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".
Michael Zimmerman is author of Environmental Philosophy, Heidegger's Confrontation with Modernity, and
Contesting Earth's Future. He is a member of the Integral Institute's Ecology group,
Professor of Philosophy at Tulane University, Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Tulane Medical School, Director
of the Environmental Studies Program and Co-Director of the Asian
Studies Program, and can be contacted at email@example.com
in the 21st Century
Integration involves reassociating what has been dissociated, embracing that which has been shunned. In personal terms, such integration may involve owning up to undesired personal traits that have been shoved into one's'shadow.' In social terms, integration may involve extending citizenship and rights to a previously oppressed group. In cultural terms, integration may involve reaffirming cultural phenomena that had been abandoned or even ridiculed, as when modernity dissociated itself from God or Spirit. Reintegrating Spirit into the cultural conversation is one of the most important challenges facing postmodernity. Arguably, without such a reintegration, the natural and social sciences will not be able to move beyond their reductionistic horizons. Without such movement, a more profound understanding of humanity's place in the cosmos may never become available to more than a few. Moreover, without a more adequate and thus post-sectarian understanding of Spirit, the yawning divide between believers and agnostics will never be bridged.
Some people would argue that there is no need for reintroducing Spirit, since contemporary global marketing transcends national and cultural boundaries in ways that suggest the end of ancient divisions that have plagued humankind with war and oppression. Although there is certainly some truth to this claim, resurgent tribalism and ethnocentrism demonstrate that dramatic changes in economic practices are not in and of themselves sufficient to halt the widespread human proclivity to identify oneself with a particular group and to regard non-members with suspicion. Historically, if most members of a group, tribe, or nation identified strongly with its beliefs, doctrines, practices, and institutions, then the opportunity for and tolerance of internal dissent was greatly diminished. In such situations, religious, political, scientific, and economic institutions became aligned with one another in ways that reinforced the status quo and prevented development, especially if associated with the ideas of foreigners, that is, anyone not a member of the group in question. The premodern European wars of religion showed what so often occurred when religious matters are inextricably combined with affairs of state and economic interests.
Seeking to end to such warfare, Enlightenment savants proposed to effect a differentiation among important human domains, including religion, science, politics, economics, and personal affairs. Henceforth, there would be a separation of church and state, of church and science, of political and personal, and so on, so that each of these human domains could develop its possibilities without being hindered by inappropriate interference from other domains. Hence, God or Spirit was excluded from scientific and political discussions. Unfortunately, the success of modern science eventually led many moderns to conclude that Spirit was an empty metaphysical category. Today, modernity's differentiation of domains is to some extent practiced by most countries, including those that were once colonized by Europeans, who justified their exploitative acts in terms of the Enlightenment's noble rhetoric of liberation.
Despite many constructive achievements, modern differentiation is characterized by a number of problems that bar the way to integrating the global human community. For one thing, as many critics have pointed out, modernity's differentiation of domains has been only partly successful, because the practices, goals, and conception of truth that characterize one particular domain--science, including applied science in the form of technology and industryˇhave marginalized the practices goals, and conceptions of truth in the other domains. Indeed, Kant's famous differentiation of human domains into science, ethics, and aesthetics, completely ignored religion, except insofar as it had been'rationalized'into an aspect of ethics. Twentieth century positivism and behaviorism, against which the revolts of the 1960s may be understood as an understandable if somewhat misguided reaction, proclaimed that all non-empirically verifiable statements (including deep personal, cultural, and religious beliefs) were merely emotive utterances and thus empty of meaning. Seeking social hegemony for the laudable goals of controlling nature and pacifying humankind, the natural and the social sciences ended up being held responsible for many of the evils of modern times, including not only widespread social anomie and personal meaninglessness, but also the nuclear arms race and environmentally destructive industrial practices. In the guise of scientific socialism and under the banner of modernity's admirable emancipatory ideal, moreover, some of this century's worst crimes were committed by Soviet Communism, which proudly proclaimed itself to be a scientifically socialist form of atheism.
Although preferable to the deservedly defunct centralized Soviet economy, neo-classical economics reflects its own version of the exclusionary impulse characteristic of twentieth century science. Interpreting all human action in terms of the self-interested calculations and drives of homo economicus, neo-classical economists rule out from the start every attempt to describe human existence in terms of other categories. Given that the practices of contemporary multinational corporations are guided by neo-classical economic theory, one can understand why they are regarded as such a mixed blessing around the world. Although often bringing prosperity, multinationals also deprive people of traditional cultural and personal meaning. The spreading'culture'of consumerism is neither ultimately satisfying nor a real culture at all, but instead names the practices engaged in by people for whom the constant acquisition of objects promises to conceal personal emptiness and lack of meaning.
Religion traditionally provided people with personal direction and meaning. In modern societies, church attendance has declined significantly in comparison with the previous century. Accepting modernity's denial of the transcendent domain, most highly educated elites have concentrated their efforts on enhancing their own lives and improving society. Moreover, wayward efforts to reinstate religious hegemonyˇfor example, by post-1979 Iranians or by the Religious Right in the USA--reinforce the conviction of such irreligious moderns that religion is nothing but reactionary superstition that threatens to undermine hard-won differentiations. Ever since the psychedelic outburst of the 1960s, however, despite the concerns mentioned above, there has been a resurgence of interest in Spirit among those modern people who were dissatisfied with the thin gruel of materialism. A host of religious forms have given expression to the yearning for connection with Spirit: The New Age and New Paradigm movements, Buddhism, Christian fundamentalism and charismatic movements, shamanic rituals, and many more. A number of important thinkers, including Stan Grof, Michael Murphy, Charles Tart, Charles Taylor, Frances Vaughn, Roger Walsh, and Ken Wilber, have contributed to the interrelated goals of reintroducing Spirit into post/modern conversations, and of restoring the integrity of the cultural and personal domains that have been marginalized by the overbearing voice of natural science.
That this rather exuberant exploration of spirituality should be taking place in the United States, the wealthiest and most technologically advanced country on the planet, is not surprising, if one takes into account the fact that a very high percentage of Americansˇabout 95% in most surveysˇreport believing in some sort of Supreme Being. Evidently, then, the United States provides a potentially fertile context for people who seek both to retain the positive achievements of modernity and to bring Spirit back into conversations taking place in science, politics, economics, aesthetics, and personal subjectivity.
The reintroduction of Spirit does not involve a return to dogmatic belief. As Ken Wilber has argued in The Marriage of Sense and Soul, mystics from virtually all the world's spiritual traditions have developed injunctions or practices that, if followed, reliably produce experiences that lead back toward Spirit, by way of various dimensions of consciousness that are simply unavailable to the rational ego. Stan Grof has developed holotropic breathwork practices that empirically demonstrate existence of transpersonal realms and that reveal the limitations of materialism. One basis for a healing conversation between scientists and spiritually oriented people would be how to assess and to understand the empirical findings of people engaging in such practices. Other important conversations would concern how well the "strong" version of the anthropic principle succeeds in persuading people that the universe exhibits intelligence (perhaps even design), and how long neo-Darwinism can hold up to mounting criticism before admitting that the extraordinary history of life on Earth cannot be adequately explained solely in terms of accidental mutation and adaptation.
An important caveat for contemporary explorers of the spiritual domains: revivified sectarianism will not generate the transpersonal, transnational, and universalistic understanding needed to end scapegoating, exclusion, and violence. Insofar as liberal political and economic regimes have avoided nationalistic sectarianism, they have made important contributions to such universalism, as well as to ending poverty, ignorance, and oppression of various kinds. Nevertheless, the liberal conception of homo economicus is simply not an adequate way to understand the human person, no matter how well this conception works for making economic predictions. Humankind needs to generate a post-sectarian and post-modern conversation about Spirit, a conversation that acknowledges the evil that religion has done and also acknowledges the evil that modernity has done. It remains to be seen how this conversation will reconcile the constructive achievements of modernity with the spiritual insights of the perennial wisdom. Even though the global spread of liberal capitalism may temporarily exacerbate friction between traditional religions and modernity, liberal political regimes do open up a civil space in which debate and reflection can take place regarding non-sectarian ways of understanding Spirit. In this respect, liberal modernity's renunciation of the sectarian God may help open the way for the emergence of post-sectarian Spirit. If the West can outgrow its materialism and reintegrate Spirit, the West may offer a useful model for other countries still struggling with how to introduce modernity without destroying all aspects of ancient cultural beliefs in the transcendent domain.