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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

Conveyor Belt or
Escalator Going Down

What Drives the Cosmos at the Deepest Level?

Frank Visser

"Now all of this [natural selection] is put in place, because the assumption is that there is nothing in the universe, that drives it upward."[1] — Ken Wilber
Wilber's one-sided insistence on an "upward drive" in the cosmos betrays a disconnect with science.

In this brief essay I want to highlight a discrepancy between Ken Wilber's view of the cosmos and the scientifically received view. On numerous occasions Wilber has expressed his amazement and even irritation with the view that the universe is running down.[2] According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the cosmos attempts to move in the direction of an equilibrium, in which nothing of interest can happen anymore. Contrary to this, Wilber insists that "simple observation" teaches us there is an upward movement in the cosmos, from atoms and molecules to human beings and beyond. He even quotes sources from chaos and complexity science to support his conviction that "the physical universe actually has an inherent tendency to create order."[3]

So who is right? A good integral interpretation of this problem will state that both positions are partially right. So let's start from that assumption and see how far we come. Should we really rely on simple observation here? And is Wilber's claim that New Science supports his views of the cosmos correct? Is a different interpretation possible that does justice to both the Second Law and the fact that during evolution complexity seems to increase (but perhaps due to different causes then Wilber claims)?

Now Ken Wilber has invested a lot of time and energy in developmental psychology, which can be pictured as climbing a ladder, so an upward process. And he would very much like this process to have some metaphysical basis, hence his speculations on an "upward drive" or "Eros" in the cosmos. Compared to that optimistic worldview, statements like "the universe is running down" would give him the chills. And he responds emotionally: "The whole notion that the universe is 'running down' is ridiculous." In Integral Spirituality (2007) he introduced the notion of a conveyor belt, as a metaphor for human development, which moves us upwards, slowly but steadily. Both individual human beings and human cultures supposedly pass though various stages of development, with "God on their side", so to speak.

Is it really necessary to deny the workings of the Second Law to argue for a developmental view of mind and culture? Alternatively, is it really necessary to deny development when acknowledging the truth of the Second Law? Of course not. A more sophisticated view of things is possible, in which the grand paradox is retained that in a sense some things go up, and some go down.

The Second Law might be visualized by an image of an escalator going downward. Everywhere in nature we see—I am tempted to say "simple observation tells us"—that things not only grow and thrive, but also decay and die. Castles become ruins, humans age and get cancer, if we don't eat we starve, not cleaning up your room regularly results in a mess. Unless you put energy into it to reverse this universal trend, disorder will increase in the end. Life thrives by taking up energy from its environment, thus reversing or at least postponing decay and death.

Yes, it takes some effort to go up the down escalator, but it's possible!

But there's the catch: we can move upward on an escalator going down if we put some effort into it. So both the downward and upward movements can be accounted for, without denying the truth of the one or the other. Wilber's one-sided insistence on an "upward drive" in the cosmos betrays a disconnect with science. In this strategy he misses out on both the cosmic downward movement, and the indispensable role played by energy flows in evolution. Instead, he imagines a cosmic "upward drive" that takes us on a developmental journey to spiritual heights. Ironically, that too takes a lot of effort, like meditating for decades.

“We, as complex creatures, desperately need to know this story of how the universe creates complexity, despite the Second Law.” —David Christian.

But isn't New Science supporting such a notion of a cosmic upward drive towards complexity, as Wilber repeatedly claims? I think he misrepresents these exciting fields of science tremendously, by putting a spiritual spin on their findings. He repeatedly refers to two giants of science, Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine and theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman.

However, Prigogine showed how complexity can arise under certain specific conditions (such as heating water until it boils), but in all cases energy input is the crucial ingredient. Kauffman theorizes how self-organization at the dawn of time might have caused the origin of life (as a "crystallization" process), but again this happens only under certain very specific conditions, related to networks of molecules in certain concentrations. They do NOT support the idea that there's a generic drive towards complexity covering all cases of self-organization in nature—let alone that such a drive is spiritual in nature, as Wilber claims.[4]

Enough said to show that the integral community has some homework to do. Dismissing these objections as "extremely conventional", as Wilber recently did, solves nothing.[5] The field of Big History shows a better and more refined understanding of these questions. Says David Christian, founder of Big History in his famous TED lecture: “We, as complex creatures, desperately need to know this story of how the universe creates complexity, despite the Second Law.” The keyword here is: "despite". That shows he gets the paradox of complexity in a dissipative universe.

To put it in slightly different words, life indeed seems to go "against the tide" of decay and deterioration, but the tide is definitely there. And in the end, the Cosmic Tide will engulf us all. But what a show it was!

-0-0-0-0-0-

David Christian: “How does the universe create complexity given the law of entropy?... with great difficulty. And with every next step, the going gets tougher.”
(The history of our world in 18 minutes, TED 2011, March 2011, 9.500.000 views).

NOTES

[1] Ken Wilber, "Taking evolution into account", 2014, Fourth Turning Conference, video #4. Reposted on integrallife.com, December 19, 2017.

[2] Ken Wilber, "The whole notion that the universe is 'running down' is ridiculous." "Integral in Action with Ken Wilber", Conscious2, October 10th, 2015.

[3] Ken Wilber, "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. The revolutionary new understanding found in 'chaos' and 'complexity' theories maintains that the physical universe actually has an inherent tendency to create order..." (A Theory of Everything, 2000, p. x)

[4] In his recent book A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life (Oxford University Press, 2019) Kauffman plainly states: "All free living systems are autopoietic, collectively autocatalytic, systems. If capable of heritable variation, such systems can undergo natural selection and form evolving biospheres." (p. 10) He doesn't have any problems with natural selection, other than that it needs to be complemented by self-organization (to explain the emergence of life, which is clearly outside of the scope of neo-Darwinism). But no Spirit is intended here.

[5] Ken Wilber, "I am always getting criticized by extremely conventional evolutionary theorists, like Frank Visser, because I postulate Eros, an inherent novelty in the cosmos... which by the way is Whiteheads point, the 'creative advance into novelty'. Eros... Stuart Kauffman, self-organization is built into the universe. Eros... Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel prize winner. 'Order out of chaos'. Even insentient matter, when pushed far from equilibrium, jumps into higher levels of order. Eros..." (54:00). Ken Wilber and Corey de Vos, "How to Think Integrally", www.integrallife.com, September 19, 2018.

FURTHER READING

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

Frank Visser, "Why We Need a Secular Integral", www.integralworld.net

Frank Visser, "The Joy of Being Called 'Extremely Conventional', Responding to a Wilberian Put-Down, www.integralworld.net

Michael Zimmerman, "The Final Cause of Cosmic Development, Nondual Spirit, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics?", www.integralworld.net






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