Cogito

Ken Wilber a climate denier? Say it ain’t so

Ken Wilber chart.

Ken Wilber has built a large and enthusiastic following over the last 20 years with a series of books building his “integral theory of spirituality”. Drawing on the great truths of religious traditions east and west, it’s an all-encompassing story – “a theory of everything” – that Wilber has deployed to considerable effect to explain not just all kinds of religious experience and teaching but everything from the nature of consciousness, psychological theories, art, literature, postmodernism, philosophies of all kinds, feminism, sex, ecology and quantum physics, to name only a few.

Wilber’s system grew out of his experiences of higher states of consciousness (rarified ones that few attain) combined with a conception of a hierarchy of stages of consciousness that he has translated into a theory of the history of the world.

It is a Hegelian kind of theory except that the driving force is not the cumulative development of the consciousness of freedom but the ineluctable rise of humankind from primitive magical thinking through rational and pluralistic stages to the ultimate states of integral and super-integral stages of consciousness and human development.

Although we live in the upper middle phases of the evolution, a few individuals have attained such high states of consciousness that, combined with deep knowledge of the actual world, they can see and experience the future of humanity now. Wilber, of course, is one of the few.

In articulating his theory of everything, Wilber, who was trained in biology, spends quite a bit of time expostulating on matters scientific, for modern science too is a crucial stage in the ever-upward development of humankind. He has argued that modern science has been a great achievement of humankind but that we need to go beyond its narrow confinement to logic, mathematics and the evidence of the mundane world to a broader science that encompasses other realms of consciousness, truths of the inner world.

So, what are we to think when we discover that Ken Wilber has swallowed the poison pill of climate science denial, and sings the praises of Michael Crichton? Crichton is notorious for his novel State of Fear in which he characterizes the vast body of evidence about anthropogenic global warming as a conspiracy among scientists. He retails a series of “facts” about climate change science that have been shown to be manifestly false and based on ignorance, but which the novelist deploys to support his thesis that climate science is used as a form of social control. Of course, State of Fear had leading deniers in the US Congress and the blogosphere cock-a-hoop.

You can listen here (from around 5 minutes in) to Wilber talk about “my friend Michael Crichton” including Wilber’s retelling of the conspiracy theory about scientists covering up evidence. “We don’t know if we’re getting all of the facts”, he tells his audience. A more extensive revelation of his denialism is found in another discussion with Crichton, but it seems to be for members of his Integral Institute only and not easily accessible.

A number of explanations come to mind for Wilber’s turn against science. In the first place, those without relevant qualifications who feel themselves able to evaluate and reject a huge body of evidence built around a theory unchallenged for a century must have enormous egos. While Wilber has expatiated on the dangers of the “spiritualized ego”, it is hard to keep the monster at bay when surrounded by starry-eyed devotees who believe you are the font of all wisdom.

To be consistent, those who decide the scientists are duping us must explain how it is that over the last thirty years or so hundreds of highly qualified scientists have managed to publish thousands of papers in peer-reviewed journals virtually all of which support the basic claims of anthropogenic warming.

Most resort to some kind of conspiracy among the scientists to systematically distort their results in order to pursue hidden goals. The mentality behind this kind of thinking psychologists call “conspiracist ideation” and it has common features across all kinds of conspiracy theories – from the Kennedy assassination, to faked moon landings, to anti-vaccinators, to those who believe AIDS was planted in Africa by the US Government.

Of course, for someone who claims to have reached a very high level of enlightenment, the fall from “nondual consciousness” to the cognitive style of conspiracy theories is a very long one indeed, crashing down through the rational to the mythic and magic levels, or using Wilber’s other scale, a fall from the grace of a violet level of conscious down the spectrum through green and orange to red and even magenta where we might find the most intellectually primitive deniers of the American right, like Senator Jim Inhofe (also a friend of Michael Crichton).

Yet I think there is something deeper going on with Wilber’s embrace of climate science denial. His entire body of theory, everything he has ever written or said, is built on one essential premise: the cosmos displays an inexorable process of evolution, from simple matter through lower to higher forms of life and through lower to higher forms of consciousness until it reaches an ultimate state comprised of highly enlightened beings living in unity with each other and in harmony with the Earth.

The problem is that the world’s climate scientists are saying things that directly contradict this utopian vision of spiritual progress. They tell us that life in a hot world will not be one of blissful universal love and higher stages of consciousness but of struggle, conflict and mass death. It will be hard enough to maintain the mundane utopian promise of material progress through economic growth. The warnings are legion; here is one of the latest.

What would it take for Ken Wilber to embrace the science? It would mean the collapse of his life’s work. It would mean his most profound insights into the human condition and the nature of the cosmos don’t amount to a hill of beans. Ken Wilber would no longer be Ken Wilber.

In the face of this life-threatening reality Wilber, like many others, has taken the way out for the faint-hearted. He has decided to disbelieve the scientists; in other words, he has opted to reject the spirit of the Enlightenment that made the modern world.

In mitigation, it might be said that if Ken Wilber has had trouble swallowing the message of the scientists he is by no means alone, even among intellectuals. But somehow I think being among that crowd is not where Wilber would want to see himself.

@CliveCHamilton