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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
John AbramsonJohn Abramson is retired and lives in the Lake District in Cumbria, England. He obtained an MSc in Transpersonal Psychology and Consciousness Studies in 2011 when Les Lancaster and Mike Daniels ran this course at Liverpool John Moores University. He is currently studying for a distance learning Buddhist Studies MA at the University of South Wales. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Transpersonal Psychology

A New Dawn (Part 1 of 2)

John Abramson

Introduction

Arising within the dynamic backdrop of the transformative 1960s, Transpersonal Psychology emerging during the latter part of this period. Unveiled as a paradigm that embraces the transcendent dimensions of human existence, it harmonized with the spirit of this dynamic period—a time marked by hope and the anticipation of a post-World War movement aimed at improving society.

In many respects, transpersonal psychology's development advanced at pace but its quest for legitimacy within the academic realm was marred by scepticism from established quarters. It lacked an effective strategy to address this scepticism as illustrated by an emblematic voice in transpersonal psychology, Charles Tart:

“… in February, 2004, I presented a lecture with the deliberately provocative title, Flakey California nonsense in a scientific age? Is there any scientific support for transpersonal psychology?” (Tart, 2004)

Navigating the Abyss: Transpersonal Psychology's Existential Conundrum

In part 2 of this essay I will quote many other transpersonal psychologists who have, more recently, expressed the same sentiments. I will argue this scepticism by academia is an existential issue for transpersonal psychology and point to a possible way out of this extreme predicament.

The solution I propose is an alliance with the established scientific practices of another academic discipline with impeccable academic credentials i.e. mathematical philosophy. Such an alliance may initially appear bizarre and a primary goal of this essay will be to explain why it is, in fact, logical and potentially mutually beneficial. The discipline of transpersonal psychology stands to gain most from such an alliance by overcoming its existential crisis, while mathematical philosophy's potential gain, while not as dramatic as this, is still significant e.g. an added explicative power regarding what constitutes Platonic mathematical reality.

The Infinity Conundrum: Mathematical Philosophy and Transpersonal Psychology's Shared Frontier

In this first part of my essay, I will focus on why it is logical for transpersonal psychology to seek an alliance with mathematical philosophy. This will involve explaining the close relationship between on the one hand the mathematical properties of infinity, and on the other hand the properties reported by the wisdom traditions of Ultimate reality. And beyond this, to explain why this connection has an extraordinary potential for mitigating some of what academia presently regards as non-scientific (faith based) descriptions of reality by transpersonal psychology, religions and the great wisdom traditions.

Wilber's, Spiritual, and Religion's accounts of Ultimate Reality

Religion's accounts of ultimate reality are often diametrically contradictory. Proponents of a perennial truth, or a single ultimate reality, have a hard time accounting for these contradictions. There is, for example, no Abrahamic God in the Buddhist account of the ultimate reality of emptiness, and Brahman (or Self) in Advaita Vedanta is the opposite of the No-Self of Buddhism.

Besides being riven with these apparent irreconcilable divisions, religions are faced with mainstream academics such as Dawkins and Dennett who regard ultimate reality as the preserve of rational thought. Such conventional academic wisdom—how dirt manages to organise itself to write poetry as Ken Wilber disparagingly puts it—appears to be highly resistant to the extensive transpersonal and integral literature.

Wilber's view is that the profundity of any account of ultimate reality is correlated with the profundity of the state of consciousness from which that account is given. Thus, Wilber would say that that a description of reality from a 3rd tier perspective (eye of contemplation) is qualitatively higher than that from the eye of the mind or the eye of the flesh.

However, mainstream academia, besides scientifically dismissing Religious (faith based) accounts of reality, is also generally dismissive of any role of the eye of contemplation to provide a basis for verifiable scientific evidence. And not least because of the apparent irreconcilable divisions mentioned above of spiritual and religious accounts of reality.

The premise of this two part essay is that there is a way through this apparent intractable melee that can provide a common basis for understanding ultimate reality among religious/spiritual factions that is also scientifically acceptable to mainstream academia.

A Rational Approach to Evaluating the Eye of Contemplation

As a starting point it is useful to examine the differences between an account of ultimate reality written mainly from the perspective of reason i.e. the eye of the mind, and one that largely reflects a post rational frame of reference i.e. the eye of contemplation. I have chosen David Lane's (2019) “Integral Theory and Its Discontents” and Brad Reynolds (2019) three-part critique, "Real integral vs. Fake Integral" respectively to illustrate such differences. Thus I am using Lane (2019) as a proxy for mainstream academia's objections to Spiritual and Religions account of Ultimate Reality and Reynolds (2019) to represent one such Spiritual account.

Lane's (2019) critique of Reynolds (2019) give a general indication of his dissent regarding Reynold's and Wilber's view of ultimate reality:

… I wish I could see eye to eye with Wilber since I agree with him on a number of issues, but when he succumbs to prematurely theologizing the inner quest with unnecessary reifications, I end up cross eyed. (Lane, 2019)

… I [Lane] and Visser balk when we read such religious glop since it is not an open-ended inquiry using the eye of contemplation (which I think is altogether good), but rather presumes to “know” what the ultimate truth is. Such conceit, ironically, should be completely absent in our spiritual quests if we are honest about how very little we actually do know. (Lane, 2019)

The trick of seeing eye to eye with someone is to find a basis for discussion that both are comfortable with (e.g. Habermas's 1998, p.120, “Agreement rests on common convictions”) and which also enables a profound exploration of the issue in question (ultimate reality in this instance).

Despite Lane's (2019) formidable ability to concisely, clearly and forcefully explain his position, his arguments are within a frame of reference that is fundamentally different to that used by Wilber and Reynolds. This clash of frameworks, which comes into play when discourse concerns the validity of Ultimate Reality claims, extend far beyond Lane and Wilber/Reynolds. It seemingly is at the forefront, of exchanges between mainstream academia and Religion/Spiritual academic disciplines when such validity is being discussed and thereby renders these effectively incoherent. How then, to bring these intra-coherent but inter-clashing frameworks of Lane and Wilber/Reynolds into some sort of embracing framework within which meaningful discussion can take place?

A Common Framework for Discourse Between the Eye of the Mind and the Eye of Contemplation

Consider the following quotes from Lane and Wilber respectively:

Spirit—we could actually say Infinity instead—is never definable because it is by definition never ascertainable or limited. (Lane, 2015, emphasis added)

Infinity always exceeds its finite incarnations and transcends whatever limitations we attempt in vain to place upon it. (Lane, 2018, emphasis added)

As Ken Wilber eloquently writes: "In the beginning there is only Consciousness as such, timeless, spaceless, infinite and eternal.” (Lane, 2014, emphasis added)

… at 3rd tier, the lack of awareness of infinity or spirit is often a dysfunction (Wilber, 2017a, p.550, emphasis added)

... and in the highest reaches of evolution, maybe, just maybe, an individual's consciousness does indeed touch infinity—a total embrace of the entire Kosmos—a Kosmic consciousness that is Spirit awakened to its own true nature. (Wilber, 2017b, p.38, emphasis added)

I am an utter Emptiness, another word for infinite Freedom, unbounded to infinity. (Wilber, 2004, p.249, emphasis added)

Here Lane and Wilber imply that infinity can be compared to 'Spirit' or ultimate reality (assuming a congruence between spirit and ultimate reality). In searching for a common basis for discussion between Lane and Reynolds/Wilber, their mutual acceptance of 'infinity' as a proxy for Ultimate reality or Spirit appears to constitute such a starting point. Although Lane and Wilber/Reynolds may have a different notion, or definition, of what comprises the term 'infinity', it seems reasonable to ask each of them to consider relating their respective perceptions of infinity to the contemporary mathematical use of the term infinity.[1]

Such a comparison may seem at first sight to be obscure or esoteric and to demand a specialist knowledge of mathematics; but as shown in the next section, it is none of these.

Properties of Mathematical Infinity that Correspond with Properties of Reality reported by Nondual Wisdom Traditions

The proposition of this section is to show, in the table below, how key properties of mathematical infinity (disclosed by the eye of the mind) correspond with with properties of reality reported by nondual wisdom traditions (disclosed by the eye of contemplation). This correspondence, I suggest, provides strong evidence for authenticating certain evidence based on the eye of contemplation that have previously been categorised by mainstream academia as uncorroborated by scientific methods. It establishes the sought for common frame of reference discussed above.

Thus infinity and an account of ultimate reality by the nondual Traditions are found to have certain important properties in common. In and of itself, infinity is disclosed by mathematicians, starting with George Cantor some 150 years ago, to have extraordinary and unique qualities. But these exceptional properties turn out to correspond, to the point of congruence, with certain properties of reality that have been revealed by Wisdom Traditions for millennia. These correspondences on the one hand suggest that the properties of mathematical infinity reflect certain properties of ultimate reality and on the other hand provide evidence to 'certify' certain ancient disclosures of nondual Traditions. In other words, they provide a bridge between evidence obtained by the eye of the mind and that from the eye of contemplation. I will provide additional arguments for the congruence between the properties of infinity and those of ultimate reality (as reported by the nondual traditions) in part 2 of this essay.

Resolving Scientific and Nondual Traditions' Claims About Ultimate Reality

It may be helpful to apply the above arguments to the previously mentioned critique by David Lane's (2019) of Wilber's (and Reynolds') approach to ultimate reality where Lane says Wilber's approach:

  • Succumbs to prematurely theologizing the inner quest with unnecessary reifications
  • Can read like religious glop
  • Reflects conceit that he knows what reality is—which should be completely absent in spiritual quests
  • Fails to acknowledge or be honest about how little we know

What is striking about these criticisms by Lane is how they can be partly disarmed by acknowledging, as argued above, that human realization of ultimate reality, when it does occur is always restricted to one of a number of possible manifestations of ultimate reality. What it cannot be is a realization of a 'Gods eye view' of reality; no human, however holy and spiritually advanced, can realize the 'ultimate of ultimate realities' i.e. the ultimate that embraces, or transcends and includes, all human realized realities such as the Abrahamic God, Buddhist emptiness, Hindu Brahman and the Chinese Tao.

In this context, Wilber's 'theologising and reification'—if it were to be acknowledged as only one of many accounts of ultimate reality—arguably looses much of its objectionable nature. Reification becomes contextualised; that is Religious and Spiritual reports of reality are always only within a framework of a particular version of ultimate reality. Before explaining why that means it 'looses much of its objectionable nature' I should point out this is something that Religions, the Wisdom Traditions and the likes of Wilber and Reynolds may take issue with. That is, if ultimate reality is related to the properties of infinity, which is a central premise of this essay, then there must be a plurality of ultimate realities each of which is valid within its own realm and not necessarily outside of it.

But returning to Lane's charge of Wilber's reification, consider what reification means i.e. “when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete real event or physical entity” (Visser, 2019). Thus Lane is saying that Wilber's (or Reynolds) reports of experience in a different realm are being mistreated as a real event in our everyday ordinary realm of experience. However, the above analysis suggests this is not the way to represent such reports by Wilber or Reynolds. Rather their reports are valid in the realm they are reporting from.[4] What the mathematical theory of infinity tells us is that there are other 'real realms'. In that context, Wilber and Reynolds can be said to be giving 'real' reports from a 'different' real realm. They are not saying, as I understand it, that their reports are real in our everyday ordinary realm (as Lane charges them with his reification remark) but that they are real in the realm they are reporting from. And critically, I am arguing Wilber and Reynolds have the support of infinite mathematical theory in such a claim.

As regards Lane's characterisation of Wilber's descriptions of reality as 'religious glop', that jibe is arguably misconceived. Wilber's description of reality is from a perspective within the framework of the ultimate reality he claims to have realized. This contrasts with Lane's critique of Wilber's description which is from a perspective outside of that reality (or from within a different reality). Understood in this way, it is no wonder Lane fails to realise its significance. In other words, Wilbers descriptions of reality can be seen as signposts designed to transport the reader to the reality Wilber inhabits. But Lane appears to require Wilber's descriptions to have meaning within his own framework of reason. It is as if Lane were to insist that poetry must make literal sense.

Thus where Lane refers to some of Wilber's work as reading like religious glop, he should, in my opinion, reconsider and withdraw this critique. Rather than 'glop', Wilber's description of ultimate reality can be re-framed as potentially providing a valuable authentic description of a particular ultimate reality. Lane might be persuaded to adopt such re-framing because, just as he would accept (from the result of mathematical analysis) that an explanation of infinity is beyond reason so an explanation of ultimate reality would be expected to be beyond reason and would therefore sound unreasonable (or maybe like glop) within the worldview of reason.

Summary of Part 1 of This Essay

The overall aim of parts 1 and 2 of this essay is to present a new paradigm for transpersonal psychology to enable it to overcome its 'existential crisis'. This admittedly bold claim raises many issues and part 2 of my essay will attempt to address these.

The objective of this part 1 of my essay is to provide an initial explanation of the need for transpersonal psychology to seek an alliance with academic field of mathematical philosophy. A two pronged approach has been taken to achieve this preliminary aim.

On the one hand this has involved taking a theoretical approach to show the close connection between the properties of mathematical infinity and the properties of Ultimate reality reported by the nondual traditions.

On the other hand, a practical application of this theory, taking Lane's (2019) critique of Reynolds (2019), has sought to show how Lane's critique is unjustified in certain respects. This lack of justification is set in the context of a claimed misuse by Lane of 'the eye of the mind'. And this misuse is authenticated by drawing on the theoretical approach to the properties of mathematical infinity. Correcting this misuse leads to accepting (with the eye of the mind) that Wilber's and Reynolds reports from different realms are, or can be, valid within the purview of the realm in question. In part 2 of my essay, I will claim this could be a game changer for transpersonal psychology in that it will involve transpersonal psychology aligning itself with an established 'scientific' (equating 'scientific' with' mathematical') theory and open up the legitimacy of scientific exploration of different realms of existence.

Conclusion: A Nexus Unveiled

In conclusion, the proposed alliance between transpersonal psychology and mathematical philosophy emerges as a beacon of hope within a sea of skepticism. The quest for a bridge between empirical rigor and transcendent wisdom is an audacious endeavor, necessitating deep explorations into the realms of both disciplines. This sets the scene for part 2 of my essay.

Notes:

  1. Although this common understanding is restricted to mathematical infinity's properties - and there are probably other aspects of Ultimate Reality asserted by Lane and Wilber/Reynolds that they disagree on, the properties of mathematical infinity provide an apparent common basis for discussion.
  2. T.R.V. Murti's 1956/1960 acclaimed book The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System is a classic reference work for Buddhist studies. It has also been the subject of much, largely unwarranted, criticism in the past 60 years. See my refutation of the thrust of these criticisms of Murti's work in Abramson 2014 and 2015 (both posted on the Integral World site).
  3. The transfinite, with its wealth of arrangements and forms, points with necessity to an absolute, to the 'true infinite', whose magnitude is not subject to any increase or reduction, and for this reason it must be quantitatively conceived as "an absolute maximum." (Welch & Horsten, p.6)
  4. Assuming such reports are 'authentic' reports within the realm in question, but I will not pursue the issue of authenticity.

References:

Abramson, J. (2014). The misunderstanding and misinterpretation of key aspects of Ken Wilber's work in Hartelius and Ferrer's (2013) assessment. Transpersonal Psychology Review, 16(1), 3-14.

Abramson, J, (2015). The emperor's new clothes: Ferrer isn't wearing any—Participatory is perennial. Transpersonal Psychology Review.

Habermas, Jürgen, (1998) On the Pragmatics of Communication, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hill, J.S. (1997). Infinity, Faith, and Time: Christian Humanism and Renaissance Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Lane, David. (2014). The Enchanted Land, The Saint: Sawan Singh, Integral World website.

Lane, David. (2015). On reductionism, Integral World website.

Lane, David. (2018). The Chandian Revolution: Demythologizing Radhasoami Beliefs, Integral World website

Lane, David. (Feb, 2019). Integral Theory and Its Discontents, Integral World website.

Murti, T.R.V. (1960). The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A study of the Madhyamika system. [Revised edition]. London: Allen & Unwin.

Reynolds, Brad. (Jan, 2019). Real integral vs. Fake Integral, (three-part critique), Integral World website.

Sallis, J. (2012). Logic of Imagination: The Expanse of the Elemental. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Tart, Charles T. (2004). On The Scientific Foundations Of Transpersonal Psychology: Contributions From Parapsychology. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology; Stanford Vol. 36, Iss. 1, (2004): 66-90.

Visser, Frank. (Sep, 2019). Ken Wilber and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. Integral World website.

Welch, P. D., & Horsten, L. F. M. (2016). Reflecting on Absolute Infinity. Journal of Philosophy, 113(2), 89-111.

Wilber, Ken. (2004). The Simple Feeling of Being: Embracing Your True Nature. Shambhala, Boston & London.

Wilber, Ken. (2017a). The Religion Of Tomorrow: a Vision for The Future of the Great Traditions-More Inclusive, More Comprehensive, More Complete. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, Colorado.

Wilber, Ken. (2017b). A Brief History of Everything (20th Anniversary Edition), Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, Colorado.






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