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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Joe CorbettJoe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at [email protected].


The Mystery

Joe Corbett

There is an infamous and notorious attribution error circulating within the “spiritual community” of new agers. It is the claim that Consciousness is the ground of the universe from which everything arises. However this belief stems from two misunderstandings—one from the spiritual traditions, and one from the modern science of quantum physics.

To justify their belief in Consciousness as the foundation, new agers often invoke the mistaken and outdated interpretation of the observer effect in quantum physics that almost no physicist believes today. The philosophical foundations of quantum physics has advanced, believe it or not, since the more than 100 years when some of the originators of quantum theory thought that observers effected the outcome of the double-slit experiment by collapsing the wave function and yielding the experimental results. We now know, after some careful philosophical deliberation, that no such thing occurs precisely because the measuring apparatus that detects the collapse of the wave function is part of the experiment, and acts as the “observer” in the experiment to collapse the wave function by merely interacting with the experimental arrangement itself. Sorry new agers, the moon exists even when nobody is there to look at it because the moon interacts with its environment, which is enough to collapse the wave function of its potentialities into a concrete probability.

But don't the spiritual traditions also confirm the interpretation that Consciousness is the ground of existence, thus giving support to the original 100 year old interpretation of quantum physics? Well, actually, the spiritual traditions used meditative introspection and metaphor from human experience to arrive at their insights, which are first person and second person methodologies of inquiry. And if you use introspection and metaphor to fathom the ground of the universe, obviously you are going to find Mind and the Self, or God, Brahma, etc. as its ground because the methods you are using are for self-discovery. What the spiritual traditions lacked was a modern third person understanding of cosmology and physics, and that's not something introspection and metaphor can give us. So the spiritual traditions can be forgiven for their mistaken view that the source of their inquiry (their mind and their self) was the ground of the universe, but modern new agers who have access to modern science have no such excuse, and they should not be let off the hook for failing to keep up with what human civilization has learned about the universe. Bad students!! :)

What then does a third person modern science perspective tell us about the ground of the universe? Most physicists are hesitant to even try answering that question, as it reeks of metaphysical speculation and even religious undertones. However it is a question that is quite suitable to an integral philosopher, and my previous inquiries have suggested that the ground of the universe is a structure-process that I call Kosmic Dynamics, based on Bohmian dynamics and the AQAL as a guiding map. What I have found is not Consciousness as the ground but a set of geometric principles that form the structure and dynamic of quantum physics itself, which later gives rise to bio-molecular life and consciousness, as well as language and human civilization.

Consciousness is not and should not be something that is posited as an a priori given, but rather is something whose existence must be explained as an emergent phenomenon. Otherwise it is simply a metaphysical entity replacing God as the transcendent Being, and then we are back at square-one regarding our understanding of the universe as a first person reality that we relate to in the second person. But then, doesn't the third person perspective just replace the personal understanding and relation with an impersonal structure and process that is much more difficult to understand and relate to? Well, perhaps, but the point of an integral philosophical inquiry is not to make our understanding more easy, rather it is to make our understanding more complete and objective by including a third person perspective. And a third person perspective suggests that Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon from a structure-process of self-organizing complexity that, at bottom, if we are completely honest about it, we have no fucking idea what it actually is. It is, in fact, a great Mystery.

Are the particles of matter and the interactions they undergo merely random and accidentally colliding billiard balls in a rather boring cosmic pin-ball game that occasionally lights up the board with lucky collisions? Was there a Conscious Designer who built the game for His own profit and glory, or for the enjoyment of others? Where did the game come from and how was it built? These are the eternal existential questions human beings have been asking themselves since hunter-gatherer days. The mode of inquiry and the questions we ask will determine the answers we get, and so far, even from a third person perspective, where the game came from, how it was built, and where it's all going remain a Mystery.

Modern cosmologists tell us that we live in an eternally inflating multiverse, infinite in space and time. Others might describe this as a fractal holoverse of infinite complexity and diversity. What is a universe among countless other universes in a multiverse, and what might they be self-organizing into? Is the multiverse the cellular structure of an unimaginably giant Being who exists in a world of other Beings also made of billions of cellular universes, who exist inside a universe of their own that is part of a still larger multiverse of multiverses, ad infinitum? Is the large-scale filament structure of the universe the brain, or cellular microtubules, of such a Being?

Here it should be clear that I am combining a third person perspective with first and second person understandings and ways of relating to our world, the world in which human beings have evolved and grown-up. The reality is that the true nature of our universe and what exists beyond it is a complete Mystery, and is probably beyond our understanding as human beings who have evolved in a very particular context with a very particular view of the universe. What kind of beings or Beings may exist beyond the forms we have evolved into is unknown and may never be known. Long live the Mystery!!

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