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Richard Dawkins vs. Ken Wilber

  It had to happen: I spent six or eight years reading Ken Wilber after coming across a passage from one of his books; and then I’ve been reading for the past year or so the writings of Materialists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Sooner or later, I can see now, I would have to confront the opposing forces of their arguments.

Beginning with his book, Spectrum of Consciousness, Ken Wilber describes and carefully documents a version of Reality in which Spirit—the engine of the Kosmos (the cosmos being but a part of it)—manifests itself in the universe that we know, including the galaxies and the rocks and the remarkable variety of life-forms. “The arrow of time,” he says, moves in the direction of complexity, with humans currently at the leading edge (as far as we know), with our consciousness probing “what’s next?”

“What’s Next” is an intuition that reason is not at the forefront of evolution, but more like somewhere in the middle of the Spectrum. Ahead of us are levels that cannot be known through reason nor expressed in words. We have to experience them first-hand, in sequence, from where we are generally to more inclusive, more comprehensive, mind-states to, ultimately, the mind of Spirit. He does not use the word God because he says the meaning of that word carries such divergent connotations so as to be useless in communicating. But clearly, Wilber sees a universe overseen by Something, even though everything else is not just a part of that Something but an aspect of it, containing it as much as it is contained in it. Someone such as Thomas Jefferson or Ralph Waldo Emerson might conclude that Wilber’s Spirit could indeed be called God.

Richard Dawkins, after three decades of describing the marvels of Darwinian evolution, would have none of that. To him, Darwinism says it all (or nearly all). There is no need of God or Spirit, nothing supernatural at all, to explain how we came to be. In fact, he says as a scientist, to propose a separate Being capable of creating the universe would be violating the principle of parsimony—that, from a selection of explanations for any phenomenon, one ought to choose the simplest. It’s a principle that has proved most productive in the history of scientific inquiry. God, especially the God of the Abrahamic religions who answers prayers and “notes the fall of every sparrow,” has to be unacceptably complex. Not only impossible, in his thinking, but unnecessary. Dawkins’s latest book, The God Delusion, details and answers the current arguments for the existence of God.

There are different approaches to what God is or is not: the atheist simply says, along with Dawkins, that God is a myth generated by our early need to identify agents for phenomena encountered in a world of mysteries. An agnostic throws up her hands and says that the existence of God is unknowable. A theist concludes that the existence of a personal God is the only answer to the question of how (and usually why) we came to be. The biblical account of the beginning is either literally or metaphorically true. According to Dawkins, a deist, such as Jefferson and Emerson, believes in a “first cause” kind of deity that began the universe but which does not interfere with its natural processes.

It seems to me that this last definition is at least compatible with Wilber’s idea of Spirit manifesting itself in a kind of Lila’s Dance that will ultimately result in the manifest universe being (once again?) identical to Spirit, the Ground of All Being. Emerson’s Transcendentalism has echoes in Wilber’s “transcend and include” description of personal-to-transpersonal growth. Indeed, Wilber includes in his writings references to Emerson.

In either case—the Materialist or the Spectrum of Consciousness explanation—rational analysis is at least a part of the path to the Ultimate. Both explanations decry “faith” as a means for progress. Wilber proposes that the only known reliable path to higher consciousness is some form of meditation or prayer. (Like the scientist-materialist, he leaves the door open for subsequent discoveries.) Traditional religions, at least the “revealed” scripture-based religions, inhibit growth by locking the terms on which knowledge is based.

Dawkins insists that as one studies Darwinian evolution, one sees that it contains the root explanation of how we came to be. “God” is simply not necessary. “Intelligent Design,” apart from being, in his mind, just another word for Creationism, obstructs true progress in the search for ultimate answers. There is no “spirit realm” but only what we can see and touch and measure (potentially, in some cases).

Wilber agrees, if one defines “God” as a being or force outside the sensible universe. His “first cause” is identical in essence to what is caused. We are not part of Spirit—we are Spirit. He insists, however, that his cosmology is not just a form of pantheism (God is in everything).

With all their points of agreement, Wilber and Dawkins would resist the notion that they are compatible. To Wilber, Spirit is all there really is; to Dawkins, “spirit” is a nonsensical idea that raises more questions than it answers, and is dangerously close to the Dualism that both sides decry.

“Dualism” means that there are two domains, the material and the spiritual (by whatever name one gives). Since the Enlightenment, philosophers have probed this idea and for political purposes allowed science to represent one domain while assigning the other to the theologians. As long as individual scholars respected the divide, there was little conflict. Dawkins claims that any question of substance must be allowed to be dealt with by science. If one says that “God” answers prayers and intervenes in human affairs, that affects the material domain that science is assigned to. He maintains that too many people avoid criticizing the theologians out of “respect” for the diversity of beliefs. When someone says that the text of Genesis is to be taken literally, it violates the requirement for evidence upon which science is based.

Ken Wilber finds no argument with evolution. Indeed, he says, the ongoing process of which evolution is but a part is simply the dance of Spirit (The early Hindus called it “Lila”[1]) manifesting itself in the process from the Big Bang (or whatever the beginning was) to a universal, all-encompassing Knowing—the ultimate state of the Kosmos.

Richard Dawkins would respond by saying that “Spirit” can be nothing but a myth, and in any case, is superfluous.

As a long-time fan of Ken Wilber, who convinced me that there is more to Reality than what we can touch and taste and measure and describe, I’m impressed with the logic of the Materialists, but unconvinced that we are collectively nothing but biological creatures. I’m grateful that I can finally imagine how life began in chemistry and developed through natural selection over millions of years to the point where some creatures have begun to look at the stars . . .

. . . and wonder how it all began.

 

[1] Within monism, Lila is a way of describing all reality, including the cosmos, as the outcome of creative play by the divine absolute (Brahman). (from Wikipedia)

 

Donald Skiff, February 4, 2008

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