HEAVY ELEMENTS - Why Integral Physics is Lost in Space
In a recent "Kosmic Creativity" audio on IntegralLife.com, Ken Wilber, Andrew Cohen and Marc Gafni discuss the essential contours of an "Evolutionary Spirituality" that will be the topic of the 3rd Integral Spiritual Experience seminar later this year. It takes creativity to be a central aspect of a new and emerging worldview, for which creativity equals "Spirit" equals "God".
Where Cohen and Gafni represent the guru spirituality and the literary approach, Wilber's contribution is decidedly more scientific, at least in tone and vocabulary. The audio makes for no easy listening. Most striking is that the three guys each are allotted some twenty minutes of air time, and use this up to the fullest by using a feverish stream of words and jargon, each from their own specialism and field of expertise."CREATIVE ADVANCE INTO NOVELTY"
Wilber's view of evolution has been discussed many times on Integral World (see "The Wilberian Evolution Report"). He sees the whole process of evolution as guided by a spiritual force called Eros. He frequently uses the Whiteheadian phrase that evolution essentially displays a "creative advance into novelty". New about this "evolutionary spirituality" is that human creativity is connected to the creativity which is supposedly at work in evolution and has been so even during the formation of the material cosmos.
For Ken Wilber, creativity is something that needs no further explanation, it is a fundamental principle of existence. As one example, Wilber mentions the fact that the Big Bang started off with very simple particles and atoms such as Hydrogen, but later on more complex and heavier elements were formed. Apparently Wilber seems to think this slow emergence of the Periodical System of the elements is the result of a spiritual Force behind the Cosmos:
"Creativity is a characteristic of Spirit, all the way back to the Big Bang."
The view itself is inspiring: creativity and spirituality are built into the fabric of existence, and the more creative we become, the more spiritual we will be. As usual, this is not the quarrel I have with Wilber. It's when he's illustrating his case with examples from the field of science my nagging doubts start to reappear again.
Listen to this fragment for example (and please bear in mind that I have tried to keep up with the frantic pace of the audio, so I may have missed a few words):
Whether we see this in a spiritual way or in a more material way, the fact is there is creative emergence. There is evolution. Going all the way back to the earliest particles or strings or whatever physics is suggesting... at some point, these quarks, following their own strict causality, at some point, nonetheless, a boundary dropped around these particles and this produced protons. And another group of quarks came together and another boundary dropped around those and this produced neutrons. And another group of quarks came together and a boundary dropped around them and this produced electrons. And for a very long time, these individual particles went their own independent way.
The degree of novelty was relatively small, and they were indeed determined by the past they were prehending. They were determined by their previous moment's existence, they had to include in order to continue to exist.... [here comes a passage about Hegel, which I will spare you]...
So we saw these earliest quarks transcending-and-including, transcending-and-including, and at one point, the transcend-component became enormously greater then the include-component, and groups of quarks came together and transcended to create new particles. And it did this in a great number of cases.
So the universe, in addition to containing quarks or strings or whatever fundamental item we are talking about, in addition to possessing quarks it now possessed protons and neutrons and electrons. And these went on about their moment-to-moment existence, transcending-and-including the previous moment, and at some point the novelty-component, the emergent-component, the evolutionary Eros — the transcendental drive — overcame the merely prehensive or merely including component, and protons and neutrons and electrons came together to form atoms.
And so we started to get Hydrogen, and Helium and Oxygen and Nitrogen, and Potassium and Sodium and so on, starting to populate the universe. And this in itself is really extraordinary, given that none of this really existed with the Big Bang.
And yet the drive, that fundamental drive to creativity — it has been given many names, including self-organisation and Eros — but this Eros has this extraordinary capacity to fundamentally govern this "creative advance into novelty". And what we continue to see after this creation of atoms is this continuing march into novelty... (this audio fragment can be found between 14 and 18 minutes from this audio.)
For Wilber, this is true even for materialistic science, if it would be able to ascribe a "creative tendency" to matter. But he prefers to see this in a more spiritualist context, which poses no problem for, as he optimistically adds, we can prove Spirit to exist, using his famous "three strands of knowledge" (I leave that aside for now).
The "argument" is similar to the one discussed and criticized by David Lane in his "Frisky Dirt" essay on Integral World. Again, Wilber brings this strange mixture of sophisticated Whiteheadian jargon — moments prehending other moments, becoming subjects or object, introducing novelty etc. — and a fairy tale, Kindergarten kind of scientific story — boundaries are dropped around particles and atoms, to produce complexity —, to offer a scientific "foundation" for his particular take on spirituality.
Inspiring? Certainly. Convincing? Well, only if you know really nothing about how science actually views these things. Which happened to be true in my case, so let's start from this position of ignorance, and try to find out.GENESIS OF THE ELEMENTS
Just how, exactly, have the heavier elements Wilber mentions (and many, many more, been formed)? Is science in the dark about this question, and would it be helped in any way by the introduction of a spiritual "advance into novelty"?
From the YouTube video "Astronomical Alchemy: the Origin of the Elements", a one hour talk by Dr. Philip A. Pinto, Associate Professor, Astronomy/Steward Observatory, — and I am paraphrasing here:
The universe started with the Big Bang, and started to expand, and cool down. There was yet nothing to see. This is still the Dark Ages of the cosmos.
About half the age of the universe, stars and galaxies start forming (about 7 billion years ago). The universe continues to expand and cool, as matter under the force of gravity is aggregating into stars.
Recently we have discovered Dark Energy and Dark Matter and we still don't know what that is. But the 5% we do know about is the Hydrogen and Helium that comes from the Big Bang.
About one thirtieth percent of the Universe consists of the "heavier elements" — everything that is not Hydrogen or Helium.
These elements are found in the Periodical System of the Elements. Each atom consists of protons, neutrons and electrons.
Isotopes show the same number of protons, but different numbers of neutrons (e.g. there are H isotopes, He isotopes).
When gas is heated, the atoms collide more frequently, and therefore more energetically.
So where have all the heavier elements come from? They were not created at the Big Bang.
Our universe is 25% Helium. most of the rest is Hydrogen. Where did the heavy elements come from?
What about the elements in our earth: Oxygen, Carbon, Nitrogen, Calcium? What about our body, which contains Oxygen, Iron, Nitrogen, etcetera.
Old stars are very deficient in the heavier elements, compared to the Sun. They were formed from primordial material that hasn't been enriched yet by the process we are discussing.
The formation of elements has to do with stars, for sure. Clouds of gas get compressed under their own forces of gravity, until they start to shine as proto-stars.
Within stars, the pressure inside balances the gravity at work into a state of equilibrium. By shining, stars lose energy, they start to contract, which increases the pressure. Particles in the gas are moving faster, creating heat. Which again make the stars shine brighter.
Colliding atoms in the sun's core release energy. This happens all along the whole spectrum of atoms. Nuclear fusion creates heavier elements this way.
In the end, a Sun will run out of fuel, and start contracting further. It will become a White Dwarf: a hot ball of Carbon inside and a nebula around it, with Nitrogen in it. At least that's something we can work with.
Why did this not happen during the Big Bang? Because the density was much less than the density we now have in stars.
But this process doesn't go very far — only the simplest atoms are formed this way. We need to turn to the more massive stars, greater then 10 times the mass of the Sun.
In massive stars, heavier elements are formed, and with increasing speed: Sillicon, Sulfur, Neon...
It turns out that you can't burn elements higher then Iron. It's breaking them that creates energy, not fusing them.
We're now in the stage of a pre-Supernova star. Every now and then, we witness a supernova explosions. It is here that the heavier elements are formed.
After this explosion, it looks like the Crab Nebula.AFTERTHOUGHT
Large stars will collapse into a black hole. A shock wave is emitted from it, but it can't escape. Until it explodes. Material is thrown out, and even more elements are created in the process.
Two White Dwarfs can combine in a Type 1a Supernova. It emits as much energy as the Sun in its whole lifetime.
A Supernova like that can turn out more light then an entire galaxy. Again, elements are created here. It becomes a Red Giant.
It's mostly Iron that is created, actually a Nickle isotope, which quickly turns into Iron.
90% of our body has passed through a Supernova. We really are stardust!
A scientific presentation like this leaves me breathless and speechless — why is it that, at no point in this discourse is there any need to turn to Whitehead, Eros, transcendental forces, "creative advances into novelty" as metaphysical principles?
Why is it that, compared to this scientific presentation, Wilber's version looks so... uninteresting? So uninformative? Like, "How have the heavier elements been made?", "Oh, that's because there's a creative advance into novelty, you know. It's Eros." "Ah, I see." Has Wilber never heard of nuclear fusion and Supernova's?
I really wonder if anyone within the integral scene is really interested in what science has to say about all this. What worries me is the total lack of interest in what science has to offer, be it physics or evolutionary theory. As long as science can be fitted into the preconceived notions of an "evolutionary" integral belief system, everybody feels good.
It is fine to promote creativity and individual freedom, but please leave cosmic creativity or cosmic evolution out of it.