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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Conrad GoehausenConrad Goehausen is webmaster of the blogs The Broken Yogi Samyama and Waves of Beauty.

Reposted from (06/27/2006) with permission of the author.

Reply to Wilber on Metaphysics of Evolution

Conrad Goehausen

Wilber's problem is that he can't seem to locate his metaphysical drive within the physical universe, so he just postulates that it must be there.

Just read Wilber's reply to Jim's post on the Lightmind Wilber Forum and I must say, a pretty nasty piece of work. Is Wilber aware that by getting so hysterical about his critics he is putting people off, even if he is right? I'm not a Wilber scholar, I don't even know where these source materials are or what Wilber's full argument is. I'm willing to give Wilber the benefit of the doubt that he has not been using materialist scientists to support his metaphysical views, only to point to holes in evolutionary theory that he has alternative explanations for, but even giving him all that, I still find his response on the issue of spiritual development to reveal an “undeveloped” character. Ouch, that must hurt.

It's easy to get all red hot and rajasic over some critic, and to attribute the worst of intentions to them, and to write them off completely. Getting righteously hurt and pissed sure can feel good in the short run, but it just creates deeper problems in the long run, not just with relations, but within oneself. Why would anyone want to do that from the start? Why not respond to critics from sattvas, with a balanced, unthreatened, non-defensive posture of helping them see the error of their ways, if that is the case, or finding one's own errors, if that is the case. (It's usually both). It's not the end of the world if a critic is wrong, or even hostile, or makes mistakes (as Jim has acknowledged). No need to attribute the worst of intentions to one's critics, even if they have to you.

Wilber says reputations are at stake. That's just an easy rationalization for taking out the flamethrowers. Wilber's reputation is not at stake. His theories are at stake, that's all. So what if he's wrong on a few counts? No one has a reputation for being perfect. The problems with his reputation come from him, not from his critics, from explosions like this that give the impression that Wilber is imbalanced and insecure about his theories. At least that's the impression I get, and I'm pretty much an outsider to the whole I-I world and this debate within it.

One thing I'm surprised to learn is that the Ken Wilber Forum is actually part of Frank Visser's website. I had assumed that it was part of Elias' Lightmind. That's how I found it, wandering in from the largely defunct Daism Forum. Anyway, I've been writing here about Wilber, mostly in a critical vein, but not pretending to have any scholarly credentials or deep understanding of Wilber, and confining myself for the must part to his usage of non-dual concepts and terminology, where I think he does make big mistakes. I've also commented on his approach to evolutionary theory, which I think he makes category errors in, of trying to insert metaphysical views into scientific theory, and not respecting the category differences. I'd like to respond to Wilber's blog post purely in that vein, not using Jim's critique, but relying only on Wilber's own words and ideas, which I understand are not comprehensive, but I assume to represent what he thinks in summary about evolution. I'm not trying to argue with Wilber's scholarship, in other words, but with his ideas themselves.

Ediacara biota
Dickinsonia costata, one of the earliest
known complex multicellular organisms.

So, Wilber's theory is that there is an immanent driving force within all beings from the tiniest amoeba to the most advanced human that thirsts for greater and greater inclusion, and ultimately, perfect realization. Why does Wilber think that? Well, let me speculate that first of all it's because Wilber himself feels this thirst. He also notices it in other people. And as he looks at the various structures and processes of nature, he sees a similar pattern, of growth and complexity and greater self-awareness, and thus assumes a similar drive within the consciousness of each being. This seems natural enough. It is “common sense”, which is my assessment of how Wilber operates in most things.

But is it true? Common sense has a way of being proven wrong over and over again, particularly in scientific matters. Aristotle created a whole universe of false views out of what he assumed were common sense observations and notions of how the world operated. My sense is that Wilber is making similar mistakes, mixing his metaphysical sense for the way human beings are with the way the physical universe actually operates. Yes, this metaphysical drive exists in us. And maybe something like it exists in all beings. But that doesn't mean that this metaphysical drive is the driving force behind physical evolution, or any physical process, other than that it seems it must if Wilber's holonic theories are correct. So to defend his theories, Wilber feels that he most postulate an erotic force or drive that is the real fuel for physical evolution itself. The problem is that Wilber has not adequately explained how this “drive” is anything other than a purely metaphysical drive, or how this metaphysical drive we all seem to share relates to the physical mechanisms of evolution, and physical life altogether.

I can sympathize with Wilber's view that such a drive exists. I experience it. Most people I know experience it in some form or other. But it remains a metaphysical drive. I also experience physical drives, such as the drive for sex, for children, of whom I have two, for food, for money, etc. These are not metaphysical drives, however, they are physical drives. As it happens, however, we all tend to superimpose our metaphysical drives on top of our physical ones. Thus, we don't just want to have sex, we want sex to be more than just physically fulfilling, even more than just emotionally fulfilling, we want sex to be metaphysically fulfilling. We want it to satisfy our highest urges. The problem, of course, is that it doesn't do that. Why? Because sex isn't a metaphysical act, it's a physical one.

I know some people will yell “tantra!” at the drop of this hat, but tantra isn't about sex, it isn't about physical drives at all, it's about transcending physicality, or identification with the physical, and even identification with the metaphysical. Sex is primarily about reproduction, one way or another. Even when it isn't about reproduction, its features are present because of the complex process of natural selection. Whatever metaphysical we have associated with sex, is all in our minds, unless the reproductive act of sex is given greater evolutionary selective power in the process. Physical sex is simply there to make children, and whatever way the body can get you to have sex and make babies is immaterial from its point of view. If you do it by believing in God's plan or an erotic metaphysics to the universe, fine. If not, anything else will do just as well. In this sense, the physical act of sex is utterly detached from our metaphysical drives. What counts is making babies, because only they pass on our genes and contribute to physical evolution. And the genes that help us do that, whether they are metaphysical genes or not, are what gets passed on and makes us “evolve” as a species.

Money, too, is something that people impose metaphysical drives onto. They dream of money solving all their problems, when in fact the only problems that money solves are money problems. Even people who make more than enough money to support their largest physical needs still have a drive to make more, because they are pursuing a metaphysical drive, not a physical one.

Similarly with sex. Human beings have an intense, "always on" sexual drive, that makes them want to have more and more of it, regardless of whether reproduction is even possible. This is because humans have evolved a need for supportive parenting of their offspring, because of how long it takes human intelligence to develop from infancy onwards. That is why humans have developed a pair-bonding attachment pattern through sexuality, in which the parents tend to stay together to protect and feed and acculturate their children through their vulnerable years. Unlike with most species, fathers stick around to help, and the primary reason they do is because of the sexual bond they have with the mother, which allows them to have sex any time they like, because human females are sexually active and available at all times, not just at certain times of the year or certain times of the month. So ironically, humans end up with a nearly constant obsession with sex, even though their actual reproductive sex is usually limited to a handful of incidents in a lifetime. The sexual drive, even in its most promiscuous fashion, is there to support reproduction, even when reproduction is impossible.

So it is natural that human beings begin to attribute metaphysical notions to all this "extra" sex they are having, which seems not to be directly about reproduction. That is why religions obsess about sex and feel the need to explain it by metaphysical drives and universal male and female energies and powers that aren't obvious to the senses, even when there is a very simple evolutionary reason behind it that requires no metaphysical explanation. It's also why they try to control and regulate it, even suppress it, because they feel that when they are doing so, they are relating to these metaphysical powers of the Gods. And who knows, maybe they are. But as with all traditional religious explanations for how things work, particularly in sexuality, these notions have to be compared to the actual biology and physiology and evolutionary forces involved, and not assume that the metaphysical explanation is either the best one, or even the correct one. Any such notions have to be tested against biology, or they have to be discarded or re-thought.

The thing is, the particular metaphysical erotic drive that Wilber postulates to be guiding evolution seems to exist almost entirely in humans. Animals don't pursue metaphysical needs through physical means, at least that we are aware of. They respond only to their most immediate physical needs food and safety, and once those are satisfied, enough is enough, and they are done with it. As Adi Da says, at that point they simply enter into spiritual contemplation, and stay in such a mode until they are either threatened, hungry, or it's time to make babies. Once that is done, they go back to contemplation. Their metaphysical needs are not confused in their mind with physical needs. They intuit a natural order to these things, and don't confuse them. And part of that intuitive order is a basic understanding that the physical world is not a place that can satisfy our metaphysical needs for spiritual contemplation. In that sense, animals are actually smarter and more spiritually inclined than humans, because they don't pretend that the physical world can ever satisfy us. They know how crude, rough, and unfair it is. When they want metaphysical satisfaction, they simply sit apart in silence and relax into a meditative state. Any cat knows this. But human beings, with their metaphysically minds, seem not to, and constantly try to create a metaphysics out of the material world, that can somehow allow them to have their cake and eat it too.

What Wilber seems to be doing when he infers that a metaphysical eros drive is behind our physical evolution is projecting his own metaphysical drive, and the drive of most humans, onto the physical world, even onto our own physical bodies, even though that's just not the nature of the physical universe. It's true that since human have become cultural beings, our evolutionary process has changed to some extent, in that we now evolve not just physically, but culturally, and that our cultural evolution has a strong influence on our physical evolution, in that humans who can't thrive culturally are less likely to survive and pass on their genes than those who do. But that doesn't mean that the actual mechanism of physical evolution has changed, or that some metaphysical force has taken over the evolution of our bodies. Even if there is such a force influencing human culture, its influence on evolution is still limited to what its impact is on our survival and reproductive ability to pass on our genes to offspring. And yet, we humans of today are not mere physical creatures, we are clearly metaphysical creatures with a drive for metaphysical satisfaction, and we try to gain that satisfaction within the material universe. Which to a Buddhist understanding is the source of our self-inflicted misery. Our culture is a metaphysical creation, in which all kinds of simple physical drives have been superseded by metaphysical superimpositions, such that we don't pursue physical drives for purely physical satisfaction anymore, we pursue them for metaphysical gratification. And that pursuit is what the Buddha called tanha, or craving, which creates an endless circle of seeking and dissatisfaction that never ends.

The problem with Wilber's evolutionary theory is that it seems to be guilty of this same confusion between physical drives and metaphysical ones that has made our entire culture a total mess of never-ending craving. He wants physical evolution to be based on a metaphysical drive, rather than a physical one. He wants to find some loophole, some small quantum window that will allow him to drive this metaphysical bus into the material world. He hasn't found it, and people have been looking for this loophole for thousands of years, and yet they haven't found it either. Wilber is not the first to propose this. Something like it has been proposed endlessly for most of human history. But it still hasn't been found, and the desire and the need that it be found is not itself a substitute for the finding of it, nor is it evidence that it must exist.

Wilber says that science keeps promising to plug the holes in evolutionary theory, and that it never does, and has been promising this for the last two thousand years without success (which is a rather exaggerated timeline for the history of science. Darwin didn't come along until 150 years ago, which seems about the time that science began to make promises about unraveling our evolutionary history). But Wilber neglects that religion has been promising far more for far longer, and delivering far less. Wilber talks as if science hasn't made any progress at all in the past two thousand years, or even in the last 150, when in fact it has made incredible, truly miraculous progress. Just because it hasn't answered every last problem or issue doesn't mean its answers haven't been getting more and more meaningful, valuable, refined, and trustworthy.

Whereas the metaphysical answers to the physical world's operating processes have been shown time and again to be wildly fanciful, false, absurd, and sheer projections of human hopes, desires, fears, and our own internal metaphysical drives. Yet Wilber pretends that the rational response to science's shortcomings is to postulate another metaphysical answer, this time a more refined one, but only slightly so—an erotic drive. I don't want to ridicule this idea as many scientists would. Many would not ridicule it, but even those who would, would probably see it in its proper place, as a metaphysical theory, not a scientific one. It thus doesn't have any direct relation to physical theories, or physical evidence itself. What equations govern it? What phenomena requires its existence? Wilber doesn't say, because thus far there are none.

Thus, the presence of gaps in our understanding of the physical process of evolution doesn't rationally lead to metaphysical theories about how those gaps can be filled in. That is an irrational leap, and not of the transrational variety, but of the pre-rational variety. It's a regression, in other words, even if Wilber thinks not, because he has tried to formulate a transrational theory. What he doesn't understand is that ALL metaphysical superimpositions upon rational, physical processes are regressions, regardless of how high-minded they are. They lead to a false application of rational physical science, based on metaphysical theories which have no place in physical science.

When scientists promise that these gaps in evolutionary theory will be filled with scientific materialistic theories and evidence, Wilber acts as if they have no credibility, when in fact they have huge credibility, since over the last few hundred years scientists have shown a remarkable ability to fill all kinds of huge holes in their theories and ideas and evidence with purely scientific knowledge. They have a far better record of coming up with answers than any other process, especially metaphysical answers such as Wilber is proposing. They are narrowing down the holes to such a point where there really isn't much reason left to think that science can't fill most of them through physical explanations alone. Sure, there is plenty to speculate about as to what and how those holes will be filled, but it sure does seem like science can answer them far better than any metaphysical explanation can, any “eros drive”, unless you just want to call the whole physical universe and its laws an “erotic drive”. Fine. Call it Yahweh while we're at it. The fact is such a theory isn't needed. The scientific materialists are right on that count. The physical universe doesn't need a supernatural explanation to explain itself or its processes within its own context. Nor does physical evolution.

This strikes Wilber as wrong, because it leaves his own metaphysical drive exactly where? I'd say, right where it always was, in dualistic frustration. The attempt to make our metaphysical drive concrete by grounding the physical world in it, and seeing our own evolution as the product of this drive, is simply part of the impulse to make the drive itself physical, concrete, reified. But that's the problem. Metaphysical drives are not concrete. They are bound to be frustrated by our attempts to reify them. A sound metaphysics gives up on this attempt. It stops trying to impose itself on the physical world. It stops trying to associate itself with the goals and drives of the physical body. It stops looking for tiny loopholes to climb through. Wilber's invocation of quantum uncertainty principles as one of those “loopholes” that his erotic drive can thrust its sweaty head through is desperation personified. Didn't Wilber once attack pseudo-spiritualists for trying to use quantum theory to make a home for their pet ideas of a transrational universe? Now he seems to be doing the same thing. The problem is a little laughable if one examines it. Quantum theory is about random processes, and the uncertainty principle is about the ultimate unknowability of random processes. And yet Wilber wants to use these to make claims that he knows what actually goes on within them, that some erotic drive is behind this random and unknowable process. Again, why not just say that Yahweh is behind it all? It makes as much sense.

The facts remain that physical evolution seems eminently explicable by physical law, without the need for an outside metaphysical process to explain how the physical process works. Wilber's problem is that he can't seem to locate his metaphysical drive within the physical universe, so he just postulates that it must be there, and if there are holes in physical theory, that must be the place where his metaphysical drive is hiding! This is the worst kind of reductionist logic, far more reductionistic than scientific materialism itself. Scientific materialism is a sane form of reductionism, in that it explains material processes within their own realm as being self-sufficient. And I agree with it at that level. Science is more than adequate to explain the physical world and its processes, including perhaps evolution. Not that there is no metaphysical relationship between the physical universe and our spiritual nature, but that it is not necessarily a causal one, in which the spiritual oversees and causes the physical world to behave as it does. That's just not the nature of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and the lack of an obvious spiritual forces needing to be accounted for to explain the physical universe demonstrates this with brutal honesty.

I wouldn't stop there, however. I have no problem acknowledging a metaphysical drive, even the notion that the entire physical universe is the creation of our metaphysical drive at some deeper level. I just notice that the physical mechanisms thus created, via Big Bang or expanding bindu, are self-sufficient in and of themselves. They are psychic and conscious all by themselves. They don't need to operate by some “other” psychic mechanism. The world our universal psyche has created, once we enter into it, has no need to operate by some other kind of psychic drive or force than itself. The material universe, in that sense, is a psychic phenomena, and all its observable laws are psychic ones.

Which means that no additional forces are needed, only a different understanding of the forces we already observe. We have to step back in order to see the psychic nature of it, and understand how metaphysical forces shape the universe through these very mundane physical laws and processes. But once we step back inside it, and try to examine its physical processes, those metaphysical forces no longer appear as "metaphysical". That only applies from the metaphysical perspective itself, not the physical one we live in and speak of as evolving. Here, we are subject to brute material reality and its laws, and that has to be accepted and understood as offering us no metaphysical hope for satisfaction. The Buddha made that clear with his Four Noble Truths. Ironically, by offering us no metaphysical satisfaction, the physical universe becomes our greatest teacher, pointing us beyond all manifestation to the underlying truth that is neither born nor come to death. But that is an understanding of non-dualism that Wilber himself rebels against, in the hope of creating a metaphysically satisfying life within the dualistic domain, that simply isn't possible.

So even if Wilber is trying to introduce a trans-rational metaphysics into the physical world, rather than say a pre-rational mythos, he is still making a category error that ends up in a regression to the pre-rational. This is why he gets so pissed off! He thinks he's getting pissed off because somebody said something unwarranted and unfair about him. But really, he's getting pissed because his theory leads to a pre-rational emotionalism, a need to ground a metaphysical drive in the physical world, which is essentially a pre-rational need. And because that never produces satisfaction, and cannot by the very structure of reality ever be achieved, it leads to immense frustration on the part of the religious theorists trying to make it work. It's not just Wilber who ends up this way, it's virtually all of religious metaphysics, and often with far more violent results.

Using someone's "unfair" criticism as a pretext for losing it is just a way to let off the steam building up from this pre-rational drive. Even worse, it is a way of hiding from and projecting onto others the intrinsic flaws in Wilber's theories. Wilber wants to keep his whole theory from unraveling, but he can't, because physical reality itself gets in the way, and that's unbearable for Wilber to face up to. Like all spiritual idealists, he tends to be at war with the physical world, and incapable of feeling at ease with its lack of metaphysical obedience to the ideas he wishes controlled it. I'm not sure if it's really necessary to explain evolution by an erotic metaphysical drive in order to support Wilber's whole map and theory, I'm not that well versed enough in Wilber's theory to say, but he certainly acts as if it is. What if physical holons have no drive to evolve? What if they were just built and governed by physical law in such a way that evolution would become inevitable? What if their consciousness is not really directed towards evolution at all? What does any of that really matter? It doesn't change our own metaphysical needs one bit, it only suggests we stop trying to fulfill them through physical processes, including physical evolution.

Wilber seems to ignore or even purposely reject the basic Buddhist metaphysical view of the world as being an endless wheel of desire and craving, with no particular evolutionary goal in mind, just endless birth, change, growth and development alternating with chaos, dissipation, degradation, and death. Our true metaphysical need is not for some great inclusion of these things, but for a quenching of that very desire, a nirvana that ends the metaphysical craving altogether, and which gets us off the wheel of endlessly looking for one within a realm that never provides any such thing. There is no sense in which one will find some erotic drive for unity in nature itself, or even within our own minds. Nature and the mind only wish to perpetuate themselves by whatever means. Nature has its own methods, and mind has its as well. Truly, our real drive for freedom exists beyond all of that, beyond the physical world, beyond the metaphysical world, beyond every thought and every mind. Whether it includes anything or nothing is only found within the quenching itself, not in any dualistic analysis of things as they appear or seem to be or as we wish they were.

And by the way, Ken, if you read this, no hard feelings one way or another. These are just ideas, and nothing is at stake in them. I may be right, I may be wrong, as you might be. Don't take any of this personally. Best wishes to you, and try to stay out of trouble!

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