Monday, February 18, 2013

Ken Wilber's metaphysical theory of holons, the afterlife and survival of consciousness and his book Sex, Ecology and Spirituality


Ken Wilber is regarded by many, in New Age (and alternative spiritualities) circles, as the world's greatest living philosopher. And by his critics, as the world's greatest fake philosopher. My current opinion is that Wilber is a brilliant, intelligent, honest and extremely erudite man, with many interesting philosophical insights, even though I strongly disagree with most of his ideas (many of which are not original... many of them come from philosophers like Hegel, Plotinius and others, which doesn't undermine Wilber's own original contributions).

In this post, I'd like to comment briefly on Wilber's metaphysical theory of "holon" and its connection with survival of consciousness. My contention is that such theory (at least as explained in his major scholarly work Sex, Ecology and Spirituality or SES) is at variance with the possibility of survival of consciousness. I don't mean that such notions are straightforwardly incompatible, only that they're in tension, waiting for more elaboration and articulation from Wilber's metaphysics.

In SES, one of Wilber's essential metaphysical concepts is that the Kosmos is hierarchically structured, that is, things are arranged hierarchically, with their specific position in the hierarchy determined by their particular level of developmental advance. So, for example, atoms aggregate into molecules, molecules into cells, cells into biological organisms (please keep in mind this example, because it will be necessary for the discussion below). Each new stage in the evolutionary process “transcends and includes” what came before it and exhibits new emergent properties. So, for example cells include atoms, but "trascend" them in the sense that they have new emergent properties (e.g. metabolism).

Beginning from the Big Bang, things have evolved progressively into more complicated arrangements which create new emergent properties as the developmental process progressively unfolds.

In this point, we confront a problem, namely, the problem of the existence of "emergent properties".  Some philosophers and scientists have argued that emergent properties don't exist, except in the phenomenological-macrophysical level (that is, our sense perception interprets certain things as having emergent properties like solidity or roughness and other macroscopic properties, when in fact they don't have them).

Physicist Marco Biagini comments:

Also the concept of a macroscopic rigid and compact object is only an optical illusion, and not a physical entity. The image of the object we see is in fact only an approximate representation of the real physical object. No object exist in nature as we see it; solid objects appear to us as if they were uniformly filled with motionless matter, while they are only sets of rapidly moving particles; matter is concentrated in a very small fraction of the space occupied by the solid object, mostly in the atomic nuclea, and it has no uniform distribution as it appears to us. The laws of physics establish that the possible properties of every particle or molecule are the same, that is the property of exchange energy with other particles or photons, and the property of movement; these are the properties of every quantum particle, and no aggregate of quantum particles can have new properties. Therefore, no real macroscopic properties exist. The macroscopic properties quoted by materialists, are not objective properties of the physical reality, but they are only abstractions or concepts used to describe our sensorial experiences; in other words, they are ideas conceived to describe or classify, according to arbitrary criteria, a given succession of microscopic processes, and these ideas exist only in a conscious and intelligent mind. Therefore, the macroscopic property, being only an abstraction, presupposes the existence of consciousness. It is obvious that consciousness cannot be considered a macroscopic property of the physical reality, because the macroscopic property itself presupposes the existence of consciousness. We have then a logical contradiction. No entities which existence presupposes the existence of consciousness can be considered as the cause of the existence of consciousness

I'm not sure whether Biagini is correct about the non-existence of macrophysical properties, but his arguments deserve careful examination. In any case, my point is that if emergent properties are not objective (but a function of our phenomenological constitution), then one of the basic pillars of Wilber's metaphysics collapses.  Wilber's position needs further defense in terms of contemporary physics and the relevant discussions in metaphysics.

But let that pass. Let's assume, for the argument's sake of this post, that emergent properties exist objectively.

Another key concept in Wilber's metaphysics is that the things so arranged in the Kosmos are simultaneously a part and a whole; a part in regards to some larger whole, and a whole in regards to its smaller parts. For example, cells are a part in regards to biological organisms; but are a "whole" in regards to their smaller parts (e.g. molecules). Wilber calls this "part/whole" property of every thing in the Kosmos HOLON (following the term coined by Arthur Koestler).

Consistent with this holonic metaphysics, Wilber argues that the mind (the individual mind like yours or mine) is a property of the brain; the brain is constituted by cells; cells by molecules; and molecules by atoms; atoms by sub-atomic particles, etc. As consequence, the mind is a higher and more developed state of the evolution of material holons like cells or atoms.

Here is where I think we can see a problem in Wilber's metaphysics for the possibility of an (unembodied) afterlife.

Note that Wilber's view so far is very similar to emergent materialism. The mind is a emergent property of the brain, not an (ontologically) independent entity. At first glance, given this premise, the mind couldn't survive the destruction of the biological brain. Therefore, survival of consciousness cannot exist.

If the mind is a holon (like everything else), then by definition it "includes and trascends" aspects of lower holons (like cells, molecules, etc.). But in such case, it's evident that the mind cannot exist after the destruction of the biological brain, because it would imply that the holonic structure underlying and supporting the mind doesn't exist anymore. If it is claimed that the mind can exist in absence of the lower holonic structure, then it becomes a kind of independent and self-subsistent holon (which is self-contradictory given the Wilberian concept of holon), or that it is not a holon anymore (which contradicts Wilber's evolutionary holonic metaphysics).

In the examples mentioned by Wilber, the lower structures of a given holon exist simultaneously to the holon. A cell, for instance, includes molecules and trascends them, but molecules exist simultaneously to cells and hence a cell cannot exist without molecules. Likewise, if the human mind include a material structure (like brain cells, etc.) and trascends it (with emergent properties like rationality or free will), then it implies that the human mind cannot exist in the absence of the brain.

Hence, the more reasonable and consistent conclusion of Wilber's metaphysics would seem to be that, once you have destroyed the lower structure (e.g. the cells), the higher structure (e.g. the brain) is destroyed. On parity of reasoning, the destruction of the brain would imply the extinction of the mind, as emergent materialists consistently realize.

The problem with Wilber's holonic metaphysics is that it is monistic, not dualistic. He postulates one single reality as ontologically fundamental, which expresses itself through progressive evolutionary process in a holonic-fashion. It doesn't make room (at least not comfortably) to basic metaphysical entities like a personal God, or to ontologically distinct entities like mathematical objects (if they exist objectively) or immaterial souls. (Note, by the way, that in the case of mathematical objects, if they exist, presumibly they are perfect, unchangless entities... how could such entities be explained in terms of holons and evolutionary development? Also, in the case of God, if He's a perfect being, it seems impossible that He's a Holon constituted by lower holons which progressively creates new entities in an evolutionary process. A perfect being cannot "evolve", since He's already perfect, He possess all his essential properties to a maximal degree).

Wilber's holon theory is useful to understand material systems (their constitution and evolution), but (in my opinion) not to understand spiritual matters, which are ontologically different and seem to obey wholly different metaphysical principles.

In conclusion:

Wilber's metaphysics of holons don't seem to provide a good theoretical framework to understand survival of consciousness in any of its standard forms (specially in unembodied forms).

If, for example, reincarnation exists, it is hard to see how Wilber's theory could consistently explain it.  How exactly a fully developed mind (that "includes and trascends" atoms and molecules of a particular biological brain) could be attached to a wholly new and independent body and brain when reincarnation happens? In this case, the mind would be previous to the new brain that supports it, which destroys the whole concept of holon in the terms argued by Wilber. (This becomes more evident in cases of "regressive reincarnations", namely, when a human being is reincarnated into lower animals, as some believers in reincarnation suggest).

Ironically, a kind of bodily immortality like the resurrection would seem, at first glance, to be compatible with Wilber's metaphysics, since in the Christian view, the "resurrection" entails the existence of a previous physical body. So, a transformed body (the resurrection body) could be considered as an holon which "trascend and include" the previous physical body (i.e., it includes the same body, and trascends it in the sense of providing it with new emergent properties, for example making it spiritually fit for immortality or immune to disease or decay).

In any case, I think Wilber's metaphysics (widely read and sympathetically accepted by many New Age believers, and fans of the paranormal) is not in home (at least not comfortably) with the idea of survival of consciousness, specially of consciousness existing in an unembodied state (e.g. as suggested by some cases of NDEs).