Check out my review of Ken Wilber's latest book Finding Radical Wholeness

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).


The Language of development

How Societies Create Minds

Andy Smith

My model provides a way to answer the question that Wilber's system begs: why are interiors and societies so closely correlated?

I recently posted a critique of Tyler Volk's book Quarks to Culture, in which I discussed some aspects of my own holarchical view of existence. In an email, Frank Visser responded with a question: “Being a brainwashed Wilberian, even if a reformed one, I have always had trouble getting your view on interiority. Instead of seeing it as a separate, parallel reality to the exterior world you present it as the result of “looking up” to higher levels, or to society as an upcoming level. But where do you place the sequence of developmental stages from sensory to post-formal and beyond in your one-scale model?”

My brief answer to Frank at the time was that I haven't identified most of these developmental stages in my one scale model (Table 1) because I see them as occurring at a finer grain of detail than the model in general is concerned with. In my view, there are five social stages in every level of existence, and in the cultural level, where humans reside, just the two highest stages represent human societies. The fourth stage corresponds closely to the sensorimotor stage in human development, the first stage in Piaget's most basic scheme, while the fifth stage includes all the subsequent stages (preoperational; concrete operational; formal operational).[1]

Table 1. The One-Scale Model (Andy Smith)
CULTURAL Society-based ecological communities Human societies
Family-based ecological communities Bird and mammal societies
Small ecological communities Invertebrate food webs
Complex invertebrate societies Ant colony
Simple invertebrate societies Coral reef
BIOLOGICAL Small world networks Brain
Advanced cell networks Neuronal ganglia
Simple cell networks Motor unit
Advanced cell colonies Multicellular tissues
Primitive cell colonies Bacterial colonies
PHYSICAL Metabolic systems Citric acid cycle
Metabolic macromolecules Enzymatic complexes
Complex macromolecules Proteins
Biological polymers Peptides
Small molecules Amino acids

It would be possible, though, to account for each developmental stage within my one-scale framework, and that's what I propose to do here. That is, I will show that each of Piaget's four developmental stages is associated with a specific kind of social organization—a stage within the cultural level—and that through interactions with other members of that group, the child develops the specific interior properties associated with that stage. The result, in effect, is a more detailed breakdown of the fifth stage in my model, revealing it to be composed of several sub-stages, if you like.

Demonstrating these relationships is important not simply because it allows me to retain the one-scale approach, in which interiors, as well as societies, can be placed on the same axis as individual holons. The exercise also helps elucidate the relationship between the two. Wilber's four-quadrant model (Diagram 1) also correlates interior or cognitive features with various social stages. Thus his Lower-Right axis contains such social organizations as families, foraging societies, farming societies, industrial societies, and so on, and these correspond both to certain specific kinds of brains or brain structures (Upper-Right), as well specific kinds of interiors or experiences (Upper-Left), such as impulse, emotion, symbols, and so on. But he's mostly silent on exactly how they relate. E.g., why are societies with a division of labor composed of organisms that manifest sensation, or why would members of an agrarian society not develop beyond the conop stage (if that is indeed the case)? Beyond the well-known social brain hypothesis (Dunbar 2003), which claims that our complex neocortex evolved in order to allow us to comprehend the increasingly complex interactions of growing human societies, very little work in this area seems to have been done.

Ken Wilber's Four Quadrant Model
Diagram 1. Ken Wilber's Four Quadrant Model

In my model, where interiors result from interactions of individual holons with social organizations they belong to, this relationship is explicit. It provides a way to answer the question that Wilber's system begs: why are interiors and societies so closely correlated? That answer, in my view, is that interiors are first and foremost not individual but social properties, created by the society. Individuals experience these interiors by virtue of participating in these societies. This is a process of “looking up”, as Frank put it, because in my view, societies are higher than the individuals who compose them. But since we are members of these societies, we are looking up into something that we are a part of. We are incompletely manifesting the properties of the entire society.

One of the best examples of this relationship is symbolic language. Each of us individually can understand language, and we know that our use of it correlates with certain neural processes in the brain—in some cases, even groups of related words can be localized to certain brain areas (Huth et al. 2016). But it doesn't follow that language is the result of just these processes. As Terrence Deacon puts it:

it does not make sense to think of the symbols as located anywhere within the brain, because they are relationships between tokens, not the tokens themselves; and even though specific neural connections may underlie these relationships, the symbolic function is not even constituted by a specific association but the virtual set of associations that are partially sampled in any one instance. Widely distributed neural systems must contribute in a coordinated fashion to create and interpret symbolic relationships.[2]

The key phrase in this passage is “virtual set of associations”. It's virtual because it does not exist in toto in the brain of any single individual. Only society as a whole has a complete (or the most nearly complete) understanding of a language. Any individual, of course, experiences a meaning when s/he uses language, and this is what a neural correlate of language must be associated with; but an individual's meaning points or refers to the social meaning. And it's this social meaning that allows language to function at all. As Wittgenstein (1958) pointed out, language would have no purpose, not make any sense, for an isolated individual.

So language is a social property that deeply informs the experiences of every individual in that society. This kind of a relationship, in a nutshell, forms the basis for understanding all interiors in my model. In my view, every interior is a property of some specific kind of social organization, and our experience of that interior is a kind of language—that is, a shared way of representing our experiences of the world. This understanding—which is a version of what is referred to as the embodied view of mind (Thompson and Varela 2001; Noe and Thompson 2004)—not only provides an explanation for why cognitive and social development are closely correlated, but as I will discuss later, with the help of other features of my model addresses the question of how interiors are created by societies.

I will begin by discussing Piaget's four basic stages of development, showing how cognitive features that emerge at each stage are closely correlated with the social organization the child belongs to at that stage. This discussion should make it clear that these developmental stages fit easily into the framework of my model, i.e., are higher stages, or sub-stages, in the cultural level of existence. I will then provide an argument for how these cognitive developments are actually created by social interactions.

Making space: the sensorimotor stage

The first stage in child development, occurring over approximately the first two years after birth, is usually referred to as sensorimotor. During this period, the child learns to view the environment in three spatial dimensions, and identify objects and other people within these dimensions. This is the sensory side, with which I'll be mainly concerned here. The child of course also learns how to move in this three-dimensional space, crawling then walking, grasping objects, pointing to things, and so on. This is important in learning to understand the fourth dimension, time. In fact, the two aspects of behavior, sensory and motor, are closely related. The child learns about the sensory environment by moving through it, and it learns about movement by the way it changes its relationship to the sensory environment.

An awareness of time is what in fact distinguishes this stage, as an evolutionary one, from the preceding stage. As I will discuss later, organisms emerging in the preceding stage experience the world in three dimensional space, much as we do, but have a much more limited sense of time. Time, the fourth dimension, is critical to experiencing not simply objects and other people or organisms, but processes or events. Organisms at the fourth stage, including humans, usually communicate or signal to each other through behavior patterns—a series of fairly specific movements occurring over time—and such signals are only recognized to the extent that one can incorporate time as a dimension into one's experience.

The social group associated with this stage is clearly the family. While the child usually has some interactions with individuals outside of the family, those with family members, especially of course the mother, are primary. These are usually the most intimate relationships a human being will form, until reaching the age when s/he may begin its own family, and its membership in this group helps sensorimotor development in several ways.

First, by observing the interactions of its family members with each other and with objects, the child learns about these members and about the environment. For example, the child learns to navigate around large objects like tables, through doorways, up and down steps, and so on, in part by watching other family members do this. The child also learns from such observation that it has a body, much like that of other people, and that it can move its body and its parts in various ways. Much of this learning is through imitation, and is a form of what Jablonka and Lamb (2005) call behavioral evolution. This is like cultural evolution, except that the new form of behavior is transferred non-symbolically. The child at this stage has not yet begun to develop language.

Second, because the child sees family members on a daily basis, and generally does not spend long periods of time in their absence, it learns to distinguish individuals. In my model, this feature is closely associated with three-dimensional experience. Organisms—most vertebrates, but also some invertebrates—that can perceive their environment in three dimensions generally can distinguish different members of their species. Why this should be the case I will discuss later. This learning process is enhanced in a family, not only because there is so much exposure to the other members, but because the number of distinctions to be made is relatively few, and there are clearly defining features (gender differences and age/size differences, for example).

Third, because the child usually spends most of its time in one location, the home, it frequently becomes very familiar with certain objects in the environment. Since it sees these objects regularly, and usually does not go long periods of time in their absence, this promotes the development of object permanence, an understanding that these objects continue to exist even when they aren't being directly experienced. The same process is in play with regard to family members, who are also experienced regularly. Object permanence, of course, presupposes some understanding of time, so we can say that at this point, near the end of the sensorimotor stage, the child is experiencing not only three-dimensional space, but a fourth dimension as well.

Finally, the extensive experience the child has with features of the home also promotes its ability to form mental images of familiar people and other objects. These images are the first form of mental representation, and a step in the direction of symbolic language. Mental images, at least initially, are weaker representations of people or objects as they are directly experienced, so the more frequent and intense this experience is, the greater the information available for forming these images.

These examples illustrate how membership in a family promotes the kind of development typical during the sensorimotor stage. But there are two further aspects of this relationship I want to emphasize. First, there is a two-way process going on, much as there was during evolution. According to the well-known social brain hypothesis, evolutionary enlargement and development of the human brain occurred as human societies became larger and more complex, with the evolution of each affecting the other. We can say much the same about human development. While sensorimotor development of the baby depends on social bonds formed with its family members, these bonds are also strengthened and made more complex by the child's development. After all, a family consisting of only an adult couple is very different from one consisting of a couple and a child. While the parents don't develop nearly as dramatically as their child does, they do necessarily change to some extent.

Second, the child's sensorimotor development can be understood as a process in which it observes the interactions among family members, including itself, as well as objects within the home. I already pointed out that much of what the child learns occurs through observation and imitation of other family members. In fact, everything that it learns occurs through some kind of observation through the senses, and not just of other individuals and objects, but of the relationships between them. For example, when object permanence develops, the child learns, first, that an object it experienced earlier is still in the same place when it returns to that place. Later, it becomes capable of recognizing the object even if it's moved, because of the specific spatial—size, shape—and other—e.g., color, texture— identifying relationships within that object.

This is a fairly obvious yet extremely significant point, because in my model, as I emphasized earlier, interiors, or mental experiences, result from looking at social stages to which we belong. The first interior of this kind to emerge during child development occurs during the sensorimotor stage. While three-dimensional space is how we apprehend the external world, interiors do play a role, chiefly through time. Children at this very young age not only experience the external world, but as I noted, begin to form images of it. These images are important not only for memory, which allows object permanence to develop, but even for the immediate experience of the world. Studies have shown that when we view familiar parts of the world, much of what we see is not the result of direct experience, but a construct based on previous experience (Lee 2002, 2015). For example, if we enter a room in a home where we live, we see to a large extent what we expect to see, what we have seen in previous experiences of that room. This is only possible with the experience of a temporal dimension.

In fact, as I will argue later, even our experience of the three dimensions of space is a social property. It results from the same kind of social interactions, though at a somewhat simpler stage, as those that create language. So while space and the objects it contains, including the physical bodies of ourselves and other people, are experienced as exteriors, they are created by the same kinds of processes that create interiors.

Name-calling: the preoperational stage

The next stage, pre-op, ushers in symbolic language. We have just seen how in the sensorimotor stage, the child learns how to pick out objects and other people from the environment. Building on that, it now learns to associate each of these objects or individuals with a word. Initially, this word probably refers to an immediate experience. For example, every time the child sees a favorite stuffed toy, it says, bear. But as it has by this time developed object permanence, the word is beginning to refer to something that exists beyond the experience, and this in turn leads to the development of concepts. These are words that describe not simply a particular object, but a class of objects, like bears, and eventually, toys.[3]

So memory, and more generally, the child's awareness of time, develops further during this stage. Part of this development results from an extension of the first dimension of time; it's no longer limited to relatively short periods that define processes or events, but begins to stretch out well into both the past and the future. This is critical to one of the most significant evolutionary advances of our species: the ability to simulate future events by reference to the past. We can mentally imagine the consequences of a series of actions, allowing us, of course, to avoid many mistakes, to act more rationally and efficiently. While this ability is usually associated with older children, recent studies suggest that the ability to simulate the future in a limited manner begins to emerge in the preop stage (Hudson et al. 2011; Redshaw and Suddendorf 2013).

However, the child's sense of time develops in another sense as well, which I refer to as a second dimension. I will discuss this in more detail later, but here I will just say that it plays a key role in how we understand ourselves and others. The sensorimotor child's ability to communicate through different forms of behavior is integrated into a deeper understanding of an identity incorporating all these behavior patterns.

Wilber (1980) and others have described the stages of human development as a process in which the child first experiences certain phenomena, then subsequently learns to separate itself from these phenomena and operate on them. In the sensorimotor stage, the child learns not only how to experience objects and other people in three-dimensional space, but that it is separate from this environment, and can manipulate it to some extent. In the preop stage, acquisition of language facilitates this sense of separation. Not only does every object have a name, but simply by naming them, the child is reinforcing its distinction from them. Naming objects and developing concepts, also of course, increases the child's power of manipulation. It can not only touch, grasp, move, and so on other objects, but can direct someone else to do so.

The development of all these cognitive features is closely associated with the development of the child's social interactions. In the sensorimotor stage, as we have just seen, the group is the family. In the preoperational stage, the social group can be described as the local community. In addition to the family, it consists of neighbors that become friends and playmates of the child; classmates and teachers as the child begins formal schooling; and others the child encounters as it spends increasingly more time out of the home.

A general trend throughout human development is that the social groups one becomes a member of a) expand, as we learn to interact with an increasingly larger number of other people; b) differentiate, as these interactions become more specialized and complex; and c) integrate, as the new members and new interactions are incorporated into the group without disrupting it.[4] These changes are well illustrated in going from the sensorimotor to the preop stage. The family, of course, is a relatively small social organization; our relationships with family members are usually our most intimate ones, and also the most general ones. By general, I mean that interactions with family members involve all or most aspects of our lives: we eat, sleep and live together; we discuss work, school and other activities outside of the home; we share our past and our future; and so on. And while there are obviously important differences between parent-parent, parent-child and sibling-sibling relationships, a relationship with one family member has much in common with the relationship with other family members.

In contrast, the new relationships that we develop outside of the family tend to focus on specific factors, and these are of a great variety. Children share certain interests such as play with their friends; they share school with classmates; they look to teachers for guidance and instruction; they share some hobby or sport with members of a club or team; and on and on. Thus the social group at this stage is not only much larger than that of the family, but the relationships are much different. A large part of the developmental process thus involves coming to terms with these new relationships, i.e., integrating them into one's life.

How does membership in this larger social organization promote development of symbolic language and concepts? First, because the child isn't as intimate with people outside the family—and because the environment outside the home is different, and generally more complex—language becomes more important in communication. In the home, the child has relatively simple needs, which can be communicated by pointing, gestures, or simple words. Outside the home, children increasingly must rely on language to indicate what they need, and also to respond to the needs of others.

Moreover, development of concepts is crucial. The child has to recognize that a glass of water at school—where the glass may look different, and the water comes from a different source—is the same as a glass of water at home. It has to know that there are lots of bathrooms, even if they don't all look exactly the same. It has to know that all its classmates, though each one is individual, form a class (in two senses of that word!) which is distinct from that to which teachers and other adults at school belong. It has to know that teachers and other adults, while different from its parents, are also more similar to them than other children are. And so on.

Induction into society: the concrete operational stage

There are two major cognitive developments that stand out during the conop stage. First, the child learns to think logically, or rationally—to a point. There are two general kinds of logic, inductive and deductive. It's the former that develops during the concrete stage. When we reason inductively, we form a general principle from a series of similar experiences. For example, if every time a child accompanies its mother to a certain store, it sees a certain man there, it may conclude that the man works at the store, or at least has some relationship to it.

The process of induction actually begins even earlier than the conop stage. It's essential to the development of object permanence, and concept formation. When a child repeatedly experiences an object in a certain place, induction is what leads it to conclude that the object has an existence even when not being directly experienced. Induction is even found, in a more primitive form, in many non-human animals, in the form of conditioning. A stimulus is repeatedly paired with another stimulus (or with a response) and as a result, an animal learns to associate the two.

The difference is that inductive reasoning makes use of concepts. The child associates two stimuli that always occur together—being at the store, and seeing the man—and as a result of this association, forms a concept: the man has a specific kind of relationship with the store. The concept might be thought of as a response, but it's clearly a mental response of the kind that other animals are generally incapable of forming. So what is new at this stage is not the process of induction, which evolved before the human species, but coupling it to concept formation.

The significance of this can hardly be underestimated. Induction is a critical element in how not only children, but adults throughout their entire lives, come to know about the world. We see something happen repeatedly, and we make inferences about why it happened. In its most sophisticated form, it's a major pillar of science. A scientist makes a series of observations, generally under controlled laboratory conditions, and on the basis of the outcome of these experiments, formulates a hypothesis. This is a general principle that unites a large number of specific cases, just as the child forms a general principle that explains a number of specific events.

Deductive reasoning, which is also an essential part of most science, goes in the other direction. The scientist uses the hypothesis to predict some new event. Children at the conop stage, however, still struggle to think in this way. So, for example, the same child who induces that a man works at the store might have trouble deducing that other people, whom it may have seen only once or occasionally at the store, might also work there. Or that other stores also have people who are always there.

We saw that in the preop stage the child learned to separate itself from the environment and begin to use concepts to operate on this environment. In the conop stage, the child begins to operate on concepts themselves. Thus both man and store are concepts, while the man working at the store—i.e., employee—is a concept based on, or synthesized from, concepts. Though an employee is a very concrete concept—you can point to someone specific and say, he's an employee—clearly thinking in this way is a step removed from more concrete objects and people, and thus a step in the direction of abstract thought.

The second major development during this period is called theory of mind. The child becomes aware that other people also think, and have their own point of view. This development is actually closely related to the emergence of inductive reasoning. The child sees other people, particularly other children of the same age, behaving the same way s/he does in certain situations, and reasons that if its own behavior is the result of certain mental processes, so must theirs. So theory of mind can be thought of as a general principle resulting from numerous social interactions. Understanding the behavior of others in this way obviously is a major step in the socialization process, greatly facilitating integration of the child into the group.

Theory of mind also depends on a broadening of language. In the preop stage, children learn to use symbols to label objects, and concepts to label groups of objects. In the conop stage, the child learns to use words to label mental states, such as thinking, feeling and sensations. As always, having words for processes makes the processes more real, and promotes the ability to recognize them as occurring in others.

What is the group at this stage? We have seen that earlier stages are associated with the family and the local community. During the conop stage, the group further expands to what may be called the extended community, incorporating for the first time people the child may have no direct interactions with. For example, at school, the child will see other students, in different classes or grades, that s/he never talks to. The child will have a similar relationship with people in other places, such as malls, parks, entertainment venues, and so on. These relationships all involve indirect interactions, mediated through language—these people are described, discussed, evaluated, etc., by others with whom the child interacts with directly.

These indirect interactions clearly are very closely related to emergence of theory of mind, because when other people are the subject of discussion, some of this discussion inevitably focuses on what they're thinking, feeling, and so on. In a word, gossip! Which of course generally has a negative connotation, but is a crucial part of the cognitive learning process. And theory of mind, in turn, strengthens inductive reasoning, because the conclusion that everyone has a mind like one's own is one of earliest and most profound products of such induction.

Another significant cognitive development during this stage is a principle referred to as conservation. In a rather well-known experiment, the child is shown a quantity of water, which is poured sequentially into two glasses, of different shapes and/or sizes. Though the level of the water may be higher in one glass than the other, the child recognizes that the amount of water is the same—something the preop child is incapable of grasping. Another way of testing for conservation is to cut some object into a different number of pieces. A child at the conop stage will understand that cutting the object into a greater number of pieces does not increase its quantity (Made famous by Yogi Berra, who allegedly asked the pizza man to cut it into four, not eight pieces, because “I don't think I can eat eight pieces of pizza.”)

Conservation probably comes to be appreciated as language further develops, as a logical extension of object permanence. The process of labeling objects and people with a word tends to fix them in the world. It implies that there is something about them that never changes. It follows that a quantity of water, or of some other divisible substance, must also be fixed. Younger children, in the preop stage, can't grasp this, presumably because water is not a solid object, but can change in form, so language must develop further to appreciate its constancy.

The end of development? the formal operation stage

The formal operation stage is when the child develops full reasoning powers, deductive as well as inductive logic, and the ability to think abstractly, about ideas, theories, metaphors, higher forms of math, and so on. We have already seen how in the conop stage, the child is learning to operate on concepts to form other concepts. Abstraction can be thought of as the logical extension of this process, where one operates on all thinking. By the formop stage, the child is very much aware that s/he thinks, and that virtually everything one does in life requires thinking. The contents of the mind are no longer bound by the external world, but become a world unto itself; one can imagine things that never have happened or could happen.

We saw that language begins, in the preop stage, with the use of symbols to label objects in the environment, and concepts to label groups of objects. In the conop stage, the child begins to use language to refer to thinking, feeling and other mental processes. Finally, in the formop stage, language is used to develop ideas, which are basically concepts that label groups of mental processes. There is a hierarchy in which each stage uses language more inclusively.

The formal operation stage occupies a rather uneasy position in developmental theories, though, for two reasons. On the one hand, it's not clear that all humans actually reach this stage. Studies of some existing primitive societies suggest that their members for the most part don't advance beyond the conop stage (Barnes 2000). The issue is complicated by the difficulty of devising tests of development that don't reflect Western bias, but an uncontested fact is that earlier or so-called primitive societies generally have had no or little use for abstract thought. When living at or near subsistence level, concrete thought is not only sufficient, but the most effective way to survive. Abstract thought, in an important sense, is a luxury. A society has to have solved the basic needs of human existence—food, shelter and clothing—to a sufficient degree to be able to afford to think about notions that are not directly connected to the physical world.

Given the premise that interiors are closely related to social development, it should not be surprising that members of less-developed societies should be less-developed cognitively. However, some theorists take this interior/social correlation to what I believe is an unwarranted extreme, following an ontogeny-recapitulates-phylogeny approach. According to Wilber's four-scale model, not only did some of our ancestors not develop beyond the conop stage, but some remained at preop, and some even earlier, at the sensorimotor stage. Gebser (1986), who has had a great influence on Wilber's thought, even believed that our earliest ancestors were so undeveloped that they were unaware of space and time, in fact, lived in a state corresponding to our deep sleep. Jaynes (1976) proposed a somewhat similar though less extreme view. As I've pointed out before (Smith 2009), it would be impossible for Gebser's archaic, magic and even mythical humans to survive unless they were philosophical zombies, behaviorally identical to ordinary humans but with no awareness. However, if one accepts that many lower animals are conscious, it makes no sense to believe that Homo sapiens, or even earlier hominids, would lack all consciousness.

Rather than speculate further on the cognitive development of our ancestors, though, I will just point out that most social scientists, I think, agree that members of these earlier societies had the potential to develop as far as moderns have. The brains of all Homo sapiens are identical at a gross anatomical level, that is, come with the same hard-wiring. The difference lies in the plastic changes, the neural connections that can change in response to the environment. Thus there is no reason to think that members of primitive societies, if transferred to a modern society at an early age, would not develop exactly as those of us born in such societies. Formop is a birthright of all members of our species, even if not everyone, past or present, has realized it.

The second issue lies on the other side, so to speak, of formop. Piaget regarded it as the final stage of human development, but some, perhaps many, psychologists would disagree with this. Much of Wilber's message, of course, is that there are higher stages of cognitive development possible. Evidence for these is of three general kinds: 1) every society produces some exceptionally creative and intelligent individuals who seem to operate beyond the usually defined bounds of logic and abstract thought; 2) the fact that there is a close correlation between social and cognitive development suggests that as our societies evolve further, we will encounter new, higher stages of cognition; and 3) some meditative states seem to transcend all thought entirely, constituting an entirely different way of experiencing oneself and the world.

Discussion of possible higher stages is beyond the scope of this article, but I want to emphasize that the answer depends to a large degree on how one defines stages. In the developmental sense of stages as pioneered by Piaget, there could be more. However, as I stated at the outset of this article, I believe our level can be described fairly well with five major evolutionary stages. In my view, there are unlikely to be any more as I've defined them, because a) they are analogous to stages on lower levels, which complete with five; b) all the developmental stages beyond sensorimotor that have been described to date in my view can be understood fundamentally as the result of a broadening and deepening of our experience of time; and c) the social organizations that create new stages seem to be close to a developmental limit, i.e., there is no further place to evolve when one has become a member of global society, as I will discuss in a moment.

Finally, I regard the higher consciousness realizable through meditation more probably as a higher level, not stage; it clearly is not a state that is achieved simply by interacting with others in the appropriate environment, as all of Piaget's stages are. It requires special efforts that are very different from those made by developing children. Development up to formop is guaranteed for any normal child raised in modern society; that simply is not the case for higher consciousness, and I can't envision that we are anywhere close to developing a society in which this would be the case.

In any case, the social organization at this point has expanded far beyond the community in which the child lives. In the modern world, where most of us are aware to some extent of events all over the planet, we can reasonably say that everyone at this stage to some extent is a member of a global social organization—one, in fact, that exists not just in the present, but in the past and in the future. While there are large individual differences in this respect, everyone at this stage has now become accustomed to social interactions that are even more indirect than they were at the previous stage. Thus we learn about others—not only the living, but those who used to live, and those who are yet to live—through reading, news media, the internet and other forms of mass communication.

The relationship between indirect interactions and abstract thought should be obvious. Indirect interactions by definition don't take place in the concrete, physical here-and-now world, so demand the ability to think at least somewhat abstractly. A good example is provided by money. Earlier, primitive societies usually used a barter system, trading livestock or other valuable commodities. Monetary systems, in which certain tokens are assigned a fixed value, did not evolve until a few thousand years ago, and even then, the tokens at first tended to have intrinsic value, such as gold or silver coins. The use of paper or coins of relatively cheap metals that have an agreed upon promissory value emerged more or less in parallel with nation-states, the citizens of which could think abstractly.

Children at the conop stage, or even the preop stage, learn that money has value, but they don't fully understand how a monetary system works. Money to them is concrete cash. Adults, of course, understand that one can have a great deal of material wealth that is not manifested in cash, because wealth is defined somewhat abstractly. While it's ultimately based on real objects with real value, it depends on a network of agreements in society. Thus every time we buy something at the store, we obtain a real object in return for a more abstract form of value.

Money is just one example of how we moderns operate in an abstract world. These abstractions permeate our routine lives in even the simplest ways. For example, we could not appreciate most movies or TV shows without being able to understand abstract concepts such as metaphors. Even some of the most basic words of our language have evolved modern meanings through metaphor. Thus George Lakoff (2009) has pointed out that many meanings of words are based in physical events—such as when we grasp a concept, or problems weigh down on us, or we have a long way to go to understand—and this process never stops. New meanings of old words or phrases are created almost daily.

The structure of stages

I have briefly described human cognitive development as it proceeds in the four basic stages proposed by Piaget. We have seen how the child at each stage is associated with a particular kind of social organization, with the organization of one stage representing an expansion and differentiation of the organization at the preceding stage—i.e, the number of interacting individuals becomes progressively larger, and the kinds of interactions progressively more varied. We have also seen how the child's membership in each social organization promotes the emergence of specific cognitive features.

This analysis begins to show how interiors can be understood as a process of observing, or engaging in, certain forms of social organization. However, more can be said about this relationship. I said earlier that social organizations actually create the interiors that their members experience. How is this accomplished?

In my model, each stage on every level of existence is associated with a certain number of dimensions. These dimensions are understood in both in an exterior or structural sense, and in an interior or experiential sense. So complexity of group structure is closely correlated with complexity of their members's interiors. This is why both societies and interiors can be represented on the same scale. Interiors are a property of society, and if we understand the society's structure, the way it's organized, we can describe the interiors of its members in the same basic language.

I will briefly describe each of these five stages (a more detailed description, including examples of organisms and societies at each stage is found in Smith 2009). Only the last two of these stages are equivalent to stages of child development, and depending on how one defines interiors, they might be considered the only stages in which the experiences as I describe them are genuinely interior. As we will see, the first three dimensions are mostly about experience of space, which is usually considered an exterior. Nevertheless, these spatial relationships help illuminate the nature of the interiors that occur in the final two stages.

Fig. 1

1. Self vs. other.

I will begin with the structures of social stages (though it's difficult to describe them without some reference to the experience of their members). A simple way of visualizing them is with a series of circles (Fig. 1). Fig. 1A represents a group of interacting organisms, each depicted by a small circle. Each organism can interact with other organisms in the group, shown by connecting lines. To do this, it must at the very least be able to distinguish itself from other, from non-self. This is first-dimensional structure, because only one kind of interaction between the organisms is possible.

2. In-group vs. out-group.

Second-dimensional structure emerges when several such groups are formed (Fig.1B). The individual organisms within any of these groups still interact with other organisms within the same group. But individual organisms in one group may also interact with individual organisms in another group. To do this, they must in effect interact not at the individual level, but at the group level. Whenever an organism in one group interacts with an organism in another group, one group is interacting with another group. This is second-dimensional structure. The organisms are now capable of making distinctions not only between self and other, but between different classes of other—in this most basic example, in-group vs. out-group, kin vs. non-kin, or same species vs. different species.

I want to emphasize several other points. First, in order for organisms in one group to interact with organisms in another group in a way different from the way they interact with other members of their own group—in other words, to recognize that there are other groups—each member of a particular group must have some feature or set of features which distinguishes it from members of other groups. Sensing these features are present, they are able to identify members of their own group, while sensing the absence of these features, they determine that these organisms are members of some other group.

From this, in turn, two other points follow. First, members of one group now interact with members of their own group, as well as members of other groups, at the group level. That is, they no longer respond to members of their own group as if they are simply other (the first dimension), but as members of the same class (the second dimension). This follows from their sensitivity to the distinguishing features that identify them as different from members of other groups.

Second, in order for such second-dimensional societies to form, individual organisms must develop enhanced experience of the external world. To identify other organisms as in-group or out-group, they have to be able to detect the distinguishing features. This requires an increased development of their sensory apparatus, including organs that can make greater discriminations among stimuli such as light and chemicals (another example of class distinctions), as well as further development of the nervous systems that process these stimuli. Organisms in second-dimensional societies have greater powers of sensation or perception than those in first-dimensional societies.

3. Relevance vs. irrelevance.

Formation of three-dimensional groups follows the same logic that led to two-dimensional groups. That is, just as interacting organisms form interacting groups, these interacting groups can form a still larger group that now in turn interacts with still other groups (Fig. 1C). For this to happen, all the members of the previous groups must share some features that distinguish them from members of still other groups.

We have just seen that in second-dimensional societies, groups are distinguished by kin vs. non-kin, or by same species vs. different species. In three-dimensional societies, what is distinguished is what I refer to as relevance vs. irrelevance. That is, all members of these larger, groups-within-groups are in some way relevant to each other's existence, contrasting with still other groups of organisms that aren't relevant. Examples of relevant relationships are predator-prey, symbiosis, foraging, and nest-building. Organisms in such societies must be able to recognize other organisms that in some way play a vital role in their lives, and distinguish them from other organisms which they may encounter, but which have no direct influence on them.

The resulting relationships are the basis of ecosystems, composed of many interacting species. Following along the evolutionary path involved in formation of second-dimensional societies, three-dimensional societies require still further evolutionary advances in perception. Organisms must now be able to distinguish not simply members of their own species from members of other species, but make further distinctions among the latter. Keep in mind that while distinguishing a member of one's own species from some other species requires sensitivity only to a fairly limited set of identifying features, discriminating among a wide range of other species requires becoming aware of vastly more features. There may no one feature or set of features that identifies one organism as predator or prey, for example, because organisms frequently have many different kinds of predators (think of a rodent that has to avoid other mammals, birds of prey, and perhaps snakes), and in turn prey on many different kinds of other species. In fact, at this stage, every other organism becomes a special case.

Because of the greatly increased power of perception, organisms at this stage generally are capable of recognizing other organisms, particularly those of their own species, as unique individuals. Not only can they distinguish many different other species of organisms, but they can distinguish one individual of some species from another, very similar-appearing individual. This ability did not necessarily evolve, initially, because it had any direct survival benefit, nor was it directly related to the structure of three-dimensional societies. It may have been simply a consequence of the greater perceptual powers needed to identify so many other species. But having evolved this powerful ability to discriminate such a wide variety of individual features, organisms could certainly make use of it. Recognizing individuality in both ourselves and others has played a major role in the evolution of still more advanced animal societies, especially including our own, though as I will discuss later, our identity as individual has evolved well beyond that of organisms at this three-dimensional stage.

One of the most important benefits of being able to discriminate individuals is that organisms for the first time can have some experience of being in a group. The groups that I have depicted in Fig. 1A and B are understood from our own point of view, looking at them as an outsider, but they are experienced very differently by their members. Organisms in first-dimensional societies only distinguish self from other, so all other organisms appear the same to them. They generally aren't aware that they are interacting with several different organisms, but only that they are interacting with some other organism. From their point of view, the group may consist of only two members, themselves and the other.

Similarly, organisms in two-dimensional groups distinguish members of their group from members of other groups, but all the other members of their own group look the same to them. The experience of one is just like the experience of any other. They may make a few distinctions within the group, such as workers, drones and queen in an ant colony, but the perceived group is still very small, and everything outside of it is experienced as basically one other non-member.

In three-dimensional groups, in contrast, members experience all the other members, both of their own group and that of other groups. This is significant, because now the organism has some awareness of the importance of other members for itself. This awareness is still limited by a poor experience of time, which is needed to understand that all these other individuals exist even when not directly experienced, but it's an important advance for promoting further evolution of groups.

The distinction between relevant and irrelevant species, as I mentioned earlier, is the basis for the formation of ecosystems, and effectively links all species as members of interacting groups. Three-dimensional societies in my system are thus the highest, most complex forms of social organization formed by an outward expansion, that is, by previously existing groups joining into still larger groups.[5] Further evolution, as I will discuss in a moment, is the consequence of new interactions within existing organisms or groups.

Fig. 1 (Continued)

4. Behavior patterns.

Human development begins with four-dimensional societies and four-dimensional experience. Four-dimensional societies, which emerged with the higher vertebrates, incorporate the dimension of time (Fig. 1D). Organisms in such societies, which are based on the family, are not limited to interacting as fixed or static individuals, but also interact through roles, specific patterns of behavior that occur over a fixed period of time (depicted as a set of triangles in Fig. 1D). These roles are exhibited, for example, in mating or courtship behavior; in aggressive behavior (towards rivals or competitors within the group, or predators outside the group); and in nursing the young.

These roles add a new, temporal dimension to the society. It's no longer just an interaction of organisms within groups within groups, but of behaving organisms within groups within groups. Each individual organism, so to speak, splits into a number of distinct roles, each of which can interact independently with the role of some other organism. This in effect adds another structural dimension to the society, that is a new means of interaction. Members can now interact as self vs. other; group vs. group; individual vs. individual; and individual behavior vs. individual behavior. It's the innermost holon, the organism, that forms a larger group; the groups within groups that surround it remain unchanged.

5. The dynamic individual.

Finally, five-dimensional societies, which are mostly confined to our own species, exhibit a second dimension of time (Fig. 1E). I don't mean this as a second physical dimension of time, but in the sense that time plays a different role from what it does in four-dimensional societies. In the latter, each role is defined by a series of movements that occur over a period of linear time. In five-dimensional societies, these roles are in effect united into a single identity that is recognized as including them all (depicted in Fig. 1E as interactions between the behavior patterns of a single organism). This does not happen through a simple extension of the first dimension of time. It occurs through interactions of members of the society in an almost (first dimension) timeless manner, as I will discuss later. The main point is that still another way of interacting emerges: as dynamic individuals, composed of multiple behavior patterns.

As with four-dimensional societies, five-dimensional societies also involve an inward expansion of groups. The different behavior patterns form a new group within a group, without (necessarily) affecting the outer groups.[6] Again, the key to understanding the emergence of a new dimension is a new mode of interaction. While the spatial structure of the society does not necessarily change, the evolution of new kinds of interactions is the equivalent of adding another level of groups.

To summarize, I recognize five stages of existence on the cultural level (and also on the lower, physical and biological levels, though I haven't discussed them here). Each stage, which is a society or social holon composed of interacting organisms (or other type of individual holon in the case of lower levels of existence) manifests one more structural dimension than the preceding one, with such dimensions basically defined by the ways in which the organisms can interact.[7] The members of these social organizations also experience the world in an equivalent number of dimensions. Let's now see how that experience unfolds.

Inner space

What about the interiors of these societies, that is, the experiences of their members? In my model, each social stage has an interior with the same number of dimensions as its exterior. That is, societies with a one-dimensional structure have one-dimensional experience; societies with a two-dimensional structure have two-dimensional experience; and societies with three-dimensional structure have three dimensional experience. When I say that the society has experience, I mean that the experience in each case is a social property, resulting from the interactions of its members. These members, by participating in the society, share in this experience.[8]

What I want to do next is show how this experience is created. In this section, I will describe the dynamics for the first three stages of the cultural level, to demonstrate some general relationships between structures and experiences. I reiterate that I'm using the term interior a little loosely in this discussion. These first three stages—which precede Piaget's developmental stages—are associated mainly with the experience of space, which is usually considered an exterior (though Wilber regards perception in general as an interior). Any experience of the world, though, has an interior aspect, and for the sake of simplicity, I will sometimes refer to such spatial experiences as interiors. Regardless of whether one believes they are or are not, the relationship of experiences to structures in these stages, will illuminate some important principles that apply to the higher stages.

1. Life on the line.

We begin with one-dimensional experience, the earliest, most primitive form that organisms that interact in any significant way with their environment exhibit.[9] As I discussed in the previous section, organisms at this stage interact simply by making a distinction between self and other. They do this by making intensity discriminations, that is, by determining the strength of some stimulus, such as the brightness of light or the concentration of a chemical. The presence of the stimulus informs the organism that some other organism or object is present, and the strength of it provides information on where it is in relation to the organism. The organism thus effectively situates itself on a line, with itself in one position, and the source of the stimulus at another position. It experiences itself in a one-dimensional world.[10]

Though this is a very simple situation, it illustrates several critical relationships or principles that we will see apply to higher stages, including our own. First, note that the organism's experience is one-dimensional in at least two senses. On the one hand, it makes only one kind of distinction, self vs. other. I pointed this out earlier in the discussion on structures, and while it might be considered an exterior property, as it can be observed as a form of behavior, it's arguably also an interior property; it's the experience of an other, of a world external to oneself. Second, the organism experiences one-dimensional space; basically, its world is a line.

Also note that this experience is generated by the society, that is, by the interactions of organisms with each other. Even this extremely simple society requires a minimum of two interactions, resulting from reciprocal contact between two organisms.[12] The individual organism experiences, on the other hand, only the presence of another—the effect of other on itself. It does not experience its effect on the other organism.

Thus even at this very basic stage, we can see that the individual organism only partially participates in the social experience. The conventional scientific view would be that the organism's experience of (or ability to sense) another organism is the result of some kind of perceptual apparatus that it possesses (e.g., light-sensitive cells) along with a rudimentary nervous system (that processes the light stimuli, resulting in, for example, a movement away from the source). But this description shows quite clearly that this perceptual apparatus just allows it to access experience that can only be understood as the result of something beyond itself. There may be a neural correlate of the organism's experience, but more fundamentally, there is a social correlate.

2. Flatland.

In order for societies of organisms to advance beyond the one-dimensional stage, these organisms must develop greater powers of discrimination. There have been basically two evolutionary strategies for accomplishing this. First, organisms can make distinctions among different kinds of stimuli. For example, sensitivity to light intensity may evolve into sensitivity to different wavelengths of light, or colors. Sensitivity to the concentration of some chemical may evolve into the ability to discriminate among different substances, or odors.

A second kind of evolutionary strategy has been the ability to discriminate different sources of the same kind of stimulus. For example, light may be detected as coming from more than one direction in space. Touch or pressure may be experienced at more than one position on the organism's body. Both of these general strategies are illustrated by many species of invertebrates, such as insects, and both types of perception result in two-dimensional experience.

In the first case, for example, where different colors are discriminated, the result is contrast: wherever two or more different wavelengths of light are experienced simultaneously, there is a border or edge between them. An edge presupposes experience of two-dimensional space. It represents a line or single dimension of its own, so the only way it can be recognized as such is in a different, second dimension. Likewise, when multiple stimuli such as light are experienced, the first dimension is transcended. It's not possible to experience more than a single stimulus at one time in this dimension.

As with one-dimensional experience, two-dimensional experience manifests itself both as a new kind of distinction, and as an expanded experience of space. The new distinction is between different classes or groups of other organisms, rather than simply between one organism and a different organism. This distinction in turns depends on a more basic one between different classes of stimuli, such as wavelengths of light or chemical substances. The new spatial experience is now of two dimensions: the world for such organisms is almost literally flatland, a planar field, in which edges and contrasts provide key information about what surrounds it.

Also as with first-dimensional experience, both types of two-dimensional experience are properties of the society, of the group or groups of interacting organisms. Though each individual organism experiences simply the presence of another member of its group, or the member of another group, the social experience results from reciprocal interactions among many individuals. Note that for an organism to be able to identify another organism as a member of in-group or out-group, both kinds of interactions are essential, even though the individual organism is experiencing only one kind at any moment. So again, the experience of the individual only partially reflects that of the society.

3. Knowing in depth.

As I discussed previously, organisms in three-dimensional societies feature very enhanced forms of perception. Most vertebrates have keen vision, hearing and/or sense of smell. This continues the developmental trend that was begun with the evolution of one- and two-dimensional societies, and again, there have been two basic strategies: distinguishing classes of stimuli or distinguishing sources of stimuli. Illustrating the first type, not only can most vertebrates distinguish colors, but many can also distinguish shades of colors. That is, they can identify the same color under different conditions of lighting, when its reflectance—the wavelengths of light that actually reach the eye—changes. This kind of discrimination is critical in experiencing depth of three-dimensional objects, where the side directly facing the organism reflects more light to it than the sides sloping away from the organism.

The other basic evolutionary strategy—becoming sensitive to stimuli from several different sources—is exemplified by binocular vision, which of course is also critical to depth perception. Typically, each eye maps a planar view of the world from a slightly different perspective. When the two perspectives are combined in the brain, depth emerges.

Again, three-dimensional experience manifests in two major ways. Organisms can now distinguish not only members of their own group or species from non-members, but make further distinctions among the latter. Frequently, they can discriminate among different individuals, which may be thought of as a limit of this kind of experience. Second, organisms now experience the full three dimensions of space, a world with depth.

Finally, this three-dimensional experience is a social property, of the group or groups of interacting organisms. As with the earlier stages, this experience results from interactions among members, now involving multiple levels of groups. Even more than was the case with two-dimensional organisms, though, much of the experience of the social organization is not accessed by its individual members. For one organism to identify another organism, multiple kinds of interactions are required that are not being experienced by the organism.

To summarize, at each of these three social stages:

  1. Structural dimensions result from the number of different kinds of interactions organisms can make with each other, while experiential dimensions result from the kinds of distinctions they can make, including the distinction of different spatial dimensions.
  2. Experience is a social property, meaning it results from interactions throughout the society.
  3. The experience of individual organisms results from a partial participation in the social experience.
  4. While there may be neural correlates of this experience, more fundamentally the experience has a social correlate.

In this framework, let's consider the highest two stages, where human development begins.

In the beginning was not the word

Four-dimensional societies are based on the family, and correspond to Piaget's sensorimotor stage. In these societies, the interactions of organisms depend on not only spatial discriminations, but temporal ones. As I discussed earlier, during this period, the child learns to perceive three-dimensional space and a dimension of time. Information is presented not simply in fixed features of the organism, but in the way it moves over time. Thus distinctions are now possible between an individual organism at one moment in time, and the same organism in another moment in time. This ability, along with an awareness of time as well as space is the new experience that emerges at this stage.

This might be considered the first stage in which genuine interiors emerge, that is, where experience is not simply of external space, and of objects and other organisms within that space. The behavior patterns that are characteristic of this stage are frequently associated with emotion, which can be most simply defined as the experience of recognizing and responding to specific forms of these interactions. Emotional responses are extremely rapid, which is to say, the dimension of time is incorporated into space in a single behavioral event. It's in this sense that we can say the organisms are responding not simply to spatial features, but to temporal ones as well.

Just as we saw for the earlier stages, the experience of four-dimensional space-time is a social creation, emerging from the interactions of organisms at these interactions. However, to understand it in this way seems to conflict with the scientific view. Science regards space, or space-time, to be external to individuals; it existed before we or any other species evolved, and would continue to exist if all forms of life on earth became extinct. Am I arguing that this is not the case?

There are actually three different ways to understand my view:

  1. Space and time exist externally to individuals. What societies create is simply the ability to perceive them. This is basically the position of mainstream science.
  2. Some reality, unknown and perhaps unknowable to us, exists externally to individuals. Societies create space and time, which are the means by which we view this reality. This is basically the Kantian position.
  3. There is no reality external to and independent of individuals. Objects can't exist in the absence of subjects. Thus societies create—or at least, presuppose—the external environment, including the experience of space and time. This is the post-modernist position.

While I prefer either 2) or 3), I will not try to defend either of these views here[12], since the major features of my model, if not all of the details, are compatible with any of the three major views. However, there is a second issue raised by my model, which also seems to conflict with the scientific view. This concerns where and how the experience of four-dimensional space-time (however its relationship to the organism is to be understood) is created. In the conventional scientific view, our experience of three-dimensional space results from neural processes in the brain. As I've emphasized throughout this discussion, while these processes are certainly involved, the experience is a social property, and at the most fundamental level it results from social interactions among organisms. Neural processes allow us to access these interactions.[13]

In support of this view that experience is a social property, I earlier pointed to language, which also has definite neural correlates in the brain, but which clearly could not exist without social interactions. Words are not defined by some process in an individual's brain; they're defined through interactions between individuals. Their meaning exists only in society.

Analogously, I argue that our experience of four-dimensional space-time is not simply a social property, but is a form of language. Before we could develop symbolic language, which labels every object and individual with a shared word, we had to develop a shared world, which locates these objects in space. And just as words are defined by their relationships to other words, objects are defined by their relationships to other objects. My claim is that four-dimensional experience—indeed, any dimensional experience—is social in much the same way that language is. While words are created by human societies, they refer to external objects and phenomena; they would have no meaning without such externals. In the same way, time and space are a way of referring to external objects and phenomena.

People permanence

To develop this very general notion of language further, let's now turn to the preop stage, where what is conventionally called language—symbolic language—actually emerged. As I just pointed out, language is the most obvious example of a social property. But the social experience at this stage is something more fundamental than just language; it's an emerging identity, what I call dynamic self, that incorporates all of the child's behavior. Succeeding the previous four stages, this becomes yet another basis for interactions with others, which I regard as a fifth dimension.

Near the end of the sensorimotor stage, the child develops object permanence, an understanding that other people as well as objects continue to exist when the child is not directly experiencing them. What the child recognizes as permanent at this time is basically an exterior: an object of a particular size, shape, color, texture and so on, or a person with a unique body, face and voice. Experiencing the dynamic self is recognition of a permanent interior as well as exterior. It begins with observations of behavior, which is still an exterior, but as the child begins to develop theory of mind, in the conop stage, it extends this to thoughts, feelings and other interior processes. Not only does it recognize that other people have mental processes, but that these processes go on even when the child is not interacting with them.

While I refer to this concept as a dynamic self, the same process also changes the child's understanding of inanimate objects. While such objects don't of course have interiors, we can and do develop interiors that relate to them. Some objects are for playing with; some are for eating; some are for bathing; and so on. Every object has a use, a purpose, and very subtly at this time the child begins to experience the object in this manner. The most obvious evidence of this change in perception is our reaction when an object is not used according to its purpose: we break a toy; throw food; hit a dog. We learn to react instantaneously to such events, because they're incompatible with the way we perceive the object.

What is the role of language in this development? Naming something in effect gives it permanence. Through concepts initially as simple as mommy or daddy, the child's mother or father is recognized not just as someone who provides food, comfort or other necessities, interacts with other family members, comes and goes, and so on, but as an individual who is in an important sense the same throughout all of these functions. And the same with others outside the family. The name may refer only to exteriors initially, but as the child develops interior experience and begins to understand that other people do, the meaning of the name shifts. Thus mommy or daddy is first a familiar face, then a group of behavior patterns, then a complex of mental processes.

One of the simplest illustrations of this dynamic identity is the notion of individual responsibility. Like other higher vertebrates—in fact, even more so—we are subject to a variety of moods, feelings, emotional states, and may act in a variety of ways as a result of them. But we are expected to “own” this behavior, that is, we are considered, even while acting it out, to be something more than that behavior. Even while we might say, for example, that was not me who lost his temper in that situation, the very fact that we can conceive of an “I” who wouldn't lose his temper is evidence of awareness of a much more inclusive identity. It may in fact be more of a phantom or an ideal than a reality, but it has a very powerful effect on all of our relationships.

As I mentioned earlier, I consider the fifth dimension—this new way of interacting with others—to be a second dimension of time. One way to understand this is to say that when we look at people as dynamic individuals—as bundles of behavior patterns, if you like—we are grasping all these different forms of behavior in an instant. It's as though all of them are occurring at once. This obviously is impossible in the first dimension of time. It could only happen in a second dimension, which proceeds independently of the first. While there may be no evidence for a physical second dimension of time, this experience occurs as if it were in such a dimension.

The processes just discussed during the conop stage, in which the child now begins to grasp the complexity of itself and others, continue through the formop stage, and indeed, throughout the rest of life. New ways of thinking and feeling now emerge in a double sense: with every advance in his or her own capabilities, the child at this point also understands that other people are also capable of them. The fifth dimension is never really completed, however, even in the formop stage; that is, we never are really aware of all our behavior patterns or selves. In fact, one way to define a higher state of awareness, beyond the formop stage, is when one does realize this full awareness of one's multiplicity. This point was a central tenet in Gurdjieff's teachings, for example (Ouspensky, 1961).

The most important advance in the formop stage, though, is our understanding of ourselves as Homo sapiens, as thinking creatures. Thought is both liberating and imprisoning; liberating because it can take us beyond the immediate physical reality, but imprisoning because we have no way of understanding thought, except through other thought. As I discussed earlier, one way of understanding developmental progression is that at each new stage, the child separates itself somewhat from the experiences of the previous stage, and is able to operate on them. But we can't operate on our thoughts, except through more thoughts. We call this process abstract thinking, and while it's obviously very useful, it often engenders the false believe that we understand our thoughts, or even worse, that there can be nothing beyond them.

Again, this points to a higher state of existence beyond formop, and again, such a state frequently is described in terms of transcending thought. Discussion of such a stage is beyond the scope of this paper, except to repeat that I regard it as associated with not any higher stage on our level, but a higher level entirely. Though one can certainly envision larger and more complex societies, it seems to me that their interiors will always be limited by the basic constraints of the human brain.

Conclusion: Axes to grind

The following table summarizes the relationships discussed in this article. Only the cultural level of existence is shown. The five evolutionary stages identified in my model are shown in the far left column, with examples of each stage in the adjacent column. Note, though, that the highest stage, society-based ecosystems, is now broken down into three stages, global, extended and local. These terms are all italicized, and shown within a single stage, to emphasize that they are sub-stages of the major stage. The third column shows the cognitive features associated with these social stages. Again, the highest stage is divided into three sub-stages, italicized, which correspond to the three highest stages in Piaget's developmental model. The lowest, sensorimotor stage of Piaget is essentially identical to the fourth evolutionary stage in my model.

Social stage (LR) Example Cognitive development (UL) Social interior (LL)

Society-based ecological communities
Human societies Formop

3D space and 2D time
family-based ecological communities Bird and mammal societies Sensorimotor 3D space and 1D time
Small ecological communities Invertebrate-vertebrate food webs Individuality 3D space
Complex invertebrate societies Ant colony Class distinctions 2D space
Simple invertebrate societies Coral reef Self-other 1D space

In order to facilitate comparison to Wilber's model, I have explicitly identified the social stages in column 1 as social exteriors (LR), and the developmental and evolutionary stages in column 4 as individual interiors (UL). I have also indicated the social interiors (LL) for all the evolutionary and developmental stages. Again, keep in mind that for the lower social stages, these features might be considered more exterior than interior, but they are the equivalent experiences on these stages.

What about the UR, or individual exteriors? In Wilber's model, these correspond to various neural structures, or kinds of brain in the case of humans. The rationale for this is that brains are of course most clearly associated with interiors, and they have an approximately holarchical relationship, with higher, more complex brains including preceding, less complex ones. This is apparent not only in the well-known triune brain concept, but in lower forms of neural organization, such as the spinal cord and ganglia.

The problem with this classification is that it leaves out organisms entirely. Besides being, obviously, one of the fundamental units of biology, organisms, not simply their brains, are what actually associate into societies that create interior experiences. While mainstream science has traditionally viewed interiors as products entirely of processes in the brain (Chalmers 2000), a more recent embodied view argues that the whole organism, in interaction with its environment, is necessary (Thompson and Varela 2001; Noe and Thompson 2004). This view, a version of which I'm presenting here, is actually much closer to Wilber's own than is the traditional view, and I find it ironic that he in effect dismisses it with his emphasis on brains.

In any case, since I recognize organisms as the individual holons that associate into societies, there really is no equivalent to UR in my scheme. There is just one R-axis that includes both organisms and societies. A disadvantage of this way of classifying, though, is that organisms are at the bottom of the level, below all the social stages—even though some organisms, especially our own species, are clearly more complex than the lower social stages. That is, my model implies that all organisms are below all animal societies, which clearly is not the case.

So I could add an UR, consisting of organisms that associate into the societies at each stage. The exteriors would then look like this (for simplicity, I've now listed the conop and preop developmental stages as major evolutionary stages in their own right, not as sub-stages, though I continue to italicize them):

Individual exteriors (UR) Social exteriors (LR)
Humans, > 11 years Global society-based ecosystems
Children, 7-11 years Extended community-based ecosystems
Children, 2-7 years Local community-based ecosystems
Higher vertebrates, children 0-2 years Family-based ecosystems
Lower vertebrates, higher invertebrates Small ecological communities
Higher invertebrates Complex invertebrate societies
Simple invertebrates Simple invertebrate societies

The problem with doing this is that it implies that these organisms are at the same level or stage as the society. This is just what Wilber intends to convey with his distinction between UR and LR, and as I've discussed at length elsewhere (Smith 2002), it clearly is not the case. I know of no simple way to express both this point, and the fact that organisms, like their societies, exist in a wide range of complexities. Wilber has not only ignored or not recognized the first problem, but as I noted earlier, he also substitutes brains for organisms, so the latter are not identified at all in his system.

In fact, Wilber's classification of brains as UR, or individual exteriors, not only ignores organisms, but is somewhat inconsistent with the rest of his classification. While brains are part of individual organisms, they are not an individual aspect of organisms—which Wilber often says is represented in UR—but a social aspect. The social brain hypothesis makes this abundantly clear. They are what allow organisms to communicate with each other, and as I've discussed throughout this article, access the interior experience generated by their societies. The only genuinely individual aspects of organisms are those fundamental physiological processes that continue when there is no social interaction at all, e.g., during sleep, coma and other fully unconscious states. Whenever the organism is awake, it's interacting in some way with other members of a society, even if it's not directly experiencing any other organisms at that moment.

So I have basically compromised here. When I say that organisms begin this level of existence, at the bottom, I refer to the simplest multicellular organisms, with little or no social organization. Other, more complex organisms must be understood to be higher. But since the social stages of course are composed of interacting organisms, their presence is implied by the classification. Their social aspects are in effect included in the model; while their purely individual aspects are not, these do not directly contribute to the evolution of higher stages.

All that said, I think the preceding table is still useful to make these relationships clear. I could then add to it the parallel L-axes depicting interiors:

Individual interiors (UL) Social interiors (LL) Individual exteriors (UR) Social exteriors (LR)
Formop Complex logic, reason Humans, > 11 years Global society-based ecosystems
Conop Simple logic Children, 7-11 years Extended community-based ecosystems
Preop Symbolic language Children, 2-7 years Local community-based ecosystems
Sensorimotor 3D space and 1D time Higher vertebrates, children 0-2 years Family-based ecosystems
Individuality 3D space Lower vertebrates, higher invertebrates Small ecological communities
Class distinctions 2D space Higher invertebrates Complex invertebrate societies
Self-other 1D space Simple invertebrates Simple invertebrate societies

So my model can be expressed in terms of four axes, though again, I don't do this because that implies relationships that are clearly incorrect. The simplest version, which depicts what Wilber would call social exteriors, has the advantage of both correctly depicting all the relationships as well as including all the major stages during evolution. The interiors are implicit in the nature of the exteriors, but can be included in the scale:

Social Exterior Dimension Major Stage
Society-based ecosystems 5D Dynamic individual
Family-based ecosystems 4D Behavioral
Small ecological communities 3D individual
Complex invertebrate societies 2D class
Simple invertebrate societies 1D self-other
Simple multicellular organisms 0D no self-other

The dimensions are understood to be both structural, based on the number of different kinds of interactions possible by members of the society, and experiential, based on the kind of distinctions members make of other members and of their environment.


[1] Piaget's work is not the last word on human cognitive development, of course. There are other classifications of the process, and Wilber, in particular, has emphasized the development of stages beyond formal operation. However, my aim here is to just to show that developmental stages in general can be understood in terms of my model, in which interiors are created by social organizations. The same approach could be applied to any other classification.

[2] Deacon (1998), p. 266.

[3] The ability to make class distinctions actually evolved long before the emergence of our species. Many invertebrates, particularly social ones, can distinguish between kin and non-kin, between different classes of chemicals, and different colors. The child has reached this point by the time of completion of the sensorimotor stage. What is more or less unique about humans is the ability to represent these distinctions symbolically.

[4] Many researchers understand complexity as a balance between integration and differentiation (e.g., Edelman and Tononi 2000). A system that is highly integrated but poorly differentiated is nearly homogenous, and has little ability to respond in different ways to different stimuli. On the other hand, a system that is highly differentiated but lacks integration can't respond in ways that benefit the entire system.

[5] Humans are capable of forming a still larger number of nested groups, of course, some of which I mentioned in the discussion of developmental stages: family/local community/larger community/nation/global community. However, most of these groups beyond the family are not particularly well-defined, and don't pass the test of providing the basis for a new kind of interaction. For example, we belong to a local community, but generally don't interact with people outside of that community as a member of that local community. The most well-defined group outside of the family is the nation, but most of our interactions with others are not at that stage, either. Most groups that we moderns belong to are in fact not nested or holarchical, but overlapping, and as implied early, not based on direct, face-to-face interactions.

Another or related possible factor is that humans and other organisms may have a limited capacity to identify with different nested groups. It's well-known that in modern societies, families are generally weaker than they were in the past. Why? Because there are other, larger social organizations that compete for individual loyalties. While we can become members of many different kinds of specialized groups, based on some particular interest or talent, traditional groups such as family, local community and nation are based on a much greater commitment of time and energy, and it's plausible to argue that our capacity to make such commitments has constraints.

[6] The dynamic self has certainly been a factor in the formation of ever-larger human societies, but this is apart from its effects on expanding groups from within, rather than outside. See also the previous note.

[7] As I discuss in Smith (2018), dimensions can be defined more fundamentally in terms of orthogonality. I won't discuss this relationship here, but simply note that an orthogonal relationship, when applied to societies, implies a different mode of interaction. So every time a change in social organization results in a new mode of interaction, a new orthogonal dimension emerges.

[8] I'm assuming, for the sake of a unifying view that includes humans, that such primitive organisms actually experience anything, that they are conscious to some extent. It's not necessary to make this assumption, however. One can simply say that the organism is sensitive to a single dimension, that it senses or responds to stimuli in one dimension. This is a more neutral term that doesn't presuppose anything about the organism other than what can actually be observed from its behavior.

[9] The most primitive multicellular organisms, or proto-organisms, which do not exist in societies and have little or no interaction with the environment as an organism (as opposed to their component cells), I describe as zero-dimensional. They make no self-other distinction. All their experience—again, assuming they have any—is of themselves.

[10] It's important to emphasize that these organisms don't live in a one-dimensional world. They live in the same three dimensions of space, or however many dimensions of space there are, as we do. Thus stimuli may impinge upon them from any direction in this space. However, regardless of the direction of the stimulus, it's experienced (or sensed) as coming from a single dimension.

[11] In fact, even one-dimensional societies are likely to be more complex than this. Since even very simple organisms may be able to form memories (Thompson and McConnell 1955; Best and Rubinstein 1962), the organism's interaction with another organism may be influenced by interactions with previous interactions. So the interior is generated to some extent by interactions occurring over time as well as in space, though the temporal dimension is very weak at this point.

[12] The belief that there is an external reality independent of conscious observers is generally known as the “myth of the given” (Sellars 1956). According to the postmodern view, objects don't exist independently of subjects, from which it follows that there could be no objects, or presumably, even space and time, prior to the existence of conscious observers. This appears to lead to paradoxical, or near paradoxical conclusions (Meillassoux 2008). One way out of this bind, taken by Wilber, is to argue that all forms of existence are conscious to some extent; therefore, conscious observers have always existed, along with material objects. This view, known as property dualism, has its own problems, but in my view is preferable to Meillassoux's solution to the problem.

[13] An important implication of this view is that early social deprivation could result in deficits in space and time perception. Very few such studies on animals have been carried out, because of the cruelty involved, but in some infamous experiments with young non-human primates, social isolation resulted in severe cognitive deficits (Harlow et al. 1965). The purpose of the studies was to assess the effects of social deprivation on not space or time perception, but rather how well the animals subsequently interacted with normally raised animals. Long-term isolation, however, resulted in animals that were so severely impaired socially and psychologically that it would have been virtually impossible to determine if their perception of space and time was normal. We do know from other studies that perception of space requires critical connections in the brain, and that early social experience is essential to their formation (Hubel and Wiesel 1964).


Barnes MH (2000) Stages of Thought: The Co-evolution of Religious Thought and Science. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press

Best JB and Rubinstein I (1962) Maze learning and associative behavior in planaria. J. Fr. Med. Chir. Thorac. 55: 560-566.

Chalmers D (2000). What is a neural correlate of consciousness?, in Neural Correlates of Consciousness: Empirical and Conceptual Questions. T. Metzinger, Eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 18-39

Deacon TW (1998) The Symbolic Species. New York: W.W. Norton.

Dunbar RIM (2003) The social brain: Mind, language, and society in evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary Anthropology 6: 178-190.

Edelman GM and Tononi G (2000) A Universe of Consciousness. New York: Basic.

Gebser J (1986) The Ever-present Origin. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Harlow, HF, Dodsworth RO and Harlow MK (1965) Total social isolation in monkeys. Proc. Natl Acad Sci USA 54: 90-97

Hubel DH and Wiesel TN (1964) Effects of monocular deprivation in kittens. Naunyn Schmiedebergs Arch Exp Pathol Pharmakol. 248:492-7.

Hudson JA, Mayhew EMY, and Prabhakar J (2011) The development of episodic foresight: emerging concepts and methods. Advances in Child Development and Behavior 40: 95-137

Huth AG, de Heer WA, Griffiths TL, Theunissen FE, Gallant JL (2016) Natural speech reveals the semantic maps that tile human cerebral cortex. Nature. 532(7600):453-8.

Jablonka E and Lamb MJ (2005) Evolution in Four Dimensions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jaynes J (1976) The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.

Lakoff G (2009) Philosophy in the Flesh (NY: Basic)

Lee TS (2002) Analysis and synthesis of visual images in the brain: evidence for pattern theory

Lee TS (2015) The visual system's internal model of the world Proc IEEE Inst Electr Electron Eng. 103(8): 13591378.

Meillassoux Q (2008) After Finitude. An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. New York: Continuum

Noe A and Thompson, E (2004) Are there neural correlates of consciousness? J Consciousness Studies 11: 3-28.

Ouspensky PD (1961) In Search of the Miraculous (New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich)

Parr T and Friston KJ (2017) The active construction of the visual world Neuropsychologia 104, 92-101

Redshaw J and Suddendorf T (2013) Foresight beyond the very next event: four year olds can link past and deferred future episodes. Front. Psychol. 4: 404

Sellars W (1956). Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. In Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume I: The Foundations of Science and the Concepts of Psychology and Psychoanalysis. H. Feigl and M. Scriven, eds. Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, pp. 253-329.

Smith AP (2002) God is not in the quad. A summary of my challenge to Wilber,

Smith AP (2009) The Dimensions of Experience. X-libris.

Thompson R and McConnell, JV (1955) Classical conditioning in the planarian, Dugesia dorotocoephalia. J. comp. Physiol. psychol. 48: 65-68.

Thompson E and Varela, FJ (2001) Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness. Trends Cogn Sci 5: 418-425.

Wilber K (1980) The Atman Project. Boulder, CO: Shambahla.

Wilber K (1981) Up from Eden. Boulder, CO: Shambhala.

Wittgenstein L (1958) Philosophical Investigations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Comment Form is loading comments...