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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Frank Visser founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997 (back then under the name of "The World of Ken Wilber"). He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: "Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion" (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website. He currently is Service Desk Manager at the web agency DigitasLBi.
Lord, Give Us Integral
Ken Wilber's latest book Integral Spirituality, which was published last month, has been eagerly awaited by a wide audience of readers. For his last theoretical contribution dates back from 2000, when Integral Psychology was published. It would be the first publication marking the "Wilber-5" phase on integral thought (since the second volume of the Kosmos trilogy is still awaiting its publication).
That book, Integral Psychology, incidentally, had a long incubation period. As early as 1982, Wilber announced a two-volume handbook, tentatively titled System, Self and Structure, which would be a sustained look at the basic categories of psychology (learning, development, repression etc.), from the (then) transpersonal (now integral) point of view. For several reasons, that handbook never got to be written. In The Eye of Spirit, which appeared in 1997, he referred to it humorously as the "book I have been not-writing for 15 years". Finally, Integral Psychology was presented as a quick summary of its main tenets, so it could be included into volume IV of the Collected Works (released in 2000).
Personally I was rather disappointed by that particular book. It was full of Wilber's favorite topics the history of Western culture, the four quadrants, Spiral Dynamics, famous historical psychologists, etc. had but little relating to the current academic field of psychology, except for a handful of favored developmental sources. While broad in scope, it failed to address questions of research, areas of controversy within psychology, and recent advances made during the last decades in that large field. It reflected a sweeping style of writing, a rushed state of mind, that has become typical of Wilber over the last years. As a consequence, it failed to serve as a text that would be taken up by professionals and researchers in the field of psychology.
So when Integral Spirituality was announced as the title of Wilber's next book, I had some misgivings about that project. Would it cover the field of religion and spirituality with an eye for the great variety of its expressions? Would it discuss what scholars in the field of comparative religion or the sociology of religion have contributed to a better understanding of the spiritual dimension? Would it be integral in the true sense of comprehensive? Or would it be yet another quick "application" of Wilber's main concepts, written in a feverish style, full of repetitions and references to Wilber's other writings? Unfortunately, this turned out to be the case.
On the whole, Integral Spiritually is disappointing, both in style and content. Of course, it does contain stimulating ideas as well, no doubt about that, so we will turn to these in the second part of this review.
some Style annoyances
Let's first take style, and get that out of the way. Here are a few things that hindered a smooth reading of the main text. As the French say: C'est le ton qui fait la musique it's the tone that makes the music. I would never have mentioned this aspect if it wasn't so obvious, at least to me.
- Claims versus arguments For example, we get presented with the Wilber-Combs Lattice the theoretical center piece of the book, more on that below but never does this get fleshed out with empirical findings, or even striking examples. Nor are possible objections to this model raised quite a normal procedure in scientific literature.
- Very few real-life examples This book would have gained value, if examples from real life or even case studies were added. Of course, there is the passing reference to the occasional yogi meditating in a cave, seeing his favorite Tibetan deities, but what about ordinary people? In fact, it would have been grand if the eight primordial perspectives were applied to religion as such, to demonstrate their added value. Not so.
- Scarce references to research And when, on rare occasions, research does get mentioned (but not quoted, not referenced), it is the same old research (the boomers' protest against Vietnam, meditation speeds up development, etc.) that has been mentioned in Wilber's previous books, the use of which has been severely criticized by authors on this website, such as Falk, Evans, Harris. All that has by now become part of integral mythology, I am afraid.
- Forced simplification The all too frequent use of the word "simply" has become second nature to Wilber. Simplifying difficult concepts for a wider audience is a laudable project, no doubt, but why does this have to be stated every other paragraph? In my opinion, this is a rethorical device that has run out of hand. For those who did not follow the Wyatt Earp saga, the first time I mentioned this phenomenon in my blog posting Boldness Revisited, it earned me the following, historical and revealing comment from Wilber: "... simply suck my dick." However, when you look at it more closely, it's really weird. Just for the fun of it, I did a word count of the word "simply" in the text. What do you think? It doesn't occur 20 times, 50 times, 100 times. It occurs 268 times. Simply too much...
- Reassuring the reader The tendency to simplify things in this book is stretched to the limits. It's as if Wilber is making a desparate attempt to explain Foucault or De Saussure or Nagarjuna to the hip hop generation, but is constantly afraid of losing their attention. (We are assured ad nauseam: "Don't worry if these terms are unfamiliar, we will cover that important topic later." "Don't worry, we will summarize this later." "Don't worry, it is much simpler then it sounds!").
- Aggressive metaphors Again, I brought this up before in my blog, and have been ridiculed because of it, but it is telling. For Wilber, the history of ideas is one of war ("Great War" even), attack, slaughter, slashing, killing, ("... having Modernity kill Premodernity was not the only problem, or even the major problem, which was that Postmodernity killed both...", "... it wasn't just, of even especially, modern scientific materialism that killed meditative introspection and phenomenology, not in the humanities anyway. It was the extensive and savage postmodern attacks on phenomenology... " This one is the best, or the worst: "Everywhere the bright promise of spiritual intelligence is crippled, cropped and crucified, run into blind alleys of horrifying neglect, mugged in rational parking lots, suffocated with clouds of materialism..." And on it goes. One wonders if arguments count at all in all this bloodshed?
- Self-promotion Before Wilber finally reaches the topic of religion after 178 pages, in a book the main text of which is close to 200 pages in total the reader has to wade through shameless self-promotion: ("If you like this, join Integral Institute!", "integral is the best, the most comprehensive, the most effective, the most..."), not to mention the frequent references to Wilber's own works (as if it is all a self-contained, closed story). And please visit this integral website, visit that integral website, another one will open soon... Marketing has taken over.
- Repetitiveness Perhaps the most annoying feature of all, is its repetitiveness. Time and time again we are reminded that spiritual traditions still believe in the 'myth of the given', without ever getting a decent range of real life examples. Just why did modernity reject premodern notions? And isn't this something modernity has to be praised for? Or criticized? What are the arguments on both sides? One waits in vain for such a discussion.
- Lack of integration The book has a lot of integral theory, but little spirituality in it. And the connection between the two is almost absent. We read about no less then 8 types of methodology. But never does it get applied to religion or spirituality, except for the first two or three, and even then. And some of the methodologies get a very cursory treatment (e.g. cognitive science is given one page).
- Noisy typography A minor thing, but telling. The text is full of bold type and italic phrases, sometimes even with sentences capitalized ("THOSE STAGES ARE NOT GOING AWAY"). The author is shouting at us, laying stress on every other sentence, hammering home his points. Why? Sparsely used, it is fine and helpful. Too much, it destroys the magic.
A solid editorial round would have made this book so much better. But enough of this. Of course, the book has substance to it as well. Let's turn to that part now. What are the book's main theses, and how well are they argued for? Are they backed up with empirical evidence? Or are they simply stated as truth?
Some matters of substance
The Main Argument
The core thesis of Integral Spirituality is that, unless spirituality comes to terms with the demands of modernity and especially postmodernity, it is doomed. But it has to pay a price for this: it has to give up its metaphysics for that is something both modernity and postmodernity "intensely dislike". But for Wilber, this isn't that much of a sacrifice, for as he confidently asserts, the essential truths of spirituality can be brought up to date with the findings of modernity and postmodernity. What is more, this "post-metaphysical" approach to spirituality is a "more adequate" treatment of the field.
This brings to mind the image of an Integral Round Table, to which both Premodernity, Modernity and Postmodernity are invited, to discuss their respective contributions:
According to Wilber, and contrary to popular belief, the greatest enemy of spirituality hasn't been science these domains more or less ignore each other anyway but cultural studies, a field which has been dominated by postmodernity for the past decades. And the one thing postmodernity brought to light, following Wilber, has been that spiritual traditions still stubbornly believe in "the myth of the given", meaning they take their beliefs to be the simple truth.
Many questions are raised by this strategy to "salvage" spirituality: how should this re-interpreted spirituality live together with the domains of science and cultural studies? And does this re-interpretation do justice to the depth of spirituality itself, not only psychologically but cosmologically as well? And is the accusation aimed at spirituality by cultural studies not a clear case of quadrant absolutism (taking one fourth of the truth to be the whole story)? Shouldn't spirituality ward off the attacks by cultural studies (and science) by stating openly and fearlessly that they have one big blind spot: the existence of interiority, the irreducible experience of being a self?
What exactly is the crime spiritual traditions commit in the eyes of cultural studies anyway? Isn't this anything more than the fact that a great many of our individual religious beliefs and experiences have a strong cultural component?
First, many religious people just believe what their parents taught them anyway. But second, generations of believers have been conditioned in this or that religious denomination. And yes, religions tend to take their beliefs as the absolute truth, at least their fundamentalist factions see it that way. Wilber typically doesn't differentiate (anymore?) between mythic-literalistic fundamentalists and more liberal or mystical religious folks. He now lumps them all in the category of "premodernity", and sees them as clinging to outdated metaphysical beliefs. But there's a world of difference between the prerational fundamentalist and the postrational mystic or esotericist!
Also, one wonders if "postmetaphysics" is that much of a revolution, considering the fact that every modern day preacher no longer believes in heaven. He or she has accepted the fact that religion is just a this-worldly, psychological affair. So is Wilber reducing the perennialist tradition to a (post)modernist, psychological outlook?
Eight primordial perspectives
The first chapters of the book concern a major new theoretical advance in integral theory. Wilber's famous four quadrants, which date from their first description in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995), are further subdivided into eight "primordial perspectives". Instead of classifying scientific approaches into four fundamental categories, we now get eight of them. The idea of perspectives itself has now become very prominent in Wilber's thinking, so much so that his new intellectual phase is called Wilber-5.
As an anecdotal aside, the very first notion of a fifth phase was suggested in the Integral World forum by one of its contributors, and when I mentioned this to Wilber, he gave me his standard "misrepresentation" tune. After a while, more people started noticing these new thoughts, and Wilber got used to the idea. In the preface to my book Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY Press, 2003), he states "I am often asked if there is a "phase-5" on the horizon, and I'm not sure exactly what to say about that." But presently, Wilber-5 is all the craze, and criticizing ideas from the Wilber-4 period or earlier is seen as backward. Oh well.
In my opinion, from the very beginning AQAL was about perspectives! For a human conscious being can be studied, and has been studied, from four different perspectives: his individual-exterior dimension (brain science, behaviorism), his individual-interior dimension (phenomenology), but also taking into account the way his individual consciousness experience is conditioned by the culture and society in which he lives.
That way, four seemingly unrelated fields of social and natural science were brought into one single framework. However, this inter-disciplinary approach was a triumph of classification, much less then explanation or clarification. We still don't know what the precise interactions between the four quadrants look like. One could now easily point out the fact that both science, sociology and cultural studies were trying to reduce human consciousness to its embeddedness in the bodily or socio-cultural dimension. Of course, this would work only to a certain extent, leaving the irreducible self-experience untouched. But this reduction itself seems part and parcel of any scientific attempt at explanation.
Wilber's refinement into eight perspectives demonstrates, for example, that the individual-interior domain, can be studied in two very different ways: from the inside (what he terms zone #1), as a personal, existential feeling of self, and from the outside (so-called zone #2), as a more objective, theorizing effort. It's only the latter approach, Wilber contends, that has discovered the stages of development, which are invisible to the introspective eye (One could add: zone #1 itself can be studied from the inside, introspectively, and from the outside, by theorizing about introspective experience (which is not the same as theorizing about structural stages).
Be that as it may, this new innovation is an implicit confession that all wasn't well on the integral front with the quadrants. As the lengthy debates in the Integral World reading room testify, the concept of the quadrants (and of holons) is riddled with ambiguities. As early as 2002, Mark Edwards has stressed the notion of perspecivies, speaking of AQAL as a "lense" through which everything can be studied (instead of an attribute of holons). Other authors have extensively pointed at other inconsistencies in core integral concepts, but Wilber did not want to hear any of it.
The Wilber-Combs Lattice
In Wilber-5, the earlier emphasis on stages of development has been replaced by an emphasis on states of consciousness. In his earlier works, Wilber rarely touched on the subject of states, or rarely mentioned them. After all, all biological organisms sleep and dream (at least the higher mammals, such as cats and cows), so what's the big deal? This has changed now. Wilber now holds that mystical states of consciousness are a variation of the natural states available to all beings:
|DEEP SLEEP||FORMLESS MYSTICISM|
Wilber confesses, however:
"The correlations I am about to summarize are in themselves contentious and difficult to prove. But we will simply [sic!] assume them for the moment."
If anything, this is where Wilber could have benefited from Mark Edwards' thorough 2-piece essay on the states subject. Edwards details half a dozen fields of research which show how "contentious" Wilber's views on this topic are. By ignoring this feedback, and hiding this from his readers, Wilber weakens the case he is trying to make. Edwards states as his opinion that "the current integral theory of states is in need of some very serious house cleaning." But all this seems lost on Wilber.
The core theoretical part of the book consists of the so-called Wilber-Combs Lattice (or matrix), which tries to elucidate the relationship between stages of development and states of consciousness. Let's recapitulate first Wilber's earlier views on this subject, so we can more adequately appreciate his current notions.
From his early works on, Wilber hypothesized that human beings go through stages of development, from the prepersonal to the personal. How can we conceptualize spiruality within this framework? Wilber suggested this domain could be seen as transpersonal stages of development, creating a full spectrum model of development, including both the conventional and the contemplative domains. People could "peek" experience higher states briefly, but only when "states become traits" could they become fully adapted to the higher levels of development. "States become traits" became the famous dictum in integral circles.
What is more, Wilber further distinguished between the average mode of development, typical for a given culture or epoch, and the advanced mode, found only in highly developed individuals, such as yogis or mystics. This way, he could counter the criticism that premodern cultures showed examples of highly advanced forms of mysticism. It wasn't that the average member of those cultures was a mystic, far from it, it was only the rare individual yogi who had reached these levels. And though premodern cultures may not have known our specific form of the more modern stages of development, such as the centaur stage of body/mind-integration, they surely had their own way of accomplishing this (e.g. hatha yoga).
In Integral Spirituality Wilber identifies two problems with this view:
"Do you really have to progress through all of Loevinger's stages to have a spiritual experience? If you have an illumination experience as described by St. John of the Cross, does that mean you have passed through all 8 Graves value levels? Doesn't sound quite right." (p. 88)
But surely, mystical states could be seen as sneak previews of higher stages, a temporary access to higher levels of being and knowing, not yet permanently inhabited?
The second problem with this view according to Wilber is:
"If 'enlightenment' (or any sort of unio mystica) really meant going through all of those 8 stages, then how could somebody 2000 years ago be enlightened, since some of the stages, like systemic Global View, are recent emergents?"
Again, premodern sages could have known their own equivalents of these "recent" stages, such as the view of existence as Indra's Net, or the Bodhisattva Vow, implying a highly development notion of the interdependency of all beings.
What has actually prompted Wilber to change his views on spirituality was the "fact" that (as stated and paraphrased multiple times in Integral Spirituality):
"Here is the general idea. the essential key is to begin by realizing that, as we earlier noted (and emphasized), because most meditative states are variations on the natural states of gross-waking, subtle-dreaming, and causal-formlessness, then they are present, or can be present, at virtually all stages of growth, because even the earliest stages wake, dream and sleep." (p. 89)
Seeing states and stages as two independent dimension, a matrix can be compiled with 24 "stage interpreted, state experiences":
A couple of comments to this presentation are in order. First, this diagram doesn't show the mystical or transpersonal structure-stages, but elsewhere in the book Wilber acknowledges he still wants to retain that notion. But that would change the whole picture! So why leave these out? (Note: the above diagram is taken from the manuscript of "Integral Spirituality"; the published version contains an extra top row called "super-integral", without any further specification. Apparently, this is a last-minute amendment of the model. It only reinforces the following questions.) Is development still heading towards these mystical structure-stages or not?? Or is spirituality now an independent dimension altogether, that can be plugged into from whatever stage of development we happen to be in? Wilber strongly seems to believe this now, given phrases such as "all states can be accessed from virtually all stages". (The "virtualy" part is particularly interesting of course).
What strikes me as rather unrealistic is the fact that all 24 cells in the Wilber-Combs Lattice show a same-size node or globe. It would have been more accurate (but this is all a matter of research, really) if the size of these nodes reflected the likelihood of that particular type of spirituality. Is a subtle experience really equally likely to occur in within a magic mind-set compared to an integral one? And if not, doesn't that re-introduce the notion of linearity, where the higher stages are somehow closer to the higher states? At least in history, as Wilber acknowledges, there seems to have been such a linearity at work. Throughout history, people's mystical experiences seems to have progressed through the psychic, subtle, causal and nondual stages...
It all gets really, really complicated (but that may not be Wilber's fault). We have: natural dream states, subtle states, subtle states-stages and subtle structure-stages (on top of which it turns out that the term "subtle" technically only refers to the subtle body, as Wilber states on page 74). You still there? And what on earth is a subtle body? To make things worse, Wilber tries to convince the reader that a subtle body, according to the wisdom traditions, "simply [sic!] means a mode of experience or energetic feeling" (p. 16), thereby horribly confusing the Upper Left with the Upper Right quadrants. If anything, subtle bodies are seen, not felt (no clairvoyant can see his own aura).
Wilber seems to play with double definitions as well. Sometimes the term "subtle" is used for the generic category of "dream states", which include real dreams, but also daydreams and visionary experiences. Sometimes, however, it is restricted to a certain mystical state of consciousness. Mixing up these meanings, it is confusing to say that one can access the subtle (mystical?) stage from "virtually" any stages, "simply because one sleeps and dreams". Being able to sleep and dream may be a necessary condition, but is it a sufficient one as well? Then even cats and cows would be able to get enlightened! I would say, this isn't simple at all, and suggesting otherwise is just simplistic.
When I approached Alan Combs co-creator of the Wilber-Combs Lattice by email with a couple of these questions, he declined even to try to answer them. In his opinion, the whole model was still very, very tentative. Combs is actually presenting these ideas to large conferences on consciousness studies, such as the biannual Tucson conference. At least he is aware of alternative views, which may have made him feel modest about these new proposals.
Spiral Dynamics Recolored
In Integral Psychology, some of the core concepts of Spiral Dynamics were enthusiastically embraced by Wilber, in Integral Spirituality however, the marriage seems over. In a long footnote (on p. 86-87) Wilber declares that SD according to him is still fine as an introductory model, but it is not a comprehensive one. Wilber has created his own brand of color-stages now, recoloring some of the SD-colors in the process (most notably, Blue has become Amber, Yellow has become Teal and some future colors have been added as well: Indigo, Violet, Ultraviolet and Clear Light (see diagram opposite to page 68).
This new model does away with a few core SD notions, such as the difference between cold and warm colors (which actually create the spiral movement in the first place), the psychological associations the colors tended to have (Blue = True Blue = fundamentalism, etc.). Wilber's new brand of colors suggests a closer relationship to nature's laws (he has in fact returned to the spectrum of light metaphor that guided him when writing his first book in 1977, The Spectrum of Consciousness). But of course, this is all very speculative, and the original SD-authors clearly separated their use of colors from both the spectrum colors and those traditionally associated with the chakras. (Interesting reading material on this topic can be found on the FAQ page of Chris Cowan's spiraldynamics.org website called "Questions about the Colors in Spiral Dynamics").
This theoretical disagreement has resulted in a breaking up with Don Beck, especially since Beck was the target of Wilber's anger in the infamous Wyatt Earp Episode as much as I was. As an interested observer from the outside, one get's really sick and tired of these animosities, and one wishes that impartial evaluation of whatever theoretical contributions made by the various authors would still be seen as a value in itself.
Incidentally, Chris Cowan received a blow from Wilber as well, when the latter stated that
"I will say that personally I have never seen any professional writing as toxic as Cowan’s. his anger laces every word, acidly, unrelentingly, eating away at the reader, as it surely must its author.)"
Toxic? Perhaps, for the over-confident, dogmatic mind set. I happen to like Cowan's reflections, as I go through his spiraldynamics.org web pages, if only because they complement those of other SD luminaries. It makes one wonder how much these various SD versions are colored by personal psychological and political agendas. An interesting integral research question indeed.
Be that as it may, one silly item should be dealt with in this review. In a footnote on page 145 Wilber states that the color distribution percentages in the world exceed the 100% because they overlap:
"In today's (Western) culture, about 40% of the population is at amber [Blue], about 50% at orange, 20% at green, and 2% at turquoise [teal is skipped here, for no apparent reason, FV]. [Foot note added] This is a composite result of several sources, including Kegan, SD, Paul Ray, Loevinger, and Wilber. It doesn't add up to 100%, because there are overlaps."
To make a long story short, when I brought this up to Wilber and Beck some years ago, Wilber argued that the colors overlapped, but Beck thought it might be wise to do a recalculation here. Cowen, however, gives his own take on how these figures ever entered the Spiral Dynamics book:
"Because of an arithmetic mistake and deliberate effort not to suggest accuracy based on actual data. The table was intended only as an illustration, not a report of research findings. The numbers in all three columns were fabricated to make a point about geopolitics. The word "estimated" heads the numerical column, though “wild-ass guess”—WAG—would be more appropriate."
My two cents here is, that once one decides to use these colors to characterize people, as Wilber does in the above quote, percentages should always add up to a hundred.
Of course there are transitionary phases between the colors, such as BLUE-Orange and Blue-ORANGE, (the notation used in that book). But even then, BLUE-Orange is still Blue, and Blue-ORANGE is still Orange or am I missing something? Or, if one wants to have a more fine-grained look: including these subcolors in the distribution curve would still lead to a total of 100%. It is the percentages for each of the colors, and subcolors, that gets lower.
And saying that in any one individual more then one color can be operative (which is very likely), undermines the whole possibility of giving such generalized estimates as Wilber does in the first place. Perhaps we really should all start from scratch here, and actually do research that can either confirm or refute these "educated guesses" to use the more polite expression.
The Conveyor Belt
Let's take stock. In the past decades, we've had ladders, streams, ... and now the conveyor belt, as metaphor for the process of development.
I've always liked the ladder metaphor. Climbing a ladder requires effort. The higher you climb, the more you see, the more your mental horizon is widened. One can fall from the ladder. In fact, the higher you've climbed the deeper the fall can be. These connotations are very apt for the process of development. But Wilber has been severely criticized because of the linearity of this metaphor. So he opted for a more feminine, flowing metaphor: waves and streams. Water, however, is always going downward. There's no effort here, on the contrary, the association here is: go with the flow. The boundaries between waves are more fluent, better then rungs on a ladder.
Now we get another metaphor for development: the conveyer belt. I would say: linearity is back, and even in a quite mechanical, passive way. No metaphor is perfect, however, each one highlights one aspect and obscures another.
Wilber points out that the major issue in the field of religion is that so called Level/Line Fallacy an attractive theoretical contribution. As long as religion is identified with the mythic-literal level, by scholars and laymen alike, instead of with a continuous line of development in its own right, those more attuned to a rational outlook (i.e. a higher level) will object to it and see it as backward. And fundamentalists, who are stuck at this particular level, will resist the transition to the rational stage, which they see as the gateway to the hell of permissiveness and materialism.
A way out off this dead end would be, according to Wilber, if mythic believers are shown a way to grow towards the rational stage, without giving up their religiosity. Otherwise, there will always be a resentment against the modern world, which doesn't allow one to live one's religion.
In extreme case, Wilber contends, this leads to terrorism on which a future book will be published by Wilber (The Many Faces of Terrorism, publication date unknown). Of course, it isn't only a matter of developmental arrest. If Western powers invade other countries to secure their access to oil, giving way to their extraordinary talent for wasting the earth's resources to keep up their materialistic life style, that's hardly something worth emulating.
In this chapter, Wilber reformulates stages of development as "stations of life", stressing the legitimacy of each of them. Religion, ideally, should guide us through all of life's stations. It should also teach us, in whatever stage we are, how to access the spiritual states.
As to the precise relationship between stages and states, there is something of an ambiguity here. On the one hand, spiritual states (or meditative training) are said to increase development with about two stages. On the other hand, (spiritual) states are said to be conditioned by the stages they are accessed from. Now what is it?
Obviously there is a complex, dialectical process at work here. Much more research is needed. Wilber's references to "considerable research" and even "truly staggering research" should be taken with a grain of salt, considering to more modest assessments of this specific research (e.g. see what Jim Andrews has written about Wilber's use of current research in his overview paper: "Ken Wilber on Meditation: A Baffling Babble of Unending Nonsense").
So while, at least to me, this is the most interesting chapter in the book, there's much, much more that needs to be fleshed out in detail.
Huston Smith Deconstructed
Wilber labels his latest intellectual phase as "post-metaphysical", something we have to comment on as well within the context of this brief review. He applies a double reduction to the world view of the spiritual traditions, using Huston Smith's presentation of it in his Forgotten Truth. In this book, Smith argued that the most fundamental (and most overlooked) difference between premodernity and modernity is one of ontology. Where modernity recognizes only one ontological level, matter, the premodern traditions recognized many levels, realms, planes or worlds.
These "levels" a term Wilber often uses, but often in the context of developmental stages, quite a difference as we will argue have their intimate correspondences in the levels of being that compose our constituation. So while our bodies belong to, and will return to, the bodily world of nature and matter, our minds "belong" to the mind-world, our souls to the soul-world, and our spirit to the world of the Divine. When Wilber uses the term "levels of being" it is hard to tell if he means it in a psychological or in a cosmological way.
Now, modernity collapsed that multi-dimensional worldvew into the unidimensionality of flatland. Consequently, it rejected all of premodern metaphysics as hopelessly speculative. And Wilber seems to follow modernity's train of thought here, though Smith clearly exposes it as a logical error. For whatever science has discovered in the world of matter, to which it has limited itself (for whatever pragmatic reasons), it cannot and should not pass judgement on the validity of notions related to the non-material dimensions of life.
So Wilber argues for a post-metaphysical re-interpretation of spirituality and consciousness. This quote is key:
"In particular, the idea that there are levels of being and knowing beyond the physical (i.e., literally meta-physical) is badly in need of reconstruction. This is not to say that there are no trans-physical realities whatsoever; only that most of the items taken to be entirely trans- or metaphysical by the ancients (e.g., feelings, thoughts, ideas) actually have, at the very least, physical correlates." (p. 310)
I have argued on many occasions on this website, for example in "My Take on Wilber-5", that this hides the problem of the ontological status of interiority. For these physical correlates correlate with... precisely what? Rereading this quote several times over, I continue to be struck by one thing: even if it is true that modernity has pointed out some of the physical correlates of interior states of mind, it will not and cannot pass judgement on what these states are in themselves completely inexplicable, literally meta-physical phenomena.
Relabelling them as "intra-physical", as Wilber does, creates an illusory feeling of understanding, where in fact nothing is clarified. No physicist would subscribe to this notion of "intra-physicality", especially since it is so intimately connected to our thoughts and feelings, which are non-entities in the world of physics.
Wilber's reduction of the perennialist outlook has two phases: first he argues that what were naively thought of as independent worlds or realms, have turned out to be structures of consciousness, and two, what were thought to be structures which were present from birth, have turned out to be stages of development, that only take form as we go along through life.
So the magnificent vision of "spheres upon spheres" is reduced to a theory of psychological development, which is given a quasi-objective flavor by using the notion of "habits". As we go through the process of development, Wilber argues, following Sheldrake and others, these stages are laid out as "cosmic habits" for others to follow. One wonders if there isn't an easier way to explain why development seems to be facilitated in a milieu with like-minded souls. Culture perhaps? Education?
When all is said and done, we still don't know exactly how development works, as Wilber quite untypical after so many theoretical claims and statements concedes:
As for transformation itself: how and why individuals grow, develop and transform, is one of the great mysteries of human psychology. The truth is, nobody knows. There are lots of theories, lots of educated guesses, but few real explanations. Needless to say, this is an extraordinary complex subject." (p. 87).
Now that is a Wilber I can relate to.
Closing this review, which has been painfully incomplete given the scope of the book at hand, one thought remains: "Stop the marketing machine", "Lord, Give us integral, but without the hype". It is time now to tone down the volume. To do away with the "Bluff your way in Integral Studies" mentality.
We should never forget that spirituality is also about wisdom, plain and simple, and loving-kindness, even humility. Values I found, with very few exceptions, lacking in this latest volume penned by Wilber.
Hopefully other critical assessments of the merits of this book will be written, for it will most likely remain Wilber's take on spirituality for years to come.
- Chris Dierkes, Thought on post-metaphysics & neo-perennialism, Indistinct Union, november 24, 2006.