Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Refutation of Materialism

I obviously have a great deal of sympathy for the scientific perspective in general. I am on the side of the scientific community in their ongoing dispute with mystics over the rational comprehensibility of Reality. But we part company over the belief among many scientists that Reality is fundamentally a material domain.

The typical hardcore materialist insists that there is nothing beyond the material world. A common response to this position is to trot out phenomena such as hope, love or spirit as counterarguments. My initial response is to ask if the concepts that form the basis of the intelligibility of the material world are material phenomena. If so, what are the masses, locations, momenta or charges of the numbers we use to quantify the mass, location, momentum and change of matter? For that matter, what are the sizes, masses, locations, momenta and charges of the ideas we call size, mass, location, momentum and charge? Unlike hope, love, spirit and other such arguably mental manifestations, there are quantitative concepts that exist independently of the mind.

Before I prove my conjecture let me state that for the sake of this argument I am willing to concede that as a phenomenon that emerges from interactions among material phenomena (i.e., neurons, molecules, atoms, fermions, etc.), the mind can be characterized as residing in the material domain. In light of this concession, the standard materialist counterargument to my position is that even if ideas are not material phenomena, they cannot exist without minds. Being contingent upon occupants of the material domain means ideas are also encompassed by that domain. These materialists would argue, for example, that the idea of mass did not exist, although massive phenomena did, prior to conscious beings manifesting and creating the idea.

My subsequent counterargument is based on the theory of real numbers. Mathematicians theorize that the vast majority of real numbers can only be referenced by an infinite string of symbols or operations used to calculate them. This means that only an infinitesimal fraction of real numbers can be referenced in any finite sense (which is the only sense available to us as finite beings). To put this in perspective, consider that if the continuum of real numbers is viewed as the infinite set of all possible integers, the referencible values in it correspond to the number 1.

To appreciate the unreferencible nature of most real numbers, consider the value we get by executing the following algorithm. As we sequentially scan each of the theoretically limitless decimal places of the value π, wherever we encounter a digit that is greater than or equal to 5, we leave it alone. Where we come upon a digit that is less than 5, we flip a “fair coin”. If the coin lands with the heads side up, we double the digit and if it lands with tails up, we add 1 to it. The specific value that would emerge from the theoretical completion of this algorithm is essentially unreferencible since it can only be uniquely referenced by a limitless series of numbers or operations.

Every real number whose only reference is comprised of an infinite sequence of digits is essentially unreferencible. In other words, each such value represents a target without a reference. But the reference to a target is the means by which it manifests in a conscious mind. For example, when you think about an elephant, it is not an actual elephant that manifests in your mind; it is merely a reference to one that is created by your mind.

A matter-based mind can only create references to targets that manifest in some comprehensible manner in the material domain. For instance, the reference to a mythical creature such as a unicorn can manifest in our minds because a finite combination of physical phenomena that captures its uniqueness is available to us (e.g., shaped like a horse with a single horn protruding from its forehead…). By contrast, no finite combination of material manifestations captures the uniqueness of a particular unreferencible number. This is evident in that the algorithm mentioned earlier does not refer to a particular unreferencible number since it will never produce the same number twice (the probability of this happening is one in infinity, which makes it infinitely improbable). Where the mind cannot create a reference to a target entity, that entity cannot manifest in the mind. This only happens where there is no finite combination of phenomena in the material domain that encompasses the target’s uniqueness.

The unreferencible nature of virtually all real numbers means they cannot be used to refer to anything else. In other words nothing can have a size or manifest in a quantity that corresponds to an unreferencible number. This means that unreferencible numbers cannot refer to entities in the material domain.

But, one might ask, if unreferencible numbers cannot manifest in our minds, do they exist at all? In a mathematical sense, unreferencible numbers must exist since without them the continuum of real numbers is indistinguishable from the discrete system of rational numbers. In other words, if unreferencible numbers do not exist, then there are no real numbers.

To summarize: unreferencible numbers are not material manifestations (i.e., they have no material properties such as mass, charge, momentum, etc.), they are not individually referred to by occupants of the material domain (e.g. conscious minds) and they do not refer to any occupants of the material domain (i.e., they do not correspond to the size or quantity of any material manifestation). This means that these numbers are completely uncoupled from the material domain. Since they are not in any way connected to the material domain, unreferencible numbers represent completely non-material phenomena.

Where unreferencible numbers actually reside is beyond the scope of this essay (though it is explained in my framework). My conclusion that there are phenomena that reside completely beyond the material domain is why I reject pure materialism and the label of materialist, regardless of my frequent disagreements with mystics.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wilber, Tipler and Me

Though I have some significant differences of opinion with Ken Wilber and Frank Tipler, I agree with certain aspects of each of their systems. I find it amusing that I probably agree with each of them more than they agree with each other.

Wilber’s framework represents an effort to extend Dharmic/Daoic traditions into Western philosophy and science. In theory, I see this as a worthwhile endeavor since my framework concurs with the bulk of what the Eastern systems of thought have to say about the fundamental nature of Reality. But these Eastern disciplines are thousands of years old. As a result, there are important ideas in these ancient traditions that are outdated in the context of contemporary Western thought.

In his integration of East and West, Wilber’s interpretation of Eastern spirituality emerges largely unchanged. This is because Wilber mostly just cites examples of Western thought that are consistent with his Eastern sources. He fails to enhance his ancient Eastern ideas with the Western knowledge that has been discovered in the interim.

For whatever reason, Wilber largely ignores mathematics and physics, arguably the most successful Western disciplines, in terms of explaining the fundamental nature of Reality. These areas of Western thought have the most to offer towards modernizing the ancient Eastern traditions that are Wilber’s most important sources. By failing to integrate certain key ideas from these areas of study (e.g., quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity, the anthropic principle, time reversal invariance, transfinite numbers, etc.), Wilber misses out on an opportunity to develop a system that truly integrates Eastern and Western thought.

Tipler’s framework attacks the problem of explaining the fundamental nature of Reality from a different direction. His approach is based on a combination of pure scientific materialism and fundamental Christian spirituality; strange bedfellows if I’ve even seen them. Nonetheless, there are concepts in these disciplines that I embrace in my framework as well. For instance, both of our systems are based on quantum mechanics, theory of relativity, anthropic principle and time reversal invariance. In addition, certain purely Christian concepts (that I expect to discuss in subsequent essays) are also consistent with my framework.

Tipler’s effort to integrate science and Christianity almost completely bypasses philosophy, the discipline that forms the natural bridge them. The absence of philosophical underpinnings in Tipler’s exposition undermines the plausibility of his frequent jumps directly from hard science to hardcore Christianity.

Tipler has a tendency to cite as unimpeachable any scientific postulate that he can shoehorn into supporting his premises. He rarely takes the time to establish why (beyond often being attributed to someone with an impressive scientific credential) the often obscure (to laypeople) sources he uses for validation are themselves valid. By never connecting his framework to premises that his broader audience is qualified to accept, Tipler builds a castle in the clouds that looks impressive but has no foundation.

I also have problems with the materialism of Tipler’s framework. His interpretation of God is a physical entity that manifests at the beginning and end of time. I can relate to the idea of this Alpha/Omega Point from which all manifestations emerge and to which they ultimately return. But I have trouble with the idea that this ultimate source and destiny of all manifestations is in any way contingent upon the fundamental laws of nature that Tipler is constantly citing as proof of his theory. Finally, I find it problematic that Tipler chooses to embrace a more literal interpretation of Christianity rather than a progressive contemplative form that better reflects the leading edge of Christian thought.

Like Wilber, Tipler goes out of his way try to justify ancient beliefs in the context of modern thought rather that using modern thought to update those ideas. To his credit Tipler does attempt to reinterpret the meaning of certain aspects of Christian eschatology in a manner that is consistent with his theories. Both Wilber and Tipler generally refer to their spiritual sources as though they are beyond reproach. While this approach works when they are preaching to the converted it can be annoyingly presumptuous to the many skeptics in their audiences.

Tipler and Wilber’s reverence for their respective spiritual sources is most likely the basis of their reluctance to modernize them. But their unwillingness to revise their particular spiritual foundations leaves their interpretations in what is essentially a pre-modern state. Such interpretations typically cannot withstand the critical scrutiny of today’s rational thinkers. While Wilber claims to have transcended rationality he does not seem to realize that expecting rational thinkers to evaluate his framework without using rational (objective) analysis is asking a bit much.

By contrast, though my framework also encompasses a great deal of the wisdom of these ancient spiritual traditions, it does not include the more dogmatic articles of faith that seem to reflect the provincial thinking of the time of their origins. As such, I have no use for belief in Sky Fathers, Judgment Days, Evil Spirits, Hell or Lila among others.

Unlike Tipler and Wilber, I do not have to carry any of the irrational baggage associated with these spiritual traditions. This is because my purpose is not to give a new relevance to an ancient belief system; it is to provide rational answers to the questions of our origin, purpose and ultimate destiny, based on the most promising knowledge that we have accumulated over the course of human history. As such, I regard it as wonderful and encouraging that there are many areas of overlap between my framework and those of Frank Tipler and Ken Wilber. This overlap implies that there are rational answers to our most important questions that are not inconsistent with are most enduring spiritual traditions.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Not Smelling What Frank Tipler is Cooking – Part III

Copyright 2006 by Sidney Harris

Finishing Frank Tipler’s ‘The Physics of Immortality’ was complicated by the fact that he consistently resorts to using unnecessarily dense scientific jargon and implicit authoritarianism whenever he is on shaky ground in his reasoning. Frankly, I found it exasperating how Tipler bloviated his way over the heads of his non-specialist audience on the points that would require the greatest expository clarity if his ideas were going to come together to form a rational framework (the points at which, in the words of Sidney Harris, “a miracle occurs”).

I actually have a reasonably good layperson’s head for physics yet Tipler occasionally managed to talk over it in his discussion of the science that supports his position. His efforts to justify his sometimes dubious conclusions consisted of authoritatively citing relatively obscure (from the layperson’s perspective) yet evidently legitimate scientific principles and then performing interpretive legerdemain to justify his belief that they support his position.

I was generally able to slog through this morass secure in the knowledge that no matter how confidently Tipler stated his case, his fundamental premise had already most likely gone down in cosmological flames. It was interesting to watch Tipler assemble such an impressive sounding argument in the aftermath of the discovery of solid contradictory evidence that was not available to him at the time.

The context in which I read ‘The Physics of Immortality’ provided me with a unique insight into how experts use their credentials, in conjunction with often impenetrable, yet seemingly coherent jargon to lead laypeople to accept untenable conclusions. But then I am innately mistrustful of those who, when speaking to a general audience, choose to use jargon that implicitly elevates them in the eyes of that audience rather than attempting to elevate their audience by simply and clearly explaining their position.

Reading ‘The Physics of Immortality’ under these circumstances, I got the distinct impression that Tipler was teleologically cherry picking from among the many diverse principles in cosmology, physics, information theory, cybernetics, etc. those that he interprets as supporting his conclusions. One cannot help but wonder whether Tipler is failing to mention other positions of equal or even greater significance that contradict his. Once you get into the business of citing legitimizing sources to a general audience it is disingenuous to imply that the consensus in the encompassing discipline supports your position when there may not even be a consensus or worse, when you are actually on the wrong side of the consensus.

The most disappointing thing about the whole Frank Tipler saga is what became of him in the aftermath of ‘The Physics of Immortality’. Though he still primarily works as a professor of physics and mathematics, Tipler has fallen in with the Intelligent Design crowd. While this does not automatically invalidate his position, it does give his work a certain theistic bias. This bias saturates in his follow-up book, ‘The Physics of Christianity’.

Tipler is out speaking to Christian audiences about how physics proves that their beliefs are valid. Ironically, I agree with his basic premise that many spiritual beliefs are supported by rational arguments. I simply do not believe that Tipler’s unswervingly materialist arguments are the appropriate ones.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Still Not Smelling What Frank Tipler is Cooking

I was impressed by the depth and conviction of James Redford’s comment on my Tipler essay. Again as my reply to his comment approached the 500 word mark, I decided to make it a follow-up to what I said earlier:

Hello Mr. Redford,

Thank you for your detailed comment on my previous essay on Dr. Tipler's Omega Point Theory. While you have provided me with a great deal to contemplate, I figured that the simplest way to absorb your argument and craft an appropriate response would be to focus on the popular exposition that Dr. Tipler provided in the Wired article referenced from the Theophysics site "From 2100 to the End of Time".

According to this article, Tipler himself says that the Omega Point is “infinitely improbable” in the absence of universal colonization. But once we enter the realm of speculation on the feasibility of universal colonization, even if I were to concede that physics and cosmology say it is possible (which they do not if the rate of universal expansion does not decrease) we have left the domain of fundamental science and entered that of futurism.

Once the argument veers in this direction Tipler’s impressive resume becomes merely a well-decorated piece of paper in light of all of the non-scientific issues that would have a significant bearing on a possible Earth-originated universal colonization effort (Finance, Economics, Politics, Law, Diplomacy, etc.).

The fact that the Omega Point Theory is so critically dependent upon so many non-scientific factors means that it is not a theory of fundamental science. That is unless Tipler believes that what he characterizes as the law of the indestructibility of quantum information directly influences human decision-making as he evidently believes it will somehow slow the rate of expansion of the universe.

While its non-fundamental nature does not in itself invalidate the theory, it does undermine Tipler’s credentials for being taken completely seriously where his speculations are dependent upon events beyond his area of expertise (teleology is a philosophical outlook, not a scientific one). This is analogous to a quantum mechanic who does not fully grasp the underlying mathematics.

In addition, for all of Tipler’s impressive hand-waving, to date cosmologists have not arrived at a consensus on the nature of the phenomenon responsible for the observed increase in the rate of universal expansion (be it dark energy, quintessence or fairy dust). For all he knows this phenomenon could be based on a more fundamental law of nature than the law of the indestructibility of quantum information, which Tipler insists is why the universe must stop expanding and ultimately collapse towards a singularity in a finite amount of time. Or for that matter if singularities manifest on (or below) the Planck scale the law of the indestructibility of quantum information may not apply to them since no other fundamental laws are applicable there (this is after all the sub-quantum level).

In this context my reasonable doubts persist. As a result, I feel comfortable going with the latest cosmological observations and Tipler’s own words, which indicate that there will most likely not be a material Omega Point at the end of our universe. Mind you, the framework I have developed is based on a metaphysical Omega Point (and an indistinguishable Alpha Point) and so I do embrace the idea conceptually, just not necessarily on a material level.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Not Smelling What Frank Tipler is Cooking – Part I

As indicated by the preceding three essays, I have certain issues with Ken Wilber, not so much with his the core of his (primarily Dharmic) theory of Reality as with how he chooses to frame it. In the light of my ardent support for scientific rationalism one might reasonably assume that I would be more in tune with the materialist theory of Reality put forth by Frank J. Tipler, professor of Physics and Mathematics and author of several books, most notably, ‘The Physics of Immortality’. But, in the words of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, I cannot smell what Frank Tipler is cooking.

If you wanted to describe the science-based theory of Reality that is furthest from my views, you would be hard-pressed to do better than Tipler’s ‘The Physics of Immortality’. According to Tipler, numerous key elements of spiritual (primarily Christian) eschatology including the Resurrection of the Dead, Judgment Day, Heaven and Hell are supported by contemporary physics. This thesis alone led to his book becoming a major bestseller. Though he is a credentialed scientist with an impressive resume, Tipler’s theory simply does not hold up very well from either a scientific or philosophical point of view.

To save time let me first focus on the one thing Tipler posits that I agree with in a general sense. Tipler theorizes the existence of the Omega Point, a material singularity at the end of time that represents the ultimate destiny of all beings. In my framework the ultimate destiny of every distinguishable entity is Unity in what is essentially a metaphysical singularity. But even in this area of relative agreement Tipler and I do not see eye to eye.

For one thing as a hardcore causal materialist, Tipler characterizes the Omega Point as a God-like being (though he claimed to be an atheist at the time he wrote ‘The Physics of Immortality’) that represents the purely material end-product of the entire causal dynamic. As described by Tipler the essence of the end of this process is that the universe will continue to expand to a certain point at which gravity will overcome the expansion caused by the Big Bang and initiate a period of contraction that will end in what cosmologists refer to as the Big Crunch.

According to Tipler certain rather extraordinary events must transpire in the period leading up to the Big Crunch to lead to the formation of the Omega Point that is consistent with Christian eschatology. The most incredible of these events is that somehow intelligent life on Earth (Tipler argues against there being intelligent life anywhere else in the universe) is supposed to colonize the entire universe between now and the Big Crunch. Here Tipler steps way out of his element but proceeds to describe this dynamic as though his specialties included the Philosophy of the Mind, Information Theory, Aerospace Engineering, Cybernetics and a host of others. Tipler’s tendency to imply that his doctorate in physics and ability to cite largely obscure authoritative sources makes him an expert on pretty much everything reminded me of our friend Ken Wilber.

Tipler insists that in order for the (super) aware Omega Point to form (as opposed to simply a mindless, lifeless singularity), intelligence, in the form of sentient machines, must take over the entire universe such that life is actually able to significantly change the gross structure of the universe in a way that distorts its inevitable gravitation collapse. This alteration allows for the manifestation of a truly universal intelligence that brings about many of the predictions of the Christian Bible in the final microseconds before the Big Crunch. In addition, because of the nature of this universal intelligence and the manner in which it reshapes time itself, these last few material microseconds will last for an informational eternity.

Tipler’s claim that this fantastic hypothesis is not inconsistent with cosmological theory did not make it much easier for me to believe than the Book of Revelations. The primary reason for this is the fact that the years since the initial publishing of ‘The Physics of Immortality’ have not been kind to the a key prediction underlying Tipler’s theory. In the interim cosmologists have determined that his fundamental premise that the universe will collapse into a singularity is highly improbable. Current cosmological observations indicate that our universe’s rate of expansion is increasing, arguably thanks to the phenomenon known as dark energy. This increasing rate of expansion indicates that the universe is not likely to collapse into the singularity, an event that is a necessary condition of the formation of Tipler’s Omega Point.

Tipler has since come up with some re-interpretive hand-waving in an effort to re-validate his theory but it is difficult to take him seriously when he himself put forth in ‘The Physics of Immortality’ that it is the falsifiability of his theory that makes it a scientific rather than philosophical or spiritual speculation. One of the critical falsifiable aspects of his theory is the fact that he unequivocally predicts that the universe will collapse into a singularity.

I picked up‘The Physics of Immortality’ well after cosmologists had largely disproved one of Tipler's key predictions. As a result, reading it felt analogous to encountering a seemingly rational exposition on life after the Second Coming that is predicated on the belief that it occurred during the lifetime of the apostles of Jesus Christ.

Friday, May 9, 2008

More Wilbermania

Stoner is giving me a great opportunity to expand on my thoughts in this area and I thank him it. This is my response to his latest response:

Godel's Incompleteness Theorem essentially says is that for a sufficiently complex system there will be postulates that cannot be proved in the context of that system. He put the stake in the heart of the early 20th century program to develop as quantitative system based on a static handful of axioms that could be used to explain “everything”.

In light of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem I maintain that consistent, but unprovable postulates should be accepted as premises of the system until either more general postulates encompass them (the separate postulates that all humans are warm-blooded and all birds are warm-blooded are encompassed by the single postulate that warm-blooded animals include all birds and mammals) or contradictory evidence is found (I cannot prove that all swans are white but I can accept it as a premise until I see a non-white one). Godel implies that the rate of postulate consolidation will always lag that of new postulate discovery. This means that the set of premises in such a system is always growing. But I regard this process as asymptotically approaching the objective of complete understanding.

I prefer to consider things in the context of Georg Cantor who established to my satisfaction that it is possible to develop rational postulates about the nature of infinity without having to count to infinity. This “theory precedes experiment" approach (philosophically, this corresponds to rationalism before empiricism) is also how much of physics works these days.

Today leading theoreticians develop models of complex physical systems by integrating and extending more mature theories in a manner that remains consistent with the essence of how things are observed to work. Wilber seems to believe that physics is still operating within the Francis Bacon paradigm. But physics has matured to the point where experiments are done to confirm theories, more often than theories are created to explain experiments. The resultant theoretical models form the basis of a framework that explains (or can be extended to explain) novel phenomena. I ultimately used this approach to develop my framework.

How do I know scientific, materialistic rationalism is the one path of truth? I hope I’ve been clear that I accept that there are multiple paths to the truth, including the spiritual epistemologies. I would ask why Wilber insists that scientific, materialistic rationalism is not a path to the truth? Just to be clear, I do not regard myself as a scientific, materialist but I let their methods inform my approach.

How do I prove my framework according to scientific materialistic rationalist criteria? Rationalism isn’t about proving things, it is about explaining things without requiring untenable leaps of faith. The key to meeting this requirement is the axioms of the framework. If a rational observer perceives these axioms to be irrational, she is free to reject the system upon which they are based. This is where subjectivity threatens to derail rationalism. But this subjectivity is ultimately overcome by consensus building over time. Yes, in the short run this manifests as the academic ‘Good Ole Boy’ network from which Wilber is largely being excluded. But over the long haul, the pull of truth inclines things towards a more impartial outcome.

The academic acceptance problem of spiritual epistemologies in general is based on the fact that they admit to their irrationality up front (be they pre-rational or trans-rational). This is where I find Wilber’s attempts at rationality to be inauthentic. He seems to appreciate that he risks consignment to the personal enlightenment ghetto if he leads with his irrationality and so he puts up a rational smoke screen of citations and jargoning in an effort to get rationalists to take him seriously.

But Wilber cannot hide the irrational core of his system: the ineffable Spirit. This ineffability ultimately leads to the Principle of Explosion, which essentially states that anything is possible once you accept a contradiction. Spirit is the ultimate contradiction. The Principle of Explosion and the Law of Non-contradiction (i.e., a postulate cannot be both true and false at the same time) are lines that few rationalists are willing to cross. I chose to plow right through them and came back with something that is both completely rational and largely consistent with the core principles of spirituality.

There is a petulance to Wilber’s rejection of quantitative rationalism that seems a bit childish to me (there is no denying that ‘flatlander’ is generally used as a pejorative). Did Lisa Randall turn him down for a date or Gregory Chaitin kick sand in his face or what? He is lumping all quantitative rationalists into a derogatory category and yet he insists that people acknowledge the difference between contemporary pre-rational (“New Age”) and trans-rational (“Integral”) non-rationalists. Sure there are know-it-all quantitative thinkers who believe everything can be explained by numbers. But the vanguard of quantitative thought (and rational thought in general) is comprised of many individuals who simply regard the boundary of what we can know as flexible.

Physics has been leaking out of Wilber’s UR quadrant (whose core of atoms and presumably sub-atomic particles, it pretty much owns) into the core of his LR through its increasing integration with cosmology (which owns this quadrant’s core of galaxies, stars and planets). This indicates why the work of physicists and mathematicians should not be discounted in the search for the ultimate truth. Who knows, they may actually find the universe in a grain of sand :-).

Thursday, May 8, 2008

More on What is Ken Wilber Selling

A friend whose opinion I respect posted a reply to my first Ken Wilber essay. As my reply to his reply approached the 500 word mark, I decided to make it a follow-up to what I said earlier:


Thanks for your insightful commentary. I have no problem with anything you said. My issue with Ken Wilber is that he won’t just stay in the mystical domain you describe. Instead he keeps trying to surround the essence of what you’ve stated with the trappings of rationalism while claiming to be trans-rational.

Wilber has a tendency to cite a numerous scientific and philosophical rationalists and use a lot of their jargon in making his case. I interpret this to be a cosmetic attempt to inject some rational rigor to his essentially mystical message. I imagine that if he only cited ancient and modern Dharmic, Daoic and Abrahamic spiritualists he would most likely be (even more) marginalized to the personal enlightenment ghetto. Wilber obviously wants to be taken seriously in academic circles beyond that ghetto and so he cites sources from more upscale scholastic neighborhoods. He justifies this by claiming that he is simply trying to integrate Eastern and Western thought on this subject.

I don’t buy that claim because I do not accept Wilber’s basic premise that the fundamental nature of reality is trans-rational. The fact that neither Wilber nor any of his mystical sources know of a rational perspective that explains the fundamental nature of reality does not mean that such a perspective does not exist. Wilber doesn’t seem to realize that saying you cannot find the words to explain something does not necessarily mean that there are no such words.

Unlikely as it sounds, I actually have found a rational insight into the fundamental nature of reality. I was reading Wilber’s book (ironically, you initially brought him to my attention way back when) in a continuing effort to vet my framework. Not only does it agree with a significant portion of what Wilber says, I can go him one better by rationally explaining why things are the way he characterizes them to be (rationality is a requirement that the Lila explanation simply does not meet).

In reading Wilber through the lens of my framework it is obvious to me that there is minimal rational cohesion to what he is putting forth, despite all of his pseudo-rational jargoning. He provides an interpretation of what is out there (his AQAL structure) but no system of basic premises and subsequent arguments that explain why (Rationalism 101). If he could either drop the rational pretense or add some truly rigorous rationality to his framework he would seem more authentic to me.

This is not to say that I don’t buy his trans-rational approach; I merely insist that it does not represent the only path to understanding. It is unfortunate that he generally dismisses physicists, mathematicians and other quantitative rationalists as irrelevant, materialist flatlanders (BTW, would you explain to me why the low end of the Upper Right quadrant of AQAL ends at atoms? Decades ago the Standard Model jury came back with guilty verdicts on the existence of more fundamental electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, etc.). These disciplines have come a long way since his spiritual sources originally concluded that rational answers are impossible. It was by extrapolating from these fields of study that I found my rational answers. If Wilber is truly being “integral” he should look more deeply into these quantitative fields. What he learns might surprise him.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What is Ken Wilber Selling?

I just finished reading ‘The Simple Feeling of Being’, a 2004 compilation of Ken Wilber's works assembled by a group of his disciples. As a not especially spiritual person, I was surprised at how much he said that I could agree with once I translated certain key terms from his terminology to mine. There is nonetheless a huge gulf separating our points of view. The basis of this chasm is that Wilber is a mystic while I am a rationalist.

In my world view a mystic is someone whose metaphysical belief structure is based on an ineffable absolute whose impenetrable nature undermines our capacity to rationally understand reality. By contrast, I regard a rationalist as someone who believes it is possible to answer the primal metaphysical questions regarding our origin, purpose and ultimate destiny, by extrapolating information from the world around us.

My real problem with Ken Wilber is that he is a mystic in rationalist’s clothing. Wilber claims that his beliefs are supported by empirical evidence gleaned from the world around us, thus implying that the former can somehow be derived from the latter. But it is obvious to me that he actually starts out with pre-existing mystic beliefs and simply cherry picks the rational positions that support it.

In reading through Wilber’s works, it becomes evident that he does not actually explain the system he is describing. From his expositions it is obvious that all roads lead to the ineffable entity that he refers to as Spirit, Kosmos, One Taste and other mystical appellations. To rationally apprehend Wilber’s system you must understand this absolute entity. But every time Wilber traverses an expository sequence (filled with incessant jargoning and non-stop scholastic and spiritual name-dropping), he always comes back to Spirit. At this point he invariably ceases any effort at explaining and starts describing things in poetically paradoxical terms.

The poetic paradox ploy is a common dodge used by mystics to convince audiences that the ultimate answers they seek are incredibly beautiful (hence the poetry) but rationally impenetrable (thus the paradox). This maneuver represents a classic bait-and-switch scheme. After leading the reader to the precipice with “rational” insights, when it is time for the payoff, we are told that we have to abandon rationality to go beyond this point. As an individual who has found my own rational answers to the ultimate questions, I find this gambit to be somewhat disingenuous.

There are only two possible explanations for why Wilber would do such a thing. One is that he does not know the rational answers underlying the world around us and the other is that he does. I would prefer to believe that he is simply ignorant. Since he consistently insists that there are no rational answers to the ultimate questions, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that he believes he is selling used cars as new (age old answers dressed up in contemporary terminology) and not snake oil (discredited superstitions) to cancer patients (angst-ridden truth seekers).

Bear in mind that while I have obvious problems with Wilber’s approach, on an essential level I agree with a good deal of what he as to say in the realm of metaphysics. The fact that his mystic interpretation of reality has much in common with my rational one indicates to me that underlying all of his grandiose claims, there is valid knowledge in his source frameworks. I point beyond him to his sources because there is nothing at the core of his system that a Hindu guru or Buddhist lama from millennia ago would have trouble understanding. Wilber seems to be simply going through the various sciences and philosophies of the mind and “integrating” positions that are consistent with ancient Dharmic, Daoic and Abrahamic beliefs. The convergence I see between Wilber’s interpretations of these beliefs and my rational framework reinforces for me that there is indeed something fundamentally valid in these venerable frameworks.

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