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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).
Strawman or Steelman?
The Wilberian Evolution Controversy
"I think of involution, then, along the analogy of a rubber band: stretch it, and you have involution, which supplies a force (namely Eros) that will then pull the two ends of the rubber band (matter and spirit) back together again" — Ken Wilber
"To be clear: there is NO “pervasive cosmic force supposedly responsible for evolution or consciousness” (as Visser says). God is not an object or a “force” such as “Eros” or whatnot, but is the inherent Source and Condition of all existence." — Brad Reynolds
In his three-part, 32 page series of essays "Real Integral vs. Fake Integral, Transcending-Yet-Including the Knowledge of Science", Brad Reynolds accused me of presenting a weak or strawman version of Wilber's argument concerning evolution. For example:
"Visser is only seeing with the Eye of Science-Mind, not with the Eye of Spirit, which transcends-yet-includes the knowledge of science. Visser consistently distorts Wilber's integral view to create a “strawman” so he can then correct it with current views on scientific evolution (see Part I). Yes, I agree Wilber has been somewhat sloppy in calling Eros a “force,” as if it is a law of Nature (like the electromagnetic “force”), but that is not how I read Wilber's overall Integral Message."
Frank Visser's endless critiques of Ken Wilber's notion of Eros is a classic example of a “strawman” fallacy—a misrepresentation of what someone says to then tear it down; the error in this approach: you didn't have it correct in the first place!
At the mislabeled “Integral” World website, Frank Visser continues to incorrectly associate Ken Wilber's work with “Natural Theology,” which suggests a Deity-God can be found evident in the complexities of Nature. This is not what Wilber means nor has he ever suggested this; Visser, since his Eye of Spirit sees dimly, once again is misreading Wilber to construct a false strawman so he can tear it down.
The entire evolutionary process as a whole leading to (and including) consciousness development is Wilber's main interest, as we've reviewed. Thus, Visser really seems to be constructing that strawman artifice when he complains about Wilber's inadequacies in biological evolution and genetic variation; he's missing the point, as far as I can see.
I disagree completely with Reynolds' analysis.
The Analogy of a Rubber Band
"God-realization" doesn't add anything to our understanding of evolution, biological or otherwise.
The interesting thing is, however, that apparently two authors who have been a lifelong student of Integral Theory and who have even written books about Ken Wilber can disagree about what Wilber's actual position regarding this important topic of evolution is. Isn't that obvious from his extensive literature, then? Well, apparently not! That Wilber refuses to clarify his position doesn't really help in dispelling this fundamental unclarity.
To avoid a tedious "I said, he said, Wilber said" rebuttal to Reynolds I would like to provide a brief summary of his arguments—running the risk, of course, of being accused of strawmanning Reynolds. But we have to start somewhere.
Briefly, Reynolds holds that I am presenting Wilber as somebody who believes the Divine is something like a Being or Force in the real world who influences evolution, and creation at large, and criticizing that view doesn't do justice to Wilber's real view: the Divine is both the Condition and the Process of reality. So while it is relatively easy to criticize pre-rational mythic-religion, such as creationism and Intelligent Design, which belongs to this category, it is not so easy to refute mystical spirituality, which is post-rational. When one's Eye of Spirit is opened, Reynolds claims, Wilber's spiritual view of evolution is seen as valid. Reynolds admits that Wilber has been "sloppy" in presenting his argument—especially by calling Eros a "force" and in his casual critiquing of Darwinism—but that when read in context, Wilber would agree with Reynolds. Wilber's understanding of evolution far exceeds the biological level only. He sees it as a cosmic phenomenon touching every dimension of human experience.
In contrast, I hold that Wilber's "spiritual" view of evolution suffers from the same drawbacks as the fundamentalist view. Wilber sees Spirit as both the Ground of All Being, and the World-Process itself, which moves from matter to Spirit. What is more, it is a unique feature of Integral Spirituality that Spirit is seen not just as the passive World-Ground, but as an active force, both an nature and culture. Evolution is, to quote Wilber's favorite expression or slogan, "Spirit-in-Action". Now, with such an active view of Spirit, there are two possible interpretations. Either Spirit is "everything-that-arises". In that case, it makes no difference. Would we notice it when Spirit was not behind everything? The alternative is that Spirit does make a difference in the real world. For example, it is the "drive toward complexity" Wilber sees everywhere in nature. But in that case, it is a relative truth claim, which has to compete with alternative explanations, coming from the fields of science. Do you see the problem?
A straw man is a misrepresentation of someone's position or argument that is easy to defeat: a "steel man" is an improvement of someone's position or argument that is harder to defeat than their originally stated position or argument. (wiki.lesswrong.com)
Is postulating a cosmic "drive towards complexity" really the best explanation available for the complexity and diversity we see around us? That is the issue. The sequence from subatomic particles to the extremely complex human brain is denied by nobody. What is denied, at least by me, is that this sequence can best be explained—in fact, can only be explained, by postulating an "Eros-in-the-Kosmos", to use another of Wilber's favorite slogans. To repeat, that is the issue. That Wilber's treatment of evolution is not limited to the biological dimension changes nothing. The same problem re-asserts itself. Are the elementary particles from Hydrogen to the heavy elements (to stick to the atomic level) the result of a cosmic "drive towards complexity", or are there better, and more insightful explanations available?
It gets tricky when Wilber phrases his view of spiritual evolution in the neutral terminology of third-person language. Spirit then becomes an "intra-natural" force, which is responsible for at least part of the complexity we see around us. There is nothing supernatural to this conception, we are assured by Wilber. He often continues in the same breath: famous scientists, past and present, have voice similar views. Ilya Prigogine, for example, clarified how "order-out-of-chaos" could emerge, defying the laws of thermodynamics. And Stuart Kauffman did the same with self-organization. Natural selection is not enough to explain biological complexity, Wilber assures us, we also need self-organization. And that is none other than Spirit, becoming conscious of itself. So what's your problem?, Wilber seems to suggest.
This slippery line of reasoning is, again, something I object to in the strongest of terms. Of course such a "built-in" drive towards complexity in nature is something supernatural, especially when presented in the context of a spiritual philosophy of life. Wilber concedes as much by explicitly stating "of course it's transcendent but also immanent". And quoting naturalistic scientists who consider nature itself to be wonderful and creative, and capable of evoking feelings of awe even in those who consider themselves materialists, thereby implying that, they too believe in a "creativity" in nature that defies human understanding, is not a little bit disingenuous. These scientists often present evidence that complexity and diversity can be explained without resorting to transcendentalist "explanations".
Where does that leave Reynolds' strongly formulated objections to my interpretation of Wilber? Is Eros, then, according to Wilber, not a force in nature? I can only quote from a totally unsuspect source, the second volume of the Collected Writings of Ken Wilber, where he writes the following:
I think of involution, then, along the analogy of a rubber band: stretch it, and you have involution, which supplies a force (namely Eros) that will then pull the two ends of the rubber band (matter and spirit) back together again—in other words, an involutionary force that will pull evolution along. But the actual route taken in that return, and all its wonderful variety, is a co-creation of every holon and the currents of Eros in which it fluidly floats.
Can it be formulated any clearer than this? Note that in Wilber's argument this view is contrasted specifically and explicitly with the scientific view as a superior explanation of the "otherwise impenetrable puzzles of Darwinian evolution, which has tried, ever so un-successfully, to explain why dirt would get up and eventually start writing poetry." That's vintage Wilber. Present a spiritual view of things, in the most lofty poetry he can manage, and suggest that it trumps science (but of course also "includes" it), because science fails to makes sense of the complexity of reality.
And yet, Reynolds emphatically states:
"To be clear: there is NO "pervasive cosmic force supposedly responsible for evolution or consciousness" (as Visser says). God is not an object or a “force” such as “Eros” or whatnot, but is the inherent Source and Condition of all existence."
I can only conclude that it is Reynolds who has strawmanned Wilber, not me, by stressing the transcendentalist aspects of Wilber's vision, and hiding or downplaying the many occasions and locations where he presents an active and worldly aspect of Spirit. Seeing Spirit as the "Condition" of everything, as I said, doesn't tell us much, if it cannot be clarified what difference that Spirit makes to us. Or does it only exist in the spiritual "eye of the beholder"? Just claiming spiritual awakening will resolve all doubts about the existence of Spirit and its role in nature and culture, is not very convincing. First, among the millions of meditators and hundreds of gurus that have existed few will agree with Wilber's specific interpretation of evolutionary theory. But more importantly, the so-called spiritual explanation of evolution has failed to provide anything that goes beyond the deepities like "spirit is everything-that-is-arising".
"God-realization" doesn't add anything to our understanding of evolution, biological or otherwise. Do cells divide any different with Spirit behind them? If Wilber's main interest is in "the entire evolutionary process as a whole leading to (and including) consciousness development", our analysis should start right there. If there really is a cosmic drive towards complexity and consciousness in the universe, why is that very same drive so spectacularly unsuccessful in creating conscious life on Pluto, or the Moon for that matter? Is it not strong enough? Not pervasive enough? Does it need special conditions to emerge? Ah, but shall we then, instead of pontificating about spiritual realities, get a real interest in specifying these conditions more fully? Isn't that what scientists are actually doing every day of their lives?
What would a "steelman" version of Wilber's view on evolution look like? No, he is not a fundamentalist creationist—though it must be said that many an Intelligent Design adherent is more expert in evolutionary science than Wilber. And no, he doesn't think God is a being tampering with our world, no Old man in the Sky. But all his mystical sophistication doesn't prevent him from running into the same problems as any religious believer gets into. Does the idea of a pervasive spiritual Something, even as a "gently persuasion toward love", by any stretch explain anything? I mean anything? Can it even claimed to be a superior explanation than science is able to offer? Does Wilber really know what "explanation" actually means? Does it help adding perspectives from the interior quadrants to the whole topic of evolution? Certainly, but not in the way Wilber imagines it will work. A lot more study and analysis is necessary than Wilber has provided in his many writings until today.
The Times They Are A Changin'
Recently Integral Life presented a conversation between Ken Wilber and David Sloan Wilson. He is an evolutionary biologist with a special interest in human biocultural evolution, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. His books include Evolution for Everyone, The Neighborhood Project, Does Altruism Exist?, Darwin's Cathedral, and most recently This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution (2019). He is the president of the Evolution Institute and editor in chief of the institute's magazine, This View of Life. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of group selection (together with the famous insect expert E.O. Wilson) and sees biology as the answer to society's ills, among other things by setting up cooperative groups in competition with eachother, in neglected neighborhoods. He is also a fan of Teilhard de Chardin, and sees his latest book as "an update to The Phenomenon of Man".
The integral community, by and large, lacks the expertise to contribute to this evolution discussion.
This was remarkable if only for the reason that Wilber had never had a professional biologist as guest in his shows, on Integral Naked or elsewhere. Could it be true that after all these years, somebody from the field would set the story straight and educate Wilber on the basic principles of evolution, or at least on how science understands them? So what happens when a philosopher who considers Darwinian evolution to be "moronic" enters into a discussion with a professional biologist, who uses Darwinian principles to even explain religion? They start talking about quadrants and perspectives... This was an intellectual anti-climax of the first order. Was I surprised? Not really. Integral Life is not known for challenging Wilber by inviting guests who hold contrarian views on the various subjects under discussion. As Corey de Vos, Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, once told me, it is primarily meant to let Wilber have his say. Apparently, Integral Life is neither willing to or capable of arranging a more dialectic environment around Wilber. The integral community, by and large, lacks the expertise to contribute to this evolution discussion.
A more promising initiative "Integral Stage" was recently launched on Facebook by Bruce Alderman, with the aim of "coordinating multiple dialogues, debates, and other events." He is adjunct faculty in the College of Psychology at John F. Kennedy University (JFKU) and a long-time moderator of various Facebook groups (Earpy's Integral Saloon, Integral Post-Metaphysical Spirituality, and now Integral Stage). Integral Stage "will host and highlight public debates, discussions, and performances by and for the Integral and Integral diasporic communities." I participated in a recent session on "one of the most un-debated topics in the integral world (outside of Integral World!): Is there a universal, spiritual drive towards increasing complexity and consciousness?" My sparring partner was Layman Pascal, an active contributor to multiple integral forums.
The intellectual atmosphere we enter here is markedly different than that of the regular integral communications. There is an authentic willingness to have a critical look at Integral Theory's concepts, and a curiosity about views and perspectives that take issue with them. At the same time, participants are invited to look at the issues under discussion from all angles and even try to formulate their own opponents views to the best of their ability. The aim is not to strawman the opponent, but to steelman them, to present opposing views in their strongest formulations. What would that look like regarding our topic of Wilber's views on evolution?
What would Integral Theory look like if it would accurately and adequately incorporate the findings of the many schools of evolutionary theory, without a spiritualist bias? The first thing it would have to give up is its cherished notion of a spiritual drive behind evolution. It would have to fully accept the radicality of Darwin: you can get to species without a God (or Spirit). Would Integral Theory survive this operation? That remains to be seen, depending on how attached Wilber is to this ideology. For Wilber, in fact, doesn't so much present an evolutionary theory as well as an evolutionary theology. This unavoidably filters and colors his reading and (mis)understanding of evolutionary theory—a vast and understudied territory in integral quarters.
For starters, Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb's Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (MIT, 2005) would be a good beginning (and no, it has nothing to do with the four quadrants). Or take Jan Sapp's The New Foundations of Evolution: On the Tree of Life (Oxford, 2009). And guess what: it's all about bacteria! As Redmon O'Hanlon once said: "That's where the action is!". All interesting discoveries regarding evolution have been made by reductionistic, materialistic science (using microscopes, sequencing or a simple rock hammer). For the larger part of life on earth, for billions of years, there were nothing but bacteria. Where was Spirit in those days? Spirituality has nothing to add here.
There is much to be understood about the evolutionary process that never met the Darwinian eye, and much more work to be done and biological systems to visit before science can say it "understands" evolution.
— Carl Woese (Foreword in Sapp).
Other integrally informed authors have chosen different options. Steve McIntosh, for example, argued in his Evolution's Purpose (2012) that evolution is intrinsically purposeful, giving scant attention to either Darwinism or Intelligent Design. Carter Phipps' Evolutionaries presented a highly readable collection of interviews with spiritually-minded thinkers, including Ken Wilber. None of these have really engaged with the scientific view of evolution. Fully accepting the scientific worldview still leaves one option open for any spiritual philosophy (an option most creationists seize upon): the fine-tuning of the universe. Ervin Laszlo, for example, is fond of saying that there is no conflict between design and evolution, for the world is designed for evolution: "Could it be that our universe has been purposefully designed so it could give rise to the evolution of life?" Wilber hasn't really reflected on the fine-tuning discussion, but always likes to use a statistical argument or two against the naturalistic conviction that everything in nature is based on blind chance—a strawman, if every there was one!
What would a steelman-version of Wilber's Eros-in-the-Kosmos look like? Reynolds has tried a reformulation of Wilber's position in which the influence of Spirit on the natural world is made as unspecific as possible. He sees the effect of Spirit as a kind of "flowering", but not as a specific act. Wilber, in contrast, points to the complexities of nature which would be the result of Spirit-in-action. The cosmic movement from strings and quarks all the way to human beings is "yet more evidence of creative Eros or Spirit-in-action". Implying that, without such an Act of Spirit, matter would just remain matter. Nature itself cannot produce novelty in these conceptions; it is Spirit that animates matter to create forms. But, as I said, that is a specific theory about how forms emerged, which can be validated or refuted by science. Seeing the complexity of nature as evidence for Spirit is, let us say, a bit premature. There are other and more believable theories available to explain how complexity emerged.
 Ken Wilber, The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Shambhala, 2000, p. 12
 Brad Reynolds, "Real Integral vs. Fake Integral, Transcending-Yet-Including the Knowledge of Science, Part Two", www.integralworld.net, January 2019.
 "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 in a super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain." Ken Wilber, "Ken Responds to Recent Critics", www.kenwilber.com, 2006 (link to audio file is broken, but click here to listen).
 Ken Wilber, The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, volume II, Shambhala 2000, p, 12.
 Ken Wilber, The Religion of Tomorrow, Shambhala, 2017. See also: David Lane, "Ken Wilber and 'Moronic' Evolution: The Religion of Tomorrow and the misunderstanding of Emergence", www.integralworld.net, 2017.
 Ken Wilber and David Sloan Wilson, "Evolving a Multi-Cellular Society", www.integrallife.com, June 13, 2019 (members only).
 Frank Visser, "Accepting the Radicality of Darwin, The Religious Orthodoxy of Ken Wilber", www.integralworld.net, May 2019.
 Frank Visser, "Platonic Evolution: Review of Steve McIntosh' "Evolution's Purpose" (2012)", www.integralworld.net, November 2012.
 Frank Visser, "The Evolution Religion: "The Evolution Religion: Making Sense of Evolution: Review of Carter Phipps' "Evolutionaries" (2012)", August 2012.
 Frank Visser, "Wilber and Laszlo, Two Authors of Evolutionary Fiction", www.integralworld.net, April 2014.
 John Wilkins, "Evolution and Chance", www.talkorigins.org, April 17, 1997. To which the best answer was given by Richard Dawkins: "It is grindingly, creakingly, obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work."
 Ken Wilber, The Religion of Tomorrow, Shambhala, 2017, p. 498.