Join one of the greatest contemporary philosophers on a breathtaking tour of time and the Cosmos.—from the Big Bang right up to the eve of the twenty-first century. This accessible and entertaining summary of Ken Wilber’s great ideas has been expanding minds now for two decades, providing a unified field theory of the universe. Along the way, Wilber talks on a host of issues related to that universe, from gender roles, to multiculturalism, environmentalism, and even the meaning of the Internet.
This special anniversary edition contains an afterword, a dialogue between the author and Lana Wachowski––the award-winning writer-director of the Matrix film trilogy––in which we’re offered an intimate glimpse into the evolution of Ken’s thinking and where he stands today. A Brief History of Everything may well be the best introduction to the thought of this man who has been called the “Einstein of Consciousness” (John White).
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A Brief History of Everything
By Ken Wilber
Shambhala Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2000 Ken Wilber
All rights reserved.
The Pattern That Connects
Q: So we'll start the story with the Big Bang itself, and then trace out the course of evolution from matter to life to mind. And then, with the emergence of mind, or human consciousness, we'll look at the five or six major epochs of human evolution itself. And all of this is set in the context of spirituality — of what spirituality means, of the various forms that it has historically taken, and the forms that it might take tomorrow. Sound right?
KW: Yes, it's sort of a brief history of everything. This sounds altogether grandiose, but it's based on what I call "orienting generalizations," which simplifies the whole thing enormously.
Q: An orienting generalization is what, exactly?
KW: If we look at the various fields of human knowledge — from physics to biology to psychology, sociology, theology, and religion — certain broad, general themes emerge, about which there is actually very little disagreement.
For example, in the sphere of moral development, not everybody agrees with the details of Lawrence Kohlberg's moral stages, nor with the details of Carol Gilligan's reworking of Kohlberg's scheme. But there is general and ample agreement that human moral development goes through at least three broad stages.
The human at birth is not yet socialized into any sort of moral system — it is "preconventional." The human then learns a general moral scheme that represents the basic values of the society it is raised in — it becomes "conventional." And with even further growth, the individual may come to reflect on his or her society and thus gain some modest distance from it, gain a capacity to criticize it or reform it — the individual is to some degree "postconventional."
Thus, although the actual details and the precise meanings of that developmental sequence are still hotly debated, everybody pretty much agrees that something like those three broad stages do indeed occur, and occur universally. These are orienting generalizations: they show us, with a great deal of agreement, where the important forests are located, even if we can't agree on how many trees they contain.
My point is that if we take these types of largely-agreed-upon orienting generalizations from the various branches of knowledge — from physics to biology to psychology to theology — and if we string these orienting generalizations together, we will arrive at some astonishing and often profound conclusions, conclusions that, as extraordinary as they might be, nonetheless embody nothing more than our already-agreed-upon knowledge. The beads of knowledge are already accepted: it is only necessary to string them together into a necklace.
Q: And so in these discussions we will build toward some sort of necklace.
KW: Yes, in a sense. In working with broad orienting generalizations, we can suggest a broad orienting map of the place of men and women in relation to Universe, Life, and Spirit. The details of this map we can all fill in as we like, but its broad outlines really have an awful lot of supporting evidence, culled from the orienting generalizations, simple but sturdy, from the various branches of human knowledge.
Q: We'll follow the course of evolution as it unfolds through the various domains, from matter to life to mind. You call these three major domains matter or cosmos, life or the biosphere, and mind or the noo-sphere. And all of these domains together you call the "Kosmos."
KW: Yes, the Pythagoreans introduced the term "Kosmos," which we usually translate as cosmos. But the original meaning of Kosmos was the patterned nature or process of all domains of existence, from matter to mind to God, and not merely the physical universe, which is usually what both "cosmos" and "universe" mean today.
So I would like to reintroduce this term, Kosmos. And, as you point out, the Kosmos contains the cosmos (or the physiosphere), the bios (or biosphere), psyche or nous (the noosphere), and theos (the theosphere or divine domain).
So, for example, we might haggle about where exactly it is that matter becomes life — or cosmos becomes bios — but as Francisco Varela points out, autopoiesis (or self-replication) occurs only in living systems. It is found nowhere in the cosmos, but only in the bios. It's a major and profound emergent — something astonishingly novel — and I trace several of these types of profound transformations or emergents in the course of evolution in the Kosmos.
Q: So in these discussions we're not interested in just the cosmos, but the Kosmos.
KW: Yes. Many cosmologies have a materialistic bias and prejudice: the physical cosmos is somehow supposed to be the most real dimension, and everything else is explained with ultimate reference to this material plane. But what a brutal approach that is! It smashes the entire Kosmos against the wall of reductionism, and all the domains except the physical slowly bleed to death right in front of your eyes. Is this any way to treat a Kosmos?
No, I think what we want to do is Kosmology, not cosmology.
Twenty Tenets: The Patterns That Connect
Q: We can begin this Kosmology by reviewing the characteristics of evolution in the various realms. You have isolated twenty patterns that seem to be true for evolution wherever it occurs, from matter to life to mind.
KW: Based on the work of numerous researchers, yes.
Q: Let's give a few examples of these twenty tenets to show what's involved. Tenet number i is that reality is composed of whole/parts, or "holons." Reality is composed of holons?
KW: Is that far out? Is this already confusing? No? Well, Arthur Koestler coined the term "holon" to refer to an entity that is itself a whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole. And if you start to look closely at the things and processes that actually exist, it soon becomes obvious that they are not merely wholes, they are also parts of something else. They are whole/parts, they are holons.
For instance, a whole atom is part of a whole molecule, and the whole molecule is part of a whole cell, and the whole cell is part of a whole organism, and so on. Each of these entities is neither a whole nor a part, but a whole/part, a holon.
And the point is, everything is basically a holon of some sort or another. There is a two-thousand-year-old philosophical squabble between atomists and wholists: which is ultimately real, the whole or the part? And the answer is, neither. Or both, if you prefer. There are only whole/ parts in all directions, all the way up, all the way down.
There's an old joke about a King who goes to a Wiseperson and asks how it is that the Earth doesn't fall down. The Wiseperson replies, "The Earth is resting on a lion." "On what, then, is the lion resting?" "The lion is resting on an elephant." "On what is the elephant resting?" "The elephant is resting on a turtle." "On what is the ...?" "You can stop right there, Your Majesty. It's turtles all the way down."
Turtles all the way down, holons all the way down. No matter how far down we go, we find holons resting on holons resting on holons. Even subatomic particles disappear into a virtual cloud of bubbles within bubbles, holons within holons, in an ITL∞ITL of probability waves. Holons all the way down.
Q: And all the way up, as you say. We never come to an ultimate Whole.
KW: That's right. There is no whole that isn't also simultaneously a part of some other whole, indefinitely, unendingly. Time goes on, and today's wholes are tomorrow's parts. ...
Even the "Whole" of the Kosmos is simply a part of the next moment's whole, indefinitely. At no point do we have the whole, because there is no whole, there are only whole/parts forever.
So the first tenet says that reality is composed neither of things nor processes, neither wholes nor parts, but whole/parts, or holons — all the way up, all the way down.
Q: So reality is not composed of, say, subatomic particles.
KW: Yikes. I know that approach is common, but it is really a profoundly reductionistic approach, because it is going to privilege the material, physical universe, and then everything else — from life to mind to spirit — has to be derived from subatomic particles, and this will never, never work.
But notice, a subatomic particle is itself a holon. And so is a cell. And so is a symbol, and an image, and a concept. What all of those entities are, before they are anything else, is a holon. So the world is not composed of atoms or symbols or cells or concepts. It is composed of holons.
Since the Kosmos is composed of holons, then if we look at what all holons have in common, then we can begin to see what evolution in all the various domains has in common. Holons in the cosmos, bios, psyche, theos — how they all unfold, the common patterns they all display.
Q: What all holons have in common. That is how you arrive at the twenty tenets.
KW: Yes, that's right.
Agency and Communion
Q: So tenet 1 is that the Kosmos is composed of holons. Tenet 2 is that all holons share certain characteristics.
KW: Yes. Because every holon is a whole/part, it has two "tendencies" or two "drives," we might say — it has to maintain both its wholeness and its partness.
On the one hand, it has to maintain its own wholeness, its own identity, its own autonomy, its own agency. If it fails to maintain and preserve its own agency, or its own identity, then it simply ceases to exist. So one of the characteristics of a holon, in any domain, is its agency, its capacity to maintain its own wholeness in the face of environmental pressures which would otherwise obliterate it. This is true for atoms, cells, organisms, ideas.
But a holon is not only a whole that has to preserve its agency, it is also a part of some other system, some other wholeness. And so, in addition to having to maintain its own autonomy as a whole, it simultaneously has to fit in as a part of something else. Its own existence depends upon its capacity to fit into its environment, and this is true from atoms to molecules to animals to humans.
So every holon has not only its own agency as a whole, it also has to fit with its communions as part of other wholes. If it fails at either — if it fails at agency or communion — it is simply erased. It ceases to be.
Transcendence and Dissolution
Q: And that is part of tenet number 2 — each holon possesses both agency and communion. You call these the "horizontal" capacities of holons. What about the "vertical" capacities of holons, which you call "self-transcendence" and "self-dissolution"?
KW: Yes. If a holon fails to maintain its agency and its communions, then it can break down completely. When it does break down, it decomposes into its subholons: cells decompose into molecules, which break down into atoms, which can be "smashed" infinitely under intense pressure. The fascinating thing about holon decomposition is that holons tend to dissolve in the reverse direction that they were built up. And this decomposition is "self-dissolution," or simply decomposing into subholons, which themselves can decompose into their subholons, and so on.
But look at the reverse process, which is the most extraordinary: the building-up process, the process of new holons emerging. How did inert molecules come together to form living cells in the first place?
The standard neo-Darwinian explanation of chance mutation and natural selection — very few theorists believe this anymore. Evolution clearly operates in part by Darwinian natural selection, but this process simply selects those transformations that have already occurred by mechanisms that absolutely nobody understands.
Q: For example?
KW: Take the standard notion that wings simply evolved from forelegs. It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg — a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing — you can't run and you can't fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal — and also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings.
Talk about mind-boggling. This is infinitely, absolutely, utterly mind-boggling. Random mutations cannot even begin to explain this. The vast majority of mutations are lethal anyway; how are we going to get a hundred nonlethal mutations happening simultaneously? Or even four or five, for that matter? But once this incredible transformation has occurred, then natural selection will indeed select the better wings from the less workable wings — but the wings themselves? Nobody has a clue.
For the moment, everybody has simply agreed to call this "quantum evolution" or "punctuated evolution" or "emergent evolution" — radically novel and emergent and incredibly complex holons come into existence in a huge leap, in a quantum-like fashion — with no evidence whatsoever of intermediate forms. Dozens or hundreds of simultaneous nonlethal mutations have to happen at the same time in order to survive at all — the wing, for example, or the eyeball.
However we decide these extraordinary transformations occur, the fact is undeniable that they do. Thus, many theorists, like Erich Jantsch, simply refer to evolution as "self-realization through self-transcendence." Evolution is a wildly self-transcending process: it has the utterly amazing capacity to go beyond what went before. So evolution is in part a process of transcendence, which incorporates what went before and then adds incredibly novel components. The drive to self-transcendence thus appears to be built into the very fabric of the Kosmos itself.
Four Drives of All Holons
Q: And that is the fourth "drive" of all holons. So we have agency and communion, operating "horizontally" on any level, and then "vertically" we have the move to a higher level altogether, which is self-transcendence, and the move to a lower level, which is self-dissolution.
KW: Yes, that's right. Because all holons are whole/parts, they are subjected to various "pulls" in their own existence. The pull to be a whole, the pull to be a part, the pull up, the pull down: agency, communion, transcendence, dissolution. And tenet 2 simply says that all holons have these four pulls.
So that's an example of how the twenty tenets start. There is nothing magical about the number "twenty." These are just some of the common patterns I have focused on. The rest of the twenty tenets look at what happens when these various forces play themselves out. The self-transcending drive produces life out of matter, and mind out of life. And the twenty tenets simply suggest some of these types of common patterns found in the evolution of holons wherever they appear — matter to life to mind, to maybe even higher stages. Maybe even spiritual stages, yes?
Q: So there is indeed some sort of unity to evolution.
Excerpted from A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber. Copyright © 2000 Ken Wilber. Excerpted by permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc..
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