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

Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).



Intersubjectivity, Interobjectivity
and the Collapse of the Four-Quadrant Model

Andrew P. Smith

A recent review of Ken Wilber's work published by Christian deQuincey in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (deQuincey 2000) has evoked a detailed response in defense of Wilber by the latter himself (Wilber 2001) and by Sean Hargens (2001). Hargens's article is a very thorough discussion of Wilber's thinking on intersubjectivity, all the more valuable because as, Hargens explains to us, Wilber's treatment of this subject is highly scattered throughout a number of his books (much like the distributed nature of intersubjectivity itself, one is tempted to say). Just to hunt down the dozens of passages and sections in which Wilber discusses this subject, explaining the context of each, is a formidable task, and enough to earn Hargens our gratitude. But Hargens, it seems to me, has gone beyond simply organizing Wilberís writings on this issue and begun unpacking, interpreting or clarifying these claims, creating a very original contribution to the discussion of intersubjectivity in his own right.

Nevertheless, Hargens's interpretation of Wilber is made while remaining faithfully within the perspective of Wilberís four quadrant model, and thus is open to criticisms based on weaknesses in this model. As many visitors to this site will be aware, I have proposed an alternative, single-scale model of holarchy (Smith 2000), and spent some time and effort contrasting it with the four-quadrant model (Smith 2001a-h). The issue of intersubjectivity is a central one in our differences, because one of my major criticisms of the Wilber model is that it views societies of holons as existing on the same level as their individual members (but in a different quadrant). In contrast, I have insisted, based on a large amount of evidence as well as logical arguments (see, e.g., Smith 2001a, c, h), that societies must be understood as holarchically higher than their members. Since I take intersubjectivity to be the glue or the matrix holding societies together, it should come as no surprise that this concept is viewed a little differently from the perspective of my model from the way Wilber, Hargens and even deQuincey view it.

I want to flesh out some of these differences here. Though I have discussed my views on intersubjectivity before, particularly in a recent exchange with Gerry Goddard (Smith 2001b,f,h), Sean Hargensís clear and detailed discussion of this issue has opened up new areas that need to be addressed by my model. Specifically, I will argue here that

  1. there is both some confusion (or at the very least vagueness) as well as inconsistency in the way intersubjectivity fits into the four quadrant model, with respect to its relationship to social interiors and to what Wilber calls the "social dimension" of holons;
  2. intersubjectivity is not as universal as Wilber and Hargens make it out to be, i.e., it does not shape or "create" all interior experience;
  3. there is an important distinction to be made, which I believe Wilber/Hargens fail to make, between interpretation and intersubjectivity; and
  4. intersubjectivity, as understood not only by Wilber/Hargens but by postmodern thought in general, clearly is a higher-order phenomenon or process than individual experience, rather than simply a different-quadrant aspect of the latter.

Taken together, these points emphasize that while Wilberís treatment of intersubjectivity has enriched our understanding of our own level of existence, concepts valid at this level can't be uncritically applied to other levels. I believe that the Wilber four-quadrant model contributes significantly to this problem, and the paper closes by showing, using Wilber's own rules, why this model fails as an adequate representation of holarchy.

What is intersubjectivity?

Letís begin with a description of intersubjectivity, in Hargenís (or Wilberís) own words. They variously describe it as a "structure" or "space" or "matrix" or "background" which is "ontologically prior" to individual subjectivities. It clearly plays a vital role, in their view, in the shaping of consciousness or interiority, for "all direct experience (subjectivity) takes place in intersubjective structures." Indeed, "these structures constitute the subject before they [it?] even interact[s] with another subject [and] determine what can and cannot be experienced." Though I accept the notion of intersubjectivity and its importance in shaping our experience, I believe the above account of it raises some problems for the four quadrant model. The problems begin, for me, when I try to understand a little more precisely the relationship between intersubjectivity, on the one hand, and consciousness or interiority, on the other. Hargens makes it abundantly clear that intersubjectivity is located in the lower left quadrant of the Wilber model, the social interior aspect of a holon. If intersubjectivity is on the left side of the quadrant model, it should represent some kind of interior experience or consciousness. That is, it should be not simply a "background" for experience, but some kind of experience itself. Wilber has in fact described the social interior as a "distributed consciousness". This raises two questions for me: first, who or what is experiencing this consciousness? And second, what is the relationship of this consciousness to the intersubjective structure or matrix?

With regard to who is experiencing the distributed consciousness, it clearly canít be any of the individual holons, because their experience is supposed to be represented by the upper left quadrant, and also because, as Hargens emphasizes, this intersubjective space or background canít be experienced by individuals.[1] It would seem, therefore, that there must be a group or collective consciousness. However Hargens, at least, implies that he doesnít see it this way. Thus he questions that two intersubjectively interacting holons have a self, and emphasizes that our understanding of intersubjectivity "must not confine itself to a subjectís Ďsense of selfí." Granted that self and consciousness do not mean exactly the same thing, I take this to mean that Hargens does not view socially interacting holons, including whole societies in the limit, as having their own consciousness, in the sense that they have the experience of being a unified self. This is consistent with Wilber's "distributed consciousness", which in fact sounds very much to me like a simple sum of the individual interiorities—or maybe not so simple, seeing as how these interiorities are constantly interacting with each other. But in any case, the social interior does not seem to be more than a sum of some kind of its individual interiors, and in fact, since the social is according to Wilber no higher than the individual, I donít see how it could be any more than this. But if this is the case, how is it different from all these individual interiorities? Why make the individual/social distinction?

The quote of Hargens on self is also relevant to the second question, the relationship of consciousness to intersubjective structures. Regardless of whether or not he believes that social holons have their own consciousness, Hargens seems to regard intersubjectivity as more than just consciousness.. When I say "more than", I donít just mean that intersubjectivity extends beyond the experience of any single individual consciousness, but that it has this property of creating individual interiorities which our own individual interiorities do not. Iím not really sure—Iím frankly guessing here—but I think he regards these structures as some kind of field, perhaps like those postulated by Sheldrake (1981). But in any case, Iím left with considerable doubt as to how to understand both what these structures or fields are, and the relationship they have to consciousness in the LL.

In addition to these problems, which may reflect to some extent my lack of total familiarity with everything Wilber has written, there is another problem associated with intersubjectivity which is not a matter of insufficient specificity, but a fairly clear cut logical fallacy. According to Wilber, the four quadrants represent different aspects or dimensions of a holon. Thus every holon has an individual interior, but also a social interior. Therefore, every holon has both an individual subjectivity and an intersubjectivity. How can this be? For example, if my thoughts, feelings and other experiences constitute my individual interiority (or perhaps more precisely, if they constitute the individual interiority of some holon), then what is the intersubjectivity of that holon? Intersubjectivity by definition involves more than one holon. If I interact with you, there are two holons involved, each of which has its own interiority or subjectivity, but there is only one intersubjective space. Is that space the social interior of both holons? Are we to say that while every holon has a unique individual interior, they all (at a given level) share the same social interior?

Clearly they don't. The individual interiorities are, according to Hargens, constituted by the intersubjective space, or situated in it, but we can't say that this space is just one aspect or dimension of both these holons. It's something that extends beyond either of them, and to repeat, is something they can't directly experience. So it seems very clear, to me at least, that this intersubjective space can't be viewed as just a different aspect or dimension of a holon.

What I'm getting at is a problem I have discussed at length earlier (Smith 2001f) [2]: there seems to be a conflation, in the Wilber model, between the so-called social aspect of a holon, on the one hand, and intersubjectivity, a space or structure that includes this holon along with many other holons. Wilber is trying to put both of these quite different concepts into the same quadrant (LL). This conflation is even clearer if we consider the exterior half of the quadrant model. The exterior individual aspect of a holon is represented by a particular organism, let's say a particular person, while the exterior social is represented by a large group of individuals. To say that this large group is just another aspect or dimension of the same holon which in its individual aspect manifests as a particular individual makes no sense.[3] Societies are organizations of individual holons, not just a different way of looking at any any particular individual holon.

To summarize this section, I find that despite the very detailed discussion of intersubjectivity provided by Hargens, including his articulation of many different meanings of the term depending on context, there is still some mystery as to exactly what it is. Is it just a form of social consciousness, not experienceable by individuals, or is it something other than consciousness? If the former, who is experiencing it? If the latter, what is its relationship to consciousness? How does it create individual interiors? And finally, whatever intersubjectivity may be, one thing it canít be is the social aspect of some holon. Therefore, while it may be located in the LL, something is missing from the four quadrant model.

I have previously argued that my one-scale model of holarchy can handle the problem of intersubjectivity more coherently, and in particular, avoids the conflation problem (Smith 2001e). I won't review this diiscussion here, but just make the point that in my view the key problem lies in Wilber's refusal to recognize that that societies, and intersubjectivity, are higher than their individual members or individual interioriites. I will return to this point later.

The limits of intersubjectivity

Intersubjectivity, according to Hargens/Wilber, is a universal phenomenon, found in "every corner and level of the Kosmos", and "true... for all sentient beings". Indeed, their view of intersubjectivity is so sweeping that they define some types of it as involving relationships with objects, as well as subjects. Thus in addition to I-I relationships, we have I-it and it-it relationships. Furthermore, "both subjects and objects arise out of [the intersubjective] field".

The notion of intersubjectivity, as Hargens points out, is not Wilberís creation, but a concept he has taken from the work of certain postmodern philosophers. They in turn developed this idea through observing and thinking about human beings and their social arrangements. A very long philosophical tradition, which these thinkers, despite the radical way in which many view them, strictly followed, is to consider philosophy only relevant to, and derivable from, human beings. Thus until Ken Wilber came along, I think itís fair to say, the notion of intersubjectivity was applied fairly seriously only to our species.

Wilber's four quadrant model has changed all this. It purports to represent not simply human beings, but all forms of life, indeed, all forms of existence. Applying so sweepingly an idea that was originally restricted solely to our rather unique species canít be done without a great deal of care; it should be obvious that a notion that seems to have great relevance to our experience might have much less relevance to the experience of other forms of life. In fact, itís fairly easy for us to overestimate the importance of intersubjectivity, because as humans, we are, I would say, the most intersubjective holons on earth. Intersubjectivity, obviously, implies a group of interacting subjects, and so is very closely correlated with social development. Humans are the most social animals on earth, so one would expect that intersubjectivity would be an especially important feature of our lives.

Hargens is not totally unaware of such criticism, for he makes passing reference to dogs and wolves, noting that they, too, can behave intersubjectively with themselves or with us. Canines, however, are fairly evolved vertebrates which have some social organization (in the case of dogs, of course, their social partners are us). When we consider other animals, the situation is not as clear. Many lower vertebrates as well as lower invertebrates live in the absence of significant social organization. No organism, of course, lives totally independent of others. Some interactions with other organisms are generally necessary, as in feeding, mating and in self-defense. However, these interactions donít necessarily involve intersubjectivity as described by Hargens and Wilber. I doubt very much that a crayfish, for example, has to enter into "empathic resonance" to capture its prey—which is generally dead, anyway. It has to recognize its prey, which definitely involves interpretation, an important part of intersubjectivity according to Wilber and Hargens. But whatever the interior experience of a crayfish and its prey, I donít think they have much of a relationship to each other. The crayfish sees an object, moving or still, and acts according to the exterior form of that object. Anyone who doubts this should be reminded that most lower organisms can be rather easily fooled into thinking a lifeless object is their prey. (As a fisherman, I run this kind of experiment all the time). In such a situation, there can be no question at all of interacting interiorities.

Now Hargens and Wilber, as noted above, view even relationships with objects as a manifestation of intersubjectivity. I think they would look at the example of the crayfish and say that the crayfish and its prey, even if the latter is lifeless, share a physical worldspace. I can agree that the crayfish inhabits a worldspace, and that its prey is within that worldspace, but the concept of "sharing" that worldspace with the prey is problematical for me, if sharing is meant to involve interiorities. Itís not that I donít accept that the crayfish has an interiority and is therefore a subject in this encounter. Where I disagree is that there is an intersubjectivity involved—an interaction between two or more subjects.

Letís back up a minute by going "back up"—to our level. When we have an encounter with an object, is that a form of intersubjectivity? For example, when I recognize a tree (or climb it, or pick fruit from it, or whatever), is there a sense in which two or more interiors are interacting? I would say yes, because even though the treeís interior in this interaction is irrelevant (regardless of how sentient it is, Iím treating it purely as an exterior; Iím not trying to interpret its experience), my understanding of a tree depends on a complex network of interactions with other subjects, namely, other people in the society in which I live. So I agree with Wilber/Hargens that my interaction with a tree, or a rock, or any for all practical purposes lifeless form of matter is an intersubjective process. Simply by looking at a tree, I am in a very real and profound sense entering into an intersubjective structure (actually, Wilber and Hargens would presumably say I was already in it. I canít get out of it).

However, the case of the crayfish is a little different. When a crayfish looks at an inanimate object, or even many animate ones that it is familiar with, its perception is not determined by its membership in a complex network of other crayfish. Crayfish, unlike people, don't communicate their experiences with inanimate objects with one another, so when they encounter such objects, their experience of them is not situated in an intersubjective structure. This does not mean, to reiterate an earlier point that I will expand on in the next section, that crayfish donít interpret their experiences. What it does mean, I contend, is that their interpretation is free of the influences of the interpretations of other members of their species. So I would deny that the crayfish is engaged in intersubjective behavior, or that its interiority is shaped by an intersubjective structure involving other members of its species, even while retaining the notion of interpretation.[4]

In conclusion, then, while our own species is highly intersubjective, and we are all immersed in what Hargens calls intersubjective structures, I think there is good reason for questioning how universal these structures are. Many lower organisms are largely free of them. We can perhaps argue over whether they are totally free of them, but certainly they play a vastly smaller role in the lives of these organisms than they play in our own. So the earlier quote "all direct experience (subjectivity) takes place in intersubjective structures" simply is not a universal rule, if we understand these structures as Hargens/Wilber describe them (the reason for this qualification will become clear in a following section). Whether this assertion is even true for our own species is debateable, though I donít wish to argue that point here.[5] It certainly is not true for many other species.

The Relationship of Intersubjectivity to Interobjectivity

What, then, is going on when a lower organism perceives or otherwise interacts with something in the environment? Previously, I have characterized such interactions as "interobjective" (Smith 2001f). If intersubjectivity is a structure or space that defines individual interiorities operating within that area, then interobjectivity plays essentially the same role with individual exteriors. When organisms that exhibit very little social interaction do interact with each other, or with some other aspect of their envrronment, they do so largely through their exteriors. This means not only that they are aware of and respond to largely exteriors—the sight of another organism, for example—but that their response is determined largely by their own exterior, such as hard-wired programs in the nervous system, rather than their interior,. So even though such organisms do have an interiority, and presumably some experience of the interaction, this interaction does not involve the interiority in a structure or space with other interiorities.

Indeed, my model of holarchy (Smith 2000) very explicitly tells us where we find intersubjectivity, and where we find interobjectivity. The former is most influential in the highest reaches—what I call stages—of any level. In my model, every level is composed of several stages, which themselves have a holarchical relationship to each other. That is, these stages are like levels within levels, each including the one below it (though not truly transcending it, but rather transforming it). These stages are formed by social structure. Thus our level of existence, composed of all organisms, begins with the lowest invertebrates, and includes not only higher organisms, but various forms of human and animal societies, culminating in the most complex modern societies.

The lowest invertebrates, generally having the least developed social structure[6], have the least intersubjectivity and the most interobjectivity. But on the level below them, which begins with cells and culminates in organisms, we again encounter holons that live in a highly intersubjective environment. These are cells that interact with one another within organisms, and particularly the most extensively interacting of these cells—those found in the brain. Neurons have exceedingly complex interactions with one another, just as people do, and if one believe that cells have interiority, as both Wilber and I do, these interactions are highly intersubjective. That is, to whatever extent neurons experience themselves and their environment, this interaction is shaped to a large degree by their interactions. Conversely, the least intersubjective and most interobjective cells are those that exist outside organisms, including unicellular eukaryotes as well as prokaryotes like bacteria. As with lower organisms, these largely autonomous cells interact with their environment largely through their exteriors.

If we drop down to a still lower level, that of atoms and molecules, we find an analogous situation. This level begins with atoms, proceeds through increasingly complex forms of molecules, and culminates in cells. Again, the highest stages of these levels are composd of holons, atoms, which have entered into highly complex interactions with one another. And as with neurons, and as with people, I contend that intersubjectivity is at a maximum at these stages. Again, the least intersubjectivity and the most interobjectivity is found at the bottom of the level, in atoms that exist outside of cells, or very simple molecules composed of these atoms. The behavior of molecules in a gas, for example, which are independent of each other except when they collide, is highly interobjective. I'm not denying that these atoms have interiors, but I am claiming that they are influenced only slightly by the interactions occurring among the atoms.

So while I agree with Wilber/Hargens that intersubjectivity is found in all levels of the Kosmos, it is not in every corner, that is, in every part of those levels. It shares the holarchy with interobjectivity, with the latter predominating at the bottom, which is to say the beginning, of any level, while intersubjectivity becomes increasingly more important at higher stages of the level.[7]

Intersubjectivity and Interpretation

A very important part of Wilberís view of intersubjectivity, as articulated by Hargens, is what he calls interpretation. The sense of this term is given in this quote from Wilber:

It is not that there is experience on the one hand and contextual molding on the other. Every experience is a context; every experience, even simple sensory experience, is always already situated, is always already a context

I agree with this statement, but it becomes problematical to me when interpretation and intersubjectivity are assumed to be inseparable. That Hargens seems to make this assumption is suggested by a closely succeeding quote: "the interior of a holon can only be accessed by interpretation." Again, I have no quarrel with this point, either, but put together with the first, it implies that all interpretation takes place within an intersubjective structure. For us, this may possibly be true, though itís debateable. For other forms of life, I contend it isnít true, unless we understand intersubjectivity in a somewhat differ way.

Letís go back to the example of a crayfish feeding on a piece of carrion. Itís presumably having an interior experience as it uses its pincers to hold its prize and tear off little chunks on which to feed. Does this experience involve interpretation? Most certainly; the organism has to be able to recognize something as food, and understand how to react to this food. In fact, interpretation begins as soon as sensory stimulation contacts the organism. In the case of vision, for example, as soon as light rays or photons impact the retina and are transduced into nervous signals, interpretation has occurred. When these signals enter the higher portions of the creatureís nervous system—certain collections of nerve cells called ganglia—further interpretation occurs.

None of this interpretation, however, requires intersubjectivity as I believe Wilber and Hargens understand it. Itís not necessary that the crayfish be connected in any way to other members of its species in order to interpret its sensory stimuli.[8] The interpretive apparatus is all hard-wired into its nervous system, and becomes available after the newborn organism develops So there is no process by which one subject interacts with another. At least there is no such process if we understand subjects to be the interiorities of the organism. But intersubjectivity can be understand to occur here in a different sense. In the previous section, I argued that intersubjectivity is a phenomenon concentrated in the highest stages of any level of existence. Because crayfish exist near the bottom of our level, intersubjectivity—understood as involving the interiorities of these organisms—does not play a very large role in their behavior. But as I also pointed out, nerve cells are among the highest form of existence on the level below ours, and for them, intersubjectivity is very important. So there is an important sense in which intersubjectivity plays a role even in lower organisms. Theexperience of the crayfish is shaped by intersubjective events among neurons. But this is a very different kind of intersubjectivity from that shaping the interiors of higher organisms like ourselves.

To conclude, interpretation does appear to be involved in all experience, because all experience is preceded by some kind of manipulation of sensory inputs. Furthermore, since all holons, at least down to atoms, are composed of several levels of lower-order holons, there are always intersubjective events occurring during the act of experience. However, I feel itís critical to make distinctions about the location of these events. In ourselves, intersubjectivity occurs at the level of our interiority, as well as at lower levels in our bodies. In lower organisms, intersubjectivity only occurs, or largely occurs, in the lower levels, not in the interiority associated with the organism. Furthermore, everything that has been said about intersubjectivity also applies to interobjectivity. Since it prevails in the lower stages of any level, it too plays an important role in the events occurring in any multi-level holon such as an organism or cell.

The Relationship of Intersubjectivity to Subjectivity

As I noted earlier, intersubjectivity according to Hargens/Wilber is ontologically prior to subjectivity. Hargens describes it as a "primary matrix" which enables individual subjects "to create each other before the interaction." Furthermore, it is invisible to its created products; they canít actually see the profound influence this structure has on their existence, at least not "phenomenologically".

All of this makes the relationship of the intersubjective structure to the individual interiority sound, to me, very much like that of a higher level (or stage) to its component lower holons. An organism is ontologically prior to its cells, in the sense that the roles and relationships of these cells donít come into existence until the organism emerges. Likewise with the relationship of a cell to its atoms and molecules. Furthermore, organisms and cells come into existence, like Wilberís intersubjective structures, through a process of "mutual recognition" of their component holons. And the organism, as a higher form of existence, is invisible to the cell, and the cell, we can presume, is invisible to atoms and molecules.

The foregoing analogies are couched in the terms of exteriors, but the holarchical relationship of intersubjective structures to individual interiors becomes clearer if we drop the analogies and consider interiors directly. A protein molecule consists of a very large number of atoms, each of them interacting with some of the others in various ways. In Wilber's view, which I share, these atoms have some interiority or experience, rudimentary and primitive compared to our own that it may be. I further claim—and I think this is pretty obvious—that the nature or content of this experience is closely related to the interactions the atoms have with one another. Whenever such interactions occur, they affect the distribution of electrons associated with the atoms, as well as the quality and the amount of space that the atom exists in. So, for example, if a particular atom in the protein has interactions with a great many other atoms, not simply those physically adjacent to it, but also with some distant from it, its interiority will be different from an atom that interacts only with neighbors. Likewise, the interiority or experience of either of these atoms will be different from that of a free atom, one not existing within a molecule.

In other words, the intersubjective space is created, or at least to a large degree shaped by, the structure of the molecule. This structure determines the kind of possible relationships, and therefore interior experiences, that each atom within it may have. The interiority of atoms within molecules, on this view, is always more complex than that of atoms not within molecules, precisely because they exist within a more complex intersubjective matrix. And most important, this matrix, the molecule, is a higher form of existence, a higher holon, than the component atoms. Precisely because it is higher can it shape the experiences of its component members. >From this account, it may seem that I'm equating an exterior structure, a molecule, with an intersubjective space. Yes and no. When we look at molecules, we see only their exteriors, because we are situated above them in the holarchy. But when the atom "looks at" or experiences the molecule, it is looking from below, and experiences an interior. So in my view, the exterior structure and intersubjective space are both aspects of the molecule, or if one prefers, of a holon that can appear as either a molecule or an intersubjective space. Which is perceived depends on one's holarchical relationship to it.

The same relationships are evident at the next level of existence, involving cells and tissues. In the brain, individual neurons are connected in very large networks, sustained by activity patterns that pass through some or all of the neurons and reverberate throughout the loop. Each of the neurons in such a network has an interiority, an experience, and this interiority is determined by its relationships with other neurons, which is to say, by the network as a whole. Again, the network is clearly a higher-order holon than any of its individual members. It has properties that none of them have, though the cells do share or participate in these properties. Thus the ability of a particular neuron to recognize or discriminate a particular pattern is a property that could only arise as a result of the existence of a very complex, interconnected network of neurons. It could not realize this property as an isolated cell. So like the complex molecule, this complex multicellular holon is the intersubjective space within which the cells exist.

In my holarchical model, societies have the same kind of relationship to their individual members that complex tissues have to their component cells, or complex molecules to their component atoms. Thus intersubjectivity as understood Wilber and Hargens is just the higher level analog of the same shaping process that occurs within these lower levels holons. We can't "see" the intersubjectivity because we are below it, but a higher form of existence could see its exterior aspect, just as we can see molecules or tissues.

Note that I use the term "shaping"—a somewhat weaker view of the relationship than the "creating" used by Wilber/Hargens—because in my holarchy model, genuine experience or interiority is outside or beyond any holon. Consciousness is considered an all-pervading phenomenon that is experienced by different holons to a degree correlated with how high in the holarchy they exist. Itís this feature that allows me to place not simply social holons, but some of what Wilber calls interiority, on a single scale. I don't claim that our experience within societies, nor that of cells within tissues or atoms within molecules, is actually created by the societies. However, the form that the experience takes is determined by the relationships we have with one another within societies, and it is in this important sense that interior relationships can be represented on the same scale as exterior structures. To repeat, the exterior aspect of a holon is what is seen when perceiving it from above; the interior aspect when perceived from below.

Breaking Symmetry

Ken Wilber's four-quadrant model is a map of all of existence, from the most basic forms of matter to the highest levels of consciousness. A key feature of holarchy, I think he and Sean Hargens would agree, is the presence of universal principles that apply not simply to one level but all levels. Intersubjectivity as described by Wilber is supposed to be such a principle, one that determines "what can and cannot be experienced". Yet even the quite superficial examination of lower level experience offered here indicates that intersubjectivity, though indeed present on all levels, does not determine all the experience of all holons.

Wilber's view of intersubjectivity, I think, is representative of his views on other holarchical principles, in that all of them are derived almost exclusively from observations and reflection on phenomena on our own level of existence. Though Wilber's work has tremendous relevance for philosophy and psychology, to apply this work rather uncritically to lower levels is problematical. I'm a great believer in analogies between higher and lower levels of existence, but as I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2000), there are several variables one has to consider before comparing higher and lower level phenomena. One of these variables, of great relevance to this discussion, is where on their respective levels these phenomena are situated. As noted earlier, in my model, every level has several stages. Phenomena occurring on different stages of even the same level, let alone of different levels, will generally lack certain analogies that phenomena on equivalent stages of different levels exhibit.

Wilber apparently does not accept this, and it's worthwhile exploring here why not. Though I have devoted much space to pointing out weaknesses in his model (Smith 2000; 2001a, c, e-h), some people, apparently, feel that many of the differences between my model and his are arbitrary, depending on how terms are defined (Goddard 2001b; as if that were an adequate defense of the Wilber model, justifying its exclusive use!). What I want to do here is show that how we define levels is not arbitrary, that if we begin with agreed-upon rules and agreed-upon evidence, Wilber's four-quadrant model is fatally flawed. I will in fact follow Wilber's own rules and definitions to the letter, step by step, and show exactly how it is inconsistent, and why.

Let's begin at the top, with the relationship of individuals to societies, since that is such a key difference between our models. Most people evaluate holarchical relationships by the presence of emergence, new properties in holons not found in their individual component holons. By this criterion, societies are clearly higher than their members, for they unquestionably have properties the latter do not.[9] How, then, can Wilber claim that societies are on the same level as their members, just a social aspect of the same holon that is also viewed as an individual?

Wilber's own suggested criterion for distinguishing higher from lower is a relationship of asymmetry (Wilber 1995). If we eliminate all holons on any one level, then according to this rule, all holons on higher levels will also be eliminated, but not all holons on lower levels. Thus if we eliminate all atoms, we eliminate all molecules, but the reverse is not true. So molecules are higher than atoms. If we eliminate all molecules, we eliminate all cells, but the reverse is not true. So cells are higher than molecules. If we eliminate all cells, we eliminate all organisms, but the reverse is not true. So organisms are higher than cells.

This is the criterion Wilber uses, apparently, in coming to the conclusion that societies are no higher than their individual members. If we eliminate all humans, we eliminate all human societies. But if we were to eliminate all human societies, the argument must go, we eliminate all humans. This reasoning is obviously based on a very broad definition of "society", including not simply any group or band of human beings, no matter how primitive, but even a family—even a mother and child. Wilber's definition of animal society must be broader still, since there are many organisms that live almost completely independently of one another, even to the point of reproducing asexually. One could thus very reasonably argue that Wilber is stretching his definition of sociality too far, that in fact many animals if not also human beings could survive in the absence of anything justifiably regarded as a society, and that therefore there is no universal symmetry between organisms and societies.[10] However, I will not make this argument, because I would not want my criticism of Wilber's model to hinge on quibbles over a definition. I do emphasize this point now, though, for we will see later that Wilber's definition of society is inconsistent, in that he does not apply the same logic to social interactions on lower levels.

So let's continue our examination of the four-quadrant model. When considering the relationship between individuals and societies, Wilber actually makes a distinction among several different kinds of humans and their societies, as well as among several other kinds of organisms and their societies. Each type of human/society relationship—for example, modern humans and their societies and earlier societies and their members—as well as various kinds of organisms and their societies, constitutes a different level of existence in the four-quadrant model. The rule of symmetry actually applies to each level. Thus if we eliminate all modern humans, we eliminate all modern societies, and vice-versa; if we eliminate all members of some earlier society, we eliminate their society, and vice-versa. If we eliminate all organisms with a limbic brain, we eliminate their kind of society, and vice-versa. The more general rule that I noted earlier—eliminate all humans and we eliminate all human societies, and vice-versa—applies because if we eliminate the lowest level of humans and their societies, this will ensure the elimination of all other humans and their societies.

What is Wilber's justification for this ranking, for claiming that there are different levels of not only organisms and their societies, but even of human beings and their societies? He uses the same rule of symmetry, in this case demonstrating an asymmetric relationship between different types of holon. Thus if we eliminate all humans of earlier societies, we eliminate all modern humans, but not vice-versa. If we eliminate all higher vertebrates, we eliminate all humans, but not vice-versa. Stated in this way, the symmetry principle may seem to be completely inapplicable, for how, for example, can the elimination of all members of earlier societies result in the elimination of all modern people? The relationship can't be a purely historical one—that if earlier societies did not precede us, we would not be here—because Wilber recognizes that some "earlier" or holarchically lower societies may be present contemporaneously with our modern ones. In order to understand how Wilber can apply the rule here, we have to appreciate that in his model, it's not actually the individual person or organism that is represented, but a particular type of brain. Thus one of his levels represents organisms with only a reptilian or motor brain, another level with a limbic or emotional brain, another with a cerebral cortex, and still others with more complex forms of cerebral cortex. I think this is a rather odd way to view these levels—and definitely a weakness of the model that has been commented upon little if at all—for it leaves out the actual organisms, which of course are more than just a brain. But since there is a very strong holarchical relationship among brains, with more highly evolved organisms having brains that include most of the structures that are found in the brains of lower animals, Wilber's approach does have the advantage of allowing him to develop a ranking system among organisms based purely on the rule of symmetry. If we eliminate all reptilian brains, for example, we eliminate not only all the organisms with this kind of brain but also all organisms with limbic brains, which contain the reptilian brain; but the reverse is not true, since eliminating all limbic brains would not eliminate organisms that possess only the reptilian brain. Similarly, if we eliminate all limbic brains, we eliminate all brains with a cerebral cortex, which contain the limbic brain, but the reverse is not true. Thus a brain with a cortex can be ranked above that with only a limbic system, which in turn is ranked above that with only the reptilian or motor centers. Wilber extends this ranking to several levels of humans by postulating different brain structures associated with different types of person.[11]

To summarize, Wilber's model presents a series of levels of humans and organisms and their societies. The levels are holarchically arranged, but on any single level, the organisms and their society are found together, neither higher than the other. On this basis, it seems clear that the relationship between humans and their societies—or between any other organisms and their societies—is different from that between cells and organisms, or between atoms, molecules and cells. As noted above, the latter relationships are asymmetric.[12]

However, there are other holons that seem to exist somewhere between cells and organisms, namely tissues. Where in the holarchy do they belong? Wilber seems to represent tissues on the same level that he represents organisms. As just discussed, he distinguishes all of these levels according to the type of nervous system present. Cortical tissue is at one level, limbic tissue at another level, reptilian tissue at another level, and so on. Furthermore, if we continue to apply Wilber's symmetry rule, we can generate other, non-nervous types of tissue. All but the simplest forms of nervous organization are higher than other tissues, because if we eliminate all these other tissues—that is to say, if we eliminate all organisms that have these tissues—we eliminate all nervous tissue, but the converse is not true. There are organisms with these non-nervous tissues that have no brains, for example, or no spinal cords or no nervous ganglia. So still following Wilber's logic very strictly, we can generate, using the symmetry rule, a rough ranking of at least some other tissues.[13]

So now we find that there are levels of tissues, just like levels of organisms, and that these levels seem to correspond to the levels of organisms, to be identical to them. Using the symmetry rule, it's very easy to show that they are in fact identical. If we eliminate all cortical tissue, we eliminate all organisms with a cortex; and conversely, if we eliminate all organisms with a cortex, we eliminate all cortical tissue. So Wilber's symmetry rule leads to the conclusion that his levels of organisms and their societies also contain tissues corresponding to the evolutionary development of these organisms.

Now let's consider the relationship of cells to tissues. Just as there are different kinds of tissues—cortical, limbic, reptilian, as well as non-nervous tissue such as heart, lung, and so forth—there are different kinds of cells associated with these tissues. The cerebral cortex, for example, has several cell types not found in the limbic brain, the latter has neurons not found in the reptilian brain, and so forth. Using Wilber's symmetry rule, we can immediately see that each cell type or small group of cell types has a symmetric relationship with its tissue. If we eliminate all cortical neurons, we eliminate all cortical tissue; if we eliminate all cortical tissue, we eliminate all cortical neurons. So now we must conclude that not only is there a ranking system of tissues, which is identical to the ranking system of organisms, but that there is also a ranking system of cell types, which is also identical to these levels. In other words, every one (or in any case, most) of Wilber's organism/society levels, from humans to the lowest organisms, simultaneously must represent a certain kind of tissue, and a certain kind of cell associated with that tissue.

I pointed out earlier that in addition to the fact that every one of Wilber's organism/society levels is symmetric, with elimination of the organism eliminating the society, and vice-versa, there is also a more general rule. If we eliminate all societies of any kind, we eliminate all organisms, as well as vice-versa; or if we eliminate all human societies of any kind, we eliminate all humans, as well as vice-versa. Following Wilber's logic, we can conclude that there is a similar general rule governing cells and tissues: if we eliminate all cells of any kind, we eliminate all tissues of any kind; and if we eliminate all tissues of any kind, we eliminate all cells of any kind. The general cell/tissue relationship might be thought to be asymmetric, because even if we eliminate all tissues within organisms, there remain unicellular organisms that live outside of multicellular organisms. But recall that earlier I pointed out that the existence of symmetry between organisms and their societies hinges on a very broad definition of society, one that includes virtually any kind of interactions between organisms. If we are going to accept such a broad definition of society, then to be consistent, we have to stretch the definition of tissue as well. We have to recognize that a tissue is not simply an organized group of cells within an organism, but any set of interactions among cells. What biologists call tissues are interacting cells within a higher holon, namely, an organism, but the location is not the relevant point here, the interaction is.14 So if we are justified in regarding the interactions of highly autonomous organisms as societies, we are equally justified as regarding the interactions of highly autonomous cells—unicellular eukaryotes and bacteria—as tissues. (Or, if one does not want to use that word, simply say cell societies. The essential point is that the interactions of cells occur over a spectrum or continuum, from the very weak interactions of bacteria and unicellular eukaryotes to the very strong interactions of cells in the brain, just as societies are defined by Wilber as anything ranging from the weak interactions of autonomous organisms to the most complex human societies.)

The result is a complete ranking system of eukaryotic cells, extending all the way down to unicellular organisms. This lowest level perhaps also includes prokaryotes (and should also include archaebacteria, a recently discovered third group), because although Wilber represents prokaryotes and eukaryotes on different levels, they do not have a true asymmetric relationship. The elimination of either would not eliminate the other (which, it should be noted, is not a genuinely symmetric relationship, either. See footnote 13). Though it's widely accepted that the organelles in eukaryotic cells originated from prokaryotes, not all eukaryotes have these organelles. So I would put the two kinds of cells on the same level, though this is an arguable, and minor, point.

To summarize, if we apply Wilber's symmetry principle to cells and tissues, we come to the conclusion that these exist on a series of holarchical levels that are coincidental with those representing organisms. This raises an obvious problem: what is the relationship of these different holons to one another? The relationship between an organism and its society is represented, in Wilber's model, by the division between upper and lower quadrants. But how can this model represent the distinction between an organism and some tissue, and between those two kinds of holons and a specific cell type? It would seem that additional quadrants are necessary. Nor is this the end of this exercise in applying the symmetry rule consistently. Suppose we consider holons lower than cells, such as molecules and atoms. I noted earlier that there is an asymmetric relationship between cells and molecules. If all molecules are eliminated, so are all cells; but if all cells are eliminated, some molecules remain. However, if we are justified in making distinctions between different kinds of organisms, different kinds of societies, different kinds of tissues and different kinds of cells, then surely we are also justified in distinguishing among different kinds of molecules. The kinds of molecules found in cells can be distinguished from those not found in cells by a simple rule: they contain carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen atoms. If all cells were eliminated, all molecules of this kind would be eliminated. Therefore, using the symmetry rule, we can claim that these kinds of molecules are at the same level as the cell.[15]

Finally, consider the relationship of the remaining molecules to atoms. Wilber would say this is asymmetric, because if we eliminate all atoms, we eliminate all molecules, but if we eliminate all molecules, some atoms would remain. But is this really true? Consider first the kind of atoms found in molecules, those which form chemical bonds with other atoms, such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. One might think these atoms could exist in an unbonded state in the absence of molecules. But if such atoms exist, some of them will interact and form molecules—just as if all human societies were eliminated, the individual humans remaining would form some social interactions among themselves. So we have a symmetry relationship between simple molecules and reactive atoms.

What about "inert" atoms like helium, that do not form molecules? Surely they could exist in the absence of any molecules? But even inert atoms form weak chemical bonds, such as hydrophobic interactions with other atoms. If we stretch the definition of molecules to include such interactions, there is a complete symmetry relationship between atoms and molecules, and they must be considered to exist on the same level.

Of course, most people will object to my unconventional definition of a molecule. But like the definition of a tissue as any set of interactions among cells, it's quite consistent with Wilber's definition of societies as any set of interactions among organisms. Just as no chemist would call the interactions of helium atoms a molecule, and no biologist would call the interactions of bacteria a tissue, no animal behaviorist would call the interactions of a solitary insect or marine organism with other organisms a society.16 In all three cases, a more stable, permanent relationship is implied by the term. In the case of societies, Wilber has stretched the definition of the term to include all social interactions, which he is perfectly justified in doing. In fact, I think the definition should be stretched, to make the point that sociality is not a black-and-white affair, but exists over a very large spectrum. But to be consistent, Wilber must recognize the analogously expanded definitions of tissue and molecule. I pointed out earlier that we might better call such cell interactions cell societies; likewise, we have atomic societies.[17]

What, then, is the end result of this exercise in following the rule of symmetry faithfully? Considering just the upper right quadrant, or exterior individual structures, and ignoring the highest human levels, Wilber's model now looks like this:

  • Neocortex/cortical neurons
  • Limbic system/limbic neurons
  • Reptilian brain/central motor neurons
  • Spinal cord/spinal neurons
  • Ganglionic system/ganglionic neurons/non-neural cells
  • Nerve Net/primitive neurons/non-neural cells
  • Unicellular organisms/organic molecules
  • Small molecules/atoms

Note that in addition to the changes implied by the previous discussion, I have added an additional level to distinguish between nervous systems based on ganglionic organization (e.g., insects, crustacea, molluscs) and even simpler systems based on a nerve net (Hydra).

From a comparison of this revised UR quadrant with that in Wilber's current four-quadrant model, what can we conclude about how well he has followed his own rule of symmetry? He certainly hasn't followed it completely faithfully on the lowest levels, which are organized significantly differently in the revised version. But for parts of these levels, and for all the upper levels, above unicellular organisms (which actually account for nine of his thirteen levels), it's difficult for me to tell, because many of the holons just discussed are not found in his four-quadrant model, at least are not specifically identified as such. When he lists "molecules" as a separate level, does he mean all the wide variety of molecules found within living cells, or just the simple ones found outside of them? When he lists "eukaryotic cells", does he mean just unicellular eukaryotes, or all cells within organisms as well? Perhaps he has explained his position in some footnote I haven't read, but it's not in any presentation of his four-quadrant model I'm aware of.

But this much can be said. If Wilber applies his symmetry rule consistently, he will generate a model very much like the one he has proposed, in which a) all molecules except the very simplest are hidden, or collapsed, within one-celled organisms; and b) all biological tissues and their component cells are collapsed within organisms, with each tissue and cell type represented on the same level of existence as the kind of organism in which it first appears. Such a model would be strictly consistent with the rule of symmetry—and lead to some conclusions that, by any other logic, are breathtakingly inconsistent. For example:

1. the differences between cells in the cerebral cortex and cells in the limbic system (which are on different levels) are greater than the differences between cortex cells and human beings (same level).

2. The differences between a modern human being and a human being of several centuries ago (different levels) are greater than the differences between a modern human being and a cell in the cerebral cortex (same level).

3. the differences between any two cell types in any organism (different levels) are greater than the differences between a unicellular organism and an amino acid molecule (same level).

4. The differences between an amino acid molecule and a carbon dioxide molecule (different levels) are greater than the differences between an amino acid molecule and a unicellular organism (same level).

Let me be very clear about two points here. First, these comparisons aren't between different aspects of a holon, such as a society of people versus an individual person. All of these holons being compared are individual exteriors, as Wilber defines them, so there can be no question of the above relationships resulting from some kind of category error or other confusion of social and individual dimensions. As I noted earlier, the existence of these multiple holons on one level implies the need for additional quadrants, but as the model stands, all of them are in the same quadrant. Second, if Wilber wants to deny that his model implies such relationships, he can only do so by repudiating the rule of symmetry as applied to cells, tissues and molecules, and thus opening himself up to the charge that he is applying it selectively and inconsistently to human beings and their societies. The previous argument has simply used this rule and applied it to lower holons in exactly the same way that he applies it to organisms and societies.

Elsewhere, I have pointed out many other inconsistencies in the four-quadrant model (Smith 2001a,c,e,f,h). Like the ones demonstrated here, most of the others result from Wilber's selective application of the rule of symmetry, allowing him to conclude that societies are no higher than their individual members. This rule, as the foregoing discussion should have made clear, has definite limitations as an indicator of holarchical relationships. Wilber sees, correctly, that holons separated by a full level of existence, such as atoms and cells or cells and organisms, have an asymmetric relationship, and correctly concludes that individuals and societies have a different kind of relationship. What he doesn't see is that holons can be separated by less than a full level of existence and yet still have a higher/lower relationship.[18] This point is expressed in my model by the existence of several stages in every level. Holons on different stages within the same level—individuals and societies, for example, or cells and tissues—can have a symmetric relationship, while one type is still higher than another. The same can also be true of holons on different stages in adjacent levels, where the comparison is of a lower stage, higher level holon with a higher stage, lower level holon—organisms and tissues, cells and molecules.

Of course, the validity of this rule depends on accepting my classification of levels, since Wilber and I differ significantly in this respect. In my model, all organisms, including humans, are on the same level, along with their societies. In addition, molecules are on the same level as atoms, and tissues on the same level as cells. But my definitions allow the symmetry rule to be used consistently to define the limits of every level. That is a major point of this discussion: to demonstrate that my organization of levels follows from a consistent application of rules and definitions. The stages within each level, in turn, are made up of individual and social holons, using certain criteria for defining each type (Smith 2000; 2001a). As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2001c), there are some inconsistencies in my use of these criteria, but for the most part they are not major ones. So another way of stating the limitation to the rule of symmetry is to say that it applies only to comparisons of individual holons with other individual holons, or of social holons with other social holons.

As soon as we recognize that this limitation, we see that social holons are higher than their individual components, and the inconsistencies just noted are straightened out. The revised upper right quadrant depicted above can now unfold, so that tissues, cells, molecules and atoms can be holarchically arranged in stages as well as levels. The resulting model solves many other problems or observations the Wilber model can't deal with: the clear-cut emergent properties that human societies possess over their individual members; the fact that many kinds of cells and organisms have virtually no social organization; the analogies between the society/organism relationship and the tissue/cell relationship, and even the molecule/atom relationship; the great difference between the relationship of the next higher level of consciousness to that of modern individuals, on the one hand, and that between the latter and earlier modes of consciousness identified by Wilber, on the other; and many more. That all these problems have festered for so long in the Wilber model is reason enough to call for a serious revision. That they all stem from the same single flaw should make this flaw very obvious, and completely unacceptable.


[1] Hargens does delineate a sense of intersubjectivity as "felt-experience", but as far as I can tell, this is still an upper quadrant phenomenon. If it isn't, then it would seem that all felt experience, being located within intersubjective structures, would be in the LL, and there would be nothing in the UL.

[2] Gerry Goddard (2000) has come to a similar conclusion, though his proposed remedy, an expansion of the four quadrants to six or even twelve, is very different from mine.

[3] Unless, as Goddard (2001a) seriously suggests, we are to look at the individual/social dynamic as like that between subatomic particles and waves, where both an individual and a social aspect seem to be part of the same entity. This claim was actually put forward in an attempt to address another problem with the four quadrant model that I have discussed at length, that societies have emergent properties not found in their members, and therefore are holarchically higher than the latter. (See also the discussion of this later in this article). Goddard suggests the wave/particle duality as an example of how new properties can emerge without the context of a higher/lower relationship. However, I have never heard Wilber make that claim, and if he wishes to, he certainly needs to do so very explicitly, considering how very radical it is.

[4] Let me emphasize that Iím not saying crayfish are totally free of intersubjective structures. When two crayfish interact with each other, in mating or in some territorial feud, for example, intersubjectivity may be involved. I retain an open mind on this possibility. My point is just that not all the experience and behavior of crayfish can be understood in this manner.

[5] We are highly visual creatures, and thus our visual perception is highly informed by intersubjectivity. But our experience through other the other senses, it seems to me, is much less determined by intersubjective relationships. It should also be emphasized that newborn babies are also largely free of intersubjective relationships.

[6] Some invertebrates, of course, are highly social, like bees and ants, and I assume intersubjectivity plays a somewhat larger role in their existence.

[7] As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2000; 2001e), intersubjectivity is closely associated with the dimensionality of perceptions. Holons at or near the bottom of any level perceive the world in zero dimensions, identifying with everything in their worldspace, or in one-dimension, making a simple self-other distinction. Higher stage holons perceive in a greater number of dimensions. Indeed, in my model, interobjectivity can be defined as 0-3-dimensional perception, and intersubjectivity as 4- or 5-dimensional perception.

[8] One might argue that even though crayfish donít exist in any ongoing intersubjective structure with other members of their species, such a structure exists over time. That is, the hard-wired capacity of the crayfishís nervous system to perceive and interpret its environment emerged through a process of evolution involving a great many organisms over a great length of time. In this sense, the crayfishís experience is linked with that of others of its species. However, I donít think Wilber views intersubjectivity in this way.

[9] Against this point, Goddard (2001b) argues that certain rare individuals ("leading edge holons") can have experiences or ideas unique among the population. This is supposed to show that while society has properties not found in its individual members, the converse is also true. As I have argued elsewhere though (Smith 2001h), no individual "breakthrough" is made completely independently of input from or relationships with other members of society. Moreover, in any society, particularly advanced human societies, there is a whole spectrum of individual qualities, ranging from those shared by everyone to less common ones to exceedingly rare ones. The qualities at the less common or rare end of the spectrum are not representative of the "average" qualities found in the population, but that does not make them any less properties of the society as much as of the individual. Societies are not completely homogeneous, consisting only of "average" holons. In fact, as I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2001d), the higher and more complex the social organization, the greater the differences in roles in that organization that different individuals can play. This is not true just in human societies, but also in tissues of cells and in complex molecules of atoms.

[10] As discussed subsequently in the text, the four-quadrant model represents different kinds of humans and organisms on different levels, along with their corresponding societies. Each level has a symmetric individual/society relationship. Wilber could thus claim that while there may be some truly asocial organisms, the symmetry relationship always exists wherever there actually is a social organization of organisms. However, this would undercut his claim that all organisms have a social as well as individual aspect, a central principle of his model. It might also be argued that even asocial organisms exist in relationships within ecosystems. This is true, but all ecosystems contain some plants, which, though not represented in Wilber's model, surely must be considered lower than organisms. Many if not most plants could survive the complete elimination of all organisms, so the relationship of organisms with them is asymmetric. See also Smith (2001h) for further discussion of this.

[11] All humans, of course, have a cerebral cortex. In order to justify his ranking of different human societies and their members, Wilber therefore must postulate additional differences in the brains of humans, differences which are not actually detectable. The assumption underlying postulation of these differences—that these different types of people have different forms of consciousness or interiority—is a reasonable one, but the fact that the structural differences, if present at all, are very minor, is important to keep in mind when we subsequently consider ranking lower holons like cells and atoms.

[12] But see the later discussion.

[13] There are limits to the use of this rule. The symmetry rule is fundamentally grounded on a principle of evolution, that more highly evolved holons transcend and include lesser evolved holons. But not all higher/lower relationships are like this, because evolution, in addition to moving upward, in transformation or transcendence, also moves outward, in translation. Sometimes structures emerge which are lower than structures that have evolved later, but which are not included in the latter. This may be the case with certain societies (see Edwards 2001), and perhaps also with plants. This illustrates a significant problem with attempting to use the symmetry rule exclusively, in addition to the inconsistencies that we will see later arise. I have previously suggested the use of complexity as a way of ranking such systems (Smith 2001d). However, I have relied on the symmetry principle as much as possible here, because this is Wilber's stated criterion, and I want to draw out the consequences of using his logic.

[14] A strong implication of my model of holarchy is that a newly emerging higher level system will eventually include societies in much the same way that organisms include tissues.

[15] It's true that cells contain some simple molecules that would not be eliminated by the elimination of cells—for example, carbon dioxide and water. But by the same token, humans contain some tissues that would not be eliminated by the elimination of all humans. Just as Wilber has defined higher levels by the presence of one particular kind of tissue which is always associated with a particular kind of organism (reptilian, limbic, cortical brain), so we can define a lower level by a particular class of molecules always associated with cells.

[16] One might argue that even solitary organisms exist is ecosystems, which are a kind of society. But see footnote 10

[17] Wilber in fact calls the relatively weak interactions of atoms in galaxies as societies in his model. So all I'm really doing here is showing that these interactions belong on the same spectrum that includes molecules.

[18] How is it that holons can exist in a higher/lower relationship, but still satisfy the rule of symmetry? Holons that are relatively close in the holarchy have an intimate evolutionary relationship; they tend to be found together always, and therefore will exhibit a symmetric relationship, regardless of the nature of any other relationships they have with each other. This means that where one finds symmetry depends on where one draws distinctions. Wilber draws distinctions between different organisms—really, different tissues—even though in some cases the structural basis of these distinctions is purely hypothetical. This allows him to claim that each kind of organism is symmetric with a certain social organization. He doesn't draw distinctions between the different cell types associated with these different tissues, even though every kind of tissue is by definition composed of a unique cell type or types, nor does he draw distinctions between different kinds of molecules or different kinds of atoms.


(Note: most of the online sources listed at my website (geocities) are available in the Reading Room as well)

deQuincey, C. (2000) The Promise of Integralism J. Consciousness Studies 7,177-208

Edwards, M. (2001) Integral Sociocultural Studies and Cultural Evolution

Goddard, G. (2000) Holonic Logic and the Dialectics of Consciousness

Goddard, G. (2001a) Quadrants Re-instated

Goddard, G. (2000b) Concluding Unscientific Aferword

Hargens, S. (2001) Intersubjective Musings

Sheldrake, R. (1981) A New Science of Life (Los Angeles: Tarcher)

Smith, A.P. (2000) Worlds within Worlds

Smith, A.P. (2001a) The Spectrum of Holons

Smith, A.P. (2001b) Quadrants Translated, Quadrants Transcended

Smith, A.P. (2001c) All Four One and One For All

Smith, A.P. (2001d) Excelsior

Smith, A.P. (2001e) Who's Conscious?

Smith, A.P. (2001f) Nothing Special

Smith, A.P. (2001g) Up and In, Down and Out

Smith, A.P. (2001h) Lateral Differences

Wilber, K. (1995) Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Boston: Shambhala)

Wilber, K. (2001) Do Critics Misrepresent my Position?
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