f A Sad Tale of The Pandit's New Clothes, Celebrating Frank Visser's 150th Essay, David Lane

Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank 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).

The Emperor's New Cloths
"The Emperor's New Clothes" (1849), V.Pedersen (1820 - 1859), Wikipedia

A Sad Tale of The
Pandit's New Clothes

Celebrating Frank Visser's 150th Essay

David Lane

Currently I don't do anything with "spirituality", I just think it is wonderful to be alive, and get to know reality.

DL: You have spent years studying the work of Ken Wilber. What do you find to be his greatest intellectual contributions?

FV: I would select the pre/trans fallacy, the four quadrants and the idea of a spiritual humanism.

1. The pre/trans fallacy only works within the discipline of transpersonal psychology of course. If there's no trans, there's no possible confusion of pre and trans. But assuming a trans dimension (trans-rational, trans-personal, trans-x) it makes sense to make a sharp distinction between the pre and the trans -- even if they look very much alike.

2. The four quadrants are a very accessible and appealing framework to apply to the various domains of science, mostly those sciences that involve human experience. Hence the many applications in medicine, law, management, art, etc. It is not without its own problems, as documented in the Reading Room, but it makes intuitive sense.

3. The idea of a "spiritual humanism" or "spiritual liberalism" is appealing too because you seem to get the best of both worlds, a science-based view of reality and at the same time room for interiority, personal growth and transcendental experiences. But I don't buy Wilber's metaphysical speculations about Spirit and Spirit-driven evolution.

I also think that his views on the Culture Wars are helpful. The clash between the premodern, modern and postmodern value systems creates an explosive mix that can only be moderated, he suggests, from a post-postmodern or integral perspective. Seeing these three or four as developmental phases clarifies a lot. But because postmodernism's relativism denies all development, this larger context of growth has becomes suspect. Wilber tries to get our culture back on track again by restoring this developmental view of culture.

In this context he has interpreted the unexpected rise of Trump as a temporary setback created by a dysfunctional postmodernism. I would love to see informed reviews of his booklet on Trump that can substantiate or refute this claim. Unfortunately, this narrative is marred by a pseudo-scientific view of evolution (is is all "an evolutionary self-correction"), which doesn't help getting his message heard among the educated public.

Of all the books you have read by Ken Wilber, which book do you think is his best? Why? Which book is his worst? Why?

My top 3 of Wilber's best books would be:

1. A Brief History of Everything (1996) - because of the easy flow of the text, in conversational format, and the breadth of topics covered. It was a "SES for Dummies" which has served this purpose very well. I also like it because I translated it into Dutch, so have a very intimate connection with it.

2. A Sociable God (1983) - because it addresses the academic fields of the science of religion more than any other book. It even contains a critical discussion of the work of prominent scholars of religion. Considering the slim size of the book it is the most pregnant of all of his titles.

3. The Atman Project (1980, and its twin-title Up from Eden, 1981) because it has a freshness, conciseness and focus not found in Wilbers later works. It effectively uses the ladder metaphor, applying it to the individual and socio-cultural dimensions.

To the worst three I count the following titles:

1. A Brief History of Everything, again! - this book contains the pages abour evolutionary theory where Wilber tries to frame neo-Darwinism and implies we need something spiritual to explain evolution. This is the worst part of his complete oeuvre as far as I am concerned.

2. Integral Psychology (2000) - This was clearly written in a rush, to be able to include it (as first edition) in the Collected Works. It doesn't cover any recent work done in psychology but is just a summary of Wilber's own views.

3. Integral Spirituality (2006) - Because of its horrible, aggressive style and self-promoting quality. It barely covers the field of spirituality, and neglects most of the right-hand quadrants. It also loosely dismisses competing views.

You have been severely critical of Ken Wilber and parts of his Integral Theory for many years. What are the three greatest weaknesses in Wilber's ideas and presentation?

1. First and foremost: misrepresenting the field of evolutionary theory while at the same time claiming to have "the only theory" that exclusively explains evolution. Trading science for poetry, metaphor and myth doesn't cut it for me.

2. His closed-mindedness when confronted with criticism and challenges. Given the decades long time spent on like-minded authors and movements, this is an imbalance in the integral culture actively generated by Wilber.

3. His repetitiveness, both in his treatment of evolution and other topics, meant to indoctrinate his readers instead of informing them accurately about science or encouraging them to think for themselves.

What books/authors do you feel Integral World readers should have on their bookshelves to better appraise Ken Wilber and Integral theory?

I have learned a lot from the popular-scientific evolutionary literature (Dawkins, Gould, Coyne, Dennett, Ruse, Margulis, Zimmer, Quammen, Sapp, etc.) and some of the creationists (Behe) and have moved on to more in-depth studies in the online available literature.

In the past decade I have not covered any other field to compare with Wilber. One has to specialize to get deeper. But I do think partial critiques of Integral Theory have a value of their own. It is not a matter of replacing Integral Theory with reductionistic science but of better integrating science into the integral framework.

What I learned from these conventional introductory works on evolutionary theory is how much is actually understood by science, and that it is rather premature to introduce immaterial influences to explain the emergence of complex life forms (this includes notions of Eros, Spirit, free-floating information, cosmic quantum fields, synchronicity, psi science, morphic resonance)—if that can even make sense at all.

So related to this particular field, I would mention: Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True, Michael Ruse, Darwinism and Its Discontents, Carl Zimmer, The Tangled Bank and David Quammen, The Tangled Tree.

When it comes to a critical look at Integral Theory itself, Jeff Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition (2010), first serialized on Integral World and years later published in book form, is a superb example of clear and calm reflection on the many questionable claims and exaggerated statements Wilber has made.

You can even see evolution as driven by “Spirit-in-action,” which I think is the only theory that can actually explain the mysteries of evolution satisfactorily. —Ken Wilber (The Religion of Tomorrow, 2017, p. 14)

Can you tell us a little about your own spiritual journey and how it has changed over the years?

In my twenties I headed for India and studied the psychology of religion, with an emphasis on meditation and mysticism. I was an Osho sannyasin for a few years (before the movement in Oregon collapsed). Before that I had immersed myself in Theosophy and esotericism, but during my psychology studies (early '80) I discovered Wilber's work, by picking up No Boundary around 1982. I had the feeling he could give the whole esoteric/mystical field more scientific backbone and relevance.

However, it was precisely because of Wilber's weak treatment of science that I fell out of that world. Perhaps you can call it a "retro-conversion". Suddenly the materialist worldview (which I had resented and argued against for 30 years) began to make sense. Instead of higher spheres and spirit-driven evolution (a central tenet of Theosophy), I investigated its dreaded alternative: what if matter and energy run the whole cosmic show? What if we are branches on a huge Tree of Life, which goes back in an unbroken chain to our last universal common ancestor, in specifiable steps?

I tend to write books about the fields I am deeply involved into, which resulted into Seven Spheres (1995, on Theosophy) and Thought as Passion (2003, on Wilber), just to clarify my own mind about these topics. Perhaps my next book should be called Twigs on a Tree?

Currently I don't do anything with "spirituality", I just think it is wonderful to be alive, and get to know reality.

Why do you think Ken Wilber is so resistant in dealing with skeptics who are critical of his ideas?

I have never found an answer to that. His dismissive attitude ("you just don't get it", to use one of the more polite phrases) doesn't make sense to me, and doesn't belong to a growth-oriented school of development which explicitly includes the rational mind. His defensiveness must have deep psychological causes, as is his tendency to isolate himself from the field of academia (just read Meyerhoff, for starters).

At his current age of 70 he should have received a "liber amicorum", or as the English say in good German, Festschrift, with contributions by famous scientists or philosophers who reflect on his life's work, but instead he is doing video-sessions from his loft which mostly sit behind a paywall. And the "Tribute to Wilber" session of some years ago that comes closest to this was embarrassingly reverential and excessively adulatory, a true in-group celebration.

Early 2000, I was asked to be a co-editor of a Shambhala volume-to-be called Kindred Visions, which supposedly would include many contributions from scientific or philosophical luminaries, reflecting (favorably) on Wilber's work, but it was never published, mostly due to lack of quality of the contributions. These days my interest would be more in a Contrarian Views volume, to shake up the integral field from its complacency.

If you are told every day how great you are, you will in the end start believing it yourself.

This has encapsulated the whole project within the boundaries of a cult, with all the negative connotations belonging to that. Given the fact that Wilber claims to have "the only theory" that can explain evolution, while at the same time failing to engage any current evolutionary school, nor provide any details about his own solution, or defend his views in any scientific community of the adequate, the whole situation very much is a case of "The Pandit's New Clothes".

A sad tale indeed.

And no, Wilber doesn't have a theory of evolution, only a theology of evolution. So let me be the child that says "the pandit has no theory!"

If you are told every day how great you are, as in the current Ken Show sessions on Integral Life, you will in the end start believing it yourself.

Additionally, how is your relationship with Wilber now, especially after all your published articles where you take him to task?

I haven't been on speaking terms with him since the mid-2000. It was after "Wyatt Earp" that I decided I had to part ways with this cultic milieu. In the '90 I had very frequent communication with him through fax exchanges, but that was in the time he was still my hero.

Of course implicitly we are still related because occasionally he has responded to my work, without being very explicit. But with the use of phrases like "suck my dick" or "just fuck off", it is clear that a moderate and serious discussion about his work is doomed from the start.

Quite odd—and telling—that my sustained critique of a central tenet of Wilber's philosophy (evolution as Spirit-in-action), which was actually inspired by your own 1997 blogpost, has not been responded to for two decades by Wilber.

I consider this a tragedy and an unnecessary one at that, because a lively discussion between Wilber and different types of criticism would benefit everyone—including Wilber himself.

Natural selection has its limits... but taken as a whole, it is the key to understanding the organic world. There is no call for theory change yet, nor is there any prospect of such change in the near future. —Michael Ruse (Darwinism and Its Discontents, 2006, p. 165)

Of all the articles you have published on Integral World, which three or four are you most proud of? Why?

I have written about 150 essays for Integral World now, since early 2000. In the first five years I still defended Wilber against his critics, but after 2005 I emphasized "talking back to Wilber", instead of just parroting his ideas.

1. "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered" (2010), because it summarizes Wilber's statements on evolutionary theory over 40 years and exposes their shallowness and lack of expertise (and real interest in the subject).

2. "Integral Theory and the Big History Approach" (2013), because it connects Integral Theory to a related but complementary field, showing its lack of grounding in the sciences of complexity.

3. "Demystifying Evolution" (2015), because it explicitly connects Wilber to the creation/evolution debate, which he hasn't covered in any detail, other than in footnotes and occasional statements.

4. "Equilibrium is Death" (2016), because it summarizes my findings of the "paradox of complexity": how complexity can still arise in a universe that is unmistakably winding down. A much more exciting view than "Spirit-does-it"!

5. "Climbing the Stairway to Heaven" (2017), the seven-part series of reviews of Wilber's latest volume The Religion of Tomorrow (2017). Especially Part III about Wilber's stated reasons for his re-coloring of Spiral Dynamics.

In general, I would add the essays I wrote in which I compared Wilber's vision to that of Bill Bryson, Stuart Kauffman, Daniel Dennett, Harold Morowitz, Ilya Prigogine, the Theosophical tradition, etc., because they establish connections with similar/different points of view. It is by contrasting and comparing views that deeper insight is gained.

If you could say just a few words to Ken Wilber about his current work, what would it be?

Stop repeating yourself endlessly and open yourself up to challenges and criticism—even actively invite them. Not to quickly demonstrate how right you are, but with a genuine interest in where your views might be less than solid.

In sum: you claim to have "the only theory that can actually explain the mysteries of evolution satisfactorily" (The Religion of Tomorrow, 2017, p. 14)—except that it isn't a theory at all. It is merely mystical poetry. You have no idea about the nuts and bolts, the mechanisms, the when and how and what and why of evolution. So I would urge you to stop making unfounded claims about this particular field of science.

Philosopher and historian of biology Michael Ruse concluded in his balanced survey of critiques of Darwinism past and present:

Natural selection has its limits—limits that haven been recognized since the time of Darwin (he himself noted many of them)—but taken as a whole, it is the key to understanding the organic world. There is no call for theory change yet, nor is there any prospect of such change in the near future. (Darwinism and Its Discontents, 2006, p. 165)

Natural selection is the main cause of biological diversity, such as elephants and giraffes, and yet you keep ridiculing, and misrepresenting, its basic ideas. Self-organization, a principle you keep touting as the missing explanation, is operative at a different level (cells and molecules, not species). And even if self-organization is a real phenomenon (or rather: real but different phenomena in different domains), it definitely is not Spirit-driven, nor any evolutionary panacea that solves all problems.

So I say it again: regarding this topic the Pandit has no clothes. Please put them on.


The Emperor's New Clothes (Plot) - A vain emperor who cares too much about wearing and displaying clothes hires two weavers who claim to make the most beautiful clothes and elaborate patterns. The weavers are con-men who convince the emperor they are using a fine fabric invisible to anyone who is either unfit for his position or "hopelessly stupid". The con lies in that the weavers are actually only pretending to manufacture the clothes. Thus, no one, not even the emperor nor his ministers can see the alleged "clothes", but they all pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions. Finally, the weavers report that the suit is finished and they mime dressing the emperor who then marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the pretense, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Finally, a child in the crowd blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is then taken up by others. The emperor realizes the assertion is true but continues the procession. (Wikipedia)

The vain Emperor Ken Wilber
The two weavers Vedic evolutionists
The invisible cloths ‘Spirit-in-action’
The hopelessly stupid First tier people
The ministers The integral circle
The townsfolk Wilber's readers
The child in the crowd The Wilber critics

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