution:
Cosmological, Biological and Cultural
AN INHERENT COSMIC CREATIVITY?
Postulating creativity as a fundamental metaphysical principle does little to explain its workingin fact, it ends all investigation.
At the start of the recent (members-only) audio recordings, distributed by Integral Life, called "The Path Ahead: Politics, Globalism, and You" (November 15, 2017) of a few sessions on Trump that have been held lately, Ken Wilber explains in the most general terms what he understands to be the cause behind what makes the universe tick. In the introductory "Part 1: How Does Change Happen?" he widens the scope of the discussion to include the biological and cosmological dimensions and raises the fundamental question: "What's the structure of the universe that is capable of evolution?" As becomes clear during this talk, his answer to this question derives much from the philosophy of both Henri Bergson (who came up with the concept of "élan vital") and of Alfred North Whitehead (the founder of process philosophy).
“I would not bet against Eros…”
Bergson, who won a Nobel Prize in 1927 (for literature, that is, not biology, mind you, which doesn't exist) wrote the book Creative Evolution (1907), in which he presented a non-mechanical view of evolution, with emphasis on novelty, creativity and freedom. Wilber explicitly links this Bergsonian concept to his own concept of "Eros", though he comments, "but he did not give the actual mechanics, so to speak". More accurately, not many biologists have taken this élan vital seriously since then, since it begs the question of what needs to be explained. As is well know among readers of my essays on Integral World, it is exactly this lack of specific details that weakens the Eros-concept to play the role of explanatory paradigm for both evolution and the cosmos as a whole.
Whitehead is well known for his Science and the Modern World (1925) and Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929), which were presented as the famous Gifford Lectures in 1927-1928. He too, according to Wilber, offered a "crucial and profound start", although he too "did not cover all the bases". Whitehead proposed two metaphysical principles:
Each moment comes to be as a subject, a spark of awareness, which Whitehead called "prehension", which prehends all previous subjects as an object. The past affects the present because of this. This can be called "causation", or Wilber adds: "if you will: karma."
But every moment adds its own creativity. because in Whitehead's philosophy a fundamental characteristic of the universe is "a creative advance into novelty". This can be very little (as in the case of matter) or great (as in the case of humans), but is never zero.
As can be seen from the above, Whiteheads terminology (as is Wilber continuation of this train of thought) is very abstract. In Wilber's terminology, these two aspects of the universe have been called "karma" and "creativity"not surprisingly, the title of the long awaited volume 2 of his Kosmos-trilogy is called Sex, Karma and Creativity. (Incidentally, one wonders "what's sex got to do with it" given that in volume 1, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995), a treatment of "sex" was almost completely absent, and the original volume 2 "Sex, God and Gender" was supposed to go into this territory).
More importantly: postulating creativity as a fundamental metaphysical principle does little to explain its workingin fact, it ends all investigation and even curiosity as to how this could actually work in practice. It is a favorite approach of creationists and Wilber follows the same logic here.
Wilber then argues his point about the universe having a creative aspect as usual, in a rather colloquial manner:
This is something that becomes obvious about the universe, if you are not a dedicated reductionist... We went from dirt to the works of Shakespeare!... The universe is not running down, it is winding up!... and that's the creative advance into novelty... The universe itself is an inherently creative organism
I have often argued that these appeals to common sense in no way qualify as solid philosophical or scientific arguments. They are of the level of "everybody knows". But everybody also knows that the Sun rises every morning... and yet, it doesn't (as "everybody knows" as well). Science often contradicts this common sense-based view of the world, often resulting in very counter-intuitive conclusions.
Wilber then continues with the claim that his contribution to this body of knowledge consists in adding the distinction between individual and collective, on top of that between subject and object (which most philosophers restrict themselves to), resulting in the famous Wilberian four quadrants. Also, he phrases the actual processes of evolution and development as a sequence of "transcend and include", in which higher holons/stages transcend the previous ones (through the creative element) but at the same time include and preserve everything that went before. In that sense, molecules transcend atoms, but atoms are still present within molecules. Wilber approvingly quotes Hegel in this context as saying "to supersede is at once to negate [transcend] and to preserve [include]".
Again, these extra distinctions may be helpful as descriptions of the cosmic and evolutionary processes but can hardly count as explanations of these same processes. The higher and heavier atoms did not just pop into existence due to some internal drive or creativity, but were created under certain very specific conditions (such as incredibly high pressure, temperature or nuclear explosions). It is here that the weakness of Wilber's presentations shine out most clearly. Still, confident as ever, he proclaims "these [four quadrants] are absolutely crucial to get the universe up and running."
This is not necessarily a spiritualist model, he says, but if you are inclined towards a spiritualist worldview, you can easily fit all this into it, Wilber assures us. Holons have both an internal (consciousness) and an external (matter) component, and this interior side is variously called "spirit" or "emptiness", depending on your spiritual tradition.
Evolution, then, doesn't happen, Wilber states, "through random accidental mutations, nobody believes that anymore, but rather through an intrinsic characteristic of creative advance into novelty." As integral students will know, the "nobody believes that anymore" is Wilber's favorite way of belittling the neo-Darwinian approachfor which he has been severely criticized for over two decades. Apparently, Wilber has not thought it necessary to refine the structure of this argument.
He even continues, confidently, "leading edge biologists refer to this intrinsic creativity as the drive towards self-organization". In this context, he refers to the work of Ilya Prigogine (and I am quoting now from Wilber's Trump and the Post-Truth World (Prepublication PDF, 2017):
[Neo-Darwinism] overlooks more current scientific concepts that, starting with Ilya Prigogine's Nobel-Prizewinning discoveries, even insentient material systems have an inherent drive to self-organization. When physical systems get pushed “far from equilibrium,” they escape this chaos by leaping into a higher-level state of organized orderas when water that is chaotically rushing down the drain suddenly leaps into a perfect downward swirling whirlpoolreferred to simply as “order out of chaos.” If nonliving matter inherently possesses this drive to self-organization and order out of chaos, living systems certainly doand that definitely includes evolutiona drive that philosophers often call “Eros,” an inherent dynamic toward greater and greater wholeness, unity, complexity, and consciousness.” (p. 9)
These statements, too, have received severe criticism, to the extent that Prigogine would never consent to such a universal drive towards complexity. What Prigogine discovered, and which is indeed highly relevant in this rather technical discussion (involving concepts such as entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics), is that under these conditions (again: this is where our focus should be, not on internal "drives"), processes can change to another state or configuration.
Interestingly, these new states or configurations are actually Nature's ways of reducing the gradient that is created by the non-equilibrium situation. A nice and homely illustration is that of the "tornado in a bottle" experiment. If you try to pour water from a bottle by just holding the bottle upside down, it may take quite a while before the bottle is emptied. But if you rotate the bottle forcefully while holding it upside down, you create a veritable "tornado in a bottle" and the water flows out much more rapidly, because of the vortex that gets created.
HINT: In this case, the explanation is that the vortex creates a hollow space at the center of the water which gets pushed against the glass wall, through which air can move upwards into the bottle, quickly filling up the vacuum that is left behind by the water falling downwards. Without this hollow space, the water has trouble getting smoothly out of the bottle, it will pour intermittently. No transcendental mystery herewhatsoever.
Does that mean there is a universal tendency of water in bottles to rotate when flowing out? No, because that doesn't happen without the proper conditions (e.g. by forcefully rotating the bottle, thus creating the far-from-equilibrium situation by adding external energy). Does this explanation apply to the numerous other forms of self-organization? No, these all have to be understood separately. For sure, self-organization does exist, under many different manifestations in various domains, but that doesn't mean that one single concept explains them alllet alone a quasi-divine universal principle. Says Wikipedia:
"Self-organization occurs in many physical, chemical, biological, robotic, and cognitive systems. Examples can be found in crystallization, thermal convection of fluids, chemical oscillation, animal swarming, and artificial and biological neural networks."
Wilber is clearly jumping to unwarranted conclusions. He goes from "something in Nature is acting weird and needs to be explained" to "there's a drive behind it" to "this drive is universal in nature" and "it is even Spirit-in-action"for all practical purposes: God. And that based on only one, unspecified, example. In my opinion, Ken Wilber has co-opted notions from complexity science to make them fit into his spiritual agenda of an involution-evolution cosmologythereby losing the opportunity of really understanding what goes on in self-organizing processes.
So again, far more relevant than speculating about internal drives towards complexity or higher states is analyzing under what specific conditions these phenomena occur. This is, of course, the approach of science. But for Wilber, since "even dead matter" contains this "upward drive" towards complexity, living systems should display it even more readily. But these phenomena do not prove anything of that kind. They prove that we should study what really happens under conditions that are called "far from equilibrium" (more on that below).
Wilber, however, thinks the case has been settled, and he confidently muses: "the creative drive is INHERENT to the universe at all levels" and "evolution is Spirit-in-action." Briefly touching on Darwin he comments that the Darwinian concept of evolution by natural selection is limited since evolution applies to the cosmos as well (that goes without saying) and that this type of selection only applies to the Upper-Right quadrant (of collective-external systems). An integral view of evolution, however, would add the other three quadrants to present a complete picture.
Finally, when the discussion turns to Trump and the current political situation in the US (which we will not go into now, for this has been done elsewhere on Integral World), one participant in the audience asks how we can keep up our hopes in this dire and unexpected situation, and Wilber answers, wholly in line with his spiritual philosophy (and I paraphrase):
There are reason for hope: we have the fundamental Eros of the Kosmos. It's like the stock market, it just keeps going up and up. This doesn't prevent the Great Depression, but it helps if you know the larger pattern...
Of course we don't have any certainty, there are no guarantees. But the universe has been heading in an upward direction, over all, for 14 billion years.
If you are going to bet, I would not bet against Eros.
We, however, would most definitely bet against "Eros", and explore other, more promising options to explain the universe and its evolutionary nature.
…OR ENERGY FLOWS THROUGH MATTER
Big History has a much firmer grip on external realities than Wilber has ever demonstrated... at no point does it rely on Spirit or metaphysical principles.
In contrast to this top-down, Spirit-first approach advocated by Ken Wilber's integral theory, let's explore the explicitly bottom-approach that is used in the field of Big History. I have written three essays on Integral World about the interface of these two integrative disciplines. One of the leading authors in this field of Big History, Dutchman Fred Spier, wrote an overview essay on "Complexity in Big History", which has been included in the first publication of the new SFI Press, History, Big History, & Metahistory (2017). The legendary Santa Fe Institute is the home and heart of all complexity science, so that's no small honor. Big History aims to cover the fields of cosmological, biological and cultural evolution, by paying close attention to the results of the various sciences active in these domains. Other than Wilber, Big Historians look primarily at the external quadrants of existence, and some actually come from the field of astronomy.
This emphasis on the material and energetic aspects of evolution is understandable given that the large majority of cosmic history has been dominated by life- and mind-less matter. Even on Earth itself, the total biomass represents a tiny part of the planet as a whole. And within the domain of life, those organisms endowed with self-consciousness, again, represent a tiny minority, Spier argues. It doesn't stand to reason to start from the perspective of human consciousness when contemplating these wide vistas of cosmic history. Ideally, of course, the inside-view of Wilber and the outside-view of Big History should meet somewhere in the middle, and in that sense Big History represent a much needed complementary approach to the more consciousness-oriented integral model. But in the worst case, some views on Wilber on cosmological and biological reality need to be corrected.
Fred Spier frames his research agenda as follows:
Big history can also be summarized as providing an overview of the rise and demise of complexity in all its forms and manifestations ever since the beginning of the universe. If we want to pursue this approach to big history, we need a theoretical framework that facilitates us to do so. In this article I propose such a scheme based on energy flows through matter that are needed for complexity to emerge, and often also to continue to exist, within certain favorable boundaries (“Goldilocks Circumstances”).
The most obvious difference between this approach and that of Integral Theory is that at no point does Big History rely on Spirit or metaphysical principles (such as Eros, creativity or élan vital) to explain observed phenomena. On the contrary, these researchers ask different questions. Not the rhetorical question "How is it possible that such complexity as found in nature and the cosmos has been put together by chance alone?" But instead: "Under what conditions does complexity arise at all?" The cosmic fine-tuning debate, so popular among creationists, is relevant here. Instead of saying: "Life on Earth is so complex and rare, it must have been put there by some transcendental force", Big Historians ask themselves: "Can we specify what conditions are favorable for producing complexity?". This leads to different results and conclusions, and more often than not, real insights into the complexities of nature.
An important contribution by Spier is the notion of "Goldilocks conditions": life and complexity in general need very specific conditions to emerge and thrive. Our planet exists within the so-called Habitable Zone, at a certain distance to the Sun. Closer to the Sun we would burn alive, more distant from the Sun we would freeze. Likewise, our Star exists within a similar Habitable Zone in the Galaxy. Closer to the center of the Galaxy we would be destroyed by supernovae, more distant from its center we would not have enough heavy elements at our disposal to build living organisms. Instead of asking: "How is it possible that the Earth and the Sun are exactly located in these favorable areas?", we should rather ask: "What conditions would favor the emergence of life and where in the universe can we find these?" The difference is vast: we would not focus exclusively on our earthly conditions, but would take the whole of the cosmos into account.
Another characteristic of this approach is its focus on energy flows. As mentioned by Wilber, entities far-from-equilibrium sometimes change to a higher state or configuration. What he doesn't explicitly mention is that this far-from-equlibrium situation is created by the very flow of energy from outsideas our example of the "tornado in a bottle" has shown. What is more, these external influences create gradients (in temperature, light, chemistry, etc.) that complex organisms actively seek to reduce, thereby harvesting the energy from outside. Also, complex beings generate heat, or entropy (disorder) in general, and as such they conform to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy/disorder tends to increase in the universe.
Superficially seen, life seems to defy the Second Law, in that it creates order in a universe that seems headed towards disorder (and please note Wilber's rhetorical use of this supposed contradiction: "the universe is not running down... it is winding up!"). But correctly understood, life does not go against the Second Law at all, in that it generates order at the expense of vastly more disorder (in the form of heat and waste). This completely undercuts Wilber's rhetoric, in that he seems to miss the point that local pockets of order can arise within a global environment of disorder, without violating any of the laws of nature (and certainly not requiring quasi-spiritual explanations). So we have a real paradox here: the emergence of complexity seems to go against the Second Law, but in fact works in alignment with it, since complex organisms produce more and more heat and use up more and more energy.
A surprising result of this energy-approach, presented by astronomer Eric Chaisson, is that our human brain produces (and consumes) more energy than the Sun! Of course the Sun release much more energy than our tiny brains, but when our mass is take into account, the tables are turned. What is more, human societies produce (and consume) even more energy, to the excess of 250.000 the solar production:
Source: Fred Spier, "Complexity in Big History", p. 153
Biological evolution is fully accepted by Big Historians according to conventional science (doesn't that very much sound like "orienting generalizations"?) Where Wilber seems to abhor this area of science, even though his own integral model dictates he should include the accepted truths of this particular field, Big Historians have no trouble at all with evolution primarily working through variation and natural selection. This should make us pause as to the blind spots that are present within the integral model as it stands now. Wilber often argues that his four quadrant approach prevents any one-sidedness in this respect (he often condemns any form of "quadrant absolutism"), but theory and practice might be far apart here. Even if Wilber's model has ample room for the inclusion of these truths of natural science, his own spiritual preferences seem to distort a balanced presentation.
But most of all, here we are no longer living in abstractions alone but in the world of real scientific results. Where Wilber is stuck in descriptive language ("transcend and include"), here we find the fascinating results of science, which are by no means final and often inconclusive, but which are at least more interesting, because they precisely point to the "actual mechanics" Wilber referred to when discussing Bergson.
When it comes to human culture, the third domain Big History studies next to the domains of Matter and Life, here as well it takes an externalist approach. Spier describes how the use of fire, and at a much later date of fossil energy, has provided an enormous source of cheap energy to build human civilization, but that given the limited reserves we have and the pollutions and global warming it is currently causing us, we urgently need to reconsider the way we produce and consume energy. He has a sharp eye for the inequalities in the use of matter and energy that the agrarian and industrial eras have generated, as a result of the power relations between different groups in society. In the book Big History and the Future of Humanity (2011), he concludes:
(T)he most critical question appears to be how much energy is available in the near future for constructing sufficient amounts of complexity, while keeping entropy [pollution] down to desirable levels. Current estimates are not encouraging... In fact, it may well be that the end game has already begun. If scientists are able to construct workable nuclear fusion reactors or any other similar energy source, this may greatly alleviate our future energy needs. But right now, the prospects for doing so are not favorable. Given this situation, humankind may have no choice but to return to a lifestyle based on renewable energy. (p. 197)
For sure, Big Historians don't place their bets on Spirit, when it comes to the future of our shared humanity. They rely on rational arguments and solid research alone. They have a much firmer grip on external realities than Wilber has ever demonstrated. And they have a much more detailed knowledge of the 14 billion years Wilber claims to have on his side.
Returning to Trump and his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, it is interesting to see that human beings have discovered ways to produce heat and waste thousands of times more than the Sun. When it comes to energy-conservation, the universe isn't known for its best record, given all the shining stars at night. But life requires very specific conditions to survive. Will we in the end destroy our own habitat?
 The Wikipedia article on self-organization contains a paragraph on biology that Wilber would need to study:
Self-organization in biology can be observed in spontaneous folding of proteins and other biomacromolecules, formation of lipid bilayer membranes, pattern formation and morphogenesis in developmental biology, the coordination of human movement, social behaviour in insects (bees, ants, termites), and mammals, flocking behaviour in birds and fish.
The mathematical biologist Stuart Kauffman and other structuralists have suggested that self-organization may play roles alongside natural selection in three areas of evolutionary biology, namely population dynamics, molecular evolution, and morphogenesis. However, this does not take into account the essential role of energy in driving biochemical reactions in cells. The systems of reactions in any cell are self-catalyzing but not simply self-organizing as they are thermodynamically open systems relying on a continuous input of energy. Self-organization is not an alternative to natural selection, but it constrains what evolution can do and provides mechanisms such as the self-assembly of membranes which evolution then exploits.