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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Jeremy Johnson is a writer of short stories and essays, a blogger, rogue academic and new media scholar. He received his MA from Goddard in Consciousness Studies and a BA from Fordham in Sociology. Exploring the interstices of myth, media and religious experience, his writing attempts to outline the direction of our interconnected age. Republished from his blog with permission of the author.

Response to
"Two Roads Diverging"

Can we find convergence in nature?

Jeremy Johnson

I believe there is significant credibility in open-minded discussion, of a sophisticated evolution of the cosmos, and not merely biology, without becoming "pop."

I've been reading a new article on Integral World, titled "Two Roads Diverging: Integral Theory and Contemporary Science," by Tomislav Markus. It's important to read, I think, opposing and critical reception of integral theory. Markus is very harsh concerning the core ideas of integral writers, likening them to the idealists and transcendentalists of the previous two centuries. Now, I've tried hard to see his point of view, and I do think he has some very valid points. So, let me address them first before delving into where I think Markus seems to diverge. Also, I'd like to present the idea that there is the possibility that integral theorists might agree with him. He actually raises some critical points that Wilber has mentioned, repeatedly, throughout the years. To start with...


If I understand him correctly, Markus argues that contemporary discussion, outside of the hard sciences, have used the term "evolution" too lightly. The evolution of the universe, the evolution of technology, the evolution of social sciences. "Evolution," has become a way to mark changes, for just about everything. But, evolution was and is, biologically speaking, a dedicated and carefully tested science, with specific language and empirical observations: natural selection, genetics, etc. Such a carefully constructed science can't simply be thrown around for anything. There has to be consensus between fields. Tested methodologies. In modern discussion, evolution has been used to note progress, development, and any change (usually positivistic).

To quote Markus himself,

In science, the term «evolution» means primarily biological evolution by (neo)darwinian natural selection. For pop-evolutionism, «evolution» has a much broader meaning, becoming identical with any presumably «progressive» and purposeful change, from the cosmic Big Bang to social macrodynamics of recent human history. «Evolution» is, as quasi-neutral synonym for «progress» or «development», all what someone interprets as «progressive» or «upward» movement. Pop-evolutionism is a remnant of 19th century's myth of progress, still well and alive in the beginning of 21th century, because the myth of „historical progress“ is a fundamental metanarrative of the industrial societies, still dominant social realities. Many contemporary thinkers, from advocates of the „universe story“ (Swimme-Berry 1992, Berry 1999) to integral theorists, subscribe to an unscientific untestable notion of „progressive evolution“ in which humans are „emerging consciousness of the unfolding cosmos“. But in science one term, like „evolution“ in darwinian biology, can't be arbitrarily transferred to other domains.[5]

He has a point, evolution can't be arbitrarily thrown around. But has it been? Integral theory is the latest, but not the first, to present and study the phenomenology of our existence. Whitehead, Teilhard, Koestler, just to name a few. This isn't meant to be "name dropping," but if you looked at the works of these writers, the ideas aren't arbitrary. They're sophisticated arguments, phenomenological, perhaps, but certainly not "pop" evolution. The "law of complexity-consciousness," for example, was Teilhard's observation. How do we interpret a universe that appears to emerge more complexity as time goes on? Is the emergence of human consciousness a mere by-product? A mistake? Does evolution have direction, far more sophisticated than the idealists of the 19th century? These are just a few of the questions explored. For anyone reading this out there, I recommend Teilhard's "The Phenomenon of Man." It makes an interesting and compelling case for a universe that is emerging in complexity. In other words, it wasn't "pop," it was a means to rigorously test and hypothesis whether or not a greater picture, or "meta-narrative" was possible. As I'll hint later, I believe that contemporary rejection of this idea in modern thought is a big mistake, likened to the analogy of not seeing the forest through the trees. That's a big claim, but I believe there is significant credibility in open-minded discussion, of a sophisticated evolution of the cosmos, and not merely biology, without becoming "pop." This leads me to the next subject, which gets into the nitty, gritty details of the evolution of societies (or as Markus writes, the lack-there-of).

Evolution, or regression?

One of the big claims that Markus has made in this article is that, far from being scientific, integral theory and to some degree, social sciences, fail to address the biological and physiological influences of civilizations. He argues that they, like the idealists of the 19th and 20th centuries, believe that somehow human beings are exempt from nature, that they have distinct properties that are transcendent and therefore beyond nature. This, he argues, is simply against all evidence. There are major biological and physiological reasons why we are what we are, and can fully explain why we are having problems in modern day civilization. Without addressing the harder sciences, such as evolution, how can integral claim to be, well, integrative? He also cites many integral theorists to simplify the "harder components," (simple and complex hunter-gatherers), replacing the terminology for "tribal, "warrior" or "mystical" consciousness. These are interesting observations, however, I would like to point out a few things.

The first is that, if Markus has read SES (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality), Wilber dedicates at least 200 pages to describing holonic theory, as well as Habermas and his view of socio-cultural evolution. If I've read Habermas and Wilber correctly, they have both articulated that such complex processes exist (particularly Habermas). Wilber may generalize a bit, but he certainly has the nuances in mind, as anyone can attest from his complex "charts."

Also, if I'm not misrepresenting Habermas, the theory of communicative rationality, which argues that humans adapt physiologically as well as conceptually, acknowledges the "hard" components of human evolution along with the conceptual ones, positing a theory that we are both biological and conceptual creatures, not disconnected or removed from nature. The idea we are separate, above or exempt from nature is not something that integral theory, or its general "paradigm" embraces. This is where I believe Markus misrepresents these thinkers significantly. In fact, writers such as Wilber, Habermas or Teilhard have always wrote that our conceptual traits are dependent upon our evolutionary, and biological ones, almost like the grounding for newly emerging properties. They aren't abstract principles, but are rooted in our physiological natures. The difference here, I think, is that integral theorists argue there is indeed a newly emerging property, with concepts as the noosphere, social-sphere, etc. They aren't, however, separated from nature, so much as they are grown out from it. This is a severe misunderstanding that I believe should be addressed by integral theorists, and hopefully reconciled with the hard sciences. Wilber may write about this too conceptually, but he does address the point.

This is probably the latest idea, from speaking to integral thinkers online: we need to embrace a more organic philosophy, one which isn't too "metaphysical," but accentuates how the universe is emergent organically: things grow out from it, and are always a part and contingent upon the lower processes, not somehow "in the clouds." This also goes into the holonic view of the universe, which I find Markus does not mention. I think, to some degree, he misrepresents the more credible and interesting components of applying evolution as a phenomenology, and extending it beyond biology. But, I'd like to talk about other points too.

Markus is an advocate of bio-social-disconinuity theory, which basically claims that our optimal evolutionary environment is a hunter-gatherer society. Many of the pathologies that exist today, do not exist then. In other words, humans are no longer in their natural habitat, and this is the cause for many of the social problems, from elitism to ecological crisis. He argues this, unlike integral theory, is based upon facts. We are biologically, evolutionary built to live in hunter-gatherer societies. So, when we started to depart from our natural environment (civilization, nation states, etc), pathologies emerged. If I am understanding him correctly, Markus is saying that the whole of civilization has been a digression from our natural state, a regression, whereby our quality of life is diminishing as time goes on.

In response, I recommend Markus read Alan Watts. There are answers to this problem, as to why our quality of life has developed more pathologies. Could it be that our departure from the hunter-gatherer niche had reasons? Evolutionary in nature? I don't think such questions are unscientific. I think he is being a bit too dismissive about theorists who tried to explain why or how we departed from our  stable "eden," in nature.

Although I would argue that the whole of civilization being a mistake, or somehow a collective error is in itself unscientific. Even Habermas has stated that we adapted, both technologically and conceptually, to new conditions (greater population, greater competition for resources, etc) via more complex social environments. Our mental abilities aren't frozen in stone. They are pliable, adaptable. While our minds are not tabula rasa, they are certainly more like a pliable clay. In short, Markus criticizes integral theory for being too conceptual in nature, while himself reacting in an overly-physiological way. Biology and evolution play critical roles, and I don't think seeing the whole of civilization being a long error to be, well, intuitive or scientific. See, though, this is the debatable ground, in which integral theory and Markus have some interesting points.

"Anthropogenic problems – the main features of all civilizations with a culmination in in the last 100 years – are the biggest problem for every progressivistic intepretation of the human history. Great megacities of industrial societies are the most unnatural environment in human history, in which basic human needs cannot be satisfied and which continually cause pathological and destructive behaviour.[9] What does „progress“ mean here except mindless and destructive consumption, including shopping-for-spirituality? It looks strangely to think that «the most primitive level of consciousness» exists in (hunter-gatherer) society where there were/are not anthropogenic problems at all and even more strange that «the highest level of consciuosness» exists in a society in which absolutly dominates the most absurd and destructive lifestyle ever and in which anthropogenic problems abound."

It seems that human beings adapted to changing environments via civilization. Why is this the case? How did it occur? These questions remain unanswered, but I believe integral theory and Markus' opinions can be satisfied, together. Seeing it this way: something happened to us, roughly 10,000 years ago, in which we could no longer remain in the hunter-gathere niche. We adapted newer, less "natural" means to survive. They came with new problems. Our conceptual ability allowed us to develop new modes of organization and new adaptations, both physical and cultural. Each adaptation still seemed inherently flawed. The pathologies and issues of civilization seem to be so abounding that hunter-gatherer societies look pristine in comparison. How then, can this be seen as progress? It might also be seen as this: we can acknowledge that human beings diverged from their natural state, in light of changes. These changes caused more adaptations to become necessary (more problems). This might be explained because of the emergence of conceptual-thinking, or, as Habermas states, the emergence of the noosphere. For the past 10,000 years, it has evolved to more complex levels (fully contingent upon physical and biological roots), attempting to grasp for equilibrium and stability. If this is the case, as Habermas suggests, then civilization can be seen as the attempt for the noosphere to find balance again in the biosphere, through new, conceptual and physical means. We want to discover a way to live in harmony with the environment again, but we can't simply return to hunter-gatherer societies (Markus has not suggested that), but we can't keep going in this direction either.


Our concepts and our technology as a part of nature

This is why I recommend Markus read Alan Watts (If he hasn't already). There are alternative ways to see ourselves as a part of nature, as our conceptual-sphere growing out of the biosphere, and as such, potentially able to find balance. The holonic-view, for instance, sees human beings as being part of a greater, diverse ecosystem, of wholes and parts, helping correct our thinking when we mistake the part for the whole. It helps keeps things in perspective, and acknowledges all of the components of the universe: physical, emotional, conceptual, etc. It's an interesting theory that helps keep human thinking in perspective. Perhaps the idea of progress is too simplistic - but evolution as an emergence of novelty, complexity, and consciousness? These are philosophical and cultural ideas that have great potential to help balance civilization and yes, perhaps help humans attain some degree of stability again with the rest of nature.

These ideas require integral theorists to also begin to address these heavily critical issues, attempting to discover more natural and organic philosophies to bridge the gap between the hard sciences and social sciences, to truly integrate. More thoughts on this later.

In short, I hope that the hard sciences and the more organic-oriented philosophies can find common agreement. Integral theorists and biologists can work together for mutual understanding and yes, progress in the struggle to enhance the quality of life for all beings on earth. We have the potential to rediscover balance with nature if we shift our perspective to realizing we are within nature, including our conceptual thinking! Integral theorists and biologists could agree with that reality. It may be possible for civilization to be a good adaptation, in that we finally learn to balance ourselves as creatures within nature, not somehow detached or apart from it. This would be a wonderful place to start working together to help the current state of the world. To end on that note, I'd like to quote Alan Watts:

"The problem is that we are now wielding the incredible surgical instrument of technology with trembling hands, and what concerned Huxley was that such power cannot be handled constructively by anxious and alienated men with a fundamentally hostile attitude to nature. Mahayana Buddhists never had our technology; but they had art, and practiced it to high perfection (in China and Japan) as a cooperation between man and nature-indeed, as nature itself. What if the same realization--that science can be the work of nature, and that the individual is one body with his environment--could become the informing spirit of Western technology?" - Alan Watts, Does it Matter?

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