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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
When Jürgen Habermas and I shared an Elevator
Or, why experience is nested in an after-effect interpretative nexus.
David Christopher Lane
So, yes, Ken Wilber, Brad Reynolds and I can agree on the intrinsic worthiness of the inner quest.
I enjoyed reading John Abramson's first part of a two-part essay, “Transpersonal Psychology” on Integral World. I particularly appreciated his desire to seek a partnership with mathematical philosophy so that two disparate fields can find a common ground and hopefully produce a more fruitful communication.
However, I think there is a fundamental confusion in Abramson's presentation that needs clarification and may help develop or abort an alliance he so earnestly desires.
Simply put, the epistemological sticking point in any science (rational or otherwise) is interpretative. This doesn't mean by extension, however, that other states of consciousness (higher or lower) don't exist. To the contrary, awareness has a plethora of differing possibilities. Hence, I am not lambasting Wilber or transpersonal psychology for encouraging methods to pry open our Huxleyian “Doors of Perception.” That is an altogether worthy enterprise and I, myself, have championed meditation for decades as one pathway to achieve such.
But Abramson confuses the issue when he writes, “Thus Lane is saying that Wilber's (or Reynolds) reports of experience in a different realm are being mistreated as a real event in our everyday ordinary realm of experience. However, the above analysis suggests this is not the way to represent such reports by Wilber or Reynolds. Rather their reports are valid in the realm they are reporting from.”
No, I don't for a nano-second think that Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs), Psychedelic Experiences (PEs) or Spiritual Experiences (SEs) are “real event[s] in our everyday ordinary realm of experience.” They certainly aren't ordinary, and they certainly aren't of an everyday variety.
My critique isn't about the reification of transpersonal experiences as experiences, but about how we interpret them. The troublesome divide is what to make of our superluminal adventures and how best to codify and explain them. Let me provide a silly example that happened decades ago here on terra firma, before we go rogue and enter into astral realm politics.
When I was securing my Ph.D. in the Sociology of Knowledge at the University of California, San Diego, and teaching at Warren College back in the mid-1980s, one of my professors was Dr. Aaron Cicourel distinguished for his work in sociolinguistics. It so happened that he was on friendly terms with Jürgen Habermas who came to see him on campus. I was on the ground floor when both showed up and we all took an elevator up to the 8th floor. It was a slow upward journey, given the lagging technology of that particular building.
We all shared the same intimate space for less than a minute and made light, trivial conversation.
Okay, the experience did indeed happen. But what point of view each of us had and what we perceived was distinct. That brief moment in time and space was multiperspectival.
Likewise, higher or altered states of consciousness exist, even if for many they are temporal glimpses. Where the rubber meets the muddy road and too often gets irretrievably stuck is how we ultimately interpret what transpired.
My issue with transpersonal psychology or Ken Wilber's theories isn't over operative states of awareness and their reputed accessibility, but how after our astral trips we attempt to portray them, contextualize them, and give them meaning.
Abramson is unnecessarily befuddling the issue when he writes (inaccurately):
“What the mathematical theory of infinity tells us is that there are other 'real realms'. In that context, Wilber and Reynolds can be said to be giving 'real' reports from a 'different' real realm. They are not saying, as I understand it, that their reports are real in our everyday ordinary realm (as Lane charges them with his reification remark) but that they are real in the realm they are reporting from. And critically, I am arguing Wilber and Reynolds have the support of infinite mathematical theory in such a claim.”
Again, the reification I accuse Wilber of has nothing to do his experience, per se, since my argument is that his reportage is nested in an after-effect interpretative nexus. Yes, we can all potentially have amazingly luminous excursions. That I would suggest is fairly obvious, even to the most cynical skeptic.
The objection is how we then make sense of these experiences. For instance, the famous atheist-neuroscientist, Sam Harris, is a great advocate for meditation and even, on occasion, the ingestion of certain psychotropic drugs to achieve transformative states of consciousness. His hermeneutic is not Ken Wilber's, especially in his avoidance of overtly religious absolutisms. But both see eye to eye about spending quality time in the inner quest.
To the degree that transpersonal psychology (or Ken Wilber for that matter) focuses on employing explorative methods to probe the inner recesses of awareness there is no quarrel and there is certainly no need to invoke mathematical philosophy. That is an unnecessary invocation.
However, if transpersonal psychology (or Ken Wilber) wants to proffer an insight of about what these transcendental experiences ultimately mean then that opens up an epistemological Pandora's Box.
This is precisely why I and others have taken Ken Wilber to task because in his hubris he has prematurely taken mythological imagery and made unnecessary reifications that subvert a deeper inquiry into the very nature of consciousness itself.
As I have elaborated previously in other essays on this subject, the eye of flesh or the eye of rationality is expansive, uncertain, and is continually correcting, augmenting, and opening up to new ways of knowing. Given that this is what we already employ this in our own lives (utilizing as we do these two modes of knowing, conjoined at the hip as they are), then it should come as no surprise that opening our third eye will also be one of discovery, one of adventure, and one open to a variety of interpretations. However, we shouldn't confuse the method of empiricism and rationality with a predetermined end result, since both inquiries are open-ended and allow for a multiplicity of findings and interpretations.
Hence while Wilber's argument from a phenomenological perspective makes eminently good sense, the danger in his approach is that he tends to fall prey to premature reifications when he uses such words as “Buddha nature or Spirit” as if such terms have already been universally accepted by all and sundry . . . which they have not. Moreover, he tends to confuse experience with its causation-reality, forgetting in the process of how easy it is for anyone to be deceived or duped by how certain phenomena are produced. Ironically, Wilber tends to invoke a naive realism when addressing a so-called shared reality. For example, he argues “When we perceive an apple, and say “I see the apple,” and the brain lights up in a particular way, we do not conclude, “The apple only exists as a brainwave pattern; it otherwise has no reality.” No, we conclude that the apple is a real object in the real world, and as the brain perceives it, it lights up in various specific ways.”
While on the surface this seem evidential, the fact remains that what we could be mistaken about the perceived object and on closer inspection discover that it wasn't an apple but a pear or perhaps a 3-D paper object which only “appears” to be a real fruit. I am belaboring this point because there is no absolute given even in the sensory-empirical world, which could not potentially be mislabeled or misinterpreted. This may seem like a trivial point, but I think it looms much larger than we might at first suspect when we enter into the mystical domain which doesn't have the same overwhelming consensual feedback correctives (at least not yet).
Even here, the cognitive scientist, Donald Hoffman from the University of California, Irvine, would object to Wilber's key argument that “we conclude that the apple is a real object in the real world.” Rather, Hoffman would argue the exact opposite suggesting that the apple is “has no objective, observer-independent features.” Why so? Because “the image at the eye has countless possible interpretations.”
The point here is an obvious one: The empirical eye is not a pure and unadulterated glimpse of the physical world “as it is” but rather a constructed opening with innumerable possibilities which depends on a number of environmental factors (outside itself, both internally and externally).
The same, of course, holds true for the rationality. It is a not a virginal glimpse into the world of logic, reason, and networked thinking, but it too is a pathway with innumerable byways.
Both, needless to say, don't come with preset conclusions about what should or must be the case.
Likewise, the contemplative/meditative eye is an opening, but one which has (to quote a famous story in Arabian Nights) many doors and windows—each of which carry their own interpretative matrix.
Sam Harris, for instance, meditates and opens his third eye and remains agnostic and doesn't postulate God or Spirit-in-Action.
Swami Agehananda Bharati spoke of a zero-point experience which he claims happened to him three times in his life. He suggested it was a potential for anyone, but argued that the language we used to describe it was too often fanciful and hyperbolic. Bharati is known for his acerbic style and he argues that continual enlightenment is a literary fiction based on a misunderstanding of etic and emic modes of speech.
As one commentator elaborated,
“Bharati's most effective argument hinges on the distinction between emic and etic modes of speech. Though the nuances of these technical terms drawn from anthropology are not always clear in Bharati's work, basically emic refers to the encoded private language of in-groups; while etic refers to the language of the objective outside observer. Bharati contends that the emic speech of Indian sadhus is governed by complex, unspoken codes, codes that are rarely noticed, much less understood, by outsiders, no matter how clever or perceptive. One of the unwritten rules is that gurus must never acknowledge being in any state other than that of full realization.
"Master, how often do you enter that state of highest bliss and realization?"
"My child, I am in that state even now."
Bharati's claim is that because of the rules governing the speech of Indian mystics, the guru has no choice but to assert that he is always enjoying satchitananda, even when he knows perfectly well that he is not.
Further, according to Bharati's understanding, the very fact that the guru is exerting himself by speaking in public proves that he is not, in that moment, enjoying the state of enlightenment. If he were, there would be no motive to speak. Most importantly, from the emic perspective of insiders, there is no dishonesty in this claim to permanent enlightenment, despite the undeniable fact that it is objectively false.
Bharati asserts that a dispassionate look at the evidence will suggest, though not prove, that enlightened states are by their very nature temporary. The great mystics are those who frequently enter transcendent states and make the cultivation of the zero experience the dominant focus of their lives, but no one is permanently in the state of highest illumination. The very idea that one can experience enlightenment twenty-four hours a day is the product of a too literal etic understanding of the emic speech of professional mystics, who not incidentally benefit from this linguistic confusion. The idea of an unmediated zero or non-dual experience is rejected by some as misleading. outlooks on the matter. As one scholar elaborates,
Two of the main opponents of this claim are Steven Katz and Wayne Proudfoot, who have argued from a constructivist perspective, maintaining firstly that the mystical experience is shaped only by various social and linguistic factors and secondly, that no experience can be unmediated. The constructivist perspective is at odds with essentialism, which regards the mystical experience to have intrinsic value. According to Katz, 'the ontological structure(s) of each major mystical tradition is different and this pre-experiential, inherited structure directly enters into the mystical occasion itself' and, therefore, the mystical occasion is wholly dependent on prior events. Regarding the reality of the unmediated experience, Proudfoot assertively states that there 'are no modes of experience and certainly no sources of knowledge that are unqualified by the cognitive activity of the mind, and that do not assume particular beliefs.' He extends the constructivist argument to religious belief, suggesting that such belief ought to be 'construed as hypotheses that are the result of inferential processes' and 'subject to much the same criteria as are any other beliefs and hypotheses.'
Others who open their “third” eye report differing experiences, such as we read in the life stories of Sri Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, Krishnamurti, and countless others.
Some point to a god, some point to no god. Some point to its ultimate meaning, some point to the brain's machinery. The debate between John Lilly (famous for his dolphin research and deprivation tank invention) and Richard Feynman (famous Noble prize-winning physicist) wildly disagreed on how to interpret subtle, inner phenomena that arose during out-of-body experiences. Lilly argued for their distinct objectivity whereas Feynman dismissed them as hallucinations that had no real import. This led to a heated disagreement between them, but the lesson is an obvious one: there are no “givens” in any eye,
I quite understand that one can have a “non-dual” experience of oneness, which can be quite astonishing. Regardless of its magnificence, though, it still begs the question of what it ultimately means and how best to interpret it. Simply put, opening the third eye is an adventure without an automatic conclusion.
Yes, I think there is a sound argument to be made that we should explore what meditation offers us, but we need not unnecessarily marry the same invitation with “ism”-infused theology. They are two complete distinct things and using “god-talk” and the like is merely one spin among many.
I, myself, meditate and have done so for decades and had tremendous experiences of unity and the like, but I see no compelling reason to then interlace that with some ultimate philosophy of how god is directing the multiverse.
As I often mentioned in previous articles, the original sin of humankind is that we tend to confuse our neurology with ontology. Or, in this context, using more “mystic” language, it can be phrased thusly: we shouldn't conflate our experiences of non-dualism with the overall operating system of the cosmos. That, I would suggest, is a projection gone too far, especially since others who are on the same inner quest have different purviews on what they have experienced.
Just as with our empirical and rational eye, there is no rush to judgement. We should be doubly cautious in our endeavors and not become easy prey to premature theologizing.
The mystic experience is indeed a wonderful one, but it doesn't need god-language or spirit-language to make it so. These are overlays that we place upon them, not necessarily intrinsic to the experience itself. Science is a method of doubting our conjectures and to test them against competing ideas and theories to see if they best explain a given phenomenon. Likewise, the mystic should be that same skeptic, lest he/she get entrapped in their solipsism. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, metaphorically speaking, is a good touchstone in this regard.
So, yes, Ken Wilber, Brad Reynolds and I can agree on the intrinsic worthiness of the inner quest. We just happen to fundamentally disagree about how best to interpret what happens when the tenth door opens.
Nevertheless, despite these clarifications, Abramson writes that “As regards Lane's characterisation of Wilber's descriptions of reality as 'religious glop', that jibe is arguably misconceived. Wilber's description of reality is from a perspective within the framework of the ultimate reality he claims to have realized. This contrasts with Lane's critique of Wilber's description which is from a perspective outside of that reality (or from within a different reality). Understood in this way, it is no wonder Lane fails to realise its significance.”
Again, this is not accurate. My argument is that “within any framework”—higher, lower, or in-between—there is bound to be varying interpretations and even descriptions of what “ultimate” reality means and entails. The Jainist doctrine of syadvada and anekantavada are instructive here and underline my thesis with regard to Wilber and to overly hyperbolic and absolutist claims that have occasionally been made in transpersonal psychology and Integral theory. As Britannica elucidates,
“Syadvada in Jaina metaphysics, the doctrine that all judgments are conditional, holding good only in certain conditions, circumstances, or senses, expressed by the word syat (Sanskrit: “may be”). The ways of looking at a thing (called naya) are infinite in number. The Jainas hold that to interpret experience from only one naya, or point of view, to the exclusion of others is an error comparable to that of the seven blind men feeling an elephant, each of whom concluded that the part he was holding represented the elephant's true form. The relative pluralism of this position is implicit in the Jaina doctrine of anekantavada, or the “many-sidedness of reality.” According to this doctrine, all statements can be judged as true or not true or as both true and not true and thus inexpressible, depending on the point of view. The combinations of these possibilities can be stated in seven logical alternatives called saptabhangi.”
Hence, I am not critiquing Wilber from an outsider's perspective, but rather pointing out the obvious fact that within any “framework of ultimate reality” there will be a multiplicity of interpretations, just as there are in this world of senses, just as there are in the realm of the mind.
And, lest we forget, nobody is having these discussions within the transcendental realm, but here and now on planet earth using very limited language games. No experience is virginal in this sense, and especially so when we are speaking after the fact and relying on verbal and written descriptions. We are not eating ice cream and cake on an astral plane and sharing psychically sharing our palates. We are, to the contrary, discussing a menu with no desert present on the plate.
Let us now go back full circle to when Jürgen Habermas and I shared an elevator at Muir College at the University of California, San Diego. The experience was real, but I am no longer on that elevator. I am simply sharing with you via a series of letters a report of my experience. Could I be wrong in my description of what happened there? Certainly. Perhaps it wasn't Habermas that I remembered, but rather Robert Bellah from U.C. Berkeley. Perhaps we didn't go up eight stories. Perhaps I am mistaken that Dr. Aaron Cicourel was present.
My point is obvious but elemental: no one is sharing experiences as they are in some Kantian “the thing in itself” format. We are exchanging stories in an after-effect interpretative nexus. As such, the debate is not over whether there are transcendental experiences but over how we then regard them in the larger context of our religious or philosophical paradigms.
Because of this, it is completely unnecessary to legitimize transpersonal psychology with philosophical mathematics are any other academic discipline.
Science is not shutting down the doors to methodological pluralism, since given its core it is our attempt to understand more about our self and the experiences we have by experimentation, by testing, by doubting, by prediction, by alternative theorizing, and so on.
Abramson then proceeds to claim that “Wilber's descriptions of reality can be seen as signposts designed to transport the reader to the reality Wilber inhabits. But Lane appears to require Wilber's descriptions to have meaning within his own framework of reason. It is as if Lane were to insist that poetry must make literal sense.”
This, again, is completely inaccurate since what I am pointing out is that within any framework there will be alternative explanations and interpretations of what arises. Thus, it is misleading to then make any absolute judgements or reifications when the inquiry should be open-ended, given the plurality of meaningful options. Poetry's richness is embedded in its metaphors, since what makes it distinctive is how many divergent interpretations there can be, even with the simplest of quatrains as we have seen in Edward Fitzgerald's famous rendering of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat. Similarly, we should have that same humility of accepting divergent understandings when we traverse other realms in consciousness.
I dream every night and some of my nightly sojourns are quite remarkable. But how I ultimately interpret them is varied and open to revision.
Likewise, we have numinous experiences in meditation. We enter that very space and later interpret what it may mean. Following the Jainist lead, we keep open-minded, tentative, and accessible to many-sided interpretations.
Or, to invoke John Abramson's terms, there are multiple infinities.
All of this can perhaps be best summarized from a talk I once gave in India about mysticism:
Being skeptical shouldn't be confused with being cynical. The former is a process of gathering more, not less, information; whereas the latter is a way of restricting new and unexpected data by twisting its value before allowing it to settle in. The mystic, in this context, is indeed a skeptic—never taking for granted that which arises to be the totality of what is, but rather, always looking behind the screen for the deeper explanation. This invokes a natural humility in such a seeker since he or she know a priori that whatever is discovered is never the ultimate as ultimate, since it is never ending quest that always increases one's sense of the infinite.
Crudely, we are like wayfarers who stand on the seashore who at first can only see fifty yards out to sea because of a dense fog. But as the sun begins to penetrate our vision of the horizon increases minute by minute. Likewise, the more we understand the limitations of our purviews, the more willing we become to transcend them with ever improving vistas.
This why the mystic-scientist, Nicholas of Cusa, long ago argued that the way of knowledge is, paradoxically, through the way of ignorance. Science has made tremendous progress exactly because it is predicated upon being potentially wrong in its map making and thereby allows better-informed cartographies to replace what has come before. While tradition may be honored and respected (from Archimedes to Newton), science works best by upsetting and uprooting authorities of the past by looking for any possible errors or gaps in earlier What all this portends—and the wise counsel it engenders—is that each one of us is on open quest whether we be mystics or scientists and whatever discoveries we make on the way we must be cautious not to be dogmatic in our pronouncements, knowing too well how limited our understanding may be at any particular point in time and how easy nature can trick us in her multifarious fashions.
Nicholas of Cusa, writing in Latin, called this proglomena “on learned ignorance” and famously quipped (paradoxically as it may at first sound) that the “unattainable was attained by its unattainment”. We are better educated, in other words, when we realize how little we know. Or, as Nicholas of Cusa himself penned, “For a man-even one very well versed in learning-will attain unto nothing more perfect than to be found to be most learned in the ignorance which is distinctively his. The more he knows that he is unknowing, the more learned he will be.” The warning shot for would-be mystics is that we under the spell of a cerebral mirage and to understand what consciousness is, we must first come to grips with its beguiling and deceptive nature.
To be clear, my criticism of Ken Wilber is never over his advocacy of meditation and the pursuit of higher states of consciousness. That I believe is an altogether valuable endeavor.
I am objecting to the unnecessary religious hyperbole and dogmatism that too often permeates his writing and sloganeering. He needs more critical counter-ballast, such as we find in Sam Harris. More voices, more discussion, and less absolute theological puffery.
To conclude, transpersonal psychology doesn't need an alliance with mathematical philosophy. It simply needs to be more self-critical and champion the inner quest without so much ideological backspin.
Transpersonal psychology can be likened to great adventurers thousands of years ago who wanted to know about their planet. It doesn't need so much theorizing, and it certainly doesn't need to get caught in too much map building. It needs to encourage deep and committed explorations, sans all the unnecessary theologizing.
Last year my wife and I gave plenary talks at an International Conference on Consciousness held at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, India. The following two video presentations focus on the wonders of meditation and what the future has in store for us in light of artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, and quantum computation. The third and last video is about the vertical ascent. Hopefully, it will illustrate where Ken Wilber and I agree, since I think meditation is elemental to understanding the nature of the mind, consciousness, and the reality that inhabits and enlivens us.
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