A Brief History of Everything
A review of Ken Wilber's, "A Brief History of Everything," by Tyler Johnston.
Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything. Boston: Shambhala. 2001 330pp. Paperback. $15.95. ISBN 1570627401.
In his book, A Brief History of Everything, Ken Wilber has set out to accomplish the task of presenting an integrative interpretation of the existence of everything or what he terms, “a theory of everything”(xvi). In his approach, he attempts “to include as many important truths from as many disciplines as possible”(xv). Wilber draws from the traditions of the East and the West, from the premodern to postmodern, and from the hard sciences to the sciences of spirituality. The end result is the presentation of a map, which is “simply an invitation to explore the vast terrain of your own consciousness, the almost unlimited potentials of your own being and becoming, the nearly infinite expanse of your own primordial awareness, and thus arrive at that place which you have never left: your own deepest nature and your own original face”(xvii).
Wilber's Central Thesis: Wilber begins the book discussing human sexuality. He suggests, “Nature did not split the human race into two sexes for no reason; simply trying to make them the same is silly”(3). What is important to Wilber's thesis is the progressive evolution within culture of the differing ideas regarding male and female gender roles. This progression is the whole point of evolution, “It always goes beyond what went before. It is always struggling to establish new limits, and then struggling just as hard to break them, to transcend them, to move beyond them into more encompassing and integrative and holistic modes… Evolution always transcends and includes, incorporates and goes beyond”(5). What is true of human sexuality is true of the larger project of evolution in general.
There is a common thread running from matter to life to mind, the unfolding of Spirit. Spirit is “the entire process of unfolding itself, an infinite process that is completely present at every finite stage, but becomes more available to itself with every evolutionary opening”(9). This brings one to Wilber's central thesis: Evolution is the entire process of the unfolding of Spirit; and at every stage of development, it manifests and realizes more of itself. Everything in history is Spirit-in-action or God-in-the-making.
Wilber's Worldview: Cutting through all the technical terminology employed by Wilber, one will find at the heart of his worldview an alignment with radical non-dualistic traditions, such as Advaita Vedanta Hinduism (Sankara) and Zen Buddhism, and an alignment with a spiritual and developmental version of evolution. Wilber rejects Darwinian naturalism, the material account of evolution, and replaces it with a Spirit-in-action or God-in-the-making account of evolution. Wilber employs the terms Spirit and God but divorces any personal or anthropomorphic characteristics from these concepts. He prefers the term “Emptiness” to Spirit because it is unqualifiable and unbounded (24). This Emptiness is both the groundless ground and goal of evolution (205). The goal of evolution is Spirit becoming increasingly conscious of its own condition. “With Spirit's shocking Self-recognition, Forms continue to arise and evolve, but the secret is out: they are all Forms of Emptiness in the universe of one Taste, endlessly transparent and utterly Divine” (224).
Material forms are not distinct from Emptiness. “All sentient beings – all holons in fact – contain Buddha-nature – contain depth, consciousness, intrinsic value, Spirit – and thus we are all members of the council of all beings… And the ultimate objective truth is that all beings are perfect manifestations of Spirit or Emptiness” (121). By depth, Wilber is referring to the concept of holarchy, which contains within it the concepts of holons and hierarchy. A holon refers to “an entity that is itself a whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole” (17). Reality is not composed of wholes and parts but wholes/parts, all the way up and all the way down (18). These holons (whole/parts) are arranged in a hierarchy of complexity, which Wilber describes as “an order of increasing wholeness, such as particles to atoms to cells to organisms, or letters to words to sentences to paragraphs. The whole of one level becomes the whole of the next… Virtually all growth processes, from matter to life to mind, occur via natural holarchies, or orders of increasing holism and wholeness – wholes become parts of new wholes – and that's natural hierarchy or holarchy” (24-25). Holons rest upon holons, all the way up and all the way down. Evolution, the entire process of the unfolding Spirit, is a self-transcending process; it is creativity. “It is a uni-verse, one song” (21). According to Wilber, “the ultimate depth is an ultimate oneness with the All, with the Kosmos (36).
The role of humanity in this process of Spirit-in-action is to be one with everything as we are. Each successive level produces greater depth and the greater the depth, the greater its consciousness (313-314). In striving for better evolution, humanity provides for the next stage of the Spirit's development. The goal is not just transcendent spiritual experiences but transcendence. “Evolution has a direction… a drive toward greater depth” (36). As one strives for a better evolution, the entire process of Spirit-in-action, one increases in complexity, differentiation/integration, organization/structuration, relative autonomy, and telos (36). Humanity has direction just like the universe has direction, and humans are drenched in the meaning inherent in the process of evolution. “The very Spirit in us is invited to become self-conscious, or even, as some would say, superconscious” (38). As we aid in this process, we are awakened as this oneness. The distinctions, pluralities, and dualities of Flatland are rejected in the embrace of the ontological reality of non-duality. As one becomes the opening or Pure Emptiness in which the entire process enfolds, the nightmare of evolution is undone. One becomes exactly what they were prior to the whole game of life, the face or pure Emptiness, the entire Kosmos (39).
Wilber is quick to distance himself from the oversimplified thinking of some contemporary “New Age” thinkers. This oversimplification springs from an improper understanding of the Spirit's activity in what Wilber outlines as the four quadrants. Wilber terms the Upper Left quadrant, the “I” quadrant, and he terms the Lower Left quadrant the “We” quadrant. Both the upper and lower quadrants of the Left Hand deal primarily with the subjective interpretations of truth, whether individually or collectively. Wilber conflates the upper and lower Right quadrants into the “It” quadrant. The Right Hand deals primarily with objective truth. Wilber defines truth as attunement with the real or the Kosmos (96). Wilber simplifies the basic divisions: “Everything on the Right Hand can be described in 'it' language. Everything in the Upper Left is described in 'I' language. And everything on the Lower Left is described in 'we' language” (110).
Wilber recognizes the profound insights Deep ecologists, eco-psychologists, and ecofeminists have brought to the modern world. They have pushed modern humanity “to find that deep Self that embraces all of nature, and thus to treat nature with the same reverence you would extend to your own being” (186). “Where many of these theorists go wrong is in the reduction of their profound insights to the Lower Right quadrant, to 'we're all strands in the great web' – empirical holism, functional fit – which actually guts the interior dimensions” (186). In reducing the Kosmos to the great web, these theorists are ignoring the interior transformations necessary to get them to the point that they could even conceive of a global system in the first place. This is simply a collapse of all the internal stages into a simplistic one-step transformation: “agree with my holistic Gaia map, and you will be saved” (187). This leads to intolerance and disagreement and encourages “retribalization and regressive fragmentation in consciousness” (188).
This oversimplified one-step transformation from ego to World Soul fails to recognize the massive paradigm shifts involved in getting one to the realization of the World Soul (186). Wilber outlines at least seven of these stages or paradigm shifts throughout his book. He suggests, “But if you keep interpreting Spirit in the other quadrants – then that is going to abort further realization… It will cut off further realizations of Spirit's all-pervading presence. You will just keep retreating into your interior awareness, until that well runs dry, and you end up despising the manifest world because it 'detracts' from your 'real' self” (290). One's integration of the Spirit in all quadrants, the I, the We, and the It domains, make possible not only the realization of the higher Self, but “how to see it embraced in culture, embodied in nature, and embedded in social institutions” (290). Wilber is sympathetic with the goal of these groups but sees their weakness in not having a well-developed path for achieving the goal.
Critique of Wilber's Worldview: Wilber has a major difficulty intrinsic within his worldview. If all is One or non-dual, void of distinction and plurality, forms would not and could not possibly exist. The simultaneous existence of an ultimate non-dual reality and its forms is a logical impossibility, not a paradox, as Wilber contends. Two separate objects cannot be distinguished, if a distinction is unable to be drawn between them. It is the distinctions that make possible the existence of objects. Wilber contend that holons, part/wholes, exist in holarchies, a hierarchy of complexity. To differentiate value in a hierarchy of complexity, differing properties must exist at differing levels. Non-dualism seems to undermine Wilber's whole endeavor. He also discusses subject and objects, distinguishing between the two, yet within his worldview these ultimate distinctions do not exist. Rather than provide a unified theory or everything, Wilber's commitment to non-dualism seems to make impossible the existence of anything except the non-dual reality.
Non-dualism also eliminates telos or purpose from the universe. As described by Wilber, Emptiness is unqualifiable and unbounded. Nothing can be ascribed to Emptiness, yet Wilber ascribes personal characteristics and traits to this Emptiness, such as, “the face or utter Emptiness,” “Emptiness that smiles,” and “Kosmos comes to know itself more fully” (39/52). Wilber is being inconsistent when ascribing these personal characteristics to Emptiness. Non-dualism excludes personality. The individual in a non-dualistic tradition seeks to transcend personality and the personal. The impersonal reality is the only reality, but Wilber talks as if personality is real. The whole pursuit for transcending the personal assumes the existence of the personal dimension. This produces a glaring internal contradiction.
Wilber ascribes pattern or purpose to Emptiness and suggests that Emptiness gives rise to forms. “New forms emerge, new holons emerge – and it's not out of thin air” (22). Nothingness cannot produce something. But for Wilber, Emptiness can and does produce some-thing (forms) despite Wilber's suggestion that things do not emerge out of thin air. He produces no explanation for how forms emerge from Emptiness. He simply asserts, “Stuff emerges. Amazing!” (204).
Ignoring the difficulty in ascribing self-consciousness to an impersonal reality, a more troublesome question emerges. If Emptiness is the groundless ground of all forms and the goal of evolution, what can explain the loss of consciousness that required Emptiness to start the process of becoming self-conscious of itself? Emptiness seems to be a pretty weak ultimate reality if it has the potential of losing self-consciousness.
Wilber, in his impressive attempt to assimilate and integrate many different thinkers and theories, falls into the trap of the oversimplification of ideas. One such example is his distinguishing between ascending and descending spiritual paths. He describes the ascending path as purely transcendental and otherworldly and the descending path as purely immanent and earthly. He quickly lumps many of the traditions of the world in various camps. In one instance, he places Christianity solely in the tradition of the ascending path. This may be true of some Christian thinkers throughout history, but Christianity cannot be so easily placed in either the ascending or descending paths. Many adherents of the Christian faith have held to both the transcendence and immanence of God and both the goodness of creation and its distinction from the Creator. Christianity does not fit either of Wilber's oversimplified categories. Wilber is guilty of oversimplifying thinkers, theories, and religions in his attempt to present a brief history of everything. He replaces facts with overgeneralizations.
Wilber's worldview is plagued with ethical problems. If all is non-dual or one, than right or wrong cannot exist because distinctions ultimately cannot exist. Wilber elevates compassion and concern for each individual holon, despite the fact there is no distinction between things. Compassion requires distinction. Compassion also requires consciousness. Neither of these ultimately can exist within Wilber's worldview. So compassion must be removed from Wilber's worldview, along with the concepts of justice and love, which have no place in a world without distinctions.
Wilber suggests the preservation of not just depth but depth across span. “Resting in Emptiness, promote the greatest depth for the greatest span” (307). This has its implications on preserving human life. One individual human is less valuable than a dozen apes. Ultimately, human life has no intrinsic value, for this concept would be “truly anthropocentric in the worst possible sense” (306). Wilber's worldview ultimately cannot provide for or ground ethics. His worldview gives birth to a cosmic solipsism (you-inverse) and provides no justification for a meaningful existence.
A Christian Alternative: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God is distinct from His creation. God is the creative agent behind creation, not an impersonal, creative Emptiness. He is both transcendent but also immanent within creation (Romans 1:18-20). God created the heavens and earth distinct from Himself. Romans 1:25 reiterates this point, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” The universe is not God, but God has created it with purpose in mind. Ultimate reality is not non-dual. There are distinctions within creation. God created hierarchies in nature: human, animal, vegetables, minerals, etc. He created humanity in His own image or likeness (Genesis 1:27). However, this does not mean that humanity is God. This gives humanity an intrinsic worth and sets humanity apart from the rest of creation. God built distinction into the created order. Not only is God separate from His creation, but also created things are separated from other created things. The universe is not a holarchical arrangement of holons, all the way up and all the way down.
God is not empty or unqualifiable. God has revealed Himself through creation, Jesus Christ, and the written Word of God. From all these sources, attributes can be derived and ascribed to the living, personal God of the universe. The author of the Gospel of John states, “For God so love the world that He gave His one and only Son” (John 3:16). The distinction between God and the world allows for the possibility of relationship between the two. Also, the ground for this relationship can be derived from the relationship between the members of the Godhead: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1:26, Matthew 3:13-17). Unlike Wilber's non-dualism, intrinsic within the Christian faith is meaningful dialogue regarding personality, relationships, and ethics. Ethics has its ground in God, as both a moral being and the author of the moral law (Exodus 20). This objective standard makes possible the determination of a morally good or morally bad action.
Humanity and all of creation are finite, contingent, and caused. Creation is made possible by God's performative utterance. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light (Genesis 1:3). God's declarative statements brought the world into being ex nihilo. God created both the immaterial and material out of nothing. This all-powerful God declared the created order good (Genesis 1:31), but a curse has fallen upon creation due to the sin of the first humans (Genesis 3, Romans 5:21). All of creation waits to be liberated from the effects of sin: decay and death (Romans 8:18-23). Creation is not evolving and transcending; it is in the process of decaying and awaiting restoration. God has answered the call of creation in sending His Son to die and make this salvation possible. All of creation now waits for the appointed time when this restoration will be completed.
Humanity obtains this salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, not in contributing to Emptiness' next stage in its evolutionary development and recognizing one's original Face: Thou art that. God judges those who set themselves up as God (Ezekiel 28:1-10, Acts 12:21-23). The human condition is one of separation from God and not ignorance of one's original Face. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, Mark 7:21-23). Salvation is acquired through repentance from sin. Repentance includes a humble submission of one's will to the God of the universe, who has revealed His will in the person and work of Jesus Christ. An individual comes face to face with his or her own inadequacy when measuring up to the standards of a holy God. This forces individuals to look outside of themselves for a solution. But how is salvation acquired? “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation comes through Christ and Christ only (John 14:6, Acts 4:12, 1 Timothy 2:5).
M.A., Philosophy of Religion