Frank Visser is arguably the chief critic of Ken Wilber, integral theory and the integral community as a whole. Based in Amsterdam, Frank is publisher of the website INTEGRAL WORLD: An Independent Forum for a Critical Discussion of the Integral Philosophy of Ken Wilber which hosts over a thousand essays by mostly dissenting voices in the integral scene.
Contrast this to Jeff Salzman and his work with the Daily Evolver. Jeff is an unabashed Wilberian and self-described integral evangelist who “sees the animating power of evolution, inside and out.” Frank and Jeff spoke by phone before the holidays while Frank was getting ready to head out to an island on the coast of the Netherlands.
Visser was once an enthusiastic proponent of Ken Wilber’s AQAL model. In 2003 he wrote the book Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY Press), a chronological overview of Ken’s life and work through 2003, and has recently released a new online chapter, “Reaching Out to the World”, covering the intervening years. This new writing is far more critical of Ken and the integral movement and has sparked new controversy, most notably a fascinating and fruitful back-and-forth between Frank and Joe Perez, creator of the outstanding Integral Blog. Joe’s first volley is entitled “Properly Integral: A Response to Frank Visser’s Three Disappointments”, and leads to the rest of the debate.
In this podcast Jeff and Frank talk about their differences, which primarily boils down to the question does Spirit exist? Is there a loving intelligence at work in the kosmos? Jeff says “yes”, and Frank says “not so fast.”
For Frank, the idea that there is an intelligent force driving evolution, that the substrate of existence is consciousness, or Spirit, is where the line is crossed. To make such claims requires an unhealthy mixing of science and religion. “Wilber is a complicated figure, because he argues for spirit but he includes so much scientific material to back up that case…it’s only natural for people who are in the sciences to hold him accountable for how strong is his case.”
Of course, the integral project is to integrate the realms of science and mysticism, which have different injunctions and different validity claims, and which have long been estranged. But Frank is skeptical; are we integrating or are we mixing? Probably both, says Jeff, but this is how we move forward.
I think you get stronger when you can engage your opposing views, there’s no way out of that. Otherwise you create a bubble and you repeat what you already think and that’s not very fruitful to me. There came a point when I was stepping over to the dark side, so to speak. I was so immersed in all this critical writing that I took up that role to become a focus for it and that’s basically how the website Integral World has received its reputation. I must say that I always am a bit surprised by people who say, well, this is just a junkyard of Wilber bashing or whatever. ~Frank Visser
Part of Frank’s skepticism comes from the fact that spirituality is comforting for us. It’s always been there to explain things that we can’t otherwise understand. When the questions get too difficult, insert “God” and the equation is balanced. And isn’t it nice to know that no matter how troubled the world seems, at the end of the day it’s all okay because, after all, it’s in God’s hands. “If you feel there is a kind of spirit behind everything then of course you’re safe,” says Frank, “because then it will work out in the end. If you don’t have that drive, which is my feeling, things can still progress but you can always fuck it up mightily by depleting the world’s resources and so on.”
Do we really need a spirit, an animating force in the equation, when the universe is already wonderful and mysterious beyond comprehension? What does it add? We might even understand reality better without it, says Frank.
Jeff counters that such a view ignores the interior dimensions of reality, including consciousness itself. The presence of Spirit doesn’t negate the scientific view, but to take it away diminishes our experience of life because it is an intrinsic aspect of existence. To see this requires spiritual insight, which is generally the result of a spiritual practice. Science works with the principle that seeing is believing, and spirituality works with the converse: believing is seeing.
On a good day I can still relate to the idea of a cosmic evolution and a spirit behind everything and the hope that it gives that things will work out and so on. On a bad day (or a good day, depending on how you look at it) I see different things and I’m not so sure anymore and I’m not necessarily unhappy with that.
I’m kind of role-playing, I sometimes think. I play this role of the devil’s advocate and I still feel myself connected to the integral field. I don’t know where that ends, but it could also be that in a couple of years I’m done with this and I become more positive in my writings or in my expressions. ~Frank Visser
Frank and Jeff go on to discuss the idea of free will, politics and current events, the Big Bang, and artificial intelligence.
They disagree plenty, but this is how things work themselves out, says Jeff, “If you look at the history of any significant movement…we need to manage the polarities in order to provide the juice for continued evolution.”
Frank adds that we should be playful with our positions and not hold them too seriously. “And of course, there’s a common ground between two positions where you want to have the best for the earth and humanity and all that lives; even a humanist can consent to that. Then you don’t even need to have a spirit behind everything. There’s a common ground for people with good intentions.”
Listen or download the podcast below, and here’s to the juice of continued evolution!