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).

Is the Universe Really Winding Up?

Frank Visser

A few Google searches on "Ken Wilber", "universe" and "winding up" reveals the following statements—in reverse chronological order and with emphasis added by me:

“This seems to be the general overall thrust of evolution—and one of the things that is certain about it, is that it won't give up. It simply is there, with an extraordinary power, in the entire cosmos. If you want, the entire Spirit, an infinitely powerful Force, "Eros in action" is covering all of these areas.
—Ken Wilber, "Taking Evolution into Account", video #4 Fourth Turning Conference, 2014.
In a way, this episode helps frame our whole consideration, especially because it so clearly and strongly sets forth a very specific view of what's real and what's not, putting forth a catechism in the materialistic worldview of scientific fundamentalism. During our call, Jeff reflects on how this view simply fails to acknowledge development—how the universe is "winding up" rather than "winding down".
—Editorial, "There's Nothing Above My Shoulders but Kosmic Wonder!", The Integral Livingroom, 2014
The universe, we are told, is winding down. Nothing escapes the remorseless grasp of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics—and with each passing moment, our world, our solar system, indeed our entire galaxy slowly approaches its inevitable heat-death. But this is not the full story, for while the universe is winding down, it is also winding up, bringing forth new forms from old, adding new layers of complexity where there was once only an empty vacuum.
—Corey de Vos, "Kevin Kelly and Ken Wilber—Exploring the Technium",, 2008
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...
—Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything, 2000, p. x.
This split the world of science into two utterly incompatible halves: a biology describing the world winding up, and a physics describing a world winding down. The two arrows of time...
—Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 1995, p. 538
But is it really true that the universe is winding up, as much as it is winding down? In this essay I would like to expose this as sloppy theorizing.

The phrase "the universe is winding up" is popular in Integralese, the vernacular language of the integral community. We sometimes hear that, in human beings, "the universe has become conscious of itself", "evolution has become conscious of itself" or "the evolving universe has become conscious of itself".

In Integralese, that supposed upward drive in the Cosmos (preferably spelled as Kosmos) is a spiritual force of Eros or Spirit, that can be connected with in "evolutionary spirituality". If a religious interpretation is warranted, one always wonders why the opposite cosmic tendency isn't addressed. Where there's Eros, there's Thanatos. And in the end, which one will win? For an answer, see the next section.

The suggestion is often made that cutting edge science—chaos theory and complexity theory are often mentioned—seems to corroborate this religious feeling of cosmic wonder, where "fundamentalistic materialism" seems to be at a loss to explain it. As Integral World contributing author Benjamin has recently explained, there's a huge leap of faith involved here.[1]

Third Rock from the Sun

It always feels good to have cutting edge science on your side. But is it really true that the universe is winding up, as much as it is winding down? In this essay I would like to expose this as sloppy theorizing. The universe as universe is not becoming conscious of anything. Evolution as evolution is not becoming conscious of anything. It just so happens, that in a tiny corner of the universe, called the third rock from the Sun, life has sprung up and a tiny minority of species—actually only one: Homo sapiens—has reached the level of self-conscious awareness, which can reflect on evolution. A rather sobering conclusion.

It is often unclear in what context the term "universe" is used in these integral proclamations. In the quote from Sex, Ecology, Spirituality given above, there's still a clear distinction between the realm of physics and the realm of biology. In the realm of physics, the Second Law of Thermodynamics ("disorder will always increase") reigns supreme, but in the realm of biology, the opposite seems to hold true. For doesn't biological evolution display a trend towards an increasing complexity and order? But it's a small step towards the generalizing statement about the whole Kosmos:

[T]here is an Eros in the Kosmos and I think it is pretty hard to deny that. (Ken Wilber, "Acne Paper Interview with Ken", 2006)

In the quote from A Theory of Everything we see the statements becoming more careless. Now, two views are juxtaposed, "the universe is winding down" versus "the universe is winding up", as if these are alternatives having equal plausibility. Here, the understanding of physics is compared to "simple observation" (?), which sees order everywhere in nature: "life creates order everywhere".

In the conversation Wilber had with Kevin Kelly, again the two views about the universe are contrasted: "for while the universe is winding down, it is also winding up". Why this strong tendency to attribute an upward tendency to the cosmos as a whole? Is it to sustain a new evolutionary spirituality? Has science itself no clue about how stars and galaxies originated or how the diversity of life has come about, on our little planet Earth? Is conventional science denying development? Really?

In the first quote, taken from a recent Integral Living Room conversation which discussed the recent Cosmos television series, in preparation of the seminar "From Cosmos to Kosmos" next month in Boulder, the distinction is picked up again and used to frame "reductionistic science" as incapable to explain the origin of complexity and contrast it with "new science" or "integral science" which supposedly does succeed in this.

We all know how integral science "explains" complexity in nature and human life. It is "Eros in the Kosmos" which is responsible for these mysterious phenomena. Never mind that these "explanations" are empty of content, sterile in generating research and thinly disguised versions of creationism. The very simple fact that the Sun is pouring huge quantities of energy every night and day on our Earth to be used by living organisms should pause every spiritualist attempt at explaining life's complexities. Islands of order are very well possible in an ocean of disorder.[2]

Admittedly, this is quite a long and complicated story, but in my opinion integral discourse hasn't even begun to explore entropy (increasing disorder) and its relation to evolution (increasing order), and the true sources of energy in this cosmos: nuclear fusion in stars.

The Future Looks Black...

Here, not Eros and Thanatos are the main players in this cosmic drama, but gravity and entropy. The authors call this "The Great War".

What is the fate of the Universe in the very long term? In The Five Ages of the Universe[3] a fascinating glimpse is given of these rarely explored areas of cosmology. Where most current popular books deal with the origin of the universe in the Big Bang, this one treats its ultimate future fate.[4] Here, not Eros and Thanatos are the main players in this cosmic drama, but gravity and entropy. The authors call this "The Great War".

A recurring theme throughout the life of the universe is the continual struggle between the force of gravity and the tendency for physical systems to evolve toward more disorganized conditions. The amount of disorder in a physical system is measured by its entropy content. In the broadest sense, gravity tends to pull things together and thereby organizes physical structures. Entropy production works in the opposite direction and acts to make physical systems more disorganized and spread out. The interplay between these two competing tendencies provides much of the drama of astrophysics. (p. xix)

It turns out that "reductionistic" science can very well handle the explanation of the rise of complexity in a universe that is running down.

The authors distinguish between five broad phases of the Universe's life span (and this is an example of Big History, which I have described elsewhere on this website.[5]) Time spans are numbered in cosmological decades. "A cosmological decade... is a division of the lifetime of the cosmos. The divisions are logarithmic in size, with base 10. Each successive cosmological decade represents a ten-fold increase in the total age of the universe." (Wikipedia)

The Degenerate Era
Source: Fate of the Universe
Astronomy 123, James Schombert
  1. THE PRIMORDIAL ERA - In this earliest phase of the Universe, energy existed in the from of radiation which made it impossible for complex objects like stars and galaxies to form. At the end of this period, however, matter formed, and galaxies and stars began forming for the first time.
  2. THE STELLIFEROUS ERA - In this phase, energy is mostly generated through nuclear fusion in stars. (Incidentally, we live in the middle of this star-bearing period.) Big stars burn themselves up relatively fast, smaller stars have an enormously longer life span. But all stars will stop shining in the end when they have used up all of their Hydrogen.
  3. THE DEGENERATE ERA - Energy is present in remaining stellar remnants, mostly white dwarfs. The dominant energy mechanism is the annihilation of dark matter in white dwarfs (compared to nuclear burning in stars in the previous phase).When protons and neutrons decay, radiation remains.
  4. THE BLACK HOLE ERA - The only stellar objects now remaining are black holes, but even they evaporate through a quantum mechanical process known as Hawking radiation. (Incidentally, black holes are not completely black, for they radiate their own types of energy).
  5. THE DARK ERA - "In this cold and distant future, activity in the universe has tailed off dramatically. Energy levels are low and the expanses of time are mind-boggling... Low level annihilation events can also take place, albeit very slowly (Adams & Laughlin, p. xiv-xviii).

To give you an idea of the enormous time periods involved, here's a table (source: Wikipedia):

Ages of the Universe Time Period in 10n years
Primordial Era -50 < n < 5
Stelliferous Era 6 < n < 14
Degenerate Era 15 < n < 39
Black Hole Era 40 < n < 100
Dark Era n > 101

So yes, the universe is definitely running down, and no Eros in the Kosmos will be able to prevent this from happening. Should we become depressed by this? First, truth is not what we like to be true, but what turns out to be true. And within our tiny, tiny lifespan on Earth, there's so much to enjoy and understand, more than we can ever absorb in this lifetime.

The last remaining black hole has evaporated. From this point onwards the universe consists only of photons, neutrinos, electrons and positrons—with no way of interacting with each other. The universe continues to expand forever... but is essentially dead. (


[1] E. Benjamin, "Ken Wilber's Leap of Faith, From Self-Organization to 'Spirit in Action' in Wilber's Fourth Turning of Buddhism",

[2] I won't elaborate on these points here but for detailed arguments please consult "Eloquent Emptiness: the Philosophy of WOW! and the End of Science" and "Entropy and Evolution: Ken Wilber's arguments for "an infinitely powerful force" behind evolution debunked",

[3] Adams, F. & G. Laughlin, The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity, New York, The Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 1999.

[4] L.M. Krauss, A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, New York, The Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012. Especially Chapter 7: Our Miserable Future.

[5] F. Visser, "Integral Theory and the Big History Approach: A Comparative Introduction",, May 2013.

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