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

Jim Chamberlain is an artist and illustrator whose clients include Atlantic Monthly, Psychology Today, PC World, and many other publications. He has engaged spiritual, integral, transpersonal, transformational approaches since the early seventies. In the nineties Jim trained and earned a credential in Arnold Mindell's Process Work, and has worked in a therapeutic capacity with groups, couples, and individuals. Through most of the nineties, Jim was an instructor for the Integrative Medicine Center of sister hospitals, for whom he taught courses in mindfulness-based stress management. His current focus is on philosophy of mind (and early opera and sacred music). .

Whither Ken Wilber?

Musings on Evolutionism, Reductionism
and Religious Honesty

Jim Chamberlain


"Merely asserting something, no matter how loudly, doesn't make it true. Confident assertion is no substitute for argument."

My interest in getting a clearer sense of Ken Wilber's philosophical stance on certain open questions about the origin and evolution of life, the relationship between psychological events and physical events, and the relation of science and religion was piqued when I began to notice that more than a few Wilberians seemed to use terms such as "flatland materialism," "quadrant absolutism," and "gross reductionism" to characterize and thereby dismiss from serious consideration just about anything they didn't happen to agree with. It occurred to me that they may have been inspired to resort to this kind of rhetoric by reading and listening to Ken Wilber (given that this is his jargon). And so I tried to get a sense of what might be behind Wilber's rhetoric about certain issues. What, I wondered, does Wilber actually believe about certain things? It is easy to talk about going in a "post-metaphysical" direction, but I wanted something much more specific. In particular I wanted to get a clearer sense of where Wilber might stand on the question, "Can spirituality be naturalized?"[1]

The more research I did, the more I began to notice the degree to which Wilber does not commit himself to clear cut positions on certain issues, and instead tends to make statements so general and open-ended that even someone at what Wilber might characterize as a "pre-rational" or "mythic" level could interpret Wilber to be in agreement with them. Given Wilber's supposed status as "one of the most widely read and influential American philosophers of our time,"[2] according to his publisher, I think it is more than reasonable to ask where, specifically, Wilber actually stands on certain issues? Is there anything behind some of his anti-Darwinian, anti-reductionism, anti-materialism rhetoric beyond the obvious, which is that we cannot reduce things like beauty, love, and meaning to "flat surfaces" and "Its" that have "simple location"? How much of what Wilber says about certain things is intended to be understood in what he calls "as if" mythical-metaphorical-transpersonal ways (see below), rather than in ways that are scientifically and propositionally relevant?

I also noticed that Wilber's use of sources is sometimes more mystifying than clarifying, and I provide a few examples of this below.

My underlying concern has to do with how those of us who consider ourselves integrally aware and spiritually attuned discuss our disagreements when we don't see eye to eye.

Mythical and Metaphorical Truth

In response to questions about divination posed to him by Tami Simon on the Kosmic Consciousness spoken audio set published by Sounds True Audio (of which Simon is founder and president), Wilber distinguishes between metaphorical and empirical or "concrete-literal" understanding of symbols and myths that have the potential to help people open to transpersonal insights.[3]

Simon asks Wilber how one may distinguish between someone who uses a divination method, such as astrology or tarot, in a "pre-rational" way and someone who uses such a method in a "transrational" way. It's a good question which Simon has to ask three times before Wilber gives her a direct answer.

On the third try, Simon phrases the question thus:

We have a diviner sitting in the corner, throwing their I Ching coins or using the tarot. From the outside, how do you know if this person is operating at a pre-rational or trans-rational level?

Wilber says that if the diviner says, "I am going to give you empirical evidence of what's going to happen tomorrow afternoon," we should check and see if their prediction comes true.

That's a simple scientific test at that point; if they're making an empirical claim, check it empirically. And most of them, you know, they are. They're somehow claiming that this ritual they're doing is going to have this kind of effect, and you can actually check it out. And if that's the case, check it out. On the other hand, if they frame what they're doing as a, "I'm gonna give you an interpretive reading about events that are important to you and your life right now," that's fine, that's a metaphoric orientation.

Earlier in the same segment of the interview, Wilber says that astrology "is a very sophisticated map of the mythic level of development. That's what the world looks like at that mythic stage of consciousness." But, he says, when astrology claims to be an empirical science that makes accurate predictions about what's happening, "it seems to fail on that count."

There's been no evidence that it does a scientific kind of thing in terms of predicting objective Its, and what they're going to do. So we can't say astrology-at least based on the evidence-we can't say astrology does that. But it does do other things in terms of I and We, in terms of the meaning structure at that stage or wave or band of consciousness in terms of the value structure it gives people, in terms of the interpretive overview it gives people. If you are trying to believe in astrology as if it covers everything, then that's probably not right. That's where you sort of have to curb a belief system, is when it pretends to cover all the bases but isn't really doing it in a way it claims to.

He adds that astrology applies to a specific band of development that is "not a band that's transrational for the most part as far as we can tell."

Simon asks Wilber if he thinks that studying the symbols of astrology and the tarot can open a person to transrational insights, and Wilber says, "Absolutely."

Wilber says that most myths, when they originate, are taken to be literally and concretely true rather than being taken metaphorically. The more sophisticated approach, he says, is to take myths as being deeply symbolic of dimensions higher than what the myths claim to be concretely and literally about. This is reminiscent of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and Wilber cites Campbell in this regard.

Campbell was very very clear. He said, the way you get to this higher mythology, is you hold the mythic image in an "as if" way. In other words, it's "as if" that were true. ... The capacity to form a cognition that says that it's as if this is the case, or would be, that is what we're calling Level 4 rational capacity. It doesn't come into existence until that level. That's why you can't hold an "as if" view in a child till they're ten or eleven years old. ... If "as if" comes into being with a rational level of development, then any "as if" mythology has to be held by rationality or higher. So that's a very very distinguishing way to tell the difference between pre-rational myths that are taken to be concretely, literally true, and transrational myths that may represent some very high transpersonal dimensions.

The difference between a prerational myth and a transrational myth is not that one is a myth and the other isn't. Both are myths, and both are non-rational (as pre and trans are both non-rational). Non-rational myths, whether we classify them as pre or trans, are not scientific theories or empirical evidence of anything, including answers to ontological questions. To attempt to support a mythically or metaphorically transrational "truth" through appeal to science and scientific sources is confused and confusing.

When Wilber talks about there being an "Eros to the Kosmos," and when he says that "Evolution is Spirit-in-action," is he speaking in an "as if" way or is he speaking in a way that requires the support of scientific evidence? Given that Wilber appeals to science when speaking about Eros, I infer that he is not speaking about Eros in an "as if" way.

Scrub It Clean or Cosmeticize It?

The "Evolutionary Biology" video clip that was featured at Integral Naked in May, 2006 begins with a young man telling Ken Wilber that he feels that Wilber has misrepresented evolutionary biology in his work. He then asks if Wilber can name any "integrally informed" evolutionary biologists or evolutionary systems theorists who he, the young man, could talk to.

Wilber first mentions the late cognitive scientist Francisco Varela but notes that he is dead. He then says that Stuart Kauffman and others at the Santa Fe Institute "of course are always struggling with this as well, but here's the real recommendation: We're going live with Integral University sometime in early Spring..." He goes on to say that there will be "very serious, academically rigorous" discussions on evolutionary biology at IU.

At one point in the video, Wilber says that his oft-used term "Eros," as in "There's an Eros to the Kosmos," is a "real old-fashioned" name for something which can be given a scientific name, such as "self-transcending autopoietics." In reference to "some sort of something where matter winds itself up into higher states of organization," Wilber says, "You can give it a scientific name and scrub it clean and that's fine."

Or, I would add, you can take something that has a scientific name and cosmeticize it by giving it a real old-fashioned name like "Eros." The reason for doing so is apparently what Wilber would call "translative," i.e., to help build and reinforce certain meaning and value structures, and there is nothing wrong with that as far as that goes. (According to Wilber, "translation" doesn't go too far where "authentic transformation" is concerned.) But if "Eros" is just an old-fashioned name for something which can be given a scientific name, then Eros, or autopoiesis or "order for free" (Kauffman's term), must be supportable by inductive inference, in which case lobbing terms of abuse such as "reductionism" in the direction of anyone who questions the notion of Eros can only hinder rather than support intelligent discussion and clear understanding of the issue.

Terms of Abuse: "Scientific Materialism"

In a post at his blog,[4] Wilber writes:

I am simply saying that most mainstream biologists accept that there are problems and issues at the leading edge of their science, and I am saying that I recognize the same leading-edge problems that they do, but at that point we quickly part ways-virtually all of them believe those issues can be fully solved using scientific materialism, and I of course do not accept that quadrant absolutism and gross reductionism, but rather introduce a transcendent-immanent principle that is quite similar to Erich Jantsch's idea, which he states as 'evolution is self-organization through self-transcendence.' Of course, you find some daring scientists who go in that non-reductionistic direction, such as Erich Jantsch and, more recently, James Gardner's Biocosm and Michael Ruse's The Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debate, with a foreword by Edward O. Wilson. But not mainstream biology.

The term "scientific materialism" is often used by proponents of intelligent design as a dysphemism for methodological naturalism. Methodological naturalism, to be distinguished from metaphysical or ontological naturalism, is the view that science doesn't study non-natural (e.g., supernatural or supranatural) phenomena because science isn't equipped to study such phenomena, if such phenomena even exist. But many ID proponents and any number of spiritually oriented individuals, who would like to see science redefined to include supernatural explanations, try to confuse the public by failing to make this important distinction, and by implying that methodological naturalism entails a commitment to metaphysical naturalism. It doesn't. See The Language of God by Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. Collins is a Christian who believes in God and accepts methodological naturalism while rejecting ID. Or see Finding Darwin's God by another Christian believer who is also a scientist and who rejects ID, Kenneth Miller. (Both have strong criticisms of ID proponent Michael Behe, who I return to below.)

Terms of Abuse: "Reductionism"

Michael Ruse, who Wilber cites above as someone who goes in the same non-reductionist direction that he goes in, wrote the entry for "reductionism" in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. He begins by noting that reductionism is

One of the most used and abused terms in the philosophical lexicon...

Philosopher Jaegwon Kim writes:

Expressions like "reduction," "reductionism," "reductionist theory," and "reductionist explanation" have become pejoratives not only in philosophy, on both sides of the Atlantic, but also in the general intellectual culture of today. They have become common epithets thrown at one's critical targets to tarnish them with intellectual naivete and backwardness. To call someone "a reductionist," in high-culture press if not in serious philosophy, goes beyond mere criticism or expression of doctrinal disagreement; it is to put a person down, to heap scorn on him and his work.[5]

"It is not clear when 'reductionist' became a term of abuse," write philosophers Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl, "but, in general discourse, at least, that seems to be where it has ended up."[6]

Baggini and Fosl say it would be "wildly unfair" to dismiss reductionism on the basis of caricatures of reductionists. A typical caricature of a reductionist is as "someone who takes what is complex, nuanced and sophisticated and breaks it down into something simplistic, sterile and empty." Before we can argue that someone is that kind of reductionist, we must show that this is the case, and that we aren't attacking a caricature or straw man. It's not enough to simply assert that this is their position.

Reductionism is a much more respectable process than many of its critics maintain. Reductionism is simply the process of explaining one kind of phenomenon in terms of the simpler, more fundamental phenomena that underlie both it and other phenomena.[7]

Physicist Steven Weinberg distinguishes between compromising reductionism (good), and uncompromising reductionism (bad).

Daniel Dennett distinguishes between good reductionism and greedy reductionism. He says that a

reasonable and realistic fear is that the greedy abuse of Darwinian reasoning might lead us to deny the existence of real levels, real complexities, real phenomena. By our own misguided efforts, we might indeed come to discard or destroy something valuable.[8]

In a recorded conversation between Wilber and Sean Hargens,[9] Wilber says that Jeff Meyerhoff asks, "What about accounts [of evolution] lacking those ingredients [e.g., telos], such as Daniel Dennett?"[10] Wilber says:

Well, Daniel Dennett's a reductionist, of course he lacks those ingredients! ... We don't take reductionists, that's true. We try to take the true aspects from theorists; reductionism is not one...

Immediately after saying, "We don't take reductionists," Wilber proceeds to quote avowed atheists and metaphysical materialists Ernst Mayr and Richard Lewontin in support of his views. If "We don't take reductionists," why take Mayr and Lewontin? And if we take Mayr and Lewontin, or at least those parts of them that we can use to support our views, why dismiss Dennett wholesale for being a reductionist when he is no more a reductionist than Mayr and Lewontin?

There are different varieties of reduction: ontological, ontological property, theoretical, logical or definitional, causal, nomological, conceptual, methodological reduction, linguistic, scientific, analytical, etc.

Which kinds of reduction does Wilber have in mind when he refers to various views as reductionist?

Michael Farraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and Heinrich Hertz showed that electricity, magnetism and light can be given a reductionistic explanation, as the unification of electromagnetism and light. The notion of an all-pervading ether was done away with in the process. Electromagnetic theory gives us a physicalist reduction of light as a non-mechanical, entirely physical phenomenon (EM waves).

Is the physicalist reduction of light and the elimination of ether an example of quadrant absolutism and gross reductionism or any other kind of bad or greedy reductionism?

It was once believed that all combustible substances contain a hypothetical substance called phlogiston and that the process of combustion is essentially the process of losing phlogiston. Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated through quantitative experiments that combustion is a process in which oxygen combines with another substance, and the theory of phlogiston was disproved.

Is the elimination of phlogiston from the theory of combustion an example of gross reductionism and quadrant absolutism or any other kind of bad or greedy reductionism?

Wilber is quoted at Integral Naked and his blog as saying that the idea found in the movie What the Bleep?! that human intentionality creates reality at a quantum level is "bad physics and bad mysticism." Is Wilber guilty of quadrant absolutism and gross reductionism or some other kind of bad or greedy reductionism for rejecting that idea? Does Wilber's saying that make him "flatland"? Surely not, and unless someone can offer good reasons why the proposition that human intentionality creates reality at a quantum level deserves acceptance, there is no reason to accept it.

In One Taste, Wilber talks at one point about some folks he saw on a TV show who claimed to be "UFO abductees." He says:

When people have a memory or an experience of being "abducted," I don't doubt the experience seems absolutely real to them (most would pass a lie detector test). And it is real, as an experience, as phenomenology, but not as ontology, not as an objective reality.

Does saying this make Wilber some kind of bad, greedy, or flatland reductionist? This is an example of ontological reduction, but it's not bad reduction, unless of course someone can show us evidence in support of the view that people who have memories of being abducted were literally abducted.

The fact that scientific reductions leave things aside doesn't necessarily have any metaphysical significance. The kinetic theory of heat leaves aside many things, such as heats effect on the conscious states of humans, heats effect on the Gross National Product of Peru, heats effect on bluebird-egg cholesterol levels, and heats effect on pneumonial infections.[11] This does not make the kinetic theory of heat a form of gross reductionism or quadrant absolutism or any other kind of bad or greedy reductionism.

Michael Ruse: Non-reductionist?

"Beware of anything that answers everything. It usually ends by answering nothing."

Let's go back to Ruse, who Wilber cites as a daring scientist who goes in the same non-reductionistic direction that he goes in. Ruse is actually not a scientist but is a philosopher and a leading authority on the history and philosophy of Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Ruse describes himself as "a complete reductionist when it comes to molecules and souls and all those sorts of things."[12]

Ruse also describes himself as a "hard-line Darwinian," a naturalist, and an agnostic who has "no more belief" in God than Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. (He indicates that he would call himself an atheist but for the fact that atheism is technically a philosophically indefensible position.)

"I myself share just about every bit of Dawkins's nonbelief," says Ruse.[13]

"I am a very publicly committed evolutionist, an ardent Darwinian."[14]

Regarding intelligent design, Ruse says: "I think that any supposed science that appeals to causes that are non-natural is not a science as we understand the concept today."

Ruse says, “Beware of anything that answers everything. It usually ends by answering nothing.”[14a]

Ruse on Behe

In a May, 2005 post at the Integral Naked Forum, Wilber recommended that readers who want to learn more about evolution "start with...Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution."[15]

Ruse says, "Behe shows great ignorance of the way in which Darwinian evolution works."

Ruse writes that he asked Behe, "Do you mean that the Intelligent Designer suspends the laws of physics through working a miracle?", and that Behe's response was "YES."[16]

Ruse suggests that Behe is "ignorant and arrogantly presumptuous," and adds:

Do not misunderstand me. As far as I am concerned, if Behe wants to appeal to design to understand the world, he can do so all that he wants. I will defend to the end his right to do so. If he wants to spend the next six months standing on his head in Harvard Square, I am his backer. Rather, I ask whether he has the right to do so in a context where he expects us to take him seriously, especially to take him seriously as a scientist.[17]

Judge Jones on Behe

Shortly after Wilber inexplicably recommended Behe's Darwin's Black Box to his readers (as an alternative to reading Richard Dawkins), Behe testified in Kitzmiller vs. Dover, a trial the central issue of which was whether ID should be taught side by side with Darwinism in public school science classes.

One of the key claims Behe makes in Darwin's Black Box is the claim of "irreducible complexity," the idea that there are organisms which are "irreducibly complex," and that because they are irreducibly complex, they must have somehow been "designed" by a higher intelligence.

Judge John Paul Jones presided over the trial. Jones is a political conservative appointed to the bench by President Bush. Jones ruled against ID, and in his 139 page Opinion he wrote:

On cross-examination, Professor Behe admitted that: "There are no peer reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred." ... Additionally, Professor Behe conceded that there are no peer-reviewed papers supporting his claims that complex molecular systems, like the bacterial flagellum, the blood-clotting cascade, and the immune system, were intelligently designed. ... In that regard, there are no peer-reviewed articles supporting Professor Behe's argument that certain complex molecular structures are "irreducibly complex."

Now of course Ken Wilber does not believe in the "intelligent designer" that Behe and the vast majority of ID proponents believe in, that being the personal creator God of Christian monotheism. But Wilber seems to want to hold out for something "spooky" (suggestive of the supernatural) that methodological naturalism can never explain.

The problem is that Wilber's "Eros" does not explain anything, any more than Henri-Louis Bergson's élan vital explains anything where biological evolution is concerned. "One can do just as much without the élan as one can do with it," writes Ruse.[18] My guess is that Ruse would say the same about "Eros." Ruse says:

The difference between a clock that works and a clock that does not is not a question of "clock force" [or "involutionary force"], but a matter of one being put together properly while the other is not.[19]

James Gardner

Wilber also cites James Gardner as someone who goes in the same non-reductionistic direction that he goes in. Though Gardner's ideas about the origin of life in our universe are highly speculative, Gardner is a naturalist.

In a Q & A on the website for his book Biocosm (the book Wilber mentions in the blog post I quote from above), Gardner writes:

Question: Is BIOCOSM really just a religious screed in disguise-a subtle form of creationism or "intelligent design" proselytizing like Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box?

Definitely not. BIOCOSM is adamantly and consistently naturalistic in focus.[20]

And so I am led to infer that if Gardner and his book Biocosm go in the same non-reductionistic direction that Wilber goes in, and Biocosm is adamantly and consistently naturalistic in focus, then Wilber does not see naturalism as being in conflict with what he considers a non-reductionistic direction. I am led to infer that Wilber does not automatically consider naturalism a form of "quadrant absolutism," "gross reductionism," and "flatland materialism." If this is the case, I consider it good news, because naturalism should not automatically be considered a form of "quadrant absolutism," "gross reductionism," and "flatland materialism."

Confident Assertion

Writing about Richard Dawkins, Ruse says:

I do wish that he and other science writers would cease assuming that philosophical issues can be solved by talking in a brisk, confident voice. I have no more liking of cultural studies than Dawkins, and I loved his talk of "the low-grade intellectual poodling of pseudo-philosophical poseurs." But this rhetoric is no substitute for hard analysis.

Wilber seems to at least sometimes assume that philosophical issues can be solved by talking in a brisk, confident voice.

Philosopher Nigel Warburton points to the obvious problem with confident assertion:

Merely asserting something, no matter how loudly, doesn't make it true. Confident assertion is no substitute for argument, even though most of us, in our uncritical moments, can be persuaded by people who seem to know what they're talking about, whether or not they really do. The only way other people can assess the truth of an assertion is to examine reasons and evidence that might be given in support of it, or else to seek out evidence or reasons not to believe it.[21]

Here is a quote from Owen Flanagan[22] which I think goes to the heart of the problem that concerns me about some of Ken Wilber's rhetoric:

I'll be using a distinction between asserting, on one side, and saying, stating, or expressing, on the other. Spiritual and religious conceptions cause themselves difficulty, as well as difficulty for those who are not on-board with a particular (or for than matter, any) spiritual or religion story, when the story is asserted to be true and authoritative. When such a story (or stories) is stated, expressed, and understood as a story, those who spin the tale cause much less epistemic difficulty for themselves and others.

Wilber seems to have a habit of asserting when saying or expressing is all that is called for, and all that can be justified.

Ultimate Questions and Immediate Questions

In Integral Spirituality, Ken Wilber says that the scientific method is "simply not capable of handling" ultimate questions. cannot say whether God exists or not exists [sic]; whether there is an Absolute or not; why we are here; what our ultimate nature is, and so on. ... When science is honest, it is thoroughly agnostic and thoroughly quiet on those ultimate questions.[23]

I agree, but I wish Wilber would also say something about what kinds of questions religion is thoroughly quiet on when religion is honest.

Ruse says:

Science asks immediate questions. Religion asks ultimate questions. There is no conflict here, except when people mistakenly think that questions from one domain demand answers from the other.[24]

I agree with Ruse and I think this is a great area of confusion, and I think Wilber sometimes expresses himself in ways that add to the confusion.

Wilber's God

In Integral Spirituality, Wilber says that the super-natural is intra-natural. Unless he means to be cryptic, this means that what some people take to be supernatural or outside and beyond the natural order is in fact intra or within the natural order, and is therefore not really supernatural, but is part of the natural order.

There is apparently nothing supernatural about Wilber's definition of God or Spirit, and I am aware of nothing about Wilber's God that Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris would take issue with.

According to Wilber, God or Spirit is analogous to the wetness of the ocean and its waves. Just as wetness cannot be said to "give rise" to oceanic life, currents, tides, and waves, a God or Spirit that is analogous to wetness cannot be said to give rise to life and complex biological forms. Wilber takes to task those who suggest that God or Spirit can be equated with some kind of quantum potential. He says people "try to take something like the quantum vacuum potential or some quantum level of reality that seems to be unmanifest and they want to say, okay, that's Spirit, that's Brahman, that's Tao, and then it gives rise to this manifest world over here. And they want to say that as a concrete actual reality, in other words, there really is this thing over here that gives rise to this material electron over here. Now, already you've got a dualistic Spirit. You just fundamentally messed it up right there. Actual nondual Spirit is the suchness of everything that's arising. It doesn't cause anything to do anything."[25]

Amen. If Spirit or God doesn't cause anything to do anything, then it should be crystal clear that we are not talking about God or Spirit as any kind of causal agent or agency that violates physical laws (quantum and classical).

Wilber says:

[E]mptiness leaves everything exactly the way it finds it. It doesn't push or pull anything, because it's not separate from anything. And one of the analogies is, you can talk about the ocean and its waves, and then there's the wetness of the ocean and the wetness of the waves. And wetness is equally present in all the waves. A big wave is not wetter than a small wave. Nor does wetness cause one wave to do something and another wave to do anything else. Wetness is simultaneously all present in every single part of all the ocean at all times. Wetness does not give rise to the ocean, wetness is not the quantum potential...and so their fundamental mistake is to make Spirit a dualistic entity.[26]

Does this create a conflict with what Wilber has taken to referring to as "God-in-2nd-person"? There is no conflict here, as long as we understand the difference between the mythical-metaphorical-transpersonal "as if" on the one hand and concrete-literal and propositionally contentful beliefs on the other.

In The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Volume 4, Wilber characterizes belief in the "mythic God" as "childish." He says, "You get in a really life-threatening situation, and you will probably find yourself bargaining with God. That's magic and mythic plea bargaining. But that God no longer exists." If you do not develop beyond "magical and mythical" beliefs, "and on your deathbed you confess and scream out for help to God, nothing is going to happen." "...infantile and childish views of God, once appropriate, are detrimental for mature spirituality."

He goes on to say that he considers Paul Tillich's reinterpretation of God as "the Ground of Being" to be "right on target."

Sam Harris, a meditator who is no less interested in the nondual teachings of Advaita and Dzogchen than Wilber, has no problem with Tillich's recasting of faith "as a spiritual principle that transcends mere motivated credulity."

Harris and Wilber are atheistic about the same God, the God that Wilber calls the mythic God, the God who believers consider a causal agent who performs miracles (in the literal sense of the term) and supernaturally intervenes in human affairs.

In conversation with Ken Wilber at Integral Naked, Nathaniel Branden asks Wilber to explain what he means-as opposed to what "the traditions" mean-by "God" or "Spirit." After Wilber answers,[27] Branden says, "I don't think you would disagree, as ninety nine and nine tenths percentage of Westerners understand the concept of God, you are an atheist based on what you've just been saying."

And Wilber says, "In the spirit of what you mean by that, that's correct. Yes, yes."

Holding Back

I rhetorically ask above why Wilber might be so unclear about just where he stands on certain questions. Here in Wilber's own words are some clues.

From the Kosmic Consciousness audio set:

When you present integral models, you kind of present what you think is sort of the version of the model that most people can accept...that there's a lot of hard evidence for it, and it's not too controversial... And then there's sort of a second level that you kind of hold back, and that's like, "Okay, here's some other things that are going on that a lot of people think are going on, but they're pretty spooky." And reincarnation tops the list. That's just a very interesting, hard to prove thing.

In What Is Enlightenment? magazine, Wilber tells Andrew Cohen that:

There are three topics I've written very little on. One is psychic phenomena; one is rebirth and reincarnation; and one is God in second-person. Because as soon as you open your mouth and say anything about any of those, nobody takes you seriously in the influential academic world...[28]

If Wilber holds back on "spooky" things and topics such as psychic phenomena and reincarnation, is it possible that he also holds back on non-spooky things that he thinks some members of his audience might not accept?

He says:

For most people, any sort of religious belief will fall...into the category of consolation: it will be a new horizontal translation that fashions some sort of meaning in the midst of the monstrous world.[29]

He says:

[P]eople in new age and spiritual circles tend to be on ambivalent terms with the intellect, especially with rationality.


[I]n our haste to get outside the confines of the rational, we too often end up uncritically embracing anything that is non-rational, including many things that are, frankly, pre-rational, regressive, infantile, and narcissistic.[30]

He said these things in the nineties, before what some Wilberians today refer to as the "Integral Movement" really began to take off. I must wonder to what degree Wilber has begun to cater to members of his audience who he might privately believe are on ambivalent terms with rationality and in need of religious consolation, and who therefore might not cotton to him sounding too naturalistic in his leanings.

Conclusion: Trying to be Everything to Everybody

In an interview which took place in early 2001, which is before Wilber's "Integral Movement" began to become popular in the way it is today, Wilber talked about the "fifty million people" who are into spiritual, transpersonal stuff. He talked about the problem of reaching out to this large demographic group.

[P]eople want to go in and say, look, "How can we reach these fifty million people who are involved in all this stuff?" where as a mat[t]er of fact these fifty million people are really very, very heterogeneous. And no one community is going to get to them. And then you have to start actually narrowing down what you are trying to do, and the audience you are trying to reach, because otherwise what happens is you alienate everybody by trying to be everything to everybody.[31]

He goes on to say that at present, i.e., in early 2001 when the interview takes place, Integral Institute is an elistist think tank, but he says it will not always be that way.

Once we produce integral products, integral books on business, medicine, law, and so on, then we want to create an integral community, that's not going to be elitist or a think tank or anything like that at all. But right now it is.


But once you move out to a larger market, a larger audience, it gets very very difficult and very very confusing, as you know, because you're trying to build a site that can be a happy home for a fair number of people in pursuing these, but right there you get these internal tensions then where the things that will attract some people will really turn others off, and vice-versa. It's very very difficult.

I think this is where Wilber's "Integral Movement" or integral community is at today, more or less, and it is my impression that despite what he said in 2001, Wilber has in some ways moved in the direction of trying to be "everything to everybody." And I think this may account for his sometimes mystifying use of language and his sometimes mystifying use of sources. I think he may simply be trying to please "everybody" who pays him serious attention. And I don't think that can work, or at least not if Wilber wants to remain a philosopher.

I think that at some point, Wilber is going to have to risk alienating more people than he has risked alienating in the past, and I personally think this would be a good thing, a separating the wheat from the chaff kind of thing. But in order to do that, if he is at all inclined to do that, Wilber is going to have to come down a few rungs on the abstraction ladder and get specific about where he stands on certain issue, and he is going to have to stop substituting rhetoric (such as terms of abuse, emphatic assertion, persuader words, ridicule, and emotive language) for reasons and evidence where reasons and evidence are called for.

Or, maybe he will be content with having a popular following to which he plays crowd pleaser, and who knows? Maybe some day Wilber will appear on Oprah.


[1] E.g., see Templeton Fellow, philosopher, cognitive neuroscientist, and Buddhist Owen Flanagan's lecture, "Spirituality Naturalized?" as well as his forthcoming book, The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, MIT Press (scheduled for publication in November, 2007). Here's a link to the lecture:

[2] Written on the back flaps of harcover editions of The Collected Works of Ken Wilber series published by Shambhala.

[3] "Divination, Astrology, and the Pre-Trans Fallacy," Kosmic Consciousness, Disc 3, Sounds True Audio, 2003

[4] Ken Wilber, "Take the Visser Site as Alternatives to KW, But Never as the Views of KW", June 27, 2006,

[5] Jaegwon Kim, Mind in a Physical World: An Essay on the Mind-Body Problem and Mental Causation, MIT Press, 2000

[6] Baggini & Fosl, The Philosopher's Toolkit, Blackwell, 2003

[7] Ibid.

[8] Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Simon & Schuster, 1996

[9] Here is a link to the MP3 audio file on Integral Naked:

[10] In his article "Dismissal Vs. Debate," Meyerhoff notes that Wilber attributed a number of things to him that he did not in fact say, including the line about Dennett. Here's a link to "Dismissal Vs. Debate":

[11] I borrow these examples from Paul Churchland's article, "The Rediscovery of Light" in Philosophy of Mind, ed. by David Chalmers, Oxford University Press, 2002.

[12] Florida Philosophical Review Vol. IV, Issue 1, Summer 2004

[13] Michael Ruse, Through a Glass, Darkly, review of: A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Richard Dawkins. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

[14] Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Harvard University Press, 2005

[14a] Michael Ruse, Darwinism and Its Discontents, Cambridge University Press, 2006

[15] As Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross explain in Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford University Press, 2004), Behe, along with Phillip Johnson, founder of the "intelligent design" movement, is a Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. The Discovery Institute is described at Wikipedia as a "a conservative Christian think tank." Behe's colleagues in the Department of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University posted a disclaimer about Behe at the university's website which ends with this paragraph: "The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of 'intelligent design.' While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific."

[16] Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Harvard University Press, 2005

[17] Michael Ruse, "Enough Speculation," Boston Review, February/March 1997

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Biocosm, Questions and Answers,

[21] Thinking from A to Z, 2nd edition, Routledge, 1998

[22] See endnote 1.

[23] Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality, Integral Books, Shambhala, 2006, p.287,8

[24] Michael Ruse, Through a Glass, Darkly, review of: A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Richard Dawkins. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

[25] From the "Does Physics Prove God?" audio at Integral Naked, Ken Wilber interviewed by Corey deVos.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Here is Wilber's response to Branden's question as I transcribed it from the audio: "You are fundamentally one with everything that is arising moment to moment, and it is that fundamental sense of oneness that is generally meant by Godhead. ... All Spirit is, is the pure consciousness in every sentient being right now. Pure Spirit is that which is in Nathaniel Branden now, and is the very center of Nathaniel Branden, and is aware of Nathaniel Branden. And whatever that subject of awareness is, the mystics are quite certain that is Godhead, that's Spirit. ...that consciousness actually embraces the Kosmos and that's the experience of Kosmic Consciousness."

[28] from, "God's Playing a New Game" in June-August, 2006, quoted by Alan Kazlev

in Integral Esotericism Part Six, and by David in this thread at zaadz:

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ken Wilber, "Mind and the Heart of Emptiness: Reflections on the Intellect and the Spiritual Path," The Quest, Winter, 1995

[31] An Enlightenment Interview with Ken Wilber, by Jordan Gruber, First Interview Segment: On Integral Institute and its Activities,

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