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
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.
For the Record
Final Comments to Wilber's Recent Blog Postings
After raging and ranting about his critics in the now infamous blog posting "What We Are; That We See", Wilber has recently added a final insult to the contributors of this INTEGRAL WORLD Website. It is a place of "sleazy", "tabloid" journalism of "liars and cattle thieves", as Wyatt Earp would say never to be used by anybody seriously interested in Wilber's philosophy.
Hopefully, this is my last reflection on the events following Wilber's outbursts against his critics. Readers are probably bored by now of these personal skirmishes between Wilber and me. Typically one third of the audience likes Wilber's aggressive approach; one third abhors it, and another third couldn't care less. But it's more than a personal issue.
Looking back on these postings, the whole event struck me by its paranoid and aggressive flavour. Contrary to the glowing replies of Wilber's followers, they spoke to me of a community that is closing in on its own Integral Island, populated with the elect, the young and, the smart. "How Smart We Are" was written in neon letters above the whole display.
What I see is that the integral "mental fortress" to use an Aurobindian term recently introduced by Alan Kazlev is fortified more and more; critics (read "enemies") are treated with aggression and disdain.
"Good" and "bad" criticism
By using the convenient fiction of "good criticism" vs. "bad criticism", Wilber is able to ignore anything that really challenges his system. Each of the writers below has pointed out - among other things – useful criticisms of integral theory:
And on it goes...
It's worth quoting just one of these critics David Lane, here, because he brings up a topic that's still relevant:
What I accuse Wilber of ... is the tendency to "inflate," to "exaggerate," to "hype" those things which are not yet knowable. It is, in sum, the inclination to indulge in spiritual hyperbole, gross exaggerations that do not (perhaps cannot) convey the precision necessary for the progression of transpersonal psychology as a science. Wilber exaggerates and he exaggerates way too much, especially on matters of ultimate importance. I don't think he does it intentionally (I am not accusing Wilber of dishonesty), but I do think it fundamentally taints his work to such an extent that most reductionistic scientistsa phrase I use approvinglycannot distinguish Wilberian gems from Wilberian rubbish.
Isn't that the same distinction Wilber made regarding the essays on Integral World? An occasional gem in the midst of much rubbish? Funny how both sides of the debate generally use the same accusations. "Sloppy scholarship" being another popular one.
For over a decade now, Integral World has been the only online place where these topics could be discussed at length, often in the form of well written and thoughtful essays, freely available for everyone to study.
Instead of engaging this critical material, by himself or by any of his students, Wilber has chosen the weapon of defamation (and exaggeration), in his recent blog posting Take the Visser Site as Alternatives to KW, But Never as the Views of KW:
"Sleazy, tabloid journalism..."
I've noticed that a favorite tactic at that site now is to quote sections from taped conversations at I-I. But we have a strict rule over there that these discussions are NOT to be taken as any discussant's actual or academic views, because as everybody knows, in conversations you don't always state your nuanced views. There can be hyperbole, over-generalization, simplification, and sometimes plain forgetting. So we are not allowed to quote from those conversations in any of our academic papers, because there is some sort of editorial responsibility on this. But at the Visser site, these conversations are quoted all the time; [really, this was a first ever, FV] they are a hunting ground for critics with a prior negative disposition, used in a “gotcha” style of journalism that I suppose is okay for the tabloid journalism of that site, but not for scholarly use.
Notice the exaggeration here, "these conversations are quoted all the time". And besides, how are we now to see "hyperbole, over-generalization, simplification" when encountered in Wilber's published works, not only the popularized A Brief History of Everything, but in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality as well, as documented by various critics?
Then Wilber comes with his final verdict:
So take the Visser site as a wild and wonderful and sleazy and wacky world of alternatives to Ken Wilber, but as for Ken Wilber's actual views, categorically do not accept anything you see.
Hey!, I didn't know my site was that cool: "wild and wonderful and sleazy and wacky". Thanks for the free publicity, Ken! Will give me a whole new audience...
Then comes the reassuring statement:
Not all of it is unethical or immoral and misrepresenting, ...
Thank God! Not all of it but almost all of it, for sure?
But look again at the rage in this posting:
Blatant lie... lies... blatant lies... they lie over there [at Integral World].
All sense of proportion and perspective is lost.
No seriously, the people contributing to this website (and whose essays can be found in the Reading Room) are continuously perceived by Wilber as "Wilber wannabees", who "take a shot at him", whereas I see them as decent people who take the time to reflect deeply on integral topics, and come up with whatever confirmations, counter examples, objections and alternatives they can think of. This is regular practice in the world of science and philosophy. It's nothing to be suspicious of!
Point me to a place, online or offline, where Wilber's writings get this treatment. Not in the real world of academics. When was the last time Integral Naked produced a thought that was challenging Wilber's philosophy? In the world of the Integral Institute perhaps? Enter the Meyerhoff tape...
The Meyerhoff Tape
First, let me comment on the use of the taped conversation. This was found on kenwilber.com under Professional / Writings, doing a search on "Meyerhoff". It brought up a PDF called "Ken Responds to Recent Critics: Mark Edwards, Jeff Meyerhoff and others" . It is presented (by an anonymous author) as a sample of "intense theoretical conferences".
However, it turns out that almost all of that PDF is about Mark Edwards (who I designate a "strong positive" critic in A Spectrum of Critics), whereas Meyerhoff (a "strong negative" critic) is barely mentioned, except for the blanket statement "whose 'critiques' [so-called, it is implied by the quotes] can be considered little more then a hatchet job". No trace is found of the promised "other" critics in that document. Then the reader is pointed to an audio file, and is mysteriously told "we will let the audio, which was recorded in a weekly I-I theory call, speak for itself" (Next time, I would advise adding disclaimers to these publications against using it in debates...). Listening to this audio tape, in the second half where Wilber goes over Meyerhoff's points of criticism, one wonders, if Meyerhoff's book is a hatchet job, what is this "reply" an execution without trial or something?
Incidentally, I had planned to speak with Wilber for Integral Naked on Meyerhoff's "Six Criticisms of Wilber's Integral Theory" and other topics (evolutionary theory being high on that list), but I declined the honour when it turned out Wilber wanted to give Meyerhoff "ten minutes of air-time at most", and then use that time only to show his students how empty his criticism was. This was not the exploration of differences of opinion I was looking for. I found Wilber's whole attitude hostile and close-minded.
Meyerhoff will in due course respond to both Wilber's blog postings and this audio file, which specifically mentions his work.
The topic of evolution
However, on that same audio tape, most of the time was spent on the subject of evolution.That came as a surprise to many, for Wilber has not been willing to discuss this topic, except for a handful of strongly worded opinions ("...creation scientists -- who are almost entirely Christians - after having convincingly demonstrated that neo-Darwinian theory has loopholes large enough to drive several Hummers through..."). So because this portion of the audio contained substantial information about Wilber's current views on evolution, it was picked up by Jim Chamberlain, who commented on it in his Integral World forum posting.*
* Rumour has it that I posted Jim's forum posting against his will, but that's not the case. He consented in linking to it from my IW Newsletter, which is what I did, but I didn't know at that time how to link to forum postings, so I pasted the copy on a Integral World webpage. In the meantime, I have figured out how to deep link to a forum posting.
Apart from an unfortunate misquotation for which he has appropriately apologized, Jim informed readers that eminent evolutionary biologists work within a thoroughly materialistic mindset. Did he suggest (as Wilber implies in his blog response) Wilber was claiming that reductionistic biologists believe in a metaphysical Eros? Of course not. His aim was to make absolutely clear where current evolutionary biology stands.
If Wilber intends to counter that position with a more spiritual outlook, the burden of proof is on him to show how that clarifies questions of evolutionary biology. It's not enough (nor even helpful), to suggest that evolutionary biology has big problems in explaining the growth of a wing, for example, as Wilber did in A Brief History of Everything. (Admittedly a popular work but are we then not to take statements done in that book seriously?), if no attempt is made to explain how Eros could have grown that wing.
To claim that atoms become molecules because there's a "tendency" (or "creativity" or whatever) in atoms to become molecules which seems to be the basic holonic "explanation" is a circular type of reasoning, which no scientist will accept, and with good reason. The same circularity issue is evident in the philosophy of mind, where stating "people are conscious because they have a conscious mind" is dismissed as an explanation. The challenge is to explain consciousness in terms of non-conscious elements, or not to explain it at all, as Daniel Dennett repeatedly argues. The next relevant question to ask would then be: How can Wilber avoid that type of circularity? Having an Upper Left quadrant "reserved" for interiority isn't enough, if that isn't worked out scientifically and even ontologically.
Alternatives to Wilber
And now that Wilber brings up the subject of "alternatives", given the current situation in integral circles, the study of alternatives is the best antidote to the emergence of "groupthink". Cult specialist and Wilber critic Geoffrey Falk recently quoted an ex-disciple of Sai Baba:
"Groupthink" results from selectivity of information, avoidance of criticism of the groups' integrative ideas and from not studying enough alternatives. This is accompanied by a false sense of security/being invulnerable, strong belief in the group's ideals and shared stereotypes, suppression of one's feelings and sustaining illusory unanimity such as though defensive rationalizations. Group pressure to conform is involvedwhether subtle or blatant, implicit or explicit....
These elements can be seen clearly in the responses by Wilber's followers: Wilber as the one source of information, a disregard (and even disdain) for alternatives, a strong belief in the group being able to change the world, shared stereotypes of green vs. turquoise thinking (but black-and-white thinking nonetheless), a false unanimity (a substantive portion of the integral community advised against posting these blogs in the first place, but later conformed), and the rationalization of it all as a great spiritual test. The Spiritual Choices model isn't particularly helpful here.
Still one of my favorite Wilber quotes, from that same book but alas, it was a different Wilber is about free inquiry, especially in the context of spiritual systems:
"Does the group allow free and rational inquiry into its teachings? Or does it discourage or even prevent critical analysis of its own tenets? Does it allow or encourage comparison and assessment of its methods and teachings with those of other paths, not as propaganda but as free inquiry? A transrational group will usually insist on this; a pre-rational group will avoid it." Ken Wilber, Spiritual Choices, 1987, p. 248.
So different a mentality from: "in Integral University we will start classes where we can score the critics according to our favorite ranking system... That will be fun!"
I can't help seeing a close-mindedness in action in all this. A way out of this is, in my opinion, describing integral without the hype, the arrogance, the overconfidence, the exaggeration, the hyperbole. Let's get back to business, and rethink the real issues of integral philosophy, Wilber's or anyone's.
Starting today, Integral World will proceed with a different focus: a wider definition of integral, including and transcending Ken Wilber. As a start, read part one of Alan Kazlev's series: "Towards a larger definition of the integral. Part One: Historical and Comparative use of Integral''".
Let's remember that integral philosophy is wider then Ken Wilber's version of it a fact he readily acknowledges and that other versions of it can and should be explored. But also, I would like to add, that a critical analysis of Wilber's theoretical proposals outside of the in-group context of the integral organizations, would be very timely. So not only "integrally informed", but "sceptically informed" as well.
Integral World has been a productive website with many essays freely contributed from all over the world, securing a stable readership by those who are appreciative of this effort.
Thanks to everyone who responded with encouragement in the past weeks!
July 3, 2006.