Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher LaneDavid 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).


Prefatory Note & Prologue | PART I | PART II | PART III | PART IV

Ken Wilber's
Achilles' Heel

The Art of Spiritual Hyperbole

Prefatory Note & Prologue

David Lane

“An Achilles heel is a deadly weakness in spite of overall strength,
which can actually or potentially lead to downfall.” (Wikipedia)

PREFATORY NOTE | June 27, 2015

Back in the mid-1990s when the World Wide Web was just becoming widely used and popular, I decided to commence a series of critical essays on the work of Ken Wilber, who was and still is a touchstone in my intellectual development. Although I was a long time admirer of all things Wilber, I found his effusive praise of Da Free John as an enlightened master to be both naïve and troublesome. I told Wilber both in person and in writing of my own view on Da and how I felt he was being somewhat foolish in equating Da's insightful writing as being indicative of his spiritual status. Indeed, I wrote The Paradox of Da Free John back in 1985 with Ken Wilber uppermost in my mind, even if I never expressly mentioned so at that time.

However, after Ken Wilber published his book A Brief History of Everything and provided a completely misleading and inaccurate synopsis about the current state of evolutionary theory and molecular biology, I felt the time was overly ripe for me to clearly state where I thought Wilber was mistaken.

The following essay was written around 1997 or so and was first published on my Neuralsurfer website. Some of my language was a bit off the cuff and very informal, so I have decided to polish it up slightly and also to redact the names of some key players who I haven't been in contact with for a number of years. Nevertheless, the essential thesis of the essay remains the same.

PROLOGUE | circa 1997

This series is designed to point out the fundamental weaknesses that I see in Ken Wilber's work.

First of all, this series is designed to point out the fundamental weaknesses that I see in Ken Wilber's work and, to some degree, in the whole transpersonal psychology movement. However, I should state right from the outset that I have tremendous respect for Ken Wilber and his books. I have used Wilber's ideas since I first started teaching in 1979. In almost all of my philosophy and religious studies classes (from high school to college to graduate studies) Ken Wilber's spectrum psychology has been instrumental.

In the late 1980s I even taught two or three graduate level courses devoted entirely to Wilberian thought. At MSAC this past year we have read Sex, Spirituality, and Ecology and A Brief History of Everything in my Introduction to Philosophy and Introduction to Major World Religions classes.

I pride myself on having read almost everything Wilber has ever publicly published. Moreover, my critique of Wilber can also be applied with double force to many of my early writings. What I accuse Wilber of—gross, or should I say spiritual? exaggeration—is precisely what I have been (perhaps still am at times) guilty of.

Quite simply, it is the tendency to "inflate," to "exaggerate," to "hype" those things that are not yet knowable. It is, in sum, the inclination to indulge in spiritual hyperboles that do not (perhaps cannot) convey the precision necessary for the progression of transpersonal psychology as a science. Wilber exaggerates and he exaggerates way too much, especially on matters of ultimate importance.

I don't think he does it intentionally (I am not accusing Wilber of conscious dishonesty), but I do think it fundamentally taints his work to such an extent that most skeptical scientists—a phrase I use approvingly—cannot distinguish Wilberian gems from Wilberian rubbish.

I write this critique not so much to "dis" Wilber (I will always eagerly await any new tome from his pen), but to rather frame what I think limits the import of his research on the harder sciences. On a more personal note, I think Ken Wilber is a delightful fellow. He is, unquestionably, one very bright guy and I consider myself fortunate to have had the pleasure of dining with him (and his late, beautiful wife, Treya). I also want to underline that my criticisms of his work can also be applied to much of my writing and perhaps to many of the writers in the 'Transpersonal Movement.

This past year I was invited by Dr. Anthony Kassir, who had recently graduated from Medical School at U.C. Irvine, to an informal gathering of would-be doctors of psychiatry who were going to an Italian restaurant in Newport Beach to talk with Dr. Roger Walsh, the well-known transpersonal therapist and author. Dr. Kassir knew of my interest in Ken Wilber's work and thought that Dr. Walsh and I should meet. Naturally, I was happy to go. I also thought it would be fruitful if I brought my friend, (a Harvard educated lawyer and an expert on Indian spirituality, who years later would himself to become a medical doctor), along with me. I should have known better, of course since, and to put this politely, this young friend of mine was an intellectual pit-bull. He's very smart, but he can also be very acidic. Since we were pals, I told him that I was going to put a "leash" on him for the night. It was a pleasant evening and the conversation was at first polite. Everything seemed to have a warm New Age glow to it, and I could just tell that it was not going to last. There were too many uninspected statements, too many miracle claims, too much optimism about what transpersonal psychology will achieve.

This especially became apparent when the topic of Sathya Sai Baba came up and his supposed miracles. My skeptical friend was sitting right next to Dr. Roger Walsh. He was biting his tongue the entire time until I slightly winked at him (forgetting that a wink to him can also be interpreted as "you are off the leash!"). No sooner had I given my friend the nod than a full-fledged debate began to rage. My highly educated, but somewhat cynical companion, was like the proverbial bull in a china shop, breaking apart the most complex, even if delicate, of cherished ideas. Yet, as I watched him unleash his exceedingly keen intellect like a laser-sharpened Ninja blade, it became painfully obvious that nobody in the room could counter-argue my friend's devastatingly simple points.

For example, when he talked about brain lesions and how certain patients literally experience non-connecting selves—each one unknown to the other—he raised the issue of a "soul" or "self." In such cases, what sense does it make to talk about a permanent self or soul? Moreover, why do we think that we survive death, when in actual experience we cannot even remember deep sleep (those moments in which we don't even dream)? And what, truly, is modifying the play of consciousness? The neural symphony or some divine symphony for which we have no proof, but a lot of stories, which depend, by the way, on the activity of neurons? No neural activity, no stories—no religion, no spirituality, no myths, no conversation.

Then my lawyer colleague raised the pregnant issue of silicon chips replacing "wet" neurons and/or the transplanting of one's brain into another person's body. Does the soul stay or move or translate or pay rent or what? Or does it make any sense to talk about a "soul" when such a term is as outdated as Zeus or Thor or any God which we used to think controlled some vital organ or substance of the body or the world at large?

Naturally, there are many ways to approach these questions and they have been with us since time immemorial, but to my consternation at this party it deadened the "spirit." It grounded our flights of fancy. It made everybody look like a bad poser. We all started sounding stupid and inarticulate. Why? Because we really don't know much and even the best of minds are stuck when confronted with simple little questions—and it is the simplest of questions that can derail transpersonal psychology much too quickly.

Put it this way, some of the best emerging minds in transpersonal psychology were in attendance, and not one of them could answer my associate's questions in a satisfactory way. Quite frankly, it was pathetic. And even though my cohort is exceedingly bright, he is not even that well informed on the latest issues. He just had the chutzpah to ask impolite questions at a polite pizza party. It got me to thinking more deeply about the weaknesses in certain spiritual psychologies—thus my critique of Wilber, which has been in the back of my mind for years.


Comment Form is loading comments...