Ken Wilber:
"A Brief History of Everything" (Shambhala, 1996)

(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
There is no science in this book, so stop reading here if you are looking for any science. Nor is it a history of anything. It is just a collection of very speculative opinions of the spiritual kind. This is the second volume of the Kosmos Trilogy that began with Sex Ecology Spirituality (1995) and ended with A Theory of Everything (2000). This trilogy summarizes ideas that Wilber has been experimenting since the terribly outdated The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977) and No Boundary - Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (1979). The book mainly defends a four-quadrant grid that is supposed to summarize Wilber's view of the universe. It is worth as much as thousands of similar nonscientific speculations based on a superficial knowledge of contemporary science. The premise is always the same: quote a few findings of contemporary science but then point out that science draws the wrong (or incomplete) conclusions from them. Then science comes up with some other findings, and someone else will come along aping those new scientific theories and arguing that science should draw this or that conclusion about the ultimate nature of the universe. Wilber's merit is to have wed two ideologies that are very popular among the spiritual, new-age crowd: Buddhism and Freud. The book is written in an awful format of question-answering, perhaps trying to match Plato's dialogues with Socrates. But i think that it is mostly a trick to spend a lot of time discussing trivial matters.

Wilber sees a common evolutionary trait among inanimate matter, living matter and thinking matter and mind (cosmos, biosphere and noosphere). He calls "kosmos" the set of all three. He views Koestler's holons as the building blocks of each: a holon is both a whole and a part. Holons are capable of maintaining themselves, of resisting the pressure to disintegrate, and at the same time function as parts of another whole. The universe is a holarchy, a hierarchy of holons. Evolution is a process of transcending (creating new forms) and including (the previous forms). Spirit is the highest holon and it also includes everything else.

Wilber is convinced that "absolutely nobody believes... the neo-Darwinian explanation of natural selection" and that Darwin's theory cannot possibly explain the emergence of complicated organs such as the eye (yes, this is Michael Behe "Darwin's "Black Box", no more and no less). Wilber explains the (in his opinion) unexplained success of evolution with the idea of evolution is "self-realization through self-transcendence" (Erich Jantsch's expression). Apparently, Wilber feels better when he replaces a scientific theory with gibberish.

Wilber is dismayed that "there are still reductionists around" and is confident that "you hardly have to explain anymore why reductionism is bad". What does Wilber offer instead of reductionism? Just one sentence: "The kosmos is creative". Done. No need to explain anything else because if you try to explain how the kosmos can be creative you commit the sin of reductionism again. Just believe that Wilber is right. The kosmos is creative because it is the emanation of Spirit/ Emptiness. Wlber thinks that "science agrees that self-transcendence is built into the very fabric of the universe". Which scientists think so is not shared with us. Apparently, all of the thousands of physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists etc of the world agree with that sentence.

The problem, as usual with this nonscientific books, is the Dunning-Kruger effect: incompetence makes you believe that you are very competent. Wilber disputes the notion that chance alone (in quantum mechanics and Darwinian evolution) is enough to explain the history of the universe. But science never said anything so silly. It is "chance" plus (plus) the laws of nature. And chance may not be chance at all: probability is not really chance. Maybe his "kosmos" and his "spirit" are simply different names for the laws of nature because he writes "Chance is exactly what the self-transcending drive of the kosmos overcomes" and he refers to kosmos as a creative force. The big difference between Wilber's religion and current cosmology is that Wilber believes that kosmos has a direction. This can be a trivial statement (any formula has a direction in the short term) or a very strong statement (that, for example, the universe will never implode but will continue forever to create higher and higher forms of order). Wilber confidently states that evolution has a direction: creating order out of chaos, a "drive towards greater depth".

Wilber the historian is as poorly competent as Wilber the physicist and Wilber the biologist. His discussion of the evolution of human civilization could have been written by any ten-years old, except that a ten-years old would probably use a search engine to doublecheck "facts" that Wilber takes for granted. For example, Wilber claims that the Mayan civilization was destroyed by a self-inflicted ecological disaster, a claim repeated with more popular success by Jared Diamond in "Collapse" (2005); and that is certainly a possibility. But the Mayans never disappeared and millions of Mayan people still inhabit the traditional Mayan regions. The last independent Mayan kingdom was conquered by the Spaniards only in 1697. The Mayan Empire declined (not collapsed) just like the Roman Empire had declined one thousand years earlier. There were several stages of decline, not an abrupt collapse. Barbarians attacked the center of the empire just like barbarians had attacked (and weakened) the Roman empire one thousand years earlier. Infectious diseases may have wiped out large populations. People are quickly led to believe in the ecological-disaster theory because they think that the Mayans disappeared overnight and because they are not familiar with the climate in the Yucatan. It is only the southern cities (that are blessed, or cursed, with heavy rainfall) that were abandoned, whereas the northern cities (Chichen Itza and Uxmal) prospered for much longer despite having a much drier climate. More sophisticated theories are rarely mentioned in books like this one because these theories are neither popular (don't involve popular buzzwords like "climate change") nor easy to understand. Joseph Tainter's "The Collapse of Complex Societies" (1988) has no chance of being quoted in books like this one.

The amazing conclusion that Wilber draws from his quick and superficial history of human civilization is that each stages of development corresponds with a different view of the world. Yes, i know: duh! But you can write this as "The kosmos looks at itself with different eyes" and it suddenly sounds terrific. Coming to our age, Wilber predicts that the "rational-industrial worldview" is coming to an end. Then comes the four-quadrant grid: each of the quadrants speaks a different aspect of the truth. It is either incredibly trivial or it contains some magnificent truth that i failed to grasp. But statements such as "you can know all about my brain and that will tell you nothing about the specific contents of my mind" don't encouraged me to understand more. Wilber is lucky that we know so little (almost nothing) about the brain. I bet that, the day we will know a lot more about Wilber's brain, we will know exactly what is in Wilber's mind. Alas, neither me nor Wilber will still be around because neuroscience is still in the embryonic stage. Wilber is like a prehistoric skeptic claiming that "you can know all about matter and that will tell you nothing about the lightning". It just took a few thousand years but eventually we figured out the electrical properties of matter and the nature of clouds and that lightning is nothing but an electrical phenomenon. Alas, reductionists tend to spoil all the fun of nonreductionists, given enough time.

The rest is really for the spiritually inclined, for example that interpretation is important in spiritual transformation. The four quadrants get reduced to three elements: i, we and it. The ultimate I is Buddha, the ultimate we is Sangha and the ultimate it is Dharma. All are facets of Spirit/ Emptiness. The evolution of consciousness goes through different stages, from subconscious to self-conscious to super-conscious, which is actually Spirit's own unfolding. Wilber basically follows three parallel paths in describing the evolution of consciousness: one is a retelling of Buddhist/Hinduist ideas; one is a retelling of classic developmental psychology (Jean Piaget via Lawrence Kohlberg); and the third one is an attemp to wed Freud and Buddha (quote: "If you don't befriend Freud, it will be harder to get to Buddha"). He identifies nine stages of evolution, each corresponding to a paradigm shift. From atoms to humans, he sees a tendency in evolution to overcome egocentrism. The egocentric self of children evolves into the sociocentric and worldcentric selves, and eventually to world soul. The fact that holons are both subjects and objects, i.e. that the building block of the universe is non-dual, leads him to praise William James via Bertrand Russell who was the first one in Western psychology and philosophy to reject the dualism of subject and object (the idea that there is a subject observing the object). Surprisingly, Wilber does not go on to mention quantum mechanics (where the act of observing affects the observer) and Martin Heidegger's "Being and Time" (1927), two popular topics in discussions of nondualism. This is the peak of the four transpersonal stages of evolution: the psychic, the subtle, the causal and the nondual. These are the highest stages that are rarely achieved, and that were the specialties of shamans, yogi and the likes. Instead the human race evolved towards the Enlightenment, that decided to map the entire kosmos into empirical procedures. The West denied the transpersonal dimensions (we can confidently add that the East, namely China and India, has denied the same dimensions and is perhaps becoming even more materialistic than the West but perhaps Wilber has never spent time with the young generations of the East).

Wilber divides religious practices in two camps, ascending and descending spirituality: the ascending one renounces the flesh and practices purity towards communion with the supreme deity, whereas the descending one is a worldly embrace of nature and the body. Today, the descenders (the materialists) are winning, to Wilber's despair. Wilber's dream for a better future is a balance of ascending and descending spirituality. Wilber summarizes the intellectual tragedy of the West as one thousand years of ascending ideal followed by centuries of descending ideal. We now live in a purely descending world. Even the eco-romantics are descenders because they have a purely materialistic view of nature. Today the West divides into Ego and Eco, with the Ego repressing and the Eco regressing, a cosmic battle between the two souls of the rational West.

The sections that i found interesting (once you remove all the pseudo-Zen and pseudo-Psychology mumbo-jumbo) are about moral development (which requires cognitive development but not only) and Jung's archetypes (which Wilber criticizes as too narrow a concept). Wilber the anti-feminist is also intriguing. He argues that men and women co-created the nature of their interaction: there was no oppressor and no oppressed. Women were not simply duped into submission: they seeked that "submission" as a social contract that benefited them as much as men. Wilber also embraces Schelling's philosophy because it is nondual: Spirit knows itself objectively as nature, subjectively as mind and absolutely as Spirit. Schelling's philosophy integrates Eco and Ego.

Like all books of this kind, the last chapter mourns the collapse of human civilization that is supposedly losing its connection with reality while it adopts a more scientific and technological (and therefore god-less) approach to it. Then he probably drives off in his SUV (and, soon, self-driving car) using his GPS navigator after checking his email and ready to meet someone based on his Google calendar. And let the readers believe that all this technology that makes our lives so convenient is actually killing the most important thing.

P.S.: 95% of Internet users are male (chapter 17)? Can we doublecheck the sources before we gullibly quote whatever we read in whatever media? The truth is just the opposite: a Pew study shows that (quote) "gender parity has been the norm in internet usage" at least since the year 2000.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi