Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Frank 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 many essays on this website.
What Would Wilber Do?
A Response to Joe Perez
“One thing for sure about evolution is that, as the Intelligent Design folks have aptly pointed out, it cries out for a spiritual explanation...”
I can follow most of Joe's narrative, but only if my premise is that Ken Wilber is right in his statements on almost everything under the sun.
Joe Perez wrote an article on his new Integral Blog about some of my postings on Integral World (i.e. a German interview for Connection and the latest chapter of my book on Wilber called “Reaching Out to the World”) in which I expressed my disappointments with Wilber and the integral community in general. I truly wish more integralists would do this, so kudos to Joe. “Get your hands dirty” as he expresses it in his blog. Engage criticism, even, or especially, from fellow-integralists. At the same time, there's an incredible condescension in this expression. As if Wilber himself shouldn't have to bother with it.
For example, neither the integral community nor Ken Wilber have been able to produce a balanced refutation of Jeff's Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition. Apparently, there's no felt need for this in integral circles, for Wilber's opinion “Meyerhoff is just adolescent postmodernism 101” seals it. Think no further. (Or start here). Notwithstanding the fact that Meyerhoff has brought a wealth of academic sources to the table, which are not readily available to integralists, all presented in a composed style, even when he discusses Wilber's personality. Where's the intellectual curiosity in integral circles for these opposing viewpoints? Why this intellectual anemia? This tunnel vision? Can we do away with this material, for the Integral Vision tells us all that we need to know?
I can follow most of Joe's narrative, but only if my premise is that Ken Wilber is right in his statements on almost everything under the sun. Unfortunately, that isn't the case, if you care to look further.
In my opinion, there are two cultures at work here. Are we looking AS Wilber/Integral or AT Wilber/Integralthat's the question. And these cultures will clash, unavoidably and spectacularly. The first culture is guided by the motto “What Would Wilber Do?” (WWWD). It sees the world through Wilberian glasses. It will therefore spot only Wilberian facts. It will look at things AS Wilber does, identifying itself with his point of view. It will be essentially uncritical towards Wilber. For how can be greatest philosopher in history be wrong?
The second culture will ask itself the question: “Wilber or Truth?”. Not to imply that these two can't go together, but that the focus should be on truth, even if we admire or respect Wilber for what he has accomplished. What matters in the end, is that Wilber's statements are either validated and corroborated, or refuted and rejected, in a free speech environment. This is the “agenda” of Integral World, if you will. It is still a minority standpoint, especially among those who have discovered Wilber's work in the past few years, but an integral niche to be cherished. But the integral landscape should be wide enough to accommodate all these initiatives.
WHAT IS THIS SPIRIT DOING ANYWAY?
Perez rightly wonders why I have changed my mind about the nature of evolution. Where I first believed evolution is a spiritual process, I now tend towards the viewpoints of naturalistic science. Basically, in my case, this is a difference between what one likes to be true and what turns out to be true. Spiritual evolution appealed to me at a tender age when I knew next to nothing about evolutionary theory. So I resonate with the enthusiasm generated by “evolutionary spirituality”, as it is called these days, but only in retrospect.
After having quoted at length my opinion about Wilber's take on evolution as an Eros-driven project, based on this statement by Wilber...
That driveEros by any other nameseems 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.
I would ask you to notice two things about the Wilber quote chosen by Visser. First, that Wilber describes Eros as a “perfectly realistic conclusion”. Second, Wilber says that “there is plenty of room” for Eros in his philosophy. Wilber nowhere invokes Spirit as an “explanation” for the universe.
I really don't know where to begin, Joe. One gets crushed by quotes from Wilber about evolution as being a Spirit-driven process. Think: “Evolution as Spirit-in-action”. Think: “The Spirit of Evolution” (the subtitle of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Wilber's magnum opus). In fact, the quote from Wilber I was referring to, explicitly addressed the shortcomings of neo-Darwinism (Integral Spirituality, p. 236, footnote).
But I needn't go further back than the recent 2014 Fourth Turning conference material, in which Wilber stated:
“One thing for sure about evolution is that, as the Intelligent Design folks have aptly pointed out, it cries out for a spiritual explanation...”
I repeat: “a spiritual explanation.” Or another one from that same document:
“[O]ne can see in the miracles of evolution an Eros, or Spirit-in-action, that is indeed miraculous.”
And another one, from a video related to this conference:
“This seems to be the general overall thrust of evolutionand one of the things that is certain about it, is that it won't give up. It simply is there, with an extraordinary power, in the entire cosmos.”
This is vintage Wilberincluding the confident assurance that this is the one thing that is certain about evolution, both biologically and cosmologically. Wilber's whole strategy for almost four decades has been to suggest that there is such a “spirit of evolution”. Is evolution then NOT Spirit-in-action? And also note that this evolutionary impulse or drive for Wilber has cosmological dimensions too.
Joe contends that what Wilber has in mind is just making room for Spirit, where reductionistic science can only deny its existence. “Ken makes room for both spirit and science.” He continues to explain that Spirit is a matter of mystical realization, not scientific explanation. (Though it's only in integral circles, indeed that one can encounter people saying “I know Spirit plays a role in evolution because I experience that in my meditation.” But it is one thing to grow in awareness of internal states. It is entirely something else to make pronouncements on the evolution of life and matter.) But then what is Spirit actually doing? In Wilber's system, Spirit is both an aspect of Being and Becoming. Evolutionary spirituality specifically embodies this insight that Spirit is not only the One behind the Many but also at work in the manifest realm. But just how exactly? We will never know.
For sure, Wilber does use Spirit (or Eros) as an explanation for the complexities of nature. But he does it implicitly and indirectly by pointing out supposed deficiencies in scienceexactly like the creationists are doing. He never gets more explicit than this, and he couldn't, for if he did he would be refuted by science. (I must say that many creationists do a better job in making a case for the role Spirit/God plays in evolution). This way, he can get away with anything without being held accountable for his statements about science. And when pressed for details, he will say it was just poetry.
A recent trend in integral circles, as expressed by Marc Gafni, is that "outrageous Love” is ruling the universeeven to the level of bringing quarks together. I am sure, when pressed for details, Gafni will say it is mystical poetry. I myself, am done with these feel-good exhortations, devoid of meaning. They might do well in keynote speeches at posh business conferences, but not in the more serious arena of science.
THE INTEGRAL SYSTEM UNDER ATTACK?
Is Integral World really full of “attacks” on Wilber's philosophy? “Challenges” would be my choice of terms.
Identifying with Wilber's point of view, it all makes sense. But it comes with a huge price. Independent thinking goes out of the window in any cultic environment. Criticism is labeled as “attack”. In this cultic logic, criticism on the integral system must have its source in shadow motivations. For, again, how could the most important philosopher in history be wrong?
Is Integral World really full of “attacks” on Wilber's philosophy? “Challenges” would be my choice of terms. And without being challenged no philosophy can advance. Instead, it will degenerate into a school that will be defended by its members against a hostile outside world. Since 2000, Integral World critics addressed fields Wilber hadn't yet covered (political economy, conceptual reflections on the quadrants, evolutionary theory, social progress, western history, etc.) They provide the necessary background and context for Wilber's writings.
To warn his readers of the “attacks” that can be found on Integral World, and apparently to counterbalance the vulgarity of Wilber's Wyatt Earp blog, Perez refers to the word “selfish asshole” as used by Joe Corbett, one of its authors, in reference to Wilber. Singling out this statement from an estimated 15.000 printed pages amounts to saying: “Have you noticed that the dictionary is such a dirty book? I found so many four letter words in it!” Besides, this particular statement was made by Corbett within the context of the possible influence of Ayn Rand's philosophy of individualism on Integral Theory. (And mind you, Rand's Atlas Shrugged is still the #2 best selling book on political philosophy at Amazon.) “Not atypical”? C'mon Joe. Integral World does indeed have its juicy critics (most notably Geoffrey Falk), but in the end all of them are aiming at truth, whatever they conceive this to be.
Perez generously concedes that for him it is okay when people chose to study a particular field of science, such as evolutionary biology. It will make them a little bit more fluent in the Upper Right quadrant, as long as they don't fall in the trap of quadrant absolutism. This way, integral degenerates into a classification game. What if this particular field of science has bearings on one of integral philosophy's basic tenets (of an Eros in the Kosmos)? Is it then still okay to study it?
Isn't it peculiar that Wilber claims to base his system on “already-agreed-upon” knowledge, but in the case of evolutionary theory disregards the wide consensus in this field, when it doesn't suit the particular spiritual story about the Kosmos he wants to tell? Given the centrality of the metaphor of evolutioneven more so these days when the label “evolutionary” has now almost replaced “integral"isn't it ironic how little true engagement with this field of science can be found in the integral literature? Isn't this, well, disturbing?
Perez concludes that for me there is nothing “historical” in the integral project. That's for history to decide, not us, I would say. A differential approach to Integral Theory is the obvious thing to do, as any philosopher, of the past and the present, is approached that way by professionals. Seeing Wilber as the most important philosopher in history is just cultic fan-talk.
He also bemoans that all this criticism might hurt the success of the integral project, which still has a long way to go (“We have a long way to go before we can rest” Perez adds dramatically):
But it’s also sort of like pushing a baby to the ground when she is just learning to walk. It’s stupid and mean. Those of us riding the second-tier or integral or evolutionary wave, we are like babies. We are the future. And we are trying to walk for Pete’s sake.
A rather infantile metaphor for a system of philosophy that is trying to find it's way in the outside world. Criticism and challenges will make it stronger, but only if you engage them. We need “wise and humble critics”, Perez states. But perhaps we need wise and humble integralists as well? He also writes that integral isn't over-marketed, as I suggested at the close of my book chapter. But not a week goes by when I don't get an offer in my inbox about trainings, DVDs, discounts, to help make my life more integral. And the offerings are without exception “stunning” and “staggering”. Perhaps this is a cultural thing, specific to the US, where you need to shout to be heard. Perhaps.
But yes, seeing Integral Theory as a self-styled, “historical”, world-changing philosophyeven if still in its toddler phasewill clash with any truth-finding approach that doesn't have this agenda. It will be perceived as a hindrance, a dis-empowerment, by those of the first culture. But that's how things go in the real word of science and philosophy. Is Integral Theory still a babyor is it a cry baby?
Perez makes some silly remarks about commercial reasons being involved in Wilber not responding to Integral World criticism, or in this website having Google Ads. But we both understand that the rent has to be paid. For the same reason Perez asks readers to subscribe to his blog. I even understand that integral needs to be “sold”financially or otherwiseto an audience that could potentially benefit from it. What I have argued for is that a sole focus on “spreading the word” can get in the way of seriously reflecting on its merits. Perez has argued for the opposite: criticism may hinder the spread of integral ideas. Or should I say, in turn: hurt its business?
 Ken Wilber, “Towards a Fourth Turning”, February 13th, 2014, http://fourthturningbuddhism.com/toward-fourth-turning/
 Joe Perez, “Properly Integral: A Response To Frank Visser’s Three Disappointments”, December 3rd, 2014, http://integralblog.com/properly-integral-a-response-to-frank-vissers-three-disappointments/
 Ken Wilber, “Taking Evolution into Account”, July 21st, 2014, https://www.integrallife.com/future-buddhism/taking-evolution-account
 Frank Visser, “The ‘Spirit of Evolution’ Reconsidered”, 2010, http://www.integralworld.net/visser33.html
 Joe Corbett, “Ken Wilber (Philosopher-King): In Search of Spiritual Domination of the Fittest”, November 2011, http://www.integralworld.net/corbett9.html