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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).
|LIFE IS EARTH-BOUND||LIFE IS UNIVERSAL|
Richard Dawkins is reported to have said in a US radio programme "Life was a happy chemical accident!", for which he was criticized by creationist Perry Marshall, who of course believes in creation. It spurred Marshall to announce his $10 million Origin of Life prize, for anyone who could demonstrate that the genetic code could have evolved by naturalistic means alone (instead of being programmed by a Designer). So while orthodox scientists agree with creationists on the rarity of life, they differ dramatically on their explanation for this rare phenomenon. And where "alternative scientists" (for want of a better word, most are complexity scientists) agree with some spiritually-minded authors that life is most probably everywhere in the cosmos, they might again differ greatly on the precise explanations. In this alternative camp Stuart Kauffman famously said "Not we the accidental, but we the expected". But also: "This theory of life's origins is rooted in an unrepentant holism, born not of mysticism, but of mathematical necessity."
We might add the following complication to this picture: even if life may be ubiquitous in the universe at large, it still does seem to be very rare when we look at our own solar system. We have been to the moon, and photographed many planets by fly-by voyagers, and haven't seen yet any evidence for life—at least not in its complex forms. That means that life only emerges when the proper conditions are met. And these conditions can be quite rare. But from a universal perspective they should be quite common, even on purely statistical grounds.
Where does Ken Wilber fit into this scheme? I have written several essays on the way Wilber has on the one hand pointed to complexity scientists like Stuart Kauffman and Ilya Prigogine in support of his model, while at the same time admitting that they don't subscribe to his spiritual worldview. When pressed to clarify this he replied, at the end of the infamous Wyatt Earp blog postings: "Do I think Mayr or Dawkins or Lewontin or Kauffman believe in telos or Eros that is Spiritual in any way? Absolutely not." He continued:
Virtually all mainstream theorists embrace scientific materialism. So when I say that there are leading-edge problems acknowledged by these theorists, I certainly do not mean that they believe those problems need a spiritual Eros to solve them, nor a transcendental Eros embedded in evolution, nor even a self-organizing drive. Again, virtually all of them believe the problems can also be fully (or certainly mostly) solved by more scientific materialism and physicalism.
For this reason, I have placed Wilber squarely in the spiritual category, and Kauffman in the naturalist camp, even if both may have come to similarly sounding conclusions. But it is paramount to make distinctions where they are due, especially when Wilber has made these emphatically himself as well, as the above quote clearly illustrates. Does it really matter? Most definitely it does. For as much as a materialist explanation for the origin of life on planet Earth will cast doubt on the Christian creation story, for the same reason a purely naturalistic explanation for the phenomena of self-organization will make any spiritual, esoteric or metaphysical scenario obsolete.
With this background we can delve into a recent book, written by science journalist and neuroscientist Bobby Azarian, titled The Romance of Reality. It was published one year ago and received quite some acclaim. Skeptic Michael Shermer wrote, for example: "What is the origin of life and consciousness? Theists answer with God. Atheists say it is all a cosmic accident. But what if, as Bobby Azarian argues in this magisterial account of cosmic evolution, the universe has built into its laws of nature principles of emergence that generate complex adaptive systems that include life and consciousness? What if our cosmic purpose is to create our own cosmic purpose? This book will blow your mind." Blurb-speak notwithstanding, this suggests the breadth and scope of this book. It claims to offer no less than "a unifying theory of reality", which echoes Wilber's "a theory of everything", but is explicitly naturalistic and secular.
Azarian elaborates on this ambitious project:
The major emergences in the self-organization of the universe will be explained mechanistically, so that we may see precisely how and why adaptive complexity and the knowledge it embodies grows inevitably and without bound, as a consequence of the laws of physics and the evolutionary dynamics that emerge from the constraints they impose on matter in motion. In our quest to understand cosmic evolution, we will arrive at a "theory of everything" that we may call a unifying theory of reality. (p. 6)
There are a lot of scientists out there claiming to have some kind of "theory of everything." What makes the idea in this book different, and not just different, but superior in the eyes of a rational skeptic? The ideal theory of everything should not only explain the behavior of fundamental particles and forces but also all natural phenomena, including those that are emergent, like life, mind, culture, science and technology. (p. 82)
But make no mistake, like Kauffman, Azarian makes no reference to spiritual or mystical realities (Kauffman: "Nature is God enough for me"). He fits squarely in the material-alternative quadrant. This is of course how it should be: science should look for naturalistic causes as much as possible, even when the origin of life or consciousness is concerned. Introducing Spirit or Eros is effectively giving up. The question then becomes, does Azarian succeed? Does he cover all bases? And how does he compare with Wilber's model? Azarian has appeared in many online shows available on YouTube, most notably The Joe Rogan Show and The Michael Shermer Show, but also on two integral channels: The Liminal Café and The Integral Stage. So there's a lot to watch and digest here.
THE ENTROPY/EVOLUTION PARADOX
The book consists of three parts. The first Part, "Origins", deals with energy, entropy, the emergence of life and biological information. These are heady topics and I think Azarian does a great job of clarifying its basic concepts. He is sensitive to the paradox between entropy and evolution, between the universal growth of disorder on the one hand, and the pervasive growth towards complexity in evolution on the other. Wilber isn't. He often tried to paint a false dichotomy, as if we have to choose either entropy or evolution (of course he was strongly in favor of the latter). The most notorious quote comes from A Theory of Everything: "The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that in the real world, disorder always increases. Yet simple observation tells us that, in the real world, life creates order everywhere: the universe is winding up, not down. The revolutionary new understanding found in 'chaos' and 'complexity' theories maintains that the physical universe actually has an inherent tendency to create order."
Paradoxes, you might recall, are only apparent contradictions, not real ones. And the contradiction can easily be resolved, as every scientists can explain to you. While the Second Law of Thermodynamics correctly states that entropy (or "disorder") will increase in a closed system, this does not apply to open systems which exchange matter and/or energy with their environments. And the earth receives energy from the sun, day and night (which is also depleting the sun, and thus increasing entropy). Evolution on earth has become possible because life manages to capture this energy and use it to build complexity, emitting heat in the process, and again increasing entropy. As it is often summarized: "energy flow through matter creates order." Without this energy flow, no order is possible. (For this reason, some scientists deny even that self-organization exists, for it does not happen all by itself, or "inherently", as Wilber phrases it, but only under the influence of energy).
Azarian gets this. As do the authors of the Big History school, such as Eric Chaisson and David Christian. Evolution is possible, but only at great costs. Energy costs. Christian: "In both cells and stars, concentrated flows of energy are needed to pay entropy's taxes and overcome the universal tendency of all things to degrade (Origin Story, p. 95). The fact that birds and planes can fly does not deny gravity. It just costs a lot of energy. What is more, biological organisms have evolved because they are able to "dissipate" or burn energy faster than would otherwise be possible. This links energy and complexity to purpose. We might liken it to a hurricane. Hurricanes arise when the right conditions are met: gradients (another key concept missing in Wilber's model) between warm water and hot air need to be reduced. It turns out that hurricanes do this most effectively. (You can even try this out yourself; Google "tornado in a bottle"). Most relevant: there is no design or spirit behind a hurricane, it is a matter of self-organization, which happens when the right energy-conditions are met.
Leaving the intricacies of thermodynamics to the interested reader (Azarian makes a helpful distinction between thermal entropy, configurational entropy and information entropy), the author describes how information and even computation is present from the earliest forms of life. Living systems are informational systems. Again, creationists have jumped on this fact to argue that wherever there is code, a Programmer is required, but Azarian pursues a naturalistic course. DNA can be said to contain information, and even meaning, for a random order of A, C, T and G will not produce anything. Living organisms need to get up to date about their environments to be able to survive. This links life and complexity to meaning or semantics. And ultimately this leads to agency, or free will, or intentional information, which cannot be found in inorganic phenomena. Here too, Azarian sees mind and consciousness as an inevitable consequence of the laws of nature. "The emergence of cognition, and even intelligence, was just as inevitable as the emergence of life. While this statement may sound mystical on the surface, the skeptic should be assured that the underlying explanation is entirely mechanical." (p. 73).
Integrated Evolutionary Synthesis
In Part Two, "Evolution", Azarian describes the task of every living organism: "Presuming the second law of thermodynamics holds everywhere in the universe, then intrinsic in all living organisms, all conceivable agents, is a basic cosmic imperative. By now it should be wired into our brains that the eternal challenge for any ordered system is resisting the natural tendency toward disorder. If you are an adaptive system, simply by existing, you have an existential problem you must overcome" (p. 96). And this task is accomplished by trial-and-error, or actually knowledge creation. "The second law is the impetus for learning." (p 99)
Formalizing all these connections, Azarian gives the following equations:
Adaptation = Statistical Correlation = Mutual Information = Model Optimization = Knowledge Creation
In everyday language: an adapted organism correlates with its environment, stores information about that environment into his inner/mental model and thus generates knowledge proper. This occurs long before we can speak of any conscious mind, even in the most primitive organisms such as bacteria. Organisms are problem solvers, and those who succeed will survive. Azarian frequently quotes Karl Popper as his guiding philosopher. He even formulates what he calls "Popper's principle, which is based on a simple premise: Problems create progress." (p. 107)
Will this process of knowledge creation every end? We don't know, but Azarian is (too?) optimistic. What we do know, is that life and mind can no longer be reduced to particles of matter (which would explain precisely nothing about life and mind), but are emergent levels with their own causal powers and agency. Reductionism thus needs to be replaced by "unification". Extrapolating this process, Azarian tends to more New Age-y statements such as "the cosmos gradually begins to wake up", and sides with excentric physicists like Deutsch and Dyson ("life has a cosmic significance") over more conventional ones like Greene and Carroll ("life is a transient phenomenon"). For the moment, I would say: let's stick to Earth and see how well this new paradigm explains evolution. And again his formulations are decidedly un-Wilberian: "You can have inevitable process without any supernatural or conscious cosmic force [Eros, anyone?] guiding or driving the evolutionary process." (p. 115) Clearly, one can come to quite different conclusions about reality when deeply studying complexity science.
It is interesting to see that Azarian sees his model not as antagonistic to Darwinism (like Wilber frequently frames it), but rather thinks that "it explains the intellectual revolution started by Darwin by explaining the mechanisms of progressive change in the universe on all scales and for all times—past, present, and future—as a result of blind variation and natural selection." (p. 120). Precisely the explanatory principles Wilber tends to ridicule. For example, Wilber's once remarked that "the modern theory of evolution is catastrophically incomplete!"—without pointing out in what sense this is the case, let alone suggesting new explanatory models. Where Wilber gets hysterical when this topic is raised, Azarian admirably deals with the theoretical issues involved. He even sees the major extinctions life has encountered with Popper's principle ("Problems create progress"), for life has always bounced back from these disasters. And he rightly sides with Dawkins over Gould when it comes to defending the notion of evolutionary progress.
This leads invariably towards a reformulation of evolutionary theory: the "integrated evolutionary synthesis". Far from what Wilberians would loosely label as "Integral Evolution" and move on, it is specified in chapter 8 with great care for detail and expertise. Here is one mouth-full formulation (and I leave it for you to chew on):
The integrated evolutionary synthesis—based on the evolutionary epistemoloy-universal Darwinism-universal Bayesianism framework—recognizes that life, mind, society, culture, science, art, and technology are all manifestations of one evolutionary process, one thermodynamic process, one computational process, unified by the concept of knowledge—adaptive complexity's solution to the eternal problem of uncertainty and disorder. (p. 132)
A Cosmic Spirituality
In Part Three, "Transcendence", the wider implications of this new paradigm are explored. First up, the good old mind-body problem. Traditional dualism and reductionist-materialism or physicalism are rejected in favor of new theories such as Integrated Information Theory (developed by Tononi). Rather than dismissing consciousness or free will, these are seen as emergent, and causal in their own ways. It uses Phi as measure of the richness of inner experience, thus can be the basis for an ethical approach to animal suffering. Yet according to Koch, a proponent of IIT, even protons have a tiny form of consciousness. While it is true that information processing, or even integration, happens at these low levels, Azarian wants to reserve consciousness or free will to organisms that are able to model themselves.
In passing, he claims to be able to solve not only the notorious "hard problem of consciousness" (identified by David Chalmers), but also the "hard problem of reality": how can we be sure that the world around us is real? A crucial concept, popularized by Douglas Hofstadter, is the concept of self-reference. Azarian concludes, after many meandering discussions on the topic:
So, what progress have we made in our understanding of the mind-body problem? The solution to this philosophical puzzle comes from recognizing that information is physical... Information is always encoded in a material substrate and cannot exist apart from that substrate, and that includes the information manipulated by human minds... Minds can't be reduced to brains [materialism], but they also cannot be separated from them [dualism]. It seems more appropriate to say that minds are an emergent property of systems that are configured to process and integrate information. (p. 241)
Recall that Wilber proposed his own solution (or should we say "dissolution"?) of the mind-body problem, in the form of a double-aspect theory in which mind and body co-exist, on many levels and are unified only in a state of contemplation. This leaves the question of the interaction between mind and body—the classical mind-body problem—still unexplained, which philosopher Christian de Quincy has made clear on various occasions.
In the closing chapter called "Transcendence and Enlightenment" Azarian speculates about the global brain, the singularity, space travel and so on, as a logical extension of the evolutionary principles discussed in his book. If moving to other planets poses a problem, he is confident that "Problems create progress", as the Popperian dictum goes. If the sun will explode in a few billion years, that too might be a problem we may overcome, he assures us, as long as we are able to meet our energy requirements. "Since it'll be at least five billion years until the sun burns out, humans have more than enough time to evolve into hyper-intelligent post-biological beings capable of improving themselves recursively, transcending mortality and all its constraints." (p. 250) I thought the lifespan of species rarely exceeds the million years?
Yet, these far-out future scenarios aside, does Azarian have an explanation for why there is anything at all? Why does the cosmos seem to be fine-tuned for life? He points to Deism, the belief that the cosmos with all its laws has been set up by some mysterious Deity, who has receded in the background and never interferes with his creation, let alone with our human affairs. Even Dawkins allegedly admitted he could be persuaded to such a notion, if that would mean that God was " a sufficiently advanced intelligence." (p. 260) At least the non-parsimonious multi-verse model could be avoided. But Azarian proposes a different solution to the fine-tuning problem; it is called "cosmological natural selection", and it is endorsed by Dawkins and Dennett alike. It states that, following Hawking, black holes might produce universes that slightly differ from their parent-universe, thus setting up a Darwinian process in motion: a Darwinian multiverse. Even quantum-Darwinism comes along (p. 272) as proof that "reality is fundamentally Darwinian."
Where does that leave us as far as our task ahead? "Promoting an awareness of our emergent cosmic purpose will facilitate exponential technological and social progress that can allow life to continually progress and the biosphere to extend itself, out into the cosmos." (p. 276) Yet, at the same time, Azarian argues for our responsibility for all sentient life on earth, "since life critically depends on entire ecosystems for survival." (p. 276) This he feels as a spiritual obligation. But it is a spirituality that is fully secular, in the spirit of Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein. It is not a spirituality of meditation or gurus, but a call to exercise our evolutionary potential to the fullest. He calls this "meta-awareness", the feeling of being part of a larger whole, be it the global brain or the biosphere. It is a "cosmic perspective", but perhaps world-centric would be more appropriate, when it comes to solving the problems we encounter on Earth. For if problems create progress, I would say we have enough of them already, and we need all our capacities for cooperation to solve them.
"Religion" is another loaded term, but a spiritual ideology that is guided by science and aided by technology, that has a universal morality and a shared existential goal, will be the worldview of the future. It has to be, if we want our civilization to survive. Under the cosmic perspective, there is no "us versus them", there is only "we." Since we're all part of an interdependent whole, our goals should be to try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people." (p. 278)
In the "Acknowledgements" at the end of the book it turns out Azarian has deep ties with the famous Santa Fe Institute and its collaborators, and in particular was a friend of the late Harold Morowitz, co-author of the massive tome The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere (2016) and author of the wonderful book The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex (2004), and more importantly of the classic Energy Flow in Biology (1968). It is clear that in this paradigm, energy plays a pivotal role, as we have seen in this review. Where spiritual philosophies like Wilber's tend to speculate with the concept of emptiness (or Spirit) and form, here it is energy and form that run the show—a far-reaching difference, and much more grounded in scientific research. Hence, the romance of reality. This energy dimension is greatly undervalued in integral theory, and Azarian's narrative forms a sound corrective to that omission. The influence of Morowitz also shows in the last paragraph of the book, title "The Road to Omega", a phrase reminiscent of Teilhard de Chardin—the very person Morowitz dedicated his The Emergence of Everything volume to. So here is at least a link with spirituality, even though it does not dominate at all, but it is curious enough to mention in a throughout secular and naturalistic book.
 Frank Visser / ChatGPT, "The Great Mystery: Are We Alone in the Universe?", www.integralworld.net
 Perry Marshall, "Was Life a 'Happy Chemical Accident'???", Facebook, 12 June 2019. Marshall is author of Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design, BenBella, 2015.
 Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, Oxford University Press, 1995.
 See: Frank Visser, "Is Stuart Kauffman Really Ken Wilber's Ally?", www.integralworld.net
 See: Frank Visser, "Looking Closer at Ilya Prigogine, And at how Ken Wilber Co-Opts his Work for his Own Agenda", www.integralworld.net
 Ken Wilber, "Take the Visser Site as Alternatives to KW, But Never as the Views of KW", www.kenwilber.com, June 27, 2006. Archived on Integral World.
 Bobby Azarian, The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity, BenBella, 2022.
 "Is the Universe Developing Consciousness?", PowerfulJRE, YouTube, 9 jun 2022. (1.9 million views)
 "Is there purpose in the cosmos? (Bobby Azarian)", Skeptic, YouTube, 12 jul 2022.
 "The Liminal Café (Ep. 5: Bobby Azarian)", The Liminal Cafe, YouTube, 3 jan 2023.
 "An Integrated Evolutionary Synthesis (Dialogue with Bobby Azarian)", The Integral Stage, YouTube, 11 April 2023.
 Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality, 2000, p. x.
 See: Frank Visser, "Integral Theory and Cosmic Evolution, A Naturalistic Approach", www.integralworld.net
 See: Frank Visser, "The Dissipative Universe and the Paradox of Complexity, A Review of David Christian's 'Origin Story'", www.integralworld.net
 See: Frank Visser, "'The modern theory of evolution is catastrophically incomplete!', Ken Wilber's Emotive Dealings with Evolutionary Theory", www.integralworld.net
 Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy, Shambhala, 2000, chapter 14: The 1-2-3 of Consciousness Studies, and "An Integral Theory of Consciousness", Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 (1):71-92 (1997)