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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber



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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.
SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY FRANK VISSER

Ken Wilber's Natural Theology

On ‘Enchanted Evolutionary Perspectives’
and ‘Mysterious Incalculable Forces’

Frank Visser

Enchanted evolutionary perspectives are indeed common in esoteric forms of religion, both in the post-war varieties and in a broader historical perspective going back to Enlightenment and Romanticism. —Egil Asprem
There isn't really an alternative for natural selection as an explanation for the exquisite adaptations of nature.

Those who oppose neo-Darwinian evolution from a spiritual perspective often invoke a spiritual force or drive that supposedly explains the great diversity of life. This idea can have two variants.

First, the spiritual force or energy can occasionally intervene in evolution. This is favored by creationists who would accept evolution by natural selection, except when we reach the stage of mankind. Through divine intervention a human soul is "created" which lives on in the animal body. Or, alternatively, animal species or families have been created at a certain point in time (as "basic types"), which evolve and diversify naturally after that mysterious moment in time.

Secondly, this spiritual force or energy can be conceived as being intrinsic to evolution or the cosmos at large. Evolution might be seen as God's way of creation. Or: God works through evolution in uncountable and unfathomably ways. Or, Wilber: the cosmos is "slightly tilted" towards self-organization, increasing complexity, consciousness and compassion. Steve Taylor postulates an "impetus" towards increasing complexity and awareness.[1] And this is Ken Wilber's view:

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 in a super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain.[2]

Within a naturalistic frame the first view is analogous to the idea that we are alone in the universe. The second view is similar to the opposite view, that life is ubiquitous in the universe, simply because the universe is so vast and the number of habitable planets should therefore be large as well. Opinions vary between both extremes, and support can be found for each positions among scientific luminaries.

But these spiritual alternatives to the common scientific conception of evolution through natural selection are highly problematic.

First, they are (almost by definition) unspecified. Divine intervention is incomprehensible by definition, but even without specifiying the details spiritual authors can't tell us what natural processes we see in nature are the result of these interventions, and which are the result of natural processes. There is simply no theory here to look into. Just a pervasive skepticism that neo-Darwinism can't deliver the goods. But at least neo-Darwinism has a theory.

Second, this spiritual strategy is also opportunistic. Whenever and wherever science has trouble understanding a complex organism or mechanism, spiritualists jump in and tell us Spirit must have had a hand in "at least part of the emergence of complex forms that we see in evolution"[3]. But at the very moment science does find clues as to how these forms of complexity have arisen, they quickly backtrack and start looking for some other example for which this complexity-card can be played.

The approach is parasitic, never constructive, in a theoretical sense of providing a model that would increase our understanding of the natural world. This spiritualist strategy can have embarrassing consequences, at times.

Darwin's Black Box, Michael Behe
Playing the complexity-card...

For example, Michael Behe, the author of Darwin's Black Box (1996)—and one Wilber once advised us to read carefully[4]—argued that Darwinian evolution was much more problematic and impossible than Darwin ever thought, because of the biochemical complexity of phenomena such as blood clotting, or the human immune system. For Darwin and neo-Darwinians, he argued, this is all a "black box". But the science of biochemistry would show us all kinds of "irreducible complexity", which could not possibly have evolved by natural means. Behe is an intelligent design-ist.

It didn't help that one of Behe's sources on the blood clotting process objected to Behe's simplistic reporting on his work. When heard under oath for a legal court, Behe had to admit he hadn't sufficiently studied "fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system". Ironically, for Behe himself these biological processes were still very much a black box—but not for scientists who took the trouble to investigate them. Behe simply hadn't yet looked deeply enough...

There is another problem with postulating a pervasive cosmic force supposedly responsible for evolution or consciousness. How can such an ocean of energy/awareness result in individual forms of organisms or consciousness? Isn't it much more economical to look for explanations "closer to home"? An organism needs a principium individuationis, and the most likely candidate for this is its own physical body/brain (otherwise we need to invoke souls or subtle bodies for this task).

It is only because of certain religious belief systems, that doubt is cast on the validity of the scientific approach of understanding nature.

If such a force operates in the whole cosmos, is it not wasted on a grand scale on all the barren planets where life hasn't evolved (as far as we can tell)? Is it not more instructive to look at all the local conditions that favor the origin of life? And as to consciousness, is it really helpful to postulate universal or non-local versions of consciousness, which we somehow can tap in to, instead of investigating our brains, which are close at hand? How would such a universal influence or impetus possibly know how to produce the sharpness of the lion's teeth, or the swiftness of the hawk's wings? Obviously, this territory is a mine field. No spiritual author has—nor can he—provided a believable theory of how evolutionary adaptation can be explained. There isn't really an alternative for natural selection as an explanation for the exquisite adaptations of nature. It is only because of certain religious belief systems (not always acknowledged, or carefully hidden from view), that doubt is cast on the validity of the scientific approach of understanding nature.

The pervasive vagueness of these attempts at discrediting science has always surprised me. Wilber's insistence that "there is abundant support to believe in a universal spiritual dimension to the Kosmos" is never backed up by specific and believable evidence. His main argument?

The "creative advance into novelty" that is demonstrated by evolution itself and is inexplicable by mere "chance mutation" (the evolution from strings to quarks to subatomic particles to atoms to small molecules to massively interconnected molecules to asexual cells and early organisms—just for starters—is an awful lot of evolution in a universe that is supposed to be "running down" but can easily be seen as yet more evidence of creative Eros or Spirit-in-action, "a self-organizing self-transcendent drive," as Erich Jantsch put it).[5]

His Eros is an intrinsic force built into the fabric of the universe. He tries to gather supporting evidence from scientists (Kauffman, Prigogine and others) who would not subscribe to this concept at all. Not to mention the fact that his reference to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (“the universe is running down”) betrays a horrendous lack of knowledge about the relationship between entropy and evolution. I have commented on that in other essays, so won't repeat that here.

What makes clear thinking almost impossible in this regard is the fact that it makes a lot of difference to call the apparent creativity of nature divine or sacred, or alternatively, to see your God or Spirit as active in natural evolution (which Wilber defines as Spirit-in-action). The first amounts to "natural religion", with a redefinition of what sacredness in modern times can mean; the second is a thinly veiled attempt to dress up one's religion in a quasi-scientific garb. Wilber belongs to the second category; Kauffman to the first—they most definitely don't share the same worldview.

‘Enchanted evolutionary perspectives’

Natural Theology, Paley
“But suppose I had found a
watch upon the ground...”

The work of Egil Asprem, a scholar of esoteric religion who has published two essays on Integral World[6], provided an eye-opener for me. Wilber (and other spiritualists) are proposing their own versions of natural theology. This is a tradition going back to William Paley, whose Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802) argued that the complexity we observe in nature can be interpreted as evidence for God. Paley inspired Darwin as a young man, until in later life he had to reject this idea in favor of natural selection.

Incidentally, Wouter Hanegraaff, Dutch scholar of esoteric religion, opened up this field with his dissertation New Age Religion in Western Culture (1997).[7] He extensively discussed Wilber as a member—even if a highly critical one on certain aspects of holism—of the New Age. All of these counter-cultural movements, he maintained, have a view of the evolution of consciousness, which is only tangentially related to scientific evolutionary theory. Wilber's enchanted view of evolution is New Agey through and through. He looks down on scientific efforts to understand the mechanisms of evolution, including natural selection, and deals with science only to proclaim it a failure. In Wilber's voluminous works one will look in vain for one single page in which the topic of evolution is discussed in a scientifically credible manner. Instead, he extends the concept to other domains.

Asprem specifically mentions A.N. Whitehead as a more recent example of such a natural theologian. And I would add Ken Wilber to that list as well. Wilber frequently quotes Whitehead as saying there is a "creative advance into novelty" in the cosmos at large. They try to integrate science and religion in a way that preserves both. Above all, they lament the "disenchantment" of nature (Wilber's "flatland"), using a famous sociological concept introduced by Max Weber, and propose as remedy for this an "enchanted evolutionary perspective" (Asprems terminology. His dissertation is on this topic: The Problem of Disenchantment, Brill, 2014).

Asprem's main thesis is that the distinction between religion and science isn't as sharp as Weber intended it to be, because there are "‘alternative spiritualities’, which, at least on the surface, are respectful of science". And that's an important qualification. Because their science serves their religion. It is precisely the reason why they can't get any more specific than this when they are pressed for scientific details: they are looking for enchantment, not understanding! But what is more fascinating than real understanding? All the myths of the past can't compare to "the magic of reality" (Dawkins).

We should be on guard against a false romanticism, which places all quality of life in a spiritual dimension.

We should be on guard against a false romanticism, which places all quality of life in a spiritual dimension, and see the material realm as dull, meaningless and dead. On the contrary, the material realm itself is magical and fascinating, if properly understood, in all its micro- and macroscopic dimensions. A good example is the rainbow. One can wax poetic about the colors of the rainbow, and how it is a sign of God's promise to preserve the earth (mind you: this promise was made after He destroyed almost all life forms in the Flood), or one can study the light-spectrum itself and how it can be used to tell us how stars and planets are composed, by electroscopic measurements. Even the expansion of the universe can be measured this way! That is the real adventure!

Nor can such hypothetical cosmic drives or forces ever be quantified. Weber characterized religion as the belief in "incalculable forces": a rationalized world is a world in which "principally there are no incalculable forces that come into play"[8]. This is exactly what Eros seems to be. If there is an Eros in the Kosmos, responsible for the evolution of biological complexity we see around is, how strong or weak is it exactly? Does it have influence on a grand scale or only in some cases (after all, a lot of fish did not go on land)? Is it too weak to produce life on Pluto, even if the conditions for life are dire on that planet? See the trouble we get ourselves into with this line of reasoning? It remains a mystery and adds nothing to our understanding.

Enchanted evolutionary perspectives abound in the integral world, most clearly in the "evolutionary spirituality" promoted by Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen some time ago.[9] If evolution is seen as driven by love or an "evolutionary impulse", spirituality becomes an effort to align oneself with that energy. But what if there isn't such a cosmic impulse at all? Does our life become meaningless? What kind of meaning was that in the first place, if it can't stand up to the facts of science? When spirituality is based on a misunderstood science, a popular understanding of evolution as a continuous growth to higher stages, instead of an open-ended adaptation to changing circumstances, it doesn't stand a chance in modern times—except for those who prefer meaning over truth.

But there is a huge difference between seeing life as "wonderful" and seeing it as a "miracle". That's were a line is crossed: where reality is not seen as a wonderful and fascinating area of investigation, but as a mysterious result of divine influence or intervention. A naturalistic worldview can be painted in positive terms, and its spiritualist alternative might be viewed as lacking in substance and credibility. Is it stranger to think that our consciousness is caused by our brains then supposing we are transmitters of "universal" consciousness? How could that possibly work?

Of course, not everything can, and should, be quantified, least of all the meaning of our life. But that is besides the point. Spiritualists often claim a monopoly on meaning, where they paint a gloomy picture of the materialist worldview, devoid of any sense or purpose. This focus on the material sides of our lives is often seen as restrictive and nihilistic. Look how Steve Taylor contrasts a materialist view of life with a spiritual view[10]:

MATERIALIST PANSPIRITIST
chance
we are machines
selfish
mind caused by brain
death is final
isolated
restricted awareness
impetus to growth
we are expressions of spirit
altruistic
receive universal consciousness
life after death
connected
expansive awareness

But this is disingenuous. A humanistic and atheistic life can be eminently meaningful. And a pre-ordained meaning specifying we are here for a certain purpose (to please God, or to grow in consciousness) degrades us as puppets in a cosmic and divine theater. In the Netherlands there once was a philosopher who wrote the book Be glad that life has no meaning, for it liberates you from all pre-ordained schemes of meaning, so you can find your own. Isn't it more wonderful to see ourselves in an unbroken chain of living ancestors going back to the first form of life on earth, in one long unbroken genetic thread of inheritance? Isn't there, as Darwin wrote at the end of his Origin of Species, "grandeur in this view of life"?

Natural theologians will always disagree and persist in seeing the hand of Spirit in natural processes. To demand further detailed specification of these beliefs is perhaps asking to much from them—it would destroy their enchanted and cherished worldviews.

NOTES

[1] Steve Taylor, "Beyond materialism", www.integralworld.net

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

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

[4] Ken Wilber: "Instead of a religious preacher like Dawkins, start with something like Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. And then guess what? Neo-Darwinian theory can't explain shit. Deal with it." KW Responds, Vomitting confetti, Friday, May 27, 2005 (now offline)

[5] Ken Wilber, The Religion of Tomorrow, Shambhala, 2017, p. 498.

[6] Egil Asprem, "Blind Spots of Disenchantment, Science, Psychical Research, and Natural Theology in the Early 20th Century" and "Scientific delusions, or delusions about science?, Review of Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion", www.integralworld.net

[7] Wouter Hanegraaff, New Age Religion in Western Culture, SUNY Press, 1997.

[8] Max Weber, "The Disenchantment of Modern Life", From H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Translated and edited), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 129-156, New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.

[9] Frank Visser, "Evolutionary Endarkenment, Review of Andrew Cohen's "Evolutionary Enlightenment"", www.integralworld.net (which contains a video of Andrew Cohen in whch he explains the concept).

[10] Steve Taylor, "Beyond belief", www.integralworld.net




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