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

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



Uniting Developmental and
Conceptual Relationships

Andrew P. Smith

A major criticism that I and several others have made of Wilber's four quadrant model is that it conflates two views of the four quadrants. On the one hand, they are said to contain holons; on the other, they represent different aspects or dimensions of holons. In a PDF that I understand resulted from a dialogue of Wilber with Mark Edwards (Ken Responds to Recent Critics: Mark Edwards, Jeff Meyerhofff and Others), an attempt was made to clarify this position:

In Ken's work, an individual holon possesses quadrants or four dimensions/perspectives. Each of those quadrants also “contains” other holons. For example, the individual human holon possesses an individual-exterior dimension (the Upper Right), and yet the UR-quadrant contains atoms (which are holons), molecules (which are holons), cells (which are holons), and so on. Each of those holons possesses four quadrants. Therefore it is perfectly ok to speak about each holon possessing four quadrants, as well as the quadrant possessing or containing holons. You simply have to be able to take multiple perspectives to be able to understand this.

This is in effect a semi-clever trick that avoids the charge of conflation by withdrawing one of the conflationary definitions, without appearing to do so. Let me state this very clearly: the four quadrants are now understood as dimensions of individual holons. Period. The second sentence in the passage just quoted, “Each of those quadrants also 'contains' other holons”, is not strictly correct. Each of the quadrants contains aspects of holons, not holons themselves. One cannot say, for example, that the individual-exterior dimension of a human holon contains atoms in all their four-dimensional senses. It contains the individual-exterior aspects of atoms only.


To repeat, the quadrants do not contain holons, but only aspects of holons. This may seem like quibbling, but the distinction is important. Wilber has acceded, without, as usual, admitting as much, to Edwards's view of holons. In his very valuable and insightful 7-part series, Through AQAL Eyes, Mark emphasized the view of quadrants as a lens through which any holon could be viewed. He sometimes refers to it as a Theory for Anything (TFA), as opposed to the holons in quadrants that he calls as Theory of Everything (TOE). The TFA is basically the view of holons expressed in the passage quoted above. As I have pointed out before (An IMP Runs Amok), this may be a valid way of seeing the quadrants, but it is also a tacit admission that the four quadrant model is not a TOE, or hierarchical scheme of everything. To view the four quadrants as a lens precludes using them to represent all forms of existence. That is, to create a TOE, one has to use multiple TFA diagrams, in effect stacking them up. Edwards, while stopping short of renouncing the TOE view, showed that he understood this problem and abandoned any attempts to represent everything on a single diagram, preferring in fact to draw a separate diagram for every holon.

The four quadrant diagram, as described in the passage quoted above, might nevertheless seem to include everything—and this is where the clever part of the trick comes in--because within an individual human one can indeed find many lower forms of existence, such as atoms, molecules and cells. We do indeed contain representative examples of many different kinds of holons. But as ontogeny does not anywhere near perfectly capture phylogeny, one can hardly claim that all of existence is represented in a human organism. If it could be, trust me, someone before Wilber would have figured that out.

For starters, where are all the other organisms? Wilber tries to include them, as I have discussed elsewhere (Holarchic Sense, Holarchic Nonsense), by representing in the UR not actual organisms, but the brains of organisms. He can then claim, loosely, that a human brain contains the brains of other organisms, because of the hierarchical relationships of these brains. But the price he pays for this is obvious: there is no representation anywhere in his hierarchy of actual organisms. In practice, they are considered to be individual exteriors; the idea is that we can, speaking loosely, refer to these brains as organisms. But this loose usage covers up an important distinction. Organisms, unlike their brains, do not transcend and include one another (neither, in fact, do their brains, as pointed out in Holarchic Sense, Holarchic Nonsense).

A second problem emerges, as Edwards again understood, when we try to represent societies. If the four quadrant diagram is to include all forms of existence, it obviously must have room for social holons. But where? If quadrants do not contain holons, but only aspects of holons, where do societies go? Is a human society, for example, supposed to be represented in the LR as the social aspect or dimension of an individual human? This seems to be Ken's view in the PDF:

Ken sees the quadrants as the interior and the exterior of the singular and the plural. Seen that way, there's simply an occasion, which possess (sic) four dimensions, one of which is individual, and one of which is collective or social.

To just about everyone else, including Mark Edwards, the view that society is the same thing as the social aspect of some individual holon is obviously illogical. For one thing, any society includes far more than just the interactions of any one of its members. For another, if a society is the same thing as the social exterior aspect of an individual, we really don't have to distinguish between individual and social holons at all. They are both just aspects or dimensions of a single kind of holon that is fundamentally neither (just) individual nor social. Yet the PDF again confirms the view of both Wilber and Edwards that a distinction must be made between individual and social holons: “there are four different kinds of wholes (individuals, groups/societies…).” Edwards responded to such problems again by creating a different diagram, actually series of diagrams, for social holons, and arguing that we should keep them well separated from individual holons.

If we adopt Edwards' view, we have a second reason why no single four quadrant diagram can represent all of existence. We have to have at least two diagrams, one for individual holons and one for social holons. Edwards in fact suggests we need to represent still other kinds of hierarchical phenomena with other kinds of diagrams. His envisioned TOE obviously involves a lot of images floating around. But suppose we take the view, illogical as it seems, that the individual social exterior is in fact the society. Does this allow Wilber to represent individual and social holons on the same TOE?

Developmental vs. Conceptual Hierarchies

Consider again the key statement in the passage quoted above: “Each of those quadrants also 'contains' other holons.” Wilber attempts to illustrate this point with an example from the UR, but if his logic is correct, it ought to apply just as well to the other quadrants. For example, an individual human also possesses a social-exterior dimension, the Lower Right. Let's assume that the LR represents human societies. Then let's ask what this LR quadrant contains. Following Wilber's logic, it must contain the social exterior or LR dimensions of atoms, molecules, cells, and so on. But according to Wilber, the social exteriors of atoms are stars; the social exteriors of molecules are planets; and the social exteriors of cells are various planetary collections of single-celled organisms. So is Wilber saying that the social exterior aspect or dimension of an individual human, a human society, includes stars, planets, and mega-cell colonies?

This might be true in a very restricted or conceptual sense involving the rules or laws of organization of these collections. According to Wilber, societies consist only of the interactions of their members, not it seems, the members themselves. Elsewhere, I have challenged this claim, and pointed out that Wilber himself contradicts it, both explicitly and implicitly (An IMP Runs Amok), but here, for the sake of argument, let's accept it. We could possibly say that interactions within a human society transcend and include those within bacterial colonies, which in turn transcend and include those within planets. I say “possibly”, because no one to my knowledge has ever described in detail these interactions in such a way that it would be possible to make such a comparison. The reason no one has is that these “societies” are so simple as to be hardly worth the effort. Even the interactions among one-celled organisms are so rudimentary as to make it a huge leap to go from them to societies of any organisms, let alone humans. I will return to this point later.

Be that as it may, even if we bend over backward to give Wilber the benefit of the doubt here, the atomic, molecular and cellular “societies” he describes are not the evolutionary precursors of human societies. The four quadrant model is supposed to be a developmental scheme, and this is true for individual exteriors. Atoms evolved or developed into molecules, which developed into cells, and so on.[1]

But stars, planets, and mega-colonies are not the developmental precursors of human societies. Human societies did not evolve or develop from bacterial colonies in anything like the way that individual humans evolved from cells. The evolutionary precursors of human societies, as any anthropologist will tell you, are human beings themselves. This is true regardless of whether one defines societies as containing just the interactions of their members, or also the members themselves. If you look at the sweep of evolution, from atoms to molecules to cells, and so on, human societies are just one more manifestation of that evolutionary process, and they directly follow the evolution of individual humans. This is not to say that individual humans evolved completely before the evolution of human societies. There was considerable co-evolution involved, with individuals continuing to evolve as societies emerged, and the further evolution of societies, in turn, affected by the evolution of individuals. But the same is true throughout evolution. The evolution of molecules continued after the emergence of cells, and was profoundly affected by cells. The evolution of cells continued after the evolution of organisms, and was profoundly affected by organisms.

We began this train of logic by assuming that the social exterior of an individual human is an entire human society. That view seems to be consistent with some of Wilber's statements, though he is not very clear on this. The alternative view, the one expressed by Edwards as I understand him, is that the social exterior of an individual is not society, but simply the interactions of that individual with other individuals in the society. This is what he calls communion. Taking the logical argument in this direction, we confront the same problem. According to the four quadrant model, the social exterior aspects of an individual human must contain the social exterior aspects of individual atoms (their interactions within stars), individual molecules (their interactions within planets), and so on. Again, this may be true in a very weak conceptual sense, but it is obviously not true in a developmental sense. The developmental precursor of any individual's social interactions, like that of the society as a whole, is the individual.[2]

A Developmental and Conceptual Continuum

To summarize, Wilber claims that his four quadrants represent two compatible views of holons, either aspects of holons (TFA) or what we might call full or complete holons (TOE). In fact, as it is now described, only the first definition is retained. The model does not and cannot represent quadrants as containing holons, and therefore it cannot represent a theory of everything. Wilber (or whoever the author of the PDF was) hides this problem by saying things such as “You simply have to be able to take multiple perspectives to be able to understand this.” But adopting multiple perspectives does not free you from the rules of elementary logic. Your multiple perspectives still have to be consistent with each other. I can say that both evolutionary biologists and creationists are correct if I take each of their perspectives and say that it is valid. But of course the two perspectives are not consistent, so both can't be valid

More specifically, the inconsistency is hidden by the implication that a particular holon, such as a human individual holon, contains all other kinds of holons within itself, but this is not strictly true. Human beings do not contain all other forms of life, and a particular problem arises when we consider societies. Edwards, reflecting a view that is traditionally associated with Wilber, argues that individuals and societies form distinct developmental series, and therefore shouldn't be represented on the same diagram. Regardless of whether we do or don't do this, however, another inconsistency is revealed when we examine the kinds of relationships in these two hierarchies. Wilber applies the usual rules of developmental relationships to individual holons and to individual exteriors, while applying a very different kind of relationship to social holons or social exteriors of individual holons.[3] While never openly acknowledging this distinction, he apparently rationalizes it by claiming that societies consist of or contain only the interactions of their members, not the members themselves. However, as noted earlier there are flaws in this premise, and applying it requires making an unnecessary distinction that in effect covers up a more fundamental flaw.

As I have argued again and again and again, this fundamental flaw is the inability to recognize that individual and social holons exist in a developmental continuum. Individual holons develop and evolve into social holons, and vice-versa. The evolutionary evidence for this is overwhelming, it is totally beyond debate. For example, Wilber claims that the social holons of cells are represented by large colonies of eukaryotic cells. They might be considered a very primitive type of cell society. But during evolution, some of those societies evolved into more complexly organized associations of cells that were the developmental precursors of organisms. Likewise, cells evolved, in the view of almost all scientists, from primitive societies of interacting molecules. Any developmental model that doesn't recognize this is simply ignoring very well known evolutionary facts.

When one does recognize and accept this, it is possible to construct a model which, though not perfect (see All Four One and One For All), is largely internally consistent. The individual and social exteriors of social as well as individual holons can be defined in terms of the developmental relationships of these holons to each other. Moreover, the more limited or conceptual view of these relationships in terms of interactions of individual holons is not only addressed but provided a much more believable basis. For example, as implied by the discussion in the preceding paragraph, the most highly evolved societies of cells are not micro-organism colonies, but cells within organisms. The interactions of these kinds of cells, particularly cells in the brain, are far more complex than those among micro-organisms, and are the true conceptual precursors of the social relationships among organisms.[4]

Indeed, these interactions are biologically as well as conceptually necessary for the social interactions of organisms. No scientist would deny that the ability of organisms to enter into particular social relationships is closely associated with the ability of cells in its brain to enter into certain kinds of relationships with one another. So it is completely unnecessary to draw a distinction between the hierarchical relationships of individual holons, based on a developmental progression, and the hierarchical relationships of social holons, based on a conceptual progression. Both types of relationships are implicit in a developmental scheme that recognizes that both types of holons evolve in a single continuum.[5]

A Theory of Some Things

I have gone through what some readers may find to be a convoluted argument, because I want to demonstrate that the distinction between evolutionary and conceptual hierarchy is crucial to Ken Wilber's four quadrant model. Without this distinction, which I have never seen him acknowledge, the model falls apart. Recall, however, that I got onto this subject as a way of pointing out that this model is not a TOE; it is only a TFA, that refers to dimensions or aspects of holons. The quadrants do not contain holons, as Wilber claims and as is required by a TOE, because there is no specific holon, such as a human, that contains all the other holons. But there is actually a much simpler, easier-to-understand way to show this-and in the process, we see that even the TFA version of the four quadrant model does not really work.

Let's return to the passage I quoted at the beginning of this article. Notice again the statement, "the individual human holon possesses an individual-exterior dimension (the Upper Right), and yet the UR-quadrant contains atoms (which are holons), molecules (which are holons), cells (which are holons), and so on." Like all of Wilber's holons, atoms, molecules and cells are supposed to have four dimensions, including a social one. So let's ask, what is the social dimension of these holons, for example, of the cells in the human holon? If we look at Wilber's standard four quadrant diagram, the social dimension of eukaryotic cells is represented by ecosystems. The cells in the human body do exist as members of an ecosystem, in a sense, but so does the entire human organism, including the brain, in the same sense. When I say the organism or the brain, I do not just mean the cells that make up the organism or the brain, but that those holons, which transcend and include their cells, equally exist as members of ecosystems. Arguably more so, since they mediate or interface the existence of individual cells within ecosystems. It would be more accurate to say that organisms are members of ecosystems, while their individual cells are members of organisms. I am quite sure any ecologist would agree with this.

The same is true with molecules and cells. Wilber is forced to say that the molecules within cells in the human body exist in a society consisting of the planet, while atoms within the molecules are members of a society consisting of stars (presumably the solar system). Again, we can see that they are no more members of these societies than the higher holons they exist within, molecules, cells and organisms. Again, it is much more accurate-not to mention in line with common sense-to say that atoms and molecules as well as cells that are within organisms are members of organisms. This is true regardless of whether we define members as existing within societies, as Wilber sometimes does, or only the interactions between members, as Wilber does at other times. The interactions between atoms, molecules and cells that are within organisms all take place within organisms, and in fact constitute organisms. They interact with ecosystems in a sense so indirect that it could be used to argue that virtually anything is a member of anything else.

This train of logic supports the notion, as I have maintained all along, that the societies of all these holons are to be understood as the holons they actually exist within-molecules, cells, tissues and organs. Not only does this fit with common sense, but it is also more consistent in another way with our understanding of societies of organisms, including our own. Societies of organisms are always composed of members who are highly similar to each other-the same species, and in Wilber's definition, even finer discriminations with humans. But ecosystems are highly heterogeneous in their composition of cells or organisms. To say that many different species of cells form a society in an ecosystem is very different from saying a single species of organism forms a society. This problem can be avoided by recognizing that societies of cells are formed by genetically identical members in the tissues of an organism. They are far more analogous to human societies.

In any case, this argument shows that in the four quadrant model, no individual holon contains any lower individual holon possessing four quadrants. The cells, molecules or atoms within an individual organism all lack social dimensions in a sense that can be consistently defined. So do the molecules and atoms within individual cells, and the atoms within individual molecules. So the use of the four quadrant model in a more restricted manner, as a TFA, is also seriously compromised. While we might represent any particular holon in terms of four quadrants, we can't look at the individual holons within and below it. We might still stack up a series of these holons, as Edwards proposes to do to create a TOE, but then a great deal is left out-all the social dimensions of all the individual holons within individual holons.

Does it matter?

Many people may wonder whether these points are worth arguing over. Wilber's four quadrants, as used as a TFA or “lens” by Edwards, do have some value in classifying and perhaps understanding phenomena. Though this system is riddled with inconsistencies, particularly in the relationship of individual to social, these inconsistencies are clearest on lower, non-human levels of existence, that neither Edwards, nor it seems much of anyone else except me, carefully examines. One could say that Wilber's model, though failing as a grand scheme of existence, is still useful in a more limited psychological and sociological context. I understand that many people are excited about the relevance of the four quadrants to social issues. In fact, most people who consider themselves “integral” seem to be far more concerned with phenomena at this level, and really aren't concerned that the four quadrant model has thus far proven to have little if any value to scientists.

One response to this is that understanding societies as a higher order holon with important analogies to higher order holons on lower levels of existence opens up new ways of understanding our relationship to them. From Weber to Durkheim to Berger, Habermas and Bhaskar, theorists have wrestled with the relationship of individuals to societies, tending to see either one or the other as dominant. All of these theorists have been limited, though, by the fact that as members of societies, they can only see the society through that membership. While no individual member of society is completely free from this bias of perspective, understanding just how the individual /social relationship is mirrored on lower levels allows us some insight into what a different perspective would be like.[6] Complexity theorists have shown that there are fairly precise laws that govern some aspects of social organization, and that, on lower levels of existence, these laws are most evident in social organizations that are components of higher order individual holons.[7] This suggests that we can best appreciate the limits as well the promises of these laws by understanding societies as developing both from and to individuals.

As societies struggle to understand and change the behavior of their members, these issues will become more and more important. A recent UN report posted at this site (The Use of an Integral Approach by UNDP's HIV/AIDS Group) had high praise for the four quadrant approach in halting the spread of AIDS. But not all the evidence suggests that a four quadrant approach is necessary or even helpful. In his much discussed book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argues that crime in the New York City subway system was drastically reduced not by a simultaneous attack on individual and social behavior and consciousness, but rather a much more focused approach on just individual behavior, and a very restricted portion of behavior at that. This idea, known to criminologists as the broken windows approach, is highly controversial, and it remains to be seen how widely applicable it may be. Yet Gladwell's book was full of other examples of how the behavior of large numbers of individuals can be rapidly and effectively changed by focusing narrowly on a single parameter. Such evidence challenges the easy view that all social problems can or should be understood in terms of four quadrants. To believe that individuals have interior and social as well as individual and exterior aspects does not mean that these aspects manifest themselves equally in every “occasion”. A model based on a single continuum does not deny these different dimensions, but neither is it committed to them in explaining all phenomena.


[1] The same may possibly be true for individual interiors, though there is no evidence I'm aware of that actually supports this claim. Most scientists and philosophers would say that human (or animal) consciousness evolved from the interaction of cells in the brain, but they would not say that the interiors of organisms contain or developed from interiors or consciousness of cells. They would say that consciousness evolved from the interactions of cells as viewed as exteriors. However, there is nothing logically inconsistent from taking the view that they evolved from lower holon interiors.

[2] Actually, using this understanding of social exterior makes the situation even worse for Wilber. If we consider the social exterior of any particular individual, it is unique, not exactly like that of any other individual. How, then, are we to relate this unique social exterior to the generalized social exteriors of atoms in stars? A hierarchical model should be able to explain, in theory if not yet in practice, how the interactions of one holon are related to those of the holons it is composed of. This is quite out of the question as long as the holonic relationships are understood in a purely conceptual sense.

[3] He is not even consistent within the social hierarchies. He distinguishes several different kinds of human societies, all of which are developmentally as well as conceptually related, in contrast to societies at other levels that are only conceptually related.

[4] As I have discussed elsewhere (An IMP Runs Amok), the interactions of cells in the brain can be described by some of the same mathematical relationships as those of individuals in human societies.

[5] As I have discussed at length elsewhere (e.g., Wilber's Eight-Fold Way; the Pros and Cons of Pronouns) this view also avoids the necessity of creating many other distinctions, which prove to be redundant. For example: “Mark sees the four quadrants as interior and exterior of agency and communion.” What is “communion” if not the interactions among individual holons within a social holon which Wilber says actually constitutes the social holon? Wilber claims that what Edwards calls dimensions are actually “drives”, but whatever one wishes to call them, it is precisely these interactions that create the development of social holons from individual holons. All or virtually all of their increasingly cumbersome distinctions can be understood as simply the interactions between individual and social holons that exist in a developmental continuum.

[6] See An IMP Runs Amok, where I use this approach to criticize the notion that societies are composed only of the interactions of their members.

[7] See endnote 4.

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