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Jan KrikkeJan Krikke is a former Japan correspondent for various media and former managing editor of Asia 2000 in Hong Kong. He pioneered the study of axonometry, the Chinese equivalent of European linear perspective overlooked by Jean Gebser. He is the author of several books, including Leibniz, Einstein, and China, and the editor of The Spiritual Imperative, a macrohistory based on the Indian Varna system by feminist futurist Larry Taub.

Reposted from Asia Times, May 11, 2024, with permission of the author

A Daoist Critique of Ken Wilber's Cosmology

Revisiting spirit and matter

Jan Krikke

How did the Chinese approach the issue of spirit and matter?

The issue of spirit and matter has occupied thinkers throughout the ages. In Europe, it runs from Plato and Aristotle to early Christian Dualism to Descartes and Newtonian physics. After Galileo, matter became the concern of science, spirit was the domain of the church.

Ken Wilber's theory of evolution as spirit/eros, part of his influential Integral Theory, tries to reconnect spirit and matter. Wilber critiques the dualistic separation that has often characterized Western thought, particularly the split between the spiritual and the material.

Wilber acknowledges the importance of Platonic ideals in recognizing a higher, transcendent reality. However, he argues for an integrated view where the material and spiritual realms are not seen as separate but as interconnected aspects of a unified whole.

Holons as conceptual building blocks of nature

In Wilber's cosmology, the unified whole consists of holons, the "building blocks" of the integrated world. All holons are both wholes and parts of larger wholes. They encompass both spiritual and material dimensions. Holons are meant to explain the interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena.

Wilber uses the term Eros to refer to the "drive" or "creative force" that propels evolution towards greater complexity, higher consciousness, and more unity. He sees it as an intrinsic impulse towards self-organization, integration, and transcendence.

Wilber extends the idea of evolution beyond the biological, Darwinian realm. In his cosmology, the entire cosmos is evolving, together with consciousness, culture, and the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions of existence.

With the latter, the claim that the cosmos is evolving, Wilber invited criticism, most notably from Frank Visser, the publisher of this site. Visser believes that Wilber's model imposes a metaphysical structure on the natural world that is not substantiated by scientific evidence.


How did the Chinese approach the issue of spirit and matter? The Chinese worldview is based on the notion of Dao, the mysterious source of Creation that gave birth to the two complementary forces of yin and yang. This led the Chinese to another approach to tackle the issue of spirit and matter.

The notion of Dao has roots in animism. Nature is seen as an undifferentiated whole in which all things and phenomena are connected and permeated by spirits. Dao retained the idea that everything is interrelated, but it identified the underlying yin-yang mechanism of nature. Dao can be seen as a sophisticated form of animism.

The yin-yang system is at the heart of the Chinese view of Creation. The sages: "When the yin and the yang, initially united, separated forever, the mountains poured forth water." Water (yin) pouring from mountains (yang), the central theme of Chinese classic artists, represented Dao in operation.

The Chinese reasoned that if nature is based on the interaction of mutually dependent opposites, they would do well to identify and reconcile these opposites so as to "insert" themselves into the binary universe with the minimum amount of friction loss. Dao resolved the duality of spirit and matter. While spirit is yang and matter is yin, they both partake in the Dao.

Water pouring from mountain, the reverberation of Creation

In the 11th century, Confucian scholar Zhou Dun-yi integrated the yin-yang system with the theory of the Five Elements. Zhou created the Tai-ji Tu, or "Diagram of the Supreme Pole." The Tai-ji sums up Chinese cosmology. The diagram does not explain the various mechanical, organic, and electromagnetic phenomena in nature, but it conceptually accommodates them all.

Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, the Neo-Confucian cosmology

Time and space

Wilber's cosmology would not have resonated with the Chinese sages. Wilber argues that evolution is not just a biological process but also a spiritual one. Moreover, he extends evolution to cover the entire cosmos. Humans evolve but so does the cosmos.

The Chinese sage would have raised two objections to Wilber's cosmology. For one, Wilber's holons imply boundaries. An atom is part of a larger holon, a molecule; a molecule is part of a larger holon, a cell; our planet is part of a larger holon, the universe.

The holon is a useful mental construct. Looking at systems as holons can lead to a holistic perspective, recognizing that every entity is both a part and a whole. This helps in understanding the interconnectedness of systems.

On the other hand, holons have conceptual boundaries. We go from atoms to ever-larger holons, from the microcosmos to the macrocosmos. But seeing the universe as a holon with real or imaginary boundaries obscures or blocks the view of infinity, which is a key part of experiencing ultimate reality.

The Chinese sages would also have objected to the idea that the cosmos is evolving. Biological life on Earth evolves, but the cosmos "merely" transforms.

When our solar system dies, another one will take its place. Like our sun, a new sun will be composed of hydrogen and helium along with trace amounts of other elements. The elements don't evolve. Moreover, to assume that the cosmos evolves is to assume the cosmos had a beginning. Humans have evolved, but the universe is both infinite and timeless.

The notion of Dao accommodates the idea that "our" Big Bang was one in an endless cycle of Big Bangs. The same is true for Indian cosmology. The life of Brahman is measured in epochs lasting billions of years, eons of time comparable to the lifespan of the solar system.

Dao as metaphor

Wilber's Integral Theory inspired many people to explore new perspectives, but his cosmology is a step back. It has theological quality. We have to take his claim that spirit/eros is the "creative force" behind the universe at face value.

By contrast, the notion of Dao, while not scientific, is rooted in nature. Its manifestation can be observed and experienced. The Chinese have a special word for the tension that exists between the yin and yang -- qi. The word is commonly translated as cosmic breath or vital force. China scholar Joseph Needham borrowed a concept from quantum physics and translated qi as "matter-energy."

The notion of qi may have emerged after the discovery of magnetism some 3000 years ago. It would lead the Chinese to invent the magnetic compass, the first instrument with a dial and moving pointer. When we rotate a compass, the magnetic needle will briefly oscillate and then align itself with the north-south (yin-yang) axis of the earth's magnetic field. The needle settles at the point where the qi between yin and yang is most acute.

Qi is at work wherever there are opposites, be it in magnetism, the sexual tension between male and female, or the tension we feel at a hotly contest sporting match. In the words of the sages: "Qi resides in tension." It is personified by the most famous of Chinese symbols, the Dragon.

Chinese and Japanese robots integrated into spiritual-religious practices

How does the ancient Chinese approach to reconciling spirit and matter play out in the contemporary world? Daoist temples in Hong Kong use humanoid robots to provide interpretation services of Kau Chim (Divination). Temples in China and Japan have introduced robotic monks for religious services, without raising many eyebrows. Robots may be mere machines, they still partake in the Dao.

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