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

Rolf Sattler, PhD, FLS, FRSC, is an emeritus professor of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. His specialty was plant morphology: the development and evolution of plant form. Besides plant biology and general biology, he taught courses in the history and philosophy of biology. Furthermore, he explored the relation between science and spirituality. In this connection, he taught a course at Naropa Institute in Modern Biology and Zen and participated in several symposia on Science and Consciousness. He published nearly 80 research papers in refereed scientific journals and is the author of several books including Biophilosophy: Analytic and Holistic Perspectives (1986) and an e-book Wilber's AQAL Map and Beyond (2008), published at his website, which also includes a book manuscript on Healing Thinking and Being that examines ways of thinking and different kinds of logic in relation to human existence. Rolf Sattler can be reached through his website

Wilber's AQAL Map
and Beyond

Summary and Conclusions

Rolf Sattler

General Summary

As I emphasized in the Prologue, I have great admiration for the genius and work of Ken Wilber. Nonetheless, I see limitations in his AQAL map of the Kosmos. In Part 1 of this book, I point out some of these limitations and show how they can be overcome.

Hierarchy and Non-hierarchy

One of the most basic limitations, not only in his map, but also his writings, is his insistence that manifest reality is hierarchical (holarchical) and that “the only way you get a holism is via a holarchy” (Wilber, 1996:28). (As Wilber, I use the terms 'holarchy' and 'hierarchy' as synonyms). For Wilber then “the Kosmos is a series of nests within nests within nests indefinitely” (Wilber 2001:40). I can agree that this is one way of viewing the Kosmos. But there are other ways such as nonhierarchical holism (undivided wholeness), Yin-Yang, continuum and network views. Whereas according to the hierarchical view, reality consists of holons at different hierarchical levels, the nonhierarchical view in terms of undivided wholeness emphasizes oneness and the continuum view reveals a continuum within and between levels: as a result there are neither holons nor levels. According to the network view, there may or may not be holons and levels.

The matter is, however, more complicated than that for at least two reasons: 1. Wilber has also indicated that holons at any level can be more or less integrated and that the levels of the hierarchy should be seen as waves that ”interpenetrate and overlap (like colors in a rainbow)” (Wilber 2000a: 215). This view, if it does not dissolve hierarchy altogether, softens it considerably. I therefore refer to hierarchy in this sense as soft or fuzzy hierarchy. 2. We have to distinguish different notions of the continuum: 1. a homogeneous and heterogeneous (or patterned) continuum. The homogeneous continuum is like the flat surface of a lake, whereas the heterogeneous continuum is like waves on the water surface that produce a pattern. 2. a continuum whose parts or extremes do not include each other such as colors of the rainbow where blue does not include red, and a continuum whose higher or more comprehensive part includes and transcends its lower part(s) such as the complex brain of humans that includes and transcends the brains of less highly evolved animals such as reptiles. Furthermore, we can also envisage a continuum between the above kinds of continua.

It is obvious that the heterogeneous continuum, in which the lower part(s) are included and transcended in the higher part, approaches a soft or fuzzy hierarchy. The conclusion then is that some of Wilber's statements on hierarchies - to which I refer as a soft or fuzzy hierarchical view - and the continuum view need not be mutually exclusive and contradictory in all respects.

However, according to the Yin/Yang principle, Yin includes Yang and vice versa. If we apply this principle to levels, then the lower level includes the higher level to some extent and vice versa, which is contrary to hierarchical thinking.

The network view recognizes many interconnections that may or may not interpreted in terms of a hierarchy.

According to complementarity, the so-called higher level in the hierarchy need not include the lower level, but the two levels can be seen as complementary to one another. Thus, if we see holism and mechanism as complementary to one another, holism need not include mechanism, but it may still transcend it and in that sense it can be considered to be higher. The notion of complementarity is, of course, not restricted to so-called levels, but has a much broader meaning as pointed out in Chapter 6. In this broader sense, Wilber's hierarchical view of the Kosmos and the above nonhierarchical views complement each other.

Consequently, with regard to the basic structure of the manifest Kosmos, I see a plurality of views, whereas Wilber insists that it can only be seen as a hierarchy in which - and this is crucial - the higher level includes and transcends its lower level(s). He goes even further, claiming that the basic structure of manifest reality is hierarchical in this sense. I do not profess to know what it is, I only try to show that it can be seen from different perspectives and I illustrated this through examples. It should be added, however, that according to Wilber's Integral Post-Metaphysics, everything is perspective. Nonetheless, with regard to the most basic structure of his AQAL map he does not seem to allow other perspectives besides the holarchy.

Hierarchy and Fuzzy Logic

A second limitation in Wilber's writings and his map is either/or logic that is at the basis of strict hierarchical thinking. One alternative to either/or logic is both/and logic. Wilber is, of course, aware of both/and logic and he also applies it, but with regard to hierarchy he often uses either/or logic and he has to when he implies strict hierarchical thinking because it requires either/or logic: a holon belongs to either one level or another; it cannot belong to both levels; furthermore, something either is a particular holon or it is not. For example, something is a cell or it is not; and if it is a cell, it belongs to the cellular level and not to the level of the (multicellular) organism because in the latter it is both included and transcended and as a result the organismal level arises.

Besides both/and logic, fuzzy logic also contradicts Wilber's hierarchical view in a strict sense. Fuzzy logic implies that there are degrees of membership in a class ranging from 0% to 100%. Thus, for example, a structure can only partially belong to the class of cells, which means that it is a cell only to some extent. According to either/or logic, a structure either is a cell or it is not. In many cases this logic is appropriate for cells. But in other cases it is not, and then fuzzy logic is required for a more adequate description of the situation. A closer look at the world shows that there is much fuzziness so that Kosko (1993) concluded that we live in a fuzzy world, in a world that is not only black and white, but has many shades of gray and a world that has not only typical colors but all gradations of intermediates, and so on. I presented many other examples of fuzziness in Chapter 2.

Hierarchy can also be seen as a fuzzy set. From this perspective, a 100% hierarchy is the strict hierarchy as I characterized it above: holons and levels are mutually exclusive and the higher level includes and transcends the lower level(s). A hierarchy that fulfills these conditions I call a typical hierarchy or a hierarchy in the strict sense. I think that Wilber has this strict hierarchy in mind, explicitly or implicitly, when he says that “ the Kosmos is a series of nests within nests within nests” (Wilber 2001:40). In that case, we are dealing either with one of these nests or another and specific holons belong to either one nest or another. And when he says that “reality is made of holons”, this means that something is either this holon or that holon. Thus, again either/or. But Wilber also emphasizes that levels should be seen as waves that are not ”radically separate, discrete, and isolated from each other” (Wilber 1999:267). This view departs from the strict hierarchy and is somewhat closer to the continuum view, especially if the continuum is understood as heterogeneous where the higher part includes and transcends the lower as I pointed out above and in chapter 4. According to fuzzy set theory, this view implies a less than 100% hierarchy. Thus, if I understand Wilber correctly, he implicitly also uses the notion of hierarchy as a fuzzy set, although, as far as I know, he does not state that explicitly.

The wisdom of Yin-Yang also implies a fuzzy world because Yin is never only Yin, it is also Yang to some extent and vice versa. In a sense Yin-Yang is even more radical than fuzzy logic because it excludes 0% and !00% membership since nothing can be 0% Yin or Yang and 100% Yin or Yang. Everything is somewhat in between the extremes, which means that, literally and metaphorically, there is no 100% black and white, only gray. Some of the gray may, of course, come very close to either black or white so that for practical purposes either/or logic can be used. For this reason either/or logic can complement fuzzy logic to a limited extent.

However, if we think in terms of black or white in a metaphorical sense, then the world is fundamentally divided into all the mutually exclusive opposites that black and white represent. And division is the basis for conflict, aggression and war. If, however, everything is gray in a metaphorical sense according to Yin-Yang, then everything is basically undivided, although there are the two major forces of Yin and Yang. This has far-reaching consequences. It means, for example, that nobody can be only good or only evil. Even if we are good, we also have evil in us, if only in traces, and thus we are connected to the man who is predominantly evil. Hermann Hesse in “Siddhartha” put it this way: “The world itself, being in and around us, is never one-sided. Never is a man or a deed wholly Samsara or wholly Nirvana; never is a man wholly saint or sinner” (Hesse 1957:115).

If we apply Yin-Yang to hierarchy and the continuum, we come to the surprising conclusion that there is no 100% hierarchy and no 100% continuum. In other words, there is no hierarchy in the strict sense and no complete continuum. There is always at least a trace of the continuum in a hierarchy and vice versa. Consequently, those who think in terms of hierarchy and those who prefer a continuum view are linked, although they operate at opposite ends of the same hierarchy-continuum spectrum.

Another consequence of Yin-Yang is that there is no 100% right and no 100% wrong. This is an important warning for all those - and there are many - who think that they are completely right and others, who contradict them, are completely wrong. It is a warning to all those who have the urge to possess the absolute. And it is a warning to all those who think that they actually are in possession of the absolute as they have often done so much harm to themselves, to others and the world.

The recognition of Yin/Yang, continuum and network views are of fundamental importance for the modern human condition. Since they connect, they heal splits and wounds that have led to enormous suffering through antagonisms, stress, conflicts, and wars.

Evolution and Involution

A third limitation in Wilber's map (but not in his writings!) is that it is only evolutionary in a temporal sense. It does not include involution in time, which, according to him and others, is the movement from the One to the Many, whereas evolution is the opposite. Furthermore, his map does not include involution and evolution beyond time in the eternal present. His map only represents evolution beginning with the Big Bang in the center of the map and then leads through various hierarchical levels toward transpersonal levels culminating in the One of the formless and nondual.

Being aware of both evolution and involution in time and especially in the eternal present can create greater fulfillment and peace than evolution alone that is geared toward progression to higher levels and thus may entail a striving and even struggle that is not conducive to total fulfillment and peace.

A Dynamic Mandala

In Part 2 of the book I present a self-referential dynamic mandala that does not have the limitations of Wilber's AQAL map. I introduce it as a simple version with an empty center that is surrounded by circles of concepts. The empty center represents the unmanifest, the unnamable, mystery, emptiness, the causal (formless) (in Wilber's map). It is the source of the manifest that is represented by the circles of concepts. The number of concepts and circles can be varied as well as the structure of the mandala, which may be two- or three-dimensional.

The mandala can be interpreted in many different ways: as a hierarchy, or in terms of undivided wholeness, or a continuum, or a network, or in terms of Yin-Yang, or the complementarity of the circles; furthermore, it can be interpreted in terms of evolution and involution in time or beyond time in the eternal present. And since one of the concepts of the mandala is “dynamic” and another “self-reference”, the mandala itself is dynamic, which means that it can be transformed in many ways. In other words, transformation is built into the mandala, and therefore this mandala is a multitude of mandalas. It is not just one map like Wilber's map that, although it allows for several versions with regard to the number of dimensions, levels, lines, states, and types, it has a fixed basic structure.

One could even say that all mandalas of the past, present and future could be seen as transformations of the dynamic mandala - of course, not actual transformations in a literal sense, but transformations in the sense of a dynamic relationship.

The dynamic mandala can also be transformed into forms that are no longer mandalic, which means, for example, that the mandala also contains its destruction as a mandala in the strict sense, that is, with the formless in its center. One such transformation yields Wilber's map, which has the formless at the periphery instead of in the center as in typical mandalas. Thus, Wilber's map turns out to be one special transformation of the mandala. The reverse, however, is not the case because the mandala cannot be generated from Wilber's map, which is not self-referential. Thus, the mandala is more comprehensive than Wilber's map, which is understandable because it does not have the limitations of Wilber's map that I pointed out in Part 1 of this book.

Since the self-referential dynamic mandala contains the concept of the organic, it can also be transformed into organic/artistic mandalas. Furthermore, all artistic and spiritual mandalas, including those of the great wisdom traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, can be seen as transformations of the mandala. Each artistic mandala is, of course, a free creation, and in this sense it is not an actual transformation; but it can be seen as such. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to simply say that all mandalas are related.

Since mandalas have been created in practically all cultures, religions, and wisdom traditions, the dynamic mandala that relates all mandalas also relates the cultures, religions, and wisdom traditions in which they originated. Therefore, the dynamic mandala has the potential to unify and connect diverse cultures, religions, and wisdom traditions. The unification occurs through the center that all mandalas share; the connection through the different peripheries of the mandalas that can be seen in a dynamic relationship.

Contemplating the mandala does not only provide insight into reality, the Kosmos, but also communion with it. As we become aware of the source in the empty center of the mandala, we can realize that this center is the center of the Kosmos and ourselves. Thus, the centers of the mandala, the Kosmos, and ourselves coincide - they are one center, not in a spatial or temporal sense, but in the sense of the unnamable mystery that pervades all existence.

Contemplating the mandala can also be liberating in several ways: instead of being caught in only one meaning of each concept, we can move freely to other complementary meanings; instead of being caught in only one way of relating the circles of concepts, we can entertain other complementary relations; and instead of being caught only in the manifest world cut off from its source, the empty center, we can see everything in relations to the source which bestows sacredness on the Kosmos including ourselves.

In a sense, mandalas are “the architecture of enlightenment” (Thurman 1998) because, especially in the great wisdom traditions, they can be the expression of an enlightened state, and through their contemplation they can be used to gain access to this enlightened state. One single mandala, especially if designed by an enlightened master, can be a guide to reaching the formless in the form. However, since the form in any single mandala is always limited, many different mandalas represent form more comprehensively than any single mandala.

The fluidity of the mandala with its many transformations mirrors the fluidity of the Kosmos: the macrokosm that includes all the galaxies, stars, and planets; and the microkosm of our individual lives. Since microkosm and macrokosm are ultimately one, our “personal” experience can reach macrokosmic dimensions, dimensions that mystics have alluded to, although they all agree that words and language are insufficient to convey the depth and scope of their experience and insight.

Through fluidity we can reduce or eliminate suffering, since, according to Buddhism, suffering results from fixation and attachment. Fluidity also restores physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.

All interpretations and transformations of the fluid, dynamic mandala - that is, all mandalas - complement each other: they present different complementary perspectives of the Kosmos including ourselves. Thus, we do not lock ourselves into just one perspective, assuming that it is the true map or theory of everything. Instead, in the spirit of complementarity, we have to be dynamic: we have to move from one standpoint to another, to yet another, and so on. When this movement is spontaneous and free, it becomes a dance, a dance with the many interpretations and transformations of the mandala. This is a kosmic dance when the mandala symbolizes the Kosmos.

Dancing with the mandala recalls the dance of Shiva in his form of Nataraja, the kosmic dancer. Nataraja is seen as the source of all movement in the Kosmos. Through his dance he destroys and creates, thus symbolizing that destruction and creation are inseparably linked. In this sense his dance is a release from illusion, the illusion of separation and permanence in the manifest world. It is lila, the kosmic play, pure spontaneity, lightness, freedom, and joy.

Freedom can also be glimpsed through jokes in as much as at the punch line they transcend the strictures of logic and the thinking mind and thus can help to relax into the lightness and laughter of no-mind and emptiness (in the Buddhist sense). Looking at life and the Kosmos as a kosmic joke may be liberating in a deeper sense.

Humor, laughter, and dance can become a form of meditation. As Osho pointed out, laughter and dance are the two most natural, easily approachable doors to meditation, the realm of no-mind and oneness, or, in other words, to the center of the mandala, the formless, mystery, and the nondual represented by the mandala as a whole. Other natural and easily approachable doors to meditation include toning, chanting, singing, and listening to or playing music in such a way that one flows with the sound or music and dissolves in it.

Beyond Wilber's AQAL Map

Since Wilber's AQAL map is of immense value, this book should be seen as an appreciation of his map. However, it also points out limitations of his map and shows how they can be overcome. The mandala of this book goes beyond Wilber's map in the following ways:

  1. Because of the multitude of transformations and interpretations, the mandala does greater justice to the complexity of the manifest world than Wilber's map with only a few versions, all of which are holarchical.
  2. Besides Wilber's hierarchical (holarchical) holism, the mandala offers a nonhierarchical holism (undivided wholeness), which at least to some extent overcomes fragmentation of the world into holons (entities) that are then hierarchically (holarchically) ordered.
  3. The mandala offers a continuum view in addition to the holarchical view. This continuum view applies also to levels within the quadrants. Wilber too endorses a continuum when he refers to waves instead of levels. However, with regard to the basic structure of his AQAL map, this continuum still implies the “Include and Transcend” Principle, whereas the continuum of the mandala may or may not imply this principle.
  4. The recognition of continua liberates us from either/or thinking (categorical thinking) and emphasizes fuzzy thinking (fuzzy logic) in addition to Aristotelian either/or logic that is so prevalent in our culture.
  5. In addition to Wilber's hierarchical “Include and Transcend”, the mandala also allows a Yin-Yang view with regard to levels, which means that the lower level contains (if only as a germ) the upper and vice versa. As an extension of this view one can envisage a partial belonging to more than two levels. In Chapter 1 I pointed out that this view was actually endorsed by Wilber to a limited extent. Related to the Yin-Yang view is the dialectical view according to which any level may be either the total or partial negation of its preceding level or the synthesis of two preceding levels. Negation is contrary to the holarchical view, whereas synthesis is compatible with the latter.
  6. The mandala can be interpreted in a linear fashion as Wilber's map, but also in a less linear way, and therefore it allows for more network interconnections. Wilber recognizes many networks including interconnections between lines and quadrants (which are not indicated in his map). He insists, however, that the levels in the holarchy follow each other in a linear fashion, which means that levels cannot be skipped (in the individual quadrants). Whether levels can be skipped or not, in my opinion depends at least to some extent on their definition; if they are defined very loosely, they may not be skipped, but if they are defined more rigorously, at least some levels may be skipped and the linear sequence becomes more of a network (see Chapter 2).
  7. Wilber's map and his thinking are flexible, but because the mandala takes into consideration more alternatives it is still more flexible.
  8. Besides the evolutionary arrows from the center toward the periphery as in Wilber's map, the mandala also offers interpretations with involutionary arrows in the opposite direction and no arrows at all denoting involution and evolution beyond time in the eternal present.
  9. With regard to evolution, the mandala offers perhaps even more room for “regressions” than Wilber's map. And “regressions” are not necessarily seen as negative, but as a playful up and down. Therefore, the mandala places greater emphasis on playfulness and also on the lightness with which positions are held, humor, and laughter, which are the healing antidote to all basically fixed structure and the seriousness that I often (but not always) sense when Wilber talks and writes about his AQAL map.
  10. The mandala utilizes complementarity and perpectivism to a greater extent than Wilber's map that applies complementarity and perspectivism within the four quadrants and eight zones but not with regard to the basic holarchical structure of his map, although, according to Integral Post-Metaphysics, “the world of manifestation is the world of perspectives”(Wilber 2006:288).
  11. Since the mandala is dynamic, it emphasizes movement and dance more than Wilber's map. In contrast to Wilber's map that has only a few versions, the mandala is a mandala of all mandalas, a map of all maps, each of which represents another aspect of reality (unless it is totally false, a possibility that I do not want to rule out dogmatically but consider most unlikely).
  12. In general, the mandala is less restrictive than Wilber's map and therefore allows for a greater range of views and experiences. For example, as pointed out above, Wilber's map restricts perspectivism and complementarity to the four quadrants, the eight zones, and some other domains; it excludes perspectivism and complementarity from the basic structure of the Kosmos, which according to Wilber is hierarchical (holarchical). According to the mandala, holarchy is only one perspective of the Kosmos. Other perspectives are a nonholarchical holism, continuum, network, and Yin-Yang views. However, to avoid misunderstandings, I want to emphasize that Wilber also recognizes continuum, network, and Yin-Yang views in many ways, but not with regard to the most basic structure of the manifest Kosmos which, according to him, “is a series of nests within nests within nests indefinitely” (Wilber 2001:40), that is, a hierarchy (holarchy). According to Integral Post-Metaphysics, this hierarchy with its levels is not eternally given; it evolved, and “once a level has evolved, it is a very real structure existing in the universe” (Wilber 2006:272). I do not want to deny evolution, but I want to emphasize that the process and product of evolution can be interpreted in hierarchical and nonhierarchical ways.

In sum, in comparison with Wilber's map the mandala offers a still greater range of perspectives, interpretations, and transformations, more dynamics and playfulness, more openness, flexibility and complexity, less linearity, and more emphasis of nonholarchical holism (undivided wholeness), fuzzy logic, Yin-Yang, continuum and network views.

Needless to say that the mandala is far less worked out than Wilber's map. In fact, so far the mandala is only a sketch that highlights how we can transcend Wilber's map. It is an invitation to everybody to work it out in greater detail and to provide additional evidence. Furthermore, as I shall point out in the following section, it is an invitation to expand Wilber's map so that it is less limited.

Removing Limitations in Wilber's AQAL Map

In addition to creating a new map as I have done, one could also change Wilber's map in such a way that many or most of its limitations are overcome. To achieve this, one would have to add instructions to his map that would allow for complementary interpretations. Since he also presented his map as an Integral Operating System (IOS 1.0), one would enrich this basic version by creating a more inclusive version. Here are some specific suggestions on how to achieve this.

Instead of reading his map only as a holarchy, one would add complementary interpretations (perspectives) in terms of a nonholarchical holism (undivided wholeness), a continuum, Yin-Yang, dialectics, and a network. Wilber has already suggested that the levels should be seen as a continuum of waves, but for the levels in the individual quadrants he wants to retain the principle of “Include and Transcend,” which means that the higher level includes and transcends the lower level(s). At least according to one notion of the continuum that I proposed in this book, this principle does not apply. For example, in the color continuum of the rainbow to which Wilber also referred, blue does not include yellow; it is simply linked to yellow through a continuum. Thus, in a continuum of this sort there is change, but not inclusion.

On the other hand, if inclusion is envisaged and if fuzzy thinking is applied, the inclusion could range from 0% to 100% depending on the situation.

When we apply the Yin-Yang perspective to the levels, we recognize that the lower level may also contain to some extent the higher level as the higher level includes to some extent the lower level. This view again is rather different from Wilber's holarchical view according to which the higher level includes the lower, but not vice versa.

Adding a network view as yet another perspective might remove at least some of the remaining linearity of stages from Wilber's map and make other interconnections such as those of lines (that are recognized by Wilber) more obvious.

Another suggestion is to add two transformations to his map: one in which the arrows point in the opposite direction to indicate involution in time, and another without arrows to indicate involution and evolution beyond time in the eternal present. This change of his map would provide consistency between his general thinking and his map because in his general thinking he emphasizes both evolution and involution in time and beyond time, but in his map with arrows pointing only in one direction this is not reflected.

All of the above additions to IOS 1.0 would result in an upgraded version of IOS from which most of the limitations I pointed out in this book would have been removed. It would, however, still be more limited than the mandala of this book that, through its manifold interpretations and transformations, comprises many mandalas and could be even envisaged as a mandala of all mandalas or a map of all maps. Because of its organic/artistic transformations, the mandala also represents art besides science, philosophy and spirituality. In contrast, Wilber's map is only a conceptual map that also points to art, but in its representation is not artistic in the general sense of the term.

A Message for Educators and Educational Institutions

Throughout this book I have stressed the importance of incorporating alternative ways of thinking and being into the educational curriculum from kindergarten to university and adult education, that is, lifelong learning. Thereby students and adults would gain a broader and more balanced outlook and this in turn would lead to a beneficial transformation of society: better health, more tolerance, peace, and happiness.

Each school, college, and university should incorporate into its teaching program Wilber's (2005) Integral Operating System and the Integral Life Practice using the Integral Life Practice Starter Kit that was prepared by Wilber's Integral Institute (2006). Integral Life Practice addresses body, mind, and spirit in science, art, and culture, nature, self, and morals. Its practice would lead to enhanced health and balance in individuals and society.

Teaching perspectivism and complementarity is also of fundamental importance and would lead to far greater tolerance and peace. Similarly, teaching network thinking, fuzzy thinking, and Yin-Yang would be very beneficial.

Laughter Yoga, or just humor and laughing, as well as dance could be introduced already in kindergarten and continued up to university. Exposure to other forms of meditation and the contemplation of mandalas would also be most beneficial. It would create more awareness of the center, the source, the unnamable, the mystery, where we are all united.

Finally, teaching the dynamic mandala of this book would lead to greater creativity, playfulness, tolerance, and peace.

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