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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Andre Marquis is associate professor in counseling and human development at the Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, at the University of Rochester. He is the author of several books, including Understanding Psychopathology: An Integral Exploration (2014), The Integral Intake: A Guide to Comprehensive Idiographic Assessment in Integral Psychotherapy and Theoretical Models of Counseling and Psychotherapy.
Integral Culture, Spirituality, and a Category Error
Part II in a series on positioning
Integral culture does not need to cease emphasizing the importance of authentic spirituality with regard to many individual and systemically-based problems. What I think we do need to abandon is the nearly ubiquitous tendency to make statements of fact about the external world (often rather grandiose statements about the ultimate nature of reality) based upon one’s internal, phenomenological (interior-individual) experiences.
Consider, for example, someone who has a 1st person, phenomenological experience of “unity consciousness”—that the separate-self sense has completely dissolved and that one’s ultimate identity as Spirit is non-dual (not separate from any arising phenomena); he or she then proceeds to make a 3rd person, objective statement that the ultimate nature of reality is non-dual, that everything in the external world is a manifestation and derivative of Spirit. Although the propositional truth of such a statement is possible, the felt profundity of one’s phenomenological experience does not justify anything close to certainty in declaring such a statement.
Wilber and much of the integral community make this fundamental mistake ubiquitously; it is pervasive throughout Wilber’s writings and I heard it in many, if not most, of the presentations/panels I attended at all four of the Integral Theory Conferences. This mistake is common among spiritual communities, but it is particularly ironic that people who adopt a theory (integral) whose central model is the four quadrants (see part I of this blog) would so persistently make such a mistake.
Referring to the quadrants, Wilber stated:
“each of which has its own validity claim and its own standards, and none of which can be reduced to the others” (1995, p. 145, italics in original).
And referring to the specific validity claims of the exterior-individual and interior-individual quadrants respectively:
“propositional truth (referring to an objective state of affairs, or it)…. and subjective truthfulness (or sincerity, I)….each of these validity claims…can be exposed to its own different kinds of evidence…and checked for their actual validity” (1995, p. 145, italics and parentheses in original).
Despite these crucially important epistemological aspects of integral theory, it seems to me that Wilber and much of the integral community take their subjective experiences as evidence for (or even worse, proof of) propositional statements about the universe. For example,
“The [phenomenological] realization of the Nondual traditions is uncompromising: there is only Spirit, there is only God” (Wilber, 1997, p. 281, brackets added).
This is fundamentally a quadrant confusion.
I vehemently do not want individuals within the integral community to stop their spiritual practices, and I wish that the rest of the world would increasingly adopt what Wilber (1997) termed authentic spirituality; if much of the world did this, I think that individuals, as well the cultures and system in which they are embedded, would flourish more and suffer less. At the same time, I wish that Wilber and the integral community would cease making the category error of making 3rd person statements of fact about the nature of reality based upon their 1st person experiences.
Let me confess that there was more than a decade during which I, too, felt certain that I knew what the ultimate nature of reality was, and this derived from powerful first-person, Upper-Left, spiritual experiences I had in Darshan (visual contemplation of a holy person) with Adi Da, in meditation, and experiences with psilocybin; I truly know—firsthand—how compelling such experiences can be. However, regardless of how persuasive those phenomenological experiences are, it is not intellectually or philosophically justifiable to argue (especially not with certainty) statements of fact about the external world (3rd person propositions about the external world) on the basis of 1st person experiences.
As Harris (2014) has pointed out, those who make connections between spirituality and science usually fall prey to one of two mistakes. Typical scientists often begin their project with an impoverished understanding of what authentic spirituality is. In contrast, most New Age proponents “idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics” (Harris, 2014, p. 7-8). Although the integral community has tremendous strengths and virtues that I do not see in typical New Agers, much, if not most, of the integral community does make unwarranted connections—if not with “the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics”—at least between their subjective experiences in meditation and statements about the nature of the external universe. Such statements likely reflect a type of wishful thinking that not only results in much integral literature losing credibility in the eyes of the mainstream, but also leads many integralists to minimize the importance of science, politics, economics and other this-worldy enterprises.
When the questions being investigated are kept within the phenomenological domain of consciousness and other 1st person experiences, then meditative and other contemplative practices may offer data that can be appropriately considered empirical (in the larger sense of William James’ “radical empiricism”); however, as soon as questions about the external world arise, subjective experiences cease to be the most appropriate form of data to answer them:
“Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world” (Harris, 2014, p. 8).
Such insights into the illusory nature of the separate self that we call “I” are not incompatible with a rational, naturalized spirituality, and we do not need to resort to faith or anything metaphysical to develop the further reaches of consciousness, to cultivate loving and compassionate communities, or to honor the role of ritual and spirituality in individual and communal life. 1st person contemplative practices can absolutely inform our understandings of consciousness and the nature of the mind, but they do not necessarily inform our understandings of the external world (perhaps they do, but they more than likely do not).
The development and state of our consciousness clearly affects the nature of our experience (UL) and that affects how we relate to one another and the world (LL, LR), all of which influence the quality of our lives. And, as Wilber has repeatedly written, if our consciousness and identities expand beyond our individual, separate selves to include the rest of humanity and the world at large, our compassion and love will correspondingly expand to include them as well. This is not only well and good, it may be what our planet needs the most; but none of this requires our making statements of fact about the external world. Whereas a growing percentage of Americans identify as “spiritual but not religious” (Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life), I urge the integral community to be deeply, genuinely spiritual without claiming to know—beyond anything more than a hypothesis or conjecture—what the ultimate nature of reality is.
To repeat, what I am advocating is not a lessening of the centrality of spirituality in the world or the integral community. I am advocating that we cease making statements of fact on the basis of internal experiences, or the doctrines of any religious texts, while still allowing transformations of consciousness to enhance the meaning in our lives and to better the world through magnified levels of compassion, mindfulness, gratitude and love.
Harris, S. (2014). Waking up: A guide to spirituality without religion. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Harvey, V. A. (2007). Agnosticism and atheism. In Flynn, T. (Ed.). The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, ecology, spirituality: The spirit of evolution. Boston: Shambhala.
Wilber, K. (1997). The eye of spirit. Boston: Shambala.
Wilber, K. (2006). Integral spirituality: A startling new role for religion in the modern and postmodern world. Boston: Integral Books.
Yalom, I. D. (2005). The Schopenhauer cure. New York: Harper Collins.
 It is relevant that Sam Harris has meditated for most of his life and has studied with a wide range of monks, yogis, lamas, and other contemplatives: “…I spent two years on silent retreat myself (in increments of one week to three months), practicing various meditation techniques for twelve to eighteen hours a day” (Harris, 2014, p 14).