Check out my review of Ken Wilber's latest book Finding Radical Wholeness

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).


With Friends Like This...

A Brief Response to Anonymous'
Defence of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything

Frank Visser

The author referred to in this essay has requested to remain anonymous, so I refer to him as Anonymous.

Anonymous's essays display an extreme confidence in the power of the human mind, or at least his own, to fathom the mysteries of God, Spirit and the Absolute. He has dealt with ontology, theology, philosphy, metaphysics, ethics and more—all from an integral point of view. Recently he also published essays touching on scientific matters: in "Evolution, God and Morality" and "In Defence of Ken Wilber's Integral Theory of Everything" he commented on the theory of evolution, as currently understood by science. Leave it to Anonymous to find a proof for the existence of God. He will find it for you in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Since the topic of evolution has been the subject of my attention for the past few years, resulting in a paper demonstrating that Wilber's views on evolution are flawed at best, I was interested to see Anonymous defend Wilber's take on evolution. Not that he approves of the way Wilber has set up his argument, though:

Wilber's approach to this issue involves the theory of evolution. The backbone of this approach is his infamous “half-wing” thought experiment [in A Brief History of Eveything]. Wilber argues that, if form follows function, meaning the test of time favors only that which is “existentially practical,” then wings and flying creatures cannot exist because, at one point, the wing was only half of such, and a half-wing serves no flying purpose.
I think Wilber's rhetoric/delivery of this argument is sloppy, which makes it seem amateur. However, upon reflection, the logic/substance is sheer genius. If form indeed follows function, no matter what, at any cost, and if the accidental form that is a half-wing serves no function, then it must be eliminated from the evolutionary equation.

Anonymous argues that, rather than presenting the facts of empirical science, Wilber is suggesting a thought experiment:

Einstein proved that the thought experiment can be just as powerful if not more so than the physical experiment. I see that Wilber's half-wing thought experiment sufficiently proves that either form doesn't always follow function, or not all evolutionary emergences are “accidental.”

The first option Anonymous doesn't consider; it's the second one that appeals to him in particular.

Put differently, If evolution only favors functionally valuable forms of life, and if non-functional forms can be shown to exist—such as the half-wing, or the half-eye—then it follows that something other then chance must have caused their existence. Perhaps they were "supposed" to be there?

Perhaps the same can be said with regard to the emergence of wings. Just as consciousness or sentience is supposed to emerge, so, too, are winged creatures, capable of flight, supposed to emerge. There is something special about certain aspects of the universe that have manifested out of pure space and time. Perhaps there is a direct correlation between “specialness” and “God.”


The phrase "form follows function" originated in the world of architecture, we learn from a Wikipedia article:

Form follows function is a principle associated with modern architecture and industrial design in the 20th century. The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose.

So the first thing to note is that "form follows function" brings up the whole notion of purpose in evolution, which is rather controversial (see my review of Steve McIntosh' recent book Evolution's Purpose. Are organisms designed because they look that way? Are they therefore proof of design, as the Intelligent Design movement has it? Science tries to explain all apparent design by naturalistic principles. The one that has won out in the history of biological thought is the Darwinian explanation, in which "function follows (variations in) form", rather than the other way around.

Indeed, one of the fields that phrase is in use is evolution, the article continues:

According to Lamarck's long-discredited theory of evolution, anatomy will be structured according to functions associated with use; for instance, giraffes are taller to reach the leaves of trees. By contrast, in Darwinian evolution, form (variation) precedes function (as determined by selection). That is to say in Lamarckian evolution the form is altered by the required function, whereas in Darwinian evolution small variations in form allow some parts of the population to function "better", and are therefore more successful reproductively.

I am not aware of Wilber using "form follows function" as an argument, but Anonymous clarifies it surprisingly as "the test of time favors only that which is 'existentially practical'". That expression would fit more perfectly in a Darwinian context: natural selection favors that which has a functional advantage in the struggle for life. But that functional advantge is made possible by slight variations in bodilly form (keener eyesight, stronger muscles, or a larger brain).

Introduction to Flight | The Physics of Flight
Gliders and Parachuters | The Evolution of Flight
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Leaving that aside for the moment, can we really take a non-functional organism or organ as proof for some "specialness" associated with its character and origin? Is there such a thing as a non-functional form of life? Take the case of the half-wing: is it functionally useless, or as Anonymous says "a half-wing serves no flying purpose"? As discussed on Integral World in many contexts, "What Good is Half a Wing?" is a phrase used by creationists of all times to discredit Darwinism—but in reality it exposed their own ignorance of biological facts. Half-wings are perfectly useful.

From an "Introduction to Evolutionary Biology", posted on

Half a wing may be no good for flying, but it may be useful in other ways. Feathers are thought to have evolved as insulation (ever worn a down jacket?) and/or as a way to trap insects. Later, proto-birds may have learned to glide when leaping from tree to tree. Eventually, the feathers that originally served as insulation now became co-opted for use in flight.

So Anonymous's argument breaks down here, since it hinges on the existence of non-functional organs or organisms. It displays an inherent laziness in failing to explore the wide field of biological research, which has unravelled the mysteries of life that first so baffled us.

I appreciate the fact that Anonymous has stood up to be counted in defending one of Ken Wilber's most controversial views. Since Wilber himself has never taken the trouble to do so, intellectual debate on the merits of Wilberism has been frustrated over the years, if not decades. But I am not at all sure if Wilber's cause is helped by attempts such as Anonymous's, in which Wilber's neglect for the details of empirical science is not exposed or criticized, but on the contrary understood as an example of "sheer genius".

With friends like this, you don't need any critics...

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