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).


Why It Matters

Further Monologue with Ken Wilber

Andrew P. Smith

Ken Wilber's four quadrant model is in many ways a culmination and summary of his theoretical work over the past twenty-five or thirty years, a map of existence he offers as a grand synthesis of human knowledge of all kinds, scientific, scholarly and spiritual. But as I have argued in great detail in a book and in a series of articles (Smith 2000a-c, 2001 a-i), the model has serious flaws. Among other problems, it defines levels of existence inconsistently; it ignores important classes of lifeforms or holons; it fails to take into account certain well-documented forms of evidence; its view of societies and social relationships is logically inconsistent; and its view of consciousness or interiority is either inconsistent or incoherent. While acknowledging certain problems with my own model (Smith 2001c), I strongly believe it's both far more consistently conceived as well as more faithful to well-established evidence.

Wilber has not yet responded to any of my criticisms, which doesn't greatly surprise me. Part of the reason, I'm sure, is that he has his hands full with other critics, particularly much better known and more widely read ones. He simply doesn't have the time to answer everyone who has differences with him. But I also realize that Wilber has far too much invested in his four-quadrant model to entertain major changes to it now. This investment is not just the time and effort that went into developing the model, which continues to grow and be modified over time. The Integral Institute which Ken and some others recently founded has been set up explicitly to promote the four-quadrant model. To admit at this point that the model has substantial flaws might seriously undermine the Institute's rationale.

One might well ask why his model needs any further promotion. In a recent interview (Wilber 2001), Ken said that a major purpose of the Integral Institute is to make academia more aware of his ideas, so that graduate students and other young scholars don't have to justify why they want to apply these ideas to their particular areas of interest. Since Frank Visser tells us that Wilber is the most widely translated academic author in the world, it's hard for me to believe that any resistance his followers encounter in universities is due to academics' lack of familiarity with his work. I doubt very much that there is a major philosopher, pyschologist or social scientist on the planet who has never heard of Ken Wilber, though probably a large majority of scientists are not familiar with his work. Certainly his books are just as much available as those of any other author read by students and professors across the country. So the Integral Institute's focus on promoting the views of a single thinker, no matter how seminal he is, strikes me more as that of a business trying to establish its product as the dominant one in the marketplace than of academics engaged in free discussion of ideas.

Though I very much appreciate Ken's efforts to raise awareness of holarchy as perhaps the central organizing principle of existence, and to bring spiritual concepts into all areas of life, I'm a little astounded at the Integral Institute's presumption that certain basic issues have been settled, and are no longer subject to debate.[1] It's one thing to use the considerable power of a nonprofit organization to promote recognition of higher consciousness, quite another to apply that power to a particular individual's theories related to higher consciousness. One can accept the existence of higher consciousness, and maintain a spiritual practice designed toward its realization, without accepting everything that Wilber says. This is the key distinction that the Integral Institute seems to be blurring, implying that if you believe in the importance of spirituality then you should buy the entire Wilber package.

All of my material critical of Wilber's model is available online, and I see no point in going over these arguments again. Very few people have tried to criticize them, and I believe I have adequately rebutted those who have. What I will do instead is address the significance of this debate. Many of those who are following this argument may wonder if it's really that big a deal. Ken Wilber has his model of the holarchy, I have mine. Neither model is very much concerned with the details of existence, the kind that concern scientists, psychologists and other scholars. The models are mostly just ways of arranging everything, and may seem to be largely a matter of personal preference. Does it really matter whose model we follow?

I believe it matters for the same reason that the Integral Institute believes it matters: because models help define the questions we believe are important, the areas of research that we pursue. Every model makes certain predictions, which it's the function of further research to test. Just as significant if not more so, and generally much less appreciated, every model also rules out some areas of inquiry--either directly by claiming they are unimportant, irrelevant or even nonexistent, or indirectly by ignoring or not recognizing them. So what I want to do here is compare the implications of my model with those of Wilber's in several critical areas. Though this discussion will require some resurrection of earlier arguments and criticisms, I will try to keep these as brief as possible. I will also draw on material from a book I'm currently writing, The Dimensions of Experience, which is referred to here as simply in preparation.

The Evolution of Societies

Let's begin by contrasting Wilber's view and mine on the social dimension. In Wilber's model, social holons, such as human societies, are ranked neither higher nor lower than their individual members, but are considered just a different aspect of life at a particular level. In my one-scale model, societies are always higher than their individual members. While any society and its members are represented on the same level of existence, societies form higher stages within this level.

Wilber's view, as I have discussed in detail elsewhere (Smith 2001e), suffers from a major inconsistency, which becomes apparent as soon as we ask just what social means. On the one hand, he says that every holon has a four-fold nature, which includes a social dimension. So it appears that the social is just another feature of any holon which, from a different point of view, appears as an individual. On the other hand, Wilber makes a distinction between individual and social holons, representing one type in one quadrant of his model and the other type in another quadrant. In doing so, he implies that not all holons, after all, have a social nature; some holons are individual, some are social. The result is a conflation of two different definitions of social: on the one hand, it's defined as a universal aspect of every holon, but on the other, as a particular kind of holon. Both of these views can't be correct. There simply is no holon which, viewed from one perspective, is an individual, and viewed from another, is a society. I may have both an individual nature and a social nature, but my social nature is not the same thing as the society of which I'm a member.

Wilber's description of the social is not only logically inconsistent, as has been noted by others as well as by myself (Goddard 2000), it also fails to address the actual evidence. If every holon has a social as well as individual aspect, we would expect that every form of existence would exhibit a strongly social nature. But this is clearly not the case. There are many kinds of organisms, and many kinds of cells, that do not form societies, and which exhibit a very minimal set of interactions with any other form of life. At the very least, this means that the four quadrants, fundamental and universal though they're supposed to be, are not equally developed for all forms of life. Every form of life has an individual exterior and interior, but not every form, it seems, has a social aspect. This point is obscured in Wilber's four-quadrant graphic, which shows an example of a society or social holon at every level of existence, but which fails to emphasize that there are many holons on every level that do not form societies.[2] This contrasts very starkly with the fact that holons on every level do have both exterior and interior aspects.[3]

My model, in contrast, not only can handle this fact of life, but accounts for it explicitly. It's built into the very construction of the model. Every level consists of several stages, and on any level, the lowest stage is represented by asocial holons, those that exist more or less autonomously of higher forms of life. As holons emerge that interact socially, they form social holons, higher stages on this level, with each stage consisting of interacting holons of the stage below it. This model thus not only predicts that every level has holons with no social organization, but shows how they are related to other holons.

As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2001e), this model can also clear up Wilber's logical inconsistency in the definition of social. In my model, every holon--social as well as individual--has both an individual and a social dimension or aspect. These aspects are defined explicitly in terms of higher vs. lower relationships on the single scale. Though there are other ways to resolve this inconsistency, they all apparently involve making the four-quadrant model still more complex, adding new quadrants or dimensions (Goddard 2000).

Most important, though, the one-scale model provides a simple rule for understanding how social holons are created from individual holons, and how social holons evolve into still higher social holons. This rule is stated as follows: on any level of existence, higher, social stages are formed by the interactions of individual holons. The greater the number and complexity of these interactions, the higher the resulting social holon. So whenever individual holons interact, by definition a higher stage is formed, or is in the process of being formed.

With this general background, let's now address a particular issue, and see how the two models handle it. Consider the relationship of different societies to each other. How are modern Western societies, for example, different from those of developing countries? This is obviously a very timely issue, of critical interest to everyone on our planet, where not a day goes by without strife and tension between these societies. On some days, such as Sept. 11, 2001, the tension may rise to truly astronomical levels. According to Wilber's model, and mine (Smith 2001d), societies can be ranked according to their position in the holarchy. Some are considered higher, more evolved, than others. I realize this is a very sensitive issue for many people (DiZerega 1999; Edwards 2001), and that this position can be used to justify Western dominance of non-Western societies. However, at the very least, I think most people will agree that societies can develop and pass through stages, and that these stages tend to occur in a certain sequence.[4] The theory of Spiral Dynamics, popularized by Don Beck and enthusiastically supported by Wilber, identifies about 8-10 such stages (Beck 2000).

If we accept this idea, or indeed any view of social evolution, a critical question, obviously, is how a society passes from one stage to the next. Ken Wilber's model, as far as I can see, has no substantive answer to this question. Wilber and Beck can provide an endless catalog of descriptive details of each stage, but nothing in the way of meaningful dynamics (rather ironically, given the name of this theory) that might help us, for example, predict when, where and which societies might begin to change. Wilber and Beck do say that any stage of society reaches certain limits, which can only be transcended by evolving into a higher stage. But history is full of examples of societies that, upon reaching certain limits, did not evolve further, but simply achieved stasis, regressed to a lower stage, or became extinct. Reaching some kind of limits, therefore, may be a necessary cause of further social evolution--I for the most part agree with Wilber and Beck that it is--but it clearly is not a sufficient cause.

In my model, in contrast, the answer to this question, or at any rate an answer, is implicit. In this model, as I just observed, societies are ranked according to the number and complexity of the interactions of its members. Therefore, as societies evolve, these interactions increase and become more complex.

This understanding immediately allows us to predict some of the forces that are likely to play a major role in social evolution. One such force would be increasing population, because that not only increases the number of interactions between people in a society, but makes it likely that the complexity of interactions will also increase--as when, for example, groups begin to coalesce within this society, as interacting units composed of many people. The larger the population of a society, the more difficult it is for everyone to interact with everyone else without such intervening groups.

A growth in population by itself, of course, will not ensure that a society evolves to a new stage, nor can we point to a simple relationship between population size and complexity. But population growth is definitely a force making evolution more likely. When such growth suddenly explodes, my model says, the probability of emergence of a new stage increases.

A second force that increases the complexity of interactions among people is developments in communications technology (or indeed, in any form of technology, regardless of what it's called, that increases social interactions). The emergence of the printing press, telephone, radio, television, personal computer, internet, and so on (as well as cars and airplanes), have all been associated with rapid social evolution in the West, precisely because they increase not only the number of interactions any one individual can have with other individuals, but also the kinds of interactions. Without going into details (see Smith 2001d, i), we can distinguish between direct, face-to-face interactions, and many different kinds of indirect interactions (e.g., the kinds of interactions that occur between people through their participation in mass media). In contrast, many non-Western societies which until recently lacked or trailed in the development of such technologies have evolved much more slowly.

Still another major force in social evolution is certain developments in political organization, such as those that promote democracy. Democracy not only allows people greater freedom to interact with other people, but demands such interactions. If no one person or small group of people is to have most of the authority and decision-making power in the society, then institutions must emerge that decide how this authority will be distributed. The formation of institutions within a larger society, again, increases the number and the kinds of interactions among individuals. People in institutions must interact with other people at multiple levels, again, greatly increasing the complexity of the process.

These forces, and others that also promote greater social interactions, don't operate completely independently of one another, of course. They often enhance one another, as for example when new forms of technology promote political changes, or population growth induces development of new technology. The essential point, though, is that the concept of increasing social interaction provides a focal point for research in this area in a way that Wilber's model does not. It allows us to move beyond pure description--which it seems to me is mostly what Wilber's (and Beck's) model is about--and identify forces or causes of change. In fact, as I have discussed in detail elsewhere (Smith 2000a,c), and will touch upon later in this article, this understanding provides us with the basis for a view of evolution that incorporates all three of the major theories or classes of theories of evolution recognized by most scientists today--Darwinism, cultural evolution, and complexity theories.

In saying this, I don't mean to denigrate the work of either Wilber or Beck. Beck, in particular, is a man of action who does not simply theorize but has played a very active role in social change around the globe. Wilber's Integral Institute, notwithstanding the criticisms I have of its theoretical basis, is similarly trying to go beyond words and engage society. I have great respect for people who don't simply talk about change, but who immerse themselves in the process. But whatever lessons they have learned from practice, both continue to emphasize description over process.

The Relationship of the Social to the Interior

Let's now bring the concept of interiority into the discussion, and its relationship to the social. In Wilber's model, interior properties of holons, like social properties, are represented by a distinct quadrant. As with the individual-social relationship, the exterior-interior relationship is not a matter of higher vs. lower, but of different properties or aspects of a holon existing on the same level. In the one-scale model, in contrast, the interiority of any particular holon is generally represented as being higher than its exteriority.[5] In fact, for individual holons that are members of social holons, their degree of interiority is directly related to the ranking of this social holon. This is because, in my model, interiority (to an extent that I will qualify later) is understood as what a holon experiences as it participates in the social holons of which it's a member. Thus the interior experience of people today results from their participation in the modern societies they live in. The interior experience of people of earlier societies resulted from their participation in the somewhat simpler social arrangements they were embedded in.[6]

This understanding makes it possible to bring interior experience onto the same scale of holonic properties as exteriors. It also enable us, again, to account for an important observation that Wilber recognizes but which his model can't explain or provide any insight into the causes of that the interior experience of holons develops in parallel with that of social holons of which they are members. In Wilber's model as well as mine, the higher the social holon of which people are members, the higher their interior experience (or again, for people who object to ranking societies, we can just say that every type of society is associated with a different type of interior experience). Thus modern people, according to Wilber, have cognitive functions not exhibited by people of two thousand years ago. The latter, in turn, were more cognitively developed than people of ten, twenty or fifty thousand years previous. Why? How do human beings acquire these new mental and emotional properties or abilities, and why is it that they always closely parallel social development?

To answer this question, we first need to recognize that the differences between ourselves and people of simpler societies are probably not as great as Wilber has commonly implied that they are. DiZerega (1999) has pointed out that studies of people of less-developed societies show that they are just as capable of rational thought as members of large Western societies. Similarly, Pinker (1997) argues that the tasks people of prehistorical eras had to perform in order to survive--hunting game, growing crops, making tools, and so forth--required just as much ability to reason and engage in abstract thought as moderns exhibit in their everyday lives. Edwards (2001) insists that people of indigenous societies often exhibit a kind of intelligence as well as ethics lacking in Westerners. To these arguments based on behavioral observations or conjectures can be added the point that while Wilber's four-quadrant model associates a different type of brain with every type of society, the differences he proposes are purely hypothetical. They have yet to be detected scientifically. In fact, it is the universal view of scientists that human beings who lived as long ago as 50,000-100,000 years were the same biological species as those of today, possessing anatomically identical brains.

In light of this evidence, as I have argued elsewhere (Smith 2001a,c,g), Wilber's separation of different societies and their members into distinct levels of existence, implying that their differences are as great as those between say, an organism and its cells, or a cell and its molecules, is highly problematical. The relationships between these "levels" and the lower ones in his holarchy are very different, one of numerous examples of inconsistencies in his model. In my one-scale model, in contrast, different human societies represent different stages all within a single level of existence. Like cells in a tissue, or atoms in a molecule, members of different societies are physically and biologically virtually identical. Thus relationships on different levels are consistent.

Nevertheless, I agree with Wilber that there are significant differences in interiority between modern people and those of earlier societies.[7] But if their brains were virtually identical to ours, what accounts for these differences?[8] Again, it's the number and complexity of interactions between people. The more complex a society in which people live, the greater the complexity of interactions they have with other members of this society. It's these interactions, as I noted above, that determine an individual's interior experience, because this experience results from looking at, or perceiving, these interactions. The same brain, embedded in a more complex social environment, will experience more complex forms of interiority. Therefore, interiority and sociality will always evolve together. They are indeed different aspects of the same phenomenon or process--a point that Wilber tries to make with his concept of a four-fold nature for holons, but which my model actually elucidates. It explicitly tells us what this connection between the two is. I return to this point later in this article, using specific examples to illustrate how interiority is related to sociality.

One important implication of this view for future research should be obvious. If we want to understand how the interior experience of people of a particular society evolves, we should analyze the kinds of interactions they engage in with other people. There is very little that studies of brain structure, no matter how detailed a molecular investigation is performed, can tell us. Though my one-scale model is sometimes criticized as being overly reductionist, and giving short shrift to interiority, in fact here it places much less emphasis on individual, exterior structures than Wilber's does. Because Wilber views his four quadrants as equal, he often seems to presume that studies of each quadrant are equally important in addressing any phenomenon ("All Quadrants, All Levels"). In my model, where distinctions between exterior and interior, and individual and social, are made within a single scale, one does not necessarily take this approach.

My model also also has very different implications for how we go about defining differences in interiority between people of different societies. As I noted earlier, there is some evidence that people of earlier or simpler societies were or are just as capable of rationality as we are. This presents a major problem for Wilber, who claims that modern societies are so different from earlier ones as to transcend them as genuinely new levels. In my model, in contrast, where different societies form different stages on the same level, the differences in interiorities are not so much actual as potential. They result largely from their social environment, and can quickly change when that environment changes.

This has important implications for how we, as anthropologists or as historians, study people of other societies. The key here is to determine not what people can experience--for example, whether they are able to perform as well on simple tests of logic or arithmetic or ethics as people of another society--as what they do experience. One way to approach this might be to determine the reactions people have to a certain kind of event in their lives, an event that we can agree ahead of time is of major and universal significance to all people. Consider the death of a loved one, for example, and the effect it has on the deceased's survivors. There are many kinds of reactions they could have, including 1) thoughts that the deceased is now in heaven or some other pleasant place; 2) memories of the deceased's life, experiences one shared with that person; 3) thoughts of what the deceased contributed to society; and 4) concerns of the future, and how one is going to live--emotionally or economically--without that person in one's life. Though people of any society may be capable of responding in all these ways and others to a death of someone close, if interiorities really do differ with society, we would predict that some types of responses would be stronger, and more common, in some societies than others. This kind of analysis, much more than any test of abilities, would be the way to define and distinguish such differences. It would provide a glimpse into interiorities as actually manifested in members of that society, as opposed to what they can potentially manifest when situated within a different, more modern society.


Talk of social interactions and interiority should lead us directly to the concept of intersubjectivity, which has the potential to unify them. Intersubjectivity is a key idea in modern philosophy that Wilber has discussed at some length in several of his books (see Hargens 2001b for an excellent discussion of Wilber's views in this area). Ken's treatment of this subject, it seems to me, is a good illustration of both one of his great strengths as a theorist, and one of his weaknesses. The strength is that he takes a concept that has been previously been developed by other thinkers, and shows that its scope can be greatly extended. Thus while intersubjectivity conventionally refers to relationships between human beings, and particularly those that result from our use of language, Wilber argues that it also is manifested in non-linguistic forms, and that it can apply to other, non-human forms of life or holons. In fact, Wilber sees intersubjectivity as a universal principle in the holarchy, with the kind or kinds that we humans experience just a particular example of a more general phenomenon.

To a very great extent, I accept Wilber's reasoning. I think it's a major accomplishment of his to integrate this postmodern insight, as he puts it, with holarchical thinking. However, the weakness that I feel Wilber exhibits here (and as we shall later, in other areas as well), is that in his desire to make his four-quadrant model as comprehensive and inclusive as possible, he applies the notion of intersubjectivity in a very sweeping manner. Thus he asserts:

Intersubjectivity [is] woven into the fabric of the Kosmos at all levels...[it] is true not only for humans, but for all sentient beings as such.[9]

I think this is going a little bit too far. As far as I know, to support this claim, Wilber has mostly pointed out that other mammals also exist within an intersubjective framework:

Since humans and dogs share a similar limbic system, we also share a common emotional worldspace ("typhonic"). You can sense when your dog is sad, or fearful, or happy, or hungry...Of course, this is not verbal or linguistic communication; but it is an empathic resonance with your dog's interior, with its depths, with its degree of consciousness, which might not be as great as yours, but that doesn't mean it's zero.
Wolves..share an emotional worldspace. They possess a limbic system, the interior correlate of which is certain basic emotions. And thus a wolf orients itself and its fellow wolves to the world through the use of these basic emotional cognitions -- not just reptilian and sensorimotor, but affective. They can hunt and coordinate in packs through a very sophisticated emotional signal system. They share this emotional worldspace.

Dogs and wolves, however, are still fairly intelligent creatures. What about lower organisms, such as invertebrates? What about single cells? Can we really argue that they, too, share an intersubjective space? What would intersubjectivity mean for such creatures? At least two problems are raised here.

First, it should be obvious that intersubjectivity presupposes social interactions. In order to "share" any kind of "worldspace", there have to be other forms of life to share it with. But as I noted earlier, there are many forms of life that have virtually no social relationships at all (see also Smith 2001h; Smith, in preparation). For example, green plants, as well as non-photosynthetic groups such as fungi, are basically individuals unto themselves. Though they may interact in certain ways with other members of their species, this interaction is not just far more rudimentary than the interactions of higher vertebrates; it is of a completely different kind, not involving (so I claim) any kind of subjectivity on the part of the interacting lifeforms.

The most basic social interaction of any kind--the foundation upon which all other social relationships (within members of a single species) are ultimately built--is sexual reproduction. Not all plants reproduce sexually, however, and though most do or can, this interaction involves no active participation on the part of the lifeforms. The interactions take place at the gamete (that is, cellular) level, and the gametes are brought together by forces completely beyond the immediate control of the plant, such as insects and wind. This process, to be sure, is shaped by evolution, by natural selection, which involves a kind of interaction between members of one species as well as of other species, but I think it would be very difficult to argue that evolution provides an intersubjective framework from which individual subjectivities of specific individuals arise.10

The same point is illustrated almost as well by the most primitive invertebrates, such as Poriferans (sponges) and Coelenterates (coral, jellyfish, Hydra). Though some of these species live in colonies, the latter are extremely simple forms of social organization, resulting mostly from the rather unremarkable physical fact that reproduction tends to create a large number of individuals of one species that live in the same place (just as we find certain plants of the same species growing together in grasslands and forests, for example). Also as with plants, these simple invertebrates often reproduce asexually, and if they reproduce sexually, they do so by producing gametes that are released into the aquatic environment in which they live, finding each other without the need for copulation. Furthermore, such organisms have little of the structural or exterior equipment needed to interact with other members of their species. Sponges have no nervous system, while Coelenterates have a decentralized neural net and sensory receptors that respond primarily to variations in intensity of such modalities as light, touch and certain chemical substances. This mode of perception will be discussed further later.

As I have argued elsewhere (Smith, in preparation; see also Smith 2000a; Smith 2001e), such lifeforms exhibit (to an almost complete degree in the case of plants, to a lesser but still very significant degree in the case of the simplest invertebrate organisms) what I call zero-dimensional experience. It's zero-dimensional because it makes no distinction between self and other. The organism experiences itself as the entire world. While every lifeform has to interact with the environment--to obtain nutrients, for example, and often to avoid predators--in these lifeforms the interactions are minimal, and are usually achieved at the cellular rather than the organism level. Thus plants, sponges, and many Coelenterates are sessile, and feed passively, taking their food as it comes to them rather than pursuing it. So I claim that whatever awareness or interiority such organisms have (and like Wilber, I believe all forms of existence have some interiority), to a large degree it does not distinguish between the organism itself and its surrounding environment.

In summary, then, there are lifeforms that have virtually no active, subjective interaction with other members of their species or even with their environment, and which therefore cannot possibly, by any definition of the term I know of, be embedded in any intersubjective relationships. Furthermore, lest anyone think such lifeforms are a rare exception to the general rule, let me add that they are found at every level of existence. Not only are there very primitive, asocial organisms on our level of existence, but there are primitive, asocial cells on the level below it, and primitive, asocial atoms on the level below that. Examples of such cells are many unicellular organisms, and examples of such atoms are inert varieties like helium and xenon. According to my model, these lifeforms, too, have zero-dimensional experience, not distinguishing between self and other.

So one objection I have to Wilber's claim that intersubjectivity is found everywhere in the cosmos is that sociality, which is a prerequisite to intersubjectivity, is not found everywhere. In fact, the bottom or fundament of every level of existence is made up of asocial holons which make no self/other distinction and which therefore do not exist within an intersubjective framework. So every level of existence has a portion into which intersubjectivity does not penetrate. Intersubjectivity can only emerge when fundamental holons begin to associate into social holons, forming the higher stages of the holarchy.

The second objection I have is that among the majority of lifeforms that do exist within intersubjective structures, these structures are very different from the kind we live within. A detailed explanation of this problem is beyond the scope of this article (see Smith, in preparation), but the argument can be sketched very simply. An essential feature of our experience of the world, a fundamental strand in our intersubjective framework, is the dimension of time. We have a very well-developed sense of time, which allows us, among other things, to perceive both other organisms, including other members of our species, as well as other objects, as having a permanent existence. For example, we believe that a certain tree exists (as well as trees in general) even when we are not actually experiencing the tree directly. We have this belief because we are capable of experiencing the tree not only in space but also in time. We carry this experience around with us even when there are no trees physically present. Because we do, we not only believe in the existence of trees when we aren't experiencing them, but our experience of them even when we actually do see them is at least partly of this permanent belief. For even when we seem to be "directly" experiencing a tree, what we are actually experiencing is a concept of one. Wilber puts it this way:

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...

So the human intersubjective framework is created almost entirely of experiences, or concepts, of phenomena that we are not actually experiencing directly.. Even when we seem to be experiencing objects or events directly, we really aren't, in an important sense. And to reiterate, we can have these concepts only because we are capable of experiencing phenomena over time. Without a sense of time, there is no understanding of other objects or organisms as having a permanent existence.

But many lifeforms have relatively little sense of time. They do not have much experience of other organisms or objects as existing when they are not in direct contact with them. How do we know this? The traditional test for a sense of time is the ability to learn and remember. It's true that many invertebrates, including some fairly simple ones, have been shown to exhibit certain rudimentary forms of learning, such as habituation, and classical or operant conditioning (Peeke et al. 1965; Evans 1966; Ratner 1972; Ratner and Gilpin 1974; Haralson et al. 1975; Taddei-Ferretti and Cordella 1976; Lockery et al. 1985; Debski and Friesen 1985; Sahley and Ready 1988; Karrer and Sahley 1988; Johnson and Wuench 1994). This suggests that they may have some concept of external objects or events that affects their perception or experience of them. But the same studies, and numerous ones that have failed to demonstrate many kinds of learning, also indicate that such concepts, if we may use that word loosely, are far less developed than our own. Invertebrate learning studies have to be designed with some care, just because the ability of these lifeforms to learn is so limited.

In other words, in these organisms, the relationship of subjectivity to intersubjectivity is much weaker than it is for us. It's not just that subjectivity or interiority is much weaker in these lifeforms, a point Wilber and I are in complete agreement on. It's that whatever subjectivity there is is far less dependent on, or created by, intersubjective relationships. To state a more general point that I discuss in more detail elsewhere (Smith, in preparation), the higher in our level (or in any other level) a lifeform is, the greater the degree to which its subjectivity is molded by intersubjective relationships. This goes back to the point I made in an earlier discussion, that higher stages within levels are characterized by more interactions among individual holons, for it is in fact these interactions that constitute the intersubjective network or structure (a point I will discuss further shortly).

So in addition to there being some lifeforms on every level that have no intersubjective relationships, the degree of intersubjectivity among those that do varies substantially, according to the position of the lifeform on the level. I think this is an important modification of Wilber's views. To reiterate for emphasis, it's an oversimplification to say that subjectivity (or interiority) and intersubjectivity both increase as we move up the holarchy. While subjectivity does increase, intersubjectivity increases only within any particular level. When we move to a new level, there is initially no intersubjectivity; it's gradually created as the level develops. And the lower, weaker forms of intersubjectivity found on every level are characterized by a much weaker input into the subjectivities that constitute, or emerge from, them.

In conclusion, then, I have two major objections to Wilber's claim that intersubjectivity is found everywhere in the holarchy. Both of these objections, the reader will note, stem directly from differences in our models of holarchy. My model, as I discussed earlier, distinguishes between stages and levels, and defines stages in terms of increasingly complex social organization. Thus even within any level of existence, there is a holarchy of lifeforms, some ranked higher than others. Furthermore, a key distinguishing feature of this holarchy-within-a-level is dimensionality. Higher lifeforms on any level exist in more exterior or structural dimensions than lower forms, and also in their interior or experiential features. These differences in dimensionality, in turn, are a key to a more detailed understanding of intersubjectivity. This view a) recognizes the limits as well as the extent of this phenomenon; b) illuminates just how intersubjectivity differs in different lifeforms; and c) though not discussed here, provides us with a key tool for understanding how these different degrees of dimensional interiority evolve (Smith, in preparation).

Before concluding this discussion of intersubjectivity, I want to address another aspect of Wilber's view of it, which again I believe reflects limits of his model. This is the relationship intersubjectivity has with subjectivity. I just argued that in the lower stages of any level, this relationship is weaker than it is for higher stages. But what is this relationship like in general? Exactly what is it that becomes stronger as we move up any level of existence?

According to Wilber's postmodern insight, intersubjectivity is ontologically prior to subjectivity. That is, individuals do not create intersubjective relationships, but on the contrary, individuals are themselves created by an intersubjective structure or matrix that precedes them:

One of the great discoveries of the postmodern West is that what we previously took to be an unproblematic consciousness reflecting on the world at in fact anchored in a network of nonobvious intersubjective structures.
Most of the important intersubjective structures are not phenomenal, are never prehended as objects, but exert their influence on the subject (since the subject is arising in the intersubjective field).

Sean Hargens, a follower and interpreter of Wilber, explains the relationship of intersubjectivity to subjectivity further:

[T]he subject is embedded in a field of relationships and...both subjects and objects arise out of that field...I'm created by you and others (in a shared background context) before we even engage.

Two claims are being made here: 1) intersubjectivity is ontologically prior to subjectivity; and 2) the matrix or structure or field that constitutes or creates intersubjectivity is not accessible to the subjects, i.e., we can't actually experience or be aware of this structure. These claims are closely related, perhaps are just one claim, because to say that a structure or field is ontologically prior to our individual subjectivity seems to imply that we can't directly know this field.

Described in this way, intersubjectivity has, to me at least, a mysterious, almost magical, quality to it. If it's ontologically prior to our individual subjectivities, where did it come from? How was it created? And would it continue to exist in the absence of these subjectivities?

Hargens, in an article contrasting Wilber's views on intersubjectivity with those of Alfred North Whitehead, further explains:

But for Wilber, the intersubjective space is more than just an acknowledgment of the objective nature of a subject-subject interaction. Wilber sees the intersubjective space as the background that gives rise to the subject, regardless of whether it entered as an object. After all, as Wilber explains, "as the new subject creatively emerges, it emerges in part from this intersubjectivity, and thus intersubjectivity at that point first enters the subject as part of the subject, not as an object-that-was-once-subject." This is the key point: the subject is actually composed of aspects of the intersubjective space, even before it prehends anything (e.g., other subjects as objects). Thus there is a dialogical relationship between the subject and intersubjective spheres even before the monological relationship between the subject and object occurs.

To illustrate this point, Wilber gives the example of someone being at a post-conventional stage of morality. At this stage of moral development, an individual will have thoughts arise within that space (of moral development), but the structure of this post-conventional stage was never an object. However, this stage of development does form part of the structure/space from which the new subject arises moment to moment. Therefore, this structure enters "the subject as prehending subject, not as a prehendedobject that was once subject."[11]

Let me try to reinterpret this notion a little. In fact, in the following discussion, I will attempt to accomplish two objectives,simultaneously. One, I will provide examples of intersubjectivity as they occur on lower levels of existence. And two, I will use those examples to illuminate the relationship of intersubjectivity to subjectivity in general. For while there may be truth to Whitehead's claim that:

if you want to know the general principles of existence, you must start at the top and use the highest occasions to illumine the lowest, not the other way around.

it's also true that we can often see a phenomenon better on a lower level, where we have a more objective relationship to it.

I argued earlier that lifeforms experience their world in different degrees of dimensionality, with the lowest holons on any level realizing zero-dimensional experience, in which no self/other distinction is made. Let's now consider an example of one-dimensional experience. On our (mental or behavioral) level, this kind of experience is exemplified by some fairly simple invertebrates such as Annelids (segmented worms), Nematodes (round worms) and primitive Gastropod Molluscs (snails and slugs). These organisms are the lowest ones to have bilateral symmetry, in which an anterior/posterior distinction is made, and they are capable of making intensity discriminations among certain stimuli, such as light, touch and some chemical substances. Thus as I have discussed elsewhere (Smith, in preparation), these organisms perceive their world as a one-dimensional axis, on which they are situated.

The same kind of experience is found on lower levels. Consider the physical level, consisting of atoms and molecules. As I mentioned earlier, zero-dimensional experience is typical of inert atoms like helium, which do not form chemical bonds with other atoms. Like zero-dimensional organisms, they have no social or communicative relationships with others of their kind.[12] This is also approximately true for reactive atoms, those that do form chemical bonds with other atoms, when they exist in the free or unbonded state.[13] However, as soon as reactive atoms bond and form molecules, the next stage on the physical level of existence, full one-dimensional experience emerges .

Consider an amino acid molecule, a fundamental component of all living cells (Fig. 1). Notice that the molecule is both linear and asymmetrical, or as chemists say, polar. It has a different group of atoms at one end from the group at the opposite end. The polarity of the molecule becomes even more pronounced when one or both ends carry an electrical charge, as a result of gaining or losing a hydrogen ion (H+).

2HN-CH2-COO- +H+ —> 2HN-CH2-COO- OR +3HN-CH2-COO- +H+ —> +3HN-CH2-COOH

Fig. 1. An amino acid can exist in several different charge states, carrying positive and/or negative charges.

An amino acid molecule, therefore, should experience itself as one dimensional, able to discriminate the world differently at its two ends.14 This is analogous to one-dimensional organisms, that have an anterior and posterior end, and which can discriminate their environment in front of them from that in back. These two ends of the amino acid can in fact behave like rudimentary sensory receptors, sensitive to the pH in the medium (see Fig. 2). The amino or nitrogen end (H2N - +H3N) detects pH values in the range of 9-10. If the pH is above 10, the amino group will lose a hydrogen ion to form H2N. If the pH is below 9, the molecule will gain a hydrogen ion to form +H3N. The carboxyl end (COOH), on the other hand, will gain a hydrogen ion when the pH is below about 2, and will lose a hydrogen ion when the pH is above 3.

Fig. 2. Variation of net charge on an amino acid (as indicated by "X"s) with pH. As explained in the text, this relationship allows the amino acid, and some atoms within it, to detect the pH, and also allows some atoms to detect the charged state of other atoms within the molecule.

Notice that this is an intensity discrimination, quite analogous to that made by primitive invertebrates. The amino acid distinguishes different concentrations of hydrogen ions, a one-dimensional form of perception. The concentration of hydrogen ions varies along a single axis, just as sensory stimuli such as light do, and the amino acid can determine where on this axis the concentration lies. This is a one-dimensional experience.

So far, we have considered the amino acid molecule as a whole. But its one-dimensional experience is also realized by some of its component atoms. Consider the oxygen atom that hydrogen interacts with at one end of the amino acid (the carboxyl end). As shown in Fig. 1, the oxygen atom sometimes carries a negative charge, when it is not interacting with a hydrogen ion, and sometimes does not carry a charge, when it is interacting with hydrogen. What determines whether it does or does not? The pH of the surrounding medium, as noted earlier, but also the ionization state of the nitrogen atom at the other end. As can be seen in Fig. 2, the oxygen atom will have a negative charge when a) the pH is greater than 10; or b) the pH is between 3 and 9, and the nitrogen atom at the other end of the molecule is protonated. Conversely, oxygen will carry no charge when a) the pH is below 2; or b) the pH is between 3 and 9 and the nitrogen is not protonated.

Therefore, the oxygen atom a) can also make an intensity discrimination, determining the pH or hydrogen concentration of the surrounding medium; and b) has information about the state of the nitrogen atom at the other end of the molecule. It experiences not only what is going on at its end of the molecule, but also what is going on at the other end. Thus the oxygen atom, like the amino acid as a whole, has one-dimensional experience. We can say that it has this experience because it participates in the one-dimensionality of the amino acid molecule. It's only possible for an individual atom like oxygen to have one-dimensional experience when it's bonded to other atoms within a molecule. Its association with these other atoms allow it to have higher-dimensional properties that would otherwise be unrealizable for it.15

This most rudimentary example, far removed from human beings interacting by means of language or other forms of communication, makes an important point about the relationship of intersubjectivity to subjectivity. If we buy into the premise that even atoms and molecules have experience, or interiority, the amino acid is clearly the intersubjective structure in which oxygen and other atoms function. It's analogous to the intersubjective structure formed by a group or society of one-dimensional organisms. Even before it becomes part of this molecule, the oxygen atom can have experience, but upon bonding to the other atoms, the nature of its experience clearly changes. It goes from zero-dimensional or partially one-dimensional to fully one-dimensional. Its experience also becomes intersubjective because--as is the case with higher level organisms--it engages in communication with other holons of its kind, and its own experience of self is shaped to a large degree by this communication. That is, how the oxygen experiences itself--as an atom capable of gaining or losing a hydrogen ion--changes when it interacts with other atoms.

Just as one-dimensional experience on the physical level emerges with simple molecules, one-dimensional experience on the biological level emerges with simple tissues, or groups of cells. We can find examples of such tissues in almost all organisms; for example, nervous ganglia, which function as a primitive brain in many invertebrates, and carry out various lower-level functions in vertebrates. A ganglion consists of several thousand or more highly interconnected cells, which act as a unit in receiving inputs from sensory organs or other neurons, and/or in transmitting messages to effector organs or other neurons. Like an amino acid, a ganglion has polarity; it may receive input at one end, and transmit output at the other, or it may do only one or the other, at one end. A ganglion is also capable of intensity discriminations. When it receives sensory input, for example, it responds according to the degree of stimulation.

Individual neurons within a ganglion may likewise participate in these one-dimensional properties. Recordings from individual cells often reveal that they can make intensity discriminations, altering their firing pattern in response to changes in the stimulus coming into the ganglion. Likewise, such cells have information about the activity of other cells, changing their activity in response to changes in activity in other cells. Such higher properties result, just as they do with atoms in the amino acid, because the neurons are able to communicate with one another, and thus receive information that would otherwise not be accessible to them.

In summary, intersubjectivity results whenever fundamental holons--atoms, cells or organisms--join together into higher-order social or intermediate holons. The latter form the intersubjective structure--a network of highly connected fundamental holons--that gives rise to new properties of higher dimensionality. In the case of one-dimensional structures, these properties include the ability a) to make intensity discriminations amongcertain stimuli in the environment; and b) to interact with other fundamental holons at a distance, i.e., which are not physically adjacent to itself. Higher-dimensional social holons have higher-dimensional properties, which can also be experienced by their component individual holons.

Notice that we now have a clearer idea of not only what an intersubjective structure is, and its relationship to individual subjectivities, but also why it is ontologically prior--and experientially inaccessible--to the individual subjectivities. This simply reflects the fact that social holons are higher than their individual components. The molecule, which in my model is a social holon, is higher than the atom; the tissue is higher than the cell; and human or animal societies are higher than their individual members. Wilber recognizes that lower order holons in general can't perceive or experience the nature of higher-order holons, but as I discussed earlier, he maintains that social holons (as he defines them) are not higher than their component individual holons. Yet as this discussion should make clear, it's precisely because social holons are higher than individual holons that the intersubjective structure is not experienced or "prehended" by the latter. Wilber is being logically inconsistent when he maintains, on the one hand, that intersubjectivity is ontologically prior to subjectivity, and on the other hand, that societies are not higher than their individual members. Societies, if not identical to the intersubjective structure, are obviously very closely related to them; the two are on a holarchical and ontological par. The one-scale model, by emphasizing this point, helps illuminate the relationship of intersubjectivity to subjectivity.

The Limits of the Individual

Another area where my view of the relationships between exterior and interior, and individual and social, leads to very different implications from Wilber's is perhaps of the most interest and relevance to those who follow Wilber: it concerns how we are to understand how individuals can develop to a higher state of being. As noted earlier, Wilber views the individual and the social as "two sides of the same coin", neither higher than the other. This tends to promote or encourage what I consider to be a false view of individual power and individual action. Let's see how this comes about.

Most theorists recognize that a primary criterion by which we distinguish the holarchically higher from the lower is the presence of new, emergent properties. Thus molecules have properties not exhibited by individual atoms, cells have properties not observed in molecules, organisms have properties beyond those of their cells, and so on. Now it's patently obvious that societies also have such emergent properties, ones not found in their individual members, so by this criterion (and others), as I have argued elsewhere, we must regard societies as higher than their members (Smith 2000a; 2001 a,c). Wilber and his supporters, to counter this argument, must take the position that while societies do have some properties not found in their individual members, the reverse is also true. Individuals have properties not found in societies. As an example, they point to great visionaries who have shaped the destiny of societies (Goddard 2001). The implication seems to be that while societies are beyond us in some respects, we are beyond them in others, so neither can be said to be higher than the other

Now even if we ignore the obvious asymmetry still exposed by this reasoning (any society has many properties not found in any of its members; only rare individuals are alleged to have one property not found in the rest of society), this assertion ignores the vast amount of social influences on any individual. No scientist, artist or even mystic lives in a vacuum; their methods as well as results depend critically on a wealth of interactions from other people. Furthermore, just because one individual, on rare occasion, may come to some experience, accomplishment, or idea that no one before has, it does not mean that this realization is not a social property as much as an individual. In fact, there are very few properties that all individuals in a society have. There is rather a continuum, beginning at one end with properties that are universal or nearly universal (e.g., the ability to walk, use language and feel certain basic emotions) to less common abilities (run a four minute mile or understand string theory) to unique or nearly unique abilities (Shakespeare's plays; Einstein's theories). There is no apparent justification for selecting properties at the far end, and saying that they are strictly individual accomplishments. There is no rule saying that social properties have to be manifested in every member of society, or even in most members.

Yet Wilber's four-quadrant model strongly implies that individuals can have properties that are, so to speak, "separate but equal": independent of society yet on the same level.16 This view, applied to the goal of realizing higher consciousness, leads to the notion that this involves to a large extent a purely individual effort. It may be partly why Wilber has been criticized for not emphasizing more what has been called the social or collective aspects of spirituality, practices that involve directly relating to others (Edwards 2001).

However, the symptoms of Wilber's view of the individual lie deeper than this. Wilber may not emphasize the social aspects of spirituality as they are commonly conceived, but he does recognize them. His model certainly has room for them, and permits others to develop the implications. What he does not recognize--and he has a great deal of company here, which has helped to maintain his view unchallenged--is the extent to which spirituality involves the social dimension. It is generally far more important than the individual dimension.

This is an extremely common misunderstanding, I believe. Even people who celebrate compassion, charity, good works, and other activities directed towards helping others believe that there is a major individual aspect to spirituality. After all, when we withdraw to meditate--perhaps even doing so in a lonely retreat--isn't it all about the individual? A self trying to realize a higher Self, to be sure, but for the time being just an individual self? The answer is no. Meditation is the struggle with our thoughts and desires, and most of these represent bonds, constraints, placed upon us by virtue of our membership in societies. This means that no matter how withdrawn from direct interaction with society a meditator may be, she is still very much engaged with it.

There are, to be sure, individual elements that arise or can arise during meditation. If one fasts, for example, the struggle is directed against a desire that is in principle purely asocial. And there are spiritual paths--from Christian self-flagellation to Hindu fakirs--that emphasize the struggle against such basic desires. But even in such extreme cases, the struggle is not confined to such desires, because any human being has other, socially-derived desires--from simple one such as the need to talk to more complex ones involving specific experiences made possible only by society--and these will eventually come up, not only when one is not directly confronting a basic desire, but even during such ordeals, as one adapts to the stress of denial. Ken Wilber, to his great credit, recognizes this--it's what his Integral Psychology or Practice is all about--even if he does not in my view recognize how much these other desires result from our being situated in social holons.

Meditation, then, is the struggle is not simply with oneself, but in a very profound sense with the entire world. This is why meditation is so extraordinarily difficult, why it is impossible by all ordinary human standards. Because we are not just testing our own, personal limits. We are up against something almost incomprehensibly vaster than any individual self. Gurdjieff was one of the very rare teachers who seemed to understand this, who emphasized that the nature of this relationship may even place limits on the number of people in any era who can realize higher consciousness (Ouspensky 1961). That so very few other teachers or mystics have even suggested the possibility, but seem to assume that everyone can realize a higher state of awareness, surely speaks to how underappreciated is the relationship of meditative efforts to social constraints.

As far as I know, no investigations of meditation are attempting to explore this area. While Wilber has cited data indicating that relatively few people realize higher states of awareness (Wilber 1998)17, there seems to be little or no effort directed to answering the question of why this is so. Yes, meditation is very difficult, but why is it difficult? What's going on? Elsewhere (Smith 2000c) I have pointed out that meditation is a process of acquiring energy, and that there are limits to how fast this process can occur. But in addition to limits on the rate of the process, there may also be limits on how often the process can take place. It's my claim that social constraints are a major factor in these limits, that any kind of society can only support, or tolerate, a limited number of people in a higher state of awareness. I have discussed some of the reasons for these limits elsewhere (Smith 2000a).


One of Ken Wilber's strongest and most insistent criticisms of modern knowledge, including most of science and philosophy, is that it ignores the interior properties of existence, the capacity holons have for experiencing the world. His four-quadrant model addresses this problem by making the distinction between interior and exterior properties of holons, at every level of existence. According to him, every holon has both aspects, and neither can be reduced to the other. I have already pointed out that my model differs in that interiority to a large degree is not distinguished in this way from exteriority. The two are found on the same axis. What's my rationale for this?

Surely we have to begin this discussion by defining just what we mean by interior properties. Anyone who has read much of Wilber can be forgiven for not being sure what his definition is. When he contrasts interiors with the exteriors that science studies, he seems to be equating the former with consciousness (at least on our level of existence), and more specifically to what philosophers refer to as qualia, the purely experiential properties or "hard problem" of consciousness (Chalmers 1996). If this is indeed what Wilber means by interiority, I believe his distinction is valid. Though some philosophers and probably most scientists think that consciousness in this sense is ultimately explainable in terms of physical and biological processes--exteriors in Wilber's model--no one has been able to develop a theory or model of any kind that demonstrates how such a relationship is possible. Indeed, this problem is so intractable that panpsychism, the long discredited belief that consciousness or awareness in some sense is a fundamental property of all forms of existence, even the lowest, has been making a comeback among an important minority of philosophers, precisely because it suggests a way out of this dilemma (Lockwood 1991; Chalmers 1996; Griffin 1998; Sprigge 1999; Seager 1999). Though a discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this article, panpsychism, at least in some forms, appears closely allied with Wilber's view of an interior/exterior distinction that is maintained throughout the holarchy. So one could say that mainstream philosophy is beginning to catch on to some of Wilber's ideas.

However, that Wilber's view of interiority is not limited to consciousness in the "hard" sense is suggested by other discussions in which he uses the term in a broader way. For example, in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, he describes interiority as being exemplified by the difference in the experience of two people in a foreign country, one who is familiar with the language, and one who is not. While certainly these two individuals will have different interior experiences, I don't believe that this example captures the essence of the hard sense of consciousness. To appreciate this, we need only observe that the activities of neural structures--what Wilber clearly defines as exteriors elsewhere--contribute to whatever differences the individuals experience. Most scientists and philosophers-- including Wilber, I think--would agree that in principle if not in practice we could identify these structures, and by stimulating them appropriately recreate the experience of understanding a foreign language. This doesn't prove that these neural processes cause the experience, because it can always be argued that there are other factors involved that we aren't aware of. I agree with Wilber that all we can say here is that the neural processes are correlated with the experience (I will discuss the concepts of corrrelation and cause further later). But this kind of thought experiment does strongly indicate, I think, that these neural processes, these exteriors, cause the differences in experience that the individuals have.

In other words, I think Wilber has it backwards here. None of the differences in experience between these two individuals in a foreign country reflects consciousness, or interiority, in the hard sense. Consciousness in this latter sense, it seems to me, must be the same for the two people, indeed for any two people. That is, if we subtract out, so to speak, all the differences contributed to by exterior structures--the differences in the sounds that the two individuals pay attention to, the differences in the way they process the sounds they hear, the differences in recall of certain memories and other forms of knowledge, and so on--what exactly are we left with? We are left with just experience, nothing more, nothing less. This is consciousness in the hard sense, the slippery but very real phenomenon that eludes all attempts to explain in terms of physical and biological processes.18

Further confusion, or at least vagueness, arises when Wilber applies the term to lower levels of existence. At this point, it's not clear that he is equating it with any form of consciousness. Sean Hargens' reading of Wilber is that he is is in basic agreement with Whitehead's view of lower interiors as prehensions, in which a subject prehends or "touches" an object (Hargens 2001a). But without getting into a discussion of Whitehead, a very difficult philosopher to understand, it seems to me that Wilber again falls into the habit of describing interiors in ways that sound very much like exteriors. Thus he defines the interior of a cell as "protoplasmic irritability," and that of an electron as a "propensity to existence". Most scientists would say that these phenomena have been or can be explained in terms of physical processes. Wilber also says of atoms that they have

depth, and therefore they do share a common depth. And a common depth is a worldspace, a worldspace created/disclosed by a particular degree of shared depth.[19]

Perhaps I'm missing something, but what I read in that statement is just that atoms share certain properties, therefore these properties constitute a space. The fact that these properties are "depth" is meaningless to me, because Wilber has not defined depth except in terms of other words that are approximate synonyms for interiority, consciousness, or the like. He seems to be going in circles here. Thus Hargens concludes rather soberly:

Wilber admits that when you try to describe the interiors of the lower levels you cannot make any strong claims as to what they consist of; he just wants to acknowledge that they are there.

Well, I do, too, but I can't blame others for not agreeing with me if I not only can't prove that they're there, but can't even say what these things are like that I claim are there.

Finally, as though to make sure that all possible bases have been touched, Wilber announces that consciousness is in fact everywhere: "in the conventional or manifest realm, consciousness appears as all four quadrants". Frank Visser, with the evident approval of Wilber, puts it this way: "consciousness is not completely dependent on the four quadrants for its existence but uses them to express itself."[20] If we are to say that consciousness is expressed in all four quadrants, then it seems to me we are using this term differently from the way philosophers and scientists commonly mean it (hard or soft sense)--or alternatively, we are adopting a form of idealism, in which consciousness creates what we understand as the material world.

Is there any way we can make sense out of all these blind-men-and-the-elephant descriptions of interiority? In my model, I distinguish between the functional or "soft" aspects of consciousness and the experiential or "hard" aspects. This distinction is accepted by a very large consensus of philosophers and scientists, I think, and those who do are virtually unanimous in their belief that the functional aspects can and ultimately will be explained in terms of molecular and cellular processes in the brain--in other words, what Wilber calls, sometimes but not at other times, exteriors. If we accept this claim, then there should be no problem in representing these aspects of consciousness, or "soft interiority" to speak loosely, on the same scale or quadrant with holons that Wilber always refers to as exteriors--atoms, molecules, cells and so on. This is precisely what my one-scale model does. As I noted earlier, interior qualities of this kind are combined with exterior structures. As also pointed out before, this way of arranging things draws attention to the fact that interiors at any particular stage are not simply correlated with particular exteriors, but bear certain relationships to them, some of which are known and which I have discussed earlier here and elsewhere, and some of which remain to be elucidated.

This does leave out, however, the hard aspects of consciousness, which philosophers usually refer to as qualia. The way the one-scale model handles these is to postulate that there is an ultimate or ground consciousness, as Wilber would put it, which is accessible to every holon to just the degree that it has evolved in the holarchy. This view of consciousness, it seems to me, has some affinity with the previously quoted interpretation of Wilber's view: "consciousness is not completely dependent on the four quadrants for its existence but uses them to express itself". That is, I agree that consciousness uses the holarchy to express itself (or perhaps it would be better to say it expresses itself in holarchy). But having said that, why do we need four quadrants? Why not just say that consciousness expresses itself in the exterior forms of holons, and to the extent that it does so at every level, the holon experiences consciousnessness or interiority, in the hard sense? We could speak of two axes or quadrants here, but since the degree of interiority in this sense parallels the degree of development of exteriors, there doesn't seem to be any need to. Thus we have more interiority than other mammals, which have more than invertebrates, down to cells, and so on. I mean this is in a rigorously quantitative sense. I think we can, in theory, say just how much or how many times more conscious we are than other forms of life, an idea found in Gurdjieff's work (Ouspensky 1961) that I discuss at length elsewhere (Smith, in preparation).

This view of interiority, like Wilber's, is open to the concept of panpsychism, the belief that all forms of existence, even simple matter, has some consciousness, however dim. But whereas most panpsychists would probably claim that the highest forms of consciousness--our own and whatever levels are beyond us--are built up from below, through evolution of dimly conscious matter to more conscious life and still more conscious mind, in my model consciousness comes from above. That is, rather than saying that consciousness or interiority is an inherent property of matter, I would say that what is inherent is the expression of a certain degree of ultimate consciousness. Wilber and his followers ought to be symapthetic to this view, because it explicitly rejects the idea that higher forms of existence evolved from nowhere or nothingness. The higher is always present, and evolution is seen as a gradual return.

In concluding this section, I want to point out another apparent logical inconsistency in Wilber's model. As noted earlier, the four-quadrant model posits that interiors and exteriors are different aspects of the same holon, and therefore any particular interior/exterior pair exists on the same level. In my model, interiors are frequently (though not always) higher than exteriors. This follows from the arguments that 1) social holons are higher than their individual holon members; and 2) the interiority of individual holons, when they are found within social holons, often shares much of the latter's properties, through participation of the kind I discussed earlier.

Elsewhere (Smith 2001g), I have discussed many arguments against Wilber's view of interiority and exteriority's being on the same level. Here I want to point out that--just as we saw in the previous section with regard to the social/individual relationship--Wilber elsewhere maintains a position that clearly contradicts his own view. This is illustrated in the following quote from Hargens:

the relationship between mind (concepts) and body (feelings) [is] one of "transcend and include," where mind transcends and includes body...Wilber agrees and points out that this is another way of saying that the subject contains the object (thesenior level contains the junior level) but the object does not contain the subject (the junior level doesnot contain the senior level).[21]

We all seem to agree that subject = mind transcends and includes the object = body.[22] Why, then, is there any problem in understanding that interiors are higher than exteriors? Isn't the subject an interior, and the object an exterior? How much clearer a statement of this relationship can one have? Do Wilber and his supporters actually listen to what they are saying?


Ken Wilber, perhaps more than any other major thinker, remains fluidly open to new ideas, which are constantly being incorporated into his model. The upside of this attitude is that the model does not easily or quickly become stagnant or outdated; it seeks always to inform itself with the newest data. The downside, though, is that in his desire to be as inclusive as possible, Wilber sometimes adds new concepts that either don't fit his model very well, or are of dubious validity and value to it.

An illustration of the latter problem, I believe, is offered by Wilber's treatment of what he calls subtle energy fields. He points out that many spiritual traditions claim that there exist, in parallel with higher states of consciousness, higher "bodies" that correspond to these higher states. So a person who realizes what Wilber calls the subtle level of awareness also realizes a subtle body; causal awareness is associated with a causal body; and so on:

the etheric field is said to extend a few inches from the physical body, surrounding and enveloping it; the astral energy field surrounds and envelopes the etheric field and extends a foot or so; the thought field (or subtle energy body field) surrounds and envelops the astral and extends even further.[23]

Taking this idea and extending it to and expanding it within his model, he comes up with this:

The integral model I am suggesting therefore explicitly includes a corresponding subtle energy at every level of consciousness across the entire spectrum--each state of consciousness is supported by a corresponding body, so that consciousness is never disembodied.

I agree with Wilber, and the traditions that he cites, that consciousness is always embodied. I think this is a very important point, often overlooked in discussions of higher or altered states of consciousness, and I give Wilber a lot of credit for emphasizing it. But I have a problem with this particular view of the embodiment. If these higher bodies actually exist, why can science find no evidence for them? Shouldn't they result in some kind of detectable interaction with the physical world? Wilber casually says that a "field [read: body] is said to extend...", but whatever studies he may be citing,they are not very reproducible. If these are really physical entities, shouldn't it be fairly easy to demonstrate their existence?

Many people might argue that the bodies above the gross level transcend this level, and thus are not visible to scientists who work only in the gross level. But if we take that position, then we are back to the idea that consciousness is not always embodied, or associated with a physical holon. Moreover, if that is the case, how can we speak of these bodies extending "a few inches" or "a foot" beyond the physical body? If they exist only in a nonphysical space or realm, how can they be subjected to physical measurements? How can it be meaningful to describe their dimensions in physical units?

I offer a somewhat different view of embodiment which follows in a rather straightforward manner from my model of holarchy. Different bodies are simply constituted by the exterior forms of holons on different stages or levels. To the extent that a holon identifying with one stage or level can identify with another, it has an alternative exterior form or embodiment available to it.

Consider an atom. If it's an autonomously existing kind, an inert atom like helium, it makes very little distinction between self and other, as I discussed earlier. To the very rudimentary extent that it has any awareness at all, it's self is its world, and its world extends only to its outer boundaries, the electron shell surrounding it. This is the body it identifies with. The same is largely true for a reactive atom like carbon or hydrogen that exists in an unbonded state.

If the atom is part of a molecule, however, it may have a somewhat greater identity. As discussed earlier, an atom that is part of a molecule often can participate to some extent in the latter's properties, which are of a higher-dimensional kind. In so doing, the atom's identity expands. It does this in both an interior sense and an exterior sense. The interior sense, as discussed earlier, is manifested in the atom's ability to make intensity discriminations in its environment, and to have information about other atoms that are distant from it. The exterior sense, on the other hand, is manifested in an expansion of the atom's physical boundaries. They are no longer confined to its former electron shell, but extend into the shells of neighboring atoms that it's bonded to. When one atom bonds to another, they share electrons, which means that each has some access to the electronic configuration of the other.

Of course at the level of the atom, we are presumably talking about an extremely dim form of awareness. But as we move up the holarchy, we can see the same kind of relationship. An autonomous cell, like an inert atom, has little awareness of self vs. other. Its boundary, its sense of self, extends only to its surface membrane. But when the cell becomes part of a multicellular holon, a tissue or an organ, its boundaries and sense of self expand. It may participate to some extent in the higher dimensional properties of the tissue, and in the process, its identity moves outward, in a physical sense, as it moves upward, in a holarchical sense. Its boundaries extend into those of other cells. Thus cells in a tissue are bonded by interacting molecules on their surface membranes. One cell has some access to parts of other cells. In the case of the highest, most complex cells, neurons, this access may extend to thousands of other cells, and to very intimate aspects of these cells.

Now let's consider our own level of existence. A completely automous organism, like an autonomous atom or cell, has a boundary that is drawn at its body surface or skin. As soon as it begins to form social interactions, however, this boundary expands to include, or to touch upon, the boundaries of other organisms like itself. The interior sense of this expansion is manifested in an identity that is no longer confined to the skin-bounded organism, but includes others. In many organisms, this identification extends just to a family unit. In our case, we identify not only with our families, but with social groups, cities, regions, nations, and so on. In the extreme, we may identify with a higher, transcending consciousness that I would say is associated with, embodied in, the planet.

What about the exterior sense? Can we say that there is an actual expansion of our bodies beyond our physical organism? In an important sense yes, and there is nothing really mysterious about it. The work of several anthropologists, most notably Edward Hall (1966, 1990) has led to the concept of a personal space, a minimal area surrounding every individualwhich, when entered by others, is experienced as an invasion of privacy. This space can be physically measured, in the sense that we can make fairly accurate estimates of its size, based on the behavior of people in various social situations. In fact, Hall (1966) actually defines several different kinds of personal spaces, including intimate, personal, social and public. He defines the concept in general as "an invisible bubble of space which expands and contracts depending on [a person's] relationship to those around him, his emotional state, his cultural background, and the activity he is performing."[24]

Of all the factors that Hall identifies as influencing the size of personal space, the one he emphasizes most is cultural, and this provides us with an immediate approach to understanding personal space in relationship to participation in various kinds of social holons. For if we consider the observations Hall and others have made, it appears that the size of personal space generally increases with participation in increasingly higher forms of social organization. People who live in relatively undeveloped societies tend to have a small personal space. They are comfortable being in close contact with other people. Individuals in Western countries, in contrast, have a much more extended sense of personal space. We typically identify with a relatively large area around ourselves, and resent it when this space is invaded.[25]

As just noted, the size of this personal space is not fixed, even among individuals of a particular culture; it varies greatly according to social setting. However, the way it varies provides further insight into its relationship to social organizations. According to Hall, it's smallest in intimate relationships, extending from the body surface to (for Westerners) about a foot and a half beyond the body. It becomes progressively larger in personal (e.g., close friends, relatives), social (e.g.,acquaintances, co-workers) and public relationships. In the latter case, the space is said to extend beyond ten feet. Without trying to draw parallels too closely, I think we can say that this progression follows that we experience as we move from family relationships to small groups to larger organizations to national or international identities. That is, the larger and higher the social group we are participating in, the larger the personal space we identify with.

So in addition to providing further evidence for a relationship between personal space and social identity, the correlation of Hall's types of spaces with participation in different social holons allows us to understand on a deeper level just when, where, why and how personal space fluctuates in size. This variability reflects the fact that human beings are creatures between levels, organisms who participate in the properties of very complex inter-organismic holons, i.e., societies. We are embedded in many stages of social organization, and are constantly shifting our identity from one stage to another. As we do so, we experience not only different kinds of thoughts, emotions, morality, and so on, but also a different sense of the physical limits of the self.

In other words, the "bodies" of holons that exist in complex social holons are much more fluid than the bodies of holons that exist autonomously. In the limit, an individual who transcends the mental or behavioral level completely will identify with a much larger holon--perhaps the entire planet . Whatever the body now is, though, it will be much more stable, much less subject to variation in size, just as the body of an inert atom or an autonomous cell is fairly fixed in size.. Thus again, we see a profound difference inthe properties of autonomous holons and holons which participate in the higher social stages on their level.

This kind of embodiment is obviously quite different from the astral, subtle and so forth bodies that Wilber discusses. I would not claim that embodiment in this sense is equivalent to the various-sized fields that are alleged to surround the individual at levels of higher consciousness. But the expanded sense of self described here does correlate with identification with higher stages of consciousness on our level of existence. Embodiment in this sense is not only much better supported by evidence, but as we saw earlier, it's quite consistent with evidence of a similar kind of embodiment of holons on the physical and biological levels of existence. It's also an area that is obviously open to further research, to learn more about the relationship between size of personal space and identification with social holons.

Correlation vs. Cause

I conclude this comparison of the implications of the one-scale and four-quadrant models with one of my deepest criticisms of the latter, a criticism that underlies or at least contributes to almost all of the others I have discussed here. The model, as I view it, is largely descriptive. It organizes a great deal of phenomena, culled from investigations ranging over a wide range of disciplines in the natural and social sciences, and posits or implies that they are connected. But the model has very little to say about how they are connected. Wilber's silence on this question, I think, seriously undermines the model's usefulness for stimulating further research.

Wilber advertises his model as an "all quadrant, all level" approach, and the problem can be seen in his concepts of both levels and quadrants. Let's consider levels first. His model of holarchy is a developmental or evolutionary one, in which lower levels emerge first (historically or in ongoing processes such as human maturation) and are followed by a fairly orderly succession of higher levels. On this point I follow him fairly closely, though I think he overestimates the degree to which developmental processes parallel or recapitulate historical, evolutionary processes (a point discussed further below). The big question, however, is: how does one level give rise to the next? What are the driving forces of evolution or development? Wilber's main answer to this question is to point out that a given level stops developing when it reaches a conflict, which only can be resolved by emergence of a new level. For example, in The Atman Project, he says that each developmental stage of the individual becomes frustrated at a certain point, and this frustration can only be overcome by transcending the conditions of the former level. His understanding of social evolution, which recently has made extensive use of Don Beck's work on Spiral Dynamics, is stated in very much the same terms. A new stage of social development emerges because of limits that the former one is unable to transcend.

This is an important point, and I basically agree with it: every level has its limits, which the next level transcends. But the deeper question of how these limits are transcended, the processes involved, is not addressed. Science today recognizes and studies several such processes, including Darwinism, cultural evolution, and self-organizing phenomena. Darwinism, held to apply to the evolution of all organisms including ourselves, occurs through random genetic mutations and natural selection. Cultural evolution, the major explanation for change in both human societies and their individual members, occurs through the spread of memes, ideas or concepts. Self-organizing phenomena involve changes in the relationships of a group of holons in a larger system. All of these processes have of course been the focus of an enormous amount of research.

Wilber, I'm quite sure, accepts all of these processes as significant contributors to change in the holarchy. But he doesn't say much about how they might apply to the generation of particular levels in his model, nor--a vital point given his unwavering position that all other approaches are incomplete--does he identify any additional processes that might underlie evolution. Wilber has often, for example, criticized the notion that Darwinism can be a complete explanation of evolution, but what does he offer in its place? If he means that it can't account for the evolution of modern humans and their societies, no one is arguing against him. If he means that it can't account for evolution of life before the emergence of cells, again, his position is hardly a lonely one. If he means that it doesn't explain the origin of consciousness, a lot of us are with him. The question is, if there are other evolutionary processes, which scientists don't recognize, what exactly are they?

I have tried to be a little more specific than that (Smith 2000a,b). I have argued that processes analogous to both Darwinian and cultural evolution occur on every level of existence, the forming creating the great variety of individual holons, the latter resulting in the emergence of social holons composed of these individual holons. I have further claimed that both these processes, as well as self-organizing phenomena, can be considered special cases of a more general evolutionary process. In other words, the three types of evolutionary processes can to at least some extent be unified in a single theory. Though I have not developed the argument in detail, this general evolutionary process specifically incorporates the idea that social evolution, as discussed earlier in this article, involves an increase in the number and complexity of interactions between individuals (or individual holons). In fact, both cultural evolution (which I call social stage evolution) and self-organizing processes facilitate such interactions.

I don't claim to have produced a complete evolutionary theory, nor to have identified all the processes that generate holarchy. But I have engaged the work of others interested in evolution, and shown how their ideas can be applied to the transitions that occur between stages and levels of the holarchy. This kind of synthesis can not only give us a better idea of how holarchy develops, but should strengthen the case that holarchy is a central organizing principle of existence.

In addition to not addressing the processes underlying the transitions from one level to another, Wilber's model also says little about the connections between phenomena in different quadrants. In the Wilber model, every holon is said to have four aspects, generated by the four combinations of two axes: individual/social and exterior/interior. For example, our own level is represented by a certain kind of brain structure (exterior individual or upper right); a certain kind of interior experience (interior individual or upper left); a certain kind of social organization (exterior social or lower right); and a certain kind of culture (interior social or lower left). By portraying us in this way, Wilber can bring a large body of data from the natural sciences and the social sciences into his model, data from neurobiology, psychology, anthropology and sociology, for example. He can claim that his model is comprehensive and inclusive, not ignoring research in any particular area. However, this still begs the question: how are these different aspects related? How, for example, does a particular kind of consciousness become associated with a particular brain structure? How does a particular kind of social organization grow out of a particular kind of consciousness?

Without answers to questions like these, Wilber's model can do no more than simply recognize that all these different phenomena exist. Nobody really questions that they do. What people do argue about is how they are related. For example, most scientists believe that interior experiences emerge from the structure of the brain, through the activity of large numbers of highly interconnected neurons. In this view, consciousness can in principle be explained given sufficiently detailed knowledge and understanding of neurophysiology. Wilber, and many other philosophers and psychologists, believe this reductionist view is wrong or at least incomplete, and I think they're right, but they seem to offer little or nothing in its place.

In his "Response to Ken Wilber's Integral Theory of Consciousness", Garry Jacobs captures the essence of this problem when he notes that Wilber fails to

explain the fundamental (essential) relationship between the four quadrants, i.e., by what process do they evolve? At what level and in what manner are they integrated? How is evolution in each quadrant related to the others?[26]

Wilber, Jacobs concludes, "sees the result, but not the process that leads to the result; he indicates correlations at some points, but not causal relationships."

Neither Wilber nor his supporters seem quite to understand this. Frank Visser, who makes many perceptive and sensible points in a reply to Jacobs, responds to the issue of correlation vs. cause by quoting the following passage from Up from Eden:

It's incredible when you start to think about it, but sometime during the second and first millennia B.C. the exclusively egoic structure of consciousness began to emerge from the ground unconscious (Ursprung) and crystallize in awareness. And it is just this incredible crystallization that we must now examine, the last major stage--to date--in the collective historical evolution of the spectrum of consciousness (individuals can carry it further, in their own case, by meditation into superconsciousness). It was that transformation which set the modern world.[27]

"Clearly, a causal relationship [exists between modernity and individual consciousness] if ever there was on," comments Visser.

What Visser, and Wilber, don't seem to get is that there is a world of difference between asserting a causal relationship and proving one. Anyone can say (and some people before Wilber have said) that the emergence of the egoic structure was closely related to modern social, cultural, political and economic developments. This is simply to state that the two are in some manner correlated. The challenge is to show that the relationship is causal (or if one believes it isn't, to show that it isn't), and to do this, we must not simply show that the two are related, but explain how they are related.

Further evidence of Wilber's confusing correlative relationships with causal ones (or at least sowing the seeds of confusion in some of his readers) is found in the following passage which Visser quotes from The Eye of the Spirit:

We can now, for example, correlate states of awareness with types of brainwave patterns (without attempting to reduce one to the other). We can monitor psychological shifts that occur with spiritual experience. We can follow the levels of neurotransmitters during psychotherapeutic interventions. We can follow the effects of psychoactive drugs on blood distribution patterns in the brain. We can trace the social modes of production and see the corresponding changes in cultural worldviews. We can follow the historical unfolding of cultural worldviews and plot the status of men and women in each period. We can trace the modes of self that correlate with different modes of techno-economic infrastructure.

Here Wilber is mixing relationships that have been established as genuinely causal (e.g., psychotherapeutic interventions and neurotransmitter levels; psychoactive drug administration and blood distribution patterns) with others that are only (at our present level of understanding) correlative (states of awareness and brainwave patterns; psychological shifts and spiritual experience). Let's be very clear about the difference. A correlative relationship is established when we find that phenomenon A always (or more often than would be predicted statistically if the two phenomena were completely unrelated) accompanies phenomenon B. Thus the association of a certain state of awareness with a certain brainwave pattern is a correlative relationship. No investigator I'm aware of would claim that the brainwave pattern causes a certain state of awareness (or vice-versa, for that matter). Many investigators might claim that both the brainwaves and the state of awareness have a common underlying cause (such as the synchronized activity of certain sets of neurons), but this claim has not been proven (i.e., while it has been shown to the satisfaction of most scientists that the synchronized activity causes the brainwave pattern, this activity has not been shown to cause the awareness). So no causal relationship has actually been established here.

To establish a causal relationship, one must go well beyond simply demonstrating a correlation. An important first step in doing this, when it's possible, is through intentional manipulation of conditions. For example, when we administer a psychoactive drug to humans or animals, and subsequently observe a change in the level of some neurotransmitter, this is highly suggestive of a causal relationship. However, no scientist would be content to conclude this on just the basis of this one observation. To establish cause firmly, many other experiments would be necessary. For example, if we administered various doses of the drug, we would expect to observe a dose-response relationship, that is, a correlation between dose and degree of change of neurotransmitter level. If we administered another drug which has a similar chemical structure to that of the first drug, and which has shown to be associated with other physiological phenomena that the first drug is also associated with, we would also expect to see the change in neurotransmitter level. If we administer a third kind of drug that has been shown to block the appearance of physiological phenomena associated with the original drug (an antagonist), the change in neurotranmitter level would also be expected to be blocked. If we examined the molecular effects of the drug, we might find, for example, that it interacts with some receptor molecule in the brain previously shown to be associated with release of neurotransmitter. All of these observations go into establishing that a relationship is not simply correlative, but causal.

Almost all relationships that have been established as causal have been done so through some kind of manipulation of conditions. Even when direct manipulation is not possible, cause may be established in a more indirect manner. Consider the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Is it (merely) correlative, or also causal? Though we don't do experiments on human beings, we do them on animals, which provide one important line of evidence that smoking causes, or is one cause of, cancer. But in addition, we can carry out statistical comparisons of smokers and nonsmokers. Though this kind of study is not an experiment in the usual sense, it takes advantage of the fact that smokers are manipulating their bodies in a certain way; they are administering a drug in measurable doses. So much of the same kind of data that an experiment provides can also be obtained in such studies.

Most of the relationships between phenomena in one of Wilber's quadrants and another are not easily subject to such experiment manipulation, and have only been established as correlative, rather than causal; for example, "social modes of production and corresponding changes in cultural worldviews", "cultural worldviews and the status of men and women", and "egoic structure and the modern world". This is not to say that there are no causal relationships between such phenomena. There presumably are, though they are very complex and difficult to establish. The point is that Wilber's model does nothing to illuminate them. It simply points out these correlations, almost all of which have been very well known to scholars and researchers in the particular areas involved.

At this point, the reader might say, so what? Wilber can't do everything. He has simply brought all these data, these correlations, together. That's a pretty mammoth achievement in itself, given the great breadth of Wilber's sources. It's up to others to show how they are correlated, how one phenomenon causes another. He has put in place the general framework, and now others can fill in some of the details. But--and this is the essential point--Wilber's model not only does not reveal these causes, but is generally hostile to the very possibility that they exist. His major rationale for creating four separate quadrants at every level of existence-- four different aspects or "dimensions" of a holon--is precisely to prevent drawing cause-effect relationships between them. Does the structure of our brains (UR) cause our consciousness (UL)? Most scientists would say yes, even while freely admitting they have no idea how. But Wilber explicitly denies this. Is there some kind of causative relationship between the behavior of individuals (UR) and the organization of human societies (LR)? Many researchers believe there are such relationships, complex though they may be; Wilber, if I understand him correctly, denies that there are. There is a barrier between each of the quadrants, and the purpose of this barrier is to block cause-effect relationships.

Why? Why is Wilber hostile to this project? The answer, very likely, lies in a phrase in the previous quote: "without attempting to reduce one to the other". Wilber, I think, believes that to say one phenomenon causes another strongly implies that one is reduced to another. I agree with him here. What does it mean to say that A causes B, except that B has to some extent been reduced to A? Consider again the scientific claim that synchronized activity of neurons causes brainwaves. What does it really mean to say this? It basically means that brainwaves are just a manifestation of the synchronized activity; they are a way that we happen to see this activity. So the brainwaves have to a large extent been reduced to the interactions of certain neurons. They can be described, in theory, at least, in terms of these interactions.

Wilber probably would not object to this example of reductionism, because we are working entirely within one quadrant, that is with exteriors. But he does most apparently object strenuously to applying the same principle to phenomena in different quadrants. This we would be doing if we concluded, for example, that synchronized activity of neurons caused a certain state of consciousness to arise. When we say this, we seem to be reducing, or collapsing, consciousness to the interactions of neurons (and once we get to this point, we can easily take the reductive process still further, to the interaction of certain molecules and ultimately atoms).

I agree with Wilber that reductionism, taken to extremes, leads to a distorted view of reality, but some reductionism is necessary to science as we know it. To go to the other extreme, of no reductionism, leaves us with no means of organizing data at all. Let's not forget that the simple (or not so simple) process of developing a theory or making distinctions (a pastime at which Wilber is an alltime champion) is an act of reductionism. It reduces an endless number of observations to a relatively few general classes.

My one-scale model is reductionist in that it implies that phenomena that Wilber puts in different quadrants (e.g., social interactions, mental processes) have causes that are rooted in biological and ultimately physical processes. As I noted earlier, I avoid the charge that I'm reducing consciousness to such processes by making a distinction between the hard and soft forms. Also, even with respect to soft forms of consciousness, as well as many other phenomena, I recognize, much like Wilber, that there are limits to strict reductionism. Thus there are even exterior properties at one level that can't be completely reduced to, or understood in terms of, exterior properties at lower levels. There also can be causative relationships that go from higher to lower, rather than the other way around. The illumination of such relationships is generally the province of complexity theory and related areas.

Wilber's model, as the preceding discussion should have made clear, takes a much more limited view of causal relationships. To reiterate, he seems to be saying that causal relationships only exist between phenomena in the same quadrant, not between those in different quadrants. If this really is his position, then Garry Jacobs' comment, quoted above, is certainly correct. It then becomes incumbent upon Wilber to show what kind of relationships do exist between these phenomena. For example, is he espousing some kind of property dualism, a la David Chalmers, that extends not simply to the brain/consciousness distinction, but to individual/social distinctions as well? That seems to be consistent with his description of holons as having a four-fold nature. However, as discussed earlier, this view is inconsistent with other descriptions of holons he has provided. The relationship of phenomena in Wilber's four quadrants remains highly problematic.

Conclusion: Liberty, Equality and Unity

If one wanted to state the difference between my model of holarchy and Wilber's in the most economical possible terms, we could say that horizontal, or hetarchical, relationships are much less prominent in mine than in his. Though I recognize such relationships throughout the holarchy, they almost never exist in the absence of hierarchical relationships. That is, whenever holons of the same kind, on the same level (or stage), interact, they begin to create a higher form of existence (Smith 20001e). Thus atoms interact to form molecules; molecules interact to form more complex molecules, and eventually cells; cell interact to form tissues and organisms; organisms interact to form societies.

While Wilber also recognizes such hetarchical interactions between holons, he postulates an additional class of horizontal interactions, those that occur between holons, or aspects of holons, in different quadrants. Thus in his model, individuals and societies, and exteriors and interiors, interact horizontally rather than vertically. Neither one of these kinds of holons, or aspects of holons, is hierarchically higher than the others.

What 's Wilber's rationale for postulating this kind of relationship? It seems to me that to a large extent it's based on a misguided sense of egalitarianism. Hierarchical or holarchical relationships are by definition asymmetric; they imply that some forms of existence are higher, more inclusive, more developed or more evolved, than others. Wilber, to his credit, not simply acknowledges but embraces this feature, and uses it to great effect in criticizing philosophies, particularly postmodernist ones, that would claim that all value judgments are relative, and therefore ultimately empty. Nobody is better than Ken Wilber at showing the logical inconsistency of this position, and once he has established that, hierarchy is the tool that he uses to build a replacement edifice.

Nevertheless, Wilber--whose incomparably broad background reading makes him extraordinarily sensitive to all points of view--recognizes that many people have an aversion to hierarchy. If we need a way of getting past the impasse that all value judgments are relative, we also need to temper our comparisons with some quality that allows people to feel that everything under the sun is, after all, ultimately equal. One way to do this is to emphasize that we all come from an ultimate Ground or Source. We are all manifestations of the Creator, and hence in some important sense we all have equal value or worth. I agree withWilber here, and greatly admire the way he has made this point. If this were as far as he went, I would have no disagreement with him at all.

This is not as far as he goes, however. He also tries to build elements of equality into the holarchy, through the distinctions of the four quadrants. In doing so, he seems to be designing the holarchy specifically to address three kinds of criticisms.

First, consider the individual/social distinction. The most common criticism of hierarchy, likely to be particularly prevalent among spiritually oriented people to whom Wilber has potentially his greatest appeal, is that it seems to justify dominance of the state over the individual. If societies are higher than any of their members, as I claim, then doesn't it follow that it's only "natural" that they control individual behavior? Doesn't my kind of view lead to support for dictatorships? Wilber, and some of his interpreters such as Fred Kofman (2001), are very outfront not simply in acknowledging this objection, but in claiming that a major reason for making the individual/social distinction is to avoid this possible criticism. They seem to be coming very, very close to saying that our views on holarchy should be shaped by what we feel is the proper relationship between individuals and societies, rather than by our observations of how these relationships actually appear.

Arguments exposing the fallacy of this view have been presented elsewhere (Smith 2001a; O'Connor 2001). I have also pointed out that this one aspect of Wilber's model, alone, leads to numerous inconsistencies and incoherencies in other parts of the model (Smith 2001c). And finally, as we have seen in this article, by tying itself to a view of the individual/social relationship that is non-hierarchical , Wilber's model is blind to certain processes that lead to the evolution of societies. That is, if we don't understand that societies are higher than their individual members, it's very difficult to recognize the role that interactions among these members play in creating higher stages of social organization.

A second way in which Wilber seems to be designing his model to address a specific objection to hierarchy is manifested in his exterior/interior distinction. Again, he sees the two as hierarchically equal, whereas in my model, interiors are usually higher than their corresponding exteriors. Here the objection Wilber is confronting is not that interiors may control or dominate exteriors, but rather that they may be reduced to them. While being higher may be advantageous in a political or social sense, in a scientific sense it is, in a strange way, like being less real. If everything can ultimately be reduced to physical processes, then to be higher, is simply to be further from the ultimate reduction. If consciousness can be explained as the effects of molecular processes, then to some people, at least, it is nothing much more than these processes. Better, then, to say that consciousness and these processes are on a par, neither above the other.

Again, my arguments against this position were made previously (Smith 2001e). Here we have examined the consequences of this position. By viewing interiors as distinct from not only exteriors but also social aspects, the four-quadrant model is unable to offer an explanation for the parallel between social development and interiority. It may claim, but does not actually see or account for, that interiority and sociality are different aspects of the same relationship, a relationship that also sheds important light on the concept of intersubjectivity. The four-quadrant model's exterior/interior distinction also leads to a view of spirituality that I believe misses the importance of transcending social interactions in raising consciousness.

Finally, by dividing phenomena into four quadrants, Wilber is hearing the pleas of many academics and scholars who protest the increasing dominance of the natural sciences, and their methods of investigation, that occurred during the last century. If, as Wilber often states, science tends to reduce everything to exteriors, and particularly individual exteriors, then what is the point or the need for studies of societies or interiors? Such studies seem to be marginalized to the point where they only serve to provide the raw data that knowledge of the brain is to explain, and as the latter knowledge grows, even these data become seen as irrelevant, even nonexistent. It's not a matter of chance that the four-quadrant model has been supported most heavily by people working or interested in what are traditionally referred to as the social sciences. Almost all the articles that are written related to Wilber's work, and almost all the discussion in online Wilber forums, focus on human beings and their interactions.

The consequences of proposing the four quadrants, as we have seen, is an apparent segregation of certain kinds of phenomena from others. In order to avoid any possibility that certain kinds will be reduced to others, the phenomena are relegated to different quadrants, which have correlative, but not causal, relationships with each other. By doing this, Wilber may be seen as a hero to many people who felt that their areas of expertise were not sufficiently appreciated. With the causal barriers up, these areas are now protected from encroachment by the hard sciences, from reduction into what Wilber disparagingly refers to as Flatland. Now we see an increasing number of studies, or proposed studies, aimed at elucidating the interior or social dimensions of phenomena that were previously studied mostly as individual exteriors.

But in the long run it seems to me that the four-quadrant model exacerbates the problem, rather than alleviating it. Surely a goal of all investigations is to achieve a synthesis and unity of knowledge, to show how phenomena are connected with one another. The traditional way we do this is by demonstrating causal relationships. There may be important kinds of non-causal interactions, such as are exemplified in property dualism and in quantum phenomena, but neither, at our present level of understanding, does much to illuminate just how one phenomenon is connected to another. So in the absence of direct evidence for them, they should be regarded as a last resort, to be applied when a causal relationship not only can't be elucidated, but can't even be conceived.. This seems to be the case for the relationship of consciousness, in the hard sense, to the physical and biological world. The case is considerably weaker for the relationship of functional mental phenomena to this world, or for the relationship of societies to individuals. In those areas, it seems to me, the four-quadrant model is doing nothing to enhance our understanding, and may even be impeding progress.

This may sound to some like a severe attack on Ken Wilber's work, but it isn't meant to be. His contributions go far beyond the development of a holarchical model, even if in recent years he has organized so much of his thinking in those terms. His synthesis of the human sciences--philosophy, psychology and anthropology, among others, and East and West--is unparalleled. But if one wants to extend this thinking to all phenomena, one has to pay attention to all of them. Anyone with some familiarity with molecular and cellular processes, in particular, should be able to see that the four-quadrant model simply doesn't work for them. The levels are defined inconsistently, and the concept of societies is even more out of touch with the facts. When these problems are exposed, they reveal similar ones at the higher levels (O'Connor 2001). For too long, Wilber has been shielded from this kind of criticism because most of his audience is more interested in what he says about human consciousness--and he often says it beautifully-- than its relationship to the rest of existence. As we come to appreciate more and more the significance of this relationship--in large part because Ken has called our attention to it--we need to frame it in a more consistent and coherent manner. The one-scale model has problems, which I haven't been shy about admitting (Smith 2001c), but it does avoid the major inconsistencies and incoherencies of the four-quadrant model.


  1. I understand that it's the stated intention of the Integral Institute to support not just people who fully agree with Wilber's model, but anyone whose work may add, as II puts it, a "piece to the puzzle". Stated in this way, though, it's clear that the II has already made up its mind what the overall model of holarchy is to look like. People who do not accept this view by definition are useful only by elucidating some partial truth within the model, not by challenging the overall principles of the model itself.

  2. Wilber might argue that the social aspects of holons are less developed on the lower levels of the holarchy, just as the exterior and interior individual aspects of holons are. Social holons become well developed only on the higher levels. But his own model rules out that argument. He recognizes social structure of a kind among certain kinds of cells, and even among atoms and molecules. Yet there are multicellular organisms, well above atoms, molecules and cells, that do not form societies. So there is no consistent relationship between holarchical development and degree of social relationships. As discussed subsequently in the text, there is a relationship between sociality and degree of development within any single level. But this is not the same kind of relationship as that existing between exterior or interior development and holarchical position.

  3. We don't actually know, of course, that any forms of life other than our own species have interiority. This is assumed by Wilber, and I agree with him. Wilber furthermore assumes, and I agree with him on this point also, that interiority becomes progressively more developed--i.e., there is more consciousness--as one moves up the holarchy. So the point I'm making here is that this kind of relationship--higher is more--is not the case with the social dimension. There are asocial forms of life that are higher in the holarchy than social ones.

  4. Though the discussion that follows assumes that these stages are hierarchically arranged, that is not necessary to the argument. That is, if one prefers, one can simply maintain that the stages a society passes through bear no particular hierarchical relationship to each other. The only point essential to my argument is that modern societies are characterized by a greater degree of interactions, direct and indirect, among their members.

  5. An exception to this is presented by individual holons that do not form societies. Their interior experience can be considered to be on the same stage as well as level of existence as the exterior form of the holon.

  6. This conclusion pertains only to some forms of interior experience, what are usually called thoughts or ideas or concepts. I recognize, as do most philosophers, that there is a second kind of experience based on a more direct perception of objects. This kind of experience is common to all people, indeed to a great many other organisms, and would not distinguish us from people of earlier societies. See Smith (2001b,e) for further discussion.
    Also, I recognize that not all interiority can be understood in terms of the one-scale axis. Consciousness in my model is in fact a separate parameter, which all holons at every level realize to different degrees. This has been discussed in detail elsewhere (Smith 2000a, 2001c), and will also be discussed later here. But the degree to which they realize consciousness, as well as the content of their experience, is determined by their social arrangements.

  7. As Wilber notes, Gebser (1986) provides powerful support for this view. I don't dispute that people of simpler cultures--contemporary or in the past--may have or have had basically the same potential for reason, abstract thought and other cognitive properties that Wilber associates with modern Western societies. What I do claim is that while living as members of simpler societies, they never exhibit this potential to the degree that members of modern societies do. In fact, I don't see how it would be possible to test people of contemporary simpler societies properly without actually bringing them into a modern Western society. The kinds of simple tests of reasoning power that can be administered to someone in his own social setting hardly offer a fair assessment of that person's cognitive development.
    I sometimes use an analogy with purely sensory perception to make this point. People of earlier societies possessed the same sensory apparatus that we do--vision, hearing, touch, and so forth. But their experiences of the world were very different from ours, because the world that presented itself to their senses was different. In somewhat the same way, while people of earlier societies may have possessed the same basic mental apparatus that we do, their mental world-- created by intersubjective human interactions--was very different from our own. This would result in not simply very different thoughts, but different ways of thinking.

  8. The point is one of half a dozen arguments I have presented against Wilber's view that the interiority and exteriority of a holon are of equal rank in the holarchy (Smith 2001g). In Wilber's model, every level of existence is associated with a distinct exterior form and a distinct interior experience. But the different interior experiences of people of different societies are associated with brains that are virtually identical. At the very least, we should expect, if his model were consistent, that the differences in human brains would be as great as those between the brains of lower organisms that also constitute distinct levels in his holarchy--the reptilian, limbic and cortical brains (Wilber 1995). As noted earlier, the relationship of a single type of exterior structure to multiple forms of interior experience is more consistently handled in my model by the use of stages within levels.

  9. Quoted in Hargens (2001b). Unless otherwise noted, all further quotes in this section are from this source.

  10. Sean Hargens is working on this idea (personal communication).

  11. Quoted in Hargens (2001a). The quote immediately following in the text is from the same source.

  12. This is not completely true. Inert atoms can interact with other atoms, inert or reactive, through weak forces such as hydrophobic or van der Waals interactions. However, these are much less stable than what are genuinely considered genuine chemical bonds.

  13. Such forms of existence have what I call a partially one-dimensional view of the world, in which a self/other distinction is made, but not on a one-dimensional axis. This is true of lifeforms at other levels of existence as well. This is discussed in Smith, in preparation.

  14. This assumes that an amino acid has experience. In my model, though not Wilber's, all molecules are social holons, not individual or fundamental holons. Whether such holons have a unified sense of self and experience the world as such a self is an open question. I have discussed this issue in Smith (2001e).

  15. I want to emphasize, however, that not every fundamental holon within a social holon participates in these higher-dimensional properties. Consider the amino acid again. The carbon and hydrogen atoms in the interior of the molecule do not change their state--or do so to only a very slight degree--when the amino acid as a whole responds to changes in pH. These atoms may have some one-dimensional experience, by virtue of forming chemical bonds with other atoms, but they have little or no information about atoms that are not their immediate neighbors, nor can they make intensity discriminations of the pH in the medium. Likewise, not every neuron in a ganglion is able to make the intensity discriminations that the ganglion as a whole can.
    So participation in the one-dimensional properties of and amino acid is restricted to only a few atoms, and participation in the one-dimensional properties of a ganglion is restricted to a few neurons. This is a general principle found throughout the holarchy. In fact, whenever fundamental holons are found within a higher-order holon, there is a range of participation, with some holons participating completely or almost completely inthe properties of the higher-order holon, other holons participating to a limited extent, and still other holons not participating at all. This can be seen very clearly in human societies, where some individuals have much access to higher dimensional properties of the society than do others. They generally do so because their relationships with other members of the society are both more extensive, and of a higher quality, in ways that we will consider later.

  16. It's not enough here to say that Wilber believes individuals can have properties independent of those of society. Any form of extremely regressive, asocial behavior, which ignores all social rules and conventions, might be described as independent, or largely so, of society. This kind of behavior is exhibited by, for example, very small children. But this form of behavior, in Wilber's understanding (and mine), is lower than society. It's independent of society in the sense that it has not developed to the point where it can even engage with society. The kind of independence I'm concerned with here is behavior that is on the same level as society (as Wilber's model declares is always the case with mature individuals). It's behavior that is just as developed as any social form of behavior, and yet which is completely independent of any interactions with society on the part of the individual. This independence must be assumed to be Wilber's view, for if there were any dependence on social interactions, the behavior would immediately be seen to be a social property, not something exclusive to the individual.

  17. As I have argued in Smith (2000d), it's very difficult--basically, impossible--todetermine whether, or to what extent, someone has realized a higher state of awareness. So I maintain that the figures Wilber cites, small as they are, are almost certainly overestimates.

  18. Another way to make the same argument is to consider the situation if the two individuals were philosophical zombies, that is, people with no experience at all, yet whose observable behavior is identical to that of normal people (Chalmers 1996). Because neither individual possessed any interiority in the hard sense, there could be no differences in interiority in this sense between them. Yet there would be profound differences in their observable behavior. One individual would appear to any observer to understand and be familiar with the language completely, while the other would not. The first individual could make his way around this foreign land with no trouble, asking questions, reading signs, conversing with other people, and so on, while the other person would be lost without a translator. This example, though purely hypothetical, demonstrates the extent to which purely exterior structures or processes can account for differences in individuals.

  19. Quoted in Hargens (2001a). The following quote is from the same source.

  20. Quotes are from Visser (2001a).

  21. Quoted in Hargens (2001a).

  22. This is not quite correct. I don't claim that mind transcends the body, because both are on the same level of existence. But mind is higher than body, because it's on a higher stage within the same level as body. The term I use to describe this relationship is transform rather than transcend.

  23. Quoted in Visser (2001). Further quotes in this section are from the same source.

  24. Hall (1990), p. 12.

  25. I have sketched out this argument only very briefly, and it may seem to some that the relationship between degree of social development and extent of personal space is not as straightforward as I have presented it. Underdeveloped countries tend to be overpopulated, so that people have no choice but to adapt to crowded conditions, whereas Western nations generally have a lower population density, fostering the conditions for larger personal spaces. There are numerous exceptions, however. Japan is a highly developed country with a very high population density, and people in Japan are adapted to living in much smaller personal spaces than those common in the West. And conversely, there are indigenous peoples who live in small bands that occupy relatively large areas, and who may seem to have a sense of vast personal space.
    I would argue, however, first, that while the Japanese have learned to live in what we Americans would consider close quarters, they still have relatively large personal spaces. The success of the Japanese life seems to depend not so much on their having small personal spaces as their learning how to tolerate pressure on large personal spaces. It has often been observed that Japanese can maintain a sense of personal privacy even while being closely surrounded by others. As Hall (1990) puts it, personal space is maintained not so much by keeping a certain distance, but by the performance of certain rituals, such as bowing, and the use of honorific terms of address. These rituals are not found in undeveloped countries, at least not nearly to the degree that they are in Japan. So we might say that while the personal space of Japanese is necessarily smaller than that of Westerners, it is fortified in certain ways.
    With respect to indigenous cultures, I believe their members have very small personal spaces in their interactions with one another. They have adapted to the existence of larger natural spaces,but they don't exhibit a need to maintain large distances from one another. On the contrary, unlike Western societies, where people in the country generally live quite far apart from one another, members of indigenous societies do not spread themselves out out over the entire expanse of their region, but tend to concentrate in a village or other population center. In many cases, such as with earlier Native American tribes, large segments of the village would even live in a single communal lodge.
    In summary, while I don't claim that all cultural differences in personal space can be explained in terms of holarchical relationships, the role of the latter is substantial, enough to be observed even when other factors are present. Moreover, and most important, the fact that there is nevertheless a fairly significant (inverse) correlation between degree of social development and population density is not an alternative explanation for our larger personal space--i.e., size of personal space is determined by physical limits to separation of individuals--but in fact constitutes evidence supporting my contention that the size of this space is closely correlated with degree of social development. The existence of lower poplulation densities in developed countries has not come about by chance. Most developed countries tend to promote practices, such as birth control and immigration quotas, that are intended to stablize population density, or at least keep its growth at a relatively low rate. It's my claim that the need for greater personal space in large part drives these practices.

  26. Jacobs (2001). The following quote is from the same source.

  27. Visser (2001). All further quotes in this section are from the same source.


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