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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).
“An absolutely obvious look at how evolution actually operates”
Wilber and Whitehead on the Emergence of Novelty
Because if you actually stand back and look at the direction of the overall universe, and say, okay which direction is that actually going, it is not "winding down", it is "winding up"! ... So that's unmistakable. You can't miss that. And so Whitehead said, "that's the fundamental factor." And he's not getting that from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He's getting if from an absolutely obvious look at how evolution actually operates.
Ken Wilber shows, again, an astonishing lack of interest in the realities of the physical world.
Since Ken Wilber keeps bringing up the topic of Whitehead's philosophy in various recent video presentations, I keep commenting on it. I am sure I am boring to death most integralists who see Integral Theory as a path to greater happiness. I am writing for those who think intellectual integrity means something as well. In a recent members-only Integral Life video called "Is Free Will an Illusion?" (October 16, 2018), Wilber states the following, regarding Whitehead's conception of the origin of novelty:
"And this is Whitehead's astonishing addition to that enfolding, and that is that after the present moment, the present subject has prehended the past, it also adds its own little bit of creativity, its own little bit of novelty. And that's what's so central. And Whitehead arrived at this, not by looking at the Second Law of Thermodynamics, because that ends up as being to be an extremely limited version of what the universe will do, under certain circumstances. The universe also does many different things (…)
If you just focus on the Second Law of Thermodynamics then the entire universe is just running down. It is more and more dispersed, rudimentary, broken into its fragmentary parts—and we don't really see that happening. Except in certain areas where there actually is a dissolution of some existing structure that just kind of falls apart. But for Whitehead, he had what he called "three ultimates". These are three things that you have to have before you can even get a universe up and running. And one was... the first was just "the One", the next one was "the Many", and then the third one was, and that's so interesting, "the creative advance into novelty". and that's such a brilliant thing to say. Because this is inherent in the universe.
Because if you actually stand back and look at the direction of the overall universe, and say, okay which direction is that actually going, it is not "winding down", it is "winding up"! You get more and more complex entities, you get more and more self-organized entities, they have a greater degree of wholeness and unity, they have greater self-organization, and, it appears, greater consciousness. So that's unmistakable. You can't miss that. And so Whitehead said, "that's the fundamental factor." And he's not getting that from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He's getting if from an absolutely obvious look at how evolution actually operates.
So now we have basically... [long silence]... in each moment-to-moment unfolding, there is a component that both transcends the previous moment, and includes it. So that inclusion part if causality, or determinism or karma, and the transcend part is newness, the novelty, the creativity. So what we really have is novelty versus causality, ehm, we have creativity versus karma, and we have free choice versus determinism. And both of those are occurring. So never is it "either-or". And as soon as it becomes just one, or just the other, evolution breaks down, right on the spot! (…)
Another item we have to talk about is just the notion of novelty itself. Because it can be confusing and used in several different ways. Novelty really means: unprecedented. It means something is coming into being that really is new. And that means: we have never seen it before. It never existed before. And if it has existed before, that's not real novelty, real newness. So novelty, to say "novelty", that's a big issue. And so any true creativity has to have at least as its component a sort of novelty. Or it is not creative.
COMPLEX LIFE IS THE EXCEPTION
So, contrary to what Wilber suggests, entropy production is the cosmic rule, and complex life the local exception.
Obviously the fragment given above is taken out of the context of a longer discussion about free will (which I won't go into now). But we can take it as Wilber's current view on how the "obvious" growth to complexity he observes relates to the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics. In simplified language: thermodynamics refers to that part of physics which studies the effects of heat on matter. It was a huge advance when it was discovered that an influx of energy can change the structure of matter. But also, that these energy flows always tend to go in one direction only, and never in reverse. A hot cup of tea cools down (and thereby heats up the environment) but never the other way around. Cups of tea don't get heated up, at least not without energy being added—and that's the point. In general terms, the 2nd Law is phrased as "in a closed system, entropy (or disorder) will never decrease." This can be decoded as: in any process where energy is used, heat will be created and energy will get lost. But more to the point: order will never increase all by its own, but only as a result of energy supply.
Now Wilber does not like this 2nd Law at all. It goes against his onward-and-upwards philosophy which he has generalized to the universe as a whole. In the past he acknowledged both processes going on simultaneously ("the universe is winding down" and "the universe is winding up"), but of late he called the whole idea that the universe is running down "ridiculous". No scientist in his right mind would deny the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but Wilber did not see any problem with that. (Note how condescending his tone is in the quote at the top of this essay.) In the current video he seems to be more cautious. He acknowledges that even though the general trend in the cosmos is towards greater complexity, wholeness and consciousness, there might be exceptions, where things "fall apart". But entropy is about much more than "falling apart".
Now this, again, is a complete misunderstanding of what's going on. The growth to complexity is the exception, in a universe that is relentlessly moving towards greater entropy or disorder. Only under certain very special circumstances (for example on our planet Earth), can complex and conscious life evolve. As we see in our own solar system, other planets look very hostile to life, and at most we can imagine some bacterial organisms living in the deep icy waters of some moon of Saturn. But on the whole, our solar system is void of complex life outside of our earth.
We could give the example of the stars we see at night. Every second hundred billions stars in our galaxy produce huge amounts of intense heat and radiation, which get dispersed into icy cold space, in all directions, due to nuclear fusion in their cores. Not to mention that hundred billion galaxies do the same. This heat is dispersed into the icy cold cosmic space, apparently wasted or not used for any particular purposes.
Or think even of our own Sun. It constantly radiates enormous amounts of heat into our solar system, in all directions. Only a tiny fraction of this energy reaches the Earth, and can be harvested by bacteria and plants (even in very low percentages). That gives you an impression of the fraction of total energy that is used for the build-up of complexity, compared to the total energy output (see link at the bottom of this essay).
Think about this... this is happening now. As we speak.
So, contrary to what Wilber suggests, entropy production is the cosmic rule, and complex life the local exception. What makes it interesting is that this continuous outpouring of energy from the Sun provides life with a valuable source of high-quality energy. This energy is used and processed, which again produces heat as a waste product. So as a rule, these complex structures such as stars and human beings can sustain their organization only by producing heat. Or entropy. As it is usually expressed: the evolution of complexity comes with a huge cost. More complexity, more energy needed.
So the relationship between evolution, energy and entropy is a very interesting one. Physicist Sean Carroll recently wrote The Big Picture, in which he discussed in detail how these cosmological processes work. In a series of short videos adapted from the book he explains how complexity can arise even if the universe is winding down. Most interestingly, at the start of the universe, entropy was very low (there were very few distinctions to be made). As the universe grew more complex, entropy increased as well due to the production of heat. But in the far future, when all galaxies have receded from view in our expanding universe, and stars have burnt up all of their energy, complexity will be low again, even if entropy has reached its peak. It turns out that in medium-entropy conditions—in which we live now–interesting things are possible.
Much more interesting than the "solution" for complexity that Wilber (following Whitehead) provides. By postulating a cosmic drive towards novelty, nothing is clarified. For one thing: why does complexity only emerge under very special conditions in which the right amount of energy is available for harvesting? If complexity was internally driven, wouldn't we expect it to happen in all possible environments? It is what Daniel Dennett has called a "skyhook": something seems to pull us upward—this is exactly the metaphor Wilber is fond of using—but we can never specify how that could possibly work. For Whitehead (and Wilber) this "creativity" is an absolute principle, which can never be analyzed into its details. This ends all explanation. But consider the scientist who publishes a paper about, say, the evolution of elephants, and in particular about the question how they got their trunks, with the single sentence in it "elephant trunks are the result of a universal trend towards novelty". He would not pass any peer review, I guarantee you.
NEW FOUNDATIONS OF EVOLUTION
Since Wilber stresses the point in this fragment, as to what constitutes true novelty; what novelty does Wilber have in mind (he never specifies it). Are elephants enough novelty? After all, there was a time when no elephants were around (or palm trees, or fungi, or whatever is your favorite species). Does that qualify as enough novelty? Is this, then created by Whiteheadian "advances into novelty"? Or would a true evolutionary approach not be much more promising in clarifying how elephants evolved? (Wikipedia, ignore the Latin jargon).
Over 185 extinct members and three major evolutionary radiations of the order Proboscidea have been recorded. The earliest proboscids, the African Eritherium and Phosphatherium of the late Paleocene, heralded the first radiation. The Eocene included Numidotherium, Moeritherium, and Barytherium from Africa. These animals were relatively small and aquatic. Later on, genera such as Phiomia and Palaeomastodon arose; the latter likely inhabited forests and open woodlands. Proboscidean diversity declined during the Oligocene. One notable species of this epoch was Eritreum melakeghebrekristosi of the Horn of Africa, which may have been an ancestor to several later species. The beginning of the Miocene saw the second diversification, with the appearance of the deinotheres and the mammutids. The former were related to Barytherium and lived in Africa and Eurasia, while the latter may have descended from Eritreum and spread to North America.
So much more interesting to follow this story of evolution, from the bottom-up, when morphology and anatomy of living organism slowly transform into "novel" features. There is no need to mystify them as something "completely new", which calls for a transcendental explanation. And this is only about elephants. What about tracing back the history of evolution to its microbial past? The integration of microbiology into evolutionary theory has made great advances with the work of Carl Woese and Lynn Margulis. Where Darwin concerned himself with "the origin of species", recent research has probed even as deep as the origin of kingdoms (Margulis), such as animals, plants and fungi, and the origin of domains (Woese), such as Eukarya, Bacteria and Archaea (a new domain of microbes nobody had expected to exist). The last barrier for human knowledge, and by far the most challenging one, is the exploration of the border between life and non-life (8 levels above the species-level!). But evolutionary theory has been given new foundations by this type of innovative research. Do you think any of these scientists would get excited by Wilber's claim that all these phylogenetic innovations were the result of a cosmic drive towards novelty?
So is the universe winding up, the way Wilber describes it? If you limit yourself to earth life, perhaps, but even here entropy is increased by the heat produced by organisms and our civilization at large (think: global warming!). Complexification is thus not a Cosmic Law but something that can be accomplished only at great energy costs. Some researchers in the field of thermodynamics see life even not as something going against the 2nd Law but actually serving it, since they use up energy sources that would otherwise never have been tapped. This gives a new relevance to the 2nd Law, even as to the emergence of complexity. And if you want to include the cosmic dimensions, most complex structures in the cosmos such as galaxies, stars and planets are just the result of gravity. So we have an interplay in the cosmos between contraction and expansion, concentration and dispersion, gravity and entropy, order and disorder. These are the two processes that go hand-in-hand in the universe, but Wilber can't see them, as they don't fithis transcend-and-include scheme. But you need both for evolution to proceed. (Eros and Thanatos would be a more appropriate mythical translation of this dual process).
This, then, is the paradox of how complex life can emerge even in a universe that is "winding down". This paradox is completely lost on Ken Wilber, who prefers to live in metaphysical speculations. His "absolutely obvious look at how evolution actually operates" is a far cry from what science accomplishes in this field. It is not the first time I draw attention to this. It will not be the last either. Wilber shows, again, an astonishing lack of interest in the realities of the physical world. Instead of grappling with the all-important question "how can there be complexity given the 2nd Law?", he dismisses that 2nd Law as irrelevant and is content to follow Whitehead's metaphysical speculations of an inherent drive towards novelty in the universe.
"Absolutely obvious"? I think we need a much closer look to see how evolution actually operates.
 Ken Wilber and Corey De Vos, "Is Free Will an Illusion?", www.integrallife.com, October 16, 2018 (members-only).
 Frank Visser, "Is the Universe Really Winding Up?", August 2014, www.integralworld.net
 Frank Visser, "Integral Overstretch: Some Reflections on "Integral in Action with Ken Wilber", October 2015, www.integralworld.net
 Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, Dutton, 2016.
 Frank Visser, "Eros as Skyhook: Ken Wilber Meets Daniel Dennett", www.integralworld.net
 David Quammen, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, Simon & Schuster, 2018, and Jan Sap, The New Foundations of Evolution: On The Tree of Life, Oxford University Press, 2009, which cover this most exciting episode in evolutionary science. These "new foundations" are grounded in research, not airy-fairy speculations. This is how evolution "actually operates".
 For a contrarian view, defending Wilber against the thermodynamic view, see: Michael Zimmerman, "The Final Cause of Cosmic Development: Nondual Spirit, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics?, www.integralworld.net, In: S. Esbjörn-Hargens (ed.), Integral Theory in Action: Applied, Theoretical, and Constructive Perspectives on the AQAL Model, SUNY Press 2010, reposted on this website 2016. Zimmerman sees both models as more or less equivalent: "Both are “big picture” ways of making sense of things, not assertions capable of being judged as either true or false. Either position can elicit the same response: resignation on the part of people who conclude that individual effort is pointless in the face of such powerful cosmic forces." But Wilber's model has "certain advantages", in his opinion: "it provides a far more elaborate, multi-perspectival account of physical, biological, and mental development." But with weak foundations, as I have tried to show in this essay.
 Zimmerman, note 9: "See Eric D. Schneider and James J. Kay, 1994, "Life as a Manifestation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics", Mathematical and Computer Modeling, Vol. 19, No. 6-8 (1994), 25-48; Eric D. Schneider and James J. Kay, "Order from Disorder: The Thermodynamics of Complexity in Biology", in Michael P. Murphy, Luke A.J. O'Neill (ed), What is Life: The Next Fifty Years. Reflections on the Future of Biology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 161-172; Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan, Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 206); and Robert E. Ulanowicz, Growth and Development: Ecosystem Phenomenology (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986)."