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.
Questioning the Entire Edifice
The Integral World Contributions of David Lane
Around 1999 Ken Wilber asked me around for the role of Devil's Advocate of the newly formed Integral Institute, with the specific assignment to collect all existing online criticism of integral theory. The Internet was just getting on the horizon and Wilber being a late adopter and I was working in the Internet industry for Intel, I thoroughly started an online search. Not much of substance could be found at that time though. One exception was a series of brief critical essays written by a professor of religion called David Christopher Lane. Professor Lane had been a big fan of Wilber for many years, and appears on the back cover of A Sociable God (1983) as saying: "Wilber may singlehandedly alter the course of future research in consciousness."
In these four critical online essays, written around 1996 and posted on his Neural Surfer websiteLane is a fanatic surfer himselfa different mood was present, for they were called "Ken Wilber's Achilles' Heel: The Art of Spiritual Hyperbole". Apparantly ten installments were planned, but the remaining six never got written. As things go, he told me years later when I had contacted him, he got kids and that occupied most of his spare time. The essays covered Wilber's praise for controversial guru Adi Da, his apparent misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, his defense of magical beliefs in paranormal phenomena and his hyping of Eastern guru Kirpal Singh, from the tradition of Shabd Yogaone with which Lane was deeply familiar both in a theoretical and a personal sense.
The essay about evolution piqued my interest because it was witty, relevant and informed. And it ended my own 15 years of infatuation with all things Wilberian.
I reposted this essay on evolutionary theory, which questioned Wilber's statements on evolution in A Brief History of Everyhthing (1996), in December 2006 on Integral World. A full decade after it had appeared online and I had brought it to Wilber's attention during my first visit to Wilber's home in 1997. He remembered Lane from a casual meetinghe has a crush on me, Wilber insinuatedbut did not seem to register the points made by Lane. Strange, because the essay questioned a major tenet of his integral model: that evolution was somehow driven by Spirit and this concept could explain the emergence of complex organisms and organs during evolutionimplying that without such a concept science would be in the dark about these processes. This has remained Wilber's core philosophical notion, at least in integral treatments of individual and cultural development. Wilber always maintained that these objections "can easily be explained"which he failed to do on any later occasion.
For Lane, this wasn't a minor issue, and I would agree. He commented at the end of his brief essay:
“Although it may seem that this issue of misunderstanding evolution is a small chapter in Wilber's overall work, it is so fundamental to his thinking that it makes one question the entire edifice upon which he has built Spectrum Psychology.” David Lane, 1996.
This neglect or avoidance of pertinent criticism turned out to be a pattern in Wilber's mind-set, as I would find out as the years passed by. More Integral World authors would share the same fate, such as Mark Edwards, Ray Harris, Andy Smith, Geoffrey Falk, Jeff Meyerhoff, to mention the most productive ones. Edwards was rehabilitated half a decade later as a "good" integral critic, who should be taken seriously, whereas Meyerhoff, who wrote a full monograph on Wilber's integral theory, was showcased as a "bad" critic, who could therefore be ignored.
I still consider this to be one of the tragedies of Wilberian culture and history. A lot of time was spent in the Integral Institute on meeting like-minded psychologists, New Age celebrities, musicians and movie stars, but sober and informed criticism that questioned core principles of the model were plainly ignoredboth by Wilber himself and his closest students. In the meantime a lot of bragging went on about an online "Integral University" that would be founded in which these so-called critics would be taken care of (picture gladiators in a Roman arena before an cheering audience of integral students). But this project failed miserably. When integral theory entered the academic world through offering Integral Theory courses at JFK University for a few years, again no engagement with the Integral World material happened.
Rationalizations of this neglect were of course easily given: these "unapproved" critics were addressing out-dated material (since Wilber upgraded his model every few years or so into Wilber-1 to Wilber-n), they were getting personal or didn't know Wilber personally, they didn't "get" integral, which required a certain advanced level of development, etc. etc. None of this really justified ignoring a culture at Integral World that could be described as promoting reflection on all things integral which would be interesting and accessible to a larger audience. I explicitly have never gone the academic route here, for which there have been other initiatives, such as Integral Review, and this is obviously a matter of personal taste. I personally don't get much out of highly abstract philosophical discourses about metatheory and how integral philosophy contributes to that field of knowledge. I prefer the more short track intellectual efforts to make sense of and contextualize integral philosophy.
In the meantime, Lane turned out to be a prolific writer, and over the years he submitted one hundred essays to Integral World. Most of these were accompanied by short videos he made himself, which made for a lively and attractive presentation of the ideas. The areas he covered were diverse, but can be categorized as relating to: evolutionary theory (a field which I have explored more fully, inspired by Lane's first attempt), Wilber's relationship to problematic gurus, the neurological basis of consciousness, debunking of the paranormal, artificial intelligence, the approach of science, Saints of India (from his Shabd Yoga days), and the value of skepticism when approaching the mystical or paranormal. Lane's main point is that we first have to explore all conventional options when looking for explanations before we turn to transcendental onesif at all. Of course, a simple matter of economy, otherwise known as Occam's Razor. But on a personal level Lane is a long-time meditator as well.
Lane is often perceived by the integral intelligentsia as "reductionistic"a common put down in New Age circlesgiven his emphasis on neurological approaches to consciousness and rationality in general. In an especially interesting early essay called "On Reductionism", posted on Integral World as well, Lane argues that we have to avoid so-called "cheap reductionism", which reduces everything to the lowest denominator, often subatomic particles. The term is used by Daniel Dennett, and most integralists would be surprised to know that Dennett differentiates between cheap and more useful variants of reductionism. But equally necessary is that we should avoid "expensive inflationism": resorting to high-sounding all-encompassing concepts such as Eros or Spirit to "explain" things that seem to resists a normal and rational explanation. That is a message the integral audience can take to heart.
That doesn't mean Lane has covered all the many fields of knowledge Wilber has dealt with in his many books, far from it. Luckily, other critics have taken up these other areasmost notably Jeff Meyerhoff, who in his Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Integral Theory (2010) has covered Wilber's (mis)treatment of the humanities. Again, fully ignored by the integral community, but nontheless valuable as a corrective to the all-too uncritical tendencies in the integral culture at large. Meyerhoff, to his credit, has constructively analysed the options integral philosophy has to gain traction in the world of academia in his "Integral Theory and Academia".
What's even worse, I suspect most people interested in integral concepts are, believe it or not, not interested in the truth of these concepts, as long as it makes them happy or feel good. Being critical is easily mistaken for being "negative", a typical New Age sentiment, where in science and philosophy being critical is the very life blood of progress. But most important of all, Lane is open to criticism, as he has demonstrated by engaging several Integral World authors (Elliot Benjamin, Don Salmon, Andy Smith come to mind.) Above all, he corrects assumptions prevalent in spiritual circles that materialism, reductionism and such are bad and to be avoided and that we need Spirit to save humanity or our planet. On the contrary, he comments in one of his Integral World essays:
There is nothing to fear from being just stuff, since there is nothing “just” about it. Matter is multi-dimensional and is ultimately as mysterious and beguiling as anything conjured up by religionists preaching a spiritual only creed.
If mystical materialism is possible Lane would be a good representative of it. At the very least he has taught me to think twice, especially when it concerns intellectual heroes you once considered to be all-knowing. He has made me give Wilber's books a much needed second reading. That is quite a feat for someone like me who invested over a decade in absorbing and internalizing Wilber's ideas, so I could write the first academic book ever on him: Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (Suny Press, 2003). In the end, thinking for yourself is so much more rewarding, as I have discovered immersing myself in the field of evolutionary theory which Lane opened up for me.