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 firstname.lastname@example.org
A Contest Between Transpersonal Ecologies
Michael E. Zimmerman
In Toward a Transpersonal Ecology (1990), the noted eco-philosopher Warwick Fox maintains that scientific accounts of the biosphere provide the basis for a this-worldly spirituality involving closer identification with the plants, animals, and ecosystems with which we share an ancient physical and biological kinship. As a naturalist, Fox holds both that humans are inextricably related to the biosphere, and that neither humankind nor the biosphere has any ultimate meaning or purpose. As a transpersonal ecologist, Fox seeks to appropriate the "esoteric core" of Arne Naess's ecosophy (TTE,76), while avoiding the anthropocentric and otherworldly attitudes that are often associated with the esoteric transpersonal psychology or "perennial philosophy." Fox criticizes the leading transpersonal theorist, Ken Wilber, for allegedly adhering to such attitudes, which have traditionally justified the exploitation of entities (including animals and plants) supposedly standing lower on the cosmic hierarchy than "rational man."
Elsewhere, I have discussed the political dangers posed by a radical, nature-worshipping version of naturalism, which denies both the transcendent dimension and the moral obligations posed by humanity's historical participation in that dimension. Moreover, I have analyzed whether recent scientific developments (including quantum theory) are consistent with panentheism, a nondual philosophy that asserts both the immanence and the transcendence of the Divine with respect to nature. In the present essay, I read Wilber's book, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality as a largely successful effort to present a more adequate transpersonal ecology. Countering the charge made by Fox (and other this-worldly naturalists) that his work is hierarchical, anthropocentric, anti-naturalistic, and other-worldly, Wilber maintains that because of their understandable concern about the negative ecological consequences of otherworldly spirituality, Fox and others have denied the transcendent dimension that constitutes a crucial aspect of nondual, transpersonal philosophy.
Fox interprets Naess's ecosophy in terms of concepts drawn from transpersonal philosophy (sometimes called transpersonal psychology), which is inspired by the intuition that a fully-realized human is "transpersonal" in the sense of transcending the limits of his or her own ego, so as to identify with a wider sense of "Self." By developing such wider identification with the "single unfolding reality" of which all entities are aspects, people overcome anthropocentrism, develop greater compassion for non-human beings, and thus realize their true human potential. Unfortunately, according to Fox, because most transpersonal thinkers lack an ecological sensibility, they conceive of "wider identification" and "identification-love" as applying primarily to other humans, not to plants, animals, and ecosystems. In support of this contention, Fox cites Abraham Maslow, a founder of the transpersonal psychology movement:
Identification-love ... means transcendence of the selfish Self. It implies also a wider circle of identification, i.e., with more and more people approaching the limit of identification with all human beings. This can also be phrased as the more and more inclusive Self. The limit here is identification with the human species....
Pressing his critique of transpersonal theorists, Fox interprets Wilber as saying "things that are radically anthropocentric (not to mention scientifically bankrupt) like 'cosmic evolution ... is completed in and as human evolution, which itself reaches ultimate unity consciousness and so completes that absolute gestalt toward which all manifestation moves'." Fox associates the "radically anthropocentric, hierarchical ontology" of Wilber and Houston Smith (TTE, 203) with "the Renaissance and medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being and with Gnosticism." (TTE, 200) Gnosticism was a world-despising movement in early Christianity, while the metaphor of the Great Chain of Being, already discernible in Plato's writings, is what helped most to justify human domination of those "inferior" creatures (e.g., animals and plants) that stand "below" humanity. Among transpersonal theorists, Fox tells us, Donald Rothberg is almost alone in observing that
those exponents of the great metaphysical and religious traditions identified as embodying most closely the core perennialist thesis of a hierarchical ontology (with, to be sure, some significant exceptions) link such an ontology to the devaluation of the body, sexuality, and nature, and to patriarchal and class-based social relations.
Fox insists that transpersonal ecological theory should not be "subordinated" to transpersonal philosophy, which is lamentably anthropocentric and linked with nature-degrading religions that depict the human body as prison from which the immortal soul must escape. By way of contrast, transpersonal ecology "is concerned precisely with opening to ecological awareness; with realizing one's ecological, wider, or big Self, or [...] with the this-worldly realization of as expansive a sense of self as possible." (TTE,198) Fox seeks to "ecologize" the transpersonal ecology movement by pointing it beyond its allegedly "gnosticized Darwinism," according to which humans are superior to other beings because only humans are evolving toward the Absolute or "pure consciousness." (TTE,199)
Fox asserts that scientific findings, which provide "an increasingly detailed account of the physical and biological evolution of the universe...," show that humankind is but a strand in the complex cosmic web. (TTE,253) Condemning the hierarchical anti-naturalism of many spiritual traditions, Fox approvingly cites Robinson Jeffers (a "relatively extreme exemplar of cosmologically based identification") for asserting that "This whole [the universe] is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it." According to Fox, such love amounts to the Self-realization involved in identifying with the whole universe in a way that overcomes an ecologically-devastating anthropocentrism.
Despite criticizing some aspects of Fox's book in what follows, I would like to note that it has had the salutary effect of intensifying transpersonal philosophy's interest in ecological issues. Wilber's book may, in turn, help to alert transpersonal ecologists to the need for a deeper exploration of the nondual implications of transpersonal theory. In part one of this essay, I argue first that Fox does not adequately acknowledge that the nondual esoteric traditions affirmed by Naess, of whose work Fox speaks so highly, affirms the interpenetration of the transcendent and the immanent. Wilber largely succeeds in explaining this interpenetration in a way consistent with the ecological goal of exhibiting respect for all beings. In part two, I argue in favor of Wilber's contention that contemporary trends in science are reintroducing concepts such as teleology and evolutionary direction in ways that support his own contention that cosmic and terrestrial evolution exhibit a "graded hierarchy." By way of contrast, Fox adheres to the scientific naturalism which holds that there is no direction or purpose to evolution. To be sure, there are as yet no clear winners in this debate, but Wilber's views about consciousness evolution are buttressed by current developments in "dynamic evolutionary theories."
I. The Limits of Fox's Presentation of Nondualism
Fox's complaint about anthropocentric bias may have some basis in phrases from some of Wilber's earlier writings, but as I have argued elsewhere, Wilber has consistently criticized the strutting anthropocentrism that portrays the universe (including all non-human life forms) in wholly instrumental terms. Bucking current trends that contest the bleak predictions of many environmentalists, Wilber agrees with Fox that human behavior is leading to ecological calamity: "If the Earth is indeed our body and blood [and Wilber believes that it is--MEZ], then in destroying it we are committing a slow and gruesome suicide." (SES, 4) Moreover, he agrees that the otherworldliness of some Western religion and philosophy has contributed to today's arrogant attitude toward and mistreatment of non-humans. Wilber regards such views are part of the patriarchal version of the "Ascent" tradition, according to which the immortal soul can gain salvation only by leaving the body and return to the Divine One. (SES, 363) This soteriological strategy, which depicts all worldly involvement as pointless, is inconsistent with the life-affirming outlook that both Fox and Wilber agree is needed to avoid ecological tragedy. To curtail such otherworldliness, however, Wilber calls not for abandoning altogether Ascent to the transcendent One, as Fox seems to do, but instead for coupling Ascent with Descent into the immanent Many, as nondualists, perennial philosophers, esotericists, or transpersonal philosophers (the four final terms are synonymous in this essay).
Wilber's rehabilitation of the perennial philosophy accords with suggestions made by Rothberg in the same essay from which Fox quotes to show that Rothberg disapproves of the metaphor of cosmic hierarchy. In fact, however, Rothberg says that the objections he makes
are not as such fatal to the idea of a perennial philosophy [based on a cosmic hierarchy], since they can be interpreted as identifying very significant kinds of historically prevalent distortions of the "full" or "essential" expression of the perennial philosophy....
Such distortions are found in the work of the neo-Platonist, St. Augustine, often criticized for his allegedly otherworldly orientation. Although he condemned the world-despising Gnostics, St. Augustine ultimately had to conform to "mythic-literal" Christianity's dualism, thereby failing to reconcile Ascent and Descent, Divine transcendence with Divine immanence. Because mythic-literal Christianity portrayed the Divine as "ontologically divorced from nature and human nature," Ascent was blocked, along with Descent. The Christian West was not only frozen into an otherworldly orientation that devalued the human body and the rest of creation, but was also "locked into a perpetually frustrated Ascent yearning--a yearning for a Goal that could never be officially realized, and therefore a perpetual yearning that could never be satisfied and let go of...." (SES,355) In Wilber's view, then, the ecological crisis is in part a symptom of Western "man's" fruitless effort to quench his ontological thirst by devouring and controlling things, when such thirst can be satisfied only by union with the Divine.
Wilber praises Plotinus and Nagarjuna for more successfully reconciling Ascent (toward the One) with Descent (toward the Many). Each in his own way, these two great Western and Eastern nondualists believed that Ascent involves Wisdom guided by Eros, while Descent involves Compassion guided by Agape. (SES,339) Wisdom sees that the Many is One, while Compassion sees that the One is Many. The One names both that which lures things toward creative realization, and the eternally-fecund source from which all things spring. Creation is the outpouring of the One into the Many, each aspect of which reflects according to its own capacity the One from which all things spring. Hence, for Nagarjuna, Samsara is Nirvana: dispersal into the Many is not other than unison with One. Genuine Ascent ends not in a flight to another world, but instead in Descent into or embrace of Creation. The Divine "One" is completely immanent in the creaturely "Many," yet simultaneously transcends any creaturely manifestation. Plotinus and Nagarjuna realized that "there is no 'this world' or 'other world'--it is all a matter of one's perception." (SES,343) Awakening means realizing that one is always already with God. Recoiling against nature-despising Ascent traditions, however, Fox allegedly joins other modern naturalists in adhering to what Wilber calls a "flatland" ontology that fails to discern the "interior depth" of things, depth that provides evidence of the Absolute's immanence in the Many.
As the nondual, timeless, ever-present, "groundless Ground" of the One and the Many, the Absolute "is equally and fully present in and as every single being, high or low, ascending or descending, effluxing or refluxing." (SES,347) Hence, creatures are not merely a "part" or a "strand" of the Absolute, as in pantheism; instead, each individual "is the One Spirit in its entirety...." (SES,347) Nondualism thus opposes the instrumentalism not only of anthropocentric traditions, but also of radical environmentalisms that depict individuals as strands in the cosmic web. Plato and Plotinus set the stage for "a genuinely creation-centered spirituality," since they liken the entire universe "to a giant 'superorganism,' with all the parts interwoven with one another and with their eternal Ground." (SES,325) The difference between Plato's superorganism and Fox's cosmic whole is that the former involves the One and the Many, while the latter involves simply some of the Many.
Plotinus envisions this superorganism in terms of the Great Chain of Being's doctrine of plenitude, according to which the greater the diversity, the greater the good. (SES,366) Critics argue, however, that Wilber ignores passages where Plotinus advises escaping from the evil material world, and describes matter (at least when deprived of formative intelligence) as corrupt, a non-being, a phantom, a shadow, and a veritable delusion. In reply, Wilber asserts that the true "spirit" of Plotinus' writings is found in his condemnation of Gnostic revilement of the world, which so beautifully manifests the glories of the One. In its kernel, the Great Chain of Being is nonanthropocentric, for it made humans "acutely aware of how insignificant their actual position was" in the context of the glorious and good cosmic plenitude, no aspect of which is merely of instrumental worth. (SES,368) A.O. Lovejoy says that "Each link in the Chain of Being exists, not merely and not primarily for the benefit of any other link, but for its own sake; and therefore the true raison d'etre of one species of being was never to be sought in its utility to any other."
According to Wilber, because Fox overemphasizes the manifest (immanent) Many overlooks the unmanifest (transcendent) One, he cannot account for insights of the very same esoteric traditions to which Fox himself refers in discussing two possible approaches to wider identification: ontological identification (corresponding to Ascent) and cosmological identification (corresponding to Descent). (TTE, 249-268) Although remarking that there is no theoretical basis for preferring one to the other, Fox notes that most transpersonal ecologists prefer the latter, and for a practical reason: cosmological identification is more easily communicated than ontological identification. (TTE,260) We will discuss cosmological identification in section two. Fox's often insightful discussion contains many of the ingredients needed to interpret ontological identification as Ascent and cosmological identification as Descent, but he does not make this move. In my view, he does not do so because he does not seem fully to appreciate the implications of ontological identification, the "esoteric core" of Naess's ecosophy.
Noting that ontological identification generally requires arduous practices whose experiential findings notoriously resist being explained by linear logic, Fox says that ontological identification of the sort described by Zen Buddhism and Heidegger involves "experiences of commonality with all that is that are brought about through deep-seated realization of the fact that things are." (TTE,250) The amazing "thatness" of things "seems to stand out against a background of nonexistence, voidness, or emptiness--a background from which this foreground arises moment by moment." (TTE,251) The sensed "specialness of all that exists" means that things are not a mere backdrop for the actions of the privileged ego, but instead are "just as much an expression of the manifesting of Being (i.e., of existence per se) as we ourselves are." (TTE,251)
Had Fox examined "emptiness" and "thatness" in more depth, he would have pointed out that they correspond to what many nondual traditions mean by the transcendent. In the Mahayana Buddhism so favored by Naess, for example, absolute emptiness (sunyata) is correlated with thatness or "suchness" (tathata). Absolute nothingness refers to the fact that all things are devoid of substance, selfhood, or inherent existence. According to the central Buddhist doctrine of "conditioned co-production" (pratitya samutpada), no thing is self-caused or self-contained; instead, all things are empty of substance or self, completely interdependent, and arise and fall together. Appreciating the "suchness" of all phenomena means directly realizing their absolute emptiness.
What Fox calls ontological identification is in fact a process of dis-identification with all things, summarized in Asian nondualisms as "neti, neti"--"not this, not that." In dis-identification, one transcends all phenomena, but in such a way that one eventually embraces all phenomena. By becoming absolutely no-thing (Ascent path of dis-identification), one can become everything (Descent path of identification). This complementary movement is depicted in Zen's oxherding pictures, the last one of which shows the compassionate Buddha--after experiencing the absolute emptiness of all phenomena--sitting in the marketplace and rejoicing in those phenomena.
In the process of Ascent toward the transcendent, mature practitioners from nondual traditions report that the "material" plane is only one of several levels of reality emanating from the One. Some levels are more comprehensive and integrative (thus "deeper" or "higher") than others. For Mahayana Buddhism, the last stage is Absolute Emptiness, lying beyond even the One, while for Advaita Vedanta, which also influenced Naess' ecosophy, the last stage is Absolute Atman (Self). Some commentators claim that there is only a vanishing distinction between absolute emptiness and absolute self, since neither can be understood in terms of categories applying to the realm of the Many. This claim takes on greater weight in view of Mahayana Buddhism's crucial influence on Sankara, Advaita Vedanta's greatest exponent.
Fox's minimal account of "thatness" fails to indicate that important Mahayana schools interpret tathata in terms akin to an absolute idealism that assigns central significance to the role played by human consciousness in the process by which the Many come to self-consciousness as the One. Fox dislikes such ideas, for they allegedly foster an ecologically destructive anthropocentrism, but one cannot deny that Mahayana Buddhism and other "esoteric" nondualisms emphasize the importance of humankind in the cosmic scheme of things. Although sharing Fox's concerns about arrogant anthropocentrism, I disagree with his conclusion that it is necessarily promoted by acknowledging humanity's role in the evolution of Divine self-awareness.
It should be emphasized that for Mahayana Buddhism, humankind is not a self-creating principality, but instead has arisen through cosmic processes to play a role that transcends merely human interests. Hence, humankind's proper attitude is neither haughtiness nor exploitation of "lower" forms reality, but rather--as Plotinus, Spinoza, Schelling, and Aurobindo also asserted--a combination of humility, joy, and active appreciation of all phenomena. Someone who increasingly identifies not with his or her ego, but instead experiences the emptiness that penetrates all phenomena, ends by treating those phenomena compassionately, instead of projecting upon them the delusions that generate both desire and aversion. The nondual experience of absolute emptiness erases the boundaries that generate fear. Becoming the ever-present nothingness, one can "be" everything.
In "Toward a Buddhist Ecological Cosmology," Brian Brown explains that tathata is explicable in terms of the evolutionary doctrine of Tathagatagarbha, according to which all animate beings are instances of embryonic Buddhahood (Thatagata) on the way toward realizing their Buddha-nature. Tathagatagarbha is the "cosmic body of Buddha" (Dharmakaya), though in a state of ignorance. Just as for Hegel the Absolute appropriates humankind as the vessel through which to attain Self-Consciousness, so too for Mahayana Buddhism,
The universe, religiously conceived as the cosmic body of the Buddha (the Dharmakaya), journeys to perfect self-consciousness as that totality, in and through the human mind. The progressive insights of the human mind into the nature of reality are the embryonic maturations in ever more exact self-awareness of that cosmic body (the Dharmakaya).
Though maintaining that human consciousness neither arises from humankind nor is meant to serve merely human ends, Mahayana Buddhism is like other nondual traditions in asserting that human consciousness is of paramount importance to the self-reflective whole. In its deepest unfolding, tathata refers not to the "sheer thatness" of things, but instead to the absolutely self-conscious, absolutely empty totality of the Dharmakaya. In the Vijnanavada tradition, "the universe in the plurality of its forms is the self-manifestation of the Alayavijnana (Tathata) as Absolute Consciousness." Hence, "the physical shapes and contours of the cosmos are in fact the universal self-particularizations of consciousness." Tathata names "innately radiant" Consciousness or Mind that is forgotten by the particular instances of consciousness that arise from it. Ignorant of the true source of consciousness and phenomena, people usually identify with egoic states, thereby cultivating greed, hate, and delusion. The Bodhisattva, however, recollects the true essence of Tathata and sunyata, wondrous being and absolute emptiness. In a way consistent with Wilber's discussion of the internal relation of Ascent and Descent, the Alayavijnana tradition emphasizes the importance of the manifest domain as well as the non-manifest source:
But if phenomenal consciousness is dependently originated from and actively sustained by Absolute Consciousness, the reverse is no less true: the Alayavijnana attains its plenary self-awareness as the indeterminate, unconditional nature of all things in and through the human mind. Collectively, the forms of the phenomenal universe and of human individuality are the images (nimitta) in and through which Absolute Consciousness appears to and recognizes itself.
Brown asserts that this cosmology, in which the human understanding of reality is coincident with "the self-intuition of that reality, resonates [...] with the indications of contemporary physics and biology." If humankind realizes its role as the concrete self awareness of the "primary reality" that gives rise to and penetrates the interdependent phenomenal universe, humankind will abandon its "distorted arrogance" and "reinvigorate the human in an ethic of reflection upon and care for life in its entirety, as the species which can identify the integrity of the whole in the richness of its diverse particularities."
By calling on contemporary science, Brown provides an opening for the following hypothesis, which tempers the human-centered focus of Mahayana Buddhism: in the enormously vast and complex universe described by modern cosmology, human beings are probably only one example of intelligent beings that arise by virtue of evolutionary processes. If we grant the Mahayana view that such processes are teleological, not blind, there would seem to be no necessary reason to assert that humankind is the site through which all sentient beings must pass if they are to be freed from the wheel of suffering. Indeed, according to the celebrated Buddhist author Sangharakshita, there are an infinity of universes lasting for countless billions of years. In such universes, there "exist higher and happier worlds than [man's] which are inhabited by beings endowed with immeasurably greater longevity, beauty, happiness, and power than he is." This cosmology is vastly more extensive than the relatively cramped cosmology of Christianity, which environmentalists often portray as the most anthropocentric of world religions. Christianity asserts that the life and death of Christ, as Divine Logos made flesh, was not significant merely for human history, but instead was the pivotal event for the whole cosmic history of salvation. To ecologists looking to "esoteric" traditions for a spiritual alternative to an allegedly anthropocentric Christianity, it may come as a surprise to read what Sangharakshita (and many other commentators) have to say about Mahayana Buddhism:
The world of man is in fact axial to all other planes of existence.... This is due not merely to its intermediate position, or because the higher Transcendental Paths [to enlightenment] are attainable only [by those who are reborn as humans] on earth, but because in this world alone a Supreme Buddha can arise [....] The Buddha's attainment of Enlightenment has significance not for this world only but for the whole cosmos.
The world's great religious traditions, and especially their esoteric or nondual cores, agree that human life has cosmic significance. Humans go astray by identifying not with the eternal Divine at work through them, but instead with their own mortal egos and bodies. Death-denying, ego-identified humankind sets out to conquer mortality by controlling nature, thereby threatening to destroy the organic foundation necessary for human life. According to Wilber's evolutionary cosmology, humans must pass through an egoic stage in ascending to more integrated, transpersonal stages of awareness. Dissociated from nature below and the Divine above, the Western ego has gone on nature-destroying rampage. Whereas Fox argues that the ecological crisis only by solved by widespread development of transpersonal awareness (in the form of "wider identification" with non-human beings), Wilber maintains that most people are incapable of such awareness, since they are still struggling to be responsible ego-subjects, capable of acknowledging the universal rights and inherent worth of other human beings. By correcting current distortions in Western egoity, distortions that prevent people from acting rationally both to preserve the ecosphere and to treat all humans with respect, and by consolidating relatively undistorted egoic awareness on a global level, self-interested humankind would not only take giant steps toward curbing ecological destruction, but would also set the stage for the emergence of genuinely transpersonal awareness. This viewpoint, which I find appealing, depends on a teleological evolutionary view that Fox believes is inconsistent with scientific naturalism.
II. The Limitations of Fox's Scientific Naturalism
If analyzing ontological identification enabled us to see the limits of Fox's view of esoteric nondualism, analyzing cosmological identification will help us to discover the limits of his scientific naturalism. Fox describes cosmological identification as "experiences of commonality with all that is that are brought about through deep-seated realization of the fact that we and all other entities are aspects of a single unfolding reality." (TTE,252) Though saying that such realization "can be brought about through the empathic incorporation of any cosmology," including Taoism, Native American traditions, and Spinoza's thought, Fox notes that for modern people science constitutes perhaps the only viable source for cosmological ideas. Hence, he bases his account of cosmological identification primarily on modern science's cosmic narrative. According to this narrative, the constituents of the cosmos unfold from a single source (Big Bang), which gives rise to stars, planets, and eventually terrestrial life. The evolution of life involves a lengthy process of differentiation, which Fox (following Steven Jay Gould and a number of other evolutionary theorists) depicts as a ramifying bush or a tree, not (as many progressive modernists do) as a cone or ladder atop which stands humanity as the supposed "cutting edge" of evolution. (TTE,261) Cosmological identification occurs as we recognize our deep kinship with all modes of existence that have arisen in the process of cosmic unfolding. Instead of seeing animals, plants, ecosystems, and other natural phenomena as somehow "other" than myself, I discover that they are me, or I am they. Just as I spontaneously care for myself, with which I closely identify, so too I spontaneously care for all things with which I identify.
Cosmological identification is partly consistent with Naess' concept of Self-realization, which was inspired in part by Gandhi and Spinoza's "monistic metaphysics," which "emphasized the fundamental unity of existence." According to Gandhi, humans are but drops in the ocean of life, while God is the "sum-total of this life." On this view, shared in many respects by Robinson Jeffers, Self-realization involves more widely identifying myself with the whole of which I am an interrelated part. There are problems with this interpretation of Naess' concept of Self-realization, however. For one thing, Naess is well aware of the difference between the monism that Fox ascribes to Spinoza, on the one hand, and Vedantic and Buddhist nondualism, on the other. At best, nondualism can only say that there are "not two," but cannot state that "All is One," since One presupposes Two, i.e., an Other. Nondual traditions, then, talk metaphorically of the One and the Many, but these are finally subsumed within the infinite context of the nondual Absolute, which transcends the states of being and non-being. Arguing that we can ascribe a monism to Spinoza only if we discount his distinction between natura naturans (unmanifest Nature) and natura naturata (manifest nature), Wilber accuses Fox of providing an "incredibly distorted" reading of Spinoza, who--far from being a monist--was a panentheist who distinguished between God and world. Hegel even called Spinoza an "acosmist," i.e., someone for whom the world is illusory! Of Spinoza, Wilber asserts that
in the two [divine] attributes that we can know--thought and extension--God is fully immanent, and thus, while a pitifully small portion of God is in this world, all of this world is in God [....] This has led to the "popular" view that Spinoza actually said that this finite world is God. [....] [But] this is utterly contrary to what he was trying to say. (SES,612)
Despite his sometimes controversial reading of Spinoza, Naess understands the nondual character both of ontological identification (Mahayana Buddhism) and cosmological identification (Advaita Vedanta). In connection with developing cosmological identification, Advaita Vedanta uses the phrase "tat tvam asi," "that thou art" or "I am that." But Vedanta presupposes that Brahman is both present in and transcends all phenomenal manifestations. In saying tat tvam asi, the Vedantic yogi acknowledges that the Absolute that animates his or her own existence also animates the existence of all phenomena. Although ordinary (dualizing) awareness perceives the beauty of the phenomenal display, nondual awareness reveals in the eternal depths of all phenomena the incomparable grandeur of the unmanifest Absolute. Wilber maintains that Advaita Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism agree with those who claim all things are "interconnected," but he goes on to argue that systems theory and other modern scientific views--blind to the "interior" or transcendent dimension of all phenomena--can exhibit only certain aspects of what is meant by nondual interconnectedness.
Fox argues that since ecological problems result partly from the atomism of modern Western science, we must develop a sense of the interconnectedness of all things. But Wilber argues that the "fundamental Enlightenment paradigm" is not atomism, but rather a "subtle reductionism" that depicts the universe as a vast, interconnected, hierarchically ordered system. Wilber maintains that many radical environmentalists adhere to the subtle reductionism of modern scientific naturalism, which eliminates the transcendent dimension by denying that things have interiority or subjectivity. Hence, for rationalist and romantic alike, "the meaning that the natural phenomena bear is no longer defined by the ... ideas [or Spirit] which they embody. It is defined through the effect of the phenomena on us, in the reactions they awaken." If rationalists have used reason to "orient the Ego to the great interlocking order," eco-romantics have used "sentiments as a way to 'feel' ourselves into the great interlocking whole." (SES,466) (Given Fox's claim that wider identification is a universalizing impulse that transcends the particularizing features of sentiments, however, Wilber's analysis of "eco-romanticism" does not fully apply to Fox's transpersonal psychology.)
On this view, eco-romanticism or eco-holism is not wrong, but incomplete. It presupposes the triumph of flatland ontology that: 1) is blind to the unmanifest, subjective, interior depths of nature; 2) absolutizes material, phenomenal manifestation (science's "interconnected whole of nature"); and 3) turns "nature" into a projecting screen for human needs and emotions. (SES,131-132, 465ff) Hence, eco-romanticism is not realization of a deeper Self, Wilber avers, but instead "the narcissistic 'nature worship' of mere sentimentalism." (SES,289) Eco-romantics call for us to identify more widely with the manifest phenomena described by the same modern science that has "denatured" nature by depriving it of its transcendent (interior) dimension. In this context, Wilber argues, "All transcendental occasions are reduced to this-worldly embrace." (SES,521)
Wilber contrasts Fox's supposedly transpersonal ecological self, which involves "biospheric immersion," with the authentically transpersonal "eco-noetic self," which involves identification not only with physiosphere and biosphere (exterior domains), but with noosphere and theosphere (interior domains). Emerson uses the term "Oversoul" to describe the eco-noetic self, which represents the stage of consciousness lying beyond modernity's demythologizing, rational-egoic consciousness. Describing the Oversoul as the "transparent eyeball" in which all phenomena display themselves, Emerson maintains that nature mysticism involves communing with Nature, defined as unmanifest Spirit that reveals itself through empirical-sensory nature. Wilber distinguishes Nature mysticism, a sign of higher or deeper consciousness, from nature mysticism (ecocentric immersion), a sign of psychological regression. Too great an attachment to the sensory experience of nature's beauty, Emerson asserts, prevents one from grasping that "Beauty in nature is not ultimate. It is the herald of inward and eternal beauty, and is not alone a solid and satisfactory good...." Emerson opines that "The best moments of life are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers, and the reverential withdrawing of nature before its God."
Similarly, although ecofeminist Rosemary Ruether criticizes theologies which posit a radically transcendent God, she insists that
The human capacity for ethical reason expresses [the] deeper source of life beyond the biological. [....] To believe in divine being means to believe that [compassion and altruistic care] in ourselves are rooted in and respond to the life power from which the universe itself arises.
Emerson, Ruether, and Wilber would thus say that Nature mysticism involves encountering the Divine as both generative (transcendent) of and as present in physical nature. Wilber contrasts Nature mysticism with the nature mysticism of flatland ontology. Enamored of nature mysticism, I would interpret the splendor of a grand sunset
as flowing from the sunset and into me, and I would then imagine that the sunset, that nature [the interconnected phenomenal display], is the source of the spiritual illumination. But that "splendor" is not lying around "out there" waiting to be perceived by the senses. [....] No, nature is not the source of this spiritual splendor, but rather its destination. (SES,471)
Realizing that all beings are manifestations of Nature, the eco-noetic self develops transpersonal compassion, which represents a post-ecocentric and post-anthropocentric stage in the evolutionary sequence of moral development. (SSE,291) In this stage, one "directly and immediately breathes the common air and beats the common blood of a Heart and Body that is one in all beings." (291) Echoing the words of Fox and Naess, Wilber asserts that for the eco-noetic self, "treating others as one's Self is not a moral imperative that has to be enforced as an ought or a should or a difficult imposition, but comes as easily and as naturally as the rising of the sun or the shining of the moon." (291)
Although Fox calls for humankind to identify more widely with all phenomena, he does not adhere to the teleological cosmology that Wilber believes is necessary to explain why and how a deeper as well as wider identification could possibly happen. According to Fox, supporters of "cosmic purpose" ethics and cosmologies believe that they provide "not only an accurate but also a more complete account of the universe in which moral decisions are made." (TTE,183) Unfortunately, however, precisely because cosmic purpose ethics are metaphysically rich, they also have what Fox calls the "disqualifying weakness" of being unfalsifiable and thus not particularly open "to modification in the light of discussion and criticism...." (TTE,183)
The issue of "falsification" cuts both ways, however, since it also poses problems for truth claims made about Fox's general concept of wider identification, as well as its ontological and cosmological versions. Proponents of nondual traditions maintain that a master can at least ascertain whether a yogi has achieved a certain level of insight and transformation, but how would one "falsify" the assertion the such levels exist to begin with? Perhaps the falsification test is suitable for hypotheses made in empirical science, but not appropriate for experiences involving transformation of consciousness. Adept nondualists do appeal to direct experience as the basis for their accounts of "higher" or "deeper" levels of consciousness. Though maintaining that there is ample room for debate about how to interpret and to articulate experiences that transcend the limits of language, Wilber insists those taking part in the debate must have the experience necessary to make them competent discussants.
If Fox upholds the validity of some truth claims based on experiences reported in esoteric traditions, he seems less inclined to take seriously those experiences which reveal not only that the material-sensory domain of nature is not ultimate, but that human consciousness plays an important role in the evolutionary process whereby Divine self-consciousness is achieved. Whereas Fox depicts such views not only as anthropocentric, but also as "scientifically bankrupt," Wilber insists that "the Big Bang has made Idealists out of virtually anybody who thinks openly about it," and that "most philosophers of science now openly admit--and even champion--the fact that evolution has some sort of self-transcending drive tucked within its own processes...." (SES,492) This sharp difference of opinion between two philosophers reflects divisions within the ranks of some contemporary scientists and cosmologists.
In support of the belief that humans have no special cosmic importance, Fox cites Darwinian evolutionary theory, according to which complex forms of life evolve not teleologically, but because of chance mutations that confer reproductive advantages upon individuals competing with other members of the same species. Those advantageous mutations are subsequently passed along genetically to the fortunate offspring. Yet as Darwin himself admitted, there was little support for his ingenious theory (developed simultaneously with Alfred Wallace) in the fossil record, which revealed no "transitional" species. For more than a century, critics have charged that Darwin's theory can explain microevolutionary changes, but not macroevolutionary changes, i.e., major alterations leading to entirely new species. Agreeing with this charge, Steven Jay Gould and Niles Ethridge developed the theory of "punctuated equilibrium," according to which macroevolutionary developments occur within such a relatively short time (punctuated) that the chances of finding transitional species fossils is greatly diminished in comparison with the numerous fossils left by species during long periods of morphological stasis (equilibrium). Though attacking certain aspects of the neo-Darwinist synthesis, Gould holds fast to the idea that there is no "direction" to evolution, and that human life itself is an unrepeatable accident.
In my view Gould shares Jacques Monod's existentialist "absurdism," according to which the universe--despite all its complexity and beauty--is completely meaningless and purposeless. We simply have to be adult enough to recognize the grim truth. "Man," as Sartre so famously put it, "is a useless passion." By purporting to show that simple naturalistic mechanisms could explain the origin of even the most complex forms of life, Darwinian theory undermined the belief--still held by many scientists in the mid-nineteenth century--that the Divine played a role in the formation of life. Wilber maintains that cosmic absurdism and pessimism increased in the late nineteenth century with the proclamation of the second law of thermodynamics, according to which entropic processes will ultimately render the entire cosmos inert and lifeless. (SES,10-11) For many decades thereafter, teleological cosmologies were displaced by relentless forms of mechanistic reductionism, which portrayed consciousness (if it was even mentioned in polite scientific circles) as an epiphenomenon wholly dependent on basic material processes.
Many scientists remain convinced that the universe lacks any meaning or purpose, that humans are simply clever animals struggling to survive, and that an interest in "spirituality" is a sign of dangerous irrationality. Recently, however, the idea of evolutionary "progress" and even cosmic purpose are slowly being reinstated by the "sciences of complexity," including general system theory, cybernetics, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, cellular automata theory, catastrophe theory, autopoietic system theory, dynamic systems theory, and chaos theories. These anti-reductionistic theories suggest not only that the universe is self-organizing, teleological, and hierarchical despite the law of entropy, but also that self-conscious forms of life may have still-to-be-understood roles in the realization of cosmic "purpose." (SES,14) In an important new work, Darwinism Evolving, Depew and Weber note that scientists once again are asserting that "evolution's larger mysteries" will only be solved when "the Darwinian tradition ceases (once again) to be the obligatory framework for productive inquiry." The "new developmentalists" maintain that "if there are multiple levels at which selection works, and higher levels evolved later than lower ones ... a kind of progressive change ... seems inevitable." Along with asserting that the "autonomous dynamics of self-organizing systems" change the "ecological theater" in which evolutionary change occurs, new developmentalists are even using the ideas of teleology and hierarchy:
Outlawed by mechanists as redolent of the great chain of being that supposedly stretched between God, angels, humans, animals, plants, and dead matter, "hierarchy talk" seems not to occasion no scandal [!]. On the contrary, advocates of an expanded [evolutionary] synthesis speak freely of a "biological hierarchy," in which natural selection operates at various levels and on various units. ... The world is fairly bursting, in fact, with entities that emerge spontaneously at different levels of scale.
Wilber would largely agree with Depew and Weber that "old ideas like teleology, hierarchy, and propensity" can be usefully redefined according to the new dynamics, so as "to give us a world that is at once as many-storied as the medieval and as naturalistic as the modern." Although Depew and Weber demur when it comes to a complete "reenchantment of the world after a long and depressing bout of mechanism," Wilber would take them at their word: a world as many-storied as the medieval world would have to include levels of reality beyond that of human rationality.
Following contemporary scientific trends, Wilber argues that reality is constituted by a "normal hierarchy" of "holons" (Arthur Koestler's term). A holon is something that is a whole in one context, a part in another. (SES,18) For example, a cell is a whole that embraces (includes) molecules, but a part embraced (included in) by an organism. "The whole... is more than the sum of its parts, and that whole can influence and determine, in many cases, the function of its parts (and that whole itself is, of course, simultaneously a part of some other whole....)" (SES,18) Like Holmes Rolston III, Wilber says that a holon, considered as a whole, is an end in itself; considered as a part, however, a holon is a means to the end of what is higher. At the same level, heterarchy prevails, i.e., each element has about equal weight and contributes to the well-being of the whole level. But these elements can be greatly influenced by higher-level holons, and can greatly influence lower-level holons. (SES,20) It is not heterarchy, but hierarchy that makes wholeness possible, for hierarchy "converts heaps into wholes, disjointed fragments into networks of mutual interaction." (SES,18) To emphasize that such hierarchy doesn't mean "fascist domination," Wilber uses the term "holarchy" to describe the levels of organization necessary for the functioning of the cosmic "whole." Holarchic levels cannot be viewed simplistically as "linear" or "ladder-like," he adds, for "they are interdependent and complexly interactive." (19)
In holarchy, the lower is in the higher, but not vice-versa. For example, atoms are in water molecules, but water molecules are not in atoms. Atoms can exist without molecules, but molecules cannot exist without atoms. Yet molecules cannot be reduced to or understood in terms of atoms, for molecules represent an evolutionary step toward greater depth, i.e., greater differentiation, spiritual concentration, or level of consciousness. Atoms have enormous span (i.e., there are enormous numbers of them), but they have less depth. A relatively shallow holon such as the atom may be fundamental to the cosmos, but has less significance than a holon contains more levels of the cosmos. Asserting that the biosphere (Gaia) is the largest and shallowest of the social holons, Wilber agrees that destroying Gaia would destroy humankind. It is false to say, however, that humankind is contained "in" Gaia, for this is akin to saying that molecules are contained "in" atoms. Rather, parts of Gaia are contained "in" humankind, in the sense that humankind has integrated all previous stages attained by life on earth. As opposed to environmentalists who says that humans are included in the biosphere, Wilber asserts that the biosphere is included within humankind, i.e., humankind embraces all that has come before it. The "basic moral intuition" of this holonic viewpoint is: "Protect and promote the greatest depth for the greatest span," i.e., encourage the fullest development and self-transcendence of all beings. (613)
Using the concept of the holon to join the human sciences with the natural sciences, Wilber asserts that "we are now in a position to realign facts and values in a gentler embrace, with science working with us, not against us, in constructing a truly holistic, not heapistic, worldview." (SES,31) Unfortunately, many environmentalists reject a depth-hierarchical model of the universe. For instance, Fox asserts that evolution brings greater differentiation, but he interprets such differentiation in terms of width, not in terms of depth or greater interiority. But for Wilber, what humankind needs at this point is not only a "wider identification," but also a "deeper embrace."
A higher holon both includes the capacities and functions of the previous holonic stage, while adding "its own unique and more encompassing capacities. In that sense, and in that sense only, can the new and more encompassing holon be said to be 'higher' or 'deeper'." (SES,20-21) Like Charles Birch and John Cobb, whose work Fox both admires and criticizes for its allegedly anthropocentric hierarchalism, Wilber maintains that higher/deeper (more encompassing, more embracing) holons are endowed with greater value than lower holons. (SES, 21). Hence, it is better to eat a carrot than a pig, because the latter involves a much more complex form of sentience than the former.
Aware that Wilber's intuition in this matter is widely shared, Fox would ascribe this fact to the influence of the Great Chain of Being, which has long justified human arrogance toward allegedly "inferior" or "lower" creatures. Preferring to dismantle both the cosmic hierarchy and the teleological views that usually accompany it, Fox calls for a wider horizontal identification with other (human and non-human) beings, an identification that transcends merely personalistic or egoistic identification, and enables people instead spontaneously to care for those beings just as we care for ourselves. Fox admires the concept of wider identification, in part because it makes no reference to the issue of "value" that has plagued environmental ethicists, who have tried demonstrate that this or that entity (or this or that quality) has "intrinsic value" or "inherent worth." Indeed, following Naess' interpretation of Kant, Fox maintains that acting on behalf of other entities with which/whom one identifies is not a "moral" action (i.e., a disinterested act conforming to one's duty), but rather a "beautiful" action (i.e., a benevolent act arising from inclination). (TTE,219)
Yet most humans cannot avoid making value judgements, which presuppose a hierarchy of values. Wilber contends, however, that relativists, heterarchists, and other despisers of hierarchy engage in a "performative contradiction" when they negatively evaluate (i.e., create an evaluative hierarchy) the hierarchical evaluation developed by others. Citing Charles Taylor, Wilber asserts that humans necessarily exist within nested frameworks or contexts (holons) that "unavoidably constitute various values and meanings that are imbedded in our situation." (SES,26) Acting, judging, or feeling within such a framework, Taylor maintains, "is to function with the sense that some action, or mode of life, or mode of feeling is incomparably higher than the others which are more readily available to us." Benevolent people who decry qualitative distinctions (e.g., the notion that human life is somehow "better" than that of a snail) make such distinctions when it comes to admiring those who live up to their own benevolent ideals, and criticizing those who do not. The affirmation of life and freedom are "constitutive goods," according to Taylor, that "are themselves reflections of qualitative distinctions and presuppose some conception of qualitative goods." Yet those who are motivated by the "strongest moral ideals, such as freedom, altruism, and universalism" find themselves "caught in a strange pragmatic contradiction, whereby the very goods which move them push them to deny or denature all such goods."
Hoping to avoid anthropocentric value judgments, as well as to avoid the problem that "intrinsic value" has posed for environmental ethics, Fox posits a decontextualized "wider Self" that transcends moral codes altogether and acts spontaneously on behalf of that with which it identifies. Fox notes that in Zen "transformation of personality" or "change in consciousness" replaces moral precepts. Although Wilber agrees with this idea in principle, he warns that the transition from rule-following morality to normless compassion is accomplished only in stages that have their own ethical norms. All such norms drop away only at the end point of development, which lies far beyond the capacities of most people, who are still struggling to be good rational egos.
Drawing upon the work of Kohlberg, Piaget, and Habermas, Wilber insists that each stage of human development involves its own form of interpersonal relationships, each of which in turn entails a particular mode of moral development. Lacking an adequate account of interpersonal relationships and stages of moral development, Fox's ecological Self would appear to Wilber and Taylor as a monstrosity, a "frameworkless agent" that is motivated by "deep incoherence and self-illusion...." Although sharing Fox's goal of supplanting dominator hierarchies with universal pluralism, Wilber insists that without an evaluative hierarchy such pluralism would end up as an indiscriminate "heapism" that blocks the way to the genuine "holism" of holarchy. Wilber believes that human life is constituted by nested frameworks that involve "qualitative [hierarchical] distinctions," and is persuaded that "there are better and worse ways to make our qualitative distinctions." (SES,30-31)
Warwick Fox's attempt to formulate a transpersonal ecology has made an important contribution not only to the ecology movement, but to transpersonal psychology. Given that Fox was attempting to break new ground, we should not be surprised to discover limitations in his praiseworthy effort. In this essay, following Wilber, I have argued that Fox's book does not sufficiently appreciate how great a challenge new scientific theories pose for the absurdist, mechanistic world views of the late nineteenth century. Moreover, I believe that Fox does not adequately describe the esoteric traditions allegedly constituting the "core" both of Naess' deep ecology and Fox's own transpersonal ecology. The very fact that Fox himself takes seriously the truth-claims made by those traditions means that he must at least entertain Wilber's cosmic-purpose ontology, because it is based upon the in the esoteric traditions.
Although generally supportive of Wilber's version of transpersonal ecology, I must admit that objections can be made to it. First, not all perennial philosophers agree that humankind is making moral "progress." Indeed, Buddhism and Hinduism can be read as saying humankind has been degenerating for thousands of years, and that we are in the last days before the universe is destroyed and recreated. Moreover, despite the current popularity of order-out-chaos sciences, significant opposition remains to the idea that evolution exhibits order, direction, and hierarchy. Even Big Bang cosmology, on which much of Wilber's cosmic narrative seems to depend, is only a theory, and one that is under attack from a number of positions. Finally, Fox might point out that Wilber's disdainful attitude toward deep ecologists and ecofeminists is inconsistent with the compassionate nondualism that he preaches.
In today's rapidly changing world, there is no room for inflexibility or dogmatism. To his credit, and despite the sometimes proclamational tone of his book, Wilber concedes that his views are revisable and subject to contest by others seeking to provide an alternative to modernity's narrative. In his introduction, he describes his book as being "nowhere fixed and final. [....] I will be telling the [cosmic] story as if it were simply the case (because telling it that way makes for much better reading), but not a sentence that follows is not open to confirmation or rejection by a community of the adequate. (SES,x) The issues raised by the differing transpersonal perspectives of Fox and Wilber merit continuing critical reflection by all those interested in a wider and deeper understanding of humanity's place in the universe.