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A redundant theory?
on 5 July 2011
"A brief history of everything" is a good introduction to the thinking of Ken Wilber. I haven't read his magnum opus "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality", but this book seems to be a condensed version of it.
Wilber's message or project is known as Integral Theory. It's a bold attempt at a grand synthesis of science, metaphysics and spirituality. The sources of inspiration are varied. With some difficulty, I could make out humanistic psychology, Hegel, Tibetan Buddhism and Plotinus. Admirer Michael Zimmerman has called Wilber neo-Hegelian, but Wilber is more appreciative of Hegel's rival Schelling. Apparently, Sri Aurobindo (whose works I never read) is another important source of inspiration. Critics have accused Wilber of interpreting these and others thinkers in somewhat idiosyncratic fashion, but that may be inevitable since the author attempts to integrate their perspectives. Poor Charles Darwin has been decisively left out of the new synthesis, however.
In a very broad sense, I suppose Wilber could be called "New Age". However, there seem to be important differences between Integral Theory and what usually passes for New Age. One is Wilber's positive view of modernity and sharp criticism of eco-spirituality, Gaia theory, and the like. In his view, this is pre-personal rather than transpersonal spirituality. Wilber attacks political correctness and criticizes multi-culturalism, which in the context of American politics is usually considered conservative. His call for a World Federation sounds more new agey, however, but will rub the more conspiracist subcultures within the New Age milieu the wrong way. Wilber never mentions channelling, angels, demons or space aliens, which presumably mean that he doesn't believe in such.
Another difference with more standard New Age thinking is the strong attempt to sound rational and scientific. New Age flakes also use "science" as a cover, but their incompetence is obvious. Wilber apparently wants his Theory of Everything to be seriously discussed in scholarly circles (a few scholars have taken the bait, such as Zimmerman). An obvious weakness at this point is Wilber's pseudo-creationist arguments against standard Neo-Darwinism, a rather strange move for somebody who has a evolutionary perspective on the cosmos. May I suggest Paul Davies or Simon Conway Morris instead?
Personally, I found Integral Theory extremely curious. Wilber's real perspective is a nondual form of mysticism, similar to the most advanced levels of Buddhism and Hinduism ("maya is Brahman"). But if that is the goal, what on earth is the point of the grand synthesis of science, philosophy and spirituality, the scholarly ambitions, all the quadrants, levels, and what not? Why not simply concentrate on the mystical experiences? What need is there to know how postmodernity should be integrated with systems theory or intelligent design, if the goal is to become one with Maya-Brahman?
Somehow, Ken Wilber's Brief History of Everything seems redundant.