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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.net in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of 100+ essays on this website.
Ken Wilber and Modern Vedic Evolutionism
Those who have one foot in the scientific and the other in the religious domain risk losing their foothold in both. —Wouter Hanegraaff, author of New Age Religion and Western Culture (SUNY, 1997) (Quoted in )
It is the ambivalence towards science of spiritual movements, and at the same time their claim to "accept" science, we will focus on in this essay.
Researching the notions of involution and evolution—a key feature of Ken Wilber's worldview—on academia.edu, I stumbled on the informative essay "Madame Blavatsky's Children", written by Meera Nanda. It covers in 66 meticulously researched pages the interesting history of the way Western spiritual movements and authors inspired by Eastern philosophy have responded to the insights of evolutionary theory in the past 150 years, and how they all can be traced back to modern Theosophy. Meera is "an Indian writer and historian of science, who has authored several works critiquing the influence of Hindutva [Hindu nationalism], postcolonialism and postmodernism on science, and the flourishing of pseudoscience and vedic science. She currently is a visiting faculty of humanities and social sciences at IISER Pune."
It was at once obvious to me how well Ken Wilber fits into this intellectual tradition.
The Neo-Perennial Philosophy
As is well known, Wilber's earlier works can be seen as "perennialist", but he soon pointed out his point of view is better called "neo-perennialism" for its emphasis on evolution, and more specifically, evolution as a spiritual process. Where traditional perennialism tended to see history as a downfall from golden times, neo-perennialism reverses that view and sees history as the gradual unfoldment of consciousness—quite a philosophical U-turn!
In his The Eye of Spirit (1997) Wilber explains this neologism:
There is one point in particular I would like to single out and stress, namely, the notion of evolution. It is common to assume that one of the doctrines of the perennial philosophy... is the idea of involution-evolution. That is, the manifest world was created as a "fall" or "breaking away" from the Absolute (involution), but that all things are now returning to the Absolute (via evolution). In fact, the doctrine of progressive temporal return to Source (evolution) does not appear anywhere, according to scholars as Joseph Campbell, until the axial period (i.e. a mere two thousand years ago). And even then, the idea was somewhat convoluted and backwards. The doctrine of the yugas, for example, sees the world as proceeding through various stages of development, but the direction is backward: yesterday was the Golden Age, and time ever since has been a devolutionary slide downhill, resulting in the present-day Kali-Yuga. Indeed, this notion of a historical fall from Eden was ubiquitous during the axial period; the idea that we are, at this moment, actually evolving toward Spirit was simply not conceived in any sort of influential fashion.
But sometime during the modern era—it is almost impossible to pinpoint exactly—the idea of history as devolution (or a fall from God) was slowly replaced by the idea of history as evolution (or a growth towards God). We see it explicitly in Schelling (1775-1854); Hegel (1770-1831) propounded the doctrine with a genius rarely equaled; Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) made evolution a universal law, and his friend Charles Darwin (1809-1882) applied it to biology. We find it next appearing in Aurobindo (1872-1950), who gave perhaps its most accurate and profound spiritual context, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) who made it famous in the West.
But here is my point: we might say that the idea of evolution as return-to-Spirit is part of the perennial philosophy, but the idea itself, in any adequate form, is no more than a few hundred years old. It might be 'ancient' as timeless, but it is certainly not ancient as "old."…
This fundamental shift in the sense or form of the perennial philosophy—as represented in, say, Aurobindo, Hegel, Adi Da, Schelling, Teilhard de Chardin, Radhakrishnan, to name a few—I should like to call the "neoperennial philosophy."
It is clear from the above Wilber attempts to create an intellectual lineage for himself, going through German Idealist philosophers and Sri Aurobindo, which includes Darwin in the process. But Darwin wasn't part of that intellectual tradition—far from it. Granted, he says it's hard to pinpoint when this historical change in position actually happened, and that even then, a coherent formulation of the notion of evolution as return-to-Spirit is remarkably recent, "no more than a few hundred years old." But Darwin basically broke with the whole notion of a spiritual or "transformationist" evolutionary process (as many in his time believed in, including his grand father Erasmus Darwin), and proposed a "variationist" view (to use Ernst Mayr's terms), in which variation and selection are the main principles behind the evolutionary process. He most definitely did not "apply Spencer to biology".
It is interesting to know that within the Western esoteric tradition, Theosophy strongly favored the notion of evolution. Compared to more traditional perennialists such as René Guenon, Frithjof Schuon or Huston Smith, who saw Western history as a process in decline, spiritually speaking, Theosophy introduced an elaborate scheme of involution and evolution, placing humanity on the upward arc heading towards divinity. So it was not only very much neo-perennialist from the very start, but influenced many spiritual authors, even if unacknowledged.
As I wrote in my Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (2003):
It is immediately striking that the idea of evolution is a central theme in the theosophical literature. Not biological evolution, but an inner, spiritual evolution, which is said to occur in parallel to the evolution of the different life forms. In The Secret Doctrine (1888) H.P. Blavatsky presents a convincing alternative to Christian creationism and Darwinian evolution, which were the only two options in her day. In her eyes the doctrine of evolution wasn't wrong, as the theologians claimed, but incomplete, due to the fact that it overlooked the subjective component. Although I am not willing to stick my neck out in endorsing all of the statements she makes in her voluminous writing, she has the honor of being the first person to produce this third way of thinking on a large scale in modern times.
Sounds pretty integral to me: "true but partial". But how successful has this spiritual movement been in "including" the scientific notion of evolution, and to what extent has evolutionary science been looked at through the lens of religious ideology? It is the ambivalence towards science of spiritual movements, and at the same time their claim to "accept" science, we will focus on in this essay. Interesting to know that in her The Secret Doctrine Darwin or Darwinism is mentioned over 200 times by Blavatsky—a much fuller and more detailed engagement than Wilber has ever been able to demonstrate.
Modern Vedic Evolutionism
Meera Nanda starts with the observation, that contrary to Christian countries in the West, Hindu society seems to have a high acceptance percentage of the idea of evolution. She immediately notes, however, the discrepancies between a scientific understanding of evolution and its Hindu version. Using a term from Mackenzie Brown, this has been called "Modern Vedic Evolutionism", which "combines ambivalence toward and acceptance of Darwinism." It claims that not only is the science view accepted, but Hinduism knew about evolution, in its various philosophical schools, but also in the popular notion of the incarnations of Vishnu (from fish to "the highest God that is yet to come").
However, she notes:
What immediately stands out about these theories is how deeply and fundamentally they contradict Darwin. While Darwinian theory explains [the] evolution of species by descent from a common ancestor by genetic modification, Hindu teachings assume spirit or consciousness to be the primary force of evolution. Does it not follow, therefore, that one can't believe in the Hindu view of evolution, and in the same breath claim to be in accord with [the] scientific—i.e. Darwinian—understanding of evolution? (p. 282)
Most Hindus will deny such a contradiction, invoking the so called two truths doctrine: at a lower level, Darwinism is correct, as a relative truth, but at a higher level, of absolute truth, Spirit is behind the whole process. Readers of this website will recognize this line of reasoning is common among integral apologists as well.
The burden of this essay is to show that the defenders of Modern Vedic Evolutionism are the children of Madame Blavatksy, the famous or notorious (to some) occultist, who, along with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and others founded the Theosophical Society in New York 1875 and moved it to India in 1879. The entire repertoire of intellectual arguments used to dress up traditional Hindu cosmology in the scientistic costume of progressive evolutionism was created and popularized originally by Madame Blavatsky and her fellow the Theosophists. Hindu reformers of the so-called Indian Renaissance of the 19th century used the template provided by the Theosophists to trim and refashion traditional Hindu doctrines to meet the challenge of the modern world. (p. 284-5)
The list of "Hindu reformers" is quite long, it includes Gandhi, Vivekananda, Swami Dayananda and Keshub Chunder Seen, Sri Aurobindo and Servapalli Radhakrishnan.
Another interesting parallel with integral thought, the strange notion of involution:
Madame Blavatsky was obsessed with the idea of progressive evolution. She set out not to refute Darwin but to out-do Darwinism by turning the idea of evolution the First Principle of the entire cosmos which applied not only to biological species but to everything from crude matter to the subtle stuff that angels are made of. Evolution was not a blind natural process without a goal: rather, the goal of evolution, she believed, was exactly the same as that of Theosophy, namely, divinization of man. This was to be achieved by progressive spiritual evolution, a process that does not end with death but continues over many births until the time the soul--purified through many cycles of rebirth--is ready to be absorbed into the World Soul again. Blavatsky's aim was to unify the scientific theory of evolution of biological species with the Western esoteric belief that the natural world is a manifestation of the spirit and returns to that spirit. She sought to state this unified theory of evolution in a scientific terminology of natural law of cause-and-effect that would be acceptable to modern men and women whose faith in a Creator God had been shaken by the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. (p. 303)
Blavatsky made three innovations which enabled her to fit Darwinism into spiritual evolution: the idea of evolution as a cyclical phenomenon in which each evolution is preceded by a phase of 'involution', karma and rebirth as the mechanism of evolution and thirdly, avataric evolution, or the avatars of Vishnu as representing the progressive evolution of species. All these innovations involved references to Hindu concepts derived in a totally unsystematic manner from a medley of Hindu sacred books that ranged from the Vedas all the way to the Puranas and Tantras. In an eclectic fashion, Hindu doctrines were accepted to the extent they could be fitted into the western occult tradition that owed its origin, as described earlier, to Hermetic and Neoplatonic traditions. (p. 304)
Especially the doctrine of involution is relevant here, because it shows up again and again in Wilber's work. Writes Meera Nanda:
First, involution. According to Blavatsky, Darwin's theory of evolution is not wrong, but only half-true. She agreed that species evolve from simpler forms over very long periods of time--just as Darwinian evolution would have it. But the simpler forms first got there by the decent, fall or 'involution' of the spark of soul that emanates from the One. (p. 304).
Recall Wilber's early statements on involution:
The point, in a phrase, is that the orthodox scientific theory of evolution seems correct on the what of evolution, but it is profoundly reductionistic and/or contradictory on the how (and why) of evolution. But if we look upon evolution as the reversal of involution the whole process becomes intelligible.
And from The Atman Project (1980), another early work:
According to the perennial philosophy, in order for evolution—which is the unfolding of higher structures—to occur at all, those higher structures must, in some sense, be present from the start: they must be enfolded, as potential, in the lower modes. If not, then evolution is nothing but creation ex nihilo, out of nothing. And, as theologians have long known, out of nothing you get nothing—ex nihilo nihil fit. And the story of involution is simply the story of how the higher modes came to be lost in the lower—how they came to be enwrapped and enfolded in the lower states. Involution, or the enfolding of the higher in the lower, is the pre-condition of evolution, or the unfolding of the higher states from the lower.
A few pages later, this is followed by a very strong statement, vintage Wilber:
One cannot, logically, ontologically, or metaphysically derive the higher from the lower. The higher modes can emerge because, and only because, they were enfolded, as potential, in the lower modes to begin with, and they simply crystallize out and differentiate from the lower modes as evolution proceeds.
And to cap it off, in his volume of essays Eye to Eye (1983), we can read an unambiguous statement:
[T]he strict theory of natural selection suffers from not acknowledging the role played by Spirit in evolution.
Make no mistake about it: this is a deeply religious and spiritual view of reality, in which Spirit is the source out of which everything has come forth (during involution) and into which everything will return (during evolution). In Wilber's interpretation of this philosophical doctrine, Spirit is not only the source and the goal, but also the driving force behind this whole cosmic drama. This is the reason why his brand of spirituality is often called "evolutionary"—a misnomer, in my opinion, given Wilber's scant knowledge of evolutionary theory.
Meera Nanda concludes her essay:
This essay has described how evolutionary ideas were incorporated into Western and Eastern esoteric traditions, presented by Theosophy and Hinduism respectively. It has explored how the cultic milieu in the 19th century America and Britain ended up getting enmeshed with the Hindu reformist-revivalist milieu of that time. This essay, moreover, has tried to overcome the amnesia that has so far prevailed over the intellectual contributions of Theosophy to modern Hinduism's accommodation with modern science and evolutionary theory.
Blavatsky is largely much forgotten, and her Theosophical Society itself is no longer much of a presence anywhere in the world. But Theosophical ideas about science and evolution persist in the West in a whole variety of New Age religions. So far, they have not played much of a role in the debates that have raged over Darwinian evolution. The fierce opposition to Darwin in the United States has come from evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, with hardly any contribution, for or against, from the New Age religious movements. (p. 340-1)
Ken Wilber hasn't referenced any Theosophical literature in his works, but it is interesting to remember two of his earliest books, The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977) and The Atman Project (1980), were originally published by the Theosophical Society in America in its Quest Books series (to which a reprint of Up from Eden was added at a later date as well).
For sure this is an interesting field of further study, to put Wilber into historical and esoteric-ideological context. In the final chapter of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion I have put some effort in this direction, comparing Wilber to both traditional perennialism and modern Theosophy. When I checked with Wouter Hanegraaff, a world authority in this field of esoteric history, he wasn't aware of any such studies. It would be helpful if historians of the esoteric traditions would focus their attention on Ken Wilber, as a contemporary integrator of esoteric spirituality and modern science, sharing the fate of many of his predecessors.
To those who, predictably, object that the works of Wilber referenced in this essay belong to an early period in his writing career, usually called Wilber-2, in which he was under the influence of the perennial philosophy, and that he has gone "post-metaphysical" since then in his current Wilber-5 period, I would advise to consult The Religion of Tomorrow (2017). In this massive tome he argues that Spirit not only is behind all of evolution but that the evolutionary process as such—"the evolution from strings to quarks to subatomic particles to atoms to small molecules to massively interconnected molecules to asexual cells and early organisms, for starters"—is "yet more evidence of creative Eros or Spirit-in-action."
More than anything else, this shows Wilbers ambivalence towards modern science, which deals with each of these developments in a rational, empirical and non-mystical manner. He freely speculates about subtle bodies, which supposedly solve according to him the venerable mind-body problem. He claims to have Darwin on board, while at the some time transcending the merely biological level in an all encompassing cosmic-evolutionary vision—"out-doing Darwinism," as Meera Nanda aptly phrased it, indeed.
Ken Wilber is still every inch a perennialist gentleman. A true "child of Blavatsky".
 Frank Visser, "The involution/evolution cosmology, Ken Wilber holds on to an outdated scheme of existence, Review of "The Religion of Tomorrow", Part I, www.integralworld.net, May 2017.
 Meera Nanda, "Madame Blavatsky's Children: Modern Hindu Encounters with Darwinism", in: Jim R. Lewis and Olav Hammer (eds.), Handbook of Religion and the Authority of Science, Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, Volume: 3, Brill, 2010.
 "Meera Nanda", Wikipedia.
 Ken Wilber, The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad, Shambhala, 1997, p. 62-63.
 Frank Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, New York, SUNY Press, 2003, p. 277-278.
 Brad Reynolds, "Real Integral vs. Fake Integral, Transcending-Yet-Including the Knowledge of Science, Part One", www.integralworld.net, January 2019.
 Ken Wilber, Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution, Quest Books, 2007 (1981), p. 305.
 Ken Wilber, The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development, Quest Books, 1980, p. 160-1.
 Ibid., p. 174-5.
 Ken Wilber, Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm, Anchor Books, 1983, p. 205.
 Ken Wilber, The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions , Shambhala, 2017, p. 498. See my 7-part review "Climbing the Stairway to Heaven", www.integralworld.net, May-June, 2017.