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
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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.
|THREE VIEWS OF NATURAL HISTORY|
|Species have been created by God||All species have a common ancestor||Evolution is driven by Spirit/Love/Eros|
It is important to understand the claims involved in this scheme of things. The science view claims to have refuted the mythic-religious view as a believable cultural narrative in modern time. In the same way, the integral-mystical view is now arguing for its superiority to account for the facts of nature, by pointing out deficiencies in both the creationist and the scientific models. The scheme is hierarchicalnot just a typology, but a stage model.
On several occasions, Wilber has highlighted the supposed failures of neo-Darwinism to explain the manyfold complexities of nature, in an obviously strategic attempt to gain support for his more mystical view of evolution, as driven by a spiritual force of Eros. Creationists, on the other hand, have criticized the dominant scientific view of evolution to bolster their main article of faith, that of creation. This makes creationists and integralists allies in their battle against a reductionist view of nature.
Wilber has occasionally pointed to creationist literaturemost explicitly Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box (1996)to make his case against reductionism (though not for his own particular views on evolution). At the same time, he doesn't want to be associated with creationism or Intelligent Design, though David Lane has plainly called Wilber's ideas "New Creationism"and "Pseudo Science" at that.
The point Wilber has tried to make in several of his writings is: though creationists hold on to outmoded religious beliefs, they are correct in pointing out weaknesses in the neo-Darwinist model. Here's an example from many (the infamous Hummer quote from a blog called "Vomitting Confetti", now defunct, but quoted in Geoffrey Falk's book chapter "Wilberian Evolution"):
We will now briefly review these three models of natural history one by one, to assess their modern day credibility. Integral philosophy may be superior to creationists myths about creation, but can it also trump the findings of science when it comes to evolution?
THE MYTHICAL MODEL: CREATIONISM
Creationism is best seen, not as a monolithic block, but as a broad spectrum of views (see also Carter Phipps' overview of evolutionary theories: scientific, creationist, esoteric and integral). According to Wikipedia we have many varieties of creationism: young earth creationism (creation science), old earth creationism (gap creationism, day-age creationism, progressive creationism), neo-creationism (Intelligent Design) and theistic evolutionism (or "evolutionary creation").
Ken Ham, the creationist featured in the above video, is a Young Earth creationist and founder of the Creation Museum and even in the business of creating a modern day Noah's Ark. As such, he believes the age of the universe to be about 6,000 years, and states that Noah's flood occurred about 4,500 years ago in the year 2348 BC. Not all creationists go this far, however.
To the question raised in the YouTube video, "What would change your mind?", Ham answered, "Nothing"for the Bible tells the Truth (Nye's answer to the same question was "Evidence"). To the objections of science that the earth (and the cosmos at large) is billions of years old, Ham routinely retorts with the rhetorical question "Where you there?" For him, the Bible offers an eye witness account of creation.
In general one could say that these points of view range from biblical-literalists who reject the scientific view of evolution in toto, and hold that each biological species has been created separately by God at the day of creation, to more moderate positions which accept increasingly larger areas of science (related to the age of the earth, the origin of species, and the common descent of all natural organisms from one primordial cell).
We could also make a further distinction between evolutionary Deists, who think God created the universe and its evolutionary potential, but left it to develop on its own accord, and evolutionary Theists, who add the notion that (often left unspecified) God might have intervened during crucial evolutionary steps, e.g. the emergence of human consciousness (Alfred R. Wallace, the co-founder of the theory of natural selection together with Charles Darwin, held this view in his later years).
Also, some theists believe God did not create all species (there are millions of them) but only their "basic types" (such as pheasants, ducks, dogs, cats, horseswhich evolutionary theory calls families), the so-called "dynamic creation model".
It is clear that no integralist subscribes to any of these mythical views of natural history. Most accept the scientific view of evolution as far as it goes, and only add that it needs to be complemented with some spiritual outlook (discussed later in this essay). Most will in fact not even be interested in the details of evolutionary theory (the integral audience mostly consists of psychologists of a spiritual bent), so they could not care less about these questions.
But there's exactly the rub: who decides where science has been successful in the past, will be successful in the near future, or will never succeed in explaining the complexities of nature? This amounts to a faith (or an absence of faith) in science's potential to clarify all aspects of reality.
THE RATIONAL MODEL: EVOLUTIONARY THEORY
Charles Darwin argued in his The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) for a naturalistic explanation of the various biological species, includingand one could say, given the prevailing notions in his time of the special status of humanity vis-a-vis the animal kingdom, especiallyus humans, and correctly guessing in what area of the ancient world proto-humans came down from the trees:
It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man's nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere. (The Descent of Man, 1871/2013, Wordsworth Editions, p. 154).
He argued further that varieties are "incipient species", i.e. that small differences tend to grow into large differences over evolutionary time. This does not allow for compromises such as the dynamic-creation model, which allows for the varieties of dogs to be the result of selection, but the dog itself to be the product of an act of spiritual creation. Dogs have evolved out of wolves, wolves out of earlier canidae, which include dogs, wolves, foxes, jackals, and many other extant and extinct dog-like mammals, and so on back to the first proto-mammal.
Darwin specifically argued against the temptation to assume an internal or spiritual force or influence on the processes of evolution, to account for gaps that are otherwise supposedly unexplainable. In his opinion, and correctly so, this would mean the end of science:
He who believes that some ancient form was transformed suddenly through an internal force or tendency into, for instance, one furnished with wings, will be almost compelled to assume, in opposition to all analogy, that many individuals varied simultaneously. It cannot be denied that such abrupt and great changes of structure are widely different from those which most species apparently have undergone. He will further be compelled to believe that many structures beautifully adapted to all the other parts of the same creature and to the surrounding conditions, have been suddenly produced; and of such complex and wonderful co-adaptations, he will not be able to assign a shadow of an explanation. He will be forced to admit that these great and sudden transformations have left no trace of their action on the embryo. To admit all this is, as it seems to me, to enter into the realms of miracle, and to leave those of Science. (The Origin of Species, 1859/2003, Signet Classics, p. 243)
Darwin further cautioned against our natural impulse to express disbelief at the statement that complex organs such as eyes and wings have evolved through small intermediary steps. The case for gradual evolution can be made if intermediary forms, in the past or the present time, can be found:
That many and serious objections may be advanced against the theory of evolution of descent with modification through variation and natural selection, I do not deny. I have endeavored to give to them the full force. Nothing at first can appear more difficult to believe than that the more complex organs and instincts have been perfected, not by means superior to, though analogous with, human reason, but by the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good for the individual possessor. Nevertheless, this difficulty, though appearing to our imagination insuperably great, cannot be considered real if we admit the following propositions, namely, that all parts of the organization and instincts offer, at least, individual differencesand, lastly, that gradations in that state of perfection of each organ may have existed, each good of its kind. The truth of these propositions cannot, I think, be disputed. (The Origin of Species, 1859/2003, Signet Classics, p. 478).
A concise critique of Ken Wilber's views on evolution I would say!
THE INTEGRAL MODEL: A SPIRITUAL KOSMOS
Wilber has not really engaged the field of evolutionary theory (which is strange, given the prominent nature of the concept of evolution in his writings), and has been content with catchy slogans and soundbites (as exemplified in the Hummer quote given above). However, in his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1996) Wilber has spelled out his "Twenty Tenets", which supposedly govern all evolutionary processes in the cosmological, biological and cultural spheres. Not that science has taken any notice...
His fluent and often careless writing style contrasts sharply with that of Darwin, who took great pains to spell out the possible theoretical difficulties of his own model of natural selection (some 80 pages in his Origin are devoted to objections to his theory). This is a sign of true integrity in a scientist (read Richard Feynmann's paper on Cargo Cult Science). Wilber, by contrast, spends more time popularizing his ideas than engaging his critics.
Intelligent Design authors have at least shown more sophistication than Wilber in their attempts to discredit Darwinism (e.g. Behe). Where we see Darwin carefully weighing the evidence, for and against natural selection, Wilber is content to deal with the issue in a few snappy paragraphs. Nor has he ever dialogued with any evolutionary theorist in public (or private, to my knowledge) to check the validity of his ideas on evolution. On Integral Naked in the past and now on Integral Life he tends to exchange only with kindred thinkers. Ken Ham, to his lasting credit, at least took the troubleand had the courageto debate with a representative from science. I find his particular creationist notions rather nutty, but that's not the point: he is at least open to debate (even if no debate will change his mind).
Wilber has explicitly doubted (and retracted these objections years later) that neo-Darwinism could believably explain the emergence of the human eye, or of the bird's wings, or of the human immune system. Not by engaging the extant voluminous scientific literature on these subjects, but by rhetorically trying to convince his laymen readers. He also explicitly defends the notion of a spiritual force (Eros) behind evolution, and even behind the whole Cosmos, without sufficiently substantiating the necessity for such a wide ranging hypothesis. In this sense his understanding of evolution is pre-Darwinian.
Nor has Wilber made explicit when, where and how this supposed force of Eros has intervened in the intricate processes of development and evolution. He has been content to merely suggest that this might have been the case:
As I concluded my Integral Theory Conference paper on Wilber's mistaken view of evolution, this lack of specificity is the major drawback of Wilber's "theory" of evolution:
And what exactly is the "novelty" that evolutionary theory supposedly fails to account for? Telling enough, this is never specified in Wilber's talks and writing. An eye? A wing? A horse? A dinosaur? Fish getting onto land? Where exactly does science fail and is it in need of a spiritual hypothesis? If this isn't specified, everything becomes meaningless. The pathos in which Wilber writes about evolution is misplaced, as is the casualness of Wilber's pronouncements on evolutionary theory throughout his entire writing career.
All this does not prevent Wilber or his students to make grandiose statements about evolution (Robb Smith, Chairman of Integral Life) or by accusing the science critic of being "just rational", or Orange, in the integral coloring book language (Joe Perez, integral blogger). Obviously not a promising way to gain credibility in science.
An integral view of evolution explicitly introduces interiority into the picture as well. This seems to be a strong case, for interiority has been notoriously difficult to explain so far. But are forms of nature intended in any way? Did primitive bacteria long for Oxygen? Did the primordial birds long to fly? Do trees really strive to reach for light? Obviously not. But integralists would not object to such a "visionary" view at all.
Mind-body philosopher Thomas Nagel has recently argued that since Darwinism fails to explain consciousness it is therefore incomplete as a model of naturenot only in a biological but also in a cosmological sense (see his recent Mind and Cosmos, 2012 - which I reviewed here). One would have expected Wilber to jump on this recent publication in support of his own views of cosmic evolution. But should we really extrapolate from the species-specific (or at most planetary, as far as we know) problem of how consciousness arose on earth, to a cosmological one? As far as I can tell, the universe is not conscious, but running down following the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Can Nagel (or Wilber?) explain consciousness other than begging the question ("consciousness has been there all along", "all the way down" as the integral expression goes)? Wilber introduces mysteries at every step, even down to the level of the genesis of the chemical elements (for in his opinion these have been created by a transcendental creative force, a Whiteheadian "creative advance into novelty" unfathomable by science). Please do read: Marcus Chown, The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origin of Atoms (Vintage, 2000) to get cured of this misconception.
I, for one, continue to put my trust in careful scientific treatments of a very complex subject, such as the genesis of the chemical elements, or the origin of biological species. Where Darwin has admirably and convincingly clarified the problem of human origins, Wilber has until now only re-mystified the whole subject by introducing Eros in the picture. His case for Eros has, however, not been convincingbe it in the realm of evolutionary biology or cosmology.
 Frank Visser, Biased Toward the Marvelous? Integral Reflections on Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, April 2014, www.integralworld.net