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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 175+ essays on this website.
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Blinded by the Light

Reply to Brad Reynolds

Frank Visser

However, and that's a big if, how reliable are these "spiritual" intuitions actually?

Brad Reynolds and I have been busy exchanging essays about how to interpret Wilber's stance on evolution for some time now. Seeing his most recent contribution "Category errors galore!", it is clear to me that we have come to a dead end. He claims that Integral World authors deny the reality of Spirit because they have succumbed to the philosphy of scientism or scientific materialism. None of us will be convinced by the other's arguments.

It starts to look like a tennis match in which deep into the fifth set none of the players are capable to break the opponent's serve. Most of the spectators have long gone home, and the head referee (Ken Wilber) has dozed off. The only good thing might be that the playing gets better.

What do we actually disagree, and agree on?

Points of (Dis)Agreement

  • Reynolds claims Integral World has succumbed to scientism, whereas Integral Theory accepts more valid ways of knowing; I argue that these other ways of knowing have no bearing on a topic such as evolutionary biology.
  • Reynolds claims that Wilber "could do a better job at addressing the validity of natural selection" but that it's not really his subject; I argue that Wilber has seriously misread Darwin's lasting contribution.
  • Reynolds claims that Wilber is an "enlightened philosopher" and not an evolutionary scientists; I argue that for that reason alone he should not comment on that particular field of science for he lacks the expertise.
  • Reynolds claims that I focus on a few select quotes, taken from videos or magazines to prove Wilber is wrong on evolutionary theory; I argue that these most probably represent his true, unpolished views.
  • Reynolds claims that Integral Theory has nothing to say about the how of evolution, but more on the why of it; I argue that Wilber definitely tresspasses that boundary by proclaiming Integral Theory to be "the only theory" to explain the mysteries of evolution.
  • Reynolds claims that Integral Theory has nothing to say about the how of evolution, but more on the why of it; I argue that answering the why-question by saying it is "Spirit-in-action" is not much of a believable answer.
  • Reynolds claims that once one's Eye of Spirit has been opened, seeing evolution as "Spirit-in-action" will be self-evident; I argue that no meditative experience will ever have anything useful to say about empirical matters.

Obviously, there are a few things we can, I assume, still agree on:

  • Wilber is not a scientists and has never claimed to be one (though he often mentions he has a PhD-minus in biochemistry).
  • Wilber is a creative and imaginative philosopher who has touched on many fields of science and philosophy.
  • Wilber is first and foremost a religious philosopher, who as a self-proclaimed pandit defends a spiritual worldview.
  • Wilber's oeuvre is interesting and challenging to modern and post-modern notions of truth and value current in our society.
  • Wilber's expertise is strong in the fields of spirituality and psychology but less so in the fields of science.
  • Wilber has given scant attention to the challenges to his system that have been raised over the years.
  • It would be a good thing if the integral establishment would allow for a general climate of discussion and debate.

Now, the upshot of Reynolds' criticism seems to be that my view of reality is limited to the Eye of the Flesh and the Eye of Reason, and that I fail to see with the Eye of Spirit. My reply would be: what exactly are the data this Eye of Spirit relates to and what is its domain? And could it be that those in whom spiritual vision has been opened tresspass the boundaries of that domain when they make statements about philosophical or empirical matters? Category errors, anyone?

The Multiple Eyes Doctrine

Obviously, the whole notion of human beings having multiple "eyes" is, well, only metaphorically true. Even the "eye of reason" is not something real; there is nothing in our brains that has that functionality, not to mention any "eye of spirit"—though esoteric lore has equated that "third eye" with the pineal gland.

Yet, Wilber takes this model in Eye to Eye (1983) to argue that category errors are made when these eyes are used to make statements about domains they don't have access to. This quote from Reynolds' latest essay "exemplifies Ken Wilber's integral thesis throughout ALL of his works"):

All men and women possess an Eye of the Flesh, an Eye of Reason, and an Eye of Contemplation; that each eye has its own objects of knowledge (sensory, mental, and transcendental); that a higher eye cannot be reduced to nor explained in terms of a lower eye; that each eye is valid and useful in its own field, but commits a fallacy when it attempts, by itself, to fully grasp higher or lower realms.….

But there is one major difficulty and one major hazard which is first to be overcome, and that is the tendency toward CATEGORY ERROR, which is the attempt of one eye to usurp the roles of the other two…. I do not mean to pick on science in this regard—religion and philosophy have been just as guilty. However, historically speaking, the most recent and most pervasive category error has concerned the role of empirical science [known as scientism]….

Outstanding among these is the “category error,” which occurs when one of the three realms is made to wholly substitute for another realm—or, we might say, when things (flesh) are confused with thoughts (mind) are confused with transcendental insights (contemplation). For once that occurs, then facts try to replace principles and principles try to replace God.

Note this: "but commits a fallacy when it attempts, by itself, to fully grasp higher or lower realms" (emphasis mine). Isn't that exactly what Wilber is doing when he mixes spiritual insight with evolutionary theory, for example when he claims that "the modern theory of evolution is catastrophically incomplete", implying that Integral Theory can make that theory "complete"? Or by claiming to have "the only theory that can actually explain the mysteries of evolution" (The Religion of Tomorrow)?

Here's the, intuitively appealing model Wilber uses. It has been inspired by Christian mystics St. Bonaventure (following Hugh of St. Victor):

Multiple eyes doctrine of Ken Wilber
TYPE OF "EYE" KNOWLEDGE DOMAIN
Eye of Contemplation Spirituality, meditation
Eye of Reason Philosophy, interpretation
Eye of the Flesh Empirical science, observation
St. Bonaventure
St. Bonaventure

Let's "secularize" that eye-doctrine for a moment. We can see objects with our eyes, and thoughts with our mind (whatever that may be in itself). That is actually quite a wonderful achievement. Now there is one thing which "transcends" both things and thoughts: that which sees both, or the self or subject we seem to be (though Buddhists might disagree here). And I could even grant that experiencing this self-being beyond things and thoughts is beneficial and salutary to a troubled and stressed mind. Intuition might belong in this realm, as it provides answers to complicated intellectual problems or emotional situations.

However, and that's a big if, how reliable are these "spiritual" intuitions actually? Are they always, or even usually correct? We read in an interesting Scientific American article[1]:

But can we really rely on intuition, or is it a counsel to failure? Although researchers have been debating the value of intuition in decision-making for decades, they continue to disagree

Researchers seem to agree that reflection and intuition usually go hand in hand (Daniel Kahneman's slow "system 2" and fast "system 1" thinking), but none of these are infallible.

Reynolds would object, that his elevated spiritual vision is different from this mundane intuition, but then I would ask, where's the research on that? Reynolds is heavy on abstractions and generalities, but weak on specifics and observations.

The Role of Intuition in Science

Put differently, intuition plays a big role in science, but it is never the sole arbiter on the truth of our hunches. On the contrary, whatever intuitively felt truth we might see as true, science demands that it is supported by facts, both new and established by other researchers.

A good example of this phenomenon can be found in a recent article by Peter Collins, who discusses the role played by intuition in the discovery of natural selection.[2]

Like Reynolds, Collins laments the limited perspective of science, and aims to widen its scope with a more holistic or spiritual approach (Collins even uses the word "supernatural"). It is well known that the co-discoverers of natural selection, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, reached to that insight in quite different ways. Where Darwin painstakingly worked for decades to refine and substantiate his thesis, Wallace arrived at this insight almost in a flash (even during a bout of malaria). Now of course, Darwin too had his moments of insight ("At last I have a theory to work with"), and Wallace had given the subject a lot of thought, but the difference is striking.

Collins mentions an even more interesting case of "intuition" in the case of Patrick Matthew (1790-1874), who in 1831 published the basic concept of natural selection as a mechanism in evolutionary adaptation and speciation in an obscure journal Naval Timber and Arboriculture, and then even in an Appendix. Matthew did not see this as a world-shaking discovery, more as a self-evident truth, so he didn't make much noise about it. When Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, he wrote to Darwin about his earlier discovery and publication and Darwin graciously acknowledged this ("he briefly but completely anticipates the theory of Nat. Selection").

So Darwin had to deal with two "intuitive thinkers", Matthew and Wallace, who both had grasped the principle of natural selection in an instant, but thought very differently about its scope and impact on the intellectual world. Where Matthew thought of it as "no big deal" (as Dawkins phrases it when relating this history[3]), Wallace realized its monumental importance, and immediately wrote to Darwin to announce his discovery and compare notes.

A lot of debate has occurred about "who was first" to discover natural selection, and Collins comments on this matter:

Now Richard Dawkins while admitting Matthew's prior grasping of the principle of natural selection has sought to downplay his contribution on the grounds that he did not shout this truth from the rooftops, implying therefore that he could not have properly appreciated its relevance.

However, the issue in science is not so much about shouting from rooftops but of meticulously clarifying and demonstrating the value of this idea with empirical evidence, which Charles Darwin most certainly was the first to do. So intuition plays a role in science but it is not the final arbiter of truth.

Collins further comments on the nature of Matthew's intuition and calls it "supernatural":

His own intuition was of the transcendent type enabling him to literally see in top-down holistic fashion how the general nature of evolution takes place through natural selection. Such intuition is properly—even if not explicitly understood as such—of supernatural origin coming from above, as it were, thereby inspiring the most universal insights with respect to nature.

Now the irony is, that different scholars apparently can have different intuitions about "the most universal insights with respect to nature". For the discoverers of natural selection, the implications of this discovery was that as to the origin of species, no transcendental act of creation was necessary. So even if intuition itself might be called "spiritual" (I would prefer "transcendental" in the secular meaning I have described above), the insights delivered by it by no means prove that Spirit is active in nature. On the contrary.

Reynolds would object that all this is not "real spiritual insight", but that sounds very much like "not a true Scotsman" to me: only those are enlightened who agree with me. This perhaps points to the biggest problem I have with integralists claiming special knowledge or insight. They lack the minimum of sophistication to deal with the problems that require explanations, and only continue to hammer on their anvil of spiritual insight gained by their Eye of Spirit to claim superior knowledge. This applies to both Wilber and Reynolds.

The Accusation of Scientism

Now, evolutionary biology is just a case study, and by no means covers all fields of knowledge. But it is an important one, in the modern world, and any counter-cultural philosopher who wants to upgrade the modern worldview to spiritual heights would do well to familiarize himself with the details of this particular field, before he formulates his own proposals. Wilber has continuously failed to do so, and Reynolds firmly stands in that tradition.

Accusations of "scientism" are not really relevant here, for obviously there are fields of human experience (religion, morals, love, art, music) that fall outside of the domain of science. Conversely, these domains should not claim to have any relevance for science either. That, too, would be a category error of the first magnitude. And that's exactly what Wilber has done when he comments on empirical discussions in the field of evolutionary biology—briefly and unsystematically—from his supposed spiritual point of view. And this reflects on his intellectual system as a whole.

As David Lane wrote already back in 1997 (still waiting for a well-reasoned and scientifically-informed reply from Wilber), after having read A Brief History of Everything (1996):

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.[4]

Does this sound preposterous? Is it fair to judge Wilber's elaborate system of spiritual philosophy by his lack of expertise in one particular field of science? You might think it is unfair, but ironically this is the very point Wilber raised in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995)—his most academic work to date—when discussing the problems Idealist philosophers (who saw evolution as a process in which Spirit was involved) experienced when being confronted with the advances of evolutionary theory, and specifically with those of the physical theory of entropy:

And if the Idealists couldn't even get the first floor of evolution right, why should we believe them about any "higher stages"?[5]

That's in fact what Lane and I have been asking all along in the past two decades: "get the first floor of evolution right", before we buy any of the "higher" insights you claim to have. The challenge has not been met, and has been misconstrued as a limited perspective attacking a lofty and inspiring spiritual philosophy of life.

It speaks to the fragility of the integral position and its founding philosopher.

NOTES

[1] Laura Kutsch, "Can We Rely on Our Intuition?", www.scientificamerican.com, August 15, 2019.

[2] Peter Collins, "A New Scientific Vision, Part 1: The Considerable Shadow of Modern Science", September 2020, www.integralworld.net

[3] Richard Dawkins, "Five Bridges to Darwin", In: Bill Bryson, Seeing Further: The Story of Science and The Royal Society, Harper Press, 2010, p. 203-227.

Originally an Open University lecture held in 2009. For those who are interested, the "five bridges" to Darwin Dawkins discusses are:

  1. Natural selection as a negative, destructive force (Blyth)
  2. Natural selection as a positive, creative force (Matthew)
  3. Natural selection as a general priniciple of evolution (Wallace, perhaps Matthew)
  4. Seeing the need to elaborate this view in the service of public understanding (Darwin)
  5. Seeing the modern genetic ("digital") nature of heredity (Mendel, Darwin, almost)

[4] David Lane, Wilber and the Misunderstanding of Evolution, December 2006 [1997], www.integralworld.net.

[5] Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Shambhala, p. 511.




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