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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Sergey Badaev graduated from the Moscow State University in 1979 as a biologist anddid some research work in ecology and genetics. Then he switched to teaching and now works as a freelanceEnglish teacher (ICELT certif., Cambridge Univ.). He lives in Moscow, Russia and can be contactedat badaev57 at mail dot ru.

and Social in the Integral Theory of
Ken Wilber

Analysis of the 7th chapter of
his book 'Integral Spirituality'

Sergey Badaev

Wilber starts 7th chapter of his book Integral Spirituality with a claim that for lots of people it is difficult to understand relationship between an individual and a group and it is a problem which a lot of thinkers have been grappling with for millennia. Then Wilber gives a few versions of this problem:

  1. If the individual is an organism, is society an organism also?
  2. Is society made of individual organisms in the same way individual organisms are made of cells and molecules?
  3. Is Gaia a single giant organism, made of all living beings?

First of all, let us analyse the very problem or question under consideration. The first version suggests that the question should be a matter of terminology. The answer would depend on how we define "organism" and what essential features we include in the definition. If a society has these features we call it an "organism", if not, we do not.

The second version is formulated in a rather strange way. It seems that any sensible person would agree that individuals are components of society and from this point of view it would not be wrong to say that society consists of individual organisms. But does society consist of organisms exactly the same way as organisms consist of cells and molecules? This formulation seems to be quite vague without clarification of what 'the same way' means here.

In the third version Gaia is mentioned which is usually considered as a planetary system of Earth. The term 'Gaia' in this context comes from so called 'Gaia hypothesis' by James Lovelock which he introduced at the end of 1960s. The idea was to view our planet as a living self-organising system, that is a sort of a super organism.

Wilber's formulation is not quite correct because according to Lovelock's definition of the term Gaia includes not only living things but all non-living components as well. In spite of this Wilber defines Gaia as a network of procaryotic cells and insists that it was an original definition by Lovelock.

After all, Wilber gives another version of the question which can be presented as follows.

  1. What exactly is that relationship between an organism and society?

Quite probably, what Wilber means here is the question of what the features and qualities are that make an individual and society similar from systemic point of view and what makes them different.

Let us follow Wilber's thoughts and see what he suggests as an answer to this question.

He starts with drawing our attention to the fact that according to the widely accepted idea, the world is organised hierarchically and that there is "a sequence of nested spheres of relational being, with each higher sphere enveloping the lower, until you have the entire universe". Although Wilber calls this idea one of the most popular responses to the question, hierachical structure per se does not give any clear answer to the relationship of an individual and society.

To illustrate the hierarchical structure of the world Wilber gives two schemes. One is taken from a popular book on eco-holism (unfortunately, Wilber gives no reference).

(Scheme 1)

  • Sub-quantum vacuum
  • Quantum events
  • Atoms
  • Molecules
  • Cells
  • Organisms
  • Families
  • Communities
  • Nations
  • Species
  • Ecosystems
  • Biosphere
  • Universe

The second is taken from Alwyn Scott's Stairway to the Mind.

(Scheme 2)

  • Quantum events
  • Atoms
  • Molecules
  • Biochemical structures
  • Nerve impulses
  • Neurons
  • Assemblies of neurons
  • Brain
  • Consciousness
  • Culture

With regards to these schemes Wilber comes to a conclusion that they are flawed with the same basic confusion. In order to demonstrate this he mentions a principle of such hierarchical sequences. According to this principle every upper level of this sequence should include the lower one as its component. Wilber draws our attention that in the first scheme ecosystems go after nations and that means ecosystems cannot appear in evolution before nations appear. That is obviously wrong.

In the second scheme consciousness and culture appear after brain as if they were material structures of a higher level than the brain. That is not correct as well. Putting aside a question how typical and widely circulated those schemes are, let us have a look at what Wikipedia suggests. You can find there a similar sequence of levels which is called 'the levels of biological organisation' (Wikipedia )

(Scheme 3)

  • Atom
  • Molecule
  • Organelle
  • Cell
  • Tissue
  • Organ
  • Organ system
  • Organism
  • Population
  • Biocoenosis
  • Ecosystem
  • Biosphere

I hate to think that Wilber uses a straw man argument but the third scheme does not have those flaws that Wilber criticises in the first and the second schemes.

Anyway, what does Wilber suggest as an alternative? He suggests metaphorically that one should not put together apples and oranges. In other words he suggests dividing individual holons and social holons and presents two corresponding sequences of individual levels and social levels. Below is the scheme of those levels as it is presented in upper right and lower right quadrants of his AQAL model.

  • Atoms
  • Molecules
  • Procaryotes
  • Eucaryotes
  • Neuronal organisms
  • Neural cord
  • Reptilian brain stem
  • Limbic system
  • Neocortex (triune brain)
  • Complex neocortex
  • SF1
  • SF2
  • SF3
  • Galaxies
  • Planets
  • Gaia system
  • Heterotrophic ecosystems
  • Societies with division of labour
  • "
  • Groups/families
  • "
  • Foraging (tribes)
  • Horticultural (tribal/village)
  • Agrarian (early state/ empire)
  • Industrial (nation/ state)
  • Informational (planetary)

Although Wilber writes that many theorists had realised that "you can't stack social on top of individual", his schemes look quite bizarre compared to those he criticises. The schemes that Wilber presents do not follow the rule that the lower level should be a component of the higher level. For example, it is quite obvious that neuronal organism cannot be a component of reptilian brain stem and societies with division of labour cannot be components of groups and families.

Do these two Wilber's schemes of correlating individual and social levels describe our world in a better and more comprehensive way than other schemes?

For example, Wilber writes:

"Atoms form galaxies, molecules form planets, cells form ecosystems, organisms form families, and so on."

Personally, the statements like this sound very artificial and offend the ear. Is not it better to say that atoms form molecules, molecules form cells and so on? If we continue the sequence suggested by Wiber we will get something absolutely bizarre. We will have to state that neuronal organisms form societies with division of labour, neural cords do not form anything new and reptilian brain stems form groups and families.

What is the cause of this mess? I would like to suggest a possible explanation. I think Wilber confuses the levels of biological organisation and evolutionary stages of life development of Earth.

The levels of biological organisation are logical levels of complexity of biological structures. The logical procedure starts with our planet as the whole system (Gaia) and then interacting elements or components of the lower level of complexity are distinguished. So, we get ecosystems. Then another lower level of complexity is distinguished and we get biocoenoses, then populations of biological species and so on. In this scheme there is no time, no development, no evolution. These are purely logical levels of complexity of biological organisation as we witness it on our planet now. That is why the logical direction of this procedure is from top to bottom.

Wilber tries to consider those sequences from bottom to top and interpret the levels as real evolutionary stages of development. He writes:

"each senior level can appear only after its junior levels have appeared (just like you can't have cells until after you have molecules)."

And here he confuses physical reality with logical categories, because as soon as the first very simple forms of life appeared on Earth, along with them biosphere, ecosystems, biocoenoses and populations appeared as well but in a very simple primordial form. And all these have been going through evolution together, changing and getting more and more complex.

Coming back to the basic question about the relationship between organisms and society Wilber gives a clear-cut answer: society is not made of organisms in the same way individual organisms are made of cells and molecules. Why? "It just doesn't work. It massively does not work." For me it is difficult to catch what Wilber means here. He does not explain in what sense those schemes do not work and in what sense his schemes do.

Apparently, Wilber believes that he has solved the problem that thinkers have been grappling with for millennia. However, even a cursory analysis of Wilber's schemes brings forth more questions than answers.

  1. What are the levels of his two correlating schemes? Levels of what?
  2. What are the criteria which were used to distinguish those levels? Why do, for example, procaryotes and eucaryotes represent two different levels, despite the fact that among eucaryiotes there are practically the same simply organised one-cell organisms as among procaryotes? Where are multicellular organisms without neural system like plants?
  3. What are those weird levels SF1, SF2 and SF3 that appear in almost every Wilber's book but have never been clearly explained so far?
  4. Why are heterotrophic ecosystems mentioned among social levels but autotrophic ecosystems are not? Why are biocenoses and populations not mentioned at all?
  5. Why are planets located among social forms, despite the fact that they are traditionally considered as individual forms? Why cannot we see crystals as a social form for molecules and atoms but instead we can see planets as a social form for molecules?
  6. Why do neural cord and limbic system "form" no corresponding levels of social holons despite the fact that "each occasion tetra-arises and tetra-evolves"?

And so on.

Wilber suggests distinguishing individual objects and social or collective objects as basically different classes of objects. He does not hide his irony to a system theoretic Ervin Laszlo who thinks that "the difference between a swarm of bees and a dog is one of degree, not of kind.

What is the criterion or key feature that Wilber suggests for distinguishing between individual objects and social ones? Wilber uses a term 'dominant monad' after Whitehead and, taking his dog as an example, explains that when his dog moves, 100% of the cell of its body move as one unit together. Wilber emphasizes that "it doesn't matter whether we think this dominant monad is biochemistry or consciousness or a mini-soul or a material mechanism". Whatever it is, the key feature according to Wilber is that they move together and "and there is not a single society or group or collective anywhere in the world that does that".

So, it turns out that concerted movement in physical space is the only feature that helps us to distinguish between individual and social objects. However this criterion is dramatically limited.

It does not work with regard to those sedentary forms of life which do not move much normally, for example, plants. A tree cannot move its millions of cells from one place to another but it is traditionally considered as an individual object. On the other hand, we can find some social groups which have a very high extent of co-ordination during space movements. They are a flock of migrating birds, a crew of a spaceship or a company of soldiers as a military unit. It is true that in all these cases we can see some level of autonomy of the components inside the system. But the same is true in the case of a dog. Its cells also have some level of autonomy and even cell communication. If there were not such autonomy we would never see such things like cancer tumors.

Does that mean that the difference between individual and social is relative but not fundamental? A system is a set of interacting components or elements which can be considered as a sort of collective. The difference is in the extent of that interaction or, in other words, in the level of autonomy.

Assuming fundamental difference between individual and social, Wilber puts forward AQAL model as a solution for the problem. He writes:

"The quadrants offer us a way to integrate individual and social without trying to reduce social to individual nor make individuals merely parts in a web or cogs in a wheel, but members in a social system that is a dimension of their own being-in-the-world. Individual and social are each fully themselves, as themselves, and they are inextricably interconnected: they tetra-arise and tetra-mesh as mutual dimensions of every occasion, all the way up, all the way down".

The idea that individuals are members in a social system is quite trivial. The rest of the arguments even if we assume they have tetra-arised, they sound really tetra-meshed (pardon my French).

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