Saturday, 9 March 2013

Evolutionary Enlightenment Commits Logical Suicide

Andrew Cohen came to believe and propound principles of spirituality which he calls evolutionary enlightenment.  In this interview, he explains that this came about after he’d studied more traditional eastern religious ideas and practices, but found them wanting: “traditional escapist forms of enlightenment that is taught in the east didn’t make sense to me anymore.”  Cohen modifies eastern religious ideas, stressing that the universe is not only both spirit and conscious, but that it has a purpose.  The meaning of a person’s life is to awaken to this cosmic purpose and become part of its evolutionary path.  What he never clarifies is where this process is going and for what end, as it appears he’s rejected the notion of traditional eastern enlightenment (i.e. in Hinduism), that the end is union with the Divine.  The point of his doctrine seems to be to jump on the evolutionary bandwagon and, through meditation, ‘grasp the creative impulse.’

Long before Darwin there was a movement which challenged certain notions espoused by the Neo-Platonists, that the spiritual Ladder of Life or Great Chain of Being was static – that individuals might rise up through the rungs to merge with the divine One.  In the 19th century, this ladder became dynamic with everything including the soul of the world evolving over time.  This is the basic idea that Hegel espoused; the unfolding of the world’s spirit through time.  So before Darwin, the Romantics had embraced a spiritualised form of evolution.   What supposedly drives this evolution forward is a universal striving for higher levels of perfection.  Nancy Pearcey, in her book Saving Leonardo, says that until Darwin, “concepts of spiritually directed evolution were widely accepted because they seemed to support the concept of divine providence directing the process….It provided a version of evolution that was teleological…it assured people that, contrary to what materialism says, purpose and meaning were not strictly mental, located only in the human mind.  They were embedded in nature as well.”[1]   And as the historian John Randall concluded, “When science seemed to take God out of the universe, men had to deify some natural force, like evolution.”[2]

Evolution means progressive change and adaptation and for Hegel this included changes in the areas of law, ethics, philosophy and theology.  Since no idea was absolutely true or timeless, this radical relativism known as historicism implies that nothing stands outside the unfolding, evolutionary process.  The problem of historicism is that it undermines itself – it commits suicide.  Just as one cannot assert relativism without denying it, then the very idea of spiritual evolution may one day be surpassed by something else.  To assert historicism, one needs to be able to stand above history to see it objectively, but this isn’t possible according historicism itself.   Nancy Pearcey says, “The only way to avoid suicide is to be logically inconsistent:  Hegel had to exempt his own views from the historicist categories that he applied to everyone else’s views.”[3]

So how does the progressive spiritual movement get out of this trap?  Diane Musho Hamilton, a teacher of integral spirituality, recognises the problem.  She says that evolutionary consciousness is “the bridge in the territory between Zen practice and integral theory.”[4]  It allows the transition to Ken Wilber’s philosophy of reality – Integral Theory - which synthesises ideas from psychology, philosophy, history, anthropology, religion and sociology.  Recognising that psychology isn’t enough to handle all the problems people encounter while also admitting that spirituality alone (especially meditation) is often insufficient to help some whose problems are deeply problematic (such as bi-polar and other forms of depression), integral theory borrows principles and practices from both.  Wilber packages this up as a theory of everything. 

Like Cohen, Wilber views history as the evolution of consciousness and that monotheism is but a more primitive or mythic understanding of reality.  Again this echoes Hegel’s ideas of the development of the world’s spirit, the Geist, over time.  As Douglas Groothius concludes in a review of Wilber’s ideas, “nevertheless, Wilber’s worldview is both unbiblical and riddled with philosophical errors.”[5]  One of these is that the fundamental nature of reality in integral (and eastern) spirituality is nondual.  Groothuis explains, “nondualism excludes any development of the universe or cultures through time.  If all is one and with distinction, there are no parts of reality left to develop or change in history.”[6]

Yet Wilber repeatedly explains “the evolution of consciousness,” while affirming that nonduality is both “the ground and the goal” of the entire process.  Hindu non nondualists are at least consistent in rejecting history as illusory and unimportant.[7]

Integral theory incorporates a framework for understanding human psychology called AQAL, meaning all quadrants, all levels, which undertakes to define categories of existence - quadrants, lines,  levels, states and types – which supposedly explain capacities and stages for growth.   Progress in this system rests on certain necessary conditions including these: a certain degree of physiological development is necessary but not sufficient for cognitive development; a certain degree of cognitive development is necessary for self-development; this for interpersonal development; and this for moral development.  Isn’t this remarkable; the final level is moral.  So it seems to me logical that integral theory might come full circle to re-acknowledging the importance of the conscience in determining right from wrong, that reality might not be nondual after all and that integral could very well ‘evolve’ into something quite different from what Wilber had in mind.  Perhaps into monotheism…

[1] Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo, B&H Publishing Group, 2010, p. 196.
[2] John Randall, Philosophy after Darwin, p. 8.
[3] Pearcey, p. 196-7.
[4] Diane Musho Hamilton, “Exploring Integral Zen: The Sliding Scale of Enlightenment,” Intgral Life+, 8 Mar 2008.
[5]Douglas Groothuis, “A Critique of Ken Wilber,” The Constructive Curmudgeon blog, 3 March 2010
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.

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