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CHAPTER XI

CARGO CULT
PHILOSOPHY



People like von Daniken [re: UFOs] and Velikovsky say a lot of things that seem quite plausible to the layman, but scientists with specialized knowledge in the relevant fields treat them as a joke. Is Wilber the philosophical equivalent of such figures?

MANY YEARS AGO, RICHARD FEYNMAN (1989) offered an insightful critique of the “cargo cult science” into which Wilber’s work falls so squarely:

[T]here is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.
In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another....
We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.

Ken Wilber may have garnered some “temporary fame and excitement” for his “cargo cult philosophy”—having always “bent over backwards” in exactly the wrong way, to obfuscate/ignore facts which did not mesh with his “theories.” But that “success” is fairly meaningless, being achieved only in a field of “scholarship” populated by admirers who simply don’t know any better, and who will fight their critics, tooth and nail, should the latter try to present them with thorough research which utterly discredits their system of beliefs. The truth will indeed come out. And, in the end, the world will know Wilber for the foolish, authoritarian pretender he has always been.

The idea that kw may actually be the “Velikovsky of consciousness research” may be funny, but it is no joke. As Robert Carroll (2005b) noted about Velikovsky, though: “That is not to say that his work is not an impressive exercise and demonstration of ingenuity and erudition [i.e., in imaginative “theorizing” and the taking of mere coincidences as if they indicated deep, underlying connections]. It is very impressive [though nonetheless hopelessly wrong], but it isn’t science. It isn’t even history.”

Wilber’s presentation of the various disciplines and perspectives which (he claims) support his integral theories, too, is so distorted and regularly false that it “isn’t even history.”

Less charitably, Velikovsky’s former associate Leroy Ellenberger observed: “The less one knows about science, the more plausible Velikovsky’s scenario appears.” And, in the words of Michael Friedlander: “I would not trust any alleged citation by Velikovsky without checking the original printed sources.”

Or, consider this: “Velikovsky interprets, adds, and deletes liberally while insisting he is adhering literally to the evidence.... Given such an array of data and freedom to interpret, the legends can be made to fit any theory.”

Or this: “[W]hen a book contains obvious incompetencies that can be spotted just at random, you don’t need to read the whole thing to conclude it’s junk.”

Or this: “[T]he New York literary world considered Velikovsky a genius on par with ‘Einstein, Newton, Darwin and Freud.’”

Or, finally, this: “[T]here can be no denying the scientific indifference and incompetence of Velikovsky.”

Do those critiques remind you of anyone else’s work?

But Velikovsky [like Wilber] makes it all look so consistent. Surely he couldn’t put all those legends together so neatly unless his theory was true? Variations on this theme come up with just about every type of pseudoscience. The startling truth is that theories that hang together pretty well logically and are reasonably consistent with most of the evidence are a dime a dozen in science. It’s easy—anyone can construct one. The key to the problem lies in the qualifiers “pretty well,” “reasonably consistent,” and “most of the evidence.” The difference between a mediocre theory and a good one is that the good theory is as nearly as possible entirely consistent with all the evidence. You can make any theory look good if you are free to disregard or rearrange key bits of evidence (Dutch, 2001).

Wilber has, of course, traded on that fact for his entire career.

Nevertheless, taking multiple perspectives on reality, as kw encourages, is indeed valuable. And endorsing any philosophy or religion while listening to skeptical arguments against it is itself a multi-perspectival viewpoint.

Equally, though, following the evidence, while still hoping that even the most wide-eyed of spiritual claims will turn out, upon competent testing, to be true, is also multi-perspectival.

In the former route, you end up believing in a wide variety of fairy tales, and discounting their consistent failure to show their purported effects in properly controlled studies as a mere temporary setback or a shortcoming of “skeptical-materialistic science.” You will also, if history and psychology are any guide, simultaneously elevate the “false positives” of improperly performed studies to the status of “best evidence”—happy to believe whatever you wish until it is “disproved,” in spite of the difficulty/impossibility of proving a negative. (That is, the impossibility of proving that leprechauns don’t exist, for example.)

In the latter route, by contrast, you simply resolve to face reality, whatever it may turn out to be, even while still hoping that, by some phenomenal coincidence, the universe may yet turn out to have a point to its existence after all.

Religion/spirituality benefits greatly from the former, “multi-perspectival believer” approach; the greatest discoveries in science, by contrast, have consistently been made by people who took the latter.

If you really care about having your beliefs correspond to reality, you have to be prepared to face, and act on, the possibility that they don’t.

And, if you think you can take the “good” from the integral perspective, for example, and leave the rest behind, consider this: Every point on which I, or anyone else, has debunked Ken Wilber’s claims, was at one time supposedly part of what was worth saving from his ideas.

Further, as far as practice goes: Do you really need a formal philosophy or an integration of the current schools of thought in order to know enough to lead a balanced life, or to justify living that way to yourself? (You know: Exercise, relaxation, good food but not too much of it, read a good book with proper footnoting now and then, don’t believe everything you’re told by persons who stand to gain from your willing obedience, etc.) If you do, here’s one:

We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.

You know who said that? Friedrich Nietzsche—a real philosopher, who didn’t need to substitute fairy tales for reality and then pretend that that was an improvement rooted in his own exalted “second-tier spiritual realization.”

Can one then claim that there is no need to integrate the various approaches in the field of consciousness studies, or at least to point out the first- and third-person approaches that divide it? Surely, listing the current schools of thought, and the attempt, by Wilber and others, to arrange them in some kind of order, can only help?

As a first point, it is exactly the attempt to find order in all those phenomena without having any idea about how to separate the real ones from the imaginary ones that has created the integral mess in the first place. Thus, the “theorists” give equal weight to the “effectiveness” of long-ago debunked homeopathy and acupuncture, and to the “proven” efficacy of meditation in advancing psychological stage-growth, as they give to a real process of evolution (which has to be utterly misrepresented in order to fit into their “theories”). But where, in life, do we get marks simply for “attempting” things, much less for giving the false impression of success by dishonestly/selectively ignoring uncomplimentary, contrary information?

And, ironically, it is exactly the combination of third-person and first-person approaches, in the use of basic statistics and double-blind settings to evaluate claims of the abilities to see auras or to do astral travel, for example, that has provided the most evidence that such purported abilities are unlikely to be real.

Plus, you cannot do anything resembling science by “including everything” now, and only later weeding out the phenomena that don’t actually exist. Consequently, until you have thoroughly determined what the “best evidence” that needs to be explained actually is, your theories are inherently going to be “dime a dozen” ones, which fit “pretty well” with whatever you hope may exist in the physical and transpersonal worlds. When exactly that same approach is being taken in the attempt to arrange current schools of thought into some kind of order, one truly doesn’t even need to read the “breakthrough” publications in order to know that they are not going to stand up to questioning.

Further, proper theories in any field don’t merely explain existing phenomena and predict new ones. Rather, they also “disallow” claimed phenomena which have failed to show themselves in proper testing. How is the integral “we’ll weed it out later” approach to a “Theory of Everything” ever going to accomplish the latter point? Even in principle, it cannot.

Of course, for people with an interest in such things, there will always be at least a psychological need for such attempts at integration. But Wilber (and at least 80% of his critics, and at least 99% of his followers) woefully lack the knowledge to effect that integration, or even to properly critique others’ attempts at it. (That knowledge-base would cover original sources, along with one’s understanding and applying of the fact that literally nothing of what one might like to believe about the hoped-for transpersonal aspects of reality has ever showed itself in any properly conducted and repeated testing.)

Further, since the integral community as a whole is blatantly unable to recognize false attempts at such integration even when the flaws are enumerated in precise detail, it doesn’t have a prayer of recognizing true ones, either. Its members simply won’t know the difference.

Still, it is never an all-or-nothing proposition. Is the attempt to put current schools of thought into some kind of order a good thing, at least in principle? Of course it is. Has any good come out of it? Of course. Has any bad come out of it? Yes, quite a lot actually. Does integral philosophy do more harm than good? Based on lost productivity, the psychotic side-effects of meditation, and the like, I would say yes, it does significantly more harm than good; notwithstanding that, like all “opiates of the masses,” it does serve a social and salvational function for the in-group.

The problem with integral/spiritual pursuits is that they are never content to be mere theories; they always want to be applied to real lives. While that may sound like a good idea, it’s exactly in the applying that all the worst damage is done.


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