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, a psychologist of religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.

SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY FRANK VISSER

'If You Meet Wilber
on the Road, Kill Him'

On the Importance of
Independent Integral Research

Frank Visser

Over the past decade, this website "Integral World" has been a podium for critical essays related to the work of Ken Wilber. These essays, which cover a wide spectrum of topics, can all be found in our Reading Room.

Some have started looking for alternatives to Wilber (Aurobindo, Gebser, Washburn, Grof, etc.), but my personal focus on Integral World has always been to stick to Wilber and his work. After all, he is the most influential integral author of this moment in time.

In the current essay I'd like to highlight three areas of criticism that seem relevant to me:

  • Evolutionary theory,
  • postmodernism and
  • meditation research.

They are very Wilberologically correct taken from the broad spheres of It(s), We and I. Evolutionary theory studies the relationship between individual organisms and their species. Postmodernism is about the all-important influence of culture on our behavior and consciousness. And meditation research tries to unravel what happens during the subtle processes of meditation.

Wilber's statements in these areas have generated some of the fiercest criticisms available, and — characteristically — Wilber has not taken the trouble to respond to them (and on the rare occasion that he did respond, the reply — equally characteristically — did not settle the issue at all).

In my opinion, Wilber's statements should be the start of a debate, not the end of it.

So let's take them one by one. The essays I reference give full page numbers and exact quotes. So I have left these out of my narrative.

Evolutionary theory

In 1996 Wilber published his A Brief History of Everything, a popular treatment of his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, which had appeared just a year before. This massive tome was sub-titled "The Spirit of Evolution", suggesting that Wilber had discovered something that was at the core of the evolutionary process.

In SES, the topic of evolution was discussed within the context of the so-called Twenty Tenets, which stated that evolution showed a directionality, an increase in complexity, hierarchy and integration. Darwin himself was mentioned in passing as the first who noticed directionality in the biosphere: amoebas become apes, but never the other way around. In Brief History, Wilber touches upon the subject of evolutionary theory, again in passing, and to set the stage for his own views of evolution as "spirit-in-action".

This time, he gets more specific.

In the now infamous passage he bluntly states that eyes and wings cannot have been evolved through a blind, evolutionary process, since only their finished form has adaptive value. So why would all intermediary forms have evolved at all? A half-wing has no purpose:

Take the standard notion that wings simply evolved from forelegs. It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg—a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing—you can't run and you can't fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner.

One of the first critics to point out the erroneous nature of this passage was David Lane, who wrote his "Evolution vs. Mysterionism: Wilber and the misunderstanding of Evolution" in 1996 — a decade later republished as "Wilber and the Misunderstanding of Evolution" on Integral World.

From Lane:

What makes Wilber's remarks on evolution so egregious is not that he is more or less a closet creationist with Buddhist leanings, but that he so maligns and misrepresents the current state of evolutionary biology, suggesting that he is somehow on top of what is currently going on in the field.
And Wilber does it by exaggeration, by false statements, and by rhetoric license.

Following the trail of David Lane, Geoffrey Falk has been the most active, the most merciless, and the most ignored, critic of Wilber's writings to date. Falk's blog criticisms of Wilber have been collected and elaborated in Norman Einstein, from which Chapter 2 on "Wilberian Evolution" is most relevant to this topic.

Ironically, in the very same year that Brief History was published, Richard Dawkins published his Climbing Mount Improbable, which contains a full chapter on the evolution of the wing (see Chapter 4: Getting Off the Ground, pp. 108-137). There's another chapter on eyes — or rather, the many ways eyes have evolved in the course of evolution (see chapter 5: The Forty-Fold Path to Enlightenment, pp. 138-198 — sixty pages on this topic alone!).

Compare that to Wilber's sweeping statements.That alone disqualifies Wilber as an authority on the science of biology. In one of his rare public statements about this issue, Wilber has dismissed Dawkins as "a preacher"... Maybe, even a "Devil's Chaplain", but at least one who knows his facts.

Ken Wilber caters to the layman who objects to evolution as a blind process — "How can something so intricate as the human eye have evolved!' This sentiment has been voiced since the days of Darwin — but never addresses the specialist, who can easily answer such objections.

This situation is typical of Wilber's relationship to the academic establishment. He can freely and confidently assert whatever he wants in his books and online publications;he will never be corrected by those who are thoroughly at home in a given subject, but don't take the trouble to consult Wilber's views.

In this particular case — the "eyes and wings" issue — the example is telling for another reason as well. The issue has troubled biologists since day one, but instead of trying to phrase an answer to this vexing problem, Wilber is content to give a sketchy caricature of the problem, use emotive language to persuade the reader that there's nothing of value to be expected here from science, and move on to his more spiritualized musings.

Favorite among these is Wilber's declaration that "there's an Eros to the Kosmos", a force that drives us towards higher and higher states of being and complexity. What explanatory value does this Eros have? None whatsoever. If it was Eros that created the eyes and wings of biological organisms, how and why did this happen? And where was this Eros, when the Dodo lost its wings? (In case you are interested, do read Dawkins' massive The Ancestor's Tale about that one, covering a billion years of evolution!).

If one sub-titles one's major work "The Spirit of Evolution", a solid understanding of standard evolutionary theory is a first requirement.

Many in the US believe man has been created by God a couple of thousand years ago; the other half believes in materialistic evolution. The Intelligent Design movement tries to argue for a creationist view of evolution, in more or less sophisticated form. This debate has caught the attention of large audiences worldwide. Wilber obviously falls into the non-materialistic camp, since he holds to a spiritual view of evolution (or does he, in his "post-metaphysical" phase?).

Let me make a suggestion. Perhaps Wilber, with his eyes-and-wings statements, only wanted to argue for a spiritual take on evolution. Is there such a thing as "Integral Design" -- that includes science (but this time, without misrepresenting it) but also points out where it currently fails, in a fundamental sense? (And how does this relate to the Wilberian holon and artifact concepts of integral theory? Artifacts by definition are designed by humans. Organisms show apparent design; how are we to explain this?).

In my opinion, evolutionary theory would be a perfect case study to assess the validity of integralism. Is all of ID in the end nothing more then "intellectual laziness", as one of its major opponents Richard Dawkins states? So this is a chance to demonstrate if "integrating science and religion" (another sub-title of one of Wilber's books) is a viable project, if ever there was one. If Wilber really thinks he can contribute to this debate, and if he really knows this subject "inside-out" (another of his claims), let him enter the public arena and I will be sitting in the front row to listen. But the level of discourse should definitely go beyond the occasional angry blog post, pay site audio clip or buried footnote.

Postmodernism

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality was specifically written by Wilber to counter the prevailing postmodernist atmosphere in the academic world, which — in Wilber's version — declares everything of relative and equal value, except personal agendas and power plays. (More on that later).

Wilber's favorite line of attack is to say that postmodernists suffer from a "performative contradiction": to state that everything is relative is in itself an absolute truth. Ergo, the statement cannot be true.

In my opinion, this ignores the fact that to say that no theory is absolutely true is not a statement about facts but about theories. There's a meta-level involved here. So the postmodernist says in fact: no theory is true for everybody in every culture. Therefore, we should be modest in our theories, well aware how much we have been molded by our own cultures and preferences.

In another infamous passage, this time in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Wilber argues (in the context of Jacques Derrida's thought and especially his later years), that if postmodernism were true, we could not say anything about anything, because none of our words would point to facts (my paraphrasing, leaving out the technical postmodernist jargon for the moment). Translation, for example, would not be possible.

Many critics have objected to this presentation of the postmodernist viewpoint. One of the first was Jeff Meyerhoff, whose monograph on Wilber "Bald Ambition" was published on Integral World in 2006-2007. In his chapter "Poststructuralism and Postmodernism", Meyerhoff stated, for example:

By extracting some concepts which can be associated with a poststructural perspective and incorporating them into his integral synthesis, Wilber avoids the fundamental challenges that poststructuralism poses to his system and to knowledge acquisition in general. Wilber's depiction of postmodernism is more varied than his picture of poststructuralism, but it too is limited. He sketches a view of postmodernism as dominating academia and culture which I show is not the case.

Meyerhoff was the first to point out Wilber's problematic treatment of Derrida in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. In particular, he zooms in on a key passage in Wilber:

Wilber claims that even Derrida, the intellectual father of constructivism, admits there are transcendental signifieds. This is surprising because it runs counter to Derrida's famous statement: “there is nothing outside the text” — no signifieds that escape the play of signifiers. Wilber's even able to find a quote where he thinks Derrida affirms the existence of the transcendental signified. However, in the quote and its context Derrida is clearly arguing for the opposite of what Wilber says he is.

Meyerhoff's observations were corroborated by Gregory Desilet, who wrote "Misunderstanding Derrida and Postmodernism" specifically for Integral World, after having had a brief discussion with Wilber about Derrida (thereby qualifying as a critic).

Desilet too, concludes, after a thorough analysis of the relevant quote from Derrida which Wilber is addressing in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality:

Wilber's reading is a bad misreading. In fact, it is a misreading that twists what Derrida says into its opposite. The possibility for such a misreading serves only to reinforce Derrida's claim that language can never guarantee a particular understanding. (And, consistent with this claim, the reader should remain alert to the possibility that the reading I propose as an alternative to Wilber's offers no guarantee of transparency with Derrida's text.)

I once commented that Wilber really should talk to specialists, which made him reply that "this critic has apparently never read the end notes of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality" — implying that the fact of having many end notes in a book guarantees their truth value.

Again, my point is that Wilber can write whatever he wants about postmodernism or any other subject under the sun, without ever running a chance to be corrected by specialists at all. As Jonathan Coope, a Wilber critic who's currently finishing his PhD, humorously commented:

But no matter how many footnotes Wilber freights his texts with, and no matter how factually accurate they may be, it would 'prove' nothing to us about the quality of his vision. The libraries of our academies creak with worthy tomes that are brim-full with footnotes of the most scholarly kind and yet which leave us 'none the wiser'.

So where are the postmodernists? Do they care what Wilber writes? And do Wilber's followers care about whom Wilber writes? As I wrote years back in "Talking Back to Wilber: A Call for Validation":

For why bother about postmodernism, perennialism, feminism, relativism, or any other —ism, if Wilber has told us what and how to think about these fields? This inevitably strengthens the conditioning and cultic tendencies latent in all spiritual communities, including the integral ones — When such a group starts his own Integral University, chances are high that it will become a religious school where integral concepts are taught to its students (after which they receive certifications), instead of a true university, where theories and beliefs are validated regardless of one's own private convictions. Where criticism is invited and welcomed.

This essay, incidentally, marked the beginning of my "critical" phase in relation to Wilber, having gone now through those of fan, student, biographer, critic and finally... outcast (hey, let's call it Visser-5 ;-).

Again, Wilber has claimed to have understood postmodernism better then anybody, according to some (unnamed) authorities on postmodernism. How would these authorities reply to Meyerhoff's and Desilet's pointed criticism of Wilber's reading of Derrida? Forget about the Mean Green Meme, which has distorted so much of the Wilber debate in the past years, just focus on postmodernism. Has Wilber contributed something of substance here? If so, why doesn't he make his points in the public arena of postmodern academia?

In his recent online communications Wilber makes lazy equations of the sort: deconstruction = destruction = terrorism. Of course, this satisfies the lay audience, but not the specialist. How can we bring this part of Wilberian discourse to the next level?

Meditation Research

Another area for concern is Wilber's reporting on emperical research, for example in the fields of consciousness research. Let's take this as example.

Meditation is central to Wilber's view of spirituality, and on many occasions he claims that meditation can speed up your own development.

Only one of Wilber's similarly confident statements:

We now have abundant evidence that meditation does not alter or change the basic stages of the development of consciousness, but it does remarkably accelerate that development. (One Taste, page 263)

To be even more specific:

But the simplest, shortest answer is: whatever your stage of development on the self line, by practicing meditation […], you going to move up and accelerate your development through that line, moving several stages over a period of just a few years actually. (Kosmic Consciousness, CD 3, Track 7, 11:49)

Jim Andrews has meticulously studied Wilber's statements about meditation research and has come to some very sobering conclusions in his paper "Ken Wilber on Meditation", which was included as an Appendix to Falk's eBook Norman Einstein.

After going through a host of methodological caveats regarding this type of research (as done by Alexander et. al., who was deeply involved with TM and therefore biased as to the value of meditation), Andrews concludes that Wilber's many claims concerning the benefits of meditation are "unfounded, misleading, and potentially harmful."

He sums up his major concerns regarding Wilber's careless statements about meditation research:

  1. KW asserts that meditation accelerates the development of human consciousness, yet he typically provides no supporting evidence
  2. KW suggests that 20 to 25 years of meditation can yield full enlightenment, yet he admits that he has not achieved this state nor met anyone who has
  3. KW states that only meditation has been demonstrated to accelerate the development of human consciousness, yet he also recommends other spiritual practices
  4. KW praises the research of Skip Alexander and his colleagues, yet he also acknowledges that their studies are subject to “valid criticisms”
  5. KW claims that meditators can advance two levels in only three or four years, yet the cited study is subject to “valid criticisms”
  6. KW reports that 38% of meditators advanced to the highest levels on Jane Loevinger’s scale of ego development, yet the cited study is subject to “valid criticisms”
  7. KW advocates the use of meditation and community verification to establish spiritual truths, yet this recommendation is not “good science”
  8. KW asserts that even skeptics acknowledge that “the Maharishi effect” is authentic, yet skeptics have repeatedly rejected “the Maharishi effect”
  9. KW is aware that meditation can have “negative effects on practioners,” yet he provides only a very few warnings of the potential hazards

This paper is well worth reading, for again it illustrates Wilber's treatment of an empirical subject.

When I confronted Roger Walsh, a world authority on meditation research, with these findings, he replied succinctly and approvingly, "Precision is priceless". Perhaps the briefness of his reply reflected his feeling of being torn between the two loyalties towards Wilber and truth.

One should realize that Wilber is not a researcher himself, he deals with theories, not facts, and selects theories whenever they fit his larger integral frame of reference. When it comes to reporting about empirial research, he rarely goes into the intricacies of it, but instead is content to assure the reader that "the evidence is simply overwhelming", we have "truly staggering research" or "absolutely nobody believes this anymore". We should really take these statements with a large grain of salt.

Independent Integral Research

This raises the more general question of how to assess Wilber's treatment of the various fields he has touched upon, often with a confident and persuasive style of writing.

Isn't it high time we give Wilber a second reading?

On a first reading, Wilber's writings can be moving, inspiring even. On a second (and third) reading, things turn out to be much more complicated. As Matthew Dallman reminded us in one of his columns on Wilber:

Virginia Woolf said that when she wrote her book reviews, she'd read the book twice. The first time she'd surrender to everything the author offered; the second time, she wouldn't give the author a single sentence if it wasn't earned. Some in the integral community have done the first stage and now are in the second in some form or another.

Doesn't Wilber's own agenda — trying to scientifically prove that spirituality is valid in the modern world; getting even with materialism, postmodernism and the scientific establishment — shine through all too clear from his writings? And what about power play? Does he share this agenda with many of his followers now, as he did with mine in the past?

There's a famous saying in Buddhism that goes:

"If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him".

That, among other things, points to undue attachment to someone — dead or alive — who once was an inspirational force — Buddha or Wilber doesn't matter here — but has now become an obstacle to independent and free thought.

So yes, let's keep up the spirit of free and fearless investigation! If you meet Wilber on the road, kill him!

Shouldn't we take a fresh look at Wilber and start the arduous process of independent integral research? I think we should. "Every sentence has to be earned" -- a great motto.[1] Many essays on Integral World (by Harris, Edwards, Kazlev, Smith, Meyerhoff, Chamberlain, and 60 others) have been written in this spirit.

Again from "Talking Back to Wilber":

Actually, this is a win-win strategy. If Wilber is validated, good for him. If not, good for truth. Wasn't that after all what we were looking for, when we started reading Wilber?

Notes

[1] Perhaps the upcoming First Integral Theory Conference provides an opportunity for such independent integral research. It's good to see there's ample room for integral theory discussions in the programme (other then in Wilber's own Integral Institute, where the focus seems to be on advertising and applications).




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