Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Jeff Meyerhoff, Reply to Jan Brouwer's Review of Bald Ambition, September 2004
Jan Brouwer is webmaster of "The Mystical Site" and editor of the online forum Integral Mysticism. This review of Jeff Meyerhoff's book-in-progress "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" was taken from The Mystical Site with permission of the author. He lives in the Netherlands. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Review of Jeff Meyerhoff's
These layers encompass the total sum of reality, reaching from the grossest form of perceivable matter to the most subtle Spirit pervading all. They give not only a quantative description of the universe (there are rocks, there are thoughts, there are souls, there is Spirit etc.), but also a qualitative description of all that can be perceived, thought of and felt. For rising up from matter to Spirit quality increases: something that's got mind is better than mere matter, as something that has got soul besides mind and matter is better than mere mind and matter etc.
For Wilber this is a purposeful plan that governs creation. For everything in the universe tends to evolve to these levels of greater complexity, till ultimately the highest level of Spirit has been reached. In psychology this tendency can be studied the best because in human consciousness all four layers have come to realization, but also in the evolution of human culture can we notice its workings: cultures also evolve from prerational to rational to postrational forms of complexity. This is the plan behind it all, the telos working at the basic. This is what the ancient traditions called God: reality is shaped by Higher Intelligence.
But the Western scientific outlook must also be given its credits. For this God, this intelligent teleological plan behind it all, is working in an evolutionary manner. Perhaps not with rigid and fixed steps but more like a morfogenetic field of 'gentle persuasion'. The great basic plan of the four levels is always followed but it is followed sometimes by 'trial and error' means or in a meandering way, with backfalls and sudden skipping. So we could symbolically say that God is testing all the time if something will work this way or another, but always according to the great lines of rising up from dust to Spirit.
all levels, all quadrants
For experience, intuition and scientific research tell us that there is not only exteriority, but also interiority to all that exists in the universe. Even the smallest particles of matter have a willful tendency. The complexity of this interiority increases on a par with the complexity of the exteriority. So in the animal world we'll find a greater interior depth than in amoebae. If we turn within, into our own consciousness, we will find thoughts, symbols, images, archetypes, feelings, will, abstraction etc. There deep down in our consciousness can we study the whole interiority of the kosmos at first hand. Because we are made of the same stuff the whole universe is made of. There in the non-material inside of us can we find the four levels at work in ourselves. If we study with care and diligence we will see that the scope of our life is expanding from dust to Spirit.
So for a thorough scientific outlook on the world and on consciousness it is very important to take all sides of the coin into account. The mistake science is making in our Western culture right now is precisely this: she only gives credit to the outside of things, the individual It and the collective It. She has the conviction the inside cannot be studied and measured. And so we lose sight of the interiority of the world and accordingly everything in our life and in our culture loses meaning. For only with our inside and in our inside can the world be valued. Now to overcome this great cultural crisis we are in right now (which Wilber has dubbed 'Flatland') we have to change to an 'all quadrant' approach.
Every entity (a holon) in the kosmos must be studied according to four aspects, called 'the four quadrants' : in itself it has an individual inner world of subjectivity (1), ranging from prehension, irritability and sensation to the highest modes of non-dual awareness. This individual inner world is located in an objective outer world of matter (2), the body, When we are talking about human consciousness it is closely connected to the brain. Higher forms of consciousness (higher levels of evolution) have a correlation with higher developed parts of the brain: our early instincts are located in the reptile brain, our emotions in the limbic system and our thinking in the neocortex, hierarchical parts of the brain that have developed in time on top of each other. This individual entity cannot live on its own but is also located in a social environment, the collective outer world of social networks and institutions (3), ranging from small ecosystems and groups and families to nation states and world states. This collective outer world, the social world, is just like the individual outer world the result of an inner evolution: the cultural evolution in the collective interior of a society, ranging from archaic/magic/mythic to transrational forms of culture. So 1 (UpperLeft) shapes 2 (UpperRight) and 4 (DownLeft) shapes 3 (DownRight).
If we take a close look at the four quadrants we can see that they in fact form a map of 'the Big Three': the Beauty, the Good and the Truth. For the individual inner world (1) is the world of aesthetics (the Beauty), the collective inner world (4) is the world of morals (the Good) and the individual and collective outer world taken together (2+3) present the world of science (the Truth).
A description of the world which leaves any quadrant out of the picture will always be inadequate. Instead we always have to look for an 'all levels, all quadrant' approach, which means that we have to study a holon in its development (as it evolves from matter to Spirit), in its outer and its inner world and not isolated , but always as situated in a context within contexts.
Recently the philosopher Jeff Meyerhoff wrote a critical book about Wilber. Perhaps it's worthwhile to discuss his critique at length and tentatively counter Wilber's views. That way we can both get a good grip on Wilber's philosophy and also dive deep into the heart of the main subject of this site, mysticism. For Meyerhoff is not only attacking Wilber as a philosopher building a great system of thought but also as a mystic.
1. orienting generalizations
Wilber wants to bring different branches of knowledge together in an integral and critical embrace. For in every field of knowledge there is surely something of value, contributing to the overall knowledge of mankind. The truth is there, but it is often partial. If we can bring all these partial truths together, maybe we can work out a great synthesis that can give us a wide view on life and kosmos. In order to do so he uses the 'already-agreed-upon-knowledge' of the academia. But Meyerhoff, as the true relativistic philosopher he is, contends that there is no such thing as 'already-agreed-upon-knowledge' but that knowledge at the academia is in 'an ungoing debate'. Wilber disturbs this debate by picking out at random some debatable knowledge that can forcibly be fitted in into his scheme of things.
The result is that Wilber's method of inclusion is actually a practice of exclusion, an exclusion of all the perspectives and facts which do not fit into his synthesis. Here is an example of how Wilber's apparently neat integration of major contemporary intellectual perspectives is actually a disregard for the integrity of each perspective.
But Wilber never said that he would take all perspectives into account for that is precisely the train of thought (postmodern relativism) he is opposed to. He does not consider all perspectives equally valuable. Within the perspectives offered he is looking for the ones with the highest quality. He is well aware of the debate going on about these perspectives, but as a thinker he is bound to make choices. By fully examining the pro's and cons of certain perspectives he accepts some and discards others. This is the way all scientists work. Is he using his philosophy as a bed of Procoust to adapt certain perspectives to his system? I do not think so. Over the years he was willing to reconsider some major trends in his thinking, like the one about 'overall psychological development' which met with considerable critique from the faculty of developmental psychology. This theorem was very crucial to his system, but he was open enough to question it after reconsidering the research data. Afterward he spoke more cautiously about 'developmental lines' of different content.
Meyerhoff asserts that there is no such thing as 'already-agreed-upon-knowledge' in any field of study. But do we really know absolutely nothing at all? What are all teachers and students doing at schools and universities? Are they every day totally a drift in eddies of ignorance? Is there a fundamental impossibility to learn something? If I may refer to the subject of my adolescent studies: in class we studied 'the great names' of the different disciplines of classical literature. When we sat around our professor of Ancient Philosophy we would take up the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Epicure etc. In the class of Ancient History we would read Herodote, Thucydides and all the other great names of history writing. Even some modern scholars were considered classic in our branches of study. It was impossible to disregard Burnet, Cornford or G.S. Kirk if we would take up Classical Philosophy. But not to make my argument tiresome: science is, like art, about 'great names' and they are presented to students as 'already-agreed-upon-knowledge'. Well, it was fun to launch some attacks in college but to question the quality of a Plato e.g. was making your self ridiculous. Not that we would take anything for granted that was presented to us. But we recognised quality if we stumbled upon it. The beauty of science consists of its openness always to improve and always to go further in knowledge. But this happens not by destroying the already-agreed-upon-fundaments of knowledge but by erecting greater buildings on top of them.
The postmodern relativism of Meyerhoff is uncomfortable with Wilber's building of a great philosophical system, because it presents only one Great Picture at the exclusion of others:
Wilber thinks he's creating an integration that extracts what is true from differing perspectives, but he is actually disrespecting the profound differences in radically divergent constructions of 'reality' and avoiding the great intellectual problem of our time: difference.
But Wilber actually wants to take these differences into account (he considers perspectivism and contextualism the greatest contributions of postmodernism to philosophy) but these differences, although they are to be accounted for, are only at the surface of reality. When we go deeper into reality, when we evolve to higher levels of being and knowing, unity increases. Climbing up from matter to Spirit we will find more unity in kosmos. It's no small wonder that a philosophy that has not evolved higher than mind and whose scientific presumptions are still mainly reductionistic only sees differences. But these differences, that at a rational level seem logically to contradict one another, can be integrated and united at a transrational level.
The great problem with relativism is the exact position of truth within its own thought system, a system whose possibility to exist must paradoxically be denied if we follow its own basic presumptions. For if we accept the existence of a truthful system (such as relativism), we have a fortiori accepted the existence of truth. For then relativism is more true than any other system of thought. But truth is categorically denied by the system. So therefore it seems to deny its own existence.
But integral perspectivism is not denying the existence of truth, but sees that truth increases at every higher stance we take. Meyerhoff cites the example of Nelson Goodman of the sun's motion. The statements 'the sun moves through the sky' and 'the sun is stationary' seem from a differing perspective both to be true. How is this possible? They seem to contradict one another. A cannot be B. But we will see that from a higher point of view B can be just as true as A. There is a stance possible from where these contradictions can be integrated into a more higher truth: from our low earth bound stance the sun seems to move through the sky, but when we climb up with our thoughts to the stance of the sun itself, which is centered in the middle of our galaxy, then we are bound to conclude that 'the sun is stationary'. But if we climb still further up to higher levels of reality, then we will see that our galaxy itself is revolving and that from this highest vantage point both statements are true: a stationary sun is moving through the sky.
When we only study the right hand quadrants of reality, all we will get is a heap of data, but we will not be able to construct any theory out of it, for the simple facts and data do not give us any meaning.
And this is the kind of question Wilber needs to answer if he's going to weave together disparate fields of knowledge and tell a coherent story about the evolution of matter, life and mind. This is because to move from describing facts to telling a story is to move from facts to values.
But this precisely the reason why Wilber also wants to take the left hand quadrants into account, 'to weave together disparate fields of knowledge and tell a coherent story about the evolution of matter, life and mind', because he wants to show us that there is meaning in the kosmos. In a very beautiful and harmonious thought system and backed up by a wealth of research data he shows us that Spirit makes the world go round in a beautiful clockwise motion: it evolves from the lowest form of inert matter to the highest realised states of consciousness and then involves back again to matter only to begin the circle afresh. And the meaning behind it all is precisely this all pervading Spirit. Once consciousness reaches this ultimate telos of everything, then the meaning of it all will be disclosed. But in order to find this meaning we will have to dive into the left hand quandrants and not be content with a science that only credits the right. It's time to leave the Flatland.
It is wrong to conclude that the polemic between Meyerhoff and Wilber is a debate between absolutism and relativism, because Wilber is no traditional absolutist, who believes in a fixed God, in fixed patterns of evolution and in fixed values. It would be more accurate to describe Wilber also as a relativist for he also acknowledges that everything is contextualized (but not in any old way). 'Thus, that everything is relative does not mean nothing is better, it means some things are, indeed, relatively better than others, all the time' (SES p.202). Meyerhoff thinks this is mistaken but he does not seem to get the point Wilber is making. For Meyerhoff says:
If something is relatively better that means it can also be relatively worse. If one wants to contend that it cannot be seen as relatively worse from some other perspective, then one would have to show how it is always relatively better. The whole point of qualifying 'better' with the word 'relatively' is because it is not 'absolutely better'.
But this is precisely the point Wilber is making. For a holon is from the perspective of its junior holon 'better' (all the time), but from the perspective of its senior holon is it 'worse' (all the time): a molecule is always better than a mere atom, but from the perspective of a whole organism is it seen as worse, formop is better than conop, but worse than postformal froms of consciousness etc. The value and meaning a holon has at a particular place and time are always relative: they depend on the level of evolution the holon has evolved to and on the perspectival stance the interpreting subject has taken. That is the great contribution of perspectivism to the debate. Never can meaning and value be fixed at a certain absolute point, but they seem to be hermeneutically dependent.
2. the validity of Wilber's system
How does one know that a system such as Wilber's has any validity? How can one discern the truth from the lies? Wilber himself has written about these epistemological difficulties and has described some guidelines we must follow if we want to gain trust in our knowledge. The first thing we have to do is to follow conscientiously the injunctions and prescribed methods for acquiring knowledge that are traditionally accepted as valid in a certain branch of study. Secondly, using these injunctions, we have to look for ourselves if we want to acquire the new knowledge. Thirdly we have to go back to the community of fellow investigators, who also have followed the same injunctions and also have looked for them selves. With them we have to discuss the findings, to see if we can come to some intersubjective agreement about the newly acquired knowledge.
The difficulty with Wilber's system is that most of its basic propositions (the perennial philosophy, the existence of (higher) structures, states, modes and developmental lines in consciousness, the spiritual evolution of the kosmos, the four quadrants, the notion of spiritual depth etc.) only seem to have validity if we have experienced (or at least are open to the notion of) the existence of higher transrational levels of consciousness. But the problem is that these transrational levels of consciousness are only experienced by 0,1 percent of the world population or even less. The problem is even worsened by the fact that different levels of consciousness tend to misunderstand each other and sometimes are even hostile to one another (a child at conop stage of development cannot understand the fact that a tall glass of water contains the same amount of water as a smaller but broader glass: the child is sometimes even hostile to the one who tells otherwise). This is the hostility Wilber sometimes shows in his attacks on some New Age adepts who suffer from the pre/trans fallacy. It is also the (sometimes malignant) hostility Meyerhoff shows for systems like Wilber's, because a person at the highest levels of rationality will show the greatest aversion to transrational levels because his struggle is with these levels and not with, say, the magical levels of development.
This is probably the reason Meyerhoff does not want to follow the injunctions of mysticism. I bet he is very interested in these transrational stadias of consciousness development (as a thinker he is bound to be and it also shows from his profound knowledge of Wilber's work) but his hostility prevents him from following the mystical path.
While the mystic's relevant community may agree that the mystic did experience the Absolute, other communities who also deal with reality -philosophers let say- may not agree. Wilber would say they haven't followed the injunctions and had the apperception, but they would have questions about the injunctions and their effects on the apperception. The community of philosophers have a different mode of investigating reality and so have different criteria they apply. They would use the criteria of rational consistency, logic and evidence. What if the two communities disagree? Who decides?
The answer must be: the community that has the highest expertise. And which has a greater understanding of mystical knowledge than the community of mystics themselves? They also use the criteria of rational consistency, logic and evidence but they add something more to it: personal experience. They invite everyone to obtain this mystical knowledge at first hand and find it out for him/herself. But a scientist can not get evidence without investigation. So yes, we have to follow the injunctions of the mystic community. It's the same with philosophy. If I want to be accepted and taken seriously within the community of philosophers I have to follow their injunctions, read philosophy and follow a certain method of thinking. And if I haven't done so I have no right to affirm or deny the worth and truth of philosophical investigation. Then it would be better to stay aside and to admit that I have not the expertise to say anything about the subject.
But Meyerhoff is I think right in pointing to a slight uneasiness in the work of Wilber. For he is trying to validate transrational knowledge (which ultimately is knowledge of revelation) with rational means and methods. Perhaps there will always be a certain incongruence between these two types of knowledge.
If he insists on trying to validate a mystically infused, but rationally argued vision of the Kosmos, he will be subject to the criteria used in rational argumentation and that his vision's validity will be undermined.
Transrational knowledge is just as it is: transrational and transverbal, which unfortunately entails that ratio and words become at a certain point inadequate means to describe and communicate this kind of knowledge. But the tone of Wilber's writing is the tone of scientific rationality. So he seems to address people at the higher levels of rational development and uses their methods and means. This was a deliberate choice, because Wilber wanted to open up the doors of the academia for the New Enlightenment. But it places people at a rational stage in an awkward situation because it confronts them with something that they do not (as yet) grasp. And it is not always nice to be given the impression that 'you are as yet not smart enough to get it'. Wilber himself was also well aware of this uneasiness for in the Introduction of A Theory of Everything he wrote: 'nothing that can be said in this book will convince you that a [theory of everything] is possible, unless you already have a touch of [transpersonal insight] coloring your cognitive palette'.
But we must never forget that spiritual insights and attainments also have mental 'repercussions': the former rationality of the preceding level is greatly enhanced and expanded by these insights. One of the features of this spiritually enhanced rationality is its capacity for seeing more the unity behind the diversity and for describing and arguing this unity. I think Wilber's mind gives us an example of this 'enhanced rationality': it gives us lucidly and convincingly rational glimpses of this unity. But his method has one great disadvantage: he can only use words and words are a poor mean as spiritual insight is concerned. Fortunately the intuition of our minds and hearts also help us to determine if something is true or false. Not only the limited capacities of our rationality.
3. the theory of consciousness development
We must never forget that Wilber's developmental scheme of consciousness unfolding is an idealization of a person's interior growth. Wilber himself has on numerous occasions described the pitfalls psychological development can fall into. A person's growth can at every level of development become fixed, stagnated or suffer from pathologies or (temporary) regressions. His theory is misrepresented if we assume that every person is bound to progress through all levels in sequence. This is not the case and there is numerous scientific evidence showing people not to have evolved to higher levels, be it postconventional or post-postconventional levels of consciousness in the Kohlberg scheme of moral development or transrational levels in epistemological development. The latter are seldom reached by most individuals in the world today. So what Wilber describes seems to be the ideal development of a healthy, intelligent person in healthy circumstances.
But, though the process of development can be thwarted in many ways and there is always discrepancy between the metaphysical ideal of development and its actual occurrence, I would not go as far as Howard Gardner et al. (1990) who say "the symbolic waves are a psychologist's convention (and invention)". I more agree with Wilber that (especially the higher) levels of development are more like evolutionary tendencies of morfogenesis. There is a 'gentle evolutionary persuasion' to follow the blueprint but it will probably still last some time (if it ever happens) before every person on earth will develop all these hidden potentials.
Within the field of developmental psychology there has been controversy about the question if development takes place 'from within' or 'from without'. If we are to conclude that development takes place 'from without' (by way of altering biological and social/cultural circumstances), then age is indeed 'an empty variable'. Meyerhoff quotes the Harvard psychologist Sheldon White who says:
(...) any high school senior can tell you that age doesn't cause anything. Age is a dimension in which things happen -biological variables, environmental variables. Those are the causes. When you say that such-and-such happened with age, you say almost nothing.
This extreme point of view affords another example of blatant neglect of the Four Quadrants. For here we detect once again a scrupulosity to take the interior side of a holon into account: an interiority that ripens with ages is denied, there is only a blank tabula rasa that is totally and willy-nilly subjected to factors from the outside to mold its form. This is a great misrepresentation of research data, experience and intuition. If we accept Wilber's view on the importance of taking all Four Quads into account, then we have to conclude that it is not an or/or but an and/and: there is a development from within that is aided, structured and given its impetus by outside factors. The causes of development are both from the inside and from the outside.
What makes psychologists like White and philosophers like Meyerhoff uneasy about such a thing as interior psychological development is that terms like value and hierarchy seem to present themselves when we interpret what happens to the psyche when it develops. But it cannot escape us that with every major milestone (fulcrum) of growth in the psyche the quality of consciousness increases. Let's make this clear by surveying some major milestones of development in a person's life:
(1 yrs.) One of the first things a first year baby learns is to separate his own little self from his environment. He learns the difference between his body and his environment by biting successively his blankets and the extremities of his body. The first action hurts not, but the second one can give you a hell of a pain (even without teeth). This biting gives the little baby the feeling that 'body-things' somehow belong to the self but 'non-body-things' do not. Having learned this the consciousness of the little infant has become better, because it is quite essential for its survival and continuation to know the difference between the self and a possibly dangerous and threatening outside. This is the most essential and basic differentiation that has to occur. If this little baby would be able to communicate his newly acquired knowledge to his fellow baby's in the nursery room, who have not as yet acquired these essentials of babyhood, he would somehow acquire a certain leadership in the room. They would appoint him to be the baby in charge.
(1-3 yrs.) In the first three years of his life the little infant learns to understand his primal emotions. He learns how signals of hunger, thirst or loneliness are received by the outside world and how to use these signals for his life support. The first images are formed in mental consciousness. He recognizes the mother, the nipple, the cradle; more and more images are formed as he grows older. All newly formed images make his consciousness better equipped for life. The images and symbols he learns are the most fundamental for his life support. Images and symbols that correspond the most accurately with the desired objects have leadership in consciousness over images that are more remote to these objects.
(3-7 yrs.) With the development of language at this age the first concepts are formed in the mind. With language the capacity for abstraction is greatly enhanced, but the mind is still mainly representational. Its function to operate upon the words and images is still rudimentary developed, but now, with the help of language, communication works so much better. The first occurrence of language and its underlying logical script is such a success at all fronts in consciousness, that from now on language acquires leadership over emotions, images and symbols. Language will make the way for the mental to occur.
(8-12 yrs.) The first operations of the mental upon consciousness start to appear, but these operations are still very concrete (conop) and still closely connected to the outside world. Formal operations upon thinking and consciousness are still very rudimentary. At this stage the consciousness of the child learns to form rules in order to form classes and see more the connections of things in the outside world. That way unity is more perceived, insight won and trust gained. Now for the first time the child learns substantially to take the role of another person and is now better able to judge the impact of his behavior on others. Children at this level with the best developed mental capacities acquire leadership over their peers.
(12-21 yrs.) In adolescence the mind evolves still further. At this stage formal operations on his own consciousness become more and more a possibility for the learning child. He learns to reflect about his own thinking. Everything he encounters in life and learning has to be given its place and he develops means to connect different forms of knowledge. The first broad maps are drawn and theories succeed one another as life goes on. With reason and the rise of the mental a wide horizon of possibilities starts to come into view. Life becomes so much better now. There is more understanding of the world and its inhabitants. The mental can explain the sense and the meaning behind the seemingly fragmented and senseless world. Its results are so satisfying that it quickly acquires leadership in consciousness. People with highly evolved mental capacities are chosen as high rankers in a hierarchy.
It is argued by most developmental psychologists that for most people the development of their consciousness stops at this fulcrum. Only a few intelligent persons are able to grow to farther domains of the mind and reach the level of vision-logic with its world centric morality. And even fewer still develop transrational forms of consciousness. Though this seems to be the case, I want to point to the fact that in every one's life at least something changes after midlife. Though these changes may not be transrational in the strict sense of the word, still there often occur slight changes in emotionality and rationality that can tentatively be designated as 'spiritual', though a person may not be aware of it and may even deny the spiritual origin of these changes. I refer to qualities like mildness, openness, selfishness, helpfulness, care, wisdom etc. that seem to develop in most (or at least in many) people as they grow older. That these changes are not only the result of a learning process but also seem to be developmentally anchored in our psychological make up, can be deduced from the fact that the 'midlife crisis' in most cases spontaneously occurs without being triggered by outside circumstances.
But to return to our present argumentation: if we review the italicized words in the recent paragraphs, we have to conclude that at each fulcrum the quality of consciousness has increased considerably over the former and that the newly evolved forms of consciousness have gained leadership over their inferior ones. This has not to come as a surprise because by studying the interior world of consciousness we have entered the realm of value, meaning and hierarchy.
What Meyerhoff bothers the most is the idealization within Wilber's developmental scheme:
Depending on the endpoint of development chosen, the behaviors that lead toward that endpoint will be deemed natural, healthy or normal and those that don't, will be deemed unnatural, retarded or pathological. (.....) He is constantly extracting from nature a picture of life that is ever upward and onward, and tries to validate it as somehow being nature's own tendency.
Meyerhoff says that it is just as natural for an acorn not to grow and to develop into an oak tree and that deterioration and death of oak trees is just as natural to them as to rise up to full growth. This is true of course, but let me refer to two central terms of Aristotelian theory in trying to elucidate this problem of development:
- entelecheia: according to Aristotle all living things have a natural tendency to become. This becoming is not something at random or haphazard, but it has some sort of a metaphysical plan built into it (Aristotle refers in this respect to a kind of architectural plan). All living things work, according to this plan, up to an end that is somehow engraved in their ontological make up. They have a purpose ( a telos) in their being. An acorn wants to become an oak tree. It is her will to become so.
- arete : this telos or metaphysical plan is not aimed at becoming anything whatsoever, but it always strives for the best quality possible. So an acorn wants not only to be just any acorn but she wants to be an acorn of the highest quality and she will under the right climatological and ecological conditions grow out into such a healthy full grown oak. Only outside conditions (overpopulation within the forest, detrimental ecological circumstances etc.) can thwart her in becoming so. Aristotle is following his teacher Plato in stating that we all have an idea of what this arete is. We know by seeing and handling a horse what his innate quality is: strong, good running, harmonious proportions etc. All life's endeavors are aimed at realizing this arete.
So here again we find, on closer examination, within the interiority of things: values and qualities, that somehow are part of the things themselves and have to be taken into account if we want to understand them in the best way possible.
But it must also be said that once the telos of life is reached for an individual being, deterioration starts and death lurks around every corner. And sometimes even the telos cannot be reached at all, due to all sorts of reasons and circumstances, as we saw. Meyerhoff is right, I think, in stating that these more tragic aspects of life (also forming a part of the telos) are neglected within the core system of Wilber, although in more personal books like Grace and Grit and One Taste he shows not being blind to them.
In the transitional phase between the personal and the transpersonal stadias of development, consciousness for the first time acquires the capacity to stand aloof from its own thinking and operate upon its own rationality, without a strong and obdurate identification with one-sided thoughts. From this distal vantage point it can clearly see that thinking is dynamic and full of possibilities. It now seems to grasp the possibility of different perspectives and tries to include them in a more integral embrace. Many opinions a person can possibly express about a certain matter are understood and taken into account. What seems worthwhile in these different perspectives is retained and what seems untrue or all too personal is dismissed. Meyerhoff seems to question the quality of this new kind of consciousness:
It seems to follow that what is seen from this superior vantage point would give us superior knowledge. But what makes this new vantage point superior? (...) Does that make it superior or just different?
Vision-logic is a superior kind of knowledge because the quality of consciousness gets better when the ability to consider different perspectives is increased. Why so? Let's take a look at the daily practice of psychotherapy. There a patient is encouraged by the therapist in objectifying his/her thoughts and thoughts-emotions. When progress is made in objectification, then slowly and step by step the patient is encouraged to disidentify with these thoughts and to look at his psychic life from a different (a higher and more distal) point of view. This is a very difficult path for a patient to follow, but, though results are not obtained in a fortnight, practice is always rewarded. The patient learns to see that his view on life is not the only outlook possible, but that there are numerous perspectives available. When this insight dawns on the patient he becomes more capable of disidentifying with his hangups. A process of healing is initiated with this widening of his consciousness. His own very narrow perspective is given up or integrated, the mind loosens up and is given space.
Not every patient in psychotherapy comes out of treatment with a fully developed level of vision-logic, I agree. But see how already a very small capacity in taking different perspectives can give a better quality to the consciousness and the life of the patient. By stepping out he is healed from 'tunnel-vision'.
But not only psychotherapy offers proof of the fact that a more witnessing form of consciousness is better than mere rationality. Look at this example from daily life: if a person can let go of his narrow nationalist and in-group thoughts and feelings and develop a more world centered morality, by having learned to also adopt the perspectives of strange lands and people, then not only the quality of his own life but the quality of the whole world will thereby be greatly improved upon. His hatred and fear toward other people will be greatly reduced. His consciousness will enfold a couple of millions more in a loving embrace. His life will from henceforth be embedded in brotherhood, for everywhere around the world will he understand his fellowman a little bit more (though he may not always agree). When hatred and fear are so much reduced, when life is so much enriched by love and understanding, will such a person deny that this newly acquired consciousness is superior to his old consciousness, or will he just simply say that 'it is different'?
A claim to the superiority of this method of witnessing presupposes that an experiential shift and a qualitatively different emperical viewing is a superior way to gain knowledge. (....) vision-logic doesn't really stand outside of a thing called rationality; what it actually does is allow a view from a unique subjective witnessing position the flow of reasoning and thought inside one's own mind. Witnessing one's personal reasoning and flow of thought is not the same as empirically studying reason itself.
For a philosopher it is very difficult to understand that there is a possibility to 'stand outside of a thing called rationality'. For him there is nothing possible outside or beyond the mental. A mystic knows that there is consciousness beyond rationality. He has experienced in his relative consciousness the vast empty space wherein rationality is just, like life and matter, another epiphenomenon on infinite and timeless, ever refulgent Spirit. This vast empty space and Pure Consciousness is for ever and unceasingly the witness of everything. In vision-logic the first glimpes of this world beyond rationality are seen. With this first glimpses happiness and ecstacy ('the fuller life') come into view.
The mystic is not only 'witnessing one's personal reasoning and flow of thought' but he is also 'empericially studying reason itself', by going inward and look upon rationality. Togehter with one's witnessing one's personal reasoning and thoughts, the mechanics and the laws of reason are also revealed, just like a scientist of physics discovers the elementary laws of matter by studying matter. Ken Wilber is such a mystic who by studying consciousness discovers 'the knack of it'; becuase of the very beautiful tendency of consciousness itself to explain and give meaning to everything that is looked upon (for consciousness is self-explanatory). The mystic has trust and confidence in this natural tendency: 'just go out and see; the thing will explain itself to you'. For there is something greater than your own limited rationality to give the required explanations.
But it is the tragedy of mysticism that we can only refrase this transpersonal knowledge into personal, rational knowledge, because of the limitations of language, the only means for communication. Language is not as yet equiped in conveying the meaning of the transpersonal levels, but is only suitable for expressing knowledge of mental levels. Maybe in the future a transpersonal language will develop that is suited to communicate this transpersonal knowledge. In the meanwhile vision-logic with its integral-aperspectivism is maybe as far as we can get as communication is concerned (but not as knowledge is concerned).
Rationality is always on the personal level. It must be so, because the consciousness of rationality has not evolved to higher and more impersonal levels. So from the perspective of rationality every perspective taken is always personal. Everything said or thought is just one perspective out of many, because rationality cannot imagine a survey view from a higher stance that transcends the personal. This is the reason Meyerhoff states:
Wilber's solution to perspectivalism doesn't work because integral-aperspectivalism is a perspective. (....) Yet how does he determine relative merits except through his perspective which he unwittingly disguises by thinking of it as a transcendent aperspective.
This Babylonian confusions of tongues will always be the case as long as philosophy doesn't accept the possibility of an objective perspective outside and above personal perspective. To do so it has to accept the notion of Pure Consciousness and Spirit but unlike mysticism it seems not willing to do so. For modern Western philosophy contends that there is no consciousness outside of human relative consciousness. At this point philosophy and mysticism part ways.
Alan Watts once wrote "if we do not know the ultimate reality, we stand in somewhat the same relation to it as blind men to color". The blind would like to know what colors are like and get a taste of their decribed beauty, but however hard they try, they do not seem to be able to understand it, because of their lack of experience. This is the problem that confronts mystics of all times and places: 'how can we disclose this world of harmony, beauty and rationality to a public that has not of yet come into touch with it?' This dilemma forced Plato to write his famous Allegory of the Cave. This dilemma has forced a number of mystics to observe silence in the face of controversy, being well aware of the ultimate inadequacy of language to convey the essence of their thoughts and feelings.
But remember: mysticism is not only a transcendence of rationality but it also includes rationality. So many mystics have taken a great deal of pain in showing the rationality behind the workings of consciousness and the world. These so called jnana-mystics have constructed elaborate systems of thought to describe what they have found on their journey through consciousness. And well, let me make a bald and immodest claim myself: weren't these mystics the true geniuses of thought? Why did Whitehead wrote that 'the European philosophical tradition (.....) consists of a series of footnotes to Plato'? Is there a more lucid, a more gifted and a more inspired philosopher than Plato in the West? And what about a Shankara, a Plotinus or a St. Augustine or a Bonaventura? They were all great mystics and great philosophers at the same time. They wanted to give a rational explanation of 'the colors' and did so in a constrained tone of voice, knowing rationality asks for disciplined arguments, proofs and explanations. So when Meyerhoff writes
Mysticism, which claims knowledge of an absolute beyond language, will hinder its cause by trying to fight on a linguistic terrain.
he is not describing the actual history of mysticism. For the mystics have not always recoiled from 'trying to fight on a linguistic terrain'. They had good arguments for not wanting to shun the debate.
But the quintessence of their philosophy could not be stated in the language of rationality, so much is true. Plato and Aristotle were well aware of this fact. Plato was bewildered about it and chose to employ other means to bring the message home. At the height of his argumentation, when thought has climbed up to the highest mountains possible, he suddenly left the debate were it was and resorted to myth. He also claimed in the Phaidros that true knowledge could only be communicated in a living dialogue (not a written one) between two serious people who were in a loving relationship toward one another, thereby suggesting that there was something more to the transference of ultimate knowledge, something the Indians called satsang, the sitting in (or around) realized Being. So he seems to promote rationality with addons, not just mere rationality.
Aristotle has also written esoteric dialogues, which were much more en rapport with the ideas of his master Plato, but unfortunately these dialogues have not survived in transmission. They were famous in antiquity and in the Middle Ages though, for their inspired and beautiful thought, much resembling the dialogues of Plato and not at all as dry as his own more exoteric writings. Aristotle also knew that there were stages beyond mere rationality, were philosophics and aesthetics merged into one.
But how can one validate this mystical knowledge? Can there be given proof of it's superiority over philosophy?
Wilber claims to be the one that provides the neutral framework for all other knowledge, wants there to be a way to know reality as it is and wants to claim that he knows the transcendent goal of all evolution.
Let me describe the knowledge claims and beliefs of the mystics in order to elucidate this point a bit more. The mystics believe there is such a thing as Absolute Truth. It is way down there, in the deep interiority of things. We can reach it with our consciousness, because It is resident in consciousness as its Ultimate Ground. Though we can be It, by resting in It and identifying with It, we can never know It. For it is a realm beyond knowledge and language. The two things, our relative consciousness and Absolute Consiousness (God), seem as it were to be working up to a certain point with 'incompatible software'. We may get insights, sudden revelations or intuitions of its Truth, but we can never say anything argumental about it.
But when we train ourselves in taking more and more the stance of this Absolute Consciousness (by taking up the injunctions of mysticism), then our being and thinking get more and more infused with, among other attributes, the epistemological qualities of this Absolute Consciousness itself. Then it is not the person anymore who is and thinks, but it is (up to certain limitations, of course) Objectivity itself that takes over. Every one has had these moments of peak experiences wherein she or he knew that the knowing is not personal anymore, but that objective knowing is using the person as a channel or vehicle of Its expression. At these rare moment of insight one has the feeling one is prophezising or revealing, instead of expressing a personal opinion or arguing. One has the conviction and the experience of Absolute Truth.
But then comes the great paradox: this Truth can never adequately be expressed. We can only get glimpses of It, glimpses that can only make us shiver with awe. Although my rationality, my experience and my intuition as a mystic tell me that Wilber is right, we can never comprehend to the fullest scope the workings of God. It is simply beyond our capacity and beyond our imagination. As a mystic I choose to remain silent when confronted with this mystery. Yes, there are transpersonal levels of reality and consciousness, yes, there is Spirit as the end goal of everything, yes, there is a telos working in the world which lifts matter, life and mind upwards to a unification with Spirit. I deeply know It and am It. But how exactly does it work? I have not the faintest idea. It would be like asking me 'how do you respire? How do you do a thing like respiration?' Well, I simply don't know. It is a mystery.
But though mystical knowledge cannot be adequately expressed and explained, it can be recognized. The reason for this is the fact that the human mind is not only representational but also symbolic in its working.
When two mathematicians work on an equation they can write it down on paper and share what it is that they are examining. This is not the case with mystical states; they exist within each mystical practitioner. Further, it's often stated that these states are ineffable, so the actual materials that mystical inquirers can share - the word or pictures representing the states- are, according to mystical inquirers themselves, a poor second to the mystical experience itself.
Yes, but these 'words or pictures representing the states' can work as symbols that can re-enact the mystical experience again. When a mystic speaks, she or he can use symbolic language like poetry or can use artful representations of mystical states that can provoke the same experiences and feelings in the reader or listener. There is recognition of mystical truth in the heart of the listener. For though the experience may be subjective, the knowledge itself is not, being transpersonal and not personal. It is, like the equation in the aforesaid mathematical discourse, an objective experience that can symbolically be addressed and shared. All religious communion work in this symbolical manner. So Meyerhoff is way of the mark when he states:
The two mystical inquirers cannot look together at one mystical state that exists out there. There are always two objects of inquiry, each within the subjective experience of the mystical inquirer.
Every time I read or hear a true mystic -the names you can find on this site and I can name you many more- my heart leaps up with joy and I get tears in my eyes. Why? Because I recognize myself in the words and I see that the loneliness and separtion of the personal is just an illusion. Every time I hear mystical words or see mystical representations, I am amazed: 'My God, so it is with me!' The words, feelings and thoughts I read or hear are completely identical with the way I experience the mystical states. There is no difference between Wilber's experience of mystical states and mine or any's. Because a true mystical experience comes from the transpersonal realm of Objectivity, where we are fundamentally One.
But how is it then possible that mystics can have disagreements or even polemics with one another, like Shankara, who fought out heavy battles with the Buddhists or with his more theistically-minded Hindu collegues? To find an answer to this question one needs to realize that also the transpersonal realm has, just as the personal, different stages of dvelopment. Wilber describes these different levels as psychic, subtle, causal and non-dual. Just like the different levels of personal development, these levels can have frictions with one another and fights over intellectual dominance. Non-dual formless mysticism has a different view of the Ultimate than theistic mysticism, though a true non-dualist can understand and appreciate a more theistic view on Ultimate Reality just as well as his own formless outlook. In good development he has transcended and also integrated the lower levels. It would be pathological if a non-dualist went to war with a theistic mystic, but this has never happened in history. No more wars in mysticism. The debate is purely philosophical and good sport, because the non-dualist knows that the path of the theistic can bring the same results. But still he is convinced that his own formless outlook is a better description of Ultimate Reality. According to Wilber he is right, because he represents a higher spiritual development.
6. the constructivist critique on mysticism
Postmodern constructivism believes that there is no such thing as immediate knowledge, but that every type of knowledge is in the end a human construction, mediated by the typical features of our language, the cultural setting we live in and the structural conceptualizations our mind works with. It denies the possibily of an immediate insight into 'the way things are', because there is no world out there that is pre-given. Both the subject and the object of experience are at the same time contextualized. So there are only different perspectives of different subjects. There is no meta-narrative that can claim to give the final description of 'the way things are'. Our mind is never able to position itself on Mount Olympos and look at all that is been given 'sub specie aeternitatis'. Never can knowledge be completely objective.
The constructivist Steven Katz in his Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (1978) launches this attack on mysticism, by stating that all experience (and all language used to convey that experience) arise from social-cultural contexts. This also shows in mysticism, as Meyerhoff summarizes Katz' critique:
Mystical practices are imbedded within the particular world-views of the (..) religious traditions. These contexts determine the content and form of the mystical experiences that mystical practitioners have. In contrast to the perennial philosophy, which sees the similarities between seemingly different mystical traditions, the constructivist demonstrates the essential differences between differing traditions.
Wilber opposes this view of experience being always relative, but I think his line of argumentation is not well understood by Katz and Meyerhoff, so let us try to refrase Wilber's counter-argument by examening a bit more the problem of experience. In the first place we must distinguish between the subject of experience, the object of experience and experience itself (the well known triad of epistemology). If we look at the subject and the object of experience it is easy to see that they are always contextual. There is a 'me' that is always coloring (or even distorting) the knowledge it acquires, because the 'me' in the experience is not outside time and history but is shaped by numorous internal and external influences that eventually determine the quality of the knowledge, like a filter in a lens does. The perceived or thought upon object of experience itself is also embedded in a context of individual, material, cultural and social connexions. We seem never to be able to perceive what the object is in its true state (the Ding-an-sich), because of the weblike connexions of its state of being: the being of the object is not an isolated one, but always a-being-in-relation-to.
But if we take a closer look at experience itself the picture is a bit more complicated. Wilber seems to suggest that experience itself is twofold: we must distinguish between 1) experience with content and 2) the pure act of experience without content itself. When we experience something, our initial act of pure experiencing gets filled with content that is from two sides provided: the experienced object fills our experience with its data and mode of being and determines its form and content, but also from the other side the subject (the 'me') colors the content of our experiencing by hermeneutically interposing itself between (or fusing into) our act of pure experience and the stream of impressions that come from the object.
Experience with content (1) is always a posteriori . It is to this form of experience Wilber refers when he writes "It is not that 'original experiences' arrive to be reworked by mental concepts; the original experiences are not original" (SES p. 600). So not only are the subject and the object of experience "situated, mediated, contextual", but so it is with experience a posteriori (ie. after the act of experiencing) itself. But within the experience there is always the pure act of experience a priori (2), that transcendental power that sets the whole thing going and is in itself the undivided process that divides itself in the triad of experience-subject-object. This a priori experience is pure and immediate. It is to this kind of experience (2) Wilber refers when he writes "In short, experience is immediate prehension of whatever mediated contexts are given, and that is why all experience is both pure (immediate) and contextual". This is also what he means when he writes: "At the moment of touch, there is no mediation; if there is mediation, there is no touching". He means that before the act of touching becomes filled with content ('how does it feel?' 'it is very soft') there is the pure act of touching, the-touching-itself, without subject or object content.
Now mystical experience has to do with both types of experience, but (and this is its distinguishing variable) it focuses on the a priori experience (2). The mystic of all ages and places tries by an altering of Gestalt to denude his experience from all forms of content and become the a priori form, the Pure Experience itself. But let me re-emphasize this once again: this Pure Experience can never be an object of our understanding, because it is the act of understanding itself ('a mirror cannot look at itself'). We can only be It or rest in it. It is what our consciousness is of itself. It is the sat-chit-ananda of things. So it is absolutely true that the transcendental signified of mysticism has no signifier ie. we cannot refer to Pure Consciousness in adequate verbal descriptions, but this counts for many internal states of experiencing, like the truely profound aesthetic experience or being in love etc. The reason is that these types of experience are also, like the mystical experience, experience of transcendence.
7. a malicious psychological analysis of Ken Wilber
Because there is for postmodern 'aperspectival madness' no objectivity possible and because all descriptions of reality are in the end nothing but a 'tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing', the only thing that philosophy can do is to deconstruct a philosophical message and show that it is personally and culturally biased. It is impossible for a writer or a thinker to state anything objectively, outside of his own personal or cultural frame of mind. So as a result postmodern extremism bombs every philosophical statement or propostition with the 'cui bono?' and tries to show that there are always hidden agenda's at work, that maliciously impose themselves on the thinker and impel him to do his treacherous work with reality. Nothing can be said of reality. So if someone tries to do so, she or he must have a reason for it. There is not such a thing as pure motivation to acquire pure knowledge. If someone is so naive in thinking so, he must instantaneously be made wiser. If someone tries to delineate a metaphysical structure of reality his insight has brought him to perceive, postmodernism quickly resorts to psychologizing. For all perspectives are equally worthwhile (or equally worthless, depending on your mood) and the only thing we can do is to disclose why such and such a person says such and such a thing at such and such a time in history.
This is the totally absurd line of postmodern thinking Meyerhoff has accepted before writing his final chapter about Wilber. For in it he tries to show that the life of Wilber was an ordeal of loneliness, loss, separation and duality and that he needed to construct his life saving non-dual philosophy in order to give some sense to his bewildered and fragmented life. For remember: there is no pre-given world out there that can be discovered (and that can offer us meaning or even salvation), no, people make up comforting conjectures about the world they live in to reduce their stress and anxiety. This is reductionism in its worst form, for it reduces philosophy to (a very ordinary and crude form of) psychology. When Wilber wrote : "I had to read everything because I was trying mentally and emotionally to put together in a comprehensive framework that which I felt was neccesary for my own salvation (Odyssee p. 60)", he meant that he was discovering a synthesis that eventually became 'his own salvation', not that he constructed his own salvation by wishful arguments or forced lines of thinking. Isn't it very cheap to reduce the validity and the worth of Wilber's non-dual philosophy to sentences like "my father wasn't around alot when I was growing up" (WRM p.350) etc. etc.? This line of cheap psychologizing is staggering.
Especially when one sees on closer scrutinity that Wilber wasn't such a lonely and psychologically debilitated child as one is forced to believe. For though they moved every year (don't all Americans move every year? or is this a continental prejudice?) this and other emotional disturbances
were compensated for by the security and freedom his parents provided, his exceptional abilities in academics, sports and school politics and a seemingly in-born resiliency and good humor.
Well, that doesn't sound like the psychological wreck desperately in need to construct some salvations out of the blue, doesn't it? Wilber was well esteemed by his peers and did his best to contribute to society. He was in fact not the common type of a mystical biased character, for in most cases people destined to become mystics have a more introverted psychological make-up. But Wilber was very out going and not the type of an intellectual to hatch out lonely days of sorrow in his study. That he developed as a mystic comes a bit as a suprise to the psychologist who has insight in the mystical character.
The vileness and the spitefulness of Meyerhoff's analysis reaches almost paranoic heights when he insinuates that Wilber is not trying to give an objective and detached explanation of the workings of the Kosmos but of himself:
Historically, what Wilber repressed for 20 years is what post-Enlightenment society has repressed for 300 years and needs to recover (....) It's not just what he realized through his spiritual practices, it is the Kosmos' own ground and telos.
like it is some sort of a narcistic mind game he plays to let the world know that they are not living in a Kosmos but in 'a tall, very gifted guy from Nebraska, U.S., with a bald head'. But, honestly, do the writings of Wilber give us the impression that the man behind the words is like the guy from the asylum who thinks he is Napoleon or Jesus? Such a mentally disturbed person would produce a different kind of prose, wouldn't he? Why be so uncollegially resentful and suspicious? Why not conclude that Wilber is honestly and with integrity concerned about our modern Western culture? He has all the reasons to be so, if we look at the hugh problems we are confronted with today and which need to be addressed if we are to develop any further.
Meyerhoff's critique on Wilber's sometimes tiresome repetitiveness is a fair one though, I belief, but it can perhaps be explained in two ways:
1) in the postmodern climate of academia life Wilber's philosophy was (and is to some extent still today) revolutionary in any sense of the word. It was, especially when Wilber began writing, unheard of. He needed to bring the message home in heads and hearts that were not used to this novel type of thinking. So perhaps he thought that clarity of thought would be enhanced and benefited by a repetitive restating of earlier conclusions, so not to loose the train of argument in such long and demanding books as Sex, Ecology and Spirituality. For Wilber is, also in Meyerhoff's estimation, a very clear thinker, very concerned about a precise progress of argumentation.
2) We find the flaw of repetitiveness in all mystic literature. I have wondered why that is, but we can only speculate about the reasons for it. Fact is that Wilber is not the only mystic fond of repeating himself.
As a conclusion to this article I will do a mystical rewriting of Bataille's critique on the man who deems universality and oneness to be the basic metaphysical working of the kosmos. In doing so I will defend Wilber, because Meyerhoff thinks that Bataille was referring to philosophers like Wilber when he wrote:
"With extreme dread imperatively becoming the demand for universality, carried away to vertigo by the movement that composes it, the ispe being that presents itself as a universal is only a challenge to the diffuse immensity that escapes its precarious violence, the tragic negation of all that is not its own bewildered phantom's chance. But, as a man, this being falls into the meanders of the knowledge of his fellowmen, which absorbs his substance in order to reduce it to a component of what goes beyond the virulent madness of his autonomy in the total night of the world" George Bataille Visions of Excess p. 174
This is my mystical rewriting of the text:
After extreme dread finding universality everywhere and never more carried away to vertigo by the movement that composes it, the ipse being ceases to be a ipse being and can present itself as universal. Never again will he be a challenge to diffuse immensity. He has now escaped its precarious violence,the tragic negation of all that is not its own bewildered phantom's chance (ie. the bewildered assumption that there only is diffuse immensity everywhere). Never more will this universal being, as a man, fall into the meanders of the limited knowledge of his fellowmen. His substance cannot be absorbed anymore to reduce it to a component of what goes below the virulent wisdom of his universality in the total night of the world.
Arnhem, April, 2004