Sunday, August 29, 2010

The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered

Just to let you guys know I have summarized my concern's about Ken Wilber's view of evolution in a paper which was presented at the 2nd Integral Theory Conference. The paper "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered" won an honorary mention in the category Constructive Criticism.
However, the audience of that conference did not seem to know much about the subject of evolution, nor care about knowing more. Currently, integral discourse is very much focused on AQAL theory and it's applications. (Nicely captured by Hugh Martin in his recent Integral World posting "The Tyranny of AQAL").
Still, evolutionary theory forms the interface between integral and science. Is integral willing to "give" this field to science, as Wilber once suggested (tired of all the criticism his opinions on evolution have generated)? Or is there still a case to be made for "spiritual evolution", that does not misinterpret science from the start?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ken Wilber's Mysterianism

In a recent members-only video on Integral Life, titled "Can Evolutionary Science Explain Evolution Itself? / The Mystery of Evolution", Ken Wilber reiterates his view on evolution before a group of students. (Though the larger part of the video is about first-person consciousness, and the inability of science to explain it—or does science perhaps just say consciousness is not what we think it is? We will focus here on evolution proper).

In this video, Wilber clarifies his position: science is helpful with phenomena "once they have arisen", but is unable to explain phenomena "when they appear for the first time". For this, something else is needed, Wilber calls it in his writings and talks: Eros, Spirit-in-Action, or let's just call it God. Consequently, such a spiritual view of evolution generates feelings of awe, as testified by one of his students and approved by Wilber.

I consider this view to be the result of lazy thinking and in the end harmful. It does not explain anything. It is anti-science. It makes an easy division in on the on hand reductionistic science, which does its own job of clarifying the details of nature, and on the other hand, evolutionary spirituality, which "explains" evolution and provides an inspiring wordview of growth.

Read more:

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Integral Politics, Integral Political Party, Integral Political Science

In this weeks Integral Naked session, Wilber gives away a free video on the Third Way of Integral Politics. Check it out: The tone of voice is much more modest then earlier treatments. Wilber says it's all very complicated and we need decades of discussion. Now we're talking business.

Concerning the upcoming US Presidential elections, he laments the impossibility of getting an integral candidate elected, in a democracy, because there are so few integral people around to vote for them. (But then again, even atheists have zero chance of getting elected for President in the United States!). So the best we can hope for is a US presidential candidate who is "integrally informed". According to Wilber, things are looking good on that front: Bill Clinton has read him, Gore has, Hillary knows about AQAL, Jebb Bush ("the brother that reads") ditto, even Karl Rove has... Mmmm, not so sure where that will bring us...

Wilber also discusses the two-pary system in the US that, according to him, has now served its purpose. He pleads for a reform of the political system. But hey, we over here in Europe know all about this parliamentary democracy or many-party system, where coalitions between parties determine who rules and who's in the opposition.

The problem with any emerging third party in the US is, I think, that it will always weaken the main party which it resembles most. So a left wing third party will weaking the Democrates, so the Republicans will win. A right wing third party will weaken the Republicans, so the Democrats will win. That is really a losing proposition.

Wilber explains that while a traditionalist vote - to avoid using color meme terminology -- would normally be Republican, and a humanistic vote would be Democrat, a rationalist could vote both (rationalist-freethinker vs. capitalist-conservative). What would that pattern look like for an integralists vote? Would these votes always be "strategic" (what's best for the country, given its meme constellation?) or would they have preferences of their own?

However, before we start thinking about integral politics and integral political parties or presidents, it would in my opinion be good to focus first on integral political science. Integral is first and foremost an attempt to understand a particulare field of thought by including as many perspectives as possible. So if Wilber can include in his model both left and right, both indivdualist and collectivist, both traditional, modernist and humanist, then this analysis should be offered to specialists in the field of politicology, to see if it really makes sense.

Then, and only then, should we consider applying it to the real world, but not before. Parties and Presidents are a premature topic.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Evolutionary Science, Fundamentally Confused?

In the introductory text of a recent Integral Naked audio, a talk between Ken Wilber and Rupert Sheldrake ("Integral Evolutionary Biology"), this astonishing statement can be read:

There is perhaps no field of human inquiry more fundamentally confused than evolutionary science—especially given its monumental task of trying to essentially account for the entire history of the manifest world, from the Big Bang to this present moment in time, along with every mutation, deviation, and transformation in between.

After Wilber has himself given such a thoroughly confused presentation of the status of evolutionary theory (see "The Wilberian Evolution Report"), he still has the guts to present his own theory as a revelation:

It is an extraordinary science that requires an equally extraordinary framework, comprehensive enough to make sense of the entire spectrum of evolutionary emergence—especially as it becomes increasingly necessary to explain things like consciousness, hermeneutics, and spirituality in evolutionary terms.
The talk with Sheldrake, predictably, barely touches on the subject of evolutionary biology, or any of the topics which are debated in this field of science. It is a long monologue of Wilber, endured politely by Sheldrake, trying to convince Sheldrake of his particular take on holons, going back to the old legends of how he discovered his holonic model by comparing all existing evolutionary models.

Talking about confusion. On the vexed question whether natural evolution can produce eyes and wings on its own (i.e. without the assistence of some higher Force, Spirit, Eros, God), Wilber has subsequently stated:

  • "Absolutely not - absolutely nobody believes this anymore."
  • "Evolution can't explain shit, deal with it".
  • "Give me a break on this, I know the subject inside out."
  • "Well, biologists may still believe it, but I know what they are really thinking."
  • "Well, eyes and wings are perhaps possible, but the immune system is not".
  • "Anyways, whatever materialistic biology comes up with, we will include it in our system."
  • "I never meant that statement about eyes and wings to be taken literally, it was just a metaphor for the complexity of evolution."

Yeah, right. And it is precisely this complexity that evolutionary theory tries to unravel, in its own careful way. With metaphors, if necessary, but never with "bad poetry" (see: Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow), which only misleads the reader into thinking that science has found no way of explaining the evolution of eyes and wings. Which is patently false.

An "integral evolutionary biology" could mean so much more: a careful positioning of the various authors (Dawkins, Gould, Mayr, Lewontin, Kaufman, even Sheldrake, etc.) within the landscape of biology. But that requires a lot more then saying: evolutionary biology belongs to the Lower-Right quadrant, so we will include it, but without the reductionism. Bla, bla, bla...

One of Wilber's main poins of criticism is that evolutionary biology (and materialistic science in general) excludes, or explains away, interiority. In this audio, Wilber again makes his habitual statement that transcendental reality should no longer be seen as something that is beyond matter, but as "something within" (which is the hallmark of Wilber-5, his current phase of thinking).

Unfortunately, he has never, in his recent online and published writings, fleshed out this statement, though his very post-metaphysical turn depends on it. If metaphysics speaks of transcendental realities, and post-metaphysics (as generally understood) denies them, where exactly does Wilber's integral post-metaphysics stand? It denies them, but not entirely? Not beyond, but within? Isn't that just a semantic manoeuvre?

Again, bad poetry which deludes the reader into thinking that something has been explained.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Some Convenient Truths

Al Gore's documentary about global warming "An Inconvenient Truth" had a clear message to the world: our continued use of fossil fuels will spell disaster for our immediate future. So we have a responsibility to restrain ourselves, cut back on our systematic waste of energy, and turn the tide if at all possible. Some have pointed to exaggerations or factual errors in Gore's presentation. Wilber has devoted an Integral Naked session with best seller author Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park) on the topic framing this anti-warming crusade as a green-religious effort, that is supposed to make us feel guilty about how we degrade Mother Earth. Now, isn't this a very convenient truth? So we can go on burning up our resources?

Take the Middle East. The received view is that the Israeli people settled in a land largely empty of inhabitants, upon which they were attacked by all their neighbours, and are justified in claiming more and more fruitful land, for their growing population, to this very day. Backed up by huge financial and military US support. Again, a very convenient truth. Don't mention the fact that in a period of sixty years three million refugees have been put in refugee camps, whose future fate even today is barely a topic of negotiation. And in the meantime, Israel is taking more and more land, keeping Palestinians into some kind of reservation area in Gaza and the West Bank. Where one casualty on the side of Israel justifies killing 150 Palestinians in revenge. And only Libya, of all countries, had the nerve to point this out in a recent Security Council meeting.

Take Iraq, again. Yesterday on Dutch television there was a documentary about how the US has "sold" the Iraq war to the world, and how many (though not as many as they wanted) "bought" it. How Colin Powell, whose credibility was only slightly less then Mother Teresa at that time, had to tell a pack of lies to the UN, even to the point of waving a tube of Antrax before the audience (which contains talk powder). Or a major press conference, in which a Dutch and Danish army officer were standing right behind the US speaker, signalling to the audience the large "coalitionof the willing", while none of these countries were involved in the war efforts at that time. Isn't it ironic that the country which has the largest number of weapons of mass destriuction invades a country which is supposed to have these weapons, which turns out not to be true, but then it invades it anyway, because of connections with Al-Qaeda, which turn out to be non-existent.... Is there any reality check here other then: we have to grab the oil before it's too late? Wilber's take on the Iraq war has more or less been: even if one doesn't agree fully with Bush, it takes a Blue Bush to smash a Red dictator like Saddam in the face. Not to mention other dictators in the word, past or present, who have been left alone or have even been actively supported by the US, when it served their interests.

Or take the vexed topic of Wilber criticism. The received view in the Integral scene is that most critics misrepresent or misunderstand (or both) Wilber, so they can be safely ignored. Or they are "bad critics" because they don't have the right "altitude" to understand his lofty visions. Or,... well you get the picture. Enough to stifle a debate from the start. Another very convenient truth. So let's just promote Wilber's next, next views, and ignore any of his critics. What's their problem? It's echoes the feeling many in the US had after the 9/11 attacks: "why does the world hate us?". Integral Ideology is it's proper name. Criticism is well... inconvenient.

I personally would like to hear more about Integral views on these topics which really take a look at these convenient truths.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Wilber Assessment vs. Advertising

The Integral Vision, the latest product of the Integral marketing machine, is a rehash of material from Integral Spirituality, most notably its Introduction. It would have been fine to warn readers that they bought nothing new, except a lot of flashy techno-erotic illustrations, and a couple of "1-minute excercises" included in Integral Life Practice. The overall tone is: we are an organization that has truth on its side, has a method that is the most effective, and above all: you can join us. Not a shadow of doubt falls over these pages. Marketing has won over arguments. Advertising has won over assessment.

Very few people seem to be interested in Wilber assessment. Just how strong is the evidence Wilber claims for his theories? "Staggering" as he claims, or debatable, even shaky? How trustworthy is he when he reports about science, be it evolutionary theory, cultural studies or psychology?

Two recent publications on Integral World raise pertinent questions. Jim Chamberlains long awaited analysis of Wilber's statements regarding science, "Whither Ken Wilber", is worthy of close reading. Where does Wilber actually stand in debates about science and religion?

"My interest in getting a clearer sense of Ken Wilber's philosophical stance on certain open questions about the origin and evolution of life, the relationship between psychological events and physical events, and the relation of science and religion was piqued when I began to notice that more than a few Wilberians seemed to use terms such as "flatland materialism," "quadrant absolutism," and "gross reductionism" to characterize and thereby dismiss from serious consideration just about anything they didn't happen to agree with."

Recenty another critical piece has been added: a review of Integral Spirituality by Jaap Schaveling, a Dutch programme manager of the prestigious Nyenrode Business University, who has a deep interest in spirituality and psychotherapy. He writes about Wilber's inadequate referencing of scientific research:

"Occasionally the book refers readers to for additional footnotes, but it is impossible to locate them in the site. An investigative email message to the publisher received no reply. His literature references and research bases contain barely any new material in comparison with his previous books. His references are far too general and a bit too thin on the ground. This makes it very difficult to check whether one of his propositions has indeed been properly supported by good research." One of his conclusions: "AQAL is a Story, No More, No Less. It is a pity that Wilber seems to have lost the ability to keep that perspective himself."

These sober and sobering assessments of Wilber's latest writings are few and far between. I ended my review of Integral Spirituality a few months ago by expressing the wish "Hopefully other critical assessments of the merits of this book will be written, for it will most likely remain Wilber's take on spirituality for years to come." This invitations still stands!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Integral Politics

In a recent Integral Naked dialogue, "Escaping Flatland, Part II", Wilber discusses the contours of Integral Politics as he sees it. He gives a good summary of the points he has made in the three chapters published so far of his The Many Faces of Terrorism manuscript. These chapters, unfortunately, lack focus. If this, after all those years, is Wilber's choice of genre for conveying his vision of integral politics, we're really lost.

Wilber's conclusion and implicit advice to presidential candidates of the Democratic Party: if Green attacks Orange, Blue wins. Decrypted into normal political language: if left-wing politicians alienate the rationalist, industrialist, secular sections of society by their anti-America rethoric, they will turn to the Republicans and cause them to win the elections. Or as Wilber says it in his usual caricaturistic way: You can't win the elections by saying "I hate my country, vote for me".

However, with all its claim to universality, it is still very much directed at the context of US politics, which has a two-party system of Liberals/Democrats and Republicans. It's high time to turn to other countries for a wider view. In the Netherlands, for example, the liberals are on the right-hand side of the political spectrum, and usually conservative. On the left-hand side we have, of course, the socialists (and even communists). And in the middle, we have the Christian party. Currently we have a Christian-Left government.

A few years back, we had a "purple" cabinet, which was a joining of both left (red) and right wing (blue) parties (our socialists and conervatives) -- integral politics in action! Its architect was a very small party called Democrats '66, which, led by the charismatic Hans van Mierlo, had starting arguing in favor of such a venture since the sixties). It lasted for 2 terms, until the Dutch population got tired of the rationality of the whole construction (yes, half-truths generate more passion!). When the death of Pim Fortuyn occurred, the Christian party took hold of the vacuum and presided over 4 terms.

So integral political analysis has to move from a US based 2-party to 3-party or multi-party analysis. It also seems to have no realistic idea of Left Wing politics. Does the US really have a Left? The democratic party would still count as conservative over here (and the Republicans as ultra-conservative). And as to the US situation, a bigger problem seems to me that, given the 50/50 nature of the division between Democrats and Republicans, as evidenced by the last election, any third party arriving on the scene wil only weaken the one closest to it, and so give victory to the opposition (e.g. a really Left wing party will weaken the Democrats, by stealing their votes). Same story on the Right wing of the spectrum (who remembers Ross Perot?).

And please, please, please, when can we finally read about these parts of integral theory WITHOUT having to wade through adolescent prose, giggling dialogues, and self-congratulatory praise ("we are decades ahead of everybody")? Can this be fleshed out in a serious way, that attracts the attention of those who really know about politics, both in theory and in practice? Without the AQAL jargon, endlessly discussed, summarized and explained, the color coding terminology, which doesn't make sense to and even offends outsiders, and the inside jokes?