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

Jeff MeyerhoffBald AmbitionJeff Meyerhoff, M.A., L.S.W. is the author of "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" and other essays on integral theory. He majored in economics and sociology and has studied philosophy, psychology, politics and spirituality. He's been employed as a social worker for the last 25 years. His weekly radio show, "The Ruminator," is archived at His blog is and his email is [email protected].



A Different Path

Bald Ambition: Chapter 9

Jeff Meyerhoff


My critique of Ken Wilber's project demonstrates the continually contrary nature of intellectual debate.

My critique of Ken Wilber's project demonstrates the continually contrary nature of intellectual debate. In chapter after chapter I show the legitimate alternative perspectives and arguments against what Wilber presents as the "simple, but sturdy" truths of academia. Even the natural sciences - thought of as the royal road to reality - can now, since Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, be seen as one among many worldviews. To object that this is a misinterpretation of Kuhn and that Feyerabend goes too far is to become part of the ongoing debate in the philosophy of science, epistemology and science studies.

Wilber champions a false consensus in the sciences. In contrast, I show the profound differences in perspective in many areas of study such as cultural psychology, poststructuralism, mysticism and sociology that are excluded or tendentiously interpreted in order to create a false inclusiveness that masks the radically perspectival nature of knowing.

Wilber believes that one characteristic of the postmodern era is the proliferation of multiple and conflicting perspectives on the world. Carrying this postmodern perspectivism too far leads to a pernicious, self-contradictory relativism because no perspective can claim ultimate authority. The result is an inability to rank perspectives according to their validity. It is the shadow side of the "contextualism" which Wilber sees as one of the important contributions of postmodern thinking.

His solution is an integral transcendence and inclusion of this seemingly irreconcilable multiplicity of perspectives. Wilber's purported transcendence and inclusion of perspectives is accomplished through the use of a reason-transcending mode of thinking and being called vision-logic. Vision-logic is a further cognitive stage beyond reason - in academia called the postformal stage - in which the limits of postmodern reason are transcended by a new mode of thinking/being. Vision-logic requires an experiential shift, but it is not only a mystical transcendence of thinking, since its product is, most prominently, discursive; Wilber's system being one example.

A crucial difference between Wilber's position and mine is that I don't believe that vision-logic is a new mode of cognition. Wilber describes historical developmental changes in modes of knowing from mythic faith to modern rationality to postmodern vision-logic. While I agree that there are fundamental differences between faith and reason as modes of knowing, I do not agree that there is a fundamental difference between rationality and vision-logic.[1] As described in Chapter 3, since there is no new criterion of judging validity between reason and vision-logic, there is no fundamental difference in the knowledge they produce. To say there is no difference in the mode of knowing is not to say that there is no difference in the content of knowledge between rationality, as conceived here, and vision-logic. Vision-logic describes a thinking that attempts to synthesize diverse fields of knowledge into coherent systems, but the evaluation of these systems is still done in the usual, rational way.

I offer a different approach to the postmodern multiplicity of perspectives. Instead of trying, as has been tried many times throughout intellectual history, to make all of knowledge cohere, we should accept the ultimate irreconcilability of diverse perspectives and inquire into its nature. I describe a new area of inquiry and method of investigation that uses the postmodern reinterpretation of the constructed character of knowledge to show how acknowledging the limits of reason opens a door to another type of inquiry beyond reason. This inquiry forces reason to integrate its suppressed shadow-side in opposition to which it constitutes itself. I will justify doing this type of inquiry and provide illustrations of it. We will see that it is both a mode of knowledge acquisition and self-development, similar in this way to Buddhism and ancient Western philosophical practices of the self. The validity of this approach is supplemented by recent work in cognitive science and psychological research which show the crucial role that emotions and the unconscious play in perception, belief and knowledge creation.


The dominant image of post-Enlightenment reason has been constructed through the exclusion of aspects of the psyche seen as arational hindrances to reason. The emotions, the passions, desire, subjectivity, personal bias all stand as what reason is not and what it strives to avoid in order to realize its ideals of objectivity, universality, truth, knowledge and certainty. Reason-wielders are expected to adhere to the norms of rationality in order to gain unbiased knowledge.

The dominant societal character-type of rational man has such contemporary subtypes as "the disinterested judge," "the neutral reporter" and "the detached scientist." It is commonly thought that the more disinterested the judge the fairer the decision; the more neutral the reporter the more truthful the story; and the more detached and objective the scientist the nearer his or her findings will be to reality. These character-types are assumed to play a zero-sum game: the less subjectivity entering their work the more objectivity that results. More objectivity means a more objective view of the world, which is supposed to be: a view of the world as it really is; the world as it is whether humans see it or not; the world as God sees it; the world as it is in itself, not seen from a particular perspective. By applying a detached and neutral rationality in concert with others we should be able to determine the way things are and should be. For knowledge acquisition in the natural and social sciences and ethical decision-making in everyday life the emotions and subjectivity are generally seen as sources of bias.

The field of philosophy and specifically Anglo-American analytic philosophy has the cultural task of justifying and explicating the methods and products of reason. Its questions inquire into the nature of knowledge and morality by asking: What is reality?, What is the good?, What is the right thing to do?, What is knowledge?, How do we know when we have knowledge? In contrast to Continental philosophy, mysticism and religious faith, analytic philosophy has tried to emulate the natural sciences because of their enormous success in prediction, control and explanatory power. While philosophy's subject matter is not just the physical world, it still uses the natural science's successful methods to solve meta-physical problems. These methods of inquiry require taking the stance of the rational man which means: detachment from emotion, particularities and subjectivity; rigor in argumentation and logic; appeals to evidence; thought-experiments; and value-neutrality. It was thought that the great successes of the natural sciences would be repeated by emulating the natural scientific method.

Yet a curious thing has occurred as Western thinkers have employed reason to determine true knowledge. Reason-users find that they can and do come to irresolvable rational disagreements.[2] Yet if reason-users share both a method of inquiry and a world, then shouldn't they be able to come to agreement about all issues, at least in principle? Shouldn't their rational procedures and the corrective effect of reality lead them all to the one truth? Popular expression like "try to be objective," "do the right thing" and "be reasonable" perpetuate the impression that there is, at least ideally, one objective, right thing found by using reason. In academia and in everyday life there is a largely unexamined presupposition that there is a or one way in which things are. Those who are "right" know it or are closer to it and those who are wrong are further from it. But when this presupposition is examined, we find it to be very elusive; reason gives out and the ideal evaporates. Foucault evocatively described this goal of inquiry as, that "shimmering mirage" of truth.[3]

The Argument

We justify our beliefs by giving reasons; if there are no reasons then there is no justification. The strength or weakness of our reasons determines the validity of our beliefs. This is true for all reason-givers. Yet it is commonly stated by the most accomplished practitioners of reasoning that when we try to ground our beliefs using reason we all reach a point where we have no reasons left.[4] If reasons are what justifies what we believe, and if at the end of our chain of reasons there is no reason, then the validity of our beliefs is thrown into question. In this sense, all our beliefs are equally justifiable.[5] Each of us is floating in our rational boat on a shared sea, imaging that we are the ones solidly on land guiding the wayward to shore. If it is not reason, what is the nature of our connection to our beliefs?

By examining our reasons for believing what we believe beyond the reason-giving we do to defend our beliefs, we find the animating core which motivates us to have the foundational beliefs that we have and deploy the reasons that we do. The reasons we give for believing as we do are not the real reasons we believe because they always ultimately end in circularity, regress or assumptions.[6] Since all belief-systems, if pursued long enough, will end in circularity, regress or assumptions, we cannot say that it is reasons that ultimately cause us to believe. There must be something else which causes us to adopt our particular reasoning chain or web of beliefs. Since in terms of their ultimate rational validity our belief-system is as good as an opposed belief-system, there must be something else which causes us to choose, and which holds us to, our particular belief-system. What is characteristic of us is not only the combination of beliefs we have woven together - since everyone does that with greater or lesser originality - but why we adhere to this, rather than that, belief-system. In our rational discussions there is a way in which we miss the point since it is not the reasons we are deploying that cause us to believe. If we are trying to convince another person or challenge our own beliefs then we should, for more efficiency, go to the source of the belief, which is the emotional and psychic need to have the world be the way we or they believe it is.

The Emotional Substructure of Belief

The structure of belief has two levels. The upper level has the array of beliefs we hold in more or less conscious and coherent groupings which flow through our minds or are activated when appropriate inputs come from visual, written or aural sources. We take in information and ideas, react to and evaluate it, decide what we think, and perhaps assert our view. All of this takes place on the upper level of belief. Underneath this upper level is a lower level containing the emotional substructure of belief. After reason-giving comes to an end we can begin to see how we are attached to our beliefs for emotional and psychological reasons. This attachment routinely reveals itself when we get agitated during supposedly purely intellectual discussions; when we easily get defensive if cherished beliefs are questioned; when we overlook contradictory information; when we formulate opponent's arguments weakly; when we keep having unwanted doubts about a point we believe is settled; and when we feel an unusual urgency to make our point.[7] This substructure of belief is the realm of our complicated psychological and emotional ties to our beliefs. It's the neglected subjective side of our belief-system; the side that has been denied in order to emulate the natural scientist and maintain the fiction of the rational man.

Rational Disagreements

This is not an argument for abandoning reason. If we share enough foundational beliefs with our discussion partners then we can come to rational agreements. Most of our discussions don't require uncovering our basic levels of belief and can be conducted within the realm of reason. In fact, most discussions I encounter don't have enough reason, as people routinely make comments off topic, bad analogies, misunderstand their opponent's positions and avoid evidence that contradicts their views. As long as we have not reached bedrock rational assumptions - "rational intuitions" - in our debates, applying well the rules of reason is all that's needed.

When we have reached bedrock rational assumptions this approach provides a way to pursue debate beyond disagreement. The purpose of rational argumentation is to determine what is true or good. When people debate the goal is to gain agreement; if they come to agreement they are done. This often does not occur. If the debate ends in disagreement what are the debaters to do? They must agree to disagree. I am proposing that there is more to be done. Intellectual impasses could be shifted or, if not shifted, at least brought into view. So often discussants don't understand what the real difference is between their views. In principle, this could be done together with the two discussants examining the bases of their beliefs. In practice, it would be hard for two people disagreeing on fundamental issues to reveal the bases of their beliefs without fearing that their opponent will take advantage of their revelations, but two exceptionally aware people could do it.

Fortunately, two people are not necessary. One person with the cultivated ability to mindfully see the emotional substructure of belief can gain some insight into, and freedom from, the controlling and enabling affects of the arational world with which reason is entwined. The examples below will illustrate this process.

The reality of the difficulty of two people engaging in this type of inquiry reveals a disjunction between the ideal of rational argumentation and its reality. Ideally, rational inquirers have the same goal and are on the same side because rational argumentation is supposed to be bringing them to the one right answer we all share. But so often in rational debates, the discussants act like enemies instead of allies in a common project. I think this has to do with the falseness of the rational assumption that we are getting the one true world right through our rational discussions. While our method of inquiry may be similar in its use of the norms of reason, the arational values held dearly can be, or seem to be, diametrically opposed.

So the practice I'm advocating does not even come into play unless the discussants reach an impasse in their rational discussions. If two people can settle their rational disagreement using reason then what need is there for any other method? What I'm proposing is only used if a rational impasse occurs as a way to explore beliefs further.

Reaching the Point of Undecidability

When a true impasse is reached the discussants have reached the point of rational undecidability. This occurs when the discussion participants have reached their bedrock assumptions. Often more reasons can be given, but these turn out to be circular and of no help in making a rational justification for belief. For example, in debating the merits of capitalism the discussants could reach a point where one person says "I just think people are basically selfish." And the other person could say, "I think human nature is malleable." Or in a debate about abortion, one person believes that "the rights of the unborn child trump the rights of the mother," while the other person believes that "the right of the mother to control her body trumps the rights of the fetus." The difference in these positions cannot reach a rationally adjudicated terminus.

Another example of reaching the point of undecidability is described by Richard Rorty in his essay "Daniel Dennett on Intrinsicality." Rorty gets to the nub of the disagreement between Dennett and the philosopher Thomas Nagel. The question for Dennett in Consciousness Explained is, how is the subjective experience of human consciousness - the Cartesian Theater - connected to our brains; or, what is the relationship between a seemingly immaterial mind and the material matter of the brain? Dennett explains - or, perhaps, explains away - our subjective experience of consciousness using his quasi-scientific multiple drafts model which describes how the material brain produces the seemingly immaterial effects of consciousness. Our subjective experiencing is not as purely there as we like to think. For Nagel, subjective experience is the self-evident reality that is immediately there; what could be more obvious? An explanation such as Dennett's that explains why it seems to be there is not explaining it at all; for Nagel it's an avoidance of the problem. As Rorty writes: "At the depth of disagreement that separates these two philosophers, both their spades are turned [i.e. they can go no further]." [8] So a question arises: if reason has reached an endpoint for each thinker, why does Dennett hold his view of the subject and Nagel his opposing view? Why isn't it the other way around? What causes each thinker to hold his view?

The Psychological Analysis of Belief

Inquiring into this substructure of belief can be as simple as recovering or acknowledging the emotion behind a belief or as complex as developing a portrait of the psychological work that a certain complex of beliefs do to maintain our psychic economy.

A psychological analysis of belief can be a self-analysis or an analysis of another. Robert Stolorow and George Atwood do the latter kind of analysis in their Faces in a Cloud: Subjectivity in Personality Theory.[9] There they interpret the theories of Freud, Jung, Reich and Rank in relation to their psychobiographies. In the next chapter I interpret Ken Wilber's integral theory in terms of his substructure of belief. Here I will use a subject closer-to-hand to give some illustrations of a psychology of belief.

Within me is an uneasy mix of a dominant Chomskyan-Marxian, socialist, political-economic worldview and a subterranean and unintegrated (Ayn) Randian libertarianism. The socialism has part of its psychic origins in an unfair familial structure which allotted the intrinsic good of attention unfairly. I was in a rigged competition with an older sibling in which I didn't get the goods. My older brother was intellectually brilliant at a young age and intellect was something my parents valued highly. I quickly resigned myself to a second-class status and developed a defense of idolization and trumpeted his exploits as a substitute for having my own. I gained narcissistic satisfaction only vicariously. The resulting unconscious frustration and anger caused me to be relentlessly critical of any status quo. The socialist ideal of a non-competitive, fair distribution of goods acts, in adulthood, as a political corrective to a personal need, as well as being a standard by which to measure the current competitive political-economic reality that never measures up to an ideal of non-competition.[10] Marx's impassioned writings against capitalist competition offers an inspiring social and economic ideal and, on another level, a symbolic relief from a sibling competition I was resigned to losing. I continually have to "win" in fantasy what I actually lost in reality.

This same situation produced a shadow political-economic vision. The lack of familial rewards caused disappointment and withdrawal. A false self-sufficiency was created since caregivers could not be relied upon and healthy dependency was seen as a danger. This false self-sufficiency thinks of itself as a healthy autonomy. The need to not need anyone and to "pull myself up by my own bootstraps" laid the foundation for an anti-socialist, uncompassionate libertarianism which believes that "it is every man for himself."

Notice that the shadow libertarian worldview is described negatively as a pathological outcome. It wouldn't describe itself in that way as evidenced by those who hold such views as their dominant belief-system. So a further exploration here would be how one political-economic vision gained ascendancy and the ways in which the dominant vision holds sway through an invidious characterization of the subordinate worldview. The speculation then suggests itself: what would it be like experientially to actually be that shadow self?

These two political-economic outlooks could be integrated into a libertarian socialism which Chomsky has described. And they are integrated, to a small degree, on the level of political ideals and when forming opinions on current political events. But on a deeper level they remain largely unexamined. The emotional substructure of belief animates the political beliefs and holds them within certain bounds. The political views can be refined and broadened on the intellectual level through the usual means of reading, discussion and political action. But an additional method is to explore the psychic terrain from which these beliefs grew and upon which they are still dependent. As long as this is not done these beliefs will repetitively have to do the psychic work of satisfying primary needs in never-quite-satisfying secondary ways; the never-completed sysiphean task of the repetition compulsion. The examination of the shunned Randianism may release new energies and create a novel political integration, or it may just allow a deeper more sympathetic appreciation of the character of an alien view. There's no guarantee that an integration of the other may result.

A different use of this approach occurred in an exchange with Mark Edwards over my critique of Wilber's work.[11] In his rebuttal to my work, Edwards made the point that Wilber's method was not, as I claimed, that of the orienting generalization, but derived from systems thinking. He described the tradition of systems thinking and showed how Wilber's work was in-keeping with it. Since my book is centered around orienting generalizations as Wilber's method and he himself describes it as his method in his weightiest work, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, I had good grounds for believing Edwards was wrong. Wilber does write about systems thinking, but I could have argued - and initially intended to argue against Edwards - that he does not treat it as his method, instead treating it as one more area of knowledge he culls for its partial truths. So I should have been fine with that; Edwards is wrong and I'm right. But the point kept nagging at me, even though it had been decided. I tried to dismiss it as mistaken but it wouldn't go away. Then one morning, upon waking, before my everyday consciousness had a chance to reassemble itself and take control of who I am, I simply accepted the fact that even though I was right and Wilber doesn't explicitly say that systems thinking is a method he uses, Edwards is also right and it's obvious that that is what his whole integral system is. Yet that doesn't mean he doesn't use orienting generalizations; so the question arises: how are the two methods related? Now that I could accept the fact of Wilber's systems methodology I could ask this question. What I concluded is that they have an uneasy relationship in Wilber's theory with systems thinking providing the form and orienting generalizations providing the content. But what if the content doesn't fit the form, as I've shown in this book? Wilber's solution is to selectively extract content from the sciences and mold them in such a way that they fit into the evolutionary-developmental system he is convinced is true. By recognizing a defensive and emotional attachment to a certain view, I was able to detach from that view, accept a new fact and create a more satisfying integration of views.

The cognitive scientist George Lakoff, a political liberal, examined the roots of both liberal and conservative beliefs and gained a newfound understanding of why conservatives believe as they do and why he, a liberal, believes as he does. He writes:

Every day, I have had to compare my liberal beliefs with conservative beliefs and ask myself what, if any, reason I had to hold my beliefs....I find that I now can consciously comprehend my old instincts. I can give names to things that I could not clearly articulate before, things that were part of a vague sense of what was right. [12]

In delving into the substructure of belief Lakoff developed a new way of characterizing the differences in worldview between conservatives and liberals. This caused him to be more sympathetic towards conservative views, fear them more for their dangers and to feel even more committed to his liberal political outlook.

And finally, one theme I've pursued in this book, and in two responses to Ken Wilber, is a critique of developmentalism in psychology. I've stressed the value-laden character of any theory or description of individual consciousness development. Those analyses, like Wilber's or like anyone's, stand on their own without any need for a psychological analysis of belief as I am proposing here. This kind of investigation into the psychology of belief says nothing about the validity of the beliefs held. Their validity depends on their coherence, plausibility, agreement with the evidence and all the other criteria of rational knowledge claims. And yet, at the same time, this type of analysis affects truth and objectivity.

So apart from the legitimacy of my critique of developmentalism, why do I find myself on that side of the issue? Why aren't I a person who agrees with Wilber? Since my constructivism doesn't allow me to claim a superior perspicacious relation to the final arbiter of truth - reality - how do I come to hold the view that I hold (beyond the strength of the argument I can muster for it). I trace my critical orientation towards development to my lack of success in personal development. I've felt let down by development. It doesn't seem to work for me. Of course, I have the cognitive skills necessary to do sophisticated intellectual work, but I hoped, ever since I became aware of practices of self-development, that I could unblock developmental obstacles and grow emotionally, socially and spiritually. But it hasn't happened that way or has happened much less and much more slowly than I anticipated. I'm a discouraged developmentalist and I think part of the motivation for my suspicion of developmentalism comes from this discouragement. The criticality acts as a defensive posture to make sure I "won't get fooled again." In contrast, Wilber has had a great deal of success in his intellectual and spiritual development and, perhaps not coincidentally, is a champion of development.

There are two mistaken reactions to my description of the psychological background of my critique of development. The first commits the genetic fallacy and dismisses my arguments critical of developmentalism because they are thought to come from personal frustration with development. This is a mistake because the strength of the arguments has nothing to do with the reason I choose to make them. Just as nothing in Wilber's psyche and personal history have anything to do with whether his arguments for his integral theory are valid. That's why the great majority of my book is about arguments and evidence. This first mistake would typically be made by the Wilber loyalist who wants to avoid my arguments to protect his or her attachment to Wilber's views.

The second mistake is to think that uncovering the psychological causes of belief has nothing to do with the determination of truth and the creation of knowledge. This mistake would be made by the person who thinks that because of the genetic fallacy the genesis or origin of a person's beliefs plays no role in the determination of truth and knowledge. This person believes that truth and knowledge are representations of reality and are determined by the application of rationality and empirical experience. While it is a common way of looking at things, this conceptualization, after centuries of attempted grounding by philosophy, is no closer to being justified and actually looks further from validation. This person would be tempted to dismiss my views as a pernicious relativism. Yet, the relativist bogeyman is an odd creature. Universalistic, foundationalist and absolutist philosophers and others decry constructivist and relativist accounts of truth and knowledge that have arisen in the last forty years. Yet part of the origin and legitimation of constructivist and relativist approaches to knowledge and morality come from inquiries and results within analytic philosophy itself. Typically, analytic philosophers combating the relativist threat will appeal to concepts of truth, knowledge, justification and norms which are themselves contested concepts in their own areas of specialization.

The Role of Truth and Objectivity

This kind of examination in the psychology of belief can be interesting in itself, but it is commonly thought to be irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the beliefs examined. But this is not the case. This kind of self-analysis effects truth and objectivity.

When this kind of ad hominem - "to the man" - analysis is used to undermine the validity of a thinker's beliefs it's said that the analyzer commits the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy says that the origin of a person's intellectual views plays no role in determining the validity of those views. The validity lies in whether the views are valid according to the criteria of valid knowledge claims such as agreement with the facts or consistency. The philosopher John Wisdom's analysis of the psychological origins of Bishop Berkeley's idealism - regardless of its accuracy - says nothing about the validity of Berkeley's philosophy.[13] The philosopher Ben-Ami Scharfstein writes in his psychological analysis of some great philosophers' ideas that "nothing in the truth or value of an idea is affected by the circumstances of its origin. These circumstances help to explain just how the idea was arrived at and what its contemporary nuances were, but in themselves they have no bearing on its truth or falsity."[14] Likewise, the reasons for Wilber's allegiance to certain ideas say nothing about the validity of those ideas. So in this light, my psychological analysis of the reasons for Wilber's beliefs in the following chapter will be seen as an interesting, yet inappropriate, invasion of another's psyche.

The genetic fallacy assumes that there is a right representing that some beliefs do and that we can determine which beliefs represent rightly and which do not; that reality impresses itself upon some people, making their beliefs true, and is missed by others, necessitating finding another origin for their mistaken beliefs. Yet, in philosophy it is readily admitted that we do not have a theory of truth or an epistemology which has been conclusively proven to be true.[15] Moreover, the very project of explaining our connection to, and knowledge of, a reality beyond us has been brought into serious doubt. If we take seriously this historical failure to explain our connection to reality and the current lack of an agreed-upon theory, we have to conclude, for now, that it is false to compare an imagined right relation to reality which makes some beliefs true and a mistaken relation that makes other beliefs false. We cannot know the world outside of any given person's perspective on the world, or, if we can know, we can't know that that is what we know.

An illustration of this comes from the analytic philosopher, the late Nelson Goodman.[16] Goodman uses the example of the sun's motion. The statements "the sun moves through the sky" and "the sun is stationary" are both true and so contradictory. The first is easily verifiable by our daily observation, while the second is a cornerstone of our heliocentric understanding of our solar system. The clever answer to this contradiction that from one perspective the sun moves, but from another perspective it is stationary appears to set things aright. But Goodman then asks, what is the sun's motion apart from all perspectives? What is its motion like in and of itself? The mind goes blank. There is no one way the sun is independent of all perspectives, as far as we can tell. There is no one way the world is (or we can't know what that one way is if it does exist) guaranteeing the correctness of all true versions.

The predominant way of thinking regarding rational debate is that the debate participants share the same objective world which is the guarantor of reaching truth. If the debaters follow rational procedures of argumentation in an unbiased fashion then they should eventually come to agreement about whatever matter they are discussing because all participants should agree that the most rational understanding of the issue will represent best the one reality that the participants are trying to get right using their reason.

For those non-realists who believe there isn't one independent reality we all share, another neutral guarantor of correctness is thought to be our criteria for valid knowledge claims. It may be hoped that our criteria of valid knowledge claims, such as simplicity, plausibility, consistency, adherence to the facts and coherence, could provide a neutral criteria of validation, but here too a rational foundation for these values is missing. Hilary Putnam, one of the foremost analytic philosophers, argues that even seemingly neutral rational criteria such as simplicity, plausibility, consistency and coherence are themselves values - epistemic values - which cannot rationally ground their primacy as standards for evaluating thought.[17]

As a contrast to rational worldviews which apply the criteria of consistency, we can think of Walt Whitman's poetic worldview which exalts contradiction - "Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" - in order to more truly grasp the world and which contains within it a critique of the desiccating effects of a purely rational worldview. Another example of paradoxical wisdom occurs in the Tao te Ching which contradictorily speaks of that which cannot be spoken of. Here are alternative visions and ways of living which reveal the arational choice of consistency inherent within seemingly neutral rational criteria for evaluating truth-claims.

The philosopher Steven Hales has recently employed the fact that rationalist thinkers must rely upon "rational intuitions" - propositions which feel intuitively or self-evidently true - and that there is no getting around the rational groundlessness of these intuitions. He argues that a rational worldview, based as it is on rational intuitions, cannot demonstrate its superiority to other approaches such as the two he examines: Christian revelation and tribal beliefs gained through the ritual ingestion of hallucinogens.[18] We do not have to side with Putnam, Hales and others to acknowledge that the mere existence of their strongly argued positions within the Anglo-American philosophical debate suggests the lack of rational consensus in the field. This situation suggests that classical notions of truth and objectivity, which we commonly take for granted, are still radically contested.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith has made a strong synthesizing defense of a broad range of these contemporary counter-intuitive intellectual currents which she loosely groups under the term constructivism.[19] She calls this constructivist grouping post-classical theory and opposes it to the more traditional and still dominant classical theory. Some of this post-classical theory includes the usual suspects from postmodern Continental philosophy such as Derrida and Foucault and the contemporary Neo-Pragmatism of Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty and others who have described a coherent-enough philosophical foundationlessness. But it also includes much else. Herrnstein Smith refers to the constructivism arising out of systems theory and cybernetics that's associated with Heinz von Foerster, Ernst von Glaserfeld and others.[20] There is the attempt to bypass the nature/nurture dichotomy, not through a compromise between the two, but through an analysis of the multiple causal components of an inherently contingent evolutionary process.[21] In the sociology and history of science there is a substantial tradition demonstrating through micro-analytical case studies the constructed character of scientific knowledge.[22]

Classical theory so understood asserts or assumes a vision of our world which will appear to most to be so intuitively and obviously true as to not need any defense. There is a way in which the world is, in and of itself, which we humans try to know through perspicuous representations. Science and reason are the best modes of depicting and explaining the world and the various results of the differing scientific disciplines provide true knowledge of the world or lead us steadily in that direction. The nature of the world acts as a corrective to errant views through our empirical testing of our hypotheses and the reactions of our peers. The result of this kind of inquiry is justified true belief, or knowledge of the world. Because this is a trial and error process there have been, and certainly still are, many erroneous beliefs; these errors have been and will be discovered in time as the rational-scientific process is applied to the results of our inquiries and our mistakes corrected. True knowledge is objective knowledge because it represents the world as it is in itself, even if no humans were around to perceive it. Those whose views are closer to the world's true character are thinking more objectively. What could be more obvious?

In many everyday situations this conceptualization meets our needs. But in many other everyday and philosophically reflective situations it does not. We are commonly cautioned (in the U.S.) not to discuss religion or politics in polite company because such discussions can too easily lead to irreconcilable conflict instead of rational consensus. Another common quandary in our culture is whether the cause of peoples' aberrant behavior is biological or psychological or a mixture of the two. The assumption behind this quandary is that reality is one way and not another. There is assumed to be the (one) way that it is, but this may not be the case. Instead, the biological and the psychological explanations could be seen as alternative ways of living to which could be added the poetic, the spiritual or the martial approaches to deviancy and living in general; each with their own costs and benefits. And adding to the puzzle is the commonly held belief that our biology or brain-matter produces our psychologies which makes it difficult to understand how our psychology could produce any behavior without the workings of our biology.

Philosophically, when this classical view is confronted by critical questioning, we find: that there may not be a way the world is in and of itself, or, if there is, we can't know when we know it; that there are social, historical, cognitive and psychological factors in knowledge creation; that language is what allows specifically human knowledge but is not a window on the world as it is; that the concepts of truth, knowledge, belief, good, bad, and objectivity are notoriously difficult to define and make cohere.

So despite this reflective and experiential inquiry into psychological and emotional subjectivity, the goals of truth and objectivity will still play a crucial role in our discussions. But they won't be the usual concepts of truth and objectivity as absolute existents or ideals. Instead, because we will continue to employ shared criteria for evaluating ethical and knowledge claims we will continue to have a use for the notion of objectivity. Objectivity within a discussion will be gained through the overlap of the participants' criteria of validation. If two or more people share criteria of validation then they can determine what they take to be objectively true. Two people who share no criteria of validation (if this is even possible) could not even have a discussion since they would share no objective world in common. This way of thinking allows us to see the way in which we fashion our worlds and why worlds often collide.

If truth is understood to be determined and re-determined in an ongoing fashion in the vast number of discussions occurring both publicly and privately every day, then a method such as the one I am describing, which alters the character and resolution of such discussions, will also alter what is thought to be true. In that way, contrary to the genetic fallacy, the investigation of the psychological causes of beliefs affects what is determined to be true and false.

In the above example in which I reported my experience confronting Edwards' criticism, my self-examination led to a new understanding and altered my response. Of course, this is just one small incident, but multiplied many times these kinds of changes alter discussions and so alter what is understood to be true (and false) and what we call knowledge.

Does this mean that the truth is what anyone says it is? The answer is "no," but the question itself needs to be examined because it presupposes that there is a truth that is not just what people inquiring together believe is the truth. The question implies that there is the objective truth, the real truth, but I've already said that I'm presuming that until the philosophers can determine what that is we will accept that that does not now exist for us, and work on that basis. But even without the idea of the objective truth, what anyone says is the truth is not the truth, because you or I or someone else may not believe that truth and will believe something else is the truth. So someone else's "truth" will be what I call a falsity. We don't give up our strongly held beliefs just because we've uncovered our arational ground of believing. The truth is always being forged and maintained in the ongoing social discussions in society. This is why a vigilance regarding our (as opposed to their) deeply held truths is necessary, because truth does not have a power or existence apart from our collective social construction of truth. We must be its champions, but we must also recognize that those we oppose will be opposing our truth with what they call the truth and if there is a shift in power, those whose truth procedures are currently institutionally dominant, could have their truth overthrown, at which point they would have to wage a guerilla war for (their) truth.

For example, in contemporary Western societies, what Max Weber called, the rational-legal view prevails. Modern bureaucratic institutions justify their existence by giving reasons and citing the law or rights. The rational-legal view displaced the traditional worldview which dominated Western societies when the Catholic Church and Christianity held sway. The Church's authority was founded on tradition and the Word of God. Things were justified, in part, because "that is the way they've always been done" or because The Bible or Aristotle said so. Contemporary rational, liberal pluralists like to think that they treat all religions and views equally by allowing freedom of speech and worship. But for a Christian fundamentalist who knows God's Truth, to allow the methods and results of a Godless Reason to be the dominant mode of institutional organization is wrong and an offense. Why should falsity and immorality prevail? Shouldn't our institutions be structured by knowledge of (God's) Truth? There's no proving the superior connection to reality and morality of the rational-scientific worldview, as the philosophers have shown. The rational-legal worldview is dominant in the advanced industrialized countries and that dominance must be maintained through rhetorical skill and control of the cultural and educational institutions of society. The minds of each new generation will be molded by conflicting cultural forces; those that hold the reins of hegemonic epistemic legitimacy will have an advantage in inculcating what anyone who wants to be regarded seriously must believe is the truth.

The truth will be a function of what each person and group thinks human beings are, can be and should be; and how each person and group thinks we should live both collectively and individually.


It makes perfect sense that this understanding of and inquiry into the psychology of belief creates discomfort. After all, we wouldn't expend so much individual and cultural energy avoiding the emotional substructure of belief if it weren't something unappealing and potentially painful. But there is also something painful about denying what is there - denying what is there being a Buddhist's definition of suffering.

One aspect of this discomfort is the squeamishness felt by hard rationalists for such "touchy-feely" self-explorations. We feel comfortable explaining why our intellectual opponents are so wrong about what we know is right; but turning our gaze upon ourselves is unpleasant. It's easy to think that it will simply create more navel-gazing and psychobabble. Hard rationalists will probably feel revulsion for this kind of inquiry. Yet if rationalists are as hard as they say, then they should carry their rational inquiries wherever they lead. I have made rational arguments for why this inquiry makes rational sense; it would require rational arguments to show how it is wrong. We must replace squeamishness with rational integrity. The resistance that keeps us ignorant can be transmuted into the insight that creates greater knowledge.

Scientific Validation

One intellectual expression of this feeling of squeamishness is a strong doubt in the validity of the psychoanalytically-oriented introspective method that would be used to examine the emotional substructure of belief. Yet ironically, in contrast to the image of rational man in contemporary intellectual life, we find that the most rational and scientific of our inquiries has offered some confirmation of the image of ourselves that I am describing. Despite the strong criticism of Freud's ideas and the so-called "Freud Wars" that flared in the U.S. in the mid-nineties, the empirical confirmation of the unconscious in general and Freud's postulated unconscious in particular is surprisingly strong. The hard rationalist rightly believes in the high value of scientific results. This research runs from strong confirmation of the existence of vast areas of unconscious cognitive processes to demonstrations of the arational basis of beliefs.

The Nobel Prize winner and neuroscientist Gerald Edelman writes that:

The postulation of an unconscious is a central binding principle of Freud's psychological theories. Since his time, ample evidence has accumulated from the study of neurosis, hypnotism, and parapraxes to show that his basic theses about the action of the unconscious were essentially correct. As he used it, the term unconscious referred to elements that can be easily transformed into conscious states - "the preconscious" - as well as those that can be transformed only with great difficulty or not at all - "the unconscious proper."...Freud's notion of repression is consistent with the models of consciousness presented here.[23]

The psychologist Drew Westen writes in his survey of research in psychology that "Ironically, at a time when the prestige of psychoanalysis is at a low ebb in both psychiatry and academic psychology, an explosion of experimental research on several psychological fronts (much of it conducted by researchers with little interest in, or knowledge about, psychoanalysis has now documented conclusively that Freud was right in this central tenet [i.e. that much of mental life is unconscious]."[24] He concludes that "the data are incontrovertible: consciousness is the tip of the psychic iceberg that Freud imagined it to be."[25] These citations show that there is a basis in the conventional scientific literature for the idea that large portions of cognition are unconscious.

Related research in the relationship between emotion and cognition has reversed the intellectuals' common conception of emotion as a hindrance to reason and shown the necessity of emotions for reasoning. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, in two well-regarded books, has stated that "work from my laboratory has shown that emotion is integral to the processes of reasoning and decision making, for worse and for better."[26] In a collection of essays entitled Emotions and Beliefs, the editors state that emotions "can be seen as influencing the content and the strength of an individual's beliefs, and their resistance to modification."[27] In a 2006 publication called Hot Thought: Mechanisms and Applications of Emotional Cognition, the well-known philosopher and cognitive scientist, Paul Thagard asserts that "Contrary to standard philosophical assumptions, reasoning is often an emotional process, and improving it requires identifying and assessing the impact of emotions."[28] Thagard even has a chapter on "The Passionate Scientist: Emotion in Scientific Cognition" in which he "conclude[s] that emotions are an essential part of scientific cognition."[29]

Finally, a recent study by Drew Westen et al. entitled "Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning" used an MRI to record the parts of the brain used by subjects assessing positive, negative and neutral information regarding their chosen political candidates. Westen et al. found that

Research on political judgment and decision-making has converged with decades of research in clinical and social psychology suggesting the ubiquity of emotion-biased motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is a form of implicit emotion regulation in which the brain converges on judgments that minimize negative and maximize positive affect states associated with threat to or attainment of motives. To what extent motivated reasoning engages neural circuits involved in "cold" reasoning and conscious emotion regulation (e.g., suppression) is, however, unknown. We used functional neuroimaging to study the neural responses of 30 committed partisans during the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. We presented subjects with reasoning tasks involving judgments about information threatening to their own candidate, the opposing candidate, or neutral control targets...As predicted, motivated reasoning was not associated with neural activity in regions previously linked to cold reasoning tasks and conscious (explicit) emotion regulation. The findings provide the first neuroimaging evidence for phenomena variously described as motivated reasoning, implicit emotion regulation, and psychological defense. They suggest that motivated reasoning is qualitatively distinct from reasoning when people do not have a strong emotional stake in the conclusions reached.[30]

These studies are just one way of validating the plausibility of the image of belief I am describing here. I offer them because the scientific approach is rightly held in such high esteem and it is significant when one's assertions can be confirmed in that way. Further, it is important to make as much of the knowledge implied by one's worldview cohere. More importantly, though, are the pragmatic benefits of this method of inquiry. Here ethics is given an edge over epistemology, so the kind of person and world that is constructed by engaging in a given practice is what is crucial. Ideally, the person who engages in the kind of self-reflection I'm describing is gaining greater insight into themselves by confronting and expanding their beliefs.

Why Do This?

Through this type of investigation we can gain greater knowledge of self and other by understanding better the roots of our own and other's beliefs. More specifically, blind spots and contradictions, which we work hard to keep from ourselves when we are trying to be rational, can be revealed through this type of investigation. When the psycho-emotional causes for maintaining a contradiction are brought into awareness a loosening of their hold can occur. This insight into our attachment and the possibility of transformation can engender sets of beliefs more congruent with each other and with our selves as a whole. In going through this process with another we can better understand what causes our opponents to hold radically opposed notions. This process and the new understanding of our opponents can lead to a better relationship with our opponents. When our beliefs are better understood we can feel less defensive and can move past argumentative sticking points that occur because one side cannot allow themselves to understand what the other side is actually saying. The better understanding of self and other, the insight into blind spots and the revealing of contradictions enhance truth and objectivity since these are determined and re-determined in ongoing debates such as these.

Since it's difficult for two people with fundamentally differing views to engage in this type of inquiry, a more likely scenario is an individual engaging in a self-examination in order to further their own thought. This furthering will of course be judged by their own lights, although the presentation of their discoveries will provoke responses and judgments from others. One person's furthering of their thoughts can always be interpreted by another as an increase in mistakenness.

This approach will not make knowledge more accurate in the sense of representing reality as it really is. We won't gain an absolutely superior perspective because we integrate a wider amount of views. It assumes the necessity of giving up the notion of finally "getting it right" and grasping "the way it is." There is no way it is (or, if there is we can't seem to determine it definitively).

The whole notion of the ends of inquiry as "finally getting it right" or "grasping the way it is" needs to be repositioned within the larger objective of living rightly and making the world right. Ethics encompasses epistemology, solidarity encompasses objectivity. In mysticism, the way you act becomes more important than what state you've achieved. In the natural sciences, one powerful way of "getting physical reality right" is offered but not the final way, since poetry or sensory awareness training can give us kinds of knowledge of nature which are also needed for living a good life.

Modern Western philosophy's self-conception has been primarily epistemological with the guiding image being philosophy as a mirror of nature, or a way to get the world right using language, logic, evidence and rational argumentation.[31] But this is not the only way of understanding what philosophy is. In the Western tradition philosophy as a spiritual practice or way of life has an ancient pedigree and has an accomplished champion in the great French scholar Pierre Hadot. In Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot recovers the ancient vision of philosophy as a "spiritual practice" with "spiritual exercises," somewhat similar to ancient Buddhism which merges metaphysical insight and self-development. We don't just know what we think is right, we become and enact it. Similarly, I'm proposing a practice of thinking which attempts to recover all the constituents of our beliefs in an effort to create greater knowledge and better being.


I have argued that a psychological inquiry into the origins of belief can uncover the reasons beyond reason that cause us to believe. According to Pascal "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know." In contrast, I am arguing that the subterranean psychic world of the heart lying beneath reason that gives our beliefs their animating force can be better known. The philosopher Richard Rorty - while not referring to this particular approach, states - "The point of philosophy, on this view, is not to find out what anything is ‘really' like, but to help us grow up - to make us happier, freer, and more flexible."[32]

The reasons we believe must be supplemented by the reasons why we believe. Currently, the reasons why we believe play a hidden role in the creation of belief and knowledge. To ignore or deny these reasons beyond reason hinders our inquiry by neglecting an essential part of the process of knowledge creation. To include what is always going on anyway and gain greater awareness of it is a part of the rational task of gaining clear and distinct knowledge of what is occurring.

Reason cannot do all the work itself because we do not believe only for rational reasons. The emotional substructure of belief must be brought into our investigations and debates in order to enhance the process of gaining greater consciousness of what's going on.

Neglecting important parts of belief and knowledge creation has costs, because that which is neglected will have its say through indirect means. To paraphrase Jung, when our shadow is not made conscious, it becomes our fate.


[1] But see Steven D. Hales recent book Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2006). Here, an analytic philosopher argues that there is no neutral way to demonstrate the superiority of rational philosophy over Christian revelation or hallucinogenic-induced native beliefs. He argues that their fundamental methods of knowledge acquisition are different and there is no neutral or non-question-begging way to demonstrate the superiority of one over the other.

[2] Richard Feldman has discussed the problem of "reasonable disagreements" and ends with "A Skeptical Conclusion" in "Epistemological Puzzles About Disagreement" in Epistemology Futures, edited by Stephen Hetherington, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). Robert Fogelin has reinterpreted Pyrhonnian Scepticism in Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification, (New York : Oxford University Press, 1994) and sparked a debate in Pyrrhonian Skepticism edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, (New York : Oxford University Press, 2004).

[3] Foucault, Michel, History of Sexuality, p. 59

[4] In analytic philosophy these are called our "rational intuitions." See Priest, Graham, Beyond the Limits of Thought, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), Hales, Relativism, and, for a debate on the topic, DePaul, Michael R., and Ramsey, William, Rethinking Intuition, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998).

[5] But see Michael Williams in "The Agrippan Argument and Two Forms of Skepticism," in Pyrrhonian Skepticism edited by Sinnott-Armstrong, for an alternative view.

[6] Priest, Beyond the Limits of Thought.

[7] Of course there are other reasons for the urgency to be heard. We may be bringing to light an injustice or trying to get what we want. I am referring here to purely intellectual discussions.

[8] Rorty, Richard, "Daniel Dennett on Intrinsicality," in Truth and Progress, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 104

[9] Stolorow, Robert, and Atwood, George, Faces in a Cloud: Subjectivity in Personality Theory, (New York: Jason Aronson, 1979).

[10] Alfie Kohn's classic No Contest, (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1986) makes the case for the detrimental effects of competition.

[11] Meyerhoff, Jeff, Bald Ambition, at, especially Chapter 3 and Edwards, Mark, "Meyerhoff, Wilber and the Post-formal Stages, at

[12] Lakoff, George, Moral Politics, (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 335-336.

[13] Wisdom, John Oulton, The Unconscious Origin of Berkeley's Philosophy. London: The Hogarth Press, The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953.

[14] Scharfenstein, Ben-Ami, The Philosophers, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), p. 380

[15] In Roger Scruton's mainstream account of philosophy he describes five major competing theories of truth. Modern Philosophy, New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 97-111. Joseph Margolis gives a short history of philosophy's lack of success in these areas in The Unraveling of Scientism, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003), pp. 1-18. And there is also the position that truth is not the kind of thing we should hope to have a theory about.

[16] Goodman, Nelson, Ways of Worldmaking, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1978), pp. 2-3.

[17] Putnam, Hilary, The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[18] Hales, Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy,

[19] Herrnstein Smith, Barbara, Belief & Resistance, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), and Scandalous Knowledge, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

[20] Poerksen, Bernhard, The Certainty of Uncertainty: Dialogues Introducing Constructivism, (Charlottesville: Imprint Academic, 2004).

[21] Oyama, Susan, Griffiths, Paul E. and Gray, Russell D., Cycles of Contingency, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003).

[22] Biagioli, Mario, ed., The Science Studies Reader, (New York: Routledge, 1999).

[23] Edelman, Gerald, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, (USA: BasicBooks, 1992), p. 145.

[24] Westen, D. (1999). "The Scientific Status of Unconscious Processes," J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 47:1061-1106. Online at, p. 3. See also Frank Tallis, Hidden Minds: The History of the Unconscious, (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2002) and Dan Stein, ed., Cognitive Science and the Unconscious, (Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1997).

[25] Westen, "Scientific Status," p. 38.

[26] Damasio, Antonio, The Feeling of What Happens, (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co.,1999), pp. 40-41. Also, his Descartes' Error, (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1994).

[27] Frijda, Nico H., Manstead, Antony S. R., Bem, Sacha, Emotions and Beliefs, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 1.

[28] Thagard, Paul, Hot Thoughts, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), p. 3.

[29] Thagard, Hot Thoughts, p. 172.

[30] Westen, Drew, et al., "Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning," Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 2006;18: 1947-1958, p. 1947. Thanks to Andy Smith and a reader of my blog for this reference.

[31] See Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. While Rorty's conclusions about philosophy are controversial, this basic historical point about the central concern of philosophy is less so.

[32] Rorty, Richard, "Analytic and Conversational Philosophy," in A House Divided, edited by C.G. Prado, (Amherst, New York: Humanity Books, 2003), p.22

© Jeff Meyerhoff 2006

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