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].


See also: Dismissal vs. Debate: A Reply to Ken Wilber's Audio Rebuttal


A Reply to Ken Wilber's “What We Are, That We See”

Jeff Meyerhoff

Ken Wilber
“But if the disagreement persists, there is no appeal beyond us, or if beyond us two, then not beyond some eventual us. There is such a thing as intellectual tragedy.” - Stanley Cavell

Amid the intended hullabaloo surrounding Ken Wilber's blog entry entitled “What We Are, That We See,” most of the commentary has ignored the substantive responses to criticisms that Wilber makes. The subtitle of the entry states, in part, that it is a “Response to Some Recent Criticism” and a prefatory note advised us that “the content” and “ideas” should be taken “seriously.” The critics go largely unnamed, but several of the rebuttals appear to be part of Wilber's promised response to my “Six Criticisms of Wilber's Integral Theory” which is a summary of some central points of my book Bald Ambition.

This is my response to Wilber.


Wilber starts by defending developmental studies. Unusual for him, he makes no reference to the scholarly literature to defend developmentalism. In my book, I demonstrate the large debate surrounding cognitive, moral and cross-cultural development, and the concept of development itself, in contrast to Wilber's claim that there is a consensus in the field around the broad outlines of development that he uses to validate his AQAL model. So I showed debate where Wilber claimed consensus. That was the issue. Curiously though, in his blog entry, Wilber appears to think the issue is whether development exists or not, and he challenges his critics to deny development. My argument was not that there is no development, my argument was to show that there is a fundamental debate surrounding development and then demonstrate the value-laden character of any notion of development.

Development is a heavily value-laden concept. It is not just an objective, scientific reading off of traits and patterns.

Development is a heavily value-laden concept. It is not just an objective, scientific reading off of traits and patterns. So any claims of developmental universality are suspect since peoples' value hierarchies are varied. We construct developmental pathways based on our assumptions about the goals towards which we believe developing humans ideally should develop. Wilber has a belief about that based on his life experience. Others have other beliefs and will construct alternative developmental paths. While still others – both laypeople and academic psychologists – won't use the concept of development at all. Wilber can still use it – I use it sometimes, it's a very useful concept - it's just that in using it he's not describing how we all objectively develop regardless of our beliefs about how we should develop; he's offering - as all developmental psychologists offer - one view of an ideal way of living. The developmental psychologist Bernard Kaplan writes that “Development does not lurk directly in the population(s) studied but resides fundamentally in the perspective used”[1] and agrees with other developmental psychologists I cite on the value-laden character of development and the crucial role that the chosen goal of development plays in constructing the development seen. I even quote one of Wilber's own sources, Howard Gardner et al., to show that developmental pathways can lead in all different kinds of directions. One person's regression can be another's progression, and vice versa. It's hard to develop an integrated developmental theory with contradictions like these.

I have already responded, in my Chapter 2 on individual consciousness, to the acorn-to-oak example that Wilber repeats in his blog entry, yet he simply repeats the same point. There seems to be no awareness of the actual arguments made and so no attempt to respond to them. Instead, in Wilber's discussion of developmental studies he misses the points I make and instead makes the issue a crude, thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down to development.

Wilber goes on to make a surprising assertion, he says that if the critics do deny development then, “we are fully entitled to ignore them,” but if they don't deny development then “That's all I need” because “All I fundamentally need from those specialists is the idea of altitude.” So if his imagined development-denier acknowledges any sort of development then Wilber wins because any acknowledgement of development gives him altitude and that's all he needs. He doesn't explain altitude here, but it seems to be the ranking of holons according to whether they are more or less developed. If there is development of any kind then Wilber can say that there is higher and lower altitude and it seems that this is what he is fundamentally interested in.

But why is altitude what he's fundamentally interested in? He doesn't explain. He seems to want the concept of altitude so that he can argue that those at his purported higher second-tier of development can not be truly understood by those at the lower first-tier of development. Yet acknowledging development doesn't demonstrate the existence of a second-tier. There are many Piagetians who do not find the evidence convincing for any stages higher than the formal operational stage and so deny the existence of a postformal (Wilber's vision-logic/roughly second-tier) stage? Do they give Wilber the altitude he needs? If the second-tier doesn't exist – and it is highly debatable according to the literature Wilber uses – then does the concept of altitude give him what he wants?

Doesn't the content of the development matter? What if the developmental model is from a fascist perspective? We go through various stages from weakness and impurity to strength and purity, and, if all goes well, become pure in our Germaness or Whiteness or Whatever, and realize the need to exclude and, possibly, exterminate those who are impure in our culture. In a different way, Communism was the endpoint of a developmental model moving from feudalism to capitalism to socialism and finally to communism. In practice, this required a Marxist science which explained history and was the “riddle of history solved.” People who advocated false notions needed reeducation. Advocates of integral theory and other bourgeois notions are regressed, developmentally stuck, of low altitude and obviously needed the reeducation afforded by the gulag. Those of high altitude in the communist developmental scheme would put them there. Developmental models can come in a great variety, ranging from wholesome to despicable; how is just having altitude all Wilber needs?

Altitude suggests higher and lower development, but there could be developmental models that describe unfolding patterns that don't rank the latter stages as higher than the former stages. They just happen to occur later in time. Development doesn't necessarily mean progressive. A pervasive developmental pattern which Wilber doesn't mention is birth, growth, decay and death. This pattern is essential to all existence and should be included in a “theory of everything.” Does this give Wilber the altitude he needs?

For a theory of everything there is so little said about the other half of existence: decay, deterioration, diminishment, death, extinction and loss.

In general, I've always been struck by the great valuation in Wilber's model of the concepts of more, greater and higher. More complexity, more emergent phenomena, greater transcendence and inclusion, greater embrace, more perspectives included, higher altitude. The whole model has an ever onward and upward quality. For a theory of everything there is so little said about the other half of existence: decay, deterioration, diminishment, death, extinction and loss. The sense you get from Wilber's writing is that we never lose anything essential, yet the amount of loss over the course of life on earth is so tremendous it's incomprehensible. I think it's The Tibetan Book of the Dead that says that the greatest mystery is how all around us there is death and dying, and yet no one really believes that it will happen to them. This missing piece of Wilber's model is one reason for the emphasis on loss in my chapter "Psychological Analysis of Wilber's Beliefs.

Wilber's other claim regarding development is similarly curious. He claims that developmental studies have suffered “a two-decade banishment by the mean green meme.” This is a claim similar to the one he made a few years ago that “[a version of the postmodern green meme, with its pluralism and relativism] has also made developmental studies, which depend on second-tier [higher stage] thinking, virtually anathema at both conventional and alternative universities.”[2] In my Chapter 3 on vision-logic I noted the stark contradiction between these statements asserting the banishment of developmental studies from academia and his opposite claim in both SES and Integral Psychology that the developmental models he was using were the consensus of their academic fields. How could developmental studies be both banished from and “anathema” to academia, and yet be the consensus knowledge in academia and provide the scholarly validation for crucial parts of Wilber's AQAL model?


Wilber then says that if his imagined development-denying critic acknowledges any “growth pathways” and describes those growth pathways then “That description itself is a context-transcending sentence, and I'll be glad to work with that.” He seems to imagine that the development-denier asserts that there is only one context and so for them to assert that there is both a context and a larger context is equivalent to them having a values hierarchy that somehow proves that there are levels and altitudes. This is a confusing statement given Wilber's statement that one of the hallmarks of both postmodernism and his integral theory is that we are all faced with “contexts within contexts within contexts” and that “contexts go all the way down.” So Wilber and the postmodernist agree that there is context-transcendence, it's just that you transcend to the next larger context.

Yet Wilber may have in mind here not the moderate postmodernist, but the extreme postmodernist who is a relativist. But even this postmodernist can acknowledge that there are contexts within contexts, they just claim – as extreme postmodernists – that people have different and irreconcilable views of which contexts are larger or more fundamental. Contextualization is a hallmark of relativism.


He then challenges his critic by saying that “I don't know a single major theorist who buys pluralistic relativism, not one.” But this depends on what we mean by “pluralistic relativism.” If it means no view is better than any other, as Wilber has said it means, then Wilber's right, no serious thinker asserts that, and so we don't have to worry about it. But if it means that we can't conclusively defend the idea that our intellectual foundations are the absolutely right ones, then most major theorists are pluralistic relativists.

Pluralistic relativism could mean many things. I will name some major theorists who could be, and sometimes are, called pluralistic relativists.

Pluralistic relativism could mean many things. The many meanings of relativism are described by Michael Krausz and Rom Harre in their book Varieties of Relativism and by Maria Baghramian in her book Relativism. I will name some major theorists who could be, and sometimes are, called pluralistic relativists. Nelson Goodman, one of the great philosophers of the second half of the twentieth-century, defended what he called a “radical relativism.” Paul Feyerabend, one of the five most important philosophers of science could be described as a pluralistic relativist. The philosopher and translator of Nagajuna, Jay Garfield, gives a strong relativist reading of Nagajuna's Buddhism in his book Empty Words. The philosopher Richard Rorty, while denying the label relativist, is very often accused of being, what could be called, a pluralistic relativist. The Princeton political philosopher Philip Pettit, while perhaps not wanting the label relativist (no one does because it is more an epithet than a description), has defended what could be called a pluralistic relativism in his essay “A Sensible Perspectivism.” We learn from the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy that “moral relativism is a standard topic in metaethics, and there are contemporary philosophers who defend forms of it: The most prominent are Gilbert Harman and David B. Wong.”[3] David Bloor, Barry Barnes and their strong programme in the sociology of science are accused of relativism. And these examples are all from the Anglo-American tradition. The Continental postmodernists are even more notorious for their alleged relativism.

And yet, if there are no major theorists who accept pluralistic relativism as Wilber says, why does Wilber castigate the mean green meme in academia and warn of the dangers of this form of extreme postmodernism? I would think the problem for him would be that his critic can name too many pluralistic relativists, not that they can't name any.


Wilber's previous criticisms miss their mark, but his next observation, at least, hits the target. Wilber claims that my positive recommendations for how to proceed once Reason reaches its limits are already anticipated in his more encompassing theory. In Chapter 9, "A Different Path", I argue for two ways forward once we realize that, pushed to its limits, Reason will always result in Reason-defying conundrums such as circularity, infinite regress, contradiction, ineffability, skepticism, or arational assumptions. I offer two ways forward, one spiritual and the other psychological. The spiritual path cites the mystical observation that Reason and conceptuality itself are obstacles to the mystic's experiential insight and that reaching Reason's limits can lead to a spiritual realization. I give examples of this in Nagarjuna and the Ancient Pyrhonnian Sceptics as interpreted by contemporary philosophers. So in contrast to Wilber, who thinks there is an entirely new role for a higher stage of thinking and a conceptual system that sees a unity midst the diversity of pluralism and relativism, I contend that the limits of Reason show us the ultimate irreconcilability or difference between perspectives and worldviews.

Now that Wilber mentions it – although, as usual, he doesn't explain it – his theory does state that most people on the spiritual path will not attain the more advanced stages of vision-logic and so may never see the inter-paradigmatic patterning that the advanced vision-logician sees. Thanks to Wilber, I now realize that I made a facile contrast. On the one hand, was my belief that postmodern thinking marked the limits of sense that Reason could make of larger philosophical issues, and so could be an entrée into an experiential, spiritual insight. And, on the other hand, Wilber's advocacy of further intellectual work for Reason through a development of the higher stages of vision-logic and the resultant grasping of the vast patterning of the Kosmos. But Wilber says that spiritual practitioners need not pass through, and usually don't, the higher stages of vision-logic – the paradigmatic and the cross-paradigmatic stages – and that for their spiritual growth it isn't necessary.[4] They can develop from the centauric stage to the psychic stage and beyond with none of Wilber's or anyone else's intellectual heavy-lifting. And Wilber is a skillful pointer to the spiritual insights that may or may not follow a confrontation with the antinomies of reason. In sum, Wilber can justifiably say that while he is pursuing a further intellectual path or identifying an intellectual unfolding, that doesn't preclude the kind of spiritual, limits-of-Reason type insight that I describe. So it's a good point.

And further, I realize now that I don't think there is much of a chance that following thought to its limits will result in a spiritual insight. Of course it can, but I don't think it's a common or reliable way to have such insights. Better to do the spiritual practices and visit those accomplished in them or who've had the insight one is looking for.


By clearing away this false path in which I don't much believe, I now see more clearly the contrast between what I advocate and what Wilber advocates. The real contrast is between Wilber's great emphasis on a spiritual/intellectual path beyond conventional reason and into the highest levels of vision-logic and my advocacy of the need to recognize the limits of Reason and the irreconcilability of perspectives which does not allow an ambitious, Wilberian, Kosmic integration. I argue that people of differing perspectives and worldviews need to recognize and elucidate their intellectual differences, and then, either alone or together, understand the non-rational basis of their attachments to their beliefs. We must go deep into the psychological in order to make intellectual, interpersonal and personal progress.

Our beliefs arise out of our unique life experiences and certain beliefs satisfy our psychic needs causing us to attach to certain perspectives and worldviews.

I've justified this approach in Chapter 9, "A Different Path", and in my paper “Arguments Beyond Reason” and will just summarize the argument here. Those who give reasons to justify their beliefs – pretty much all of us – will find, if we are questioned thoroughly, that we reach a point where we can't give anymore reasons or can't give anymore valid reasons for why we believe as we do. If as the Western philosophic tradition has discovered so far, we cannot provide a rational foundation to our beliefs and if all reason-giving reaches arational limits, then why – if our reasons are why we believe what we believe – do we believe what we believe? Why don't we just believe the similarly, rationally-unjustifiable beliefs of our opponents? The answer I give is that our beliefs arise out of our unique life experiences and certain beliefs satisfy our psychic needs causing us to attach to certain perspectives and worldviews. We can uncover the intimate connections between our philosophic, moral, aesthetic and political beliefs and our life history. We find ourselves at odds with others not only because we have different beliefs, but because we have different psychic needs. This is why a great deal of defensiveness is often triggered in purely intellectual discussions. It's because there is something more at stake then who's right and who's wrong. In fact, if right and wrong were all that were at stake in intellectual discussions, we would be pleased to change our views if they were shown to be wrong. Then we'd be in possession of what's right. But it doesn't work that way, and one reason (there are others) it doesn't work that way is because there are deep personal reasons we need our beliefs and worldviews to be the truth; that we need the world to be the way we believe, think and say it is.

So I propose that after all purely rational argumentation has been exhausted, a productive next step beyond agreeing to disagree, is to examine these other reasons for our beliefs, the ones that come after our reason-giving in our rational discussions has been exhausted. Then we can see our and other's emotional investment in having and needing the world be a certain way; we can see the blind spots that cause us not to be able to understand what another person is arguing; we can recover our emotional resistance to accepting an argument or facts that nag at us in order to see why they are staying with us even though, consciously, we think they are wrong.

This is why I offer a psychology of my beliefs and a psychology of Wilber's beliefs in my book. I am illustrating what this depth psychology of belief would look like. It in no way undermines the validity of anyone's beliefs. People's beliefs can only be invalidated by arguments and evidence. Knowing why people believe as they do is wholly different from determining the validity of what they believe. My approach can loosen intellectual deadlocks, promote self-knowledge and self-development, improve the quality of one's belief-system and alter what is understood to be true.

So the idea of spiritual insight at the limits of reason is not my “new paradigm” as Wilber puts it (that's a bit too grand for me, my ambition not being that bald). What is original in my work is the argument for why an analysis of the psychological basis of beliefs could play a role in enhancing argumentation and personal growth. That argument justifies my psychological analysis of Wilber's ideas (and anyone's ideas) in Chapter 10.


The notion of altitude is used by Wilber to avoid confronting legitimate criticisms of his work and it's deployed for that purpose.

Wilber next tries to defend his idea that cross-level debates rarely work because people at lower levels of development don't have the requisite level of consciousness or altitude to understand what people at higher levels are saying. The criticisms of the higher level ideas by the lower level are “nonsensical,” “they are neither true not false, but empty.” He uses the example of the (blue level) fundamentalist Christian saying to the (orange level) scientific rationalist that the “facts” in the Bible refute the facts of science. Wilber is right to say that no amount of discussion will settle this dispute, but he is wrong to use this blue-orange clash as an analogy to a purported green/first-tier vs. turquoise/second-tier clash. I make a number of arguments for why this is the case in the latter portion of chapter three on vision-logic. Wilber counters none of those points (perhaps he's not up on the latest material). Here I'll just say that the difference between the fundamentalist and the scientific materialist is reflective of a large-scale historical shift from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment in which an entirely new way of acquiring and justifying knowledge occurred. The fundamentalist and the scientist use different criteria to gain knowledge: the fundamentalist the literal word of the Bible and the scientist the scientific method. No such large-scale shift has occurred between a purported green/first-tier/egoic-rational type and a turquoise/second- tier-vision/logic type. Correspondingly, no new criterion of knowledge has been elaborated by Wilber. Wilber still validates his assertions in the old-fashioned way: by making arguments, trying to keep them consistent and citing supporting evidence from the scholarly literature. What is the new method of validating second-tier knowledge that makes the green/first-tier person's criticisms not just right or wrong, but nonsensical?

The real clash between blue and orange allows Wilber to dramatize the differences between people with dramatically different ways of determining validity; he then simply likens the green/turquoise split to it. But no description of the different methods of validation is offered. As I wrote in my Chapter 3,

this is a transparent, and somewhat sad, attempt to avoid criticism by devising a rationale that invalidates the criticizer. If, as he often laments, people don't understand his theory, the explanation lies in their not being cognitively developed enough to understand it. In addition, all the explaining in the world will not help because they are constitutionally unable to understand; therefore no attempt even needs to be made. And, any criticism the critic makes can be ignored because of the lower level of consciousness of the person making it.

The notion of altitude is used by Wilber to avoid confronting legitimate criticisms of his work and it's deployed for that purpose.

In defense of the concept of altitude, Wilber makes the further claim that “first-tier researchers” “will not see or register second-tier phenomena in the developmental research.” These first-tier researchers have not evolved to second-tier so they cannot even see the phenomena that Wilber and others can see. Yet this doesn't make any sense because Wilber himself relies on postformal studies in developmental psychology to validate his stage of vision-logic. Are all the researchers in that area “second-tier?” Are they second-tier because they give the results Wilber wants? And what of the researchers who give evidence that there is not a postformal (vision-logic) stage? Do we now know they are first-tier? It's so conveniently self-reinforcing: if you see it it's there, if you don't you're not able to. Wilber also contends that,

The psychological models of these first-tier researchers will therefore tend to lack any coherent account of development at all; they will even be hostile to the notion of levels, actualization hierarchies, holarchy, cross-cultural phenomena, context-transcending statements, quasi-universals, and so on.

Yet Helena Marchand[5], whose survey of postformal studies casts doubt on the existence of a postformal stage, probably believes, as a Piagetian, in a “coherent account of development,” “levels,” “cross-cultural phenomena,” “context-transcending statements” and “quasi-universals.” Does that make her a second-tier person even though her research casts fundamental doubts on Wilber stage of vision-logic? His statement as it stands makes so little sense that there might be some other interpretation of what he means.

Integral Methodological Pluralism and Orienting Generalizations

Wilber suggests that my critique is outdated because my focus is on Wilber's failure to demonstrate that his AQAL model is based on the consensus knowledge of the sciences or, what he termed, the orienting generalizations (OG). He implies that the method of orienting generalizations was long superseded by Integral Methodological Pluralism (IMP). He writes:

a critic said that my methodology consisted of “orienting generalizations,”….I wonder if his [sic] guy has ever heard of Integral Methodological Pluralism, which uses at least 8 different methodologies…

It's certainly good to require that critics respond to a thinker's latest formulations, but have the previous ideas really been abandoned so cavalierly and without any explanation? What happened to transcend and include? Does Wilber-V not include the central methodological justification for the construction of his AQAL model, which was the orienting generalization? Wilber implies that it's IMP that now provides the justification for his integral synthesis, but this is not the case. The IMP juxtaposes particular contemporary methodologies for acquiring knowledge and organizes each according to their particular perspective on the different aspects of the holons. Organizing the methodologies does not determine what the valid results of those methodologies are. Wilber contends that the AQAL is the best current integrating theory that follows from the IMP. He writes that:

AQAL, then, is a metatheory that attempts to integrate the most amount of material from an integral methodological pluralism, thus honoring the primary injunction of an integral embrace: Everybody is right.[6]

Yet, as in SES, “Everybody is right” doesn't mean that everybody is right about everything. There is still the question of how to determine the partial truths in all the differing disciplines, using their differing methodologies. The only answer I see in Wilber's newer writings to the question of how we determine the partial truths in the eight methodologies that IMP juxtaposes is still the orienting generalizations. Wilber may want to throw out the term, but all it refers to is the knowledge established by the differing methodologies. The AQAL was supposedly constructed out of the consensus findings of diverse modes of inquiry – the orienting generalizations. If that method is now not applicable then what justifies Wilber's construction of the AQAL? How do we determine the “simple but sturdy” knowledge they have discovered? If it's not the orienting generalizations, then what is it?


Wilber's “Response to Some Criticism” displays an interesting repetition of the same problematic debating practices which I identified in Bald Ambition.

There I complained that:

  • his critics go unnamed;
  • the individual opponents are replaced by categories – “greens,” pluralistic relativists, “the critics;”
  • we get very few quotes from his opposition and
  • their positions are routinely caricatured.

We see this behavior again in the recent blog entry. Ironically, this kind of crude, black-and-white thinking comes from a man who says that '“You do not understand your opponent's ideas until you can argue them better than he can”—and I take that seriously.' Yet in most of the rebuttals I cite, he not only does not argue the ideas better than me, he can't even describe the criticisms. And to double the irony, he contends that because I am of a lower altitude the criticisms I make are neither true, nor false, but nonsensical. Yet if, as he says, he's truly way ahead of us critics, and is serious about criticism, why can't he even get the criticisms right? If they are so easy to rebut, why not just state what they are and respond, instead of mangling them into crude, either/or simplifications?

The way I see it, my critique and that of others has left so little of Wilber's integral synthesis standing that he has to devise ways to avoid responding to them in order to fool his followers, and probably himself, into thinking that his system is the best integration of contemporary knowledge available. Wilber's techniques of avoidance are long and getting longer, they include: ignoring (we're still waiting for a reply to Andrew Smith's work), dismissiveness, mockery, caricaturing opponents positions, rarely quoting opponents, making criticisms but providing no examples, claims of private critical discussions, complaints of time constraints (which seem to affect his followers as well), the supercilious and unexplained notion of altitude and, his latest diversionary charade, the blog entry billed as a response to critics which created such a hoopla over its abusive insults that the substantive rebuttals he made to critics were rarely noticed.

My conclusion is that the emperor has few clothes. The cowboy is circling the wagons to better defend an untenable position. He's been exposed and can't confront it nor admit it, and so he avoids critical engagement through an array of diversions.


[1] Lerner, Richard M., ed., Developmental Psychology, (Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1983), p. 196.

[2] Wilber, Ken, “Introduction to Volume 7 of the Collected Works,” in the section entitled “The Jump to Second-Tier Consciousness,” at cowokev7_intro.cfm/

[3] Gowans, Chris, "Moral Relativism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[4] Wilber, Ken, Integral Psychology, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000), p. 239.

[5] Marchand, Helena, “Some Reflections on Postformal Thought,” The Genetic Epistemologist, Vol. 29, Number 3, 2001. I cite her and other postformal researchers in chapter three of Bald Ambition and in my reply to Mark Edwards entitled “What's Worthy of Inclusion?” at respectively.

[6] Wilber, Ken, “Excerpt B: The Many Ways We Touch: Three Principles Helpful for Any Integrative Approach, part I, at kosmos/excerptB/part1.cfm

© Jeff Meyerhoff 2006

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