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 andádid some research work in ecology and genetics. Then he switched to teaching and now works as a freelanceáEnglish teacher (ICELT certif., Cambridge Univ.). He lives in Moscow, Russia and can be contactedáat badaev57 at mail dot ru.

Is God Real According
to Ken Wilber?

Sergey Badaev

In his book Integral Spirituality Ken Wilber takes up a very complicated question: is God real or not?[1]

I see his arguments as follows.

  1. Some particular activities of brain structures do not say anything about the ontological status of what is the source (or cause) of these activities. When someone sees an apple and some areas in their brain are activated, it does not mean that the apple exists only in the brain. "So why should we assume that God exists only in the brain because the same thing happens?", asks Wilber. In other words, that means that some patterns of brain activity which correspond to what some people may describe as God experience in fact might indicate that there is some reality beyond the brain which can be considered as God.
  2. Human consciousness goes through some specific stages of development and during these stages the picture or the model of the world goes through dramatic changes. Some things, some features and characteristics of the world become available for perception and awareness only at the specific stages of development. For those who attain the higher stages and the higher states "Godhead", "Emptiness", "Buddha-nature" and so on are real.
  3. The only way for a person to know if they are real or not is to enter these states, attain these stages and have this experience. As Wilber says: "...if I want to know if something is real, I must get in the same state or stage from which the assertion was issued, and then look. If I don't do that, then please, I shouldn't talk about things that are over my headů.".

I am going to demonstrate that those arguments are at least incomplete and some points are mere erroneous. Let's keep in mind that, quite wisely, Wilber does not try to discuss the question of what God is, but instead he focuses on what to be real means.

Wilber starts with a comparison of the God experience and an an the perception of an apple. Obviously, we cannot see God the same way as we can see an apple. In some religious traditions there are special commandments not to use any visual images for God. But if we take the example of an apple, we can easily see that an image of an apple can appear in our mind, not only as a result of perception through our senses but also during dreaming at night or during the waking state when we use our imagination. In the latter cases there will be no physical object we call an apple but only its image in our consciousness.

Here is a key problem in Wilber's arguments, as he does not take into account two different meaning of the word 'real'.

Any fiction is real if it is a part of my experience.

On the one hand, we can call 'real' everything which is a part of our actual experience. For example, if I feel pain, this pain is real as a part of my experience. If I feel hungry, my hunger is real as well. Any fiction is real if it is a part of my experience. On the other hand, we can call 'real' onlythe correct interpretation of our sensual experience when there is a corresponding fragment of so-called physical reality. For example, an apple on the table is real because I can come, take it and eat it. But an 'apple' that I can see on the screen of my monitor is not real. I cannot take and eat it. This is just a virtual image which is created by numerous colourful dots on the screen.

If we look at this situation in general, we can assume that there is an external world, something that lies beyond our senses. Some signals come from this world to our sense organs which convey them to the brain which in turn treats them, filters and uses them for the creation of inner images and perceptions. So we can say that there are two intermediate departments between our inner experience and the external world and they are senses and the brain. These two departments appeared in our organism during evolution to provide our adaptation to the environment.

So, for any organism like us, there is a critical task to distinguish in our inner experience the images and perceptions which are the results of signals from the outer world and the images and perceptions which come from the sense organs or from the brain itself. Generally, we manage this task, otherwise we would not be alive very long. The most simple example is how little children learn to distinguish night dream events and physical world events. It is well-known that it is not so easy for them and they often mix these two types of reality.

To clarify the question Wilber uses linguistic terminology. In linguistics they use two terms: "sign" which may be a word and "referent' which is an object we refer to. But these linguistic terms do not make Wilber's explanation clearer—just the opposite.

Firstly, the terms imply the usage of a language. But it is not always the case. We can see an apple and decide the question if it is real or not without any use of any language. Secondly, referents can be not only objects of the physical world like a dog, a tree and the moon, but imaginary objects like characters of fiction books. Discussing usage of such words as "Godhead", "nirvikalpa", "Buddha-nature", "Christ consciousness" and so on, Wilber cannot solve the problem of the ontological status of their referents. It is rather a problem of communication or understanding, because if there is no referent in your mind, there is no understanding of a word which is used as a sign for that referent.

So Wilber is right when he says that for understanding all participants of the communication act should have some inner experience as a referent. In order to understand what other person tells us about her pain we should be familiar with that sort of experience. That is right about all our sensations and feelings we share with each other. But that has nothing to do with ontological status of those referents. When Wilber discusses such linguistic signs as "God", "Emptiness" or "nirvikalpa samadhi", he puts a question: are their referents real?

Now we can see that it can be understood in two different meanings. The first meaning is about a referent in our inner experience. If we have it we say "yes, it is real". The second meaning concerns the ontological status of the referent. The question is about something which is beyond our mind and which can be a source for the inner experience. Even when we have some inner experience we can be very unsure about the source of it. If I had a night dream about a unicorn I could say that it was real as my genuine experience. But it was not real in the sense horses or zebras are real.

Collective confirmation, which Wilber suggests as a criterion for a referent reality, works neither for the first meaning nor for the second one. If to be real means to be a part of my inner experience, it is real even if it is not confirmed by other people. For example, if I try some food and feel bitter, this bitterness is real for me even if other people report that this food is sweet. On the other hand, if some people take a huge dose of alcohol and see some small green crocodiles, their collective confirmation will not be a reliable criterion that those crocodiles are part of physical reality.

The same is true for the fundamental rule that Wilber gives for testing reality of anything. He says: "...if I want to know if something is real, I must get in the same state or stage from which the assertion was issued, and then look". Now we can see clearly that this is not a way to solve an ontological question of a referent. Even if we get in a particular state and get a particular experience, it does not solve automatically the question of the ontological status of the referent. After all the question is open: is there any reality beyond my mind which can be considered as a source or a cause for my inner experience? Obviously, here is a critical point because there is a risk of a mistake. We can ascribe to our inner experience a wrong ontological status.

As the philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed in his famous book Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits we humans never make mistakes on the level of our inner experience. We make mistakes on the level of the interpretation of our experience. This includes the mistakes of ascribing a wrong ontological status to a referent. For example, if I have a night dream and I can fly like a bird, this is my genuine experience and as my experience it is real. But if I happen to believe that the referent of this experience is my ability to fly in the physical world, this mistake may cost me my life.


[1] Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality, Shambhala, 2000, See: Chapter 8: "The World of the Terribly Obvious", paragraph "Is God Real?" (p. 167-169) and Appendix II: "Integral Post-Metaphysics", paragraph "What God is Like, What God is Not, and What God Is" (p.261- 266).

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