Notes: Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber – Chapter 2 “The Secret Impulse”

This post is about the chapter 2 The secret impulse.

Wilber argues that evolution in holons proceeds by a process of transcend and include.

“A molecule transcends and includes atoms. Transcends, in that it has certain emergent or novel or creative properties that are not merely the sum of its components. This is the whole point of systems theory and holism in general, that new levels of organization come into being, and these new levels cannot be reduced in all ways to their junior dimensions—they transcend them. But they also include them, because the junior holons are nonetheless components of the new holon. So, transcends and includes.


Well, take any evolutionary development, say, atoms to molecules to cells to organisms. This is a sequence of increasing wholeness, increasing holons, each of which transcends and includes its predecessor. Now if, in a type of thought experiment, you “destroy” any particular type of holon, then all of the higher holons will also be destroyed, but none of the lower holons will be destroyed. “

According to Wilber evolution in whatever medium is a process where new (“higher” in the sense that they depend on their predecessors) holons emerge as in a process of inclusion of pre-existing set of holons to new holon which also transcends the subholons in some way.

I like this idea and perspective on evolution. I also like the emphasis on inclusion in addition to transcendence. I think evolution is often thought to mean transcendence, and what came before, the history, which enables the new thing/holon is often forgotten.

Wilber describes a sequence of evolution toward higher wholeness from physiosphere (matter) to biosphere (life) to noosphere (minds).

Depth, span and holarchies

Number of levels in any holarchy is referred to as its depth. Number of holons in any given level is referred to as its span.

Definition of levels is in part arbitrary – it depends on how you define levels. Despite this it is possible to make comparisons of depth: greater depth means greater depth in all possible definitions or scales of levels.

According to Wilber (and Ervin Laszlo who he is referring to), evolution produces greater depth and less span on succeeding levels. This means number of holons in higher levels is lower than in lower levels (tenet 8).

(Figure 2-2 from Ken Wilber’s Brief History of Everything)

Wilber argues that the highest level in holarchy is the spirit. It transcends all and includes all. I think the number of holons in that level needs to be one, because it is the highest level: i.e. has smallest span and greatest depth. Wilber says that “[spirit] is both the Goal and the Ground of the entire sequence”.

I think defining spirit as the ultimate whole contradicts with what Wilber said in earlier chapter “Pattern that connects”. There he says eveything is composed of holons, and:

“Q: And [Holons] 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…”

If spirit is the ultimate holon/whole and transcends all and includes all, what whole is it a part of? If it is not part also, it is not a holon, it is just a whole. One could try to postulate some circular structure – which I think Wilber, using poetic and imprecise language, could hint to here, for example he writes: “So Spirit is both the highest ‘level’ in the holarchy, but it’s also the paper on which the entire holarchy is written. ” So in this line of argument, the spirit, in addition to being the ultimate whole, is also the smallest constituent part of cosmos also, so everything from subatomic particles would be composed of spirit. In that case, spirit would both be highest level of holarchy and lowest level of holarchy. And thus it would have the smallest span (1?) and greatest span (infinity?) which would be contradiction. Doesn’t sound so convincing.

Wilber argues evolution has a direction: towards greater depth.

“Evolution has a direction, yes, a principle of order out of chaos, as it is commonly phrased. In other words, a drive toward greater depth. Chance is defeated, depth emerges—the intrinsic value of the Kosmos increases with each unfolding. “

Wilber also says greater the degree of depth, greater the degree of its consciousness. “Consciousness and depth are synonymous”. I think tying depth (number of levels in holarchy) is quite arbitrary. Molecules have more consciousness than atoms?

Wilber writes “Consciousness is simply what depth looks like from the inside, from within. ” I like this, even though the concept of consciousness is not very precisely defined here.

The chapter ends with pages of very poetic and inspiring text about how evolution in general and individual’s evolution is about touching the infinity, Kosmic consciousness, the spirit.

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