"The terms evolution and involution have been used differently by different authors, sometimes with diametrically opposite meanings. But the overall concept is simple: Spirit first "throws outward" to get "lost" in the manifest world of maya (Hegel called it "spirit in its otherness or "alienated Spirit"). Spirit then begins the slow and tortuous return to Itself, finally to awaken as Itself. Spirit is never actually "lost". It is all a grand play (lila).
Whatever we call them, notice that we have two (illusory) movements of Spirit in the world: one is the getting lost, the other is the getting found; the first moves from "oneness" to "manyness"., the second from "manyness" to "oneness". And this is where the terms involution and evolution come in.
Ken makes the important point that depending on the perspective (the view of Spirit or individual) the terms can take on opposite meanings. In the Spectrum of Consciousness he uses "evolution" to mean the movement away from the (the unfolding of maya) and involution to mean "turning back towards Spirit". In his subsequent writings he switches usage where following Aurobindo, involution is the move away from the Sprit, and evolution is the growth back to Spirit.
However when one actually studies Ken's use of these terms in his writings a considerable amount of confusion is evident.
Surprisingly it is in his first book "The Spectrum of Consciousness" that Ken perhaps gives his most satisfactory explanation, though even here is evidence of a deep problem (which he has never subsequently resolved).
He states clearly
"the temporal evolution of the spectrum of consciousness is nothing but a description, as setting-forth-in-linear-terms, of the Eternal Simultaneity. He then goes on to say
"To the student of the Hindu science of self (adhyatmavidya) this idea will present no difficulty for it is very much anolgous to their Adhyatmavidya doctrine of the involution (Nivritti Marga) and the evolution (Pravritti Marga) of the Self, the Atman-Brahman
The life or lives of man may be regarded as constituting a curve - an arc of time-experience subtended by the duration of the individual Will to Life. The outward movement of this curve - Evolution, the Path of Pursuit - the Pravritti Marga - is characterised by self-assertion. The inward movement - Involution, the Path of return - the Nivritti Marga - is characterised by increasing Self-realisation. The religion of men on the outward path is the Religion of Time, the religion of those who return is the religion of eternity".
Ken views these two descriptions - which in fact are very different as closely analogous. In all his writings he continually confuses linear with circular notions of development.
So starting here in "Spectrum" he does not clarify
He returns to the topic of Involution (and Evolution) in greater detail in "The Atman Project" (Chapter 18).
He now defines these terms in vertical linear fashion.
"An evolution is a movement from the lower to the higher. (Remember he reverses here the interpretation used in "Spectrum"). Involution is a movement from the higher to the lower a movement which "enfolds" and "involves" the higher levels of being with the lower. It is a movement down the great Chain of Being. He uses five stages to represent the Spectrum in this chapter, Gross Pleroma, Gross Bodily, Gross Mental, Subtle and Causal.
In a linear representation we would draw a vertical line (with the upward direction representing evolution and the corresponding downward direction representing involution).
So at the bottom of the line we would have Gross Pleroma (representing the start of evolution). At the top we would have causal representing its end. In reverse fashion. (moving from the top down to represent involution) we would begin with causal and end with Gross Pleroma.
Yet on P. 161 (of the Quest edition) we have now a circular diagram representing the process. There are also two arrows at the top representing the direction of evolution and involution. Evolution is pointing in a clockwise and involution in a counter clockwise direction. So if we start at the bottom of the circle (with the Gross Pleroma) and move in a clockwise direction the end of evolution will be represented by the same point (i.e. the culmination of the causal level). Likewise in terms of involution if we start with the causal level we end with the Gross Pleroma.
So in a circular representation, the "highest" and "lowest" points of the Spectrum are - by definition - identical. (More correctly uni-linear notions of directional movement have no meaning in terms of the circular approach). Yet Ken seems to miss this glaring inconsistency as between the linear and circular approaches.
There is no attempt in the Chapter to explain the circular diagram.
Now when he commences his textual explanation another major change becomes apparent. Involution is now taken outside the development process (which unfolds in temporal space-time).
So Ken takes the extreme point of involution (i.e. the pleroma or material world) as given and then concentrates on the process by which evolution of the higher order structures unfolds. In terms of this explanation at the end of evolution all structures enfolded in the ground-unconscious have emerged in consciousness.
This now presents Ken with the problem of how involution takes place (i.e. how the structures become embedded in the Ground-Unconscious). Once again in order to preserve his linear trend-line of evolution Ken keeps this involutionary process outside temporal space-time.
He draws heavily on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which offers an account of involution as something that happens (before one is born). This account is highly problematic for a number of points of view.
Firstly it is tied up very much with the archetypal expression of a particular cultural experience and hardly suitable as an indispensable component of a more universally acceptable system.
Secondly Ken himself admits that it may be taken metaphorically, symbolically or mythically - or even literally. However he does not make it clear in what sense he is taking the account (though once again his whole Spectrum approach depends on this).
Next if we take the Bardo account literally it creates obvious problems for it relates to a maximum 49-day sequence. This use of temporal time clearly has no meaning if we are addressing the Soul Bardos (pre conception). We would then be left with finding a way of demythologising the account (which Ken does not attempt). Of course if we confined the time sequence of the Bardos to the pleroma stage following conception then it might have some validity. But of course there is no precise (literal) significance here to the use of 49 days.
Clearly my own belief is that the Bardo realms should only be interpreted in a metaphorical sense. I will indicate briefly how I would see being done because a lot centres on the (holistic) mathematical significance of the number 49.
49 is 7 (raised to the power of 2). In holistic mathematical terms the power of 2 relates to the unconscious.
7 is itself a number of great archetypal significance. In the Bible God creates the World in 7 days. There are 7 chakras. It plays a key role in the Enneagram. (My own system is based on 7 major levels). It is the best known example of a cyclic prime. Now prime numbers are the most independent (masculine) of numbers in that they have no factors. They can only be expressed in linear (one-dimensional) terms. However their reciprocals are the most circular (feminine) of numbers. Thus if you divide 1 by 7 a sequence of 6 digits (142857) will result which So we have here a conjunction of two polar extremes (masculine and feminine).
Now the reciprocal of 49 is equally fascinating. Again taking the first 6 digits we get 02 04 08. Now this remarkably fits in with the fundamental mathematical structure of reality, which can be expressed in terms of horizontal polarities (2-directional), horizontal and vertical polarities (4-directional) and horizontal, vertical and diagonal polarities (8-directional).
So The Bardo Realms represent an indirect way of pointing to - what might be referred to as - a psychological singularity. Here we get the total confusion of opposite extremes. It is simply not tenable to see this as referring to just involution. It equally refers to evolution. So using Ruysbroeck's language the eternal birth (which has no temporal significance) can be referred to as the total confused emergence of all the realms of consciousness (both involutionary and evolutionary). Once life begins these simultaneously start to both enfold (as potential) and unfold (as actuality).
The world of the emerging foetus and neonate represents an extreme level of curvature in psychological space-time. Putting it another way, opposite poles - that have just started to differentiate in experience - are still largely complementary (in a highly confused manner).
Ken's account of the pre/trans fallacy (which is perhaps the most famous of all Wilberian doctrines) depends greatly on his (unconvincing) rendering of this Bardo account. Despite his insistence on clearly separating pre from trans states in development, even he has to admit that the young infant can have experience of a transpersonal nature. In attempting to answer this Ken says that he has always used Wordsworth's lines
"Not in entire forgetfulness --- But trailing clouds do we come" to describe the situation.
Of course this is not a satisfactory explanation even from Ken's perspective. . If we were for the sake of argument accept these "trailing clouds" then that would apply a "leakage" of spirit into the development process (resulting from previous evolution of structures). So we would then not then start with purely embedded structures (as Ken would have us believe). Ken on this issue is still arguing for the flat earth hypothesis. (Indeed this analogy is quite precise for this is the very root of his problem all along i.e. trying to reduce circular notions to linear terms).
Before leaving the Bardo account in "the Atman Project" I want to draw attention to another shift. On P.162 we have a new type of diagram in the form of a flattened ellipse. Evolution is now represented as going upwards (in slightly curved fashion). Involution is now presented as going downwards in similar reverse (symmetrical) fashion (as explained by the Bardo realms). However the obvious inconsistency of this new representation with his (circular) representation on the previous page is not addressed.
Finally towards the end of the chapter Ken tells us that involution is occurring right now (moment to moment). This is certainly so. However Ken does not reconcile this with his Bardo realms (occuring before the birth process). This is a huge problem. For if involution is occurring right now in development there a clear difficulty in trying to confine involution to the start of the development process (as a "static" inheritance of embedded potential).
So whereas this Chapter in "The Atman Project" may appear very impressive on first reading in fact it is full of differing interpretations that are not reconciled and which indeed are incompatible with each other.
In "Up from Eden" Ken briefly returns to the topic of involution and evolution. He now presents involution essentially as something that occurs outside temporal space-time. There is no reference here to the Bardo Realms so we cannot be sure if in fact his understanding has changed at this point. However one gets the strong impression that he is intent on getting involution off the stage as quickly as possible and accepted as an (unquestioned) axiom of development. This would then leave him free to concentrate on evolutionary ascent (which is the approach that has most dominated his thinking).
When he formulated the pre/trans fallacy, perhaps he finally believed that he had put the matter to rest. Certainly the topic of involution disappeared completely from his work for many years. However recent controversies that have developed in relation to the Pre/Trans Fallacy have brought it back on the agenda.
In this regard I find his recent debates on the issue very revealing. In defending himself against criticism, Ken appears like a man under pressure trying to bludgeon the critical faculties of his opponents into submission. I suspect that Ken secretly realises that he has inherited a big problem (from earlier work) that has not adequately resolved. However facing up to it would require radical reformulation of the pre/trans fallacy.
We will now move on to "Sex Ecology and Spirit" where he returns to the topic of Evolution and Involution (generally referred to as Ascent and Descent).
Once again the relationship of his ideas here to former expressions is far from clear. Curiously the very word Involution - as pointed out by Phil Watz - is not included in large 32 page Index. Also there is no mention of the Bardo Realms which played such a large role in the Atman Project and was subsequently used as a somewhat dubious foundation for an ever growing edifice of work on the Ascent. I think this represents - at the very least - an unconscious attempt to break away from former interpretations.
He raises Evolution and Involution (Ascent and Descent) in the context of his discussion of the integrative vision of Plotinus (who uses the corresponding terms of Reflux and Efflux respectively). Now Plotinus - as much as anyone in the Western tradition - gives a very balanced philosophical statement of the spiritual worldview.
However because Ken tends to translate in an unduly linear fashion, to he tends to distort this balance in Plotinus. The problem is further compounded by Ken's excessive deference to William Inge (who in his (Ken's) words gives "an altogether extraordinary summary of the worldview of Plotinus". In fact it is quite vague and helps little in clarifying the position. Ken's treatment of Plotinus (and Ascent and Descent) is somewhat unsure where he keeps switching between statements that are not really consistent with each other. This is further compounded by the fact that we never really know how much of Plotinus and how much of Ken Wilber we are getting in the process.
I will comment briefly on some of the main problems with Ken's latest position.
Again by far the greatest of these (of which all the others are really symptoms) is the inability to separate (absolute) linear from (relative) circular statements.
"The Path of Ascent or Reflux thus traces, in reverse order the path of Creation or Descent or Efflux for as Heraclitus had pointed out "The way up is the way down, the way down is the way up."
Now this statement of Heraclitus illustrates the essence of complementarity where one cannot identify meaning with one pole because - in dynamic terms - both poles are necessarily involved.
However Ken never seems to grasp the significance of this complementarity (which applies to all polar opposites).
So if as Ken maintains that the way up in development goes from prepersonal (pre) to transpersonal (trans), then equally - according to Heraclitus - the movement is way down from transpersonal (trans) to prepersonal (pre). So once one grasps this complementary movement we know that it is simply not tenable - in dynamic terms - to separate pre and trans (which Ken Wilber insists on doing).
Ken then poses the question "When did the Path of descent occur?" and says that Plotinus would answer right now (which is correct). Of course one might again wonder what is the connection as between this explanation of involution (occurring within the development process) and his Bardo explanation where he maintains that involution is completed before birth. It is not enough to maintain that they are one and the same. For if involution is occurring right now it entails that the Ground-Unconscious is a truly dynamic and is continually being spiritualised (through Descent) Furthermore this process is vitally necessary to enable subsequent structures of development to unfold.
He then immediately follows up with
"Each grade or dimension of being is a stepped-down version of its senior dimension; each has its ground, its reality and its explanation in the level above it. "
So though one might imagine that Ken is explaining the descent, he is in fact back as usual - to the ascent.
So even in linear terms Ken always seems reluctant to really talk about descent.
However he later refers to Ascent and Descent in these terms
"In the Great Circle of Descent and Ascent, the Nondual can be represented as the paper on which the entire circle is drawn; or again it can be represented as the center of the circle itself, which is equidistant to all points on the circumference (the center which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere").
Now this is a fine statement of nondual reality. However Ken's key problem throughout all his writings is the lack of an interface as between circular (nondual) and linear (dualistic) reality. Invariably - because of the lack of a true dynamic method - whenever he attempts to rationally translate nondual understanding, he comes down in favour of one side of a polarity. In simple terms therefore his overall approach is unbalanced.
This can be easily demonstrated in relation to a key manifestation of this imbalance (e.g. his preference in development for Ascent over Descent.
Now here is Ken's fully acceptable nondual description
An individual holon is not part of the One spirit because each individual holon is the one Spirit in its entirety".
However when he comes to describing the process of development of successive holons he is back in familiar mode
"All of the lower is in the higher, he says but not all of the higher is in the lower (for in essence it transcends the lower".
Yet he tells us (in nondual mode) that each holon is the one Spirit in its entirety.
So in this context his dualistic distinction (all of the higher is not in the lower) makes no sense. Again Ken never explains satisfactorily how one moves from a dualistic to a nondual interpretation.
This problem can be explained in another way. Linear interpretations are - by definition - asymmetric (where one pole is emphasised over another). However nondual reality is fully symmetric. This balance can only be maintained in language through the use of complementary opposites (i.e. The Ascent and Descent, the One and the Many, the Transcendent and the Immanent etc). The translation problem - which Ken never resolves - is finding a way to reconcile these very different statements of reality.
In using a linear method (where the direction of poles is fixed), Ken can only deal with Descent by treating it - in mathematical language - as a function of Ascent. In other words an asymmetric approach is continually maintained whereby the "lower" is contained in the "higher" but not (vice versa).
One key point in all of this is that the process of integration can never be actually explained in terms of a linear approach. Indeed it cannot be explained because integration actually involves a circular process (the fusion of polar opposites).
Now this point is extremely significant because it Ken Wilber is usually looked on as the leading exponent of integrated studies. However his very method is unable to distinguish the process of differentiation of structures (represented by the forward ascent) with the reverse process of integration. Indeed though he does not clarify what he means by integration he does actually admit its reverse direction (from differentiation).
"In individual development, one ascends via Eros (or expanding to a higher and wider identity) and then integrates via Agape (or reaching down to embrace with care all lower holons) so that balanced development transcends but includes it is negation and preservation, ascent and descent."
Now if he were to expand on this all important process of integration it would have very uncomfortable implications. If expanding upwards (i.e. the Ascent) represents progression, then clearly reaching down of integration (i.e. the Descent) involves - relatively - regression. Yet Ken Wilber has always been loath to admit this vital role of integration (which clearly involves regression). He only admits to pathological regression and refuses to accept the vital role that (healthy) regression plays as a means of spiritual integration.
So properly speaking, Ken is not really an exponent of integrated studies. Rather he is a brilliant exponent of multi-differentiated studies.
True integrated studies serves as an appropropiate means of moving to nondual reality and requires a non-linear approach based on the dynamic principle of the complementarity of opposites. Ken makes little or no use of this method in his work.
I will complete this post with a quote from the appendix of SES (P. 633)
This is the whole topic of involution and evolution, a topic that we will be following in all three volumes of this series, each time adding more perspectives to it.
For the moment, we should note the following: in Plotinus's view, in evolution or reflux, if we represent the lowest level as A, the next level up is A + B, the next is A + B + C, and so on. But in involution or efflux, if we represent the lowest level as A, the next is A - B, the next is A - B - C and so forth since each involutionary efflux is a stepping down from the ground of its predecessor. This is why Plotinus says that efflux (involution is to be "understood in minuses".
Ken gives a highly reductionsist interpretation of the process here (which very much misrepresents the spirit of Plotinus).
Ken's portrayal would allow merely for a simplistic quantitative interpretation of stages.
Thus the "lower" A is obviously included in the "higher" A + B. Yet Ken accepts that integration of the "higher" then takes place with the lower (through envelopment).
But there is no means here of displaying this vital relationship.
So this illustrates once again how in fact he fails to provide any explanation of integration.
As I say his treatment of evolution and involution seems very unsure in his interpretation of Plotinus. His opening comment would suggest this.
Thus before trying to provide even more perspectives, clearly there is a need to address the considerable confusion inherent in his many existing explanations.