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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Elliot BenjaminElliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 230 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. See also:


Who Shaves the Barber?

My Take on Don Salmon's
“Shaving Science” Essay Sequel

Elliot Benjamin

Barber of Sevilla Paradox

There is a well-known mathematical/logic paradox known as the Barber of Seville paradox. It goes like this.

Suppose the town of Seville has just one barber, who is male, and every man keeps himself clean-shaven. Suppose also that the barber shaves all those and only those, men who do not shave themselves.

Well that's it. This is a paradox—an impossible situation in logic, since you can't have it both ways. The barber must be clean-shaven since by assumption he is a male in the town of Seville. But there is no one to shave him since he is the only barber and the barber shaves “all those and only those, men who do not shave themselves.” And you may ask what does this little paradox have to do with Don Salmon's Shaving Science essays on Integral World [1]?

Well let's try a bit of mathematical transformation here. I'm going to take the liberty of transforming “all men in the town of Seville are clean-shaven” to our mainstream science belief that all things in the universe are explainable (at least theoretically) in some kind of physical/material context that initially emanates from the Big Bang around 14 billion years ago, along the lines of our scientific mainstream theory known as Big History [2]. And I will transform the barber into the Big Bang itself. If this seems a bit “way out,” well just take it as a rather harmless mathematical game. But if you play this game with me, we now have the same paradox as the Barber of Seville. We have the assumption that all things in the universe are explainable in some kind of physical/material context emanating from the Big Bang, but since the Big Bang is construed in a physical/material context we must logically conclude that the Big Bang emanates from itself. But what does it mean to “emanate from itself”?

This gets me back to the question: “What happened before the Big Bang?” that I asked about in my previous Integral World essay: Psychic Phenomena, Evolution, and Universal Meaning [3]. According to well-respected contemporary physicists Steve Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and Victor Stenger, it makes no sense to ask what happened “before” the Big Bang, since there was no “time” before the Big Bang [4]. But I find this to be very unsatisfying, for then the transformed Barber of Seville paradox is conveying to me that the Big Bang emanated from the Big Bang; i.e. it somehow spontaneously appeared out of nowhere and nothing some 14 billion years ago—some virtually infinitesimally small particle of mass that exploded into the universe. But if energy and mass are interchangeable according to Einstein's famous equation, then perhaps there was actually some kind of “energy” (for lack of a better word) that “caused” the Big Bang to begin with. This postulated “Before Big Bang Energy” appears to me to be consistent with Lawrence Krauss' description of his conception of “nothingness”' as including the “potential for something to arise” (cf. [4]).

And it also seems to me that there must have been some kind of energy that was always there; otherwise we get an “infinite regress” where “something before” preceded “something later” ad infinitum. In the world of mathematics, you can think of this as either the set of natural numbers 0, -1, -2, -3, ...without any limit, or as the set of numbers 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4... that has the limit 0. But either way we get an infinite regress.

O.K. but still what does this at all have to do with Don Salmon's Shaving Science series of essays, other than the fact that the Barber of Seville paradox also involves shaving?

Don has expressed his frustration in his Integral World Shaving Science sequel essay (cf. [1]), and also to me personally, at being misunderstood in his Shaving Science Integral World essays. Now at the risk of making Don feel even more misunderstood, it seems to me that Don is trying to put science in perspective, viewing science as dependent upon one's subjective frame of mind, which repeatedly changes and progresses as knowledge is accumulated over time. Furthermore, it seems to me that Don is especially interested in one's “experiences,” aside from what one thinks with one's logical/rational mind/brain. This is why apparently Don has been labeled as an “idealist” on Integral World, though he frustratingly attests that he is not an idealist, but rather an “agnostic” (cf. [1]). And if I am at all on target with understanding Don Salmon's perspective, then perhaps there is some relationship here to my transformed Barber of Seville paradox.

This actually all goes back for me to Ken Wilber's early promotion of his “Three Eyes of Knowing,” although this idea did not originate with Wilber, but preceded him by a few centuries, as Wilber has described [5]. What I see Salmon promoting is essentially the “Eye of Contemplation” in the context of a non-rational/trans-rational/musical way of perceiving the universe. Again, I may not be interpreting Don's perspective accurately, but at this point let's call it my own perspective. I believe there is a mode of knowing that one can experience in the context of what Charles Tart described in 1969 as an “altered state of consciousness” [6]. This can also be described in quite physiological/neurological terms, as David Lane frequently does in his Integral World essays [7]. But of course the dangers of taking one's “experiential knowing”as a legitimate altered state of consciousness is all too apparent, as described in various graphic perspectives by a number of our most respected academic and popular skeptics [8].

But is there a way out of the dilemma—or the paradox? We go as far back as our rational minds can take us, and we get that the Big Bang started with itself? Or we postulate all kinds of “meaningful” Intelligent Design explanations for the origin of the universe that perhaps could even be consistent with the essential beliefs of many religions that the death of the body transforms into a “spiritual” afterlife?

To sum up, I believe I understand what Don Salmon is talking about regarding the limits of science and rational thought (if I'm mistaken about this then I'm sure Don will let me know). But then we have the quote by Albert Einstein that arch skeptic Michael Shermer included in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (p. 43): “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious things we have” (cf. [8]). And I am certainly deeply alarmed by all the combinations of silliness, horror, and unspeakable cruelty that have come about from the suspension of rational thought and the adoption of what some people construe as “altered states of consciousness.” So what can I possibly do to resolve my transformed Barber of Seville paradox?

I suppose when all is said and done, I feel I have no choice but to rely upon my own deepest experiences—which for me arises from my natural combination of rational thought with my apparently neurologically driven “altered states of consciousness.” And it is precisely this combination of rationality and experience that I engage in, in the context of what I refer to as “experiential philosophy.” In my experiential studies of both modern religions and the creative artist [9], I try my best to assimilate the powerful arguments of famous skeptics like Carl Sagan, Richard, Dawkins, and Michael Shermer, as well as our own Integral World skeptics (at least when they choose to wear their Integral World skeptic hats) Frank Visser and David Lane. But then I also try to make sense out of the occasional Integral World “minority” perspective as described by Don Salmon in regard to the limits of rational thought and science. And it may very well be necessary for me to entertain both of these perspective to make any headway in gaining even a modicum of understanding of even the question (let alone the answer) I began this essay with: Who shaves the barber of Seville? Or in a transformed context, what was going on “before” the Big Bang?


1) See Don Salmon's series of Shaving Science essays on Integral World, and in particular his 2014 Integral World essay Shaving Science with Ockham's Razor: The Sequel. Retrieved from

2) For a good summary article on Big History, see Frank Visser's 2012 Integral World article Integral Theory and the Big History Approach: A Comparative Introduction. Retrieved from

3) See Elliot Benjamin (2014), Psychic Phenomena, Evolution, and Universal Meaning. Retrieved from

4) See Lawrence Krauss (2012), A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. New York: Free Press; Stephen Hawking (1988), A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. New York: Bantam Books; Victor Stenger (1988), Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe. New York: Prometheus Books.

5) See Ken Wilber (1983), Eye to Eye. Boston: Shambhala.

6) See Charles Tart (1969) (Ed.), Altered States of Consciousness. New York: Wiley.

7) See for example David Lane (2014). The Rise of the Mysterians: Reverse Engineering the Brain and the Prakiti of Consciousness. Retrieved from

8) See for example Carl Sagan (1996), The Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books; Michael Shermer (2002), Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of our Time. New York: St. Martin's Griffin; Richard Dawkins (2006), The God Delusion: New York: Houghton Mifflin.

9) See my Modern Religions and Creative Artist books as described in my bio, which are available at, and also on my forthcoming author's website at

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