Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Jeff MeyerhoffBald AmbitionJeff Meyerhoff is an independent scholar who studies philosophy, politics, mysticism and psychology. He uses mindfulness and psychoanalysis for self-development. He makes a living as a social worker with the mentally ill but is looking for new career opportunities. He is the author of Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything, published on Integral World. His weblog can be found at Email at [email protected].




Bald Ambition, Chapter 1,
Section A: Holons

Jeff Meyerhoff

The new sciences of complexity are very exciting, but they do not contain the orienting generalizations that Wilber needs.

For his understanding of nature, Wilber relies upon the new sciences of complexity as summarized by Ervin Laszlo and Erich Jantsch. He writes that these are “the new sciences dealing with these 'self-winding or 'self-organizing' systems . . . known collectively as the sciences of complexity” which he calls “the evolutionary systems sciences.”[1] Before even describing these new sciences, we can ask whether they can serve as the orienting generalizations Wilber needs to validate his theory. In scanning the literature on the sciences of complexity we find that not only don't these new sciences have orienting generalizations, they are hardly even well defined disciplines. For example, M. Mitchell Waldrop begins his book Complexity, which is an upbeat report on the new sciences, by writing:

this is a book about the science of complexity - a subject still so new and so wide-ranging that nobody knows quite how to define it, or even where its boundaries lie . . . it's because complexity research is trying to grapple with questions that defy all conventional categories.[2]

Similarly, in Coping with Uncertainty: Insights from the New Sciences of Chaos, Self-Organization and Complexity, Uri Merry, who is also favorably disposed toward his subject, writes:

It must constantly be kept in mind that science is only at the onset of this journey and on the brink of applying this New Science to human affairs. The bulk of the work and its application is still ahead. Some of what the trailblazers write and describe may later be found to not exactly be in focus, some may be completely off course, and some may be pure speculation . . . At the same time some findings may be scientific breakthroughs of great consequence. Only time will tell.[3]

Though Merry published his book two years after Wilber's SES, the state of the new sciences of complexity was no more settled.

John Horgan, in his critical look at The End of Science, quotes physicist James Yorke, who coined the term “chaos,” saying, “complexity seems to refer to 'anything you want.'”[4] Seth Lloyd, of MIT and the Santa Fe Institute, e-mailed Horgan his 31 different definitions of complexity. These 31 definitions Horgan thought actually amounted to 45 definitions. Interestingly, none of the 28 names of scientists associated with the new sciences of complexity that Lloyd lists appear on Wilber's list of 10 scientists whose differing works he fits under the umbrella term “complexity.” The new sciences of complexity are very exciting, but they do not contain the orienting generalizations that Wilber needs. The works of Ervin Laszlo and Erich Jantsch contain interesting grand synthesizing visions, but to say that they represent the already-agreed-upon knowledge of the natural sciences is inaccurate.

Similarly, Wilber uses the work of Paul MacLean as an illustration of how the human brain has evolved in a transcend-and-include fashion from the evolutionary early reptilian brain, to the paleo-mammalian brain to our higher neo-mammalian brain. These “facts” appear to support Wilber's holarchical transcend and include approach. Yet when the research is consulted, we find a vigorous debate about the validity of Paul MacLean's work. A recent entry in this debate is a monograph which tries to counter the critiques of MacLean's work and reestablish its stature.[5] The introduction to the monograph laments that “In mainstream academic neuroscience… [MacLean's] work has been largely overlooked or ignored.”[6]

Wilber does not use the orienting generalizations of the natural sciences, but that doesn't mean that his understanding of the structure of the Kosmos is wrong. Next we will examine the essential structure of Wilber's Kosmos to see how internally and factually consistent it is.

This material, while technical, is highly important for Wilber's system because it describes the ontology and essential structure of the Kosmos. If it doesn't work, there are essential flaws in the system and it cannot be asserted to be a coherent depiction of the Kosmos.

The importance of such an ambitious project lay in the strong intellectual and societal trends that it is designed to counter. Wilber's integral theory tries to unite three problematic domains: the diverse natural scientific disciplines which are characterized by an enormous specialization and division of scientific labor; the pluralism and relativism of the social sciences and the humanities; and the hitherto neglected and suspect mystical sciences. This specialization, fragmentation and neglect can call forth the desire for a meaningful integration of knowledge. The attempt may seem preposterous, but the stakes are so high, and developments in the sciences of complexity so suggestive, that a claim from thoughtful people that it can be done deserves examination.

Central to Wilber's synthesis is his understanding of how the Kosmos is structured. He sees all things as arranged hierarchically, with their position in the hierarchy determined by their level of developmental advance. All matter, life, mind and spirit has evolved from the Big Bang, aggregating into successively more complicated arrangements which create new emergent properties as the developmental process unfolds. Atoms aggregate into molecules, molecules into cells, cells into organisms. Each new emergent stage in the evolutionary process “transcends and includes” what came before it and exhibits new properties. “Transcends” is used here in the sense that new properties emerge that had not been seen before. “Includes” is used in the sense that the newly emerged entity is constituted by its developmental predecessors and provides a new whole in which those predecessors now exist. A human being is made up of atoms within molecules within cells within tissues within organs within a mind that can transcend and embrace them all within consciousness. The resulting hierarchy is not the common top-down arrangement one normally thinks of, but a concentric arrangement with each higher stage constituted by and embracing all the lower stages. In this way, the higher entities don't simply dominate the lower, but are inextricably bound up with all below and all above. Each entity has an integral part to play and so the kinds of knowledge which illuminate these parts - physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, spirituality - must be preserved and integrated into a new synthesis of all knowledge.

According to Wilber, everything in the Kosmos is simultaneously a part and a whole; a part to some larger whole and a whole to its smaller parts. He uses Arthur Koestler's term holon to describe this part/whole quality of all things. Beyond the usual names given to what is ontologically essential - substance, entity, matter - Wilber proposes that it is this part/wholeness or holonic nature of all things which is ontologically fundamental. Since the structure of parts within wholes is different from the usual top-down, pyramidal structure, Wilber terms his model a holarchy instead of a hierarchy.

In SES, Wilber said that all holons follow 20 tenets or rules. This understanding, later revised with Fred Kofman, now explains that while all holons have a part/whole nature this part/wholeness differs for the four different kinds of holons that exist. These four types are: individual holons, social holons, artifacts and heaps. To be an individual holon* a holon must have: some kind of localized subjectivity, interiority or consciousness; a defining pattern, i.e. not just be an amorphous lump; a unified exterior i.e. be identifiable as one contiguous unit. Examples of individual holons are an atom, a molecule, a cell and a person.

In contrast to the individual holon, the social holon has a non-localized or inter-subjective interiority or consciousness. We can think of the zeitgeist or group-mind as a consciousness that is not located in an individual. Also in contrast to the individual holon, the social holon has a non-unified exterior. We think of the social holon as a connected grouping of individual units. Like an individual holon, the parts that make up the social holon must have a defining pattern, i.e. they cannot just be a random lump. Lastly, the individual holons that aggregate to create the social holon must have a common affiliation. Examples of social holons are galaxies, planets, families, societies.

Artifacts weren't mentioned in SES. They are (insentient) holons that are created by individual or social holons. What distinguishes them from the sentient holons is that they have no interiority whether localized or non-localized. Like sentient holons they do have a defining pattern, but unlike sentient holons it is imposed from without rather than arising from within. Examples of artifacts are computers, language, beaver dams and anthills.

The fourth type of holon, also insentient like the artifact, is a heap. Heaps are just random accumulations of stuff. They have no interiority and no defining pattern. Examples are a pile of rocks or a mountain of trash.

The part/wholeness or holarchic arrangement of each of the four types of holons is different. The parts of individual holons are constituents or elements of the senior individual holon. They have much less freedom within the senior individual holon than the parts that make up a social holon do. The individual holons that constitute a social holon are not bound elements of the social holon, but members of the social holon. The word “members” connotes the looser affiliation that the parts of the social holon have as compared to the parts of an individual holon which are more tightly bound to the senior holon. Artifacts are made up of the individual pieces of which they are constructed. The difference between artifacts and sentient individual and social holons is that the defining pattern is assembled from without and not enfolded from within. Heaps don't have a defining pattern; their parts are parts accidentally, not because of an organizing consciousness within or without.

To enter the holarchic, holonic and four quadrant debates is to enter a thicket of intricate argumentation. Wilber's four quadrant model, and Wilber and Kofman's reformulation of the holon, have left fundamental inconsistencies which able commentators have identified, tried to sort out and correct. The corrections array themselves on a spectrum. In the middle is Wilber's problematic model. At one end is the work, mainly, of Gerry Goddard and Mark Edwards who, after defining the problems with Wilber's model, set out to save the model by multiplying the categories and quadrants and redefining and clarifying key terms. At the other end of the spectrum is Andrew P. Smith who, acknowledging the same problems, has constructed a one-scale model of hierarchy, in contrast to Wilber's four quadrant model. While Goddard and Edwards opt for a clarification, reworking and expansion of Wilber's model, Smith offers a different model containing much of the same content. Since this is a book about Wilber, I will describe his model and then evaluate important parts of it using the work of his commentators.

Wilber described the structure of the Kosmos in SES, but problems later discovered necessitated a revision.[7] The revised understanding fixes some problems, but, as is usual with large classificatory schemes, creates new ones. At first, these revisions appear to create the neat, consistent classificatory scheme described above, but closer examination reveals questions and contradictions which cause fundamental problems with the scheme. These problems have been identified by the commentators on Wilber's system mentioned above who publish their work at

There are two interesting ironies regarding this flourishing debate at which also serve to confirm two criticisms I make of Wilber. One of my central criticisms of Wilber's work is that he does not show enough respect for the intellectual debates which provide the evidence to validate his theory of everything. An ironic confirmation of this condition is that Wilber's work has spawned the type of responsible intellectual debate which I claim he does not respect. To double the irony, Wilber is again not respecting this flourishing debate of his own making.[8] That debate is conducted like a proper academic debate in which participants propose understandings, cite evidence, engage in dialogue, consider alternative interpretations, answer criticisms from colleagues and contend with anomalies. Wilber is outside this debate, yet unlike conventional academic debates which don't mention him, the contributors here appreciatively acknowledge his contribution and see themselves as building upon, working out and correcting his insights. Wilber does respond to critics,[9] but the critics are usually more manageable than those who are finding fundamental problems with the core of his system and his application of it. His latest position is that he will not respond to critics. On the one hand, this is understandable since he would like to develop further his integral theory, but on the other hand, this doesn't make sense, since it will hinder the development of his own theory. The criticisms of these critics are so cogent and essential that I think it would serve him well to work with these critics as part of his process of correcting and developing his work.

The second irony regarding this debate spawned by Wilber's work is that it confirms my claim that Wilber does not use the orienting generalizations of academia. Here we see Wilber's work, supposedly based on the agreed upon, orienting generalizations of knowledge, creating a debate in which the fundamentals and the details of his work are questioned and countered by contending parties that have differing viewpoints regarding this material's theoretical concepts and facts of the matter.

Mark Edwards, Gerry Goddard and Andrew P. Smith have written criticisms of Wilber's old formulation and Wilber and Kofman's new formulation of holons which has gone unanswered by them.[10] I suspect it has gone unanswered because remedying the problems would require a wholesale reformulation of Wilber and Kofman's conception of holons. Smith begins his critique by showing that the distinction between individual and social holons doesn't hold up. The four criteria that are supposed to distinguish a social from an individual holon are that the parts of the social holon have: a common affiliation; a patterned mode of interaction; a non-localized consciousness; and a non-unified exterior. But, as Smith points out, individual holons, such as atoms, molecules, cells, tissues and organs, have, like social holons, parts that share a common affiliation and a patterned mode of interaction. The third criterion - a non-localized consciousness - is unverifiable to our ordinary consciousness and methods of verification. That leaves the fourth criterion: a non-unified exterior. It is not clear what this means, but if it means that social holons do not have definite boundaries in space or that social holons do not closely cohere, it can be argued that this distinction does not succeed. Social holons, such as human societies, have identifiable physical boundaries like molecules, tissues and cells. In both cases the boundaries may be changing and fluid. Close coherence or physical contact can sometimes be found in human society, while atoms have bonds of various strengths and distances. While the distinction between individual and social holons seems self-evident at first, a further examination reveals that it is arbitrary; things placed in one category can shuffle back and forth between categories. According to Smith's own division between individual and social holons, molecules and tissues are social holons, not individual holons as in the Wilber/Kofman model.

Smith believes that a viable distinction can be made between individual and social holons and does so in his own “one-scale model.”[11] In contrast, Mark Edwards, who has written a seven part tribute, critique and reformulation of Wilber's model, extensively criticizes the validity of the Wilber/Kofman distinction between individual and social holons. His alternative dispenses with the Wilber/Kofman revisions and simply develops the model set out in SES by placing holons within their “parental holarchy” or evolutionary line to determine whether they are individual or collective holons. For Edwards, a toddler is an individual holon because it evolves from a fetus into an infant and then into a child and then an adolescent. In a critique of Edwards's stronger distinction between individual and collective holons, Andrew Smith points out that it is now difficult to see how these supposedly integrated individual and collective holons are related.[12]

A central concern of Wilber and Kofman is that Wilber's earlier formulation of the relationship between individual and social holons could be construed as justifying a totalitarian control of a social holon over the individual holons that constitute it. If a social holon has the same control over its individual holons that an individual holon has over the constituent holons that compose it, their conception of human societies would be one in which individuals would have no will of there own. Wilber and Kofman go to great lengths to explain that individual holons are a developmental advance over the previous developmental stages of the holons that compose them. For example, the cell is a developmental advance over the earlier stages of atom and molecule. Similarly, the social holon, of which individual holons are members, is not a developmental advance over the individual holons that compose it, but a developmental advance over the temporally previous incarnation of that social holon. Kofman uses the example of a herd of elephants which are a developmental advance over, not a single elephant, but a herd of evolutionarily prior woolly mammoths.

Wilber and Kofman's new formulation is wrong for two reasons. One, as with the distinction between individual and social holons, it doesn't hold up to scrutiny; and two, it suggests a confused view of how science works. Wilber and Kofman use a few examples to show that individual holons have more control over their constituent holons than do social holons over the individual holons that constitute them. Wilber says that when an individual moves his or her arm all the cells within the arm have to move too. No social holon has this degree of control. But if we think of a different example, a different picture of the relation between holons emerges. Most humans would rather not age, get sick and die, but because that is what their holons contribute to, that is what humans, the senior holons, are subject to. Likewise, Wilber tries to demonstrate the looser bonds between social holons and their members by observing that society can remove a member by putting him or her into jail; this in contrast to an individual human holon that cannot simply remove a constituent part of itself, such as a vital organ. Yet prisoners are still a part of society and even societal exiles from the U.S. would still refer to themselves as Americans. Looked at in this way, one can never escape the social holons of which one is a member. So when Wilber writes that “constituent elements have their agency subsumed by senior individual holons, but members retain a much larger degree of relative autonomy within the social holon,”[13] he's correct only if the right examples are used.

Smith and Edwards have described the many ways that social holons have control over individual holons. Edwards asks,

How many people go out in public without some level of conventional dress, what percentage of individuals conform with social conventions on public behavior, public laws, putting out the garbage, cleaning snow off pavements, mowing the lawn, paying rates, going to school, learning to read and write, living in a house, speaking to the neighbours (or not as the case may be), having a haircut, etc, etc[?] Collective agency is ubiquitous and compelling.[14]

A second problem arises because of a mistaken view of science. Wilber and Kofman criticize systems theorists because, they say, these theorists construct hierarchies that subordinate individual holons to social holons to the same degree that senior individual holon's subordinate their constituent holons. For the individual human holon, say Wilber and Kofman, that is tantamount to totalitarianism: total control by the social holon of which it is a member. But what if the facts fit that description of the world better than Wilber and Kofman's politically correct version? Here is an instance when it is important to distinguish clearly between science and morality. For example, if we find that the non-human animal world lives by survival of the fittest, we, as creative human beings, can still choose to live another way. Our political and moral life is not bound by the discoveries of science.

Smith describes the Wilber/Kofman definition of heaps as “imprecise, even misleading”[15] and notes that most planets and Gaia, both of which Wilber classifies as social holons, fit the Wilber/Kofman definition of heaps. Heaps, Smith contends, are not “a random assortment of holons,” as defined by Wilber and Kofman. Instead, “most heaps have a uniform composition.”[16] Smith then puts heaps on a spectrum of development with social holons, seeing them as a less developed stage of an emerging social holon. Edwards, by contrast, reformulates the notion of heaps to bring them back into the holon fold. He notes that whether a “heap” is a heap depends on the eye and expertise of the beholder.

This is especially true of the division between the "heap" category and other holons. One researcher might see puddles, sand dunes and piles of dust as belonging to the category of 'heap', but that might only be due to a lack of knowledge of the developmental dynamics involved in those types of entities and environments. To specialists on aquatic, geological, or desert environments, the seemingly inert and randomly assembled entities such as puddles/ponds, sand dunes/beaches, or piles of dirt/rocks may each be regarded as a complete holonic ecosystem in themselves.[17]

The Wilber/Kofman definition of artifacts is probably the most problematic because when it is applied to all cases that meet its definition it turns everything into an artifact or a hybrid. By focusing on particular examples of artifacts like tools, computers, nests and beaver dams we think we understand what artifacts are and how they differ from sentient holons. But Kofman states that,

enzymes can create artifacts, bringing molecules together to create a third molecule. The cell itself creates molecules all the time. In fact, the cell creates its own physical components; it recreates itself through a process called 'autopoieses.' If one looks at the mitochondria, the ATP it produces is an artifact. If one switches up to consider the level of the cell, the ATP and other artifacts of mitochondria are included as constitutive elements. At the same time, the cell itself produces something (like bile in the liver) as an artifact. But this bile is a constitutive element of the organism.[18]

Acknowledging the artifactual quality of reproduction through natural processes opens the door to seeing that, as Smith writes, “following Kofman's definition leads to the conclusion that everything is an artifact” because

if a molecule created by an enzyme is an artifact, it's very difficult to say what is and what is not an artifact. Is the enzyme molecule itself an artifact? It's created by the agency of a gene, working with some other holons in the cell. Is the gene an artifact? It was created by the agency of another gene, which duplicated itself. What about the whole cell? It was created by the agency of some other holon.[19]

It is not only these biological processes which are artifactual; language and thought are artifacts and there is no human society without them. So according to the Wilber/Kofman definition, human beings, as products of genes, the birth process and social conditioning are artifacts.

Whether it is the revision of his ideas in SES or the original ideas themselves, it is evident that his understanding of the holon has fundamental flaws. All is not lost though. We have the curious situation in which Wilber's commentators and would-be interlocutors are now writing more reliably about, and applying more consistently, Wilber's own system than Wilber himself. Because there are able thinkers reworking the fundamentals and details of his system it may be that a holarchical model can become a useful tool for understanding the Kosmos.


* More precisely, individual aspect of a holon. Each holon has four aspects: individual interior and exterior and social interior and exterior, but Wilber refers to individual holons for ease of reference.


[1] SES, pp. 14-15.

[2] Waldrop, M. Mitchell, Complexity, (New York: Touchstone, 1993), p. 9.

[3] Merry, Uri, Coping With Uncertainty, (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995), p. 14.

[4] Horgan, John, The End of Science, (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1996), p. 196.

[5] Cory, Gerald A. and Gardner, Russell, eds., The Evolutionary Neuroethology of Paul MacLean, Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002).

[6] Introduction to The Evolutionary Neuroethology of Paul MacLean, p, xxxi.

[7] Wilber, “On Critics, Integral Institute, My Recent Writing, and Other Matters of Little Consequence: A Shambhala Interview with Ken Wilber, Part II,” at, (no date); and Kofman, Fred, “Holons, Heaps and Artifacts,” at, January 2001.

[8] Andrew P. Smith subtitles one of his essays, “Further Monologues with Ken Wilber,”

[9] See for example, Ken Wilber in Dialogue, edited by Donald Rothberg and Sean Kelly, (Wheaton IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1998).

[10] Smith, Andrew P., “Why It Matters: Further Monologues with Ken Wilber,” at, December 2001.

[11] Smith, Andrew P., “All four One and One for All,” at, February 2001.

[12] Smith, Andrew P., “The Pros and Cons of Pronouns,” in section entitled “Edwards' Intrinsically Social Individual,“ at, July 2003

[13] Wilber, “On Critics, Integral Institute, My Recent Writing….Part II,” in section entitled “Social Holons,” at, (no date).

[14] Edwards, Mark, “Through AQAL Eyes, Part 5: Matter, Membership and Mutuality,” in section 6 “Collective Agency and Governance,” at, May 2003.

[15] Smith, Andrew P., “The Spectrum of Holons,” at, January 2001, p. 5.

[16] Smith, “Spectrum of Holons,” p. 6.

[17] Edwards, Mark, “Through AQAL Eyes, Part 1:A Critique of the Wilber-Kofman Model of Holonic Categories,” in the section entitled, “The 'Heap' Category of Entities,”, June 2002.

[18] Kofman, Fred, “Holons, Heaps and Artifacts,” at, January 2001, pp. 15-16.

[19]Smith, “Spectrum of Holons,” p. 7.

© Jeff Meyerhoff, 2003

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