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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Since 1990 Gary Stogsdill has been a faculty member at Prescott College where he currently teaches courses in humanistic mathematics, science appreciation, and wisdom studies. He has a blog called "Pursuing Wisdom Now", which features articles on contemporary spirituality.
Science and Spirituality as Soulmates
How Ken Wilber's Eros Can Be Legitimate
Wilber's thoughts consistently violate the boundaries of spiritual inquiry versus scientific inquiry.
Such a warm and fuzzy word, soulmate. Common spiritual lore suggests that a soulmate is someone who will complete and make us whole. In real life, however, I suspect that whoever we think of as a soulmate is more often the person who ends up shattering our illusions about anyone else ever being able to make us whole. But for this essay I do intend to suggest that science and spirituality complete one another and bring a measure of wholeness to the uncommon person who is able to value both as complementary ways of knowing and being.
What I mean by science is the systematic exploration of physical reality through a process of inquiry known as the scientific method, which usually consists of the following steps:
That final step of the scientific method is essential because science is a collective enterprise that rises above individual wish, conception, or perception in order to further our empirical understanding of reality. Science is primarily objective and operates on the level of collective consensus.
What I mean by spirituality is how we explore deeper meaning, purpose, and values in life in order to 1) nourish our own need for these, 2) live in right interaction with others, and 3) enter into relationship with a greater whole. If there were such a thing as the spiritual method, it would look very similar to the scientific method:
Notice that the only step missing is to communicate all of this with others for peer review and verification. Certainly that step may be present to some extent, but it doesn't have to be present at all. Spirituality is primarily subjective and doesn't need to depend on a collective consensus, as does science.
Even though their methodologies may be similar, science and spirituality explore separate domains of reality, one physical and the other metaphysical and ethical. They also rely on different approaches to this exploration; one is objective and the other subjective. Of course, a bit of subjectivity creeps into science, and a smattering of objectivity graces spirituality, but they each rule their separate kingdoms. Science reigns supreme over objective physical matters, while spirituality exercises authority over subjective metaphysical and ethical matters. They become soulmates when they each respect the territory of the other, allowing us to embrace both as complementary ways of knowing and being.
However, because science and spirituality both explore our known reality, many of us feel the need to place them in adversarial opposition and to choose sides, as we are good at doing with elections and sporting events. If our team is science, we cheer when Richard Dawkins thinks he has defeated spirituality by calling it delusional. If our team is spirituality, we feel sweet revenge when Ken Wilber's integral theory transcends and includes science as merely a lower level of understanding on our overall journey to spiritual enlightenment.
Yet the conflict between science and spirituality only occurs when we are unaware that they rightfully explore separate domains of reality using different approaches to knowing and being, or when we are unaware that they are both necessary for a full human life. As the eminent evolutionary biologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould said, this is “a debate that exists only in people's minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different, and equally vital, subjects” (Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, 1999, p. 3).
Gould's good sense does not extend to very many well-known flagbearers of either spirituality or science. Thus we have the famous spiritual philosopher Deepak Chopra and the influential scientist Leonard Mlodinow slugging it out in their book War of the Wordviews: Science vs. Spirituality (2011). Of the two combatants, Mlodinow definitely comes across as more nuanced and accepting of his opponent's domain, while Chopra seems intent on conquering science. Here's Mlodinow sounding rational and inviting: “A scientific and a spiritual life can exist side by side” (p. 236). Here's Chopra taking no prisoners: “Hidebound science is ready to topple, making way for a new paradigm where consciousness takes center stage” (p. 300).
I want to explore this entertaining book further because both Chopra and Mlodinow illustrate how proponents of spirituality and science can stray into unlawful territory in their claims. In his opening salvo, Chopra makes my point above about the steps of spiritual inquiry being similar to the scientific method, but he goes a great deal further by including the final step of the scientific method, peer review and verification: “Spirituality has been around for many thousands of years, and its researchers were brilliant—the very Einsteins of consciousness. Anyone can reproduce and verify their results, as with the principles of science” (p. 8)). I've written several essays for Integral World arguing not only that we may each get very different results from even decades of serious meditation practice, but also that nothing resembling consensus can be found among descriptions of enlightenment from those who supposedly have it. By portraying spirituality, and specifically meditation, as a science, Chopra misrepresents what science is (an objective exploration of physical reality) and also misrepresents what spirituality and meditation are (subjective explorations of nonphysical reality).
Chopra goes on to declare with characteristic certainty that “spirituality will win the struggle for the future by restoring consciousness to evolution” (p. 56). He later adds that “spirituality can be seen as a higher form of evolution” (p. 154) and that “spirituality restores purpose and direction to their rightful places at the heart of evolution” (p. 159). The word evolution can have different meanings, but the way Chopra uses it here refers to the scientific theory originated by Darwin and added to by generations of scientists. The theory of evolution has been confirmed and refined for more than 150 years by anyone willing to test it through the scientific method. This theory says nothing about consciousness, meaning, or purpose for good reason. First, consciousness is not part of the theory, and second, science cannot answer metaphysical questions about meaning and purpose. In other words, Chopra is criticizing science for staying in its appropriate domain of objective physical reality, while he wants to trample all over the territory of science with his spiritual philosophy.
Mlodinow's response to Chopra's incursion is to remind us that “a quick way to turn science into science fiction is to play with the meaning of its terms” (p. 57), by which he means that Chopra's philosophizing about spiritual evolution is not remotely the same as science's theory of evolution. However, Mlodinow is also guilty of straying into forbidden territory, as when he asserts that the laws of the universe are “purposeless” (p. 60). Deeper purpose is the purview of spirituality, not of science, so of course Mlodinow, a scientist, doesn't find purpose in the universe. He's looking through the wrong lens to be able to see purpose.
Scientists in general are prone to unlawful preemptive strikes against spirituality, especially when they claim that the universe could have come from nothing and that life could have created itself. Here's Mlodinow: “It is possible for genetic molecules similar to DNA to form spontaneously,” which could then curl up and become surrounded by a spontaneous formation of a membrane made of fatty acids (p. 88). After this sleight of hand, he then declares: “What is clear is that the laws of nature are sufficient to enable us to show how life arose” (p. 108). No, there's nothing clear at all about how two very complex molecules could decide to form spontaneously, then one of them chooses to curl up while the other agrees to surround it… and then they saunter forth on the adventure of life. Of course, I'm using poetic license to make my point about a process that science would attribute to randomness. However, I find this to be a compelling example of where scientific randomness just doesn't explain things as convincingly as spiritual inquiry might.
And this bring us to integral theorist Ken Wilber who positions a spiritual force called Eros at the center of evolution. Prominent Integral World authors Frank Visser and David Lane have long critiqued Ken Wilber's thoughts on evolution, and for good reason: Wilber's thoughts consistently violate the boundaries of spiritual inquiry versus scientific inquiry. As I was finishing this essay, Visser and Lane jointly presented On Beating a Dead Horse: The Scientific Challenge to Ken Wilber and Why it Matters. Opening their essay is a Wilber quote that nicely illustrates his unlawful claims: “The strict theory of natural selection suffers from not acknowledging the role played by Spirit in evolution” (Eye to Eye, 1983, p. 205).
Well, “the strict theory of natural selection,” or evolution, is a theory of scientific inquiry and therefore does not and cannot say anything about Spirit. Scientists are behaving themselves appropriately by not adding Spirit to their theories. Wilber could just as well have said, “Science suffers from not combining spirituality with its scientific method.” This shows either a lack of awareness from Wilber of the separate domains of science and spirituality, or the arrogance to think that he has superior knowledge that allows him to pass judgment on lower pursuits like science.
I don't mean to be harsh toward the exceptional body of work from Wilber. He is, in my view, one of the most compelling spiritual philosophers of recent times. My critique of Wilber here is that he, like Chopra and many other torchbearers of spirituality, violates the boundaries of what spiritual inquiry can legitimately claim. If Wilber would present his ideas about Eros with the humility of a spiritual philosopher who is not attacking science's theory of evolution but rather adding spiritual insight to supplement this theory for our metaphysical understanding, then Wilber's Eros becomes legitimate and offers fertile ground for further exploration of ultimate questions through the spiritual method.
This, I believe, is the needed role of spiritual inquiry in complementing scientific inquiry: to add metaphysical considerations of meaning and purpose, as well as ethical values, to the valid knowledge that science can tell us about reality, while being clear that we are operating from subjective spiritual inquiry and not monkeying with established science. When spiritual philosophers do this, and when scientists stay in their appropriate domain of peaceful but separate coexistence with spirituality, then science and spirituality can become soulmates and those of us who value both can grow in the fullness of human life.