Reflections on Ken Wilber's The Religion of Tomorrow (2017) - Parts I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII - PDF
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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Magnus Riisager Magnus Riisager has a BA in philosophy and psychology from the University of Copenhagen, and he is soon to write his master's thesis on the mystical union, the Unio Mystica. He is deeply interested in meditation and Christian mysticism. His fascination with psychology and spirituality was ignited by the books of Carl Gustav Jung and the Danish spiritual teacher Jes Bertelsen.

Minimalist Metaphysics?

Comments on Ken Wilber's
Post-Metaphysical Relativism

Magnus Riisager

As I see it, Wilber's notion of Spirit is a very comprehensive metaphysical postulate. And can belief in a Spirit of this kind be justified?

In this essay I will comment on some of the features of the integral post-metaphysics that Ken Wilber outlines in his book Integral Spirituality - A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World from 2006. I will focus on the second appendix to the book, which is entitled 'Integral Post-Metaphysics'. For investigations into other parts of this book and the ideas of Wilber-5, see the IntegralWorld essays by Hyatt Carter (2006), Gregory Desilet (2007), Geoffrey Falk (2007), Jaap Schaveling (2007), Andrew Smith (2006), and Frank Visser (2006a; 2006b).

As Wilber writes, modernity and postmodernity have both attacked the practice of metaphysics (from Greek; meta, after and physika, physical). (Metaphysics was the name that the editors of Aristotle's work attached to Aristotle's writings that followed after his chapters on physics. Aristotle's metaphysics dealt with what he called "first philosophy", that is, the study of being, the study of God, and the study of first principles.) According to Immanuel Kant, for example, metaphysics consists in the unwarranted speculation in matters that lie outside the scope of experience (e.g. "Is the soul immortal or not?") and therefore, metaphysics cannot be science; it is the work of untamed Reason.

However, in Wilber's eyes it is possible to talk about and work with spiritual realities even though we are not justified in doing metaphysics: integral post-metaphysics is the answer. Wilber's post-metaphysics is based on three principles:

  1. It is not justified to maintain that levels of reality exist as consciousness-independent structures just waiting to be discovered; rather, if there exist levels of reality, they exist as structures of human consciousness (that are co-constructed by subjects),
  2. the verification methods for the existence of these structures of consciousness must involve demands for objective evidence (modernity's contribution) and intersubjective grounding (postmodernity's contribution), and
  3. if structures of consciousness exist, they are not eternal and timeless structures but "forms that have developed in time, evolution, and history" (Wilber 2006, p. 234 - bold in original).

In addition to these principles we learn that integral post-metaphysics, contrary to Wilber's earlier theorizing, incorporates a strong relativism.

For example:

"All real objects are first and foremost perspectives. NOT 'are seen from perspectives,' but 'ARE perspectives'" (ibid., p. 252).

And:

"[...] exactly as in Einstein's special theory of relativity, things become absolutely relative to each other" (ibid., p. 253).

According to Wilber, this makes it possible to generate all the essentials of the great metaphysical systems without the metaphysical baggage; i.e. the ontological implications. He then proposes a way to locate these essentials in the universe, to find their kosmic addresses. The kosmic address of either a spiritual or an ordinary entity is found, writes Wilber, by specifying the altitude of both the entity and the perceiver of the entity and the perspective of both the perceived and the perceiver. (According to Wilber, we find the most accurate address by specifying both altitude, perspective, line, state, and type, but this is not important in relation to my comments.)

Thus, we work with the following equation:

Kosmic address = (altitude + perspective) [of the perceiver] x (altitude + perspective) [of the perceived]

The altitude consists in the specific worldspace (or developmental stage/structure-stage) through which a subject operates or in which an object is found, and the perspective consists in the quadrant in which the subject "finds" the object or the way by which the object is being looked at (ibid., pp. 251-253). (I will assume that the reader is familiar with Wilber's AQAL-model and his idea of eight primordial perspectives.)

Wilber uses an ecosystem as an example. Ecosystems enter consciousness only at a very high developmental stage (let's follow Wilber and call it 'turquoise') - that is, ecosystems only exist "in" subjects that have developed 'global mind' or the like. And ecosystems are Lower-Right quadrant entities or occasions.

Therefore, the kosmic address of an ecosystem is:

Ecosystem = (turquoise + Lower Right) [perceiver] x (turquoise + Lower Right/3rd person perspective) [perceived]

Wilber explicitly claims that we are not warranted in saying that even though the concept of an ecosystem may not have been around forever, the referent of the turquoise signifier 'ecosystem' also existed in the real world 100.000 years ago (ibid., p. 249).

He further points out, that the only way to transcend metaphysical speculation like this is to specify the kosmic addresses of the realities one works with; in other words, acknowledge the relativity of all occasions (ibid., pp. 257-258). For if we specify the kosmic address of a thing, we can make meaningful assertions about the thing. And since real existence, according to Wilber's post-metaphysics, consists in existence in consciousness, the existence of spiritual realities seems to be secured as human beings (on all levels) experience things that appear to be spiritual realities.

But is it really this easy to salvage spiritual realities?

Critical Comments

Relativism is usually not an unproblematic theoretical stance, and since Wilber in his latest post-metaphysical thrust endorses an absolute relativism, problems may lurk in the shadows.[1]

Strong relativism is said to be self-refuting, so one may object that Wilber's post-metaphysics is self-refuting or at least inconsequential; i.e. that one is not obliged to accept it. This certainly doesn't look promising. However, Wilber "betrays" the fundamental, relativistic, anti-metaphysical principle of his integral post-metaphysics as he postulates the absolute existence of certain entities and structures (this is an unavoidable minimalist metaphysics, he maintains).[2]

Let's have a closer look at these entities and structures.

For instance, Wilber wishes to hold on to the hierarchy (or holarchy) of developmental levels (structure-stages). As Wilber presents it, we are not just dealing with an arrangement of levels according to how including they are. Wilber assumes that the things and occasions found on the more including levels are more real than the things and occasions found on the less including levels. This becomes obvious when Wilber talks about the spiritual realities found on different levels:

"The problem is not that spiritual realities don't exist or are hard to prove; it's that their earlier forms exist on lower levels and hence are not as real as some of the later levels, but those higher levels have their own spiritual realities" (ibid., p. 266 - my emphasis).

So Wilber apparently operates with a non-relative measure (of realness) in the Kosmos that is not pre-given.

And furthermore, Wilber appears to believe that Spirit - in one form or another - will be found (i.e. will exist) on all (not yet evolved) levels; in other words, he doesn't question the presence of Spirit but only the "look" of Spirit (cf. Wilber 2003, note 26). In addition to this, Wilber postulate the absolute existence of Eros and Agape (Wilber 2006, p. 236, note *).

So Wilber's unavoidable metaphysics includes:

  1. The hierarchy (holarchy) of structure-stages (i.e. a measure of realness),
  2. Spirit,
  3. Eros,
  4. Agape,
  5. A morphogenetic gradient in the manifest realm; a morphogenetic field of potentials, and
  6. Certain prototypical ("archetypical") forms or patterns (e.g. mathematical-physical laws) (cf. Wilber 2003, note 26).

In my view, this metaphysics isn't minimalist.

And regarding the postulation of Spirit; how safe is it to assume that Spirit will exist on all levels? This, of course, depends on how you define Spirit. If Spirit is defined as the suchness of everything, it is obvious that suchness will be found in all manifestations of consciousness. But Wilber equates Spirit with unified, all-embracing, pure consciousness that embraces the entire Kosmos, and this definition is certainly more controversial than the above-mentioned.

As I see it, Wilber's notion of Spirit is a very comprehensive metaphysical postulate. And can belief in a Spirit of this kind be justified? Is it possible to gain knowledge of an all-embracing and all-penetrating Spirit?

Wilber believes that it is possible to know Spirit to be all-embracing Unity because it's possible for everybody (with time and practice) to develop to a high enough altitude and have causal and especially nondual experiences of Spirit. That way it is confirmed that the nature of Spirit is Unity. This is Wilber's post-metaphysical idea that the meaning of an ontic or assertic statement (about, for example, spiritual matters) consists in "the injunctions that the subject must perform in order to enact and access the worldspace of the object [of that statement]" (Wilber 2006, p. 267).

For example, if one wants to know if there is a referent to the signifier Ayin or Godhead,

[...] then one among the necessary routes is to take up a concentrative form of meditation and learn to be able to keep [one's] mind focused unwaveringly on an object for at least 30 minutes. [...] Once [one] can do that [...] then [one] need[s] to look in an unbroken fashion at the nature of phenomenal reality as it arises moment to moment and see if there is, as directly seen or cognized in [one's] own consciousness, anything that appears to be an empty ground to all of them. And then [one] need[s] to compare this reality with [one's] ordinary state of consciousness and decide which seems more real. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, a clear majority of those who complete this experiment report that the signifier Ayin or Emptiness has a real referent as disclosed by injunctive paradigm. That is, those who are qualified to make the judgment agree that it can be said that, among other things, Spirit(!) [the (!) signifies that we are dealing with an injunctive statement about Spirit] is a vast infinite Abyss or Emptiness(1-p, S/c) [i.e. which is experienced through first-person perspective in a causal state], out of which all things arise. (ibid., p. 268)

I think this example is problematic for several reasons.

  1. Is it possible without further ado to equate the signifiers Ayin, Godhead, Emptiness, and Spirit? Some (e.g. Katz 1978) will deny this and point to the theological implications associated with, for example, the concept of Godhead that Meister Eckhart used. Wilber would probably reply that the surface structures (of, for example, spiritual or religious concepts) might differ while the deep structures are universal. However, this is a controversial claim.
  2. Why is it that only a clear majority report that the signifier Ayin or Emptiness has a real referent? Do the people who don't find this referent represent counter-evidence or not?
  3. Could it be that one "looks" after something special (i.e. Emptiness) if one has to (i.e. has been instructed to, I guess) see if there is anything that appears to be an empty ground to all of the momentarily arising phenomenal reality? Is it possible that expectations shape experience? This is the constructivist objection. Wilber wishes to integrate the constructivist idea that consciousness con-structs its experiences, but he doesn't want to imply that consciousness is able to construct an experience (almost) completely from scratch. But isn't it still a possibility?
  4. And finally, even if one really sees that phenomenal reality arises from an empty ground, does this entail that the ground of phenomenal reality is a unified and infinite Emptiness? How is it realized that the different instances of emptiness that one experiences are connected in one absolute Emptiness?

The last point is crucial - especially when we are dealing with the mystical assertion that Spirit is an all-embracing Kosmic Unity.

Supposedly, Wilber will maintain that a person is able to gain knowledge about this matter of fact if that person reaches a certain development stage and has causal and nondual experiences. But in my view, nondual experiences that transcend language and concepts cannot just like that be taken as evidence for the belief that all is One (Spirit). This is because, as William J. Wainwright has noted, even though one can have a completely distinctionless experience it doesn't follow that all distinctions are unreal (Wainwright 1981, p. 219).

As I see it, this is a difficult challenge to Wilber's reliance on meditative or mystical experiences for his picture of Kosmos, and the challenge has nothing to do with the distinction between surface and deep structures of mystical experiences. Wilber seems to have too great confidence in the cognitive value and pureness of mystical experiences. But how is it actually given that all is One Spirit or One Taste? This is a difficult question to answer, and I don't think the texts of the mystical traditions can help us much in this regard. They can tell us how Spirit is experienced, indeed, but can they also tell us how it is known that Spirit is all-embracing?

---

I do not intend to conclude anything with this essay, but I hope I have showed that some of the features of Ken Wilber's integral post-metaphysics are not wholly unproblematic. In my reading, Wilber hasn't clarified his commitments to absolute relativism, and his use of mystical/meditative experiences as grounding of beliefs about or knowledge of Kosmos and Spirit should be scrutinized.

Furthermore, I personally have a hard time finding the proper integral aspect of Wilber's integral post-metaphysics, if integral post-metaphysics only consists in a combination of absolute relativism and certain metaphysical postulates. Where is the actual integration?

NOTES

[1] A related problem is the threat of solipsism (i.e. the idea that I can only know that one consciousness - my own - exists right now).

[2] As I see it, these entities and structures constitute a metaphysical baggage; that is, we are dealing with assertions without evidence. If there is evidence in support of the assertions, it is only found at certain kosmic addresses.

References

Carter, H. (2006): 'Integral Spirituality: An Overview and Some Critical Observations', retrieved from IntegralWorld.net 2008-06-09.

Chamberlain, J. (2007): 'Whither Ken Wilber?, Musings on Evolutionism, Reductionism and Religious Honesty', retrieved from IntegralWorld.net 2008-06-09.

Desilet, G. (2007): 'Misunderstanding Derrida and Postmodernism: Ken Wilber and "Post- Metaphysics" Integral Spirituality', retrieved from IntegralWorld.net 2008-06-09.

Falk, G. (2007): 'The Age of Wilberius, Facts and Reality vs. Ken Wilber's "Integral Age"', retrieved from IntegralWorld.net 2008-06-09.

Katz, S. T. (1978): 'Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism', In: Katz, S. T. (ed.), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Sheldon Press; London (pp. 22-74).

Schaveling, J. (2007): 'Integral Spirituality: A Summary and Some Critical Comments', retrieved from IntegralWorld.net 2008-06-09.

Smith, A. (2006): 'The Intersubjective Meditator: A Critical Look at Ken Wilber's Integral Spirituality', retrieved from IntegralWorld.net 2008-06-09.

Visser, F. (2006a): 'My Take on Wilber-5', retrieved from IntegralWorld.net 2008-06-09.

Visser, F. (2006b): 'Lord, Give Us Integral, But Without the Hype: A Review of "Integral Spirituality"', retrieved from IntegralWorld.net 2008-06-09.

Wainwright, W. J. (1981): Mysticism. A Study of its Nature, Cognitive Value and Moral Implications, The Harvester Press; Brighton.

Wilber, K. (2003): 'Excerpt A - An Integral Age at the Leading Edge', retrieved from wilber.shambhala.com 2008-06-09 (http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptA/intro.cfm/).

Wilber, K. (2006): Integral Spirituality - A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World, Integral Books (Shambhala Publications); Boston & London.


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