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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"... rethinking metaphysics along worldcentric lines..."
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.
|only true believers go to heaven||heaven is a state of happiness||heaven open for all human beings|
As an interesting aside, the fact that the heaven world is a reality does not imply that most of its inhabitants are fully aware of this. It turns out in fact that most of them spend their time on these levels dreaming about their past life. There's ample room for a "constructivist" take on the afterlife in this esoteric conception. Even cultural conditioning lives on: many will see things they have been taught to expect, be it Christ, Krishna or angels. To become aware of the reality of the astral world requires an awakening of the senses belonging to that world.
Wilber's reformulations of the perennial philosophy into a form which is acceptable to modern taste are based on a certain strategic wisdom. If modernity intensely dislikes ontological speculations, it will never buy ideas about higher worlds, with their inhabitants, that are supposed to exist all around us, right here and now. By bracketing out these metaphysical aspects of the ancient wisdom, there's at least a small chance moderns will lend an ear. And he is convinced he can make the same points using only a psychological language. As an embodied human being, we are capable of experiencing the full spectrum of happiness and unhappiness, even to the level of the highest mystical experience of One Taste. No metaphysical framework seems to be needed to make sense of these experiences.
However, there's always a danger of falling into the flatland trap when a purely immanent philosopy is opted for. When all these states are experienced by an embodied individual, who says there not just the result of biochemical processes in the human brain? Wilber tries to avoid this trap using his All Quadrants model, which puts the neurological dimension safely away into one quadrant only. At the same time, he seems to give undue prominence to the physical level, where he proposes to take this out of the traditional scheme of worlds, and revision it as the outermost layer of all inner dimensions. But whats the ontological status of the other three quadrants, most notable the upper left, which seems to harbour many hidden layers of inner life? If this inner dimension is not reducible to brain processes, how can we avoid drawing metaphysical conclusions about its ontological status?
The physical level: lowest or outermost?
In the theosophical wordview, human beings live on all planes simultaneously, but don't have (as of yet) the ability to perceive these realities. At the moment, we are only able to see with our physical eyes. As a consequence, physcial reality seems to be the only reality there is, and physics seems to be the only true science. All other experiences are mistrusted, given their volatile nature. In theosophy, our physical body is seen as but the outermost "vehicle" used by our consciousness. In fact, we have vehicles of consciousness for every level of existence, though most of these are still in an embryonic state: we have an astral or emotional body, a mental body, a causal body, a buddhic body, etc. Basically we are a unit of consciousness or "monad" which has descended from on high, taking up body after body until we have reached the lowest level of existence, the physical plane. Conversely, after death we will shed these bodies one by one, thereby rising upwards through the spheres, until we reach our home in spirit.
Wilber has stressed on many occasions that where the ancients believed the physical world to be the lowest level, a modernist reformulation should see it as the outermost dimension of all inner levels:
The material domains are not so much the lowest rung on the great hierarchy as they are the exterior forms of each and every rung on the hierarchy (Marriage of Sense and Soul, p. 183)
That seems an overstatement to me. While it may be true that the physical brain relates to all inner experiences, high or low, this obscures the fact that (1) the physical level is a level in it's own right, and (2) the physical brain does connect to all inner processes but (3) these inner processes have their own "bodies" on their own levels of existence. In my opinion, we can't just take out one of the levels of existence (even more so since it's the only level we know of) to accomodate to modern scientific findings on the workings of the brain, if these findings can be accounted for just as well when seeing the planes as mutually interpenetrating each other. An example that Wilber is fond of using, to demonstrate the physical plane just can't be the lowest in the scheme of things is: in that traditional conception the feelings of a worm would be higher then the complexities of the human brain. To which he remarks: "Something is clearly not quite right with that scheme" (Excerpt G). But is it? Ontologically speaking feelings, however primitive, are higher then physical realities, however complex. I see no problem here. No amount of complexity can in itself explain depth of consciousness.
What is more, since we have a body in every world, a full AQAL analysis is possible for every level of existence. In the physical world, we only see each other's physical bodies, the outermost vehicles of our inner lives. On the astral plane, we would only see each other's astral bodies, the outermost vehicles of our inner lives in that dimension. And so on. The AQAL framework is a veritable Kosmic Compass that holds true on all levels of existence! Everywhere where we encounter conscious beings, in whatever level of embodiment, we can distinguish between Upper Left, Upper Right, Lower Left and Lower Right quadrants. In the case of a clairvoyant, who is able to see people's astral (and higher) bodies while being awake on the physical plane, the situation is again perfectly understandable for AQAL analysis. There's always one body the outermost vehicle of consciousness -- the UR quadrant in that particular situation -- and the community of beings living in that body make up the lower two quadrants.
In a recent paper Wilber has discussed the nature of subtle energy, or subtle bodies/fields, and allocated these to the Upper Right quadrant of the physical level. This seems to overburden the Upper Right quadrant a bit too much. While subtle energy/bodies do belong to the Upper Right category, they don't belong to the same level of existence. (Not surprisingly, AQAL analysis includes both quadrants and levels, since quadrants are notoriously bad at detecting levels). There may be an optical illusion here: since all levels have their four quadrants, seeing through all these quadrants from above it may look like physical energy/bodies and subtle energy/bodies exist within the same quadrant, but that is not the case. Astral en mental bodies by definition exist on the astral and mental planes of Nature. The fact that some clairvoyants can observe these in their fellow man does not alter this fact. (And any Life- or Mind-fields detected by physical means, as discovered by H.S. Burr, would by definition allocate these fields to the physical Upper Right quadrant only.)
Evolution as reverse video of involution?
Wilber has reconsidered his loyalty to the perennial philosophy the most in the case of the teaching of involution. Traditional esoteric philosophy holds that involution precedes evolution, and evolution in a sense recapitulates the steps taken during involution. Where involution is a downward process moving from Spirit to matter, evolution is the reverse upward process from matter to Spirit. Though Wilber has rarely elaborated on this notion of involution, not even in his early works, he always related it to he Big Bang at the start of the physical universe. According to Wilber, this leads to a view of evolution bereft of freedom, since it's only a kind of reverse video of the involution that preceded it. He has stripped the doctrine of involution of much of it's ontological specifics, leaving only a handful of "involutionary givens", such as "the great morphic field of evolutionary potential" and "certain physical laws described by mathematics". Consequently, there are no hard and fast steps on the Ladder of Life laid down by involution, only a gentle push to move upwards to Spirit. Again, notice the predominantly flatland topics mentioned here: the Big Bang, the laws of physics and mathematics, etc.
Theosophical views of involution does mention metaphysical processes all the way down from Spirit to matter, but also stress the primitive nature of involutionary life in this stage of the Kosmic process. As it passes through each of the higher spheres until it reaches the lowest plane, the physical world, it prepares the "matter" of these higher worlds so it can function as basic material for the subtle bodies of beings who are on the evolutionary, upward arc of the Kosmic process. Evolution in no way is restricted to what happened during involution, as far as it's specific content is concerned. It is however restricted to the spheres of existence itself, which form the "field of evolution" of the monads emerging from the Divine.
Listen to what Annie Besant wrote in her century old masterpiece A Study in Consciousness:
It is important to note that the evolutionary process, which leads out into expression the involved consciousness, has to begin by contacts received by its outermost vehicle, i.e., it must begin on the physical plane. (p. 69)
Here's a clear understanding of the interrelatedness of the complex processes of involution and evolution, the mechanism by which consciousness awakens from it's slumber, and the important function of the outermost body.
Breaking away from this traditional conception, Wilber has sided with Sheldrake in his notion of creative emergences, which get stabilized in the course of evolution through the mechanism of morphic resonance. This mechanism can however never explain creative emergence itself, which must remain a mystery (synonymous with "creativity" or "Spirit"). We have here the alternatives of (1) a Kosmocentric view, delineating the levels of existence, which are the steps of the Ladder of Life we can tread, and (2) a modernized view, which sees new stages of development as a Mystery, and concentrates on the way stages, once emerged, get stabilized in subsequent generations. In the older conception, ancient mystics discovered the stages of spiritual development because these were simply the levels of existence; in the modern view, these stages emerged just like that, and later generations followed their trails.
This brings me to the related, but more general question of how "real" the stages/levels are which are postulated in Wilber's system. One often encounters the attitude that ultimately all divisions are arbitrary, and we can subdivide the stages of development any way we want. The analogy of the spectrum of light is helpful here. While it is true that this spectrum can be subdivided to infinity, it is also true that (1) there are basic colors -- both primary colors, such as yellow and red; and secondary colors, such as orange, which can be readily distinguished -- and (2) by far not all colors are spectral colors, but mixtures of primary or secondary colors. One will never find pink or brown in the color spectrum, however much this is subdivided.
In the same way, stages of consciousness may be likened to spectral colors or to non-spectral colors. The mental-egoic stage seems to me to be a good candidate of a "spectral" stage of development, since it is grounded in the mental plane of Nature. An magical-emotional stage might be called spectral for just the same reason, for it is grounded in the astral plane of Nature. A "centauric" or existential stage might be likened more to a mixture of colors, since it is characterized by the integration of body and mind. However much this might be a concrete stage of development, there is no "centauric" plane of Nature to support it. Neither is the "psychic" stage of development, especially as it is described by Wilber in his early works as a decidedly paranormal stage -- to which NDE's, OOBs and ESP belong -- an example of a stage that is suppored by an ontological level of existence. Where "normal" stages of development are defined as expansions of consciousness, none of which can be skipped by human beings, the psychic stage is more like an expansion of the senses, and definitely can be skipped. Wilber has removed paranormal connotations in his reformulation of the psychic stage as a proto-spiritual stage of nature mysticism, but this leaves typically psychic faculties still to be explained.
A. Besant, A Study in Consciousness: A Contribution to the Science of Psychology, Theosophical Publishing Society, 1904.
J. Habermas, Nachmetaphysisches Denken (Post-Metaphysical Thinking), Suhrkamp, 1992.
C. W. Leadbeater, The Other Side of Death: Scientifically Examined and Carefully Described, Theosophial Publishing Society, 1904.
A.E. Powell (ed.), The Causal Body and the Ego, Theosophical Publishing House, 1928.
Smith, H. Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition, Harper, 1976.
K. Wilber, Excerpt G: Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies, wilber.shambhala.com
K. Wilber, On the Nature of a Post-Metaphysical Spirituality: Response to Habermas and Weis, wilber.shambhala.com
K. Wilber, Introduction to Excerpts, from Volume 2 of the Kosmos Trilogy, wilber.shambhala.com
World Research Foundation, The Electrical Patterns of Life (The Work of Dr. Harold Saxton Burr), www.wfr.org