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

"The Marriage of Sense and Soul" and it's critics

Frank Visser

In The Marriage of Sense and Soul (Random House, 1998) Wilber has proposed a new viewpoint in the long standing and often unfruitful debate between science and religion. Rather then saying that only science is true, or only religion has value, or even that science and religion should just leave eachother in peace, he sees them as intimately related to eachother. This has alarmed several critics, not too familiar with his works in general, thinking Wilber makes science into a religion, or tries to prove religion with the methods of science. Especially Wilber's suggestion to take a larger view of science has added to this suspicion.

        In Wilber's view, not only religion entails much more than is generally understood, for he explicitly wants to include it's mystical or esoteric aspects, but also science involves more than meets the eye, for according to Wilber, we have not only natural science and the human sciences—which is generally conceded—but spiritual science as well. And spiritual science has much to tell us about the esoteric aspects or religion. Not only that, even natural science has a relevance here when we take the larger view. Not surprisingly, many reviewers have been wrongfooted by this rewriting of the boundaries between science and religion.

        When religion is viewed esoterically, Wilber maintains, a worldview arises that sees the world as many-layered, ranging from the material, through the subtler worlds of mind and soul, to the divine world of spirit. This offers us a framework for a developmental model, into which the human endeavours of orthodox religion, rational science and mysticism can be fitted rather neatly. Orthodox religion is attuned to the realms of emotion and concrete mentality, in it's literal interpretation of the truths of it's faith; rational science has reached the abstract-mental levels (although unfortunately it directs its powers of thought to the material realm only, leading to the materialistic mood so characteristic of science), and mysticism has penetrated into the transpersonal worlds of the soul.

        What is more, Wilber tries to soak off the scientific method as such from the domain of matter with which it so often occupies itself. As he writes: "science is more a certain attitude of experimentation, honesty, and collaborative inquiry, and it grounds its knowledge, wherever it can, in evidence." We are so accustomed to hearing the materialistic conclusions of science, that we might do well to give a hearing to this new viewpoint. The very fact that basically two variants of science are recognized—natural science and the human sciences—should point us to the fact that the essence of science cannot be defined by either one of them. In several of his books, Wilber has suggested that true science follows three "strands" of inquiry. Simply stated: to make a scientific discovery, one first has to (1) follow some instruction, then (2) do an observation, and (3) compare this to those of others, who have also followed the first two steps.

        In the case of the natural sciences, this procedure is easily recognized. When we practise astronomy, we (1) look through a telescope, (2) make an observation, and (3) compare it to those of our colleagues. But in the human sciences, Wilber says, it's no different: when the meaning of a certain text is the issue, we should first (1) read the text, (2) mentally observe it's meaning, and (3) discuss that meaning with those of others who have studied the same text. Refusing to read the text disqualifies one for having an opinion about it, as refusing to look through the telescope places us outside the community of astronomers. Bringing natural science and the human sciences under one general formula is original enough, but Wilber goes on: what if the mystical aspects of religion, as exemplified in methods such as yoga and meditation, also follow these three steps? This would give as the right to speak of a "spiritual science" or a "science of spirituality", doesn't it? And indeed, Wilber puts forth the plausible thesis that yoga or meditation can be qualified as a spiritual science, when (1) we sit on the ground for hours, we (2) eventually will have spiritual experiences, which we (3) can discuss with co-meditators or a teacher. Formally, but not materially, this is no other than doing science, but this time of our own inner world.

        (Of course Wilber does not mean to say that the results of this spiritual science, or of the human sciences for that matter, will ever match the exactness of physics—that's how things are, and hardly something to blame Wilber for. The higher we go up in the levels of existence, the more degrees of freedom we encounter, the "vaguer" our results will be. But these results still are grounded in experience, and capable of being communicated, which for Wilber qualifies them as science.)

        Wilber regrets the fact that science has narrowed human experience down to what can be seen by our external physical senses. He proposes a wider view of "empiricism", where not only sensory experience is recognised as a legitimate source of knowledge, but mental experience and even spiritual experience too. This has confused many of his critics; some have even accused him of reducing the realities of the spirit to the narrow dimensions of empirical science. In fact, the opposite is proposed here: can we acknowledge other means of knowledge beyond the sensory, as legitimate sources of scientific knowledge, such that even those domains that have traditionally been seen as supernatural or religious can be approach scientifically?

        To conclude, can existence in toto be covered by these three types of science? Can the Absolute be captured with these relative means? Does not that degrade spirituality, some critics have asked themselves. Doesn't this attempt to ground all knowledge in experience give the last word to science, however broad we conceive it to be? In One Taste (Shambhala, 1999) we find the answer to this question. Wilber again distinguishes between the three types of experience—bodily, mental and spiritual—but adds to that the observation that one thing will never be discovered through these external means: that in us which feels, that in us which thinks, that in us which contemplates the mystical visions—the Self. It is this Self which can only be reached by being It. (But still any correlations of that "Experience" in mind and body would form a legitimate field of scientific study.)

        So what we have here is a view of reality which is large enough to absorb ANY conclusion of science—be it natural, human or spiritual—without giving science the last word, for it leaves the souvereignty of the Self untouched, and—strangely enough—accessible to all of us, for the Self is very near, "closer than hands and feet" as the Upanishads have it. A deeply religious and mystical view that has at the same time all the room of the world for scientific investigations, of whatever nature we can imagine—doesn't that sound interesting, to say the least?

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