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

Michael Garfield has a degree in evolutionary biology and works as a scientific illustrator, live painter, essayist, and sound man. He is a graduate of JFKU's Integral Theory certificate program and a member of Ken Wilber's blog editorial team. For more information, visit:

Integral Time
and Causality

A Preliminary Assessment of
Multi-disciplinary Implications for AQAL Theory

Michael Garfield

"The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once." - Albert Einstein [n.d.]

AQAL integral meta-theory relies on time. Ken Wilber's magnificent articulation of the unfolding of the manifest world is rooted in the timeless nondual, but even the subtlest of differentiations within this omnipotent creative matrix establishes a movement, a fluid and polar relationship. Even the incomprehensible quantum vacuum, unencumbered by concrete events, appears to have a temporal structure. Time is fundamental – perhaps primary – to our understanding of the universe, and thus an indispensable component of any integral theory.

However, as a phenomenon it remains a relatively unexplored from within the bounds of the integral mandala. Wilber's own works, written largely as an address to common audiences, articulate the stream of time in a purely linear sense and thus deviate from the synthetic nature of his model itself. In order to bring AQAL closer to the fruition of its full potential, I have increasingly been drawn to the study of time, the many perspectives on its nature that are illuminated by Wilber's Integral Methodological Pluralism (or IMP), and their implications for the development of a richer integral theory.

This attraction has in no small part been influenced by my interest in evolutionary theory and Wilber's latest forays into the relationship between karma and creativity (2002a). Evolution has been defined in various ways, but when studied as complexity in flux, it is the imperfect passage of information through time – which is to say, without knowing what time is we can only pretend to know what evolution is. Applying the concept of evolution in a broad, kosmic sense beyond the conventional contemporary scope of genetic inheritance, Wilber typically equates it with the transcendent impulse of Eros – not just change over time, but a persistent climb to increasing complexity. (This may or may not actually conflict with the thermodynamic definition of time as a measurement of increasing entropy – a point I will address later in this paper.)

"Sleep says to dawn: / 'As if forward were the only direction!'" - J. Ruth Gendler [1991, p. 121]

Wilber's evolution is the consequence of a relationship between “karma” (fact) and “creativity” (interpretation), as each moment includes the reality of the previous moment while simultaneously transcending it in an outpouring of divine novelty. This time conception is linear to the core and fails to account for several contradictory perspectives on the nature of causality. In fact, this is one of the major critiques of Wilber's take on AQAL with which I align, first forwarded by Peter Colins in his formulation of an integral mathematics that operates with both “linear” (analytic) and “circular” (dynamic/polar) logic. Colins asserts that a complete rational translation of integral theory requires both linear and circular logic, exemplified in the following pair of statements:

  1. The atom is in the molecule but the molecule is not in the atom.
    (“the clear separation of polar opposites… formulated in either/or terms leading to one-directional sequential interpretation.”)
  2. The atom is in the molecule and the molecule is in the atom.
    (“polar opposites are complementary (and ultimately identical) in experience…logical connections [are viewed] bi-directionally in both/and terms leading to paradoxical simultaneous interpretation.”) [Colins, 2000]

Whereas the perspective from linear logic on evolution describes related events in Humean terms of distinct cause and effect, the perspective from circular logic acknowledges the postmodern co-creative mutuality of both “cause” and “effect,” suggesting an obliteration of the concrete directionality (ie, partiality) known as “Time's Arrow.” Take physicist Daniel Sheehan's example of a boulder rolling downhill: in an instantaneous measurement halfway down the hill, the boulder is equally influenced by its past atop the hill and its future at rest below. Its present is the nexus of its previous and its forthcoming states – or, as Sheehan colorfully explains it, “The present is always a negotiation between the past and the future” (LaFee, 2006). In AQAL terms, this is time as a social holon, for which the present is the relationship between temporal poles.

Colins suggests that the simplest polar relationship is that between the interior and exterior. View it through linear logic and the mutual relationship of self and world vanishes, leaving you with directional motion through a developmental holarchy (2000). In other words, the methods inherent to the inside of each quadrant operate according to circular/affective logic, and those inherent to the outside of each quadrant operate according to linear/analytic logic. Perhaps karma is what we see when applying a third-person perspective, and creativity is what we see from the first-person. Thus, I attest that Wilber's “half truths and inconsistencies” are not due to an intrinsic shortcoming of AQAL, but to the special partiality he exercises in his writing.

The neglect of synthetic logic would go a long way toward explaining why modernist physics continues to struggle with the temporal symmetry of its own time-independent equations. For example, physicist Paul Davies has noted that in Maxwell's formulation of electromagnetism, it does not matter whether or not a wave arrives before it is transmitted – that “waves are indifferent to the distinction between past and future” (LaFee, 2006). The inherent problems of this orange-altitude science are a direct consequence of its reductionism – not of the AQAL mandala to exteriors or systems, but of transrational cognition reduced to analytic logic.[1] This observation led me to investigate the valuable contributions of developmental psychology to a rigorous understanding of the plural nature of time.

"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." - James Joyce [1922, page unknown]

In the last hundred years, structuralist research has disclosed not one, but several modes of temporal experience in the human psyche. Along linear psychological development, a human being's phenomenological experience of time – the actual feeling of it as an interior object arising in immanence – begins in pretemporal fusion and proceeds to differentiate and complexify. First, it appears a “concrete, momentary, passing present” devoid of past or future – an acausal fantasia of impulse (Wilber, 1980, p. 16). Alongside and facilitating the emergence of an egoic narrative, this atomistic present is drawn out into first an extended present, then a language-bound sense of past and future. Wilber points out, “language itself carries some sort of tense, in its verbs, and as the child looks at the world through the eyes of language, he not surprisingly sees a temporal or a tensed world – and thus a world of tension, time and anxiety being synonymous” (p. 30). A primitive understanding of linear causation has emerged and been embedded in speech and thought, constraining the appearance of time to later waves of development. Throughout egoic development, phenomenological time retains this basic form, developing by linear extension rather than radical reorganization. However, by the appearance of Wilber's “centaur,” the narrative ego – and with it, linear time – is taken as an object of awareness (p. 64). In this transsequential consciousness, a person is “not ignorant of historical time…just no longer bound to it” (p. 68). Linear time is recognized as a symbolic artifact of the conscious mind – and thus a complement to the associative, acausal (or, at least, mutually-causal), and relative time of the unconscious mind, rather than a primary reality.

Wilber's own structuralist report of this progression, however, is translated as a linear developmental sequence – “this is not regression but evolution” – with “evolution” meaning here, as elsewhere in his work, a process of irreversible self-organization.[2] To date, he maintains this regression/evolution dualism in his writing, in spite of the fact that AQAL itself is clearly founded on the synthetic logic of mutuality and co-creation. Colins notes that “in dynamic relative terms, development equally incorporates immanence (as well as transcendence), where the emphasis is now on the progressive evolution of more unique parts" – and here, of course, he is using evolution is a more ambiguous and less contentious sense that makes no claim to irreversible directionality (2000). This is the one definition of evolutionary progress deemed conventionally acceptable by current science: a blooming of diversity within a transcendent-yet-immanent whole (e.g., the shift from disparity of phyla to diversity of species, the proliferation of biological macromolecules within an organismal ecology, the liberation of cultural diversity by increasingly integral awareness, and – notably –the transmutation of the flesh by the luminosity of subtle consciousness).

This could be, however, an atemporal form of causality – a consequence of the relationship between the transcendent and immanent in every moment, much as the contents of every quadrant (appear to) instantaneously constrain the contents of each other (which is why Wilber seems to have caused so much confusion by using a language of exterior, interior, singular, plural, individual, and social holons, to the relative neglect of investigating those aspects as dimensions of a single holon, a single event – both are partial truths, but this particular facet of his writing style is much more in service of a "differential" theory than an "integral" one).

"I don't think we need randomness in order to have the evolution of new forms." - Ralph Abraham (2001, p. 61)

Regardless of the degree to which Wilber's translation of development adequately serves the scale of his ideas, it remains that evolution may best be understood as a redistribution of order, rather than its creation – that "emergence" might be more valid as "emergence into awareness" rather than "emergence into existence." Robert Kegan's metaphor of psychological development is one of the transition from a stickshift transmission to an automatic transmission (1994, page unknown) – that is, the internalization of an order that already existed unconsciously in the sociocultural surround. Maybe the arrow of time is better understood not as the dissolution or creation of order, but as a movement from confusion to clarity, from unconscious order to conscious order, from "shadow agency" to "ego agency" – at least on a universal scale.

I find parallels between this formulation of emergence, which I have dubbed "Kegan's Stickshift," and the claims of relativistic physicists that "now" does not exist simultaneously for observers separated in space and thus even the present cannot be legitimately considered an objective category. Australian mathematician and physicist Vladimir Dimitrov reminds us that "'Now' is dependent on an observer's point of view in the same way that 'here' is" (Dimitrov and Hodge, 1999). The temporal "address" of an observation and the degree of order available to awareness appear to share a common relativistic essence (although whether this commonality can be extended to other correlations is beyond the scope of this paper).

"The statistical indeterminacy (randomness) generated by measurement is only apparent, and due to the absence of context. There is no barrier to retrocausality." - Richard Shoup [2006, p. 6]

Whether the universe is running itself down into a final wash of absolute chaos, ramping itself up toward a grand orgy of unification, dithering aimlessly from one patternless state to another, or all three, the nature of time cannot be adequately addressed without first developing the definition of order with a few degrees more resolution than Wilber has afforded in his writings. Order, however, cannot be satisfactorily defined without its polar companion, randomness; and in spite of their ubiquity in human thought, neither of them seem to make much sense to anyone. The eminent chaos theorist Richard Bird, echoing both Colins and Kegan, writes:

"[I]t is difficult, if not impossible, to define the concepts of order, information, and entropy without reference to the system that perceives them; that is, to the human mindÉIs not the difference between solid and not-solid one of order? And if we cannot define order without taking psychology into account, is there any basis, either literally or metaphorically, for the belief that we are on solid ground?" [2003, p. 201]

In other words, we are in a hall of mirrors. As defined by thermodynamics, time is a measure of the change of entropy; entropy is a measure of the randomness in a closed system; and both randomness and closed systems are artifacts of the observer (the ego), which necessarily limits the information it can analyze and thus the patterns it can perceive as a function of the depth and breadth it can bring to its inquiry (Bird, 200, p. 201). It is then entirely reasonable – in fact, a "troublesome" conclusion of mathematics' most careful definitions – that linear time only exists for those whose limitations prevent them from taking a different perspectiveÉ

ÉAnd "different" perspectives on time abound – not only from within the vertical horizon of developmental psychology, but also in the study of states at any altitude. There is extensive testimony, scattershot across the spectrum of consciousness, for time-reversed human experience (and even experience of time as a multidimensional construct, with the duration of a perceived moment as a perpendicular axis). As Dean Radin notes, if "time-loops, reversals, symmetries, and acausal correlations [do indeed] lurk deep within us," they may not be so strange to common experience as they might appear to the vantage of "common" sense. We may already be familiar with their interior correlates, including but not limited to "precognitionÉintuitive hunches, [and] synchronicities" (2000, p. 3). He is not the only hard empiricist to remind us that such phenomena occur not only across all cultures, but also (perhaps not surprisingly) throughout all of recorded history.

By any adequate definition, it appears that time is generated by the interaction of perspectives; that perspectives on time are diverse and linked to developmental complexity; and that we cannot discuss time without accounting for the different ways in which it is disclosed to relative observers by numerous practices – including the infamous "view from nowhere," the sweet, delicious observer-less action of empiricism.

"To say that it's impossible for the future to influence the past is to deny half of the predictions of the laws of physics." - Daniel Sheehan (LaFee, 2006)

In fact, it is the incredible weight of nonlinear temporal experience in human history that used to make it hard for me to understand why so many physicists grapple with the symmetry of their own equations. This intuition of time as a mutual and multidimensional affair is not only a current under some of my own more exceptional experiences and a manifestation through a considerable diversity of speculative and not-so-speculative fiction, but is also supported by some of the most well-supported scientific studies of our age. Paradigm-shattering empirical research from physics labs across the globe have provided what I consider to be insurmountable evidence (several classes of evidence, actually) for the influence of the future on the past (Radin, 2000, p. 3). Researchers at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) lab, over the last thirty years and in hundreds upon hundreds of trials, have discovered that willpower exerts a small but significant effect on the outcome of "random" events, regardless of whether the data is collected before or after the test subjects actually conduct the experiment (ie, "present-time influence of data that was collected in the past") (p. 11).

This is not merely an occurrence on the scale of individual people; both a worldwide network of random number generators analyzed by the Global Consciousness Project and independent "card-guessing" psi tests registered a massive deviation from randomness on the morning of September 11, 2001 – "highly unusual behavior" which began just over four hours before the World Trade Center was attacked and has never once, before or since, appeared at any other time in over eight years of continuous data collection (Shoup, 2006, p. 12). Radin, as well as Roger Nelson, Dick Bierman, and William Braud, subjected these and other studies (performed by other institutions) to comprehensive meta-statistical analyses, concluding that the likelihood that identical results could be achieved by chance are (depending on the experiment) between 10 million to one and an astonishing over-one-trillion to one (pp. 11-12). The evidence appears to only grow more incontrovertible over time. Among the scientists willing to accept the preponderance of these "anomalous" data[3] there remains no single solid theoretical framework, but the verdict from progressive physics is in: retrocausation, by whatever mechanism, exists.

“[O]rdinary notions of causality may be viewed a caricature of what is actually a set of highly complex, entangled relationships.” - Dean Radin [2000, p. 2]

Following that every behavior in the universe has a sociocultural correlate (and noting that all behaviors emerge as the objects of an observer's limited relationship to the infinite number of intersections around it[4]), retrocausation has a natural place among the resonance theories of systems. According to neurobiologist Frank Vertosick, the "network time" of interactions within a system can take many forms. Updates can propagate through a network synchronously, asynchronously, continuously, and chaotically (or discontinuously, for practical purposes) (2002, p. 327). The infamous strange attractors of chaos theory model the behavior of systems in an aperiodic orbit at discontinuously sampled intervals (the chaotic dripping of a faucet, beating of a heart, rise and fall of a population, and so on) – which is to say, they view systems from a phase space that is time-dependent but which is itself "beyond" time. If indeed, as was suggested by Richard Feynman, positrons are simply electrons moving backwards in time, we could easily apply this understanding to their time-negative information inheritance as they are created and destroyed (or are they?) in every instant, going the other direction. We would literally, not just philosophically, be made of the crossroads.

The propagation of network updates, no matter their form, occurs through time, and as such yields iterative descriptions. Strange attractors are, by virtue of their trans-temporal nature, recursive descriptions. They are not attached to separate kinds of systems, but are two complementary lenses that can be brought to bear on the social dimension of any phenomenon (although a given system might be more fruitfully studied via one or the other, depending on the questions being answered). Mathematically, you arrive at the same result with recursive and reiterative formulas; the difference is in whether the operation of time is explicit or the solution is arrived at via a single operation. Bird gives an example using factorial equations:

n! = n x (n – 1) x (n – 2) É 3 x 2 x 1

is an iterative function, which can be followed without knowing where it leads.

n! = n x (n – 1)!

however, is recursive. By introducing the factorial sign ! on both sides of the equation, iteration is implicated rather than explicated – it is, informally speaking, "factored out" of the picture. Time disappears, and the portrait of the entire system can be taken in at once (Bird, 2003, p. 200).

Bird also alludes to the contemplative upper reaches of structuralism when he mentions that this distinction between recursive and iterative logic may parallel the difference between the perspectives we take on the mind in modern daily life and in meditation. The so-called "hard problem" of consciousness appears, according to Bird, because we are immersed in a pre-reflexive recursive model of mind that, in its self-definition, cannot possibly address questions of its origin. However, in meditation, we train our selves to take a reflexive position that allows us to see mind's iterative nature – that so-familiar experience, the "movie of my life," the sequential frames that you and I stitch together into the narrative of a contiguous and coherent personal identity (So much of the testimonial evidence for time-reversed or acausal experience has been disclosed in meditative or trance states). As described by complementary functions, neither view is essentially more "real" than the other; but each can provide a more adequate model for certain situations.

"Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana." - Anonymous

The physical world is, in its river-flowing-uphill, self-weaving way, a terrible realization of the classic time travel enigma called "the bicycle paradox." This is what happens when you take a bicycle back in time to before it was invented and leave it there, allowing it to fall into the hands of people who inevitably retro-engineer it before it ever was imagined. When you return to your own time, the bicycle will have been invented before it was invented, but that is not the problem; the problem is that, in your new universe, the bike has no inventor. A similar situation arose in the film Back To The Future, with the time-travel-enabling "flux capacitor." Where does it come from? Here is an example of atemporal fecundity that can include, but does not rely on, the idea of a well of creativity pulsing forth from this moment. When your past self receives the plans from your future self, the loop closes and all you have is a Mšbius strip of duration along the axis in which the creation exists. There is no moment of creation, really – except every moment in which this uncreated object appears.

In Kurt Vonnegut's last novel, Timequake, the universe has a moment of anxiety and regresses ten years, taking everyone with it. All beings are forced to relive the last ten years, watching their mistakes repeated before their helpless awareness; when the ten years is up and the universe starts rolling forward into the unknown again, everybody crashes the vehicles they had forgotten they were driving. It is the biggest catastrophe the world has ever seen.

"Quantum mechanics is like poetry. The poem is right there, for everyone to see, but it has many different interpretations." - Daniel Sheehan (LaFee, 2006).

As is now probably apparent, each method of inquiry reveals a radically different portrait of time. Referring again to Integral Methodological Pluralism's principle of enactment, every perspective calls forth and illuminates a facet of phenomena inaccessible from any other angle. We have no unifying word for the holon that, from different vantages, appears as the brain, the mind, a learning network, and so on (Sean Esbjšrn-Hargens, personal communication, March 23, 2007). In that sense, our language is ill suited for an AQAL elaboration on these incredibly complex realities. Nonetheless, we do inhabit a day and age in which a distinction between interior and exterior dimensions of this brain-mind are concretized in language. Conversely, the very word, "time," is not a transcendental signifier pointing to a reality beyond the particularities of method, but rather an undifferentiated concept that, when investigated through the lens of divergent disciplines like empiricism and structuralism, describes totally different realities. Therefore, in the transdisciplinary study of time, we must account for its multitude of

meanings across all realms of knowledge. In other words, we have to conduct a more thorough and differentiated cultural anthropological study of time as it appears to researchers operating from within each horizon. Only then can we hope to arrive at a common definition of time that honors its disclosure from all perspectives – a hermeneutic agreement that will certainly demand we coin a language-neutral word for it (a "trans" signifier containing as subholons each inquiry's unique definition, instead of the contemporary "pre" variety which conflates them all and thus does justice to none of them). If we are ever to all agree on time's "true" nature, we need to first explore and inhabit our own multifarious relationship to it – first as observer-naturalists engaged in a taxonomic, ethnographic project, and then as participant-engineers engaged in a mutual discourse that can literally create the ultimate significance of time itself from the raw material of our pluralism.

Of course, it might only appear to be in that order.

"We all agree that your theory is crazy, but is it crazy enough?" - Neils Bohr (n.d.).

From the upper quadrants, the present is both a very real immediate experience and the entire description of the world as we relate to it. From the lower quadrants, the present has no reality of its own, except as the nexus of the overlapping waves we call the future and the past. Moments outside of this one have no existence spare what we are able to infer by digging down beyond (descending and ascending, that is) this emergent pattern our experience of now-ness, deducing other moments by radioing them in and calling the marriage by a single name, like "potential" or "memory" or "destiny." Futurism and precognition are just as much reconstructive sciences as the study of history and pre-history, because this very instant is a perch from which flows the rest of time. Yet for the same reasons, even this moment's objective reality (insofar as, and in the ways that, we can claim something to be objective) cannot really be said to exist in any sense other than as the moirŽ of a totally distributed causal agent – maybe just a single infinitely-entangled wave/particle weaving itself backward and forward through all time. And time, as disclosed from within every horizon, is a reality that from possibly the most adequate integral stance available to us "right now" can only be described as the side effect of some quantum unit's exploration of all possible configurations. The innovation supposedly inherent in stage emergence is an artifact of linear logic and iterative perception. At least half of the story – and the half thus far ignored by AQAL – is that the body of the universe is woven from a recursive observation, perceived through iterative process, the past and future shaking hands as order and chaos (although which is which?). Time is two ships passing in the night - constant reunion and ultimate loneliness together in an impossible knot. The knot of time can't be dissolved - only recognized as partial, in service of an atemporal identity, honoring both the relative "fact" of the groundlessness of all tenses and the "interpretation" of a tautologically (and ironically) "evolved preference for directionality." Even that fails to hold against the weight of experiences so common that they are coded in our understanding of time in modes as diverse as folk wisdom and shamanism to therapy and the ultimate science of zen (Sit in that for a "while").

Nonetheless, we are able of making these distinctions: past, present, future. Even if we know that time as a phenomenological object can be reliably declared a constructed illusion (and all manner of other slander), are we not still able to use time? Is not time ultimately - and, as is becoming usual, in more ways than one, in theory and in practice, and regardless of the direction of our causal influence - what we make of it? And what it makes of us? How can we get any closer than that? Even more to the point: except as a measure of the difference in wavelength between relative slices of superposited kosmic conjectures, be they self and other, or transcendent and immanent, or interior or exterior (i.e., the probability of a particular depth of time in this moment), what do we even mean by "closer?" Except in practice.


[1] My hunch is that this is also why the incommensurability of quantum physics and the theory of relativity is so intractable – the former is rooted in linear logic (the directionality of wave-form collapse), whereas the latter, at least in as formulated by the Schrödinger equation, is rooted in circular logic, reversible and anentropic. Strangely enough, the fact that rational physicists are generating time-symmetrical equations – that they are faithfully modeling a reality they could never adequately understand – suggests to me that they are not completely creating the world they describe, but are working with truths that do “already” exist in some sense – either as pre-existent kosmic habits laid down by anonymous sages, or as a reality enacted by transcendental observers in the future, reaching backwards in time to negate the concept of linear enfoldment.

[2] Wilber has so far failed to adequately reconcile this universally-negentropic Erotic thrust of the Kosmos and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This is a major obstacle to the accessibility of his work for an enormous and influential demographic in contemporary society – namely, the orange-altitude scientists who might otherwise be his most vocal proponents.

[3] Princeton researcher York Dobyns lamented that the mainstream physicists to whom he presents these findings insist “it's impossible because there's no evidence, and there's no evidence because it's impossible” (LaFee, 2006).

[4] I will have to return to address the matter of time as disclosed by autopoiesis in a later elaboration of these ideas.


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