Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Steven Nickeson is a former magazine based investigative journalist, author, essayist, editor and private investigator from the USA. He is currently an artist-blacksmith living now in Venezuela, and then again in British Columbia. He is the author of two blogs: Integral Liberties and Kabiri. Nickeson, when at large in the rather minuscule Integral Province, is known for being more entertained by playing with its ideas than taking any of them even half seriously. This essay is republished from "Integral Liberties" by permission. He can be contacted at [email protected].


Steven Nickeson

Everything in the Kosmos is working to burn itself out; it is The Law—from the smallest known, shortest lived particle to the largest ongoing process.

The tourist brochures that are endlessly pumped on-line from Integral Province are clear that most of the natural charm of this map-created territory is the willingness of the Provincials here to lend their spirits to the kosmic course of healing and evolution. They give the known universe an integrated voice in the repetition of Emil Coue's 19th Century mantra, “Everyday, in every way, I'm getting better and better.” They take their texts for this teaching from a literary genre that can be called The Levels of Human Development Theory: works of Gebser, Maslow and his student Graves and Graves's students Beck and Cowan, and Lawrence Kolhburg, Carol Gilligan, Jane Loevinger, Robert Kegan, Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Michael Commons, Susan Cook-Greuter and others. 

Theirs is an all inclusive look at human psychophisiological to cultural processes that, for those readers not familiar with the above congnscenti,  in its shortest, most basic form says “first you walk and then you run and then you grow always onward and upward.” The theorists generally like to think that since running (for the short form example) is based on and grows out of walking that it is therefore “higher” and maybe even better. They've taken a lot of post-modern flack for their penchant to always order the ranks by gradation and quite often with more than just a slight hint of “to know an Alpha one must be an Alpha” sensibility showing; but it's all part of the charm of this earnest little province where vanity has never been deemed a sin because: “Who knows? Maybe it has been earned, perhaps she's evolved.”

I don't have any problem with the grades and gradations and the continual academic renaming and fine-tuning of the obvious, for indeed—first you walk and then you run. To find various other ways of reaffirming that affirmation is always good academic work if you can get it. And even better yet are the corporate consultancies in which one can advise management on how to parse the workers developmentally to obtain more cheerful productivity at pre-parse salary levels.

If I have a problem with the ever developing genre of Development, I find it rooted first of all in another charming and typically Provincial level of its own; a late adolescent, post-first-samadhi, arrière-goût among the Provincials that manifests in a deadly serious regard for Levels Literature, which in turn makes the lit itself not only humorless, fusty and over-precious but partial to the point of trifling, especially as other synthesizing litterateurs in the Integral Province are attempting to bootstrap Developmental Studies and Theory past the Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny Fallacy, through higher orders of Spiritual Darwinism into a self-prophesying new Kosmic order.

It is ironic because the entire effort seems to leave out half of the final equation.

It is ironic because the entire effort seems to leave out half of the final equation and so I must wonder why as much effort hasn't been put into Degeneration Studies and Theory, Death Studies and Theory, Decomposition Studies and Theory, or Dissipation Studies and Theory because the absence of all of that seems manifestly counter-Integral. As balance I propose: Integral Dissipation Theory

The Thermodynamics Story

About 30 years ago two men boarded a plane in Washington, D. C. Each was unknown to the other at departure, but they had two things in common beside their destination: 1) Knowledge of which row of seats in that generation of 727s had the most leg room, and 2) A close acquaintance with a well respected physicist named Dr. Charles Hyder, the now late crusading environmentalist and conservationist who at that time was in the middle of a 217-day public fast in an alley off Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. He was calling for the elimination of all nuclear weapons worldwide before he broke the fast or died. The first of the two men's commonalities put them in the last row of seats on the plane's port side and the second sparked the conversation that is the basis of this essay.

Stirling Colgate

I was one of the two, a young radical investigative journalist working out of Albuquerque, NM, USA, and D.C. The other was Dr. Stirling Colgate, an internationally known nuclear physicist, astrophysicist and later one of the several co-founders of the Santa Fe Institute. It was not long into the flight before we learned that Hyder was a mutual acquaintance, and on that point Colgate began a disquisition. He told me that he and Hyder had discussed Hyder's environmental/conservational missions at great length—particularly his efforts to close down the coal burning power plants and gigantic strip mines in the Four Corners region. Colgate had given up on the man who would not be convinced that his scientifically based crusades to preserve the planet were not only bad science, but flew in the face of over-all evolutionary process and one of the few natural laws on which every scientist in the world can hang their hat: The Second Law of Thermodynamics.

I never had much interest in science—it was school work as such and I generally found it boring and void of good stories. But Colgate gave The Thermodynamics Story a compelling spin. What he laid out was essentially Erwin Schrödinger's 1944 “What is Life?” lecture series and book which coupled the Second Law with evolution by proposing that open, self-organizing, ordered systems (including living ones) created gradient equilibrium, not by falling into disorder themselves (as would be the case in a closed system like a steam engine) but by generating disorder (entropy) through feeding off the negative entropy (free energy) available in their environments. (In this study Schrödinger also proposed the existence of a living complex cell with a genetic code for replication, a proposal that inspired the research that led to the discovery of DNA.)

Based on that background, Colgate stated his argument against Hyder's position: Ever since it came into existence the Earth, everything on it, and its every process from the core to the outer edge of the atmosphere has been undergoing a catabolic dissolution in the re-cycling flow of energy from the sun's heat to the chill of deep space, a dissolution absolutely enhanced with the inception and advance of ever increasingly complex forms of life. He said that from the replication of the first living cell to the highest levels of humanity's technology and culture only one thing about evolution has remained constant: with each higher level of evolved complexity there has been a concomitant increase in the earth's overall efficiency in generating entropy.

In fact, Colgate told me, it is the only consistent and reliable evolutionary result that can be observed not only on Earth, but in the local solar system and the entire known universe. Or, in other words, everything in the Kosmos is working to burn itself out; it is The Law—from the smallest known, shortest lived particle to the largest ongoing process. (Colgate was in a position to know because his proposal to the U.S. State Department (circa 1960) to monitor the ban on nuclear tests in space through the use of gamma ray detecting spy satellites led to his pioneering research into the mechanisms of supernovas and hypernova phenomena.)

The supreme function of nature is nihilistic and all its life, is an integral part of that function.

Point: The supreme function of nature is nihilistic and all its life, all of Earth's living systems, all of our humanity, every breath we take, is an integral part of that function.

The essence of Colgate's argument to Hyder was that any well organized effort to save the planet would be accompanied by an equally efficient degradation of energy feeding the organization. Hyder's public fast proved a micro-case in point. During the 217 days, he degraded away over half of the 300 plus pounds he weighed going into the fast. Additionally he caught the attention of thousands of people around the globe (the fewest of whom were in the USA) who sent him hundreds of pounds of mail which came into existence and organization through the degradation of energy from the fuel for chain saws, bulldozers, logging trucks, pulp mills; diesel, gasoline and jet fueled transports, electrical lighting systems, printing presses, broadcast facilities, not to mention the nutritional energy spent by the manpower that went into making all those things work.

It was an equation that equals the nihilistic irony of the Universe. If one wanted to ascribe consciousness to the Kosmos one could imagine that it had structurally guided Hyder into his fast not to end nuclear proliferation (which a conscious Kosmos would resist since nuclear is its energy of choice and which Hyder's fast failed to do) but to speed the rate of its own degeneration—which it did.

I should point out that open system thermodynamics are much more complex than what I am sketching here. In any given system, such as eco-systems found and studied habitually in national parks from border to border in the USA, free energy circulates and recirculates throughout, like cash in a micro-economy, generating complexity and new organization. But nothing is free. Each time through the organizing energy generates the equalizing disorder in the system's supporting environment until that environment is dissipated into generalized weakness and eventual death.

It seems that this scenario tends to create certain levels of depression and denial throughout the citizenry. Inspired from Schrödinger's seminal lectures, far more people have taken up careers in genetics than in biochemical thermodynamics. Research funding has followed the same trend. There is only one generally available book semi-geared to the layman on the thermodynamic side of the coin: Into the Cool by Schneider and Sagan and a couple of web sites associated with a scientist named Rod Swenson. Evidently people don't like to be reminded of death and decomposition on such a macroscopic scale, so I will try not to dwell on it further, besides, the end result—total entropic stasis and the literal Death of Time—is not so much the subject of this essay as the getting there, the process.

This is a “process theory” though certainly nothing like that of Alfred North Whitehead in that he was a god-fearing fellow who took these things earnestly and seriously and I'm not and I don't. So for my requisite philosophic grounding as to process theory I'll backtrack past Whitehead to Nietzsche's revelation of the obvious that all perceptions pivot on perspective. All writers have to follow this advice if they want credibility here in the death watch for Modernity. Bonnitta Roy was careful to do so several years ago in a Process Theory article that appeared in the on-line Integral Review published by ARINA, one of the many up-the-management consulting groups that are headquartered in Integral Mall. The article put forth a process theory of integral for consideration by academia and if it had any solid human relevance beyond Integral Scholasticism, or at least a good story, it might have been worth recounting at length, but I found it had neither. However, the article does start off on more or less the right foot:

“I hope to tease you, the reader, into a pure process orientation. This requires adopting a certain attitude—allowing one's mental framework to release its grip on thinking in terms of things, and following me into a world of process or flow in a field of dynamic forces. It requires you to suspend structurally based perceptions to allow for new ways of orienting perceptions.”

What Roy failed to point out or follow up on, was since perceptions are perspective dependent, a process perception is almost impossible from the habitual perspective of a well educated, post-1945, USA point of view in as much as most of the pilgrims trekking through that category (those who would be reading articles such as hers) are not used to observing large-scale energetic and creative movements, day in, day out, or being in highly energized environments.

By these I don't mean simply frenetic places like PR firms that are now beginning to pimp presidential candidates for 2012, but the ones that really count for the benefit of entropy—like the turbine galleries deep in Grand Coulee Dam or the raving chaos of a 20–man, steel fabrication shop anywhere in the third world, or huge railroad salvage yards where cutting torches are seven-feet long, steel-scrap crushers never slow down and neither do the magnetized front-end loaders that are three stories tall and careen through the waste to the peril of everything shorter.

These aspects of existence have to a large degree been mediated for the sake of comfort out of the lives of Integral Review readers. Theirs is not a world of high voltage flow or industrial strength fire, or bedlamized heat—entropy on demand—but of static structures that aim to render low energy, mediated calm. Roy's readers had no point of reference from which to suspend habitual perceptions simply on the abstracted suggestion that it might promote understanding; so, because media brought the reader to this point, I will turn to it as a source for a few pointers toward generating those “orienting” perceptions.

A few years ago there was a TV commercial for Subaru Automobiles choreographed to the tune of the old folk-rock song “Dust in the Wind.” One sequence showed a semi-truck load of competitor cars literally decomposing and evaporating into the trailing draft; the air pressure gradient field created by the motion and heat of the carrier. That is the perceptual analogy from which, next, to settle down into a perspective from a Hubble-like telescope adrift in the Andromeda Galaxy. The mechanism is zeroed in on the Milky Way. Got it?

Cue the time-lapse photography and there go Mercury, Venus, Earth, the rest of  Sol's little system, and then Sol, and then the galactic mass itself dissolving into the mega-gradients of temperature, gravity, velocity and who knows what other forces. And there are no celestial Subaru plants out there minting new big-bang alternatives, just smaller and smaller models as the free entropy cycles through in ever weaker waves. Things will never be the same…again.

An optional media perspective is from the audience point of view on a sci-fi cliche confection wherein the curse of immortality is lifted from the support cast starlet who transmutes (transcends?) through the miracle of energy hungry Special FX from maid to middle age to crone to corpse to skeleton to calcium lace to dust to dust in the gradient draft. And like the well-deserved release of that world-weary, fictional soul we, everything within us, everything around us is on the move, flowing outward, changing, disappearing.

Everything is in the flux, even the illusion of structure. Everything is caught within a gradient, all the mythical turtles that go down, go up or go across flow in the currents. All the holons that the Holonic Nothing Butters say the Kosmos is nothing but are to open system gradients what Fun with Dick and Jane (anonymous) is to Thomas Wolf's Of Time and the River; an analogy chosen not only for its disparate levels of complexity, but the words in the title.

Time, from the perspectives where the sense of process rules, is the flowing mirage created by joining the perception of movement to a supporting, secondary, open system process called memory. If one can imagine doing away with memory but keeping consciousness then coherence is totally lost, but then expand the span of memory from there at 0.0 to 0.5 seconds and coherence can be regained. (This is a meditation. Try it. It's a kick) The sense of a moment is total and the perception of process is phenomenally acute.

All is born, becomes integral to the perspective, the perception, the perceiver, and then passes into oblivion in 0.5 seconds. It is the integral moment: it is the omni-dimensional and all but dimensionless point where fuel integrates into fire, all the currently available and integrated potential degrades to waste, the universal razor thin rubber hits the universal, razor thin road, and the perceiver is riding on and integral to the absolute front edge of their life. Nothing else is playing.

Who can ask anything greater of integral?

Who can ask anything greater of integral? All other models soon have to start incorporating into their concepts of The Whole de-engergized, dissipated and disintegrated scraps, dregs and feces; litter, weight and inertia from a time that is no longer viable. Such a model might be entertaining to the mind but it isn't actual or evolutionarily effective. It is a model built of dead ashes from a cold fire. It is only media, maybe even “Integral” media that can be trade marked and sold by the byte-size to expand the entropic moment into a marketable illusion of control.

Living at large in the entropic moment is not for those who need much control over, or security from, the occasionally furious wash of ravaging integration around them. But if the perceiver knows that inner security and control are the only kind there are, who knows that the concepts of external coherence and structural integration are probably best seen as projections from within, then such a moment is the perspective of choice; one is reconciled to the ride, comfortable in the heat, set for any event, and could give a rat's ass if anything different is taught in the schools or pitched on the net.

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