See previous posts (Part 1, Part 2) covering my participation in this past weekend’s conference at the Althea Center for Engaged Spirituality, “From Self-Care to Earth-Care” and the links between the Interspirituality movement and evolutionary theory.
Greetings from the Althea Center for Engaged Spirituality in Denver. The building was erected nearly 100 years ago and looks like a place of worship but lacks Christian iconography. It was the founding church of a spiritual movement called Divine Science that arose in the 19th Century and was related to Christian Science in the belief that prayer and positive thinking can cure physical illness. According to Nona Brooks, the Denver Church’s founder, “The whole of Divine Science is the practice of the Presence of God. Truth comes through the Bible, Affirmative Prayer, contemplation and meditation and practice of the presence of God here and now.”
There is still a Divine Science Federation but it isn’t large enough to support a congregation in Denver. Now the Althea Center’s tagline is “Find Your Center” and it offers a smorgasbord of offerings during its Sunday service and weekly events. Our “From Self-Care to Earth-Care” event fits right in.
Ken Wilber’s appearance is one of the major draws of the event. He is a rock star of the interspirituality movement, authoring 40 books that have been translated into 38 languages. The iconic image of him stares straight at you, exuding confidence, intelligence, and masculinity. On his official website, this image of his face is paired with a large image of his hand. You click the tips of his fingers to access material on the website in a virtual laying on of hands.
Wilber was born in 1949 (which is also my birth year) and entered college intending to become a doctor but, like many of our generation, became fascinated by Eastern spiritual traditions. Eventually he dropped out of college altogether, finding it too confining, and set about integrating knowledge from disparate fields on his own. His first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, was rejected by over 20 publishers before breaking into print in 1977 (the year that I received my first tenure-track position). It was followed by other books with titles such as Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution (1981), Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (1995), and A Brief History of Everything (1996), which I am reading in its most recent edition to begin to learn what all of this is about. Kurt is also serving as my guide, since he is a friend of Ken and is familiar with the full corpus of his work.
Wilber’s life has not been easy. His first wife was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after they married and he interrupted his career to care for her until her death, as he recounts in his book Grace and Grit (1991). He himself struggles with a rare autoimmune disease. In fact, even though he lives in Denver, he decided that a public event would be too exhausting. Instead, he welcomed a small group of us to his apartment yesterday and prepared a videotape to be shown during the first session of the Althea Center event tonight.
Based on my reading and conversations with Kurt, it didn’t take me long to draw three conclusions from Wilber’s work. First, Wilber was thoroughly committed to methodological naturalism. His story was based on physics, biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and wisdom traditions as human constructions. As far as I could tell, he was not at all tempted to stray into supernaturalism, and he also steered away from the excesses of social constructivism in the humanities. This was a relief to me because I also have a solid commitment to methodological naturalism, and my 2005 essay titled “Evolutionary Social Constructivism” 1 was close to Wilber’s position.
Second, when Wilber wrote about topics that I knew something about (such as evolution), I found myself agreeing with him in some respects but not others. This was not surprising to me, given that Wilber was functioning as an extreme generalist. No matter how voracious a reader he is (word on the street is that he consumes four books a day), he could not be expected to have an expert’s knowledge on any particular topic. For the most part, his errors (as I saw them) were not fatal to the general case that he was trying to build.
Third, Wilber’s goal of creating a spiritual system (integral spirituality), rather than a mere compendium of facts, caused him to use language that would make an academic scientist or philosopher cringe. Religious prose is peppered with words such as “treasure,” “riches,” and “salvation” to make the reader want to adopt the beliefs that are on offer. Scientists and academic philosophers avoid these words like the plague because they are trying to be objective and value-free in evaluating factual statements. Wilber indulged in value-laden language, giving some sections of his book a religious feel. This was not something that I could fault, however, because it comes with the territory of trying to create a spiritual system that motivates people to act. Anyone who plays the spirituality game must use value-laden language, even when they hew to methodological naturalism, because spirituality is all about values.
The more I read Wilber, the more I marveled at what he was trying to do and how it differed from everything that takes place inside the Ivory Tower. He was like a reincarnation of Auguste Comte, the 19th century philosopher and polymath who tried to create a “Religion of Man” based on scientific knowledge to replace traditional religions. The division of knowledge into various branches at any college or university (“physics,” “biology,” “sociology,” etc.) is based largely on Comte’s classification. How ironic that these branches have become so specialized and detached from values that Wilber had to become a college dropout to pursue Comte’s agenda!
Intrigued, I emailed four distinguished philosophers of my acquaintance to ask if they knew of Ken Wilber and had an opinion of his work. I know them because they think deeply about evolution in relation to a number of philosophical topics such as morality, consciousness, and epistemology. If any academic philosophers deserve to be called polymaths, it is them. None of them had read or even knew about Ken Wilber (one had heard of the title A Brief History of Everything). The entire corpus of his work is invisible to them. I’ll bet that if academic philosophers were exposed to his work, many would claim that he doesn’t even qualify as a philosopher.
Please don’t think that I am disparaging either Wilber or my academic philosopher colleagues. Instead, I am trying to point out a sad state of affairs in academia as a whole, which has developed in a way that excludes someone like Ken Wilber. I feel the brunt of it myself when I try to use evolutionary theory to make the world a better place. Here is the concluding passage from a review of my book Does Altruism Exist? that appeared in the New York Review of Books. The author of the review is H. Allen Orr, a respected evolutionary biologist at the University of Rochester.
The unfortunate thing is that Wilson’s attempt to extend evolutionary theory from biology to all society distracts from his real accomplishment. He, along with many others, has helped to make the logic of natural selection clearer. And that is something. Saving the planet isn’t required.
Unlike Wilber, I stayed within the Ivory Tower. I publish in highly respected peer-reviewed journals so nobody can challenge my academic credentials. Nevertheless, as soon as I try to “save the planet,” I have transgressed.
That’s why I feel a stronger affinity to Ken Wilber than to many of my academic colleagues. I’ll take a big-picture guy who’s trying to save the planet over a nearsighted professor any day. My first chance to meet Wilber came when we visited with him in his apartment yesterday. The thin man battling an autoimmune disease looked different than his iconic image, but we quickly fell into animated conversation that lasted over an hour. We had read each other’s work and were eager to explore similarities and differences in a shared effort to save the planet— without apology. That evening, Kurt and I would introduce Ken’s video to the audience assembled at the Althea Center and my turn to speak would come the following morning.
To be continued.
- Wilson, D. S. (2005). Evolutionary Social Constructivism. In J. Gottshcall & D. S. Wilson (Eds.), The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Vol. 2005, pp. 20–37). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Wilbur being ‘excluded’ from academia seems to be a mutual decision and one that from my cursory familiarity with his writing seems entirely justified. The fact that Wilbur is popular and reportedly capable of reading four books a day (must be short books), in no way qualifies his opinions as academic.
Moreover, if popularity and wide referencing is at the heart of academic credibility it seems we should also be reconsidering the insight of writers like Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake.
I also have to confess that I am surprised that you would (broadly speaking) endorse his view of evolution. From my perspective someone who argues that evolution requires a teleological driving force and uses the creationist inspired illustration of ‘half a wing’ not being of any use is not someone that can be said to have got even the broad strokes of evolution in order.
I’m curious about the possibility Wilbur’s taking Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium” to an exaggerated extent on par with a form of creationism lite. Wilbur responds to criticisms on his view of evolution on the kenwilbur.com – blog. It’s as clear as mud at points. At this point, I also don’t recognize his ideas as coherently in line with what is termed the “extended synthesis”.
In Wilbur’s writing I think I see what could be viewed as a “god (eros) of the gaps”, whereby arguing the limitations of neo-Darwinism and not finding sufficient explanation to account for his concern, he injects; “The alternative is to see some sort of Eros operating in the universe.”
I agree Luke, I checked out some of Wilbur’s posts that are apparently responses to criticisms and they came across as simultaneously obfuscatory and misinformed. What makes things worse is that all of his writing seems to be laced with a complex internal jargon that would make a scientologist envious. I honestly cannot see any good reason to view this guy as a useful role model for academics.
Live long enough and the regularity to which trends that hold distinct commonality, where their manipulative falsity is often matched by an uncommon popularity, come and go to the point where it can make me feel older than my years.
After reading David’s Part 4 and revisiting Wilbur, once again Gould came flooding to mind. It appears to me what I’m reading about is top down explanations. I’m done with it.
I’ll let Stephen have my last word.
“Since we proposed punctuat
ed equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and
again by creationists—whether through design or stupidity, I do not know…”
As I wrote in an email to you, I have a certain level of concern and confusion with regards to the direction you are going with this. Which largely stems from being inspired to investigate the people, topics and writings of those you mention. As I noted, perhaps I’m reading too much into your motives.
It’s hard not to see from the video below (and in much of what I’m finding) what Stephen J. Gould may refer to as “Wooly metaphor misportrayed as decisive content”.
YouTube; “The Mystic Heart – Part 1 – The Supreme Identity” – a discussion between Wayne Teasdale and Ken Wilber (copy/paste title in quotes if video link fails or is not allowed)
Perhaps you did not find your colleagues to be familiar with Wilbur because you asked the wrong ones. Myself and many others who have studied religion are extremely familiar with Wilbur (and Teasdale). However, we take him for what he is. I think that extending any expertise in evolutionary biology to him because he shares a vision and conclusion (that rests on extremely tenuous empirical grounds) is generous to say the least. This isn’t that unrelated to the issue of “saving the planet” in academia. Many of the people who have done great work to “save the planet” have done so from academic positions. What is different is that their work has undergone great empirical an scientific scrutiny that has been shown to be relevant not only within a sphere of peer review, but applicable to a greater sphere of influence outside of the controlled thought experiments and significant results from surveys. Perhaps what is needed is a paradigm shift in academia that allows for scientific inquiry to be applied to the ideas that result from the “blue-sky” thinking needed for world saving.
Thanks to everyone for these comments. I agree that an academic evolutionist has little to learn from Ken Wilber about evolution, but that is not what I am driving at with this series. Wilber can be commended for trying to create a spiritual system that stays within the bounds of methodological naturalism. Will a more sophisticated knowledge of evolution enhance or undermine that project? I regard the project as important and think that it can be enhanced by contemporary evolutionary science.
My challenge to academic evolutionists is–are you willing to play the spirituality game, and if not, what makes you uncomfortable about it?
David – What exactly is a “spiritual game” – and can you be sure you haven’t been played?
And no, I’m not going to explain that, you should understand.
I’m not sure it’s accurate to say Wilber’s spirituality remains within the bounds of methodological naturalism… in essence he endorses a teleological vision of the universe and flirts with intelligent design. Some illustrative comments he has made:
“Publicly, virtually all scientists subscribe to neo-Darwinian theory. Privately, real scientists—that is, those of us with graduate degrees in science who have professionally practiced it—don’t believe hardly any of its crucial tenets.”
“Instead of a religious preacher like Dawkins, start with something like Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. And then guess what? Neo-Darwinian theory can’t explain shit. Deal with it.”
As such, Wilbur’s spirituality seems no more appealing or developed to me than the likes of Dean Radin or Rupert Sheldrake. I don’t see anything to be gained from endorsing poor standards of evidence/scientific understanding or syncretic metaphysical musings.
Metaphysics/spirituality doesn’t make me uncomfortable but I am uncomfortable when people try to cloak their non-scientific metaphysics in scientific jargon and/or claim that their theory ‘takes account’ of the established science.
[…] David Sloan Wilson’s commentaries can be accessed here (1,2,3,4,5), or serially […]
Check out Wilber’s travesty of Darwinism.