top of page

Emergentism vs. Integral Theory

Is There Anything New Under the Sun?

I was recently asked, "Could you please clarify for me in a few sentences, how your work on Emergentism is different from or adding to Ken Wilber's work? I read your work and keep thinking, that all of it has been described and discussed by evolutionary thinkers decades ago. I honestly try to understand, where you feel you are expanding Integral Theory?🙏"

Thanks for the question. Here's a quick response (albeit in more than a few sentences):

There are a number of areas where I feel my work (and the field of metamodern spirituality more broadly) offers a meaningful update to the existing traditions of evolutionary spirituality, Ken Wilber's integral theory specifically. The biggest are on the scientific, cultural/aesthetic, and theological fronts.

Let's start with the science.

Wilber published Sex, Ecology, Spirituality in 1995, which was arguably his deepest engagement with the fields of complexity science (at least, that I am aware of). Therein, in the opening chapters, he references the work of Eric Chaisson, Ervin Laszlo, and Eric Jantsch, all of which were written in the 1980s and early 90s. While this helps contextualize and ground his approach, from there on he largely leaves complexity science (then still in its infancy) behind, and develops more theoretical and metaphysical domains (holarchy theory, etc.) to serve as his theoretical foundation going forward.

Moreover, he doesn't spend much time on the actual scientific primary sources in the text proper, but rather summarizes their conclusions instead of offering a more complete treatment of their evidence and arguments. In this sense, he doesn't "make the case" about complexification as much as he presumes it. This is not a critique, just an observation. However, as a consequence, what gets left out of his work are some key specificities around the mechanics of cosmic evolution—mechanics that are only appreciated if you go digging into the source material, and then keep digging into their source material. That is what I did, reading Chaisson, and then following his sources to Prigogine et al., and looking for the mechanics around energy, information, and organization, etc.

In doing so, I found that, as one might expect, there have been, in the nearly 30 years since SES was published, remarkable scientific advances in the domains key to evolutionary spirituality—discoveries that lend much greater countour and precision to the evolutionary worldview and grand narrative, and which need to be integrated into any evolutionary spiritual vision that would claim to be "up to date." Developments in non-equilibrium thermodynamics (e.g., dissipative adaptation), consciousness studies (e.g., integrated information theory and active inference), and developmental psychology (e.g., the Model of Hierarchical Complexity), to name but a few examples, reveal with considerably more clarity the cosmic story of complexification, and at a resolution lacking in any of Wilber's work.

I began seeing the need to bring all of these materials together into a unifying vision about energy, information, complexity, and consciousness, but Bobby Azarian beat me to it (and did a much better job than I ever could have) with his book The Romance of Reality, the contents of which are vital for a more complete and up-to-date picture of cosmic evolution, most of which is missing from Wilber. Azarian presents a metatheory that helps supplement Wilber's—as does Gregg Henriques's Unified Theory of Knowledge, which is key for naming the role of emergent information processing systems at the level of Life (DNA), Mind (nervous system), and Culture (symbolic language). That division of fundamental emergences is lacking in Wilber, who only has the physiosphere, biosphere, and noosphere.

In sum, the scientific edifice Wilber's work rests on has since changed and grown considerably, and new presentations of this material are needed. Today we have a much richer picture of the narrative of complexification. That cosmic story deserves telling in all its fascinating detail. That is one thing my current and future work aims to do, along with others. Emergentism: A Religion of Complexity for the Metamodern World is just a first go at presenting some of this material for a popular audience. It does not claim to be exhaustive, but rather a map that future works will fill out.

Another update comes at the level of cultural sensibility, aesthetics, and the specific needs of my generation and its moment.

Wilber is now in his 70s; he was, arguably, at his peak as a thinker and writer in the 1990s and early 2000s. The sensibility and aesthetic of his work reflects that context. The profundity of his ideas notwithstanding, there is a strong "New Age" vibe to his ouvre, and works like Integral Spirituality now seem more than a bit dated in their presentation.

Generally speaking, I would argue, there is missing from Wilber's work a sense of ironic self-awareness nowadays deemed crucial, especially if one is going to be pronouncing on issues of grand narratives and spiritual truth. In stronger terms, there is often in integral contexts a level of eager earnestness that can be deemed a bit "cringe" by a younger audience reared on postmodern culture, as well as a bit "woo" (more about which later). None of these differences make either demographic "right" or "wrong" per se; they simply mark important generational aesthetic and sensibility differences.

One crucial thing metamodernism offers is a current and leading-edge cultural sensibility that is alive for millennials and Gen Z—one that actually feels part of a living futurism. More than that, its defining sensibility characteristics ("ironic sincerity," "informed naivete," "pragmatic idealism") are precisely the strategies needed to temper the perceived inadequacies of the older approach—at least for this younger audience.

Hanzi Freinacht's work has been crucial in presenting integral ideas within this new cultural register, in ways that are vital for their further development. But Hanzi's work specifically eschews much of the spiritualizing and teleological thinking in favor of an overt political approach. That leaves open an exploration of spirituality from this metamodern register, and that is what my work aims to do. The results, however, are not just integral by another name (though no one can argue that metamodernism doesn't affect a comprehensive rebranding of integral ideas for a millennial demographic and beyond). Rather, they allow for novel possibilities. Emergentism is aduaciously presented not as a theory but as a religion—something that can be done precisely because of the oscillating sensibility that holds it in check and keeps it from taking itself too seriously. Wilber, to his credit, but also limitation, could never have presented integral as such. But this also reflects the different needs of the moment, which are themselves framed in different ways now—as the "meaning crisis" and the "meta-crisis," etc., which demand "culture architects" and "ontological designers," etc. If we do indeed need a new religion, then theory won't cut it. The metamodern sensibility is key to taking Wilber's ideas further in terms of cultural influence and implementation.

Finally, there's the theological aspect, about which much might be said, but only a bit of which I'll get into here.

First, we should note that Wilber's evolutionary spirituality is of a very specific type: namely, a Buddhist one. His vision differs from thinkers like de Chardin in seeing the posited Omega as but the infinitely receding horse's carrot in "the nightmare of samsara"; he brings into his framework four metaphysical realms from Eastern religion, Gross, Subtle, Causal, Non-Dual; he stresses state-training over mythological narrative. All such things situate him firmly in a particular religious tradition, and outside of others (e.g., Judeo-Christian or theological ones). Other traditions can be accomodated, but always with some violence done to their metaphysics or fundamental claims.

For my part, I see a need for an expression of evolutionary spirituality that fits more within the theological lineages of the West. Such a thing would be particularly important for advancing the message, anyway, in a culture still primarily influenced by Judeo-Christian ways of thinking. In short, I think there are other ways of reading the complexification narrative compared to how Wilber does. I think there are other ways to conceive of nonduality and spiritual transcendence, too. And I think those alternate visions are needed right now.

Specifically, Emergentism emphasizes the teleological emergence of consciousness out of matter. This is the very aim of existence, and the Omega point toward which it is moving is understood as the divine attractor whose continual realization culminates infinitely towards the emergence of God consciousness. God emerges from chaos as an immanent deity. The Universe is the development of God.

Not so for Wilber. For him, the Formless ground outside of evolutionary time is the true goal of spiritual aspiration, with any such "Omega" in time and space understood as an infinitely receding false hope:

Evolution seeks only this Formless summum bonum—it wants only this ultimate Omega—it rushes forward always and solely in search of this—and it will never find it, because evolution unfolds in the world of form. The Kosmos is driven forward endlessly, searching in the world of time for that which is altogether timeless. And since it will never find it, it will never cease the search. Samsara circles endlessly, and that is always the brutal nightmare hidden in its heart.

Theologically speaking, this is a rather different take on the meaning and significance of evolution and complexification, to be sure.

More than that, Wilber's assimilation of Buddhist metaphysics, as well as all sorts of psychic and paranormal phenomena, eventually made for some rather strange bedfellows in the scene. A lot of "woo" found its way into integral circles, a lot of sloppy thinking, a lot of ungrounded metaphysical fluff, etc. Often with very disastrous results. Unfortunately, this has had the effect of discrediting integral in more mainstream circles, where a stricter empiricism holds.

Perhaps this is unavoidable for a metatheory that tries to be truly comprehensive and embrace all the data, even the anomalous kind; but its consequences are clear enough. In any event, it seems a bit unnecessary to me, at least at many levels. Doesn't the sublime narrative of cosmic evolution (told at the "Gross" level only, shall we say) offer a miraculous narrative worthy of sacred reverence and capable of the most important kind of meaning-making? Can't the solid findings of science show us the way to an inspirational and efficacious grand narrative? We should, I think, at least start there.

Which is not at all to say we can't admit phenomena outside that ken. Indeed, we must, if we're to broach genuine transcendence and admit the maximal amount of data, phenomenological and hitherto unaccounted for in materialistic paradigms. But let's get the Gross basics right first, and at high resolution. And let's mine that for all its spiritual insight and inspiration before admitting too hastily the "spooky" aspects of reality. At the very least, this offers us a solid grounding in the naturalistic sciences and established methodologies. It lends credibility to the spirituality of complexification.

Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about Azarian's Romance of Reality was how his narrative of the universe's awakening to consciousness through complexification met with praise and applause from no less an "atheist skeptic" than Michael Shermer! The spirituality of the future will be of this sort—not the kind that admits of efficacious prayer over crops or spends more time talking about subtle energy than energy-information. We should be more interested in a ringing endorsement from Karl Friston than Deepak Chopra. While not denying that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt in our philosophy, and that we should seek to integrate these for their spiritual significance, nevertheless, we should spend more time, I think, learning to see the very real, very empirical facts of reality as magical, mysterious, and sublime.

That sort of approach comes in clutch when trying to keep the unwelcome woo and weirdos from infecting the discourse. And that, too, is something that integral has suffered from—the legacy of Wilber's embracing, shall we say, troubled or ungrounded spiritual figures and gurus. Integral, as a brand, is inextricably bound up with Wilber the man, including all his foibles and excesses. Trying to articulate new paradigms that make use of his incredible insights while letting go the baggage of its blind spots seems like a worthwhile task.

Still, I don't try to reject let alone replace Wilber. He is a towering thinker whose importance cannot be denied. I see his work as part of numerous lineages, which I have been posting about—from German Idealism, to Analytic Psychology, to Process Theology, etc. Integral is part of the tradition in which we must contextualize our re-ligio, our tying back to earlier thoughts and streams of belief and practice. There is much overlap to be sure, but also a lot that Wilber doesn't get at, or gets at in different and perhaps less optimal ways. So I see Emergentism as a religion with many theological lineages, schools, sects, denominations, etc. It's a broad tent, welcoming integral theorists as well as process thinkers, idealists, and so forth. Emergentism stems from these traditions, but need not be limited to any one in particular. In that sense, we can hope that Emergentism, well, emerges as something greater than the mere sum of its parts.

These are just a few ways I situate my work in relation to Wilber's. Like many in metamodern circles, the influence he has had on my thinking is profound and fundamental. But the sign of a great master teacher is not how many followers they have, but how much they inspire their students to go their own way and follow their own path. Indeed, as an evolutionary thinker, I'd suspect Wilber more than most would appreciate this. The world of Form keeps changing, and we should not stop rushing forward in search of the ceaseless advance of novelty and insight. We are all torch-bearers on the road to Omega.

285 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page