Sex, Ecology, Spirituality—The Great Chain of Being

After watching the movie Cloud Atlas, directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, I read an article in the New York Review of Books that reminded me that Lana Wachowski has been influenced by the philosopher Ken Wilber. Ken Wilber stands in relationship to Lana Wachowski as her philosophical muse in the same way that Joseph Campbell was to George Lucas, who based Star Wars on the “monomyth” described in The Hero of A Thousand Faces. In the case of Ken Wilber, his philosophical work that inspired Lana was Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. I was inspired by this connection as mentioned in the NY Review of Books to start reading the book, and decided to take some notes of some key passages as I go through it.

1. Introduction—The Web of Life and the Great Chain of Being

The first chapter deals with the modern ecological meme of the “Web of Life”, and how it is related to its philosophical forerunner in the Middle Ages called the Great Chain of Being.

What was the theory of the Great Chain of Being? There were 3 essential elements.



All phenomena in the material world (physiosphere), the living world of plants and animals (biosphere), and the world of the mind (noosphere) are manifestations of Spirit, and it is woven within each of them.




There are “no gaps” in nature, because everything is interwoven by being part of Spirit, the “continuum of being”.


3. There are gradations within the different worlds contained in Spirit, since some emergent properties exist in some that don’t appear in others (the physiosphere cannot reproduce, the biosphere cannot create language, etc.).

2. The Breakup of the Great Chain of Being—part 1

This occurred with the rise of modern science when the physiosphere of material world was seen not as infused with Spirit, but rather like a machine, one whose movements could be explained through the new laws of physics being developed by Galileo, Newton, and others.

However, there are two types of phenomena within the material world, one where time plays no fundamental role, which is described by classical mechanics, and one where “time’s arrow” is essential, which is described by thermodynamics. So not only was the physiosphere detached from Spirit, but the material world was now a machine, a machine that according to thermodynamics was winding down.

3. The Great Chain of Being becomes The Web of Life

With the work of Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin on evolution through natural selection in the biosphere, there was a return to the 2nd idea of the Great Chain of Being, that there was a continuity of life in its various forms, one that would become the modern meme of the Web of Life in the science of ecology.

4. The Great Chain of Being becomes Unchained

Although the plenum of the Great Chain of Being was considered timeless, the theory of natural selection was added the idea of the possibility of the creation of new species that evolved from the old ones, sometimes with even greater complexity. The biosphere now had a direction, and it was winding up, not down like the physiosphere.

This sense that the biosphere and physiosphere had somehow parted ways was very disconcerting to scientists in the 18th and 19th centuries. There was also an attempt by some to separate the mind (noosphere) from the natural world, particularly in the works of Descartes. So the three realms that were together in the Great Chain of Being were now separated from each other.

5. Early Attempts at Unification

The attempts to re-unify these now separated realms of existence took several forms. The first was to reduce mind and body to matter (the materialists such as Hobbes, La Mettrie). The second was to elevate matter and bodies to the status of mind (the phenomenalism of Berkeley). There were other theories as well, but none were convincing as a way to close the gap between these worlds.

6. Reunification

Ken Wilber maintains that the sciences of complexity (systems theory, chaos theory, nonequilibrium thermodynamics) show that when purely material processes become very chaotic and far from equilibrium, they tend to escape that chaos by transforming into higher and more structured orders.

Thus these sciences show that the physical world, like the natural world, has a tendency over time to “wind up” as well. Evolutionary systems theory shows that the same patterns apply to the physiosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere, so a unified worldview is now a possibility once again.

7. Conclusion

This portion of chapter 1 of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality called The Web of Life shows the evolution of the fracturing of the medieval worldview and the reestablishment of what is essentially the same unified worldview but with the language of modern science rather than that of faith.


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