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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Mike McElroyMike McElroy has been living in Toronto for many years. He has a life-long interest in literature, philosophy and spirituality. As well he has always been interested in music and once played guitar in a punk band. He learned to meditate at a Zen temple in the late 1980's. In 1980 the works of Dostoevsky's and Camus caught his interest. In 1995 he walked into his local bookstore and saw a big, bulging book called Sex, Ecology, Spirituality and has been studying Wilber's work ever since.

Towards an Integral Theodicy

Mike McElroy

Notes From Aboveground.

I live in Toronto. I've just published a book called Notes From Aboveground. I look at the legacy of Dostoevsky and Camus and how they help us understand our choices between theodicy (the meaning of our sufferings) and nihilism (suffering too often lacks meaning). I also look at Ken Wilber's work and what it can offer to help us create a theodicy. Or does it?

Part One: Contra is a first person monologue of a character I call the Aboveground Man—an amalgam of Dostoevsky's Underground Man and his Ivan Karamazov. Part Two: Pro goes into detail about the issue of theodicy and that's where I look at Wilber's work (as well as the Russian existential religious philosopher Lev Shestov). Part Three: Pro and Conra looks at the notion of “adversary culture” and how modern/postmodern art (which came out of the Romantic Movement) reflects these issues of theodicy vs. nihilsm.

Ken Wilber on Theodicy

I think that the future of theodicy and religion will either be some form of Integral or it will be nothing.

Wilber has recently directly taken on the topic of theodicy. He did a dialogue with Rabbi Marc Gafni that is posted on Gafni's site the Centre for Integral Wisdom (no exact date is given for the talk). Wilber and Gafni (an extremely brilliant Integral teacher but one not without a controversial history) offer a nondual solution to the problem of suffering that is highly original but also one they suggest that is deeply implicit in the mystical traditions.

The dialogue is called Ken Wilber & Marc Gafni on Evil. It can be both listened to as an audio file and read as the transcript of the dialogue [content is restricted to site members]. The upshot of the discussion is that evil and suffering can be understood to be relatively wrong but that they occur also in the presence of the Absolute and from that point of view can be seen to be acceptable. As I look at the dialogue the question will be “Is this an answer to Ivan's rebellion—his contention of the unacceptability of much suffering even if he were wrong?”

The dialogue starts as an informal discussion of theodicy from an Integral point of view and meanders a bit in the beginning but quickly starts to find its focus. Gafni points out that the topic of theodicy is usually taken up in the form of trying to understand suffering in the context of the three omni's—God's omniscience, omnibenevolence and his omnipotence, i.e. God is all-knowing, all-good and all-powerful.

Marc Now, the problem is that these three propositions were challenged by a fourth reality, and the reality was evil, bad things happening to good people.

Ken Which made the three contradictory.

Marc Which made the three contradictory, exactly.”

But strictly speaking these three characteristics are not contradictory. Or are only contradictory in the presence of the fact of suffering. Much work has been done by theologians, such as Alvin Plantinga, to show that these three properties are not self-contradictory.

Wilber then points out that it is important to be aware of the methodologies we are using to get knowledge of the problem. If we believe that Spirit or God is unqualifiable then the three omni's threaten to start imposing qualifications on God. So one has to be careful with which path we choose to go down to analyze the problem.

Wilber then approaches the topic from the point of view of cultural development. He points out that in the mythical premodern worldview evil is ontologically looked upon as an actual substance.

Ken It's almost like you can buy a six-pack of it down at the local store, and if you drink three of those then you just might get to Heaven, but if you drink four you're going to Hell, and that's it. “

Evil breaks your relationship to God and becomes personified as an evil force you are now in relationship to, i.e. Satan or the Devil.

In the modern rational era, theodicy becomes more a way of questioning the three omni's. A note of skepticism enters the discussion. We become less sure of our stance. And then Wilber says :

“You find some schools, for example, will challenge the omni part of God, and in some cases it's because just no qualifications in general are really large enough to contain Ultimate Spirit. So, even something like omnipotent isn't big enough to include all kinds of capacities. Simply being all-powerful doesn't necessarily say anything about being the most creative or the most artistic or the most musical or even the most caring or the most loving. You could be damn near powerful and not very loving at all.”

This is interesting but does not seem obvious to me. If the three omni's are not thought of as separate capacities but three aspects of the same deity (as say in Hinduism) they do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Regardless, Wilber then starts to really get to the heart of the matter and takes his first pass at a nondual conception of Spirit or God. Nagarjuna's work and the school of Madyamaka Buddhism (the second turn of the karmic wheel) emphasize the unqualifiable nature of Spirit. Neither spirit nor evil are an essence, a substance, an ontological entity. Those are dualistic concepts and a way of knowing Spirit must be engaged—the best way being meditation (but there are many others). We must be “free of the pairs” as it is put in the Upanishads. There is a relative (dualistic) knowledge that we experience all too often as evil (as opposed to good) and suffering (as opposed to non-suffering). And there is Absolute knowledge or experience that is not qualifiable in any conceptual way. Gafni says:

“…it's not that we've solved the problem of evil, but it's disappeared, because the problem of evil is a function of this old worldview…it comes from the world of the manifest and the relative…It's not that the conceptual problem is also solved, because the problem of evil isn't actually just a structural logical one from within the mythological worldview, it's an experiential one. That's, how can I love a God who seems to be profoundly unlovable?...How do I have experiences of love? How do I have experiences of loyalty when I have the contradictory experiences in my first person of evil?...we've actually solved the experiential issue, because actually my understanding of non-duality is non-conceptual in its essence. I'm actually having an experience of the Ultimate Ground of Reality. So that experience of the Ultimate Ground of Reality in first person, revealed and discernible by the eye of the heart or the eye of the spirit, as a genuine lived reality which is unmediated and direct, and therefore absolutely certain, actually approaches the great problem of what do I do about evil?” (italics added)

Wilber points out that mythological understandings of God or Spirit as the presence of evil that breaks one's relationship to God shift to a more critical understanding that evil is not a substance or activity but a lack of the presence of good. We see this especially in Augustine and Aquinas and their descendants. Evil is not an entity but a lack as shadow is not a substance but the lack of the presence of light.

Ken Now, as God in particular is also evolving and is starting to be understood, versions of Spirit from all three perspectives, first person and second person and third person, then activity that keeps me away from Spirit in first person is activity that keeps me away from my own highest and truest Self. So it's activity where I am, in a sense, not being true to my deepest Self which is also the deepest self of the Kosmos at large. And so the basic activity that does that is the self-contraction or the Separate Self sense, or the breaking apart of awareness into subject and object or a seer and a seen, knower and a known. That throws me into the world of the pairs, throws me into good and evil, and in a certain sense opens me to an experience of unpleasant evilness, as it's also opening me to an experience of relative goodness. Both of these are only relatively real. Neither of them have any ultimate reality, but what's generating the whole thing is this activity of self-contraction, of the Separate Self. So what both Job and Nagarjuna have in common is that discovery of that deeper being, and that discovery is what is know with a certainty.

Marc That's where certainty comes back online.

Ken Right. And that's rather the whole point at that juncture, is that that's what we were looking for. If evil had made it hard for us, or in fact was the action by which we negated God or failed to be related to God or failed to find our own Higher Self, then that is negated by this other type of experience, this direct, immediate experience of oneness with the Ground of All Being which, looked at in second person, is a great Tao, looked at in first person is my own deepest Self, but the activity of evil was the action that I took that drove me away from that awareness or any of those understandings or any of those relationships, and so it's real in the extent that it generates this illusory condition in which I am actually uncertain of the reality of this Ultimate Ground. So I can come up with all sorts of reasons that I have this uncertainty. So, well, this horrible thing happened, or, well, Auschwitz happened, or, well, my daughter died, was run over by a car, whatever it is, but none of those are the actual cause of what is separating me from this Ultimate Ground. In other words, the ultimate evil isn't in any of those particular things. It's in the action that I have taken that separates me from my own deepest Self and my own highest Ground of All Being. Overcoming that activity reinserts a certainty of an ultimate reality that these other things had questioned, but prior to those other things was my separating myself from this Ground to begin with.” (italics added)

Here the reader of Ivan's rebellion must pause. Auschwitz is not a type of ultimate evil—just a form of relative evil? But separating my self from “my own highest Ground of All Being” is a form of ultimate evil? Isn't this to value the whole (Formlessness and Form as The Ground of All Being) over the part (the part that hurts)?

Gafni goes on to point out “that the absolute distinction between the relative and the absolute is, of course, itself a form of duality.“ And Wilber agrees. So how, a reader of Ivan might ask, is Ivan's duality between the acceptable and the unacceptable not itself acceptable? After all it contains a certainty—remember Ivan's “even if I were wrong.”

Marc ...the absolute distinction between the relative and the absolute is, of course, itself a form of duality...That's just to state the obvious in some way. In other words, the absolute and relative, that's a way of speaking about things in order to get a sense of what we mean by this distinction, but of course in a deep non-dual realization, when we're actually sahaj samadhi [a form of enlightened awareness during meditation], we're turiya turiyatita [the highest state of nondual realization], then it's all reality, unqualified Spirit, all the way up, all the way down, with ultimately no distinction between the absolute and the relative.

Ken Right.”

Gafni then brings up the profound point that in this highest state of awareness/experience the problem of evil has returned. For we are aware of the world and of unqualified Spirit at the same time. As the great Indian teacher Ramana Maharshi put it “The world is illusory. Brahman alone is real. Brahman is the world.”

Ken So, okay, now Brahman is the world. Wait a minute, but this is a different world. This is a world that's not made of world, it's mad of Brahman. And so now there can be a certain kind of pain, but it's lacking a certain kind of suffering. There can be a certain type of evil, but it's lacking a certain type of ultimateness or radical is-ness or it's being on its own.”

Then Wilber says the following:

Ken So is there evil in that world? Yes, but it's also part of an overall reality called God, and so it's not something that's threatening God, it's not something that is separate from God. It's like in any painting where there's light and dark. These are the colors of the manifest world and they're all direct manifestations of Spirit, and so that doesn't mean that you're supposed to choose all the nasty ones and avoid all the good ones. You're supposed to choose all the good ones, so that comes back in a set of, well, in a sense, regulative behaviors. So is it good to rip apart a young child? No, that's wrong. But why if everything's empty? Well, because it's wrong and empty, but it's still wrong. But now you're not going to be shredded by an experience of that, because you also know the emptiness of it.”

And Gafni adds:

Marc Fullness and emptiness actually become expressions of ultimate reality, and so it's wrong and empty doesn't mean it's just relatively wrong, which is the way [some] Buddhists misunderstand it when they teach it. They say, no, it's only relatively wrong. That's the way they say it. It's only relatively wrong. No, that's not what it means. It's not only relatively wrong, as if there's a big wrong and that's just a little wrong…No, actually it's wrongness, which is an expression of emptiness.”

This is the powerful and brilliant nondual interpretation of the problem of evil that Wilber and Gafni create in dialogue. One they would add, that is deeply implicit in the great mystical traditions.

In other words the ripping apart of a child is wrong because it's wrong in the relative dialectic of our conceptual understanding; and it is also a manifestation of emptiness, nondual, unqualifiable Spirit (since in the mystical experience the non-dual is the ground of all being—the causal as it is called in the East).

And notice that this interpretation includes both the Ascending and Descending aspects of perspectives. The Ascending is included in the awareness of the empty unqualifiable aspect of experience. And the Descending is included in how this impacts the suffering we experience. Gafni calls the incorporation of the absolute and relative aspects of our being our Unique Self (our Absolute aspect of self combined with our Relative aspect of self).

I think that the future of theodicy and religion will either be some form of Integral or it will be nothing.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky

But is this an answer to Ivan? Does not Ivan argue that even if he were shown the reason why things happen the way they do he would still not accept it? Wilber is fond of using the eastern idea of Lila. Pure Spirit is the sport and play of all existence. Spirit is both the Fullness of Reality and the Freedom of Emptiness. And neither as well i.e. Spirit is radically unqualifiable. He has also used the idea of the super-abundance of God. If you had a million dollars would you not seek to share it with others? And God not wanting to have dinner alone—if you are the One Above All would you not like to have guests to share your dinner with rather than spend eternity alone? This also ties in with the idea that we are each and every one of us a manifestation of God—we are not separate from God, we are God/Spirit having a human experience, manifestation.

Bah!—more like an infestation of Spirit. Ivan would say “The game is not worth the candle.” Ivan does say “Why must we get to know this devilish good and evil when it costs so much?!”

Wilber has said the when we reach higher levels of conscious manifestation that suffering “hurts you more but bothers you less.” You become more able to face the actuality of suffering but are less undermined by it.

Bah! Most likely Ivan is right. I will not accept the game. I will knock over the game board (perhaps just as Jesus knocked over the tables of the moneychangers? Heh heh).

[After this comes a section on the positive aspect of irrationalism and the emphasis Dostoevsky puts on it in Notes From Underground. Then follows a section on the great Russian religious existential irrationalist thinker Lev Shestov. I go over the highlights of Shestov's ouevre in relation to the issue of theodicy (as opposed to nihilism). Finally at the end of Part Two: Pro I return to the issue of theodicy in relation to Wilber's work.]

Ken Wilber and Marc Gafni
Marc Gafni and Ken Wilber (in a different dialogue setting)

Towards an Integral Theodicy (of sorts, perhaps)

Back to Wilber. Does Wilber's work offer us a successful theodicy? In the earlier section on Wilber's discussion with Gafni about the problem of evil, we see that the Integral View on theodicy is that while we label some form as evil, or unacceptable, there is also the unqualifiable, Formless aspect of the experience. So an experience being qualified as acceptable or unacceptable (Ivan's dialectic) is dualistic. This allows us to use Nagarjuna's tetralemma to say that any experience, process, event, what-have-you is acceptable or unacceptable, both acceptable and unacceptable and neither acceptable nor unacceptable. Could this be an answer to Ivan? And does that answer lie especially in the neither acceptable nor unacceptable aspect (as I think Wilber's position implies)?

Albert Camus
Albert Camus

Wilber used the aesthetic approach—the contrast of light and dark—to characterize our experience of good and evil (acceptable and unacceptable). He has also on many occasions referred to meditative practice as allowing us to view our lives, including our suffering, in the same way we view a movie. This process he sees as one of, borrowing from developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, “making the subject object”—the subject viewing a previous object becomes the object of a new and higher subject. In making the (older) subject object, we move through a dynamic process where starting from our subjective awareness, we look at our subjective awareness in a way that makes the subject into object. In the Upper Left, individual subjective quadrant, to use Integral Semiotics, we move from a first person view of our first person perspective to a third person view of our first person perspective—from a 1-p of our 1p to the 3-p of our 1p. We move from the interior of our first person perspective to the exterior of our first person.

How does this help at all? Note that in going through this process we are still in the Upper Left quadrant i.e. we are still in our first person (1p) perspective. It's just that we are aware of our previous subjective state—now our previous subjective state has become outside of our current inside interior (1p). A subject logically requires an object that is in relation to the subject. We have created a relationship of inside (inner subjective) to outside (outer subjective). But we are always already a subject that cannot see itself entirely as object. We can only see part of ourself as object.

The subjective has not disappeared. To have an object in view logically requires a subject to view it. And this accords with Ivan's position. The power of Ivan's position is that no matter what the subject or the object is we remain in a position of judging the subject/object as either acceptable or unacceptable. It doesn't matter to Ivan if it is a relationship of harmony vs. disharmony, light vs. dark, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, illusion vs. reality, consciousness vs. non-consciousness, process vs. essence, self vs. other—he will not accept it. This act of unacceptability is both subjective and intersubjective, personal and impersonal, both and neither. The Everlasting (Eternal) No is a No!, in thunder—even if I/we were wrong!! As Camus puts it “I rebel, therefore, we exist”; and “A nihilist is not one who believes in nothing [or something or both or neither], but one who does not believe in what exists.” That is to say, one who does not accept what exists. But not one, not two.

And this is not a matter of the negatively irrational but of the positive irrational. Dostoevsky intended Ivan to be an example of a nihilist which for Dostoevsky meant a rational nihilist: nihilists were nihilists because they distorted the role of reason in human affairs and dismissed the importance of faith. But Ivan is no rationalist at least when it comes to his “even if I were wrong.” The man of reason should behave like the man of action before the stone wall of Necessity—he should defer to, capitulate to, the wall: the stone wall of Necessity and suffering must be acknowledged as simple, if unpleasant, fact. There should be no dramatic oath of rebellion. That will get you nowhere (man!). The man of reason remains cool, calm, collected and dignified—even in the Bull of Phalaris. Ivan and his progeny say “Fuck that shit! This stinks!”

Beyond the issues of epistemology and ontology, or relativism and pluralism lies that special moral area where the individual judges for once and all what it all is for and whether or not it is worth it. Ivan Karamazov's subjective rejection of unacceptable suffering “even if I were wrong” and Camus' intersubjective “I rebel, therefore, we exist.” Beyond the concerns of “nature, culture and self” lies the ultimate concern of what it all is for. The nihilist turns all of nature, culture and self into a theodicy. Not the True, the Good and the Beautiful: but the decision whether or not to accept or not accept why it is. Not so much a moral concern (though it could be called that) as an ultimate concern (a meta-moral view). Or as Kierkegaard paradoxically put it, the infinite concern of the finite creature.

What can Wilber say to this? When commenting on why God would create anything at all he says that it's no fun having dinner alone. The remark is not as facetious as it sounds. Why would Spirit go from the One to creating the Many? This might imply that Spirit or God is somehow separate from the Many. But the nondual position is that the One is not separate from the Many (or the one). Spirit is not One nor Many, nor both nor neither. Spirit is neither Form or the Formless, nor both nor neither. Spirit is not the Mystery nor the Unmysterious nor both nor neither. Spirit/God is radically unqualifiable. Spirit is not the “devilish” good or evil, nor both nor neither. Spirit is the Ground of all Being or Becoming (or both or neither). Even to call Spirit unqualifiable is inaccurate since it is neither qualifiable nor unqualifiable nor both nor neither.

So Spirit is not Necessity or Chance nor both nor neither. This would be Wilber's answer when at one moment he writes of the Necessity of Involution. He posits that during the process there are some Involutionary Givens. These include Eros, Agape and other Forms. We can look upon this not so much as any form of Necessity (as opposed to Chance) but as more a form of habit or temporary law. These givens are just the forms of the iterations of this round of Involution/Evolution. We might say these are the potentia ordinata (ordained powers—or powers that have manifested so far) of this round of Involution/Evolution as opposed to the potentia absoluta (absolute powers) of the NonDual. (See Wilber's website for the excerpts of his forthcoming The Kosmos Trilogy Vol. II. Excerpt A ["An Integral Age at the Leading Edge", 2002/2006] footnote 26—“On the Nature of Involutionary Givens.”)


I once had an experience. An experience Wilber would call one of Deity Mysticism. I had a vision of God appear before me (okay I was raised a Christian so it was a vision of Jesus—but I firmly believe, in good integral manner, that a Buddhist might have experienced it as the Buddha, a Hindu as Krishna or Brahma, a Muslim as Gabriel or Mohammed, etc.). The experience was one of infinite love, peace and acceptance. As infinite wave after infinite wave washed over me I was astonied. This was the source of all being and becoming, of all forms and of the formless, of everything that was possible and impossible (and, of course, both nor neither). There was not anything that was made that did not come about through this Infinite Aspect. I felt that even rejection of it as it being unacceptable could not be accomplished but through this. A form of Necessity? On the contrary: it seemed a freely offered but unqualifiable gift. It seemed impossible but there it was. It was an overwhelming experience—I tore my vision away and looked at the ground. “I'm not ready for this” I thought, feeling a bit ashamed. But I had to see again! I looked up once more and ... the vision was gone.

Now spiritual practitioners would say that one must practice to experience such a thing again. I had a temporary moment, a peak (peek) experience. In Wilber's parlance I had a state experience as opposed to a stage experience. To repeat such an experience requires practice to stabilize one's awareness and openness to the experience.

There again the devilish logic of duality. You experienced it as a now moment but to experience it again, to repeat it again “you must”... NonDual Enlightenment means the combination of Freedom and Fullness—“you must” enact the combination of the two. Freedom and Necessity must be combined—“you must”...“you must” ...

It's an Irenaean theodicy. “You must” go through these practices and these changes in consciousness before you know what it all was for. Someone once said, though no one knows who, “Self-improvement is true obedience to the status quo.”

This was supposed to be an answer to Ivan's “even if I were wrong”, to his “devilish good and evil.” But was it really? Most likely Ivan's right.

Can a moment last a lifetime? Bah!!

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