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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 in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Books: Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY, 2003), and The Corona Conspiracy: Combatting Disinformation about the Coronavirus (Kindle, 2020).
“The modern theory of evolution is catastrophically incomplete!”
Ken Wilber's Emotive Dealings with Evolutionary Theory
What do we learn when we see evolution as "Spirit-in-action" that we otherwise would have missed?
In a recent Integral Life video Ken Wilber made some remarkable statements about evolutionary theory. Even while the video (or at least the final minutes of it) dealt more with his (mis)understanding of thermodynamics and the famous Second Law, he also addressed the criticism he has received over the years from Integral World regarding his (mis)understanding of evolutionary theory. He considered it "one of the most boring criticisms I have received over the years". He tried to dismiss this criticism by pronouncing emotionally that "the modern theory of evolution is catastrophically incomplete!" To resolve that incompleteness, he proceeded, it needed to acknowledge the relevance of "something like self-organization" in the context of evolution, because "you can't explain it otherwise". He even mentioned "orthodox scientists", who had acknowledged this, "in the past, even five years ". There's a lot to unpack here, and we will try to do that in this essay.
More specifically he pointed to the work of Stuart Kauffman, who stressed the need for such extended theory. Says Wilber:
So someone like Stuart Kauffman would say: evolution happens through natural selection, and self-organization. And they are both important. Yes, absolutely! I mean: hello?
However, the major and basic point of the criticism Wilber has received regarding his statements about evolution has never been that he didn't include other relevant fields of science. I wish it was that simple! On the contrary, it was that he consistently introduced transcendental factors to "explain" evolution, by seeing evolution as "Spirit-in-action". That he tried to score cheap points against neo-Darwinism using half-baked creationist arguments. The most succinct summary of this transcendental view of evolutionwhich no scientist would subscribe to, not even Stuart Kauffmancan be found in one of his older books:
[T]he strict theory of natural selection suffers from not acknowledging the role played by Spirit in evolution.
And Wilber knows Kauffman is not buying his evolutionary theology. When pressed for clarity about his real position regarding evolutionary science, he once stated (again emotionally):
Do I think Mayr or Dawkins or Lewontin or Kauffman believe in telos or Eros that is Spiritual in any way? Absolutely not. Virtually all mainstream theorists embrace scientific materialism.
So what is it Ken? Do you think Kauffman supports your spiritual views on evolution or not? "Absolutely not" even? And if he doesn't, why do you bring him in as an argument to defend your own views on evolution? This is all a very well known smoke screen to hide from criticism, and to impress your science-illiterate audience. Let us have a look at what Kauffman actually says about the limits of Darwinism and what role he thinks self-organization does play in the larger scheme of things. And in what sense "modern evolutionary theory" is actually incomplete.
It is always very hard to get specifics from Wilber when it comes to science.
The Post-Modern Synthesis
A good place to start is with the so-called "post-modern synthesis", otherwise known as the "extendend evolutionary synthesis" or the "third synthesis". Briefly, where the modern synthesis referred to the synthesis of Darwin and Gregor Mendel, this post-modern school (nothing to do with philosophical postmodernism) refers to a wide variety of approaches that have expressed dissatisfaction with the "strict" modern synthesis usually called "neo-Darwinism".
Here's a nice map of the landscape of evolutionary theory, as it was ten years ago, from Massimo Pigliucci, one of the pioneers of the extended synthesis:
This is a very rich landscape, which continues to grow and expand, as any healthy field of science should. According to Gert Korthoff, a Dutch promotor of the third synthesis, it is still incomplete, for it neglects schools like sexual selection (Darwin), endosymbiosis (Lynn Margulis), horizontal gene transfer, viral evolution, ecology, earth system science (Gaia), catastrophe theory, origin of life, astrobiology, etc.
Complexity theory is mentioned, in the top-right corner of this diagram, but so are a host of other schools of evolutionary thought Wilber still has to come to terms with. Bluntly asserting that our problems are solved by simply adding self-organization/complexity theory to the picture is a gross over-simplification. Of course, Wilber isn't interested in this field as such. He is interested in it in so far it seems to give him a foothold for his spiritual view of evolution. As he often says in Integral Life videos: "self-organization = Eros". And Eros is his favorite name for Spirit. None of these scientists would agree with that interpretation, least of all Stuart Kauffman.
There are still more movements dealing with evolution that suggest new additions are needed. For example "the third way of evolution" emphasizes alternatives to neo-Darwinism, such as multi-level selection, multi-level inheritance (Jablonsky and Lamb), natural genetic engineering (Shapiro), systems biology (Noble), Biological Emergence-based Evolutionary Mechanism (Pookottil), developmental plasticity (West-Eberhard), endosymbiosis (Margulis), theoretical biology (Goodwin), and many more. There is some overlap with the extended school, for multi-level selection, Pigliucci and Sean Carroll (evo-devo) are listed here as well.
Still further we drift off in creationism and Intelligent Design, where the thesis "The modern theory of evolution is catastrophically incomplete!" is heartily welcomed. On many occasions Wilber has expressed his sympathy (if not his agreement) with the analysis of neo-Darwinism provided by ID-authors, such as Michael Behe. His only difference with them is that, even though he agrees with their diagnosis of the problem, he provides a different answer. Read: a different God. Instead of Jehova he presents his more sophisticated notion of Spirit or Emptiness. But in stark contrast to modern creationists, he doesn't deal with any biological topic in detail, just being content that they have done that work for him.
As he once tellingly wrote, on his own Integral Naked forum, again rather emotionally,
Publicly, virtually all scientists subscribe to neo-Darwinian theory. Privately, real scientiststhat is, those of us with graduate degrees in science who have professionally practiced itdon’t believe hardly any of its crucial tenets. 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.
This, then, is where Wilber is truly at home. Far away from the nasty complexities and troubles of evolutionary science, he suggests there is more to evolution than science can see. It is, in fact, evolutionary science as such that is "catastrophically incomplete" for him: we need to introduce Spirit to get a complete picture of reality.
A World Beyond Physics
Kauffman explicitly wants to demystify life, where Wilber repeatedly mystifies it.
Kauffman is a widely respected theoretical biologist and complexity theorist, who is well-known for his insistence that natural selection is not the only source of order in nature. As the title of his first book reads: The Origins of Order: Self-organization and Selection in Evolution (1993). This was followed by At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (1996), Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion (2010), Humanity in a Creative Universe (2016) and the recent A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life (2019). We will focus on this last book to get a grip on Kauffman's view on evolution. A book title like this easily lends itself to unwarranted metaphysical interpretations, but this certainly not Kauffman's intention.
Does Kauffman provide any support for Wilber's spiritual speculations? After all, he has written one book about religion, in which he proposes to "reinvent the sacred". But that's exactly the point. He tries to naturalize religion, find a "natural divinity", not introduce some Spirit in it. He famously said "I think the creativity in nature is so stunning and so overwhelming that it's God enough for me, and I think it's God enough for many of us if we think about it." In this Salon interview he likens his conception of God to that of Spinoza and Einsteinbut with one difference:
I also feel parts of the religious person's sense of awe. I sense the solace that prayer to a transcendent God brings. But I don't believe in a transcendent God. I do believe in this new scientific worldview.
I'm saying God is the sacredness of nature. And you can go a step beyond that. You can say that God is nature. That's the God of Spinoza. That's the God that Einstein believed in. But their view of the universe was deterministic. The new view is that evolution of the universe is partially lawless and ceaselessly creative. We are the children of that creativity.
Kauffman emphasizes the creativity of the universe. Who would have expected that there would ever be elephants in this universe, he asks. No law of physics would ever predict this to happen. And now it gets tricky. Wilber also writes glowingly about the creativity of the universe, but with a huge difference. For Wilber, it is Spirit that introduces this creativity or novelty (Whitehead's term he often uses). But for Kauffman, it is an intrinsic feature of natural reality. And it can be explained. We are not interested in verbal similarities but actual mechanisms. Arguing that Wilber doesn't believe in any Creator, but in a transcendent Spirit, doesn't help him in the least.
In his recent book A World Beyond Physics Kauffman explains how self-organization primarily works at the chemical and molecular level, in spontaneously creating proto-cells and proto-genes. When concentrations are high enough, networks of interactions arise that set up feedback loops and can do "work"an important term from thermodynamics. With these building blocks in place, which are probably universal in nature, Darwinian evolution can take over. Kauffman clearly states:
Darwin was right. With heritable variation and natural selection, along with some form of organized propagation such as we seek in this book, the glory of the diverse biosphere can and did arise. Bumble bees, redwood trees, sea urchins, rocks on rocks at low tide: we live in a flowering forth. (p. 87)
Not exactly the message we hear from Wilber. Kauffman uses a beautiful word for this novelty in nature:
But what evolves cannot be stated ahead of time: what evolves emerges unprestatablyI know of no better wordand builds our biosphere of increasing complexity. (p. xi)
Where Wilber always avoids getting specific, Kauffman goes to great detail to argue his point. He provides elaborate flow charts of early metabolic systems that evolved spontaneously, and takes the reader step by step to his tentative conclusions. Thermodynamic work can only be done when the proper constraints are in place. He quotes Peter Atkins, author of The Laws of Thermodynamics, as saying "Work is the constrained release of energy into a few degrees of freedom." Kauffman continues: "What Atkins is telling us is that without the boundary conditions that serve as constraints on the release of energy in a non-equilibrium process, no work gets done." In his book he further explicates what types of constraints have enabled chemical processes to do work. Think of constraints as a water pipe that guides the water stream to manage irrigation; without a pipe this would be almost impossible.
Kauffman explicitly wants to demystify life, where Wilber repeatedly mystifies it, with his appeals to theology (Whitehead) and his "transcend-and-include"-terminology. He is looking for a "nonmystical holism" (p. 30). Writes Kauffman in the chapter "Demystifying life":
Take away from this brief introduction the idea that when more and more connections are made between things, suddenly many things become directly or indirectly possible. (p. 42).
Life, then, for Kauffman, is "the daughter of molecular diversity" (p. 51):
My strong suspicion that life emerged not nude and simple but whole and complex, as a web of reactions that mutually catalyzed one another. (p. 51).
So with these three closures, we have a holism that need not invoke any ineffable magic. In a collectively autocatalytic set, the three closures are not properties of any single molecule but of an interwoven set of molecules and reactions. I suspect that together, these three closures constitute "elan vital," a nonmysterious but wonderful life force. by the constrained of energy into a few degrees of freedom, such non-equilibrium systems can do real thermodynamic work and can construct and reproduce themselves.
We will not find any of these three closures in any single molecule or reaction in the system. these are properties of "wholes"; but again there is no mystery, no new force, rather a new organization of matter, energy, entropy, constraint, and thermodynamic work into a whole that is, I suspect, the center of life itself...
We have found the "life force": not a nonphysical mystery but a marvel and a different mystery of unprestatable becoming. (p. 52-3)
So Kauffman actually does away with the need to introduce any Spirit to understand nature. In fact, far from being Wilber's ally in science he might be his biggest enemy. Does Wilber mistakenly think: the enemy (Kauffman) of my enemy (neo-Darwinism) is my friend?
In my understanding, Stuart Kauffman primarily addresses a different level of the taxonomic hierarchy, that deals with the origin of life, not the origin of species (Darwin), nor the origin of domains (Woese) or kingdoms (Margulis). It makes no sense to see these authors as contradicting eachother. There is indeed a "spectrum of biology", which an "integral biology" would cover, carefully preserving each of these theoretical contributions, because each addresses its own level of the spectrum. For one thing, self-organization doesn't create elephants and zebras, eyes and wings, that is still very much the result of natural selection.
And of course Kauffman understands very well that complex evolved organisms, being dissipative structures, need energy to keep this whole machinery going. Wilber doesn't, he simply and unreflectively assumes that matter, when left alone, will "wind itself up", completely ignoring the crucial role of energy flows through matter. Kauffman could have educated him on this:
The biosphere literally constructs itself and does so into a biosphere of increasing diversity. Again, why and how is this? Remarkably, the answer may be "because the biosphere can become more diverse and complex and in an ongoing way "creates its own potential to do so". That requires harnessing the release of energy to build order faster than that order can be dissipated by the second law of thermodynamics. (p. 6)
Life somehow partially collaborates with and yet beats the second law of thermodynamics with its insistence that disorderentropymust inevitably increase in a closed thermodynamic system. How does life evade, but not avoid, that law?
A small part of that answer is that all living systems are open thermodynamic systems, taking in matter and energy. They are, in other words, displaced from equilibrium... As many, including Prigogine, have shown, such systems can "eat" the order in their environment, such as gradients, and build order. (p. 18)
Wilber knows no better to solve this riddle than to downplay or even ridicule the second law and to postulate an "upward drive". Kauffman: "The biosphere literary constructs itself." Skyhook versus Crane, to use Dennett's graphic terminology.
Kauffman's view can be learned from an early essay he posted on Edge.org: "Beyond Reductionism". He argues against the reductionism of atomism, and proposes a holistic approach, where networks are the basic units, not atoms or molecules and where emergence and creativity take central stage. Wilber would still call this "subtle reductionism", but the burden of proof is on him to explain (unemotionally this time) what the added value is of introducing Spirit in this picture. What do we learn when we see evolution as "Spirit-in-action" that we otherwise would have missed?
To my mind, that conceptas well as similar ones such as "mind-at-large", or "the field of creative intelligence" or "sub-quantum cosmic information" or "the creative advance into novelty" or "immanent/transcendent Spirit"has a stunning conceptual vacuity, as long as nothing is specified about how it effects the natural world around us. And to those who complain I am becoming slightly repetitive criticizing Wilber, I would say: I will call out his irrational behavior until the criticism is dealt with in an open and reasonable way, by Ken Wilber or his science-literate students.
And then there are some who claim that, if only my Eye of Spirit would be awakened, I would see the truth of Wilber's spiritual view of evolution. Eros, then, seems to be in the Eye of the Beholder. That's fine as a religious point of view, but doesn't contribute to our understanding of the processes of the relative world. Nor does it increase our understanding of the manyfold processes of self-organization which we find in nature, and how they exactly relate to evolution.
In my mind and heart, the overwhelming answer is that the truth as best we know it, that all arose with no Creator agent, all on its wondrous own, is so awesome and stunning that it is God enough for me and I hope much of humankind. Stuart Kauffman
 Ken Wilber and Corey De Vos, "Kosmos: An Integral Voyage", www.integrallife.com, July 16, 2019. See also my initial response: Frank Visser, "Does Every Outside Have an Inside?, Ken Wilber's Strained Relationship to Science", www.integralworld.net, July 2019.
 Ken Wilber, Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm, Anchor Books, 1983, p. 205.
 Ken Wilber, "Take the Visser Site as Alternatives to KW, But Never as the Views of KW", www.kenwilber.com, June 27, 2006.
 For an overview of "the continuous expansion of evolutionary theory", see Massimo Pigliucci, "An Extended Synthesis for Evolutionary Biology", The Year in Evolutionary Biology 2009: Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1168: 218-“228 (2009). See also: Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. Müller (eds.), Evolution - the Extended Synthesis, MIT Press, 2010. This book is based on the Workshop 'Toward an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis' at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research organized by Massimo Pigliucci and Gerd B. Müller, July 2008.
 Gert Korthoff, "Evolution, The Extended Synthesis: A short comment", 2014, www.wasdarwinwrong.com. This is a magnificent (English language) repository of essays and reviews on neo-Darwinism and its religious or secular alternatives.
 "The Third Way: Evolution in the Era of Genomics and Epigenomics", www.thethirdwayofevolution.com
 "Awaken White Morpheus, Ken Wilber responds", Friday, May 27, 2005, vomitingconfetti.blogspot.com (blog no longer online). Originally posted on Intgral Naked (also offline now), and commented on by integral blogger Coolmel: "Ken Wilber on Evolution", www.c4chaos.com, May 2005.
 Some have criticized Kauffman's neglect of the energy dimension: "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." ("Self-organization", Wikipedia). However, in A World Beyond Physics Kauffman does mention these autocatalytic processes need continously to be fed from outside.
 Stuart Kauffman, "Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred", www.edge.org, November 2006.
 Apparently Wilber feels so cornered by the criticism of his (mis)understanding of science that he can only resort to slogans ("self-organization is Eros") or insults ("just fuck off"). See: Frank Visser, "Does Every Outside Have an Inside?, Ken Wilber's Strained Relationship to Science", July 2019, and David Lane, "Cosmic Myopia, A Critique of Ken Wilber's Anthropocentric Understanding of the Universe", August 2019, www.integralworld.net. We expect more from "one of the most important philosophers in the world today."