Check out my review of Ken Wilber's latest book Finding Radical Wholeness

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

Richard Feynman's Clocks
vs. Ken Wilber's Winds

Ken Wilber's Achilles' Heel, Part III

David Lane

If there really was something "trans" personal going on in the event, then Wilber should present overwhelming evidence for it. He doesn't.

Richard Feynman reveals a very intriguing story about how a clock that he had given his wife stopped at the moment of her death. On the surface of it, the story has a twilight zone feeling. What an odd coincidence it was. A young woman dies and the clock "mysteriously" stops. Now for some people this event would provide a point of meaning in which they would impute a certain type of significance (maybe this was a sign to us, maybe a confirmation, maybe a prophecy). But for Richard Feynman, the soon to be world famous Nobel Prize winner in Physics for his work on Q.E.D. [quantumelectrodynamics] he saw nothing of the sort. Instead of looking for "meaning" in the odd event, he looked for an explanation. He didn't have to look far. Feynman realized that the attending nurse had touched the clock at the moment of his wife's death to confirm the time of her death. Her simple touch was sufficient to "stop" the clock. Why?

Because as Feynman points out, the clock had already been mechanically failing from time to time. Thus to his mind, nothing paranormal transpired, nothing extraordinary. Rather, a simple physical malfunction occurred. To his credit, he accepted it as such.

Here is Richard Feynman moving narrative, as published in his best selling book, Surely Your Joking Mr. Feynman, describing the events leading up to his wife's untimely death,

Richard Feynman
“My wife, Arlene, was ill with tuberculosis—very ill indeed. It looked as if something might happen at any minute, so I arranged ahead of time with a friend of mine in the dormitory to borrow his car in an emergency so I could get to Albuquerque quickly. His name was Klaus Fuchs. He was the spy, and he used his automobile to take the atomic secrets away from Los Alamos down to Santa Fe. But nobody knew that.

The emergency arrived. I borrowed Fuchs's car and picked up a couple of hitchhikers, in case something happened with the car on the way to Albuquerque. Sure enough, just as we were driving into Santa Fe, we got a flat tire. The two guys helped me change the tire, and just as we were leaving Santa Fe, another tire went flat. We pushed the car into a nearby gas station.

The gas station guy was repairing somebody else's car, and it was going to take a while before he could help us. I didn't even think to say anything, but the two hitchhikers went over to the gas station man and told him the situation. Soon we had a new tire (but no spare—tires were hard to get during the war).

About thirty miles outside Albuquerque a third tire went flat, so I left the car on the road and we hitchhiked the rest of the way. I phoned a garage to go out and get the car while I went to the hospital to see my wife.
Surely Your Joking Mr. Feynman
Arlene died a few hours after I got there. A nurse came in to fill out the death certificate, and went out again. I spent a little more time with my wife. Then I looked at the clock I had given her seven years before, when she had first become sick with tuberculosis. It was something which in those days was very nice: a digital clock whose numbers would change by turning around mechanically. The clock was very delicate and often stopped for one reason or another—I had to repair it from time to time—but I kept it going for all those years. Now, it had stopped once more—at 9:22, the time on the death certificate!

I remembered the time I was in my fraternity house at MIT when the idea came into my head completely out of the blue that my grandmother was dead. Right after that there was a telephone call, just like that. It was for Pete Bernays—my grandmother wasn't dead. So I remembered that, in case somebody told me a story that ended the other way. I figured that such things can sometimes happen by luck—after all, my grandmother was very old—although people might think they happened by some sort of supernatural phenomenon.

Arlene had kept this clock by her bedside all the time she was sick, and now it stopped the moment she died. I can understand how a person who half believes in the possibility of such things, and who hasn't got a doubting mind—especially in a circumstance like that—doesn't immediately try to figure out what happened, but instead explains that no one touched the clock, and there was no possibility of explanation by normal phenomena. The clock simply stopped. It would become a dramatic example of these fantastic phenomena.

I saw that the light in the room was low, and then I remembered that the nurse had picked up the clock and turned it toward the light to see the face better. That could easily have stopped it. I went for a walk outside.”
Ken Wilber, Grace and Grit

Now something a bit similar happened with Ken Wilber the night his beloved and wonderful wife, Treya, died. As he reports in his moving book, Grace and Grit, powerful winds began to whip up right around the time of Treya's departure. So significant were these winds that Wilber reports that even the newspapers reported it the next day.

Wilber admits that it may have just been a coincidence, but he goes on at length about it. Why? Because Wilber finds meaning in the fact that winds kicked up at a most unexpected time. Now Wilber's narrative, as romantic and moving as it is, shows a clear proclivity to find synchronicity ("meaningful coincidence") in apparently disparate events. Whereas Feynman's narrative, as romantic and moving as it is, shows a clear proclivity to find common-sense explanations in apparently disparate events.

In the terminology I have been using in this series [see also "On Reductionism"], Wilber is looking for a Context to the odd occurrences surrounding his wife's death, whereas Feynman is looking for the Pretext to the odd occurrences surrounding his wife's death. Both invoke strategies of interpretation; both assume a priori worldviews. Wilber's writing is inflationary and exaggerated to suggest the mystical; Feynman's is deflationary and understated to suggest the physical.

I draw a parallel between these two stories because I think it presents a clear picture about the stark differences between a transpersonal worldview and a merely empirical one. My hunch is that Feynman's approach is the more mature—he is willing to accept things as they are, more or less—whereas Wilber's view is more immature—he is less willing to take things at a surface level (why else imply that winds carried more significance than they actually did?).

What this further suggests is that we are meaning-seeking creatures and we are bound to find meaning or the lack of it in everything we encounter. What troubles me about Wilber's approach is not his quest for purpose, but his buttressing that quest with questionable and doubtful elements. To use Wilber's own parlance, I find that he commits more pre/trans fallacies in his writing and in his methodologies than he might suspect. In trying to posit a "trans" or "mystical" event he relies on "mythic" or "magical" means, forgetting in the process that a rational inspection would most likely collapse the supposed "rupture" of the divine and show it to be nothing more than a chance occurrence.

In other words, Feynman wouldn't look for the "mysticism" of the winds; he would instead look for the "physics" of the phenomena. And in so doing discover a perfectly rational explanation for what transpired in Boulder, CO. Naturally, we are free to find meaning and purpose in anything we choose. But in light of Wilber's insistence on a spectrum approach (and his strident criticism of hierarchical negligence among New Agers) I find his lack of skepticism worrisome. If there really is something beyond the rational mind, if there really is a psychic domain, then we are better served by the likes of Feynman—who was reluctant to project "transrationality" to that which could easily be explained more simply—than we are with Wilber, whose tendency for hyperbole dilutes whatever skeptical edge he claims to have.

The reader may think that Grace and Grit is filled with romance and I would heartily agree. But I find its mystical posturing to be exactly that and not indicative of what Wilber would have us believe: a reflection of the subtle realms.

Feynman's story is also quite romantic, but its romance is not hinged upon doubtful variables. One turns to Feynman more and more and finds reliable answers, even though he proclaims nothing super-ordinary. Turning to Wilber more and more and one finds increasing questions, even though he alleges to provide a transcendental context. Wilber may turn out to be right, but if his fanciful details are any indication then we will have a long time to find out. Feynman was not so concerned with being right, as he was with being accurate.

That accuracy has already proven fruitful.

The reason I compared the two stories between Feynman and Wilber was to point out how a transpersonalist, as in Wilber's case, attempts to explain an unusual event, and how, in turn, as in Feynman's case, a skeptic responds to such an event. The "maturity" issue can be used by simply employing Wilber's hierarchical schema. According to Wilber, something is "higher" when it is more inclusive and ascends higher up in consciousness (from mythic to rational to subtle, etc.). Something is "lower" (remember these are Wilber's terms) when something is less inclusive and descends down in terms of awareness.

Wilber's response to "winds" is hyped (read the narrative as it originally appeared in New Age Magazine and also read Grace and Grit) according to his own Pre/Trans critiques of others who indulge in the same hierarchy collapse. One example: it is narcissistic to believe that such winds kicked up as a response to one person's death. Why? Because those very winds also affected many other people and other creatures. The winds were not a merely subjective phenomena, but were rather the long result of physical forces that have long term effects on the local area (think of Chaos or complexity and you will see why this one event cannot be singularly extrapolated and isolated—the winds involve much more than just "blowing").

Thus, according to Wilber's own thoughts (read, for instance, how he critiques New Agers for their short-sightedness on "cancer" and "healing"), his naivety is merely reflective of mythic and not rational thinking. Even according to Wilber's ideas, Feynman (and not Wilber) was operating with the rational realm when he tried to look for a non-magical and a non-mythic explanation for the dock stopping at the time of his wife's death. Wilber did no such thing. Feynman was engaging in the rational mind, according to Wilber's own hierarchical structure of consciousness.

Thus, Feynman's approach is the more "mature"—not on my definition mind you, but on Wilber's model. Wilber's inflationary hype is simply reflective of mythic and magical thinking. That's okay, but it's not rational and if Wilber were to critique his own episode he would see it (via his spectrum psychology paradigm) as being "immature" (less inclusive, less rational, etc.). On the question of reliability [we] don't want to appeal to authority or tradition on these matters. What I meant by more reliable is actually the opposite: more testable, more empirical, and more accurate. Remember Q.E.D. [Quantum Electrodynamics, to which Feynman made fundamental contributions] is perhaps the most "reliable" (in terms of minute accuracy) theory we have to date.

When I compared and contrasted Feynman story of his wife's death and Wilber's story surrounding his wife's death, it was to illustrate how a skeptic and how a transpersonalist responds to an unusual (but not transpersonal) event. We noticed, for instance, that there was a simple (rational) explanation for why the dock stopped at exactly the time Feynman's wife expired (the nurse checked the clock at that time and the clock had a history of mechanical malfunctioning). There was nothing "transpersonal" about the event, even though on the surface it "appeared" to suggest something spooky or paranormal. Given Feynman's skepticism, he did not even attempt to "inflate" the story (and by this I mean the tendency not to look for an underlying simpler reason, but to rather "add" or "embellish" the narrative with that which is not readily apparent).

Occam's Razor does not suggest that only simple things exist, but that we should tend first (not last) to the simpler explanation.

Now a close reading of Wilber's story suggests that he was not so willing, as Feynman, to explain an unusual event—in this case kicked up winds in Boulder—in a simpler and more rational way. If Wilber really does think they were indicative of some trans-rational force, then he needs naturally to give us some convincing documentation why. Keep in mind that a trans-rational or paranormal event by its very nature is not anti-rational, but rather—using Wilber's terms here—supra rational. It includes rationality and does not exclude it. In more precise terms, a trans-rational event, if it is such, will carry "more" (not less) proof than an ordinary empirical occurrence, provided that such an event manifested outwardly (winds or stopped clocks, for instance). If there really was something "trans" personal going on in the event, then Wilber should present overwhelming evidence for it. He doesn't.

In Wilber's own critiques of the New Age, he has stated, "New Agers have a tendency to bypass that obstruction known as their brain because they want to go directly to the heart" [paraphrase]. Likewise, in this narrative of the winds, Wilber has provided a beautiful and moving "emotional" portrait (in his schema, magical and mythical, but pre-rational), but he has not provided substantial empirical or causal reasons (the brain?) and has in so doing bypassed the very medium he feels grounds all transpersonal allegations. He has, to use Wilber's parlance, attempted to pass the merely ordinary off as something extraordinary without giving the reader ample evidence.

It was for this reason that I argued for a pre/rational schema, not because there cannot be something beyond the brain but because Wilber's narrative gives us no evidence for it. As such, then, it is a story easily explained (via intertheoretic reduction) by mere coincidence.

Thus when I said Wilber was being narcissistic in his analysis of those winds, I was using the very adjective that Wilber himself on several occasions has used to illustrate a pre/trans fallacy, a mistake where the New Ager or whomever in question sees something mystical when it was merely mythic, where someone sees something paranormal when it was merely normal. Occam's Razor does not suggest that only simple things exist, but that we should tend first (not last) to the simpler explanation if it explains the given phenomena. Wilber has a tendency not to look for a simpler explanation, even though he is the very person who argues for doing so. This becomes more obvious when Ken Wilber talks at length about evolution not happening merely by chance but by Eros or love, neglecting in the process to accurately portray the current state of molecular and evolutionary biology.

As Geoffrey Falk has noted[1]:

“Of myth and magic, now, kw (2000b) has stated:
'Unless otherwise indicated, when I use the word “mythic” it refers to preformal, concrete-literal mythic images and sym-bols, some aspects of which are in fact imbued with cognitive inadequacies, for these myths claim as empirical fact many things that can be empirically disproved—e.g., the volcano erupts because it is personally mad at you; the clouds move because they are following you. These preformal mythic beliefs, scholars from Piaget to Joseph Campbell have noted, are always egocentrically focused and literally/concretely believed.'
Consider, then, Wilber's (1991) own attitude toward the possible effect of his second wife's death on the weather, where 115 mph gale-force winds beat the surrounding area at exactly the point of her passing:
The winds, I suppose, were coincidence. Nonetheless, the constant rattling and shaking of the house simply added to the feeling that something unearthly was happening. I re-member trying to go back to sleep, but the house was rattling so hard I got up and put some blankets around the windows in the bedroom, fearing they would shatter. I finally drifted off, thinking, “Treya is dying, nothing is permanent, every-thing is empty, Treya is dying....”
That, as a simple reporting of facts, is fine. However, years later, in his (2000a) journals [One Taste], Wilber “coincidentally” reprinted a letter he received from the spouse of a hospitalized, terminal cancer sufferer, who had been touched by Treya's story:
As [my wife] died in the afternoon a great storm and strong rain came up. And I saw a great grey cloud going upstairs from her body and drifting away out of the opened window. After twenty minutes the storm was over.
It is difficult to imagine Wilber including that specific letter in his reprints without it being implicitly in support of a “cosmic” nature to his own experiences. That is so even in spite of his previous “I suppose” (as opposed to a skeptical/rational “of course”) regard for the “coincidental” nature of the winds blowing during his wife's death. After all, with the “great storm and strong rain” being explicitly associated with a “great grey cloud” rising from the dying person's body in the fan-letter case, could it really have been just coincidence for a similar storm to have arisen in his own wife's death? (If Wilber thought that that grey cloud and accompanying storm were pre-rational nonsense, he need not have included them in his own reprint of the letter. For, they are not at all essential to the man's story.)
If Wilber's winds were real parapsychological phenomena, beyond mere coincidence or imagination, that would mean that real magic exists, in the ability of human thoughts, intentions and/or emotions (i.e., subtle bodies) to affect the physical world. And in that case, New Agers could not rationally be excoriated for believing in such things. Rather, they should then instead be celebrated for having “correctly” divined and appreciated that aspect of reality. (The fan's wife made no recorded claim to be highly realized, yet still purportedly manifested that windy “magic.” Thus, such claimed phenomena could not be restricted here only to the powers supposedly possessed by “great Realizers,” etc.)
Short of Treya's death actually having affected, via real magic, the same winds which blow not merely for Wilber but for all of us....”


[1] Geoffrey Falk, "Norman Einstein": The Dis-Integration of Ken Wilber, Chapter V: Kosmic Parapsychology.

Comment Form is loading comments...