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".
David Long is an Integral Philosopher, Film Maker, Author, Life Coach, Artist, Musician, Producer, Emcee, rEvolutionary, and a Vegan. He makes videos teaching Integral Theory and is a critical member of the integral community. See his website: www.iam-davidlong.com. He also has a YouTube channel "I AM - David Long" with many video interviews.
An Interview with Frank Visser
on Ken Wilber, Integral Theory and Science
by David Long
The greatest insult one can receive in Integral circles is to be called Green (sensitive, pluralistic, anti-hierarchy, tolerant even for intolerance, etc.). But one can sink even lower. Move over Green. One can even be called Orange (rational, scientific, reductionistic, individualistic). Integral World has often been framed as merely Orangeand consequently of limited value. Read and watch below for a fresh look at this very easy dismissal.
“Without much further ado I will bring you Frank Visser... Frank says he got into these ideas in 1982. I was born in 1982... so big respect to Frank!”
David Long posed the following questions to me before this video-interview was produced. The answers were pre-recorded:
What is your experience of the Integral Movement? (3:50)
What would you like the Integral Movement to be or do in the world? (9:00)
What would you say to people who call you "orange" (12:30)
What is your idea of spirituality like? (16:30)
What are the main areas of criticism on the Integral World webpage? (27:50)
What do you say to people who say Integral World is not the home of good criticism? (30:30)
Can you make a brief list of where Wilber gets science wrong? (32:30)
Why does it matter to you, why does it concern you? (35:00)
How do we move Integral forward, what do you see as the future of Integral? (36:40)
What is your experience of the Integral Movement?
But the work I do seems, to me at least, very necessary, because otherwise you grow into an ideology.
I have been involved with Wilber [studying his books] since 1982. I contacted Wilber in 1995, I met him in 1997 twice, and after 2000, when you got the Integral Institute, it somehow turned into a different direction than I was planning. It turned into a movement. It attracted younger people. And I see it now as a community that is celebrating a certain body of ideas, but not in a very critical way. And that is strange because the claims and statements made by Wilber are meant to be valid in a scientific way. So it is quite obvious that you need to apply rationality to it in every kind of way. So in my website Integral World I try to embody that and for 20 years now I post critical reviews of Wilber's work on this website. And until this very day it has attracted quite some visitors and, hopefully, it is appreciated. But the Wilber movement by itself has taken another route. And that's fine, because you can apply these ideas in many different ways. But the work I do seems, to me at least, very necessary, because otherwise you grow into an ideology: a body of knowledge that is never questioned, never assessed and evaluated. And has no open exchange about the validity of these ideas it is doomed to become an ideology.
What would you like the Integral Movement to be or do in the world?
I don't have much big ideas about how Integral should become "mainstream", as it is said many times and hoped for by Wilber. But I think the body of ideas is interesting enough to analyze and evaluate. For, well, four decades of energy Wilber has put into it, and it has so many different sidelines and domains he touches, from science to spirituality, so there is more than enough to investigate for a whole lifetime. I have selected a couple of areas myself, especially the science areas, like biology, and recently also physics, especially thermodynamics, to see if Wilber's ideas have any kind of validity. Unfortunately, it turns out, they have not. So I hope that, speaking for these areas only, that Integral will touch bases with science, or be at risk of drifting off like some kind of New Age worldview movement that makes a lot of people happy but should not have any claims to factual validity.
What would you say to people who call you "orange"
In the jargon of Spiral Dynamics and Integral Theory "orange" means "rational"incidentally I would call that "Yellow", but that's for later [see table below]. The question is very telling, for rationality is not something you can afford to miss in a movement and a body of knowledge like this. For as I said before, you will run the risk of becoming an ideology, an unquestioned and unreflective worldview, if you don't allow for enough rationality. So the culture around Wilber and Integral is, in some way, intellectual, but it is an intellect that defends or promotes or celebrates these ideas, and not a more sober and skeptical attitude that says with every claim and statement made by Wilber: "Hey, is that really true? What do the experts say in a certain field? Can he get away with anything he says and writes, and is that enough authority to believe these ideas?" I don't think so. So, again, that's especially what a rational person would say, and demand, actually.
What is your idea of spirituality like?
As if there is some kind of opposition between rationality and spirituality? That's a large field, of course, Spirituality was very important for me when I was in my twenties, I went to India, I studied the psychology of religion, and I encountered Wilber. That was all part of the project I was in to understand the mystical dimension. But over the years it has kind of evaporated for me, the whole field. I don't think the world needs any more people who have experienced higher states [of consciousness], or about stages or states-stages, or what have you. I think the world needs rational and humanistic values and common sense, and that would be a great accomplishment when that goals was reached. And Wilber would say exactly the same, because he wrote that in Up from Eden in 1981. But the attention has gone too much towards the mystical and the exceptional. And this trend has really caused a kind of hubris in many integralists who feel they are really taking "the next step" or the next leap or stage of development. And I think that's a very unhealthy situationto say the least.
What are the main areas of criticism on the Integral World webpage?
When the website started around the year 2000 we had, of course, nine-eleven, and that really cried out for an integral analysis. Don Beck and Ray Harris offererd views on what really happened in the world, where cultures and values clash and the world was on fire. Over the years the attention went to quadrants and holons, to see if these concepts were internally consistent. Like conceptual reflections about this part of Integral Theory. And over the years we had many offshoots like, Mark Edwards was taking a left turn, Andy Smith was taking a right turn. One increased the number of holons, and the other wanted to simplify the model. That was a very fruitful time, unfortunately completely ignored by Wilber and his closer students. As if it was not really relevant to reflect on core concepts of Integral Theory. Then we got the issue of gurus, and especially Andrew Cohen, and his quite objectionable behavior towards his students. That was critically covered by David Lane and others, until a couple of years later Cohen was told to leave by his closest students, because of his misbehavior. So that was a really critical and useful public function of Integral World. Closely following a person like Cohen who was endorsed by Wilber as a "Rude Boy", implicitly with the blessing of Integral to do whatever he liked. And that is another area of critical inquiry I really value.
Then my own writing started around the topic of evolution. And that is a very large domain of course, but it is very central to Integral Theory, because Wilber even started to use the label "evolutionary" for his every activity. Where first he used "integral" as a label and a brand it was now "evolutionary". Compare that to that fact that he has actually zero understanding of the basics of evolutionary theory. The very few things he has written about it are worse than the average creationist would even dare to write. So that was a really horrible situation, intellectually speaking. So that is a whole field of research that opened up for me. And more recently I tried to do the same thing with physics. Because Wilber believes in his beloved "Eros in the Kosmos", and that means a "force" behind the whole trend of complexity and consciousness. From my side I see that as begging the question big time because, that way, you never have to explain how things have emerged. You just say there is a force behind it that does it. In science, that's a no-brainer. And even in complexity science nobody would say that. It doesn't have any validity. In fact, there are many interesting ways to explain complexity, from the very small to the very large, and in no way do we need to resort to easy, so-called explanations, like "there is a Spirit behind it". That is the end of science and the end of rationality.
What do you say to people who say Integral World is not the home of good criticism?
I think that's a very easy dismissal itself. If this forum has been alive for twenty years, and has been for a long time the only online forum to seriously discuss these ideas, what you can expect is a great variety of quality of submissions to that forum, but for sure there have been some valid ideas that have been expressed. Even a whole book [Bald Ambition], by Jeff Meyerhoff, has been published on that website and I hope my contributions also count as valid criticism, so I really don't know what to say about these kinds of responses. Because you can use that argument until the cows come home, and you are really neck-deep into your ideology, but you really need to engage your criticism to avoid that danger.
Can you make a brief list of where Wilber gets science wrong?
So for me this whole approach that Wilber has taken is very unfruitful and shows he is a kind of spiritual ideologist.
Yes, basically the areas of biology and physics are relevant here. In biology, Wilber is just a crypto-creatonist, who hasn't even done his homework. He tries to score his points as a politician, with sound bites and slogans and ridicule. I don't think he even has an interest in that field. He doesn't care about how birds fly or how the human eye has evolved or how species separate. For him the only point that counts is that there is a Spirit behind everything and that that Spirit can be contacted and that would be the basis of a modern-day spirituality. For me, that's just a non-relevant approach to the question: "Where does complexity come from?" And there are so many interesting answers out there (not final answers but interesting and substantial answers), that don't beg the question. So for me this whole approach that Wilber has taken is very unfruitful and shows he is a kind of spiritual ideologist, who just wants to promote his idea that there is an "Eros in the Kosmos".
The same goes for his dismissal of the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in the cosmos things even out, all kinds of gradients flatten out in the end. Wilber says in A Theory of Everything: "Hey but simple observation tells us that things go from simple to complex", so that Second Law is a "ridiculous" idea (as he would call it later), because things go the opposite way. But if you really study that field you see that both could be true. There is a paradox that even in a universe that burns itself up (stars burn until they have used up all their Hydrogen) under certain conditions complexity can arise. And it is especially this paradox that is interesting. Wilber wants nothing about this, he just dismisses the Second Law and says there is a trend towards complexity and that there is even a Spirit behind it. Here, again, he is completely out of touch with science. And that's really embarrassing for someone who has a beta education and who should know better than that. But these fields are very big and I am not claiming to have a very expert knowledge of it, but even as an amateur I can find so many holes in his writings that it is embarrassing.
Why does it matter to you, why does it concern you?
I don't know, I have a deep connection with Wilber and his project. I have followed it since 1982, for three and a half decades, and in the beginning, for two decades, I was really a "Wilberian", if ever there was one, until I started investigating the fields he touches, especially the scientific ones, and I got second thoughts and doubts about the validity of his claims. But the fact that he can write beautifully and persuasively is, of course, the reason I believed it for so long. Now that I am "older and wiser" I investigate these things for myself and I find many things that are questionable in what he writes.
How do we move Integral forward, what do you see as the future of Integral?
I think the Integral Movement will run its course. It will grow perhaps in volume. It will have its festivals and conferencesboth in the US and in Europe, in Hungarybut then it will, I think, just die out, because, Wilber, of course, is not the youngest anymore [he recently turned 70] and the healthiest, and when he passes away there are not enough people with the intellectual capacity to carry this forwards. You could compare it with psychoanalysis. We had Freud, who tried to own every idea and expression in that field in a very authoritarian way, and Wilber is probably comparable to that, and we don't have a Jung or an Adler in that field at the moment to even try to even start a different school and bring this further, so I am not too optimistic, but that doesn't matter. For the moment we have enough to investigate and to analyze.