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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Books: Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY, 2003), and The Corona Conspiracy: Combatting Disinformation about the Coronavirus (Kindle, 2020).
‘Eros in the Kosmos’
Mechanism, Metaphor or Something Else?
When it comes to evolutionary phenomena, what field of science other than evolutionary theory could be more relevant to consult first?
I don't tell you anything new when I say that I have questioned Ken Wilber's views on biological evolution. Over the years, in many essays on Integral World I have looked at this issue from many different angles. In a nutshell, Wilber proposes an "Eros in the Kosmos", a quasi-natural force towards higher complexity, consciousness and compassion, which alone is able to explain these phenomena. Science, Wilber claims on many occasions, is incapable of doing just that, at least not fully. He has gone even so far as calling the common idea that the universe has a irreversible and widespread tendency to run down into a state of cold disorder—which is codified in the Second Law of Thermodynamics—a "ridiculous" idea. On the contrary, he claims, "simple observation" tells us that a rise towards complexity and higher order is ubiquitous in nature. And the new sciences of chaos theory and complexity, he claims, begin to explain that by their emphasis on the phenomena of self-organization. There is, he states, a cosmic "drive towards self-organization".
To give some example out of many possible others, here's one from a footnote(!) in Integral Spirituality (2006), where he points to the shortcomings of neo-Darwinism and the consequent, if partial, correctness of Intelligent Design:
That drive—Eros by any other name—seems a perfectly realistic conclusion, given the facts of evolution as we understand them. Let's just say there is plenty of room for a Kosmos of Eros.
In some of his online video-presentations, Wilber has often gone further along these speculations than he could do in his more academic offline writings. In a video called "How to Manifest a Universe" (2012) he states that though the idea of evolution is rarely in doubt these days, the actual mechanism behind it is still a mystery.
The existence of evolution is doubted by few modern thinkers. What is not as obvious, or agreed upon, is the actual mechanism by which this rather miraculous evolution occurs. Fewer and fewer researchers believe that the standard neo-Darwinian explanation of chance mutations and natural selection are enough to provide a believable account. There is just too much novelty, creativity, and non-random elements in evolution, to pass it all off as chance.
He point's to Whitehead's notion of "creative advance into novelty" as a possible explanation. "Some sort of fundamental creativity is built into the very fabric of the cosmos itself."
On another occasion, he stated in an online video called "Taking Evolution into Account" (2014):
This seems to be the general overall thrust of evolution—and one of the things that is certain about it, is that it won't give up. It simply is there, with an extraordinary power, in the entire cosmos.
This all goes to show that Wilber is not just waxing poetic in these statements. He means real business. "Something other than chance is pushing the universe", he eloquently claimed in his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995):
[S]omething other than chance is pushing the universe. For traditional scientists, chance was their god. Chance would explain it all. Chance—plus unending time—would produce the universe. But they don't have unending time, and so their god fails them miserably. That god is dead. Chance is not what explains the universe; in fact, chance is what that universe is laboring mightily to overcome. Chance is exactly what the self-transcending drive of the Kosmos overcomes.
And with this notion of a self-transcending drive in the cosmos, he clarifies in 2006, when pressed for details by various critics, evolution is no longer a mystery, and even a process that can be understood in a naturalistic way. When you prefer a spiritual outlook on life, there are various options, he explains:
You either postulate a supernatural source of which there are two types. One is a Platonic given and one is basically theological—a God or intelligent design—or you postulate Spirit as immanent—of course it's transcendent but also immanent—and it shows up as a self-organizing, self-transcending drive within evolution itself. And then evolution is Spirit's own unfolding. Not an super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain.
Of course, seeing Spirit in its immanent aspect as the driving force behind evolution—as Wilber likes to say: "evolution is Spirit-in-action"—doesn't make it any less spiritual. Terms like "intra-natural" or "immanently natural" can't hide the fact that this drive towards complexity is a thoroughly metaphysical notion. This half-heartedly "naturalizing" of his spiritual outlook on evolution will not convince any scientist, who is looking for truly naturalistic explanations.[7a].
Some integralists speculate even further. They suggest that this cosmic drive towards complexity can be seen as a kind of "fifth force", above and beyond the four well-known forces of physics, as spiritual teacher and close collaborator of Wilber, Marc Gafni suggested, in Appendix 1 of his book Your Unique Self (2012):
Leading-edge scientific thinkers are now searching to identify the animating quality of the evolutionary impulse. Some thinkers describe the complex self-organizing system of the Universe as the great web of life. The leading edge of systems theory, and chaos or complexity theory, deal specifically with the mysterious workings of this force, which is sometimes called the fifth force of the Universe. The fifth force is the energy of attraction (which I would call Eros) that brings things together, called the “fifth” to distinguish it from the four physical forces that govern reality. The first four forces are generally thought to be nuclear, gravitational, magnetic, the strong, and the weak.
And in a recent (2016) article for The Huffington Post Gafni claims support from "the cosmologists" at the famous Santa Fe Institute for this speculative idea:
An exterior physical manifestation of this largest context of One Self has been called the Zero point field in physics. Another exterior expression of the dynamic nature of the One Self is what the cosmologists at the Santa Fe Institute referred to as the fifth force of the universe. But seen from the interior this fifth force and zero point quantum field are the urgency of Eros, and the field of outrageous love.
So we have here a body of statements (and not a well organized argument) from integral luminaries that suggest the world as a whole (in cosmos, nature and culture) is driven by a mighty force called Eros, which explains—and only can explain—the phenomena of complexity and consciousness we see all around us, and which might even claim to have quasi-scientific status, on equal footing as the four fundamental forces of nature. This view has gone largely unchallenged in integral circles.
OBJECTIONS AND REFUTATIONS
When one apple in a basket is rotten, the proper approach is not to point to other apples, but to take out the rotten one.
In my essays on Integral World I have critiqued these notions as unscientific and largely unhelpful. My essays have met with various forms of criticism, both on Integral World and on Facebook. I would like to respond to these objections in the remaining paragraphs of this essay. It is remarkable that no-one in the integral community has felt the urge to either defend Wilber against my criticism, or use this opportunity to flesh out Wilber's position in more detail.
Some have claimed that I have read too much "spooky stuff" into Wilber's notion of an "Eros in the Kosmos". For sure, he is not proposing a scientific hypothesis, to be validated or rejected by the community of evolutionary scientists? At most he has given a spiritual metaphor which points out the wonderful complexity of the cosmos we find ourselves in. And for sure, Ken Wilber is not a creationist? Or is he?
Defending his approach to evolution in the face of criticism (while at the same time rejecting this criticism as valid), Wilber has clarified his use of metaphor on his blog:
[T]he complex forms of evolution that we see—such as the immune system—are not the products of mere chance mutation and natural selection. Rather, there is a force of self-organization built into the universe, and this force (or Eros by any name) is responsible for at least part of the emergence of complex forms that we see in evolution…
I am not alone is seeing that chance and natural selection by themselves are not enough to account for the emergence that we see in evolution. Stuart Kaufman and many others have criticized mere change [chance?] and natural selection as not adequate to account for this emergence (he sees the necessity of adding self-organization)…
And that is what I metaphorically mean when I use the example of a wing (or elsewhere, the example of an eyeball) to indicate the remarkableness of increasing emergence. But I don't mean that as a specific model or actual example of how biological emergence works!…
This is exactly the point Prigogine was making with dissipative structures, and exactly the point I am making when referring to wings or eyes: they are metaphors and examples for this extraordinary capacity of creative emergence that is intrinsic to the universe (exactly as Whitehead explained it).
This rather slippery move leaves us wondering that, if "Eros in the Kosmos" is perhaps only an inspiring metaphor to impress us with the wonderful complexities of nature, what about "a force of self-organization built into the universe"? Is that poetry or theory or what? Is there a specific mechanism, "responsible for at least part of the emergence of complex forms that we see in evolution", or is there not? This is definitely an empirical proposition. Here we have clearly left the field of metaphor and poetry, and entered the world of real forces and mechanisms (even if they remain, in Wilber's treatment, fully unspecified—more about that crucial point later).
Incidentally, using metaphors does not at all contradict the scientific validity of an idea. Science is full of metaphors, and rightly so: "natural selection", for one, is a metaphor, so is the "selfish gene". But science doesn't end with these metaphors, it uses them to further specify the many mechanisms involved in nature's processes. Richard Dawkins deals in his Unweaving the Rainbow (1999) with the use and mis-use of metaphors in science, especially when it comes to the field of evolution in general. Sometimes it helps our understanding, sometimes it hinders it. Bad poetry, as Dawkins calls it, doesn't clarify anything, it provides an illusion of understanding. Herbert Spencer was one of the first to apply the notion of evolution to more fields then biology only, he applied it also to culture and the cosmos as a whole. Is it valid to call these processes "evolutionary"? Does that help in our understanding of these extra-biological phenomena. (To give a more relevant example, what are we to make of the "evolutionary spirituality" promoted in integral circles. How would that possibly work?).
In this eminently readable book, Dawkins discusses basic evolutionary questions, commenting on Stephen Jay Gould's work: (1) does evolution show directionality?, (2) is it internally or externally driven? and (3) is it a gradual or a sudden process? Wilber would definitely count as a directionalist (evolution shows an increase in complexity and consciousness), an internalist (evolution is driven by a force of self-organization) and a "suddenist" (evolution shows bursts of unexplained and unspecified "creativity"). Dawkins' dealings with Kauffman's model (who, as Wilber mentioned in passing, argues for self-organization as an alternative to natural selection) are instructive as well—but these have to wait for another essay.
And what are we to make of the claim that this drive towards complexity might in fact be a kind of "fifth force" of cosmic proportions, as some integralists have loosely thrown about? Wikipedia lists various fields of science, in which this intruiging notion of self-organization has been entertained.
Some speculative theories have proposed an additional fundamental fifth force to explain various anomalous observations that do not fit existing theories. The characteristics of this fifth force depend on the theory being advanced. Most postulate a force of roughly the strength of gravity (i.e. it is much weaker than electromagnetism or the nuclear forces) and to have a range of anywhere from less than a millimeter to cosmological scales.
This Wikipedia article limits itself to the field of physics alone. What relevance has the reference to "cosmologists" of the Santa Fe Institute mentioned by Gafni actually? A Google search on "fifth force" and "Santa Fe" brings up nothing but Gafni's casual comments. A recent case of "fifth force" proposals is a discovery by Hungarian scientists of a so-called dark photon, which might shed light on the mysterious dark matter. I wouldn't put my money on it to clarify anything about complexity and consciousness.
Some have objected to my criticism of Wilber's Eros-theory of evolution by claiming that it is rather cheap because Wilber's real theoretical contributions are to be found in his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995), where he discusses his general theory of evolution, in what is known as the "Twenty Tenets". In this book, Wilber points to the fields of complexity science, chaos theory and self-organization. Taking the notion of self-organization as an example, how well has Wilber understood this notion in his rephrasing it as a "drive towards self-organization" of cosmic proportions? Self-organization, for sure, is a real phenomenon, or rather points to a wide variety of phenomena, in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, cybernetics, human society, learning theory and even traffic flow (and let's not forget the flock of birds). How could these different varieties possibly be clarified by postulating a generic drive? In each of these individual cases, explanations are possible that clarify these seemingly mysterious types of phenomena. To give a very simple example: why would H and O self-organize into H2O? Through a mysterious "drive towards water" or because Oxygen is very electron-hungry (metaphor!) and Hydrogen atoms typically are eager (metaphor!) to offer them?
Then there's the objection that I have limited myself to the field of evolutionary biology (and haven't mentioned, for example, Continental philosophy, the entire interior domain), were Wilber includes so many more fields into his model. As a matter of fact, it is striking to see in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality how scant attention is given to evolutionary biology (if at all), as I pointed out in my 2010 conference paper on Wilber's views on evolution:
Turning to the Twenty Tenets (Wilber 1995: 35-78), the one that stands out in this context is Tenet 12: "Evolution has directionality". Though it takes Wilber twelve pages to argue this point, for which he claims support from numerous authors—mostly philosophers or social scientists, such as Whitehead, Derrida, Foucault, Freud, Marx, and chaos theorists—notably absent are those who should be consulted first: evolutionary theorists.
In Wilber's universe, evolutionary biology can be assigned to one of his four quadrants (the Lower Right, which covers exterior-collective phenomena), and can be accepted as far as it goes, minus its supposed "reductionism". But we might counter: when it comes to evolutionary phenomena, what field of science other than evolutionary theory could be more relevant to consult first? For sure, the notion of evolution can be applied, in a loose and metaphorical sense, to other fields of science and philosophy, but the validity of that enterprise is guaranteed only if the theory itself and its implications are well-understood first. That this is not really the case with Wilber is an understatement. When one apple in a basket is rotten, the proper approach is not to point to other apples, but to take out the rotten one.
Then again, others have questioned my spiritual "altitude"—my Integral Quotient, so to speak—meaning my exclusive use of rational-empiric evidence to make the case for evolution, at the expense of other modes of knowledge and insight, such as meditation, intuition or spiritual vision. One critic even urged me to take an (integrally acclaimed) personality test to expose the shallowness of my arguments because I was just an Orange rationalist, not a fully developed Integralist! Leaving aside the validity of any personality test to decide on whatever empirical matter at hand, it is obvious to me that we are dealing with a cultic parlor game here, in which we are handing out color-cards to eachother instead of engaging factual arguments. What if I was displaying my integral aptitude by intentionally bringing in much needed rational-empiric arguments within a community that is heavily leaning towards the interior-spiritual side of reality?
And then there is a rest-category of rather irrelevant objections that amount to: leave Wilber alone, he's not a saint but a fallible human being (that goes without saying), in bad health even, so give him a break. Or, you are beating a dead horse, you are repeating yourself. Well, as long as the topic isn't addressed in integral journals or book publications, and Ken keeps peddling his Eros-in-the-Kosmos story, it is worth it. Or, to compete with Wilber's "Theory of Everything" you need to at least come up with another Theory of Everything. Or, what shadow issues must a critic have to critize such a wonderful integral model. These objections miss the obvious point that raising criticism at a theoretical model, even if only directed at some part of it, is a valuable endeavour in itself. It does not pass judgement on the integral model as a whole, but does point to major deficiencies when it comes to its treatment of a field of science that has provided integralists with their leading metaphor of evolution.
And to conclude, some have suggested the whole topic of evolution isn't that important. In practical life, especially among therapists, integralists get along very well with their states-stages-lines-types-and-self-toolkit to help their patients. Fair enough. But, I would say, of a Theory of Everything more should be expected. Could integral theory survive without this central notion of an Eros in the Kosmos? I doubt it very much. Without this spiritual engine driving the whole Kosmic show, not much will remain of the integral cosmology.
Things happen when conditions are met
The true value of the scientific enterprise is that scientists are trying to specify in detail how nature works.
What is perhaps most striking about all these various objections to the criticisms I have raised is that more often than not they had a purely formal character. None have taken the trouble to enter into the domain of evolutionary theory as such. Of course, it requires expertise and competence to do so, but after having spent the last decade studying this specific scientific (and creationist) literature I feel at least some solid grounding here. Over the past two decades I have tried to keep the interface between integral theory and natural science alive and kicking.
Yes, our world is an intensely driven world and self-organization seems to pose unsolvable problems to science, but postulating an Eros-in-the-Kosmos doesn't clarify this at all. As we saw, Wilber points to complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman as an ally (against neo-Darwinism). But I concur with a reviewer of Stuart Kauffman's The Origins of Order (1993), when he points out a crucial missing ingredient in this approach to complexity:
The importance of energy as a driving impetus for organization, as distinct from mere, and also almost magical, self-organization, is missed in Kauffman's exposition, in my opinion. This conceptual ingredient, with its physical and chemical underpinnings, make up the missing chapter in Kauffman's story that might have enabled him to approach true synthesis.
For the very same reason, I have dealt with the Integral Theory vs. Big History interface in various essays on Integral World, for here, the various energy sources that gave rise to complexity are clarified in great detail.. Integral Theory might profit from including this energy-dimension into its all-encompassing model.
Why then, is "Eros" a bad metaphor, where "selfish gene" or "natural selection" would pass the test? Because it doesn't stimulate any investigations as to the workings of nature. In fact, it ends them right here and now. If any mystery confronted by science would be answered by "it is the result of the mysterious workings of Eros" or even "that's because there's a drive towards self-organization in the cosmos" no real work in science would ever get done. Wilber's cop-out that it would explain "at least part of the emergence of complex forms that we see in evolution" is empty, because it doesn't explain anything at all—if "explanation" has any sensible meaning. The true value of the scientific enterprise is that scientists are trying to specify in detail how nature works. Science is looking for the conditions under which phenomena arise. When these conditions are met, the phenomena will occur. If not, not. Without the proper conditions, no life will arise on any planet, no hurricane will gather strength in any ocean, and no self-organization, of whatever variety, will happen.
Indeed, an interesting alternative position is advanced by Dennett, in his seeing of the evolutionary process as not so much caused by a mechanism but by an algorithm (of the if-then variety). Given the proper conditions, certain consequences are almost certain to arise. The outcome is never 100% secure, however. In his Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett likens it to a tennis match: Roger Federer (Dennett used Boris Becker as example) may not always win a regular tournament, but the likelihood is high. Competence, skill and luck all play a role here. Applied to the field of evolution: given the variety of organisms in nature and the limited availability of food, and given the differential fitness of these organisms to provide offspring, and given the genetic base of characteristics that secure their fitness, evolution will happen. And turning to the metaphor of "natural selection", no, there is no Something or Somebody doing the selection in nature, but it makes sense to use that metaphor, for you get the same outcomes that we see happening in nature.
His contribution to a conference at the afore-mentioned Santa Fe Institute is relevant here:
Let us understand a skyhook to be a "mind-first" force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design, and apparent design, is ultimately the result of mindless, purposeless, mechanical processes. Then a crane is a subprocess or special feature of a design process that can be demonstrated to permit the local speeding up of the basic, slow process of natural selection, and that can be demonstrated to be itself the predictable (or retrospectively explicable) product of the basic process. Much of the most fruitful (if often extremely emotional and even vicious) controversy in evolutionary thinking since Darwin can then be characterized as searchers for skyhooks discovering cranes. Time and again, challenges to Darwinian thinking of the "you can't get here from there in the time available" variety have been met by discoveries or reformulations that show how the underlying Darwinian algorithmic processes can be cascaded recursively into ever more powerful and swift mechanisms for "lifting" in Design Space. The idea of evolution as fundamentally an algorithmic process is often misunderstood, but it is in fact the source of the power of Darwin's contribution.
Things happen—and can only happen—when conditions are met. This is the catch. Wilber's attempt at explaining the complexities of Nature using the Eros-metaphor should therefore be considered as one Big Skyhook, that might give the illusion of providing insight into the workings of nature, but does nothing of the kind. Introducing "intelligence" or "creativity" or "love" as the driving forces of evolution is mistaking the fruits of evolution for their causes. Integral Theory would have to make a much, much stronger case to get a hearing from science.
 Frank Visser, "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered", Paper presented at the Integral Theory Conference, 2010, San Francisco.
 Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality, 2006: 236n.
 Ken Wilber, Introduction video "How to Manifest a Universe", keynote presentation by Ken Wilber at the 2012 Integral Spiritual Experience "Kosmic Creativity" conference, May 27, 2014. See also: Frank Visser, "Eloquent Emptiness", www.integralworld.net
 Ken Wilber, "Taking Evolution into Account", video #4, Fourth Turning conference, April 2014 at the Boulder Integral Center. See also: Frank Visser, "Entropy and Evolution", www.integralworld.net
 Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, 1995, p. 26.
[7a] And would the science-approach always lead to a gloomy flatland view of reality? Try Sean Carroll's "poetic naturalism" in his latest The Big Picture (2017) for a fresh look at this question. See: Eric Niiler, Maybe You're Not an Atheist—Maybe You're a Naturalist Like Sean Carroll", Wired, September 5, 2016.
 Marc Gafni, Your Unique Self, Integral Publishers, 2012, p. 414.
 Marc Gafni, "On Evolutionary Love, Part 2", The Huffington Post, October 2016.
 See Frank Visser, "Demystifying Evolution", www.integralworld.net
 Ken Wilber, "Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution", December 4, 2007, www.kenwilber.com.
 Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, 1998. Chapter 9: Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance.
 "Fifth force", Wikipedia.
 Edwin Cartlidge, "Has a Hungarian physics lab found a fifth force of nature?", Nature, 25 May 2016.
 Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Shambhala, 1995, p. 35-78, (Chapter 2: The Pattern that Connects, paragraph "Twenty Tenets").
 "Self-Organization", Wikipedia.
 Frank Visser, "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered", Paper presented at the Integral Theory Conference, 2010, San Francisco.
 Joe Perez, "A Challenge to Frank Visser" and "Properly Integral", www.integralblog.com (now offline). See also: Frank Visser, "Proud to be Orange: A Response to Joe Perez", www.integralworld.net
 Ronald F. Fox, Review of The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution by Stuart Kauffman, Biophysical Journal, Volume 65 December 1993.
 Big Historian and astronomer Eric Chaisson goes so far as to claim: "Self-assembly, self-organization, and self-ordering do not exist in Nature. Dynamical processes in which 'interacting bodies are autonomously driven into ordered structures' always involve energy." See: Frank Visser, "Integral Theory and Cosmic Evolution", www.integralworld.net
 Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Simon & Schuster, 1995.
 Daniel Dennett, "Evolution as Algorithm", in The Mind, the Brain and Complex Adaptive Systems, ed, Harold Morowitz and Jerome Singer, Santa Fe Inst. Studies in the Sciences of Complexity, Proceedings Vol. XXII, 1995, Addison-Wesley, pp. 221-223.
 Frank Visser, "Eros as Skyhook: Ken Wilber Meets Daniel Dennett", www.integralworld.net.
 Quoted from: David Long, "Soul, Self, Awakening, Ghosts, Afterlife, & Reincarnation", www.youtube.com