INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank 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 100+ essays on this website.
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"Are we alone in the universe? New Drake equation suggests yes"[1]

Are We The Exception that Proves the Rule?

A Spectrum of Opinions on the Rarity of Complexity

Frank Visser

This landscape harbors different types of answers to the question: how did cosmological and biological complexity emerge?

Integral World carries many essays on what is popularly known as Theories of Everything: attempts to formulate an understanding of the universe that covers all bases. It struck me that this landscape harbors different types of answers to the question: how did cosmological and biological complexity emerge? By fully naturalistic means, or did Spirit have a hand in it? And how hard or easy was this given the way the universe works?

In science two schools can be distinguished which look diametrically opposite to eachother when it comes to the relative weights of chance and determinism (or law). In the view of science, both are needed to create complexity, but their relative weight might be different depending on the perspective of the researcher. Spiritual authors, when they discuss (and reject) science, usually mention only chance, but this is a caricature of science.

On the one hand there are those who see life and its complexity predominantly as the product of chance, together with natural selection. In this view, life on earth, and especially intelligent life, might cosmically be a very rare phenomenon. Some accept this exceptional rarity as a given, some postulate a multiverse to account for the specific conditions we find ourselves in. But some feel that, given this rarity, we might very well be alone in this Universe (see for example: John Gribbin, Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique, Wiley, 2011).

On the other hand there are those who claim life isn't exceptionally rare at all. They point to the fact that life arose on planet Earth almost from the start, and postulate a self-organizing capacity in matter, which is responsible for the evolution of biological complexity. We are most probably not alone in the universe at all, according to this school. Cosmic and biological complexity is not a mysterious thing, but something to be expected. Paul Davies closes his book The Origin of Life (1998) with a fine description of the two options we seem to have in science, linking it to the field of exobiology[2]:

The search for life elsewhere in the universe is therefore the testing ground for two diametrically opposed worldviews. On the one hand is orthodox science, with its nihilistic philosophy of the pointless universe, or impersonal laws oblivious of ends, a cosmos in which life and mind, science and art, hope and fear, are but fluky incidental embellishments on a tapestry of irreversible cosmic corruption. On the other hand, there is an alternative view, undeniably romantic but perhaps true nevertheless. It is the vision of a self-organizing and self-complexifying universe, governed by ingenious laws that encourage matter to evolve towards life and consciousness. A universe in which the emergence of thinking beings is a fundamental and integral part of the overall scheme of things. A universe in which we are not alone. (p. 255-6)

Then there are explicitly religious or spiritually-minded researchers who claim that, given life's exceptional rarity, something other than natural processes must have had a hand in creating it. This "other" can be God or Spirit, a divine intervention, a vague notion of Eros in the Kosmos, or influences entering our physical universe from unseen domains. This muddles the discussion, for both may speak of the "creativity of the universe", whereas two very different worldviews are defended here. Within a naturalistic scheme creativity is just a label to account for emergent phenomena we observe, but which can and should be the subject of further research. In a super-naturalistic scheme creativity refers to a spiritual or divine power, which by definition cannot be the subject of investigation by science.

Spirit, chance or necessity?

Is life a rare exception in the universe or not? And did it emerge easily or with great difficulty? Here are the options we seem to have (Table 1).

SPIRITUAL - HARD NATURAL - HARD NATURAL - EASY
Ken Wilber
("something other than chance", "evolution is Spirit-in-action")[3]

Creationism / Intelligent Design
("irreducible complexity")[4]

New Science
("quantum and deeper, spiritual influences")[5]
Richard Dawkins
("Climbing Mount Improbable", "life is a happy chemical accident")[6]

Mark Tegmark
("the origin of life requires a very rare fluke")[7]

David Christian
("universe creates complexity with great difficulty")[8]
Stuart Kauffman
("we are the expected", "order for free", "natural divinity", "no Creator")[9]

Lawrence Krauss
("a universe from nothing")[10]

Tyler Volk
("certain beats of the theme were more inevitable or causally necessary")[11]
Table 1. Spiritual and Scientific Opinions on the Origin of Complexity

Of course, the categories "hard" and "easy" are relative, and depend on whether researchers emphasize the chance-part or the necessity-part of the dual process of evolution. The language used by these researchers is sometimes ambiguous—they all have their poetic moments. The use of terms such as "creativity", "self-organization", "goals", can be interpreted both naturalistically and spiritually. But with dramatically different consequences for our understanding of the world.

Ken Wilber has always had a tense relationship to science. Bear in mind that his whole mission is to prove that a spiritual view of the universe is as mature and sophisticated as the reductionist and materialistic approach of science. On the very first page of his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995), he cynically and dismissively frames science as "the philosophy of oops". Doesn't science say that ultimately everything depends on chance? What kind of explanation is that?, he rhetorically seems to ask the reader. But while science may not have answers to ultimate questions (who does?), it can answer relative questions quite authoritatively. As the above table shows, science does not form a monolithic block, but represents a wide variety of sometimes conflicting opinions. But things and processes really get clarified in science. At the same time, Wilber tries to prove that his spiritual view of things is relevant for scientific questions—he even claims it can offer a better explanation for them. Obviously, boundaries between science and philosophy are crossed here.

In this effort, he sometimes looks for allies in science, who may provide support for his spiritual vision—but he runs into predictable difficulties. For example, when Wilber criticizes neo-Darwinism for its supposed lack of explanatory power (self-organization is needed as well), he often refers to Stuart Kauffman.[12]

I am not alone in seeing that chance and natural selection by themselves are not enough to account for the emergence that we see in evolution. Stuart Kaufman and many others have criticized mere change [sic] and natural selection as not adequate to account for this emergence (he sees the necessity of adding self-organization)... The alternative is to see some sort of Eros operating in the universe. It doesn't have to be a metaphysical force, just an intrinsic force of self-organization.

This appeal to complexity science for support of Integral Theory may backfire. The discovery of the phenomena of self-organization only makes a naturalistic explanation of life's complexity easier, not more difficult. And they certainly don't point to spiritual influences Wilber is looking for in his integral cosmology. (In the same vein, evo-devo's discovery of genetic toolkits that operate across widely different species and lineages is not an argument for Intelligent Design.) It just helps to do the heavy lifting that is happening in nature. Basically, it adds a dose of necessity to chance.

Says Kauffman in the Preface to At Home in the Universe (1995):

Thirty years of research have convinced me that this dominant view of biology [natural selection creates all biological complexity] is incomplete. As I will argue in this book, natural selection is important, but it has not labored alone to craft the fine architecture of the biosphere, from cell to organism to ecosystem. Another source—self-organization—is the root source of order. The order of the biological world, I have come to believe, is not merely tinkered, but arises naturally and spontaneously because of these principles of self-organization—laws of complexity that we are just beginning to uncover and understand. (p. vii-viii)

And he stresses the point that this has nothing to do with mysticism:

This theory of life's origins is rooted in an unrepentent holism, born not of mysticism, but of mathematical necessity.... Most important of all, if this is true, life is vastly more probably than we have supposed. Not only are we at home in the universe, but we are far more likely to share it with as yet unknown companions. (p. 69)

Says the back cover of Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred (2008):

Consider the woven integrated complexity of a living cell after 3.8 billion years of evolution. Is it more awesome to suppose that a transcendent God fashioned the cell at a stroke, or to recognize the truth: that the living organism arose by no Creator, but was created by the evolving biosphere? In Reinventing the Sacred eminent complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman proposes a new understanding of a natural divinity based on an emerging, scientifically based worldview.

The "Mixed Zone" category is the most problematic. Sometimes authors sound spiritual (Kauffman's "reinventing the sacred" comes to mind) but they don't intend to mean this in a super-natural or metaphysical sense. Sometimes authors sound scientific (Ken Wilber comes to mind here) but they don't really subscribe to a naturalistic view of the world. "Just an intrinsic force of self-organization" would do away with any need for introducing Spirit in the cosmic scheme of things. A "Spiritual - Easy" category would be a contradiction in terms: God or Spirit is postulated precisely because creating something without this help is considered to be far from easy or even impossible.

Wilber the Crypto-Creationist

When Ken Wilber was pressed to answer on the question how Spirit relates to the process of cosmic and biological evolution, he answered:

You either postulate a supernatural source of which there are two types. One is a Platonic given and one is basically theological—a God or intelligent design—or you postulate Spirit as immanent—of course it's transcendent but also immanent—and it shows up as a self-organizing, self-transcending drive within evolution itself. And then evolution is Spirit's own unfolding. Not a super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain.," (2006)[13]

Note that actually three options are mentioned: (1) Platonic archetypes, (2) Christian creationism and (3) Spirit as transcendent principle behind everything. Transcendent Spirit is most definitely supernatural. This puts Wilber still in the "Spiritual - Hard" class, for if he really would rely on this in-born tendency of matter to produce complexity, he wouldn't need any spiritual superstructure anymore. We would then really be "at home in the universe". But Wilber mixes the sciences of complexity with his brand of spirituality, giving the suggestion or impression that these new areas of science somehow support his particular views. Presenting Spirit as immanent is a sleight of hand, for that same Spirit is also transcendent by definition—"of course", Wilber even says. And even an "intra-natural, immanently natural aspect" is a spiritual notion, which no scientist would subscribe to.

Typically, creationists and Intelligent Design authors use statistical arguments to argue for the idea that nature, all by itself, could never have resulted in biological complexity. What is quite telling is that Ken Wilber tends to use this line of rhetoric as well. In The Religion of Tomorrow (2017) he quotes creationist Hugh Ross to the effect that the chance of a life-friendly planet in the universe is vanishingly small.[14] Those in the "natural - easy" category, by contrast, look for mechanisms and conditions that facilitate the emergence of complexity. So that something that seems baffling at first sight can be understood after all. This shows Wilber to be a crypto-creationist. He rarely sides with those who really try to understands nature's processes. It is not in the interest of creationists at all if science finds naturalistic explanations for phenomena previously claimed to be the act of a Spirit.

A word on quantum physics. These days quantum processes in biology and brain physiology are a legitimate field of study. It turns out that natural processes of high complexity, for example photosynthesis, are facilitated by quantum phenomena in various steps of the molecular cycles—though this is still a very speculative area. In those cases I would place it under the "Natural - Easy" category. When, however, quantum physics or "New Science" is used as a deus ex machina in the sense that unspecified quantum (or even deeper) causes are postulated to "explain" life and consciousness as such, I place it in the "Spiritual - Hard" category, for in these views natural phenomena would not work at all without these deeper influences.[15]

So which is it? Are we the exception that proves the rule, that we are alone in the universe? Or is the universe literally teeming with life? Are we a freakshow or is our existence business as usual? And what would Integral Theory have to say about these questions? Other than Christian creationism it doesn't believe in a special creation, so it would favor the ubiquity of life and consciousness throughout the cosmos. Unfortunately it cannot substantiate this notion other than with mystical-philosophical abstractions.

NOTES

[1] Stephen Johnson, "Are we alone in the universe? New Drake equation suggests yes", June 25, 2018, www.bigthink.com

[2] Paul Davies, The Origin of Life, Penguin, 1999. (Original title: The Fifth Miracle, Simon & Schuster, 1999)

[3] Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, Shambhala, 1996.

[4] Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box, Free Press, 1996.

[5] For a strictly physical, if highly speculative interpretation, see: Joe Corbett, "The Quantum Cosmology of Consciousness", August 2018, www.integralworld.net. For more religious and metaphysical interpretations see: Lex Neale, "The AQAL Cube Meta-Theory of Integral Relativity", July 2012, www.integralworld.net.

[6] Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable, Norton, 1996. Perry Marshall, "Where life came from, according to Richard Dawkins", www.evo2.org

[7] Max Tegmark, Life 3.0, Allen Lane, 2017.

[8] David Christian, "The History of Our World in 18 Minutes", TED lecture, 2011.

[9] Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, Oxford University Press, 1995.

[10] Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, Free Press, 2012.

[11] Tyler Volk, Quarks to Culture, Columbia University Press, 2017.

[12] Ken Wilber, "Re: Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution ", December 04, 2007, www.kenwilber.com.

[13] Ken Wilber, "Ken Responds to Recent Critics", www.kenwilber.com, 2006.

[14] Ken Wilber, The Religion of Tomorrow, Shambhala, 2017.

[15] For bona fide quantum biology research see: Jim Al-Khalili, "How Quantum Biology Might Explain Life's Biggest Questions", TED, 2015. And his book, with Johnjoe McFadden: Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, Bantam Press, 2014. A skeptical review: Matthew Ccobb, "Are we ready for quantum biology?", November 2014, www.newscientist.com ( "An energetic but frustrating book."). McFadden is also the author of: Quantum Evolution, Flamingo, 2000.

Dawkins tweet on Jim Al-Khalili




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