Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Jean-Pierre Legros is a rheumatologist physician born in 1960 in Paris, currently practicing in Noumea, New Caledonia. He created Rhumatopratique, a reference website on rheumatology, and several blogs on the humanities. He developed a Theory of Everything, embracing all our observations and concepts, explaining their diversity, predicting their increasing complexity. This is the subject of the book "Diversium".

Reposted from the Surimposium blog (December 27, 2023)

Ken Wilber's (Too?) Brief Account of Everything

Jean-Pierre Legros

Abstract: As Surimposium is a theory of everything presented on this site, I examine Ken Wilber's earlier theory, which he expanded throughout his life. I separate the excellent start on Arthur Koestler's holons, likely to win broad support, and the mystical veneer added by Wilber, which ends up erasing the initial coherence. I highlight Wilber's remarkable intuitions, then show the inflection point that ultimately plunges the theory into groupist thinking: holarchy builds itself entirely on its own from the whole/part principle of holons, and forms a solid structure for a Theory of Everything; but Wilber, anxious to add a spiritualist background in line with his personal beliefs, builds bridges that collapse the whole edifice.

A book full of KW

KW's lack of intelligence? No, rather the legacy of his spiritualist commitment. He has to fit a mystical Greater Whole into the Theory, and then Everything goes wrong.

How should we approach the Ken Wilber phenomenon? Is it possible to do so objectively, for such a controversial figure? My interest only became genuine when I recently read A Brief History of Everything. Previously, I had a very mediocre opinion of the man, for well-known reasons: hypertrophied ego, mystical delusion, guru for his credulous followers, whom he manages like a sect, anti-everything discourse rather than theorist of Everything. Moreover, Wilber's supporters are almost exclusively spiritualist teachers, while professional scientists and philosophers have taken an interest in him… only to criticize his interpretations as fanciful.

Wilber will forgive me for using his initials, KW, which by a happy coincidence are the same as KiloWatt. The book does indeed exude energy. The author's rebellious temperament is evident from his biography: he quickly abandoned medical studies, then biochemistry, to devote himself to his own writing. A bad start. To challenge official theories, it's best to understand them in depth and to have practiced them. KW decided at an early age that the effort was pointless for him. However, if I have taken up the pen, it is not to pillory him in my turn. For that, I refer you to two authors, Geoffrey D. Falk, a guru-slayer who indulges in an ad hominem attack in ‘Norman Einstein: The Dis-Integration of Ken Wilber', and Jeff Meyerhoff, more focused on a true critique of the Wilberian Theory of Everything in ‘Bald Ambition'.

My party card

I was stunned to start reading A Brief History of Everything, presented in the form of an interview with Lana Wachowski. I find that it has a lot in common with Surimposium, my own book. It's truly mind-boggling. As I moved from one “commandment” to the next, impressed by their accuracy, I began to wonder whether I wouldn't soon be rushing off to get my sect card… This Gospel is taking on the air of real Gnosis. And then patatras! KW's remarkably well-prepared presentation falls into an obvious contradiction, so gross that I wonder how he manages to continue.

KW's lack of intelligence? No, rather the legacy of his spiritualist commitment. He has to fit a mystical Greater Whole into the Theory, and then Everything goes wrong. The whole edifice collapses. You want details, of course. Here they are.

Koestler, the master thinker

The real father of the KW theory is Arthur Koestler, an eclectic journalist and philosopher who lived through Francoism, Nazism and Stalinism, all favorable contexts for the development of freethinkers. Koestler was immersed in the atmosphere of Russian parapsychological research. Convinced of the existence of phenomena such as telepathy, he strove to find a theory unifying them with fundamental physics, in order to escape superstition. Koestler had many brilliant ideas, not least that of holons and holarchy.

Holons? It's the first of KW's 20 fundamental principles: “Reality is composed of wholes/parts or holons“. The word designates an entity that is simultaneously a whole in itself and a part of another whole. This is almost exactly the TD principle (soliTary vs soliDary) that Surimposium aims to universalize. Minor differences: the duality of whole and part is a tension (TD conflict) in Surimposium, which avoids the need to resort to a “secret impulse” as KW does below. And the TD principle is relational: it doesn't define the holon any more than it does the context in which it evolves. The holon is a resultant entity as much as the owner of its constitution.

A well-established principle

Calling everything ‘holon', including us, may lack qualitative nuance, which is why I prefer the term ‘complex entity', but the most important thing is here: ‘holon' perfectly describes anything observable in reality, a mixture of individuation and belonging. An excellent start for a Theory of Everything. There's no longer any question of processes, elements or substances, all of which seem to miss something of reality. They are replaced by a more abstract principle from which they can be derived.

KW is also careful not to attribute any preferential importance to being whole or part, sidestepping the sterile quarrel between holists and atomists. He goes straight to the conclusion that if everything is a holon, there are no fundamental parts or ultimate whole, and that holons all share certain characteristics, linked to their definition.

Emergence, the vertical dimension

The 2nd principle is that all holons share two tendencies: to maintain their totality and their partiality. To continue to exist, a holon must preserve both its identity —its “agency”, as KW puts it— and its communion with what surrounds it. This is true of an atom, a cell, or an idea. KW calls these tendencies the “horizontal” capacities of holons, which corresponds precisely to the horizontal axis of complexity I define in Surimposium.

3rd principle: holons emerge. They also have “vertical” capacities, self-transcendence and self-dissolution, as they gain or lose complexity. A holon can participate in the formation of a higher holon, or lose its agency and decompensate into its sub-holons. This is the vertical axis of complexity in Surimposium.

Darwinism be damned!

Amazed by the emergence of new holons, in particular living cells from inert molecules, KW attacks Darwinism, based on the randomness of mutations and the selection of the most successful. No sophisticated organ such as a wing or an eye could have arisen in this way, says KW, unless the universe were immeasurably older than it is. Indeed, it would take hundreds of simultaneous, non-fatal mutations to produce a clear-cut functional efficiency in a wing or eye that the environment is capable of enhancing.

It's true, evolution can only be understood as a series of small steps, not necessarily a source of immediate advantage in the ecosystem, but sufficiently stable to be maintained until a real functional advantage consolidates them. The vertical sequence of holons is compatible with this hypothesis. On the other hand, is it KW's egocentric drift that makes him choose the term ‘self-transcendence'? He attributes to the holon the property of self-transcendence, whereas it does so in its relationship with the environment. If it's the relationship that's responsible, then it's more accurate to speak of a process, as classical science does, and of rules managing this process. Self-transcendence lies in the system of related holons, not in the holon itself. ‘Process' is a term that should be kept, to designate the ‘system' phase, in the horizontal axis of complexity.

Since the process is based on conflict, it contains its own driving force. TD conflict exists at all levels of complexity, but takes the form of a particular process at each of them. ‘Conflict' is neutral in itself, and avoids the use of words derived from KW's desires, ‘creativity', ‘spirit', ‘drive', all too anthropomorphic and inadequate for researchers observing the unfolding of mathematical processes.

The impulse starts from below, not above

Here, KW shows a first inconsistency in the vertical axis of his theory. He confuses this motor with the telos, the goal, the end. In fact, it's ontos, being. Being has no end in itself. KW mixes up the descending and ascending directions he was careful to separate at the outset. Why does he do this? Because of an a priori conviction that will crack his entire book: he wants to place his mysticism of the Divine Spirit within the edifice. But how to integrate it into a structure that doesn't really need it? A little further on he makes it a backdrop, “Spirit is totality“, and here he also places it at the start of the upward direction, whereas he previously wanted to defend himself against it with his pile of holons without beginning or end.

What does KW do to escape the mystic label? He attacks religions, accusing creationists of wanting to seize the telos for their own selfish interests, threatening those who don't believe in their particular god with all manner of evil. The criticism is fair, but by substituting his “Unspeakable Spirit” for the gods of the great religions, KW is not neutral either. He positions at the bottom of the complex ladder a will that belongs rather to the entities at the top of the ladder (us). What we have here is an anthropomorphic mysticism.


Holons emerge holarchically, 4th principle. Holarchy? This is Koestler's name for hierarchy, a term that has gained a bad reputation for confusing natural hierarchy with domination. Holarchy' is an apt term, since it refers solely to a hierarchy of constitution: holons stack up, there's no way for complex entities to exist otherwise.

The nasty problem of domination arises when entities consider themselves equal in the hierarchy but are not in practice. For example, citizens define themselves as equal, but don't enjoy the same benefits. This enraging hierarchy is mostly false and arbitrary, because it concerns relationships between humans who are equivalent in context, i.e. horizontal relationships. Nothing to do with vertical holarchy. KW is right to exclude these “pathological holarchies” from the scope of his theory. The case is too complicated to recount here. Are humans really equal in everything? Not really. Social hierarchies are less pathological in their justification than in their narrow-minded conservatism. A difficult subject I've tackled in Societarium.

Transcendence and inclusion

“Every holon transcends and includes its predecessors“. The 5th principle is still excellent. Transcendence and inclusion, together, are exactly the definition of my neologism ‘surimposition‘. The superior is based on the inferior but adds something more. The terms ‘superior' and ‘inferior' here simply convey a preferential direction to complexity. Molecules include atoms, not the other way round. The superior is more fragile than the inferior. If the superior loses its added organization, the inferior remains.

KW rightly considers the biosphere (the ecosystem) superior to the physiosphere (organic molecules) and the noosphere (the Earth's “thinking layer”, for Teilhard de Chardin) superior to the biosphere. When KW is asked why people generally see things in reverse (the ecosystem is superior to its thinking members), he replies that they confuse extent with depth. Extent is the number of holons at a given level, and depth is the number of levels in the holarchy. The extent of the ecosystem tends to impress more than the complexity achieved by some of its inhabitants.

KW is right. I've had the same thought about astrophysicists, who are so impressed by the extent of the cosmos that they overlook its complex depth, which is high on Earth but undetectable elsewhere. What astrophysicists observe is an immense void dotted with atoms and energetic particles, whose complexity is insignificant compared to a human being.

Extent and depth

“A greater depth always has less extent than the previous depth. The individual holon gets deeper and deeper, but the collective gets smaller and smaller“. KW thus arrives at the pyramid of development, borrowed from Ervin Laszlo, from the broad physico-chemical base to the narrow mental summit. Readers of Surimposium will be familiar with all this. Pyramids may be appropriate, but horizontals distort perspective. KW foolishly adds circular representations that contradict each other. His puts mysticism on the outside (because it has more depth) and the Buddhist version puts it on the inside (because there are fewer mystics).

KW draws from depth an admiring ethic for complex realization, in other words, a growing reverence for that which has transcended its own constitution. Let's show more respect for a cow than for a carrot, and feed preferably on the former. Until then, most people will follow. But KW fails to see (or avoids) the slippery slope to which this way of thinking leads: does “respect” extend to the depths of thought attained in highly variable ways by our fellow human beings? If so, KW's holarchy would once again become a veritable hierarchy of importance, an elite of haughty thought like those hated in our democracies, especially if they are of spiritualist and religious inspiration. History and its Inquisitions have given us crude examples of their excesses.

Not impulses, but true consciousness

There is a general tendency for complexity to increase, notes KW, principle no. 12, which he calls the “self-transcending drive of the Kosmos“. His lack of scientific training shines through. He seems unaware that chaotic processes stop at stable organizations, simply because the system enters a loop at that point or it has reached its minimum free energy. There's no need for a creative impulse, just an unfolding process.

Nevertheless, KW arrives at an essential conclusion by equating consciousness with depth of complexity. The deeper the holon, the higher its degree of consciousness. Inaccurately, he says that the impression of consciousness is “being in it”, being the holon experiencing itself. This is partly true, but the vision is too proprietary. Once again, KW makes the holon into a pure individual, forgetting that it has two facets, whole/part. The impression of consciousness can only come from an observation of the self, from a confrontation between outside and inside, between the ‘whole' and ‘part' tendencies. But KW (un)deliberately follows a false path. By making consciousness a kind of intrinsic substance of the holon, he achieves the desired result: to make the holon a fragment of the vast Spirit he wants to set in the background.

Wilberian self-psychoanalysis of gender

I'll pass quickly over Wilberian conceptions of the stages through which human societies pass, and of gender (the place of women and men in culture). KW has already made gender a very long and tedious introduction to his book, pushing open doors. This assiduity in conciliating contemporary militant feminism is so far-reaching as to be suspect. It doesn't take a trained psychoanalyst to guess that it's the work of a male ego seeking to maintain its dominance over the feminine. There is, however, a very direct way of deducing the feminine and masculine principles from the holon itself, by making the feminine the tendency to be part and the masculine the tendency to be whole. But KW seems to have borrowed more from Koestler's holon than made it the heart of his theory.

The four quadrants

Let's move on to the more interesting principle of the 4 quadrants. Lana Wachowski, the interviewer, is astute and asks KW how he came up with this classification out of thin air. The answer is richly instructive. KW patiently examined all the types of hierarchies and holarchies developed by orthodox and non-orthodox thinkers, Western and Eastern, and looked for commonalities. He found hundreds of these hierarchies, made charts of them and laid them out on the floor. Finding many similarities, he hoped to find the fundamental holarchy that would unite them. An impossible task, he eventually realized.

But he finally found a solution by classifying them into 4 categories, which form 4 quadrants: individual/intentional, individual/behavioral, collective/cultural, collective/social systemic. The 4 quadrants are arranged in 2 rows, individual and collective, and 2 columns, inside/left and outside/right.

The left column corresponds to the individual's conscious experience, the right to the same thing as seen by science. The lines separate the individual and collective aspects at the heart of the holon principle. What's interesting is that KW does an excellent job of cataloguing all the hierarchical theories, past and present, put forward by researchers of all persuasions. How did he do it, with a model that seems to have been pulled out of a hat?

A fair classification with a false schema

KW has simply created a two-dimensional table, retaining the essential holon principle of whole/part and introducing the inside/outside dimension of the holon. But as we saw earlier, this 2nd dimension is false. Since the holon is itself a relationship, inside and outside are already included. Being inside or outside is not an additional property. KW wrongly takes a horizontal view of something that is essentially vertical. The vertical look, directly linked to the holon principle, is to put oneself in the place of each of the facets present, with the parts looking at the whole and the whole looking at its parts.

KW's scheme is wrong because it mixes the horizontal and vertical axes of complexity. The right schema should be a stack of stages, each with its own horizontal model, on which a consensus is possible —the model is the property of the holon system, not of the researcher, and scientists know how to give voice to the system through experience. KW's 4 categories can be summed up as follows: we must look at the pile from the bottom or the top (the ontological and teleological angles, which correspond to KW's right and left columns), creating an upward and downward look; and each model can be interpreted from the point of view of the individual or the collective (KW's lines).

Surimposium, a more inclusive scheme

What makes the scheme I've just proposed more effective? Firstly, it avoids mixing abstract concepts (individual/collective) and experienced phenomena (constitution/experience of the whole), and secondly, it better explains the diversity of holarchies. Why is it that holarchies belonging to the same quadrant don't all say the same thing? Because, although they all take the same (upward or downward) look on complexity, they interpret the model encountered at each level differently, with the emphasis on individual or collective interest. In this way, we easily arrive at the great diversity of our individual holarchies of thought, which favor the ego for what affects us closely and the collective for what affects us from afar…

In the midst of this confusion, KW substitutes his quadrant for the fundamental principle of the holon. From now on, the holon is a quadrant. A thought, for example, “has four facets”, says KW. Now it's crushed horizontally, whereas it used to have a nice altitude. The brain, too, is a quadrant, now a juxtaposition of ‘neuroscientist', ‘mystic', ‘individual' and ‘society's images of it, instead of a complex entity described in these different ways. The (false) map replaces the territory. The vagueness thickens when KW attempts to separate his two lower quadrants, culture and society as a system. Most readers won't understand the difference. But from the angle of social ontology (the social representations we learn) versus the teleology of collective rules (our representations versus the institutions in place), the conflict becomes obvious. It's a vertical, hierarchical conflict, not a horizontal one.

Monological upward look

Despite the slippage, KW's thinking is still brightening up. He describes the hierarchies of the right/outer column as a monological look, a monologue unified by science, whereas the hierarchies of the left/inner column need dialogue: only the holon can share its intrinsic experience. Indeed, the ontological look —what KW calls the right-hand path— is unique, since it is common to the constitution of all holons, whereas the teleological look —the left-hand path, in KW's view— is multiple, specific to each holon that self-observes and self-experiences.

KW has the intelligence, in endorsing the four quadrants, to privilege none of them. For example, he understands very well that a depressive state can be treated simultaneously by psychoanalysis (left-hand path) and a pharmaceutical anti-depressant (right-hand path). He encourages us to pay attention to “the four types of truth”.

Where the book's interest ends

Thereafter, KW continues to use his right and left paths to examine questions of veracity, legitimacy, functionality and interpersonal relationships. He arrives at the same conclusions as if he'd used the double look of Surimposium, to whom he's very close. It's a real pity he didn't deduce his paths from the very nature of the holon. That's why the passage on how KW discovered his quadrants is so valuable. This model is a patch, not the logical derivative of the holon principle. A good Theory of Everything should not use patches. If I were to use KW's mystical language, I'd say that the Universal Spirit he seeks doesn't need a band-aid tied to our little human defects…

“Where the mind stops” is where the book's relevance ends. We leave the framework of holarchy and enter KW's intimate world. The contradiction with the beginning is obvious. Instead of preserving the holarchy's independence as a pyramid of organization with neither a base nor a proven summit, as Koestler intended, KW throws it into the clutches of his personal mysticism. He confuses the Observer, that self-examining part of the self, the most evolved neurological function, with “a direct ray of the living Divine“. He also uses the term “Transparent Witness“, and asserts “The ultimate I is Christ, is Buddha, is Emptiness itself“.

Indispensable fantasies

Good. I have no problem with mysticism. On the contrary, I consider them therapeutic, just like all kinds of fantasies about magic, sex and the future of the world. Mine are in the realm of science fiction, and sex of course. But I don't use them to build a Theory of Everything. You have to be subservient to such an ambitious theory, not put your most personal thing into it. And if it's personal, all people should be able to find their way around the theory, starting from the beginning. KW is not part of such an authentically collectivist project. His spiritualist proselytizing eliminates him from the theorists of the Everything and reduces him to a group theorist. The hallmark of a group theory is that it quickly climbs to 200,000 followers (the mystics) and then stagnates for a long time.

If we take the holarchy concept to its logical conclusion, what do we arrive at? A multitude of elaborate consciousnesses, all independent, yet all stemming from identical roots. This is the magic of the holon, intrinsic to its whole/part principle. The strangeness of this abstraction manages to create a growing diversification of reality, without the intervention of conceptual patches that bring it closer to our desires. That's why I call this complex reality ‘Diversium‘. My names are simply practical neologisms, not references to deities. We must have the humility to acknowledge our powerlessness to know what these names conceal, and not to substitute our fantasies for them. Fantasy is useful to oneself, not to the Whole.

Diversium contains all fantasies

Diversium, if I had to put it in a nutshell, is a tree. Invisible roots, a common trunk, a multitude of leaves that resemble each other, but each with an independent personality. Each is capable of conceiving its own Theory of Everything. The only truly collectivist one of these is the one that offers a box for every mental independence, whatever stage it has reached and whatever the theorist's obedience, while linking it to the others by principles derived from their constitution. Unfortunately, Wilber not only plants his tree in Nirvana, but attempts to dissolve every leaf within it. If you intend to become superconscious, you're bound to fall into it!

So let's avoid predicting “transpersonal” stages. KW seems to have completely missed the likely evolution of transhumanism, made up of technological additions and artificial intelligence. Are AIs conscious? What place can they hope for in Nirvana?

Against the flatland

KW's last bright spot, however, is his war against the flatland. It's not a question of attacking ignoramuses seduced by the biblical idea of a disc-world, but of fighting against the loss of the spiritual, in the sense of the spirit experienced as a phenomenon. Among materialists, eliminativists go so far as to denigrate the existence of their first-person experience, preferring to interpose a purely functional theory between their neural mechanisms and… what? They just don't know how to explain it. The mind denies its own experience. I also call them, incidentally, “flatists”, which makes me join KW in his criticism. It would be nice, however, if he would let go of his “soul vacuum cleaner” with which he seeks to send us into an astral dustbag…

The bottom line

If we strip Wilber's work of its mystical mumbo-jumbo, what remains is a solid structure, the holarchy, which serves as a common thread for a number of accurate observations. I'd say that, despite his spiritualism, Wilber arrived at wisdom, thanks to his master Arthur Koestler, a philosopher with a piercing eye and a great humanist with little inclination to superstitious excesses.

What Wilber lacked was a solid scientific culture. His deficiencies in physics, neuroscience and even biology are obvious. Reading is not enough. He stopped too early the thought-structuring training that would enable him to truly appropriate this knowledge.

At the same time, we must regret that scientific training leaves little room for interdisciplinarity. A century after Koestler's first works, holarchy and research into complexity have yet to extricate scientific knowledge from its reductionist rut. It's not science itself, whose principles are well established, that's to blame, but those who practice it. Researchers are fascinated by the extent of the cosmos, but not by its totality.

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