Myodicy, Issue 19, September 2003

Ken Wilber
and the Quest
for a Theory
of Everything

by Theodore Plantinga


Have you ever been cornered at a party by some maddening character who has a favorite theory to expound and needs you for an audience? Perhaps you're a lover of ideas yourself; maybe you're also known to expound every now and then, and so you feel obliged to listen for a while. But you soon discover that you're trapped in an entirely one-sided conversation. Your input is not welcomed. And as you listen, you get the ever-stronger impression that the theory being placed before you is guilty of over-simplification in its quest to explain just about everything. Before long, you begin to wonder whether you are in the presence of an amateur version of what is nowadays called a "theory of everything" (TOE). Who knows -- perhaps the person you're trying to slip away from is really a philosopher, or a philosopher-wannabe.

I'm a philosopher myself. I suppose that fact gives me the right to make some comments on how philosophers are often perceived. While many recent philosophers advocate dialogue and insist on openness toward the other -- whether the other be a text or a discussion partner or even some facet of reality -- many people regard us as monological bores who seem to delight in dishing out the answers even before people have had a chance to figure out what the question is. When we conduct ourselves as monologists, we give philosophy a bad name.

And monology isn't the only problem. There are many people who seem to think that we cannot be bothered with the hard work of scientific theorizing. Instead we insist on reducing everything to a few definitions and categories which we then deem adequate to tackle almost any kind of issue or problem you might care to pose. With such shortcomings in etiquette and academic method attributed to us, it's no wonder that some people wonder why we are still tolerated on the university campus. Hasn't science done away with the need for philosophy? Wasn't that what positivism was aiming for?

Generations ago, the label "metaphysics" would have been applied to the effort to handle almost any theoretical problem in terms of a few basic postulates, categories and definitions. There were various "metaphysical systems" in the world, and they seemed to be self-contained; that is to say, they were not in dialogue with one another. Each was a universe of discourse unto itself. In principle they explained everything, but they were strikingly lacking in persuasive power. And so to outsiders, the various metaphysicians looked like a bunch of barkers at the carnival, each promoting his own wares and drawing very little attention. In short, metaphysicians were kooks. Today's philosophers have not altogether escaped the image created for them by the metaphysicians of old.

On the one hand, the metaphysical systems seemed irrefutable. Nowadays we have the heritage of Karl Popper to remind us why it is not a good idea to develop a theory that is irrefutable -- completely impervious to criticism based on observation, experience and testing. But on the other hand, the old metaphysical systems also seemed unprovable. Wilhelm Dilthey observed: "In approximately the same era, one could hear Schelling proving his philosophy of revelation, Hegel his cosmic reason, Schopenhauer his cosmic will, and the materialists their anarchy of atoms, all on equally good or equally bad grounds." [NOTE 1] And so it should not surprise us that a person with an old-fashioned metaphysical disposition might take to cornering someone at a party and talking at him long enough to get him to say uncle.

Certain rationalist forms of religion have similar yearnings. Not all religious communities are rationalistic in nature, and some have relatively little to offer in the way of doctrine or dogma. Indeed, some are geared largely to experience of the sort that their leaders call "ineffable." But the kind of religious community in which I grew up, i.e. Calvinistic, delights in doctrine and is possessed of a deep impulse to develop its body of doctrines in such a way that it edges toward a TOE or what we might call, substituting "doctrine" for "theory," a DOE (doctrine of everything). And so, in some peculiar sense, a sense which may be hard to explain to people on the outside, being an adherent of such a religious community is likely to involve knowing it all or knowing everything.

It should not surprise us, then, that such Christians have a secret hankering after metaphysics. A fair number are inclined to take up philosophy as a professional pursuit. But the more they immerse themselves in the philosophical literature, the more they come to realize why metaphysics has been discredited in our culture. And so they are left with a problem. It appears that people will not listen unless they are cornered.

Worldview to the rescue

More than a hundred years ago, one solution to this problem was to substitute the notion of "worldview" for that of metaphysics. One of the significant differences between worldview thinking and metaphysical thinking is that the former allows for a degree of relativity -- perhaps quite a significant degree. When we are worldview proponents, we still pretend to comprehensive knowledge (our knowledge, or that which we "view," takes in the whole world), but we are sufficiently in tune with the times to throw in a dash of cognitive humility. And so, on the one hand, the TOE (our worldview) is advertised as comprehensive and all-embracing, but on the other hand one offers it somewhat tentatively. In doing so, one recognizes that the situation when it comes to worldviews is much like the plight in which the metaphysical systems found themselves: there are a number of worldviews, and they are not able to refute one another. It is as if one is forced to make an arbitrary choice between them. Just as you should attend "the church of your choice" on Sunday, you should adhere to "the worldview of your choice."

Of course the question arises whether it might not be possible to go beyond worldviews as such and develop a still more comprehensive theory -- perhaps a theory of worldviews. In such a meta-level theory, each worldview would be assigned its proper place; thereby the supremacy or privileged position of one's own worldview might yet be upheld. Such an enterprise was more less what Hegel (1770-1831) undertook. Yet the term "theory of worldviews" is associated not with Hegel but with a thinker who came along a few generations later, namely, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). [NOTE 2]

Dilthey realized that if a theory of worldviews did no more than let us know that the worldviews are innumerable, with no two essentially the same (think of snowflakes), it would be of no satisfaction or comfort whatsoever. And so he proceeded to analyze and compare. The conclusion he reached is that the multiplicity of worldviews can be reduced to three basic types. He did not allow ultimate superiority to any one of them, even though his own preference among the three was clear. [NOTE 3]

Some Christian advocates of the worldview notion also suffer from the familiar ambivalence between relativism and dogmatism. They, too, are moderns -- or perhaps postmoderns -- and so they seem willing to insert an element of relativity and metaphysical uncertainty into their worldview advocacy. The song they sing is a far cry from the certainty claims that were attached to the old determinism when it was put forward as a TOE -- or perhaps as the basis for a TOE that was yet to be worked out by scientists. I think of the classic determinist claim made by Laplace:

We ought, then, to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence, who for a given instant should be acquainted with all the forces by which Nature is animated and with the several positions of the entities composing it, if further his intellect were vast enough to submit those data to analysis, would include in one and the same formula the movements of the largest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atom. Nothing would be uncertain for him; the future as well as the past would be present to his eyes. [NOTE 4]

Among the Christian thinkers who are fascinated by the notion of worldview is Prof. David Naugle of Dallas Baptist University. He wrote a big book on the subject of worldview, [NOTE 5] on which I commented in a previous issue of Myodicy: see "David Naugle and the Quest for a Theory of Everything." In the most recent issue of Myodicy Prof. Naugle responded to my piece and mentioned that he was puzzled by the connection I had made between the notion of worldview and that of a TOE: "I have been aware of the T.O.E notion over the years, but I have not given it much thought. I must say that I have never thought of worldview in this way." Also: "Is this a theory of everything? I suppose if Prof. Plantinga and others wants to call it that, they can. But that is certainly not the way T.O.E. is understood in the relevant literature."

Prof. Naugle seems to presuppose that a TOE would have to be a strictly physical construct. But unless everything is ultimately physical in nature -- and he and I both believe this is not the case -- a theory of everything would need to include a lively effort to take account of the non-physical dimensions of reality. And so, on the surface, I see nothing strange in the suggestion that a TOE would be concerned with more than just physical reality.

In his treatment of the notion of worldview, Prof. Naugle recommends the neo-Calvinistic version of worldview thinking. There is quite a body of literature nowadays in which neo- Calvinism and "worldview" are linked. And the neo-Calvinist thinkers are fond of the term "integral." The idea is that a worldview thinker is one who would insist on taking an "integral" approach to theoretical issues. What might this mean?

I suppose the opposite of an "integral" approach would be a superficial approach, or perhaps an atomistic approach. The term "eclectic" also comes to mind. Presumably, eclectic thinkers are those who rest content with atomistic approaches to theoretical problems; they try to solve them one at a time and do not worry about the "big picture." Perhaps such approaches, since they strive for simplicity, are doomed not to be profound, in which case we might take the liberty of calling them "superficial." And so, to insist on an "integral" approach or to assure the reading public that one's own approach is "integral," is to say that superficiality has been avoided. There is to be no one-dimensional thinking. And if one is careful to distinguish a number of dimensions of reality, as neo-Calvinists are wont to do, following Dooyeweerd, it seems an elementary conclusion that worthy theoretical thinking needs to be "integral."

Ken Wilber's
integral approach
to just about everything

Ken Wilber would probably not qualify as a neo-Calvinist: he's too much of a New-Ager. While some neo-Calvinists have New-Age leanings, they are aware that there is not much in common between neo-Calvinism and New Age thinking when it comes to ontology. And so Wilber would have to be held at a distance.

On the other hand, there are some interesting similarities in terminology between Wilber and the neo-Calvinist worldview lovers. Wilber also likes worldviews and theories of everything. In his book A Theory of Everything, he proposes, almost as though he were a neo-Calvinist himself, to apply his "integral" thinking to a number of areas of life. In his subtitle we are informed that his TOE represents "An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality." [NOTE 6] In offering us this list, Wilber is not claiming to cover all areas of life in any strict sense of the term, but the implication is clear. Such a theory ought to get into virtually everything you might care to name, and in his book Wilber tries to give us some initial indication of how this might be done. He recognizes that others will have to carry the enterprise further into domains of which he, Ken Wilber, has much less personal knowledge. But a TOE cannot and must not limit itself to certain sectors or dimensions of life and culture. And it is definitely not materialistic. Wilber assures us:

The Greeks had a beautiful word, Kosmos, which means the patterned Whole of all Existence, including the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realms. Ultimate reality was not merely the cosmos, or the physical dimension, but the Kosmos, or the physical and emotional and mental and spiritual dimensions altogether. Not just matter, lifeless and insentient, but the living Totality of matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit. The Kosmos! -- now there is a real theory of everything! But [we] poor moderns have reduced the Kosmos to the cosmos, we have reduced matter and body and mind and soul and spirit to nothing but matter alone .... [NOTE 7]

Wilber is not the only thinker to offer a TOE that goes far beyond physical reality. In some internet research I quickly came up with the name of Tom Campbell, whom I will mention here only in passing, since I have not taken the time to work through his magnum opus. An internet commentator explains that Campbell's main work, which he calls "My Big TOE" (leaving us to surmise that there are also some tiny TOEs around), "... unifies science and philosophy, physics and metaphysics, mind and matter, purpose and meaning, the normal and the paranormal. The entirety of human experience (mind, body, and spirit) including both our objective and subjective worlds, are brought together under one seamless scientific understanding." [NOTE 8]

And then there is Peter Appleyard, who complains, in the words of Leonard Antal, that "... science usurped what historically had been the role of ethics and religion. Science became the new religion, the new theory of everything, the new cosmology." [NOTE 9] And so we see that the notion of a TOE has gone far beyond the merely physical. Since I have not read Appleyard's book either, I will not comment further: I point to him only by way of example.

As for Wilber, who is my main concern in this essay, he seems to recognize the difficulty with metaphysics, namely, that it is not able to prove its grandiose claims. And so he senses that a worldview-style TOE will also have trouble making its case and convincing the doubters. While he makes only minimal reference to Hegel, [NOTE 10] he seems to follow a strategy somewhat akin to his. Hegel did not expound his own ideas or argue for them in the classic deductive fashion. He seemed to think instead that one must tour the premises a few times to appreciate them properly and to reach the conclusion that they cover all the territory.

Yet Wilber also comes across as post-Hegelian in terms of recognizing that in this postmodern age one must speak with humility and be open to correction and supplementation from others. He tells us:

Please use the ideas in the following pages as simple suggestions. See if they make sense to you; see if you can improve them; see in any event if they help you bring forth your own integral ideas and aspirations. I once had a professor who defined a good theory as "one that lasts long enough to get you to a better one." The same is true for a good Theory of Everything. It is not a fixed or final theory, simply one that has served its purpose if it helps you get to a better one. [NOTE 11]

And so, as Wilber builds a considerable amount of openness into his TOE, he carefully avoids sounding like a dogmatist. He tells us that a worldview is essentially a map of the Kosmos. [NOTE 12] He also assures us that there can be a number of them. Echoing Dilthey, he tells us that all the major worldviews are true, although they are partial. [NOTE 13] A comparison with geography can help us understand his claim. Maps of the same terrain will often differ from one another, but the differences between them need not be regarded as contradictions: not all features of a given territory will be reflected in a single map.

And so the conflicts between worldviews need not stand forever unreconciled. In principle, maps can be combined to form ever fuller models. A worldview is always destined to be superseded. Again, Wilber's approach sounds a lot like Hegel. Hegel made much of the notion of "Aufhebung," by which he meant that conflicting theories and philosophies could be somehow combined as their contents were lifted to a higher level (the literal meaning of Aufhebung), where we come to regard them in a new light, so to speak. The parallel terminology in Wilber is "transcend and include." [NOTE 14]

Wilber's subtitle makes it clear that what he calls an integral worldview does not limit itself to physical reality: it is not just a cosmology. All kinds of personal and ethical and religious themes get included in a worldview. Neither is a worldview just a matter of thinking certain correct thoughts: you don't get to call yourself integral in the fullest sense unless you make the transition to practice. [NOTE 15]

A tall order

What Wilber holds before us, then, comes very close to the Hegelian dream of bringing different provinces of thought together in a grand synthesis that will guide us into a future of limitless possibilities. Of course we need to ask ourselves whether such a thing could actually be done. It certainly seems a tall order! In support of his daunting enterprise, Wilber quotes John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): "In all intellectual debates, both sides tend to be correct in what they affirm, and wrong in what they deny." [NOTE 16]

But how could one ever be sure that one had achieved a genuine TOE? It would be hard to know what at what point one could be certain that everything had been included or accounted for. If you were inspecting all of reality -- or perhaps, to make it simpler, all of planet earth -- to find out whether it is true that all ravens are black, as a famous example has it, you would not know when to stop looking around. What would it take for you to know for sure that all the ravens in existence had indeed been inspected and found to be black? What possible observation or set of observations would entitle you to say: "And that's all the ravens there are"?

Taking others into account

But let's set that objection aside for a moment and take up a second problematic area, namely, whether a TOE should be expected to meet with the agreement of all one's fellow theorizers and cognizers of reality. If a theory of everything was developed and then found convincing only by one human being, we would not take it seriously. But if one could construct a very comprehensive theory that met with the agreement of everyone else, we would probably think we were a long way down the road toward a genuine TOE.

A thinker who makes a potential contribution to what Wilber is striving for is Wilfred Cantwell Smith (born 1916), who works in religious studies and the history of religions. An important notion in Smith's thinking is "corporate critical self-consciousness." Smith defines this notion in the following terms: "... knowledge that is in principle apt for both the subject himself or herself, and for all external observers; or, in the case of group activities, for both outside observers and participants." He characterizes it further as

... that critical, rational, inductive self-consciousness by which a community of persons -- constituted at a minimum by two persons, the one being studied and the one studying, but ideally by the whole human race -- is aware of any given particular human condition or action as a condition or action of itself as a community, yet of one part but not of the whole of itself; and is aware of it as experienced and understood simultaneously both subjectively (personally, existentially) and objectively (externally, critically, analytically; as one used to say, scientifically). [NOTE 17]

Part of Smith's reason for emphasizing this notion is his quest for interreligious dialogue, the kind of dialogue that he has long advocated as essential to genuine progress in religious studies. If adherents of two separate traditions, for example, Christianity and Islam, are to work together in a single institution and get somewhere in terms of developing a reasonably comprehensive account of what their respective traditions teach and stand for, Smith insists that both sides would have to be satisfied with any formulation that was put forward as meeting the standard of "corporate critical self-consciousness." And so, if a Christian was writing something about Islam and trying to do so in a respectful and objective spirit, his words would have to meet with the approval of his Islamic colleagues; otherwise they would not be judged as fair and adequate. This seems a reasonable test. And so one approach to the distant goal of a TOE, at least, in the domain of religious studies, would be to follow Smith's agenda for achieving agreement on what the great religious traditions stand for.

It seems to me that Smith is a potential ally of Wilber's in this regard. But of course the question arises: what kind of an encyclopedic person would you have to be in order to be able to come up with such accounts of the world's great religious traditions?

Part of my reason for mentioning Smith is to indicate that I am by no means unsympathetic to the notion of a comprehensive theory in which everything is given its fair place, a theory on which all human theorizers and cognizers could come to agreement. Indeed, it would be a wonderful thing if it could be done. Even so, I continue to resist the notion of worldview and of a TOE. So why am I a spoilsport?

Calvinistic hesitation

Two elements in my Calvinistic heritage are worth mentioning by way of explanation. The first of them is the theme of the adiaphora, which did not originate with John Calvin (1509-64) but was used by him. Calvin's contemporary Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) had led the way in suggesting the Christians might legitimately part company over issues to which Scripture does not speak directly. During the New Testament era, there was a good deal of attention to issues of this sort, especially when it came to the question whether new Christians of non-Jewish background were bound by Old Testament legislation, e.g. as regards clean and unclean food. Both Peter and Paul were involved in such questions in a significant way. Paying close attention to these New Testament debates, various Reformers taught that there are ethical matters on which Christians will disagree for the simple reason that Scripture does not address them directly. And so Christians of varying persuasions on these points are free to go their separate ways, provided they do not cause undue difficulties for others.

In Romans 14 we find the Biblical passage that lends the most significant support to the thinking of the Reformers on this point. The doctrine of the adiaphora as affirmed by Calvin made a deep impression on me during my undergraduate days, and I recall writing a term paper on Calvin's doctrine of Christian freedom.

In terms of the issue being explored in this essay, what fascinates me about the Reformation-era doctrine of the adiaphora is that it represents, among other things, a denial of the possibility of a TOE or DOE when it comes to just how the Christian life is to be lived. Calvin clearly thought that Christians would continue to differ from one another to some extent in their practice of the Christian life. In Christian ethics we do not know it all.

The second element in my Calvinistic heritage to which I will appeal here comes from more recent church history. I have long been an admirer of Klaas Schilder (1890-1952). One reason for my interest in Schilder is the unusual role he played in Dutch church history in the twentieth century (including his spirited opposition to the Nazis). But there are also unique elements in his thinking that merit careful consideration. Schilder was the central figure in the lamentable church struggle that broke out in the 1940s, a struggle that turned into a rupture: a great many ministers and elders were expelled from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the denomination in which Kuyper and Bavinck found each other in the church union of 1892. Schilder was among those who were expelled. He and the others continued their church life under the same denominational name. Their denominational tradition was eventually transplanted to North America, where the churches in question are called Canadian and American Reformed. They are sometimes referred to unofficially as "Article 31 churches" because of the role that Article 31 in the Church Order of that day played in the struggle.

The church struggle in which Schilder was involved is not well understood here in North America. Many Calvinists who know little about it are inclined to dismiss it as a matter of both sides making a mountain out of a molehill. In terms of the doctrinal issues, there may be something to this assessment, for the key doctrinal declarations that precipitated the split were withdrawn by the big church that expelled Schilder only fifteen years after the rupture took place.

But there was also a different kind of issue at stake. It might be described as an issue of freedom of conscience in theological matters. In the tradition of Schilder and company, there is much talk of "extra-Scriptural binding," and how this sort of thing is to be avoided. [NOTE 18] The idea is that the people who together form a denomination or church federation should commit themselves to what Scripture clearly teaches, as formulated in creeds and doctrinal standards, but should not try to bind one another's conscience on any point of doctrine or theology beyond what is clearly and explicitly taught in the Bible. And so it is admitted freely that what we call theology, which includes a certain amount of speculation about this or that and may stray into what some puzzling Bible passage means, goes well beyond what is inscribed in the official creeds of the churches.

In terms of the church struggle of the 1940s, the position of Schilder and his associates was that the theological differences in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands should have been accepted as exactly that -- theological, and not creedal. They should not have become matters on which agreement became compulsory. The implication, in terms of this essay, is that in the area of doctrine or theology, we have various ideas that cannot be supported in a strong way through appeals to Scripture. And so the notion that there could be two distinct understandings of the covenant and of baptism was strongly defended by the Schilder camp, whereas the opponents of Schilder insisted that the time had come to allow only one to be taught. [NOTE 19] In short, Schilder and company were arguing that we should leave room for disagreement in theology. The implication in philosophical terms is that we cannot have a TOE or a DOE. We should commit ourselves collectively, as a church federation, only to that which is clearly taught in Scripture. Any effort to bind anyone's consciences beyond that point is a mistake.

And so I would point to the existence of doctrinal disagreements and of what our tradition calls the freedom of exegesis as further reason to resist the allure of an all-embracing worldview or TOE. This is not to say that there cannot be any sort of DOE in the sense of an interesting doctrine or body of doctrines with wide-ranging implications. Perhaps such a body of inter-related doctrines would even have the potential to be worked out much further -- of course, by a community of scholars and theoreticians. In that case, it would gradually become more and more comprehensive. The difficulty is that I cannot imagine all Christians coming to agreement on such matters. Scripture would certainly not compel or bind them.

Think of eschatology as a province of theology: just as we must leave one another some room to be fascinated by the apocalyptic passages of Scripture and to come up with interesting predictions and suggestions on the basis of them, without exercising the impulse to excommunicate one another for heresy, so it is with other doctrinal areas. The upshot, then, is that we may have to content ourselves with a theory of lots of stuff and drop the dream of peddling a theory of everything. [END]


Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften, in Vol. I of Dilthey's Gesammelte Schriften, p. 358.

For Dilthey's thoughts on this issue, see especially the eighth volume of his Gesammelte Schriften.

For more on Dilthey and his approach to the worldview question, see my book Historical Understanding in the Thought of Wilhelm Dilthey (University of Toronto Press, 1980), especially Chapter 7.

Quoted by C.E.M. Joad, Guide to Philosophy (New York: Dover Publications, 1936), pp. 235-236.

[NOTE 5]
David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

Published by Shambhala of Boulder, Colorado, in 2000.

A Theory of Everything, pp. xi-xii.

Internet source:

Internet source:

See A Theory of Everything, p. 110.

A Theory of Everything, p. xiii.

A Theory of Everything, p. 131. By using "Kosmos" rather than "cosmos," Wilber is reminding us that our comprehensive theory needs to include the non-physical aspects of reality.

A Theory of Everything, p. 111.

See A Theory of Everything, pp. 11, 25.

See A Theory of Everything, p. 55.

A Theory of Everything, p. 108. Mill makes this observation in his essay entitled "Coleridge," in Essays on Politics and Culture, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1963), p. 125.

Towards a World Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), pp. 59, 60; see also pp. 66, 78-79, and Religious Diversity, ed. Willard G. Oxtoby (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), pp. 163-164, 170.

See Schilder's Extra-Scriptural Binding -- A New Danger, trans. T. vanLaar. Published as part of Jelle Faber, American Secession Theologians on Covenant and Baptism (Neerlandia, Alberta: Inheritance Publications, 1996), pp. 55-167.

Douwe van Dijk, a supporter of Schilder and a participant in the key synod, explains these matters in his autobiography, entitled My Path to Liberation (Neerlandia, Alberta: Inheritance Publications, 2004), see Chapter 8.

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