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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

Facing the Integral Inquisition

A Response to Brad Reynolds'
Accusations Towards Integral World
and its Main Authors

Frank Visser

Inquisition

“Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition.” (Monty Python, 1970)
There isn't any definitive or ultimate knowledge (no Truth with a capital T), but we can grind out knowledge about the world that is sufficiently reliable for us to treat it as provisionally true and act upon it.
—Steven Novella, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, 2018.
Wilber offers a "spiritual Big History". The burden of proof is on him to specify what role Spirit plays in the evolution of the cosmos and of life.

At the occasion of Ken Wilber's 70th birthday Brad Reynolds, author of two books on Wilber[1], wrote a three part series of essays[2] in defense of Ken Wilber (and his spiritual Master Adi Da). It is a strongly worded critique of Integral World and its two main authors, Frank Visser and David Lane. (Reynolds generously uses terms such as: misreading, misrepresentation, misunderstanding, misstating, misinterpretation, mislabelling, being misguided, missing the point, missing the mark… and so on).

In contrast to what the website's name "Integral World" suggests, he claims, it has devolved into a website championing "scientism" over spirituality, effectively turning science into a religion of its own. For that reason alone it can no longer be called "integral", in his opinion (he even suggests either a change of the website's name or of its course). Its two main authors are called "the priesthood", dozens of times, of this scientistic religion, because they attack and condemn any attempt to propose a spiritual view of things. Consistent with this religious metaphor, I experience Reynold's writings as an Integral Inquisition, in the sense of a thorough investigation into the integral nature of Integral World. Clearly, Reynolds represent an Integral Orthodoxy, which aims to set the record straight. Let's see what his arguments amount to and how they can be countered.

Brad Reynolds
Brad Reynolds

Reynolds writes he is not interested in a tit-for-tat follow up of his essays, and hopes its readers will focus on the main message. What is the main message? That Integral World presents (in true Trumpian fashion) "Fake Integral". But the purpose of Integral World is not, and has never been, to advance an alternative or competing integral system. Instead, as the tagline of the website reads, it is "An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber." This conveys both its importance and its limited value. There are many other ways to engage Wilber's universe of ideas. Integral World tries to correct a perceived imbalance in Integral Theory, due to its lack of a real inclusion of the areas of science and society. Ironically, through these efforts integral might become more integral, not less!

Reynolds' main point is that only by using all ways of human knowledge acquisition (sensory, intellectual and spiritual), symbolized in the three "eyes of knowledge" of Christian tradition, can the integral nature of our worldview be restored. Above all, we need to distinguish between absolute knowledge (mystical spirituality) and relative knowledge (science), as the traditions do, and include the absolute knowledge of God into our discussions. By meditating, and preferably associating ourselves with a bona fide spiritual Master, Reynolds assures us, "we discover our consciousness itself is the very Source-Energy generating all of creation or the Kosmos." Reynolds has the Absolute on his side, so to speak (apparently speaking from his own meditative experience), and this utter lack of humility and appreciation for the relativity of all human knowledge is present throughout these three essays.

For one, of the millions of meditators and the hundreds of gurus past and present, how many would subscribe to the specific notions about evolution Ken Wilber has been promoting? Reynolds holds a very romantic idea of "deep science" which supposedly discloses "spiritual facts" just like that. And if some meditators see it differently, well… they are just not Enlightened enough. No true Scotsman, aye?

Contrary to what you might expect, I am immensely grateful to Brad that he has taken the trouble to pen this well-written—though somewhat repetitive—defense of Wilber (and Adi Da), for it allows me to clarify and qualify my own position regarding Wilber's Integral Theory. We are all afloat on the sea of knowledge and can use each other as beacons to find our own positions more clearly. But second, it breaks the culture of non-response in regard to criticism which has been so pervasive in integral circles. To illustrate this, we have to go back in time two decades.

Fifteen Ways of Looking Away

Twenty years ago Ken Wilber made some strong but erroneous statements about the status of evolutionary theory, in his best selling A Brief History of Everything (1996), which elicited a pithy blog-response by David Lane one year later.[3] The statement was about gradual evolution and how "absolutely nobody" believed that anymore. That, for example, eyes and wings could never have been evolved that way. And that these "transformations" occur "by mechanisms absolutely nobody understands". It was a sorry testament to Wilber's use of hyperbole, his sloppy reporting on science and his lack of expertise in this particular field. Evolution, by and large, for Wilber, was "Spirit-in-action". That uninformed attitude towards science is questioned at Integral World.

A Brief History of Everything, Ken Wilber

Lane correctly noted that Wilber misrepresented the status of current evolutionary thinking and concluded "Although it may seem that this issue of misunderstanding evolution is a small chapter in Wilber's overall work, it is so fundamental to his thinking that it makes one question the entire edifice upon which he has built Spectrum Psychology." Wilber's own Wikipedia page adds: "Wilber has referred to Stuart Kauffman, Ilya Prigogine, Alfred North Whitehead, and others in order to articulate his vitalistic and teleological understanding of reality, which is deeply at odds with the modern evolutionary synthesis."[4] So much for including the "largely-agreed-upon orienting generalizations from the various branches of knowledge"[5] into the integral model. Wilber has ignored this critique to this very day. In this field Wilber can say anything and get away with it, simply counting on the science-illiteracy of his readers.

Ironically, if it wasn't for these science related blunders by Wilber I would not have spent the past decade deeply studying evolutionary theory and the controversies of that field. These undoubtedly exist, but none suggesting there is anything like a "spirit of evolution". Contrary to that whole discipline Wilber can say things like "evolution cries out for a spiritual explanation":

Much more believable are spiritual theorists who… believe that one can see in the miracles of evolution an Eros, or Spirit-in-action, that is indeed miraculous. One thing for sure about evolution is that, as the Intelligent Design folks have aptly pointed out, it cries out for a spiritual explanation (though not for one taken only from the Bible)….
At the very least, as people like Stuart Kaufman have suggested, there is a fifth force in the universe (in addition to strong and weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational), something like a drive to self-organization (in other words, an Eros) that is actively winding the universe up. [6]

Here's an even stronger statement by Wilber about his spiritual view of evolution, both biologically and cosmically:

Now, Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory holds that all these transformations upward were just the result of chance and randomness. But there is no way in hell that the universe went from atoms to Shakespeare out of random stabs. This is an extraordinarily driven process. (EnlightenNext, nr. 47, 2011. "The Cosmic Dimensions of Love")[6a]

Says Reynolds, flatly contradicting Wilber: "To be clear: there is NO “pervasive cosmic force supposedly responsible for evolution or consciousness” (as Visser says)" (Part Two). Here we obviously have a different interpretation of Wilber's Eros-in-the-Kosmos notion. Charges of misreading Wilber or Wilber not being "at his best" seem misplaced here.

Over the years, Wilber only made it worse. He recommended his readers to consult creationist Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box (which has been widely discredited by scientists), as evidence for the weaknesses in neo-Darwinism. Furthermore, he lamely retracted his absolute statements about eyes and wings by saying these examples were just "metaphors and examples for this extraordinary capacity of creative emergence that is intrinsic to the universe".[7] And in his infamous Wyatt Earp rant of 2006, a rather over-the-top and hysterical response to critics, the controversy around Wilber's treatment of the field of science was not mentioned at all.

Apparently, the interface of Integral Theory and science represented a shadow aspect which resisted being analyzed and clarified. However, since I kept researching this area, over the years I have received several types of responses from the integral community...

  1. Wilber is not a scientist-biologist but a philosopher
  2. Integral Theory is not a theory about phenomena but about theories
  3. Wilber's focus is on psychology, the development of consciousness
  4. Integral Theory is more than reductionistic science
  5. You are a scientism-advocate instead of an integralist
  6. Wilber has superior spiritual vision, using his "eye of Spirit"
  7. Wilber uses "evolution" in a wider meaning, not strictly biological
  8. Wilber uses Eros as mystical poetry, not a theoretical concept
  9. You misrepresent Wilber's notion of an Eros-in-the-Kosmos
  10. A Theory of Everything can never be correct in all the details
  11. Your attacks are mean, narrow, shadow-based
  12. You are quoting from non-official sources, not his published works
  13. We are not interested in the subject of biological evolution
  14. I can see with my third eye that Wilber is right
  15. Why don't you give Wilber a break on this?

All are besides the point.

To my mind, all are a way of "looking away" and not dealing with the issue at hand. Which is, to repeat, that Wilber's reporting on science is (sometimes) unreliable. Reynolds has somehow managed to include most, if not all, of these responses in his series of essays—though to his credit he does mention on several occasions that Wilber "has been somewhat sloppy (and confusing) in his presentations critiquing Darwinian evolution". I don't think this field of evolutionary science is a minor detail, especially since the integral worldview has been relabelled as "evolutionary" in recent years. It is crucial for our understanding of how creative emergence arises in evolution. Simply stating, as Wilber does, that this capacity is "intrinsic to the universe" introduces more questions than it answers.

A naturalist would agree that there should be naturalistic explanations for the emergence of complexity—and for sure these can be discovered by science (Stuart Kauffman and Ilya Prigogine are committed naturalists). But Wilber is not a naturalist, he speaks of "immanent Spirit" being active in evolution (which is "Spirit-in-action"). This Spirit, he claims is both immanent and transcendent. Reynolds follows him in this: "For Visser, the Ultimate Truth of a wholly Transcendent-Immanent Divine Reality, which Wilber has consistently seen for decades (which is why he's so popular with people who share that vision), has nothing to do with evolution. Yet, as Wilber indicates… the Eye of Spirit shows another way of seeing how evolution truly unfolds". Clearly, speaking of "intrinsic to the universe" is misleading when behind the scenes of nature a transcendent Spirit is supposedly at work.

The non-value of spiritual add-ons

Reynolds proposes to correct Wilber in a more graceful way: look at science from a spiritual perspective, thus both transcending-and-including science—as the magical mantra of Integral Theory phrases it. "This would be the way out of this predicament: to examine the scientific understanding of biological evolution with an awareness of its divine condition too." I will focus on this constructive suggestion in the remainder of this essay.

The Eye of Spirit supposedly discloses a universe that is rooted in Spirit. It doesn't tell us about the "how" or "what" of things, says Reynolds, but about the "why". That would preclude any statements about the precise mechanism of evolution, an area Wilber does enter with this claims about eyes and wings. Reynolds also denies that Wilber (in his interpretation, that is) postulates some kind of cosmic force or drive towards complexity and consciousness—even though many of Wilber's statements seems to point to exactly that conclusion. Instead, he sees Spirit as intrinsically present in the manifest universe.

But if divine Spirit is behind all and everything, the term loses all of its meaning. Do we have gravity or divine gravity? The AIDS virus or divine AIDS? Earthquakes or divine earthquakes? How would we be able to tell the difference? If a spiritual view of reality tells us that "we are here to grow in consciousness", that is a religious statement, which everybody can entertain on his/her own, without much implications for science. But if the claim is, as Wilber repeatedly makes, that "something other than chance is pushing the universe" and without the effect of Spirit-in-action not even a single enzyme could be assembled, a different picture arises. It seems crucial to Wilber's worldview to me, that Spirit does make a difference in the real world, i.e. as he clarified, "Rather, there is a force of self-organization built into the universe, and this force (or Eros by any name) is responsible for at least part of the emergence of complex forms that we see in evolution."[3] And it is right here that Wilber enters the domain of empirical science.

Reynolds emphatically states that Wilber's notion of Eros is not a natural theology, "which suggests a Deity-God can be found evident in the complexities of Nature ", but this is exactly the strategy he uses in his recent The Religion of Tomorrow (2017). In this book he gives four rational reasons to believe in a spiritual dimension: (1) the evolution of complexity from strings/quarks to human beings, (2) the interconnected nature of all seemingly separate things, (3) the existence of consciousness and (4) meditative proof for the existence of Spirit.[8]. All four instances represent empirical phenomena that, according to Wilbers interpretation, point in the direction of a spiritual dimension. So who is misreading Wilber here?

Nothinig less than the proper inclusion of science by Integral Theory is at stake here.

The fact that Wilber uses the term "evolution" in a wider sense is fine with me, but results in the same problematic situation. In the end the big question to explain is how we went from Hydrogen atoms to human beings. Science has a story to tell about this process (most instructively in Big History[9]), where no spiritual dimension is introduced and the Second Law of Thermodynamics is respected. Wilber, in contrast, feels the need to ridicule this Second Law, and argues that the growth to increasing order is the cosmic law, not the eventual dissolution into disorder. Here's again a field for fruitful analysis waiting to be mined. In my opinion, Wilber fails to appreciate the paradox that even in a universe that is "winding down", a growth to complexity is possible under the right conditions of energy flows. Instead, he invents his own cosmic dynamic supposedly at the root of all emergent complexity.

For all his mystical sophistication, Wilber is in the same predicament as the creationists or Intelligent Designists, who accept most of the details of biological evolution, but still claim the hand of God behind it. Jerry Coyne once called this a "religious add-on". For Coyne all these religious speculations are nothing but religious "add-ons", adding no insight whatsoever. He has coined the term "religionism" for it, the equivalent of the much wider known "scientism"—a overstepping of boundaries and claiming insight and authority where it doesn't really exist.[10]

The trouble with integralists is that a detached discussion of science topics apparently isn't possible without bringing outlandish knowledge claims into the discussion. The truth of the matter is that Wilber's Eros is at most an inference, based on what he understands of evolutionary biology:

That drive—Eros by any other name—seems a perfectly realistic conclusion, given the facts of evolution as we understand them. Let's just say there is plenty of room for a Kosmos of Eros. (Integral Spirituality, 2006: 236n.)

This looks suspiciously like the "design inference" of Intelligent Design—which is based on statistical considerations but empty of any specific content. A non-starter for science. But where Intelligent Design at least has an intelligent Designer supposedly tweaking the DNA of living organisms here and there, presumably through quantum effects, Integral Theory has... "the creative advance into novelty" (Whitehead).

That's it. How does that work? Don't ask. More mystical perhaps, but less informative.

Rather than start a battle about "who (mis)understands Wilber the most" and introduce grandiose knowledge claims, it would be more fruitful in my opinion to acknowledge this territory is massively understudied. What could be more fruitful than clarify what role Spirit plays in evolution—if at all—and how this relates to the evolutionary models of science? Nothinig less than the proper inclusion of science by Integral Theory is at stake here. To repeat the introduction to my ITC 2010 paper "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered" (which Reynolds doesn't mention, and which covers many relevant online and offline statements by Wilber about evolution, not only "obscure quotes", as Reynolds suggests in a footnote):

"Does integral theory have a substantial contribution to make to the subject of evolutionary theory or is it merely producing metaphors that provide meaning and significance for those in search of an uplifting philosophy of life?"[11]

The answers to these questions would be No and Yes. Both Brad and I would agree on that point, I suppose. If only Ken Wilber would understand this as well. Wilber offers a "spiritual Big History". The burden of proof is on him to specify what role Spirit plays in the evolution of the cosmos and of life.

NOTES

[1] Brad Reynolds, Embracing Reality (Tarcher, 2004) and Where is Wilber At? (Paragon House, 2006)

[2] Brad Reynolds, "Real Integral vs. Fake Integral: Transcending-Yet-Including the Knowledge of Science", Parts I-III, www.integralworld.net, January 29, 30 and 31, 2019.

[3] David Lane, "Wilber and the Misunderstanding of Evolution: Ken Wilber's Achilles' Heel, Part II", reposted on www.integralworld, 2007.

[4] "Ken Wilber", Wikepedia, Ken Wilber on Science.

[5] Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Shambhala, 1995), p. 5.

[6] Ken Wilber, "Toward a Fourth Turning of Buddhism", www.integrallife.com, January 1, 2017.

[6a] See also: David Lane, "Frisky Dirt, Why Ken Wilber's New Creationism is Pseudo-Science", www.integralworld.net, January 2011.

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

[8] Ken Wilber, The Religion of Tomorrow (Shambhala, 2017), p. 498.

[9] Frank Visser, "The Dissipative Universe and the Paradox of Complexity, A Review of David Christian's "Origin Story"", www.integralworld.net, June 2018.

[10] Jerry Coyne, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (Viking, 2015). See also: Frank Visser, "Wilber vs. Coyne: On The Conflict Between Science and Religion and the (Im)possibility of a Resolution", www.integralworld.net

[11] Frank Visser, "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered: Relating Ken Wilber's view of spiritual evolution to the current evolution debates", 2010, www.integralworld.net




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