Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Gregory Desilet Gregory Desilet is author of various writings on language and culture, such as Cult of the Kill: Traditional Metaphysics of Rhetoric, Truth, and Violence in a Postmodern World and Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and the Effects of Entertainment Violence. See also:, which hosts an eulogy for Derrida. In his Misunderstanding Derrida Desilet questions Ken Wilber's understanding of postmodernism. Here's an excerpt from a new eBook. It gives the title, table of contents, the introduction, and an excerpt from chapter IV and part of chapter V.


Radical Atheism
and New Spirituality

Where the New Atheists Go Wrong
but Why You Should Still Be an Atheist

Gregory Desilet


From the language Wilber uses in characterizing his view of Spirit and his view of enlightenment it becomes clear that his spirituality remains within what Derrida calls a restricted economy.

The tide of media celebrities in the first decade of the new century carried a wave of secular pundits referred to as the new atheists who were provoked, as they might say, into doing more than proclaiming their atheism. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are the most prominent voices among these atheists-turned-religious-critics. Dawkins (2006) argues that belief in God is a delusion, Hitchens (2007) that religion poisons everything, and Harris (2004) that the delusional and toxic nature of God and religion ought to drive societies to seek an end to faith. They appeal to reason, evidence, and facts as the proper foundation for belief. Their epistles have inspired an opposing wave of religious advocates from every corner whose responses denounce the new atheists while claiming to show the weaknesses in their arguments (for example: McGrath, 2005; Cornwell, 2007; Haught, 2008).

In a more recent and critically acclaimed contribution to the current debate, Karen Armstrong (2009) offers summaries of the better criticisms of the new atheists along with her own critique. She explains why they have essentially misunderstood God and religion and have therefore expended their efforts against a straw man. According to Armstrong, the culture of God and religion took a wrong turn at the outset of the modern era with its emphasis on reason grounded in scientific methodology and empirical observation. Theological defense of the existence and nature of God became confused while the image of God rooted in pre-modern tradition lost sway in popular imagination. Advocating a renewal of the pre-modern approach to God, Armstrong places emphasis on the importance of practice over belief and performance over doctrine. This approach reasserts the view of God offered in perennial philosophy—a set of universal beliefs which Armstrong claims lies at the core of all the great spiritual traditions from East to West and from Buddhism to Christianity.

Armstrong makes a more sophisticated case for God than may be found in many current apologetics and her approach requires critical examination of a different kind than given by the new atheists. But her views fall short of offering an alternative sustainable in the wake of postmodern cultural influence. Though postmodern tracts contain their own share of wrong turns, a number of core developments among the better formulations cannot be ignored when confronting major philosophical and spiritual issues. Armstrong fails to adequately weigh postmodern contributions and therefore misses how these developments require a very different spiritual attitude.

The thread of Armstrong's critique of the new atheists and the implications of her religious outlook arguably leads to the doorstep of Ken Wilber and his integral spirituality. Although more thoroughly reasoned than Armstrong's approach, more deeply grounded in all the major relevant strands of knowledge, Wilber's updating of perennial philosophy to integral spirituality leaves practitioners in a spiritual place with shortcomings as severe as those Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris find in the monotheistic traditions. The journey through these current spiritual and metaphysical sites ends with summary notes on the promise of an alternative spirituality. This alternative derives from important lessons that can and should be learned from the long history of spiritual and philosophical tradition. A concluding epilogue addresses the issue of the potential for transcendent purpose in the human project that may remain in the absence of traditional notions of God. . . . .

IV. Restricted and General Economies: The Structure of Oppositional Relation and the Meaning of Being

As mentioned in the previous section, the interminable potential for disruption, loss, or failure of meaning and communication suggests the need for a re-thinking of Wilber's AQAL model of being, of subject/object intersection, and thereby also corresponding approaches to spirituality. The necessarily incomplete, partial, or perspectival nature of human understanding may be viewed as the consequence of an essential inadequacy or flaw in the being of human being. This is the course of explanation often found in institutionalized spiritual traditions and is usually metaphorically described as a fall—especially a fall into time.

Alternatively, this limitation may be viewed, Derrida argues, as a consequence of being itself. The nature of being may be such that it can only reveal itself partially—in glimpses that enforce measures of omnipresent blindness that preclude absolute certainty and thereby necessitate some manner of error. The words blindness and error are italicized because these terms tend to lose their traditional meaning when applied to an understanding that exceeds traditional structures or economies of order. An economy built around a principle of determinate measurement, simple correspondence of cause and effect, transparent communication, and, fiduciarily speaking, a balance of payments, corresponds to a closed economy. But there are alternative economies of order, economies that see partiality and limited perspective as a consequence of the nature of being itself, of the nature of all creation.

Derrida (1978), following Georges Bataille, calls such an alternative economy of order a general economy. A general economy features the necessity of interrelation and dissemination of information or meaning as exceeding all measures of control and recuperation. It forms a law of irrecuperable loss. This general economy circulates around and through an excess or overdetermination irreducibly present in the nexus of cause/effect, stimulus/response, or signifier/signified. Philosopher and literary theorist Arkady Plotnitsky (1994) explores Derrida's use of general economy in great detail alongside parallel developments in theoretical physics. In Plotnitsky's study, a general economy, according to Bataille is one in which, “excesses of energy are produced, which . . . cannot be utilized. The excessive energy can only be lost without the slightest aim, consequently without any meaning” (Plotnitsky, 1994, pp. 1-2).

The economy of order implicit in classical principles of cause and effect Bataille calls a restricted economy—restricted in the sense of a closure whereby every action immediately or eventually provokes transparent meaning and what can be determinately understood and measured as a proportionate reaction. “Restricted economies consider their objects and the relationships between those objects as always meaningful [uniquely and determinately calculable] and claim that the systems they deal with can avoid the unproductive expenditure of energy and control multiplicity and indeterminacy within themselves. General economy exposes such claims as untenable” (Plotnitsky, 1994, p. 2).

A restricted economy imposes a structuring principle that establishes a strong polarity of opposites and clear lines of choice. The structural tension between opposites such as true and false or fact and interpretation operates with a clarity that facilitates either/or alternatives and simplified decision-making. In a general economy, however, every oppositional structure submits to a reversal and a displacement. This displacement involves an extraordinary reconfiguration of the structure or dynamic play between opposites. In a general economy, an absolute division between opposites fails to be extreme enough in its logic to accord with the lessons of experience.

Plotnitsky expresses this displacement of traditional oppositional tensions using as key examples the tension between signifier and signified, description and reality, interpretation and that which is interpreted. These tensions point out an important distinction in his use of the terms absolute and radical. He says, for example, that there cannot be “an absolute difference between an account and that which is being accounted for in a general economy. Once difference is absolute [between any set of classic opposites], it is not radical enough for a general economy. Absolute difference or exteriority of that type would always lead to a restricted economy, repressing the radical—but again never absolute—difference defined by and defining the field of general economy” [emphasis added] (Plotnitsky, 1994, p. 22). General economy displaces discrete and essential difference between opposites with a new structure that sees the opposition as presenting a tension between elements both different yet connected, both penetrated to the core each by the other yet irreducible one to the other. Plotnitsky calls this structure complementary—after Niels Bohr and the quantum theory of wave/particle duality.

Applying the principle of complementarity to any oppositional pair yields a structure in which the two sides of the opposition penetrate each other in every instance such that there is no pure instance of either. As will be discussed in the next section, this complementary structure of oppositional relations has profound consequences for the concept of transcendence.

In a general economy there is no crossing over from one pure instance to another pure instance since no clear boundary separates one instance from the other. This circumstance of structure supports the notion of a universal law of contamination. This universal contamination cannot be explained in simple degrees of mixture, gradation, or shades of difference. Instead, this law of contamination presents the circumstance of superposition—superposition of continuity (irreducible dependence) and discontinuity (irreducible separation).

The possibility for unique and irretrievable loss inherent in a general economy is theorized at the philosophical level by Derrida in his notion of the trace—a term he uses to describe the nature and quality of being. The trace is an absenting presencing, disappearing as it appears. Like words in language, the tracks—the traces of the trace—are readable but are also themselves traces. With every emergence there is also loss, a persistence/desistance similar to the flame of a candle. And what passes away in the tracings of being at any moment in time may be of incalculable value. Even if the traces of being are archived in a kind of library or museum or memory bank there is no guarantee these traces of the trace are preserved in their essence because part of their essence consists of spatial/temporal context. And since context is always on the move, there is no way to preserve without some measure of difference and irretrievable loss. This is the crucial consequence of a general economy.

This universal law of contamination—consistent with a general economy and a complementary structure of oppositional relation—belongs to a radical rethinking of the structural dynamics of oppositional relations and also necessitates a rethinking of the notion of transcendence, a notion that remains central in all approaches to spirituality.

V. Transcendence, Enlightenment, and Radical Atheism

Among theological traditions that include a notion of God as creator and origin of the cosmos, one of the most commonly occurring distinctions may be found in the division between God and what God has made. Such distinctions follow the model of oppositional structure in which there is a sharp division between the two sides of the opposition, whereby God exists completely separate from and independent of creation. Furthermore, God is perfect and God's creation is perfect—at least until corrupted by a contaminating element entirely separate from God—usually explained as brought into existence as a consequence of God's bestowal of free choice among the agents in creation. In these types of cosmologies, therefore, God remains wholly transcendent of creation. The possibility of transcendence for the beings of God's creation entails liberation from exposure to sources of contamination. This enables a crossing over into the realm of existence that is in essence reunification with God and God's perfection. This transcendence is an absolute transcendence into perfected or fully realized being. In some spiritual traditions this transcendence is called salvation and in others it is called enlightenment.

Ken Wilber's integral spirituality presents an exemplary instance of contemporary thinking about transcendence, whether understood as salvation or enlightenment—although Wilber uses the term enlightenment. And Wilber's view of enlightenment is substantially consistent with Armstrong's self-awakening. Wilber defines spirit as “. . . the union of Emptiness and Form (where Emptiness is timeless, unborn, unmanifest, and not evolving, and Form is manifest, temporal, and evolving)” (Wilber, 2006, p. 236). Spirit is the theological equivalent of God in Wilber's spirituality and oneness with Spirit or God is Wilber's version of enlightenment.

From the language Wilber uses in characterizing his view of Spirit and his view of enlightenment it becomes clear that his spirituality remains within what Derrida calls a restricted economy. There are two primary indicators for assessing Wilber's approach to spirituality as consistent with a restricted economy: 1) the implicit assumptions about the deep structure of basic oppositions such as Emptiness and Form, timeless and temporal and 2) the dominant role of notions such as unity and union.

In discussing enlightenment Wilber acknowledges that in the past, in more ancient spiritual traditions, enlightenment was conceived of and spoken about in ways that indicated it consisted of an absolute transcendence of time in unity with the One experienced as the timeless, the unborn, and the unmanifest. However, he argues this version of enlightenment now amounts to an incomplete experience for spiritual practitioners. Enlightenment as oneness with the unmanifest is now an incomplete enlightenment due to the modern understanding of the role of time and the modern awareness of the evolutionary nature of the cosmos. The expansion of human consciousness to include this evolutionary component of world and cosmos necessitates, according to Wilber, a revision of understanding about the nature and quality of enlightenment. Enlightenment no longer consists solely of immunity to change but instead now also incorporates temporality as an inseparable part of Spirit and the being of all that is.

Enlightenment for Wilber still consists of absolute transcendence in the absolute oneness with Godhead, but the oneness is union with Emptiness and Form, time and timelessness. Absolute transcendence and oneness is the goal of his spirituality, which is also the overcoming of dualism in what Wilber calls nondual spirituality. In describing his integral vision he says, for example: “Before Abraham was, I AM. I AM is none other than Spirit in 1st-person, the ultimate, the sublime, the radiant all-creating Self of the entire Kosmos, present in me and you and him and her and them—as the I AMness that each and every one of us feels. Because in all the known universe, the overall number of I AMs is but one” (Wilber, 2007, p. 224).

Partial union, partial enlightenment may occur, according to Wilber, when aspirants practice a teaching which only emphasizes the timeless aspect of being and the goal of merging with this timeless spirit (for example, Wilber, 2006, pp. 235-237). This kind of spiritual practice results in the projection of a false dualism between the temporal realm of illusory worldly experience and the timeless realm of transcendence into the higher reality of experience through enlightenment.

But Wilber speaks of the overcoming of this dualism in the union of Emptiness and Form and time and timelessness as if each side in the pair were in some sense separate, as if the Emptiness and Form aspects of Spirit could be approached separately in paths that then lead to partial enlightenment. The mere notion of the possibility of partial enlightenment in the sense Wilber suggests is symptomatic of an organization or structuring of oppositional relation in a manner consistent with a restricted economy.

The remainder of this chapter and the entire book is available at Amazon here:

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction
  • I. Karen Armstrong vs. the New Atheists
  • II. Ken Wilber on Metaphysics and Post-Metaphysics:
    The Union of Science and Spirituality
  • III. Wittgenstein and Derrida:
    The Limits of Language and Science
  • IV. Restricted and General Economies:
    The Structure of Oppositional Relation and the Meaning of Being
  • V. Transcendence, Enlightenment, and Radical Atheism
  • VI. The Divided Self
  • VII. Summary and Conclusion
  • Epilogue
  • Citation Sources and Further References

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