And At How Ken Wilber Co-Opts
His Work For His Own Agenda
Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel prize winner. 'Order out of chaos'. Even insentient matter, when pushed far from equilibrium, jumps into higher levels of order. Eros... —Ken Wilber
Such a balanced presentation of all elements involved, that readers spoonfed on Wilber's Kosmology will never come to learn!
Some recent Facebook postings in the Integral Global group prompted me to have a closer look at the work of Ilya Romanovich Prigogine, "a physical chemist and Nobel laureate noted for his work on dissipative structures, complex systems, and irreversibility." Wilber frequently refers to his work—without quoting him—and especially to the title of his popular book, co-written with Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos. The basic idea, according to Wilber, is that if even dead matter shows signs of being life-like, under certain conditions, than the drive towards self-organization and self-transcendence is present everywhere in nature. But how does order actually emerge out of chaos? Mysteriously? Magically? Transcendentally? Or following physico-chemical laws? What does Prigogine actually say about this? And does it provide support for Wilber's views of evolution—or rather the opposite: does it refute the need for a quasi-spiritual Eros-in-the-Kosmos?
A good start is Fritjof Capra, who writes in his recent The Systems View of Life (2016):
According to Prigogine, dissipative structures are islands of order in a sea of disorder, maintaining and even increasing their order at the expense of greater disorder in their environment. For example, living organisms take in ordered structures (food) from their environment, use them as resources for their metabolism, and dissipate structures of lower order (waste). In this way, order "floats in disorder", as Prigogine puts it, while the overall entropy keeps increasing in accordance with the second law.
Such a balanced presentation of all elements involved, that readers spoonfed on Wilber's Kosmology will never come to learn! First, it sees order as the exception, and disorder as the rule. Second, it sees the need of continuous energy flow or intake by living organisms. Third, it appreciates this energy is degraded from high-quality to low-quality, during the maintenance of structure. Fourth, the same applies, and even more so, to the build-up of structure. And fifth, at no moment is the Second Law questioned as to its supreme importance.
In stark contrast, on many occasions we have seen Wilber downplaying the Second Law ("it is ridiculous!"), and ignoring the role played by energy flows in creating ordered structure. Instead, he has speculated on forces intrinsic in matter, which produce complexity when they are not prohibited to do so. These forces are "nothing funky", he assures us, and are even corroborated by the work of famous scientists, such as Prigogine, as the quote at the top of this essay shows.
These are two completely different worldviews. The one from materialistic science attempts to explain as much as possible of the complexity we perceive, and doesn't invoke immaterial or transcendental forces. It succeeds admirably in this respect, for the account Prigogine has given of dissipative structures at the physico-chemical level is coherent, and has rightly been awarded a Nobel Prize. In contrast, the spiritual-integral worldview postulates an inherent drive in matter towards complexity, which doesn't seem to depend on certain specified conditions. Very funky indeed!
Now, one can't have it both ways. Either, the science story is complete in itself, or it isn't, but if it isn't, once cannot call on science in support of one's view, which essentially transcends science.
Wilber could counter that complexity science may not embrace the spiritual dimension, but that it is at least going in the right direction of a dynamic and evolving universe. But that might backfire pretty soon. It's like saying evolutionary theory goes at least in the direction of creationism. No, it makes it rather obsolete. So if material, physical energies and processes are enough to explain complexity, who needs Spirit? That too, can be brought up against this externalist presentation of thermodynamics: it lacks an interior or spiritual dimension. But is that dimension really missed? What phenomena can be explained by introducing this dimension? Any?
Here's another elementary explanation of Prigogine's ideas, taken from an interview:
When most systems in nature evolve towards an equilibrium state, they are not only losing energy, but structure. The only exceptions to this rule are crystals, which are ordered structures at equilibrium with their environment. But if the Second Law of Thermodynamics holds true for everything in the universe, why do we see so much order around us?
Prigogine believes that practically everywhere that we see order in the universe, that order has been generated by irreversible processes, in other words, by non-equilibrium processes. Under such unstable conditions, any system which is losing energy to the environment and evolving towards an equilibrium state, can be pushed out of this state and into a different form of behavior through an injection of the appropriate amount of physical or chemical energy. This pushes the system away from an evolution towards an equilibrium state and into near-equilibrium or far-from-equilibrium behavior. The new kind of behavior which manifests itself under these conditions is described as self-organization.
There are two kinds of self-organization in nature. The first is known as conservative self-organization, which applies to systems which are near-equilibrium, such as the solar system. In near-equilibrium conditions, the system tends towards the minimum amount of activity possible given the energy fluxes which feed it, which means that it soon settles into a stable and predictable form of motion. The second type of self-organization is known as dissipative self-organization, and applies to systems which are far-from-equilibrium. Far-from-equilibrium processes are chaotic, turbulent, and highly energetic. They are also able to break space/time symmetry i.e. they are able to disrupt stable spatial structures and predictable, deterministic, time-reversible processes.
Dissipative self-organization has two unique features. On the one hand, it allows a system to "import" free matter and energy from the external environment in order to maintain and/or increase its own internal organization. On the other hand, the system is able to "export" unusable energy, or entropy, back into the environment in the form of various waste products. Systems which behave in this manner when pushed into a far-from-equilibrium state are described by Prigogine as dissipative structures.
A dissipative structure is any ordered structure or natural system - be it physical, chemical, biological or cultural - which has been generated through far-from-equilibrium processes. Examples of dissipative structures range from the Red Spot on Jupiter, to whirlpools, tornadoes, cyclones and hurricanes, certain complex chemical reactions, all plant and animal life, the planetary ecosystem and even the social and cultural phenomena of human society.
So order arises according to Prigogine from "unstable" situations, "far from equilibrium", "through an injection of the appropriate amount of physical or chemical energy." This flatly contradicts Wilber's speculations of matter "winding itself up" if you leave it to itself. No, in Wilber's universe, it is Spirit pushing everything onwards and upwards. Failing to see the role played by energy flows he needs to invent his own dynamic.
And again from the same interview:
Computer simulation of the
One of the most fascinating things about dissipative structures is that they demonstrate that life-like behavior is an emergent property of matter. Exotic chemical reactions like the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction and the "mercury beating heart", may not be "alive" in the sense that we normally understand it, but they do show that their behavior is not fundamentally different from that of living things, and that it is unnecessary to postulate some external "life-force" which activates "dead matter" in order to make something "alive".
Perhaps even more importantly, the mode of organization which orders dissipative structures demonstrates that life is not a totally improbable chance occurrence, as many scientists still claim, but rather the logical outcome of the way that the "laws of nature" work. Prigogine has shown that, if the conditions are right, life-like behavior will spontaneously emerge as a function of the way that matter behaves when subjected to hot, turbulent, energetic conditions. Because life emerges from non-equilibrium, this also makes its existence far more likely on other planets where the conditions are similarly favorable.
Wilber, too, believes life may exist everywhere in the universe, but that's because "Eros is everywhere". Again, this by-passes completely the relevant question: which conditions might be favorable for the emergence of life? We are not after verbal similarities, but real mechanisms.
So life-like behavior emerges from matter, in this view, "when subjected to hot, turbulent, energetic conditions." Again, quite the opposite of Wilber's speculations of an "immanent Spirit" in matter, an "upward drive". Prigogine makes clear why such a "drive" is unnecessary!
I always use hurricanes as an example of chaotic systems. Under the right conditions of temperature of air and water, hurricanes will arise, which have the purpose of reducing the gradients between hot and cold, much faster than would otherwise be possible. Again: energy flows create structures, which dissipate this energy at a higher rate. There is no "drive towards hurricanes" anywhere to be found. That is an internalist misconception which overlooks the role of energy flows.
Now here's the irony: Prigogine says that under certain conditions even dead matter behaves life-like. Life just follows physico-chemical principles and laws. Wilber, in contrast, says, immanent Spirit is active even in matter, but even stronger in the domains of life and mind. Totally different worldviews. Complexity science and thermodynamics is thoroughly naturalistic. Wiber's worldview isn't, though he tries very hard to hide that fact and pretend he is completely conversant with the findings of science.
Emergence is a very slippery concept. In a religious interpretation, it is mystified as a transcendental phenomenon, in which novelty arises that can't have been predicted up front. Who would ever have predicted elephants and giraffes, at the time of the Big Bang? It is tempting to see this creativity as a metaphysical reality. But a more scientific interpretation will ask for the proper conditions under which complexity emerges—or, equally interesting, will not emerge. Wilber has again and again shown to be in the religious camp, with this "transcend-and-include" mantra and his misrepresentations of scientific findings. That is his good right, but he shouldn't claim support from scientists who don't share his worldview. If that is the integration of science and religion Wilber stands for, he still has a lot of homework to do.
For example, in a recent episode of the Ken Show, Wilber bragged in an emotionally immature way about his understanding of equilibrium thermodynamics, which describes the behavior of closed systems ("Got it. Understood. Just fuck off!"). But it looks like he still has to fathom the implications of non-equilibrium thermodynamics (NET), which describes the behavior of open systems such as biological organisms. These continuously exchange energy with their environments, and as long as they do this can thrive and complexify into "endless forms most beautiful".
Most integral students will leave these questions for what they see as academic details irrelevant to their psycho-spiritual pursuits. The intellectual apathy of the integral community towards these questions of science is appalling, for it goes to the heart of the credibility of Integral Theory as a Theory of Everything. It also directly impacts Wilber's reputation as a reliable reporter on complexity and chaos science.
 Ilya Prigogine & Isabelle Stengers, Order Out Of Chaos: A New Dialogue with Nature, Flamingo, 1984.
 Ilya Prigogine, "The Philosophy of Instability", Futures, 21(4), 396-400, 1989. (This paper is an edited version of a lecture given at the Club of Rome's 20th anniversary meeting held in Paris, 24-28 October 1988.)
 Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Cambridge University Press, 2016. (The same paragraph occurs in Capra's The Web of Life, 1997.)
 Ken Wilber and Corey De Vos, "Kosmos: An Integral Voyage", www.integrallife.com, July 16, 2019. Part 2, "The Drake's Equation: How Abundant is Eros in the Universe?", is available only for members of Integral Life.
 Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan, Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)
“The universe is the ultimate closed system. There is nothing outside it to interact with thermodynamically... All you watching this, you are releasing heat into the universe.”