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

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



The Relationship of Interior and Exterior in the Holarchy

Andrew P. Smith


The four-quadrant model of holarchy proposed by Ken Wilber (1995,1997) is based on the notion that every holon has an individual, social, exterior and interior aspect. None of these aspects is higher in the holarchy than any of the others, and none can be fully explained by or reduced to any of the others. In a recent series of articles (Smith 12001a-f), I have presented many arguments demonstrating that societies, or social holons, are higher than their individual members, a conclusion that effectively removes the rationale for the kind of individual/social distinction made in the four-quadrant model. Here I extend these arguments to the exterior/interior distinction, showing that the interior properties of holons are higher than their exterior properties. Taken together, these and the earlier set of arguments constitute a very strong claim against the four-quadrant model, and support the one-scale model I have proposed (Smith 2000a).


Ken Wilber's four-quadrant model of holarchy (Wilber 1995,1997) proposes that every holon has a four-fold nature, individual and social, and exterior and interior. In my book Worlds within Worlds (Smith 2000a), I presented a one-scale model of holarchy which dispenses with the need to represent these distinctions in separate quadrants or scales. This model does not deny the existence of either individual or social holons, nor of exterior and interior properties of holons, but contends that these distinctions can be adequately represented on a single scale.

These two models of holarchy do not differ simply in the way that they arrange holons, however. They imply the existence of very different relationships between some of these holons. For example, in my model the social organizations we live in are a higher form of existence than we as individuals are, and we can even compare, in principle, earlier societies with individuals of today.1 Likewise, in my model, the interior experience of a human being is higher than the human brain which is associated with this experience. In Wilber's view, in contrast, our society and our interior experience are just different aspects of the same holon that also is represented by the human brain. Wilber would also deny, presumably, that we can directly compare a society with an individual living at a different time.2

Another way of phrasing this contrast is to say that I believe any holon can be compared to, or ranked against, any other holon, while Wilber's model, in effect, creates barriers to such comparisons between certain kinds of holons. This is a very critical point, because in all holarchies, includingWilber's, holons are ranked according to their evolutionary or developmental origin. Thus according to my model, societies can be said to emerge from the interactions of their individual members, and our interior experience (with an important qualification discussed below), also emerges from such interactions, as well as from physical and biological processes in the brain. In the Wilber model, neither society nor interior experience can be fully explained in terms of emergence from individuals or from their brains.

In a recent series of articles (Smith 2001a-f), I have further elaborated on my model, on its differences with the Wilber model, and the way in which it represents the kind of relationships that originally led Wilber to make his four-fold distinction. Most of my arguments have been directed towards the way Wilber represents the individual vs. social distinction, because I believe both the logic and the evidence against this representation are clearest. Wilber's division of his model into individual and social quadrants presupposes, or is intended to demonstrate, that individual and social holons are of equal holarchical rank; however, all recognized criteria for distinguishing higher holons from lower holons that I'm aware of clearly indicate that social holons are higher than individual holons. This holarchical relationship not only allows but demands that social holons be represented on the same scale as individual holons. In addition, I have shown that the way Wilber represents the individual vs. social distinction results in a great many other inconsistencies and incoherencies in his model. The sheer weight of these flaws is problematical enough for the four-quadrant model; the fact that virtually all of them result from a single premise--that societies are not higher than their individual members--surely constitutes virtually compelling evidence that this premise is false.

However, while the conclusion that individual and social holons should be represented on the same scale seems unassailable, that only takes us halfway from the four-quadrant model to the one-scale model. There is still the exterior vs. interior distinction to deal with. Wilber's rationale for representing exterior and interior properties of holons in different quadrants appears, at first glance, to be much stronger than that for the individual vs. social distinction. One of the most important arguments I used against the latter was to point out that the Wilber model apparently conflates individual and social holons with individual and social aspects of holons (Smith 2001e). When Wilber or Kofman refer to individual or social holons, respectively, sometimes they seem to mean the individual or social aspects of a holon that has both of these aspects as well as exterior and interior properties, whereas at other times they seem to mean real, identifiable individual or social holons. This conflation leads to many problems and clearly requires a substantial revision in the Wilber model (see also Goddard 2000).

In contrast, there is no such conflation present in the exterior vs. interior distinction. Wilber does not propose that there are exterior holons and interior holons, but only individual holons and social holons, each of which has both exterior and interior properties or aspects. This is a completely logical and consistent view. Moreover, the interior properties of holons, at least of ourselves, are such that it's very difficult to see how they could be completely represented on the same scale as exterior properties. The material or structural aspects of the world that Wilber calls exterior appear to be a very different kind of property or set of properties from our conscious experience of this world. Certainly no scientist, philosopher or other theoretician has proposed a theory that can indicate how one can emerge from the other, that is, how consciousness can be explained in terms of physical and biological processes.

On the other hand, everyone, Wilber included, agrees that there is a strong correlation between such processes and certain kinds of conscious experience. The existence of this correlation, to most scientists and philosophers, is very strong evidence of an emergent relationship of some kind. My one-scale model attempts to portray such a relationship, while at the same time avoiding the conclusion that it can completely explain interior experience. I do this by adopting another distinction, one that many philosophers, most recently David Chalmers (1996), have made between two kinds of properties of mind. The soft properties of mind are all the functional things that minds actually do, such as think, learn, remember, access information, interact with the world, and so forth. The hard properties are the actual experiences we have as we perform these functions. The soft properties of mind, though still for the most part poorly understood, appear to be explainable in terms of physical and biological processes , and therefore I represent them on the same scale as the brain structures from which they apparently emerge. The hard property of conscious experience, in contrast, is represented as outside or beyond the holarchy. Consciousness in this sense realized by every holon to a degree related to its position in the holarchy. In this way, the one-scale model is retained, yet it makes no claim that all interior experience emerges from--and is therefore in some sense reducible to--the physical and biological processes of the brain. 3

In this article, I will further explore the relationship of interiority to the exterior properties of holons. More specifically, I will present six independent arguments against the kind of exterior/interior distinction that underpins Wilber's four-quadrant model. I have presented some of these arguments previously (Smith 2000a; 2001c), but I will elaborate further on them here, as well as conjoin them with several new arguments. The weight of these arguments, I believe, shows that the kind of distinction Wilber makes between exterior and interior properties of holons is as problematical as that between individual and social.

1. Mind is Higher than Matter

The first argument against the idea that interiority should be represented as a separate aspect of a holon, distinct from its exterior form, is very simple. We all recognize that mind is higher than matter, and in fact, the levels of the holarchy are for convenience and simplicity often reduced to four: matter, life, mind and spirit. This sequence makes it very clear that mind is higher than the brain, for the brain is a biological organ that can be understood in terms of matter and life, that is to say, physical and biological processes. The Wilber four-quadrant model fully embraces the latter point, representing the brain as an exterior holon. Yet this same model denies that mind is higher than brain, insisting that mind and brain are two different aspects of the same holon, neither higher than the other.4

There are really two glaring weaknesses in Wilber's position here. First, his claim that mind is no higher than brain. As I just noted, this position is in stark contrast to the usual conception of the holarchy, a conception that Wilber himself routinely uses when discussing it. The second weakness is his claim that mind is a different aspect of some holon which is also represented by the brain, and not explainable in terms of it. Taken by itself, this claim, as I will discuss in the following section, seems to have a logical flaw in it. It does not seem possible to conceive of two forms of existence which are very different from each other in the way mind and brain clearly are, yet which don't stand in a higher/lower relationship. But quite apart from that, the coherency of the second claim depends on the truth of the first claim. That is to say, if we abandoned the first claim, and conceded that mind is higher than brain, then it would be difficult to maintain that mind is just another aspect of some holon represented by brain. The whole point of Wilber's description of a holon as an entity with a four-fold nature is that none of these natures is any higher than any of the others. To say that mind is higher than brain thus requires a radical shift in Wilber's concept of a holon.

Given these two flaws, why does Wilber maintain that mind and brain are on equivalent levels? I think because they don't appear to have the same relationship that higher and lower holons have in other parts of the holarchy. An important part of holarchy is inclusion: molecules contain or include atoms; cells include molecules; organisms include cells. Mind does not seem to include brain in this sense. Indeed, mind does not seem to include in this sense cells, molecules or atoms, but this is not a problem for Wilber, precisely because he makes a distinction between exteriors and interiors. If mind is an interior property, it should include the interiors of atoms, molecules and cells, but not their exteriors.5

My one-scale model of holarchy, to the extent that it represents mind on the same scale as exterior holons like atoms, molecules and cells, has to confront this problem head on. My model implies that mind does include brain. How can this be? In my model, mind--that is, the higher degree of interiority of which humans are capable of, and which distinguishes them from other organisms--emerges primarily from the interactions of different individuals. I have discussed this point elsewhere (Smith 2000a; 2001c,e), and will return to it later, but here I will just emphasize that the mental properties of individuals, according to this view, result from their participation in social organizations.6 These properties are emergent with these societies, and inherent in them; we simply access them to some extent. So mind is really a somewhat restricted view of a process that results from the interactions of many individuals. As such, it includes their brains, just as the brain in turn includes cells, and so on down.

In conclusion, mind is conventionally considered higher than brain, and if we want to portray this relationship holarchically, in a way in which mind includes brain, we must represent mind on the same scale on which we represent brain. Mind, in the soft or functional sense, is then understood to emerge frombrain in much the same way that organisms emerge from cells, and cells from atoms and molecules. Mind in this sense is not identical with interiority, but it does include some features of what Wilber seems to mean by interiority. Those features it does not include, the so-called hard problem of consciousness, are in my model outside of the holarchy, but the degree to which any holon realizes them is directly implied by its position within the holarchy.

2. Goddard's Dilemma

A second argument against the notion that exterior and interior properties of holons should be represented in different scales or quadrants is a logical extension of an argument I used previously to support my contention that societies are higher their individual members (see Smith 2001e). I quote here the conclusion from that argument:

...either a society is higher than its individual members, or it isn't. If it isn't, it either has the same properties as these members or different properties that are not higher. If it has the same properties, it does not represent a different dimension or aspect from the individual, and therefore does not require a separate quadrant for its representation. If it has different-but-not-higher properties, on the other hand, they must reside in its individudal members and their interactions; there is nothing more to such a society. But there is no property of these interactions not also inherent in the individuals themselves... Therefore, either a society is completely understandable in terms of its individual members--there is no meaningful distinction to be made at all--or it's higher than these members.

The point of this argument was that whenever a holon acquires emergent properties, ones different from those of the holons composing it, this holon is by definition higher than its component holons. A society has properties that none of its individual members have, and is therefore higher than the latter. The same argument should be applicable to mind, which has properties not found in its components. In my model, this extension is quite straightforward, since as I mentioned in the previous section, our highest and most complex mental processes result from the same kinds of interactions that go into creatinga society. It's true that some of our mentality, and most or all of that of lower organisms, can't be explained inthis manner, but the same kind of argument should also be applicable. In this case, we are considering mind as emerging from the interactions of many cells in the brain.

I referred to this argument as Goddard's dilemma,because it was originally directed against a position taken by Gerry Goddard (2000). In a later response to me, Goddard (2001) suggested that the existence of certain quantum phenomena (superposition of states, presumably) was an example of the emergence of genuinely new properties without any increase in holarchical position. There are at least three reasons to reject this possibility as a reason for viewing societies as no higher than their individuals, or for viewing mind as no higher than brain. First, there is no evidence that such quantum phenomena are relevant at all to the relationship between individuals and their societies--and despite a rash of theories in recent years (Lockwood 1989; Goswami 1993; Penrose 1994; Miller 1998), there is also no evidence that quantum phenomena can explain the relationship of brain to mind. Second, there is no justification for applying such an explanation only to the emergent properties of societies; it could just as well be applied to the emergent properties of organisms, cells and molecules, in the process completely eliminating the need for any model of holarchy at all. And third, it's not really clear, to me at least, that quantum superposition is not an example of a higher form of existence emerging from a lower. In order to apply it successfully to the mind/brain relationship, for example, one has to assume that there is a very large number of atoms or molecules in the brain which can cohere, that is, enter into the same quantum state. This type of relationship among many atoms or molecules sounds very much like a form of emergence to me.7

In conclusion, in maintaining that mind and brain are different aspects of the same holon, with neither aspect fully explainable in terms of the other, Wilber is postulating a kind of relationship for which there is virtually no evidence. To almost everyone else who investigates phenomena like evolution, development, complexity and holarchy, emergence means higher by definition. When one form of existence is created through the interactions of other forms, and when this new form has properties that are quite different from those of the latter, this new form is considered higher than the latter. The burden of proof is entirely on those who would maintain otherwise.

3. The Relationship of the Social to the Interior

I pointed out earlier that there is a very well-established correlation between consciousness and certain physical and biological processes. Thus consciousness, so far as we know, is only found in organisms with central nervous systems8, and in these organisms, certain parts of the brain clearly play a key role. For if the activity of these portions is altered in some manner, through injury, surgery or the use of certain drugs, an alteration in consciousness occurs.

There is also a strong correlation between social development and the consciousness of individuals within that social organization. As Wilber himself has writtenabout at some length, members of earlier societies, with much less developed social relationships than our own, had a very different kind of interior experience of their world than we do (Gebser 1985; Wilber 1981, 1995). The relationship is also seen in human development, where the interior experience of the child grows in close association with the development of social relationships between itself and others (Piaget 1992; Loevinger 1977; Wilber 1980 ).

In the Wilber four-quadrant model, this correlation is represented by depicting, at different periods of human history, a certain type of consciousness and a certain type of social organization. What this model does not explain, however, is why there should be such a correlation. According to Wilber, both conscious experience and social organization are just different aspects of the same holon that also represents the individual, and none of these aspects is fully explainable in terms of any other.

As noted earlier, there are very compelling arguments to indicate that societies are higher than their individual members, and thus can be represented on the same holarchical scale as these members, but above them. In my one-scale model, societies--and on lower levels, social holons of other kinds--are represented as distinct stages, higher than their individual member holons yet on the same level of existence. The close correlation of particular types of interior experience with particular forms of social organization provides support for the idea that interiority, to some extent, can also be considered as higher stages. That is, for any individual holon that is a member of a certain kind of social holon, there is an interiority that is at the same stage of existence as that social holon.

Stated in this way, it may seem that I'm equating interiority with social holons. The relationship is not that direct. In the first place, consciousness in my model is outside or beyond the holarchy, realized by holons to an extent paralleling their position in the holarchy, so it can't be identified with any particular holarchical relationship. I am saying, however, that the content of interiority is very closely related to the social organization of the individual holon. Thus the fact that members of modern societies are capable of certain kinds of thoughts reflects the fact that they are imbedded in these societies. I express this relationship by saying that when we think in this way, we are actually looking at these social organizations, which are above us on our level of existence. The higher the social stage of which we are a member, the higher up on our level we can look, and therefore the higher the degree of interiority that we can experience.9

Thus the one-scale model not only exhibits a close correlation between degree of interiority and degree of social development, but potentially can provide some explanation for this relationship. As I have argued elsewhere (Smith 2001d), another way of defining higher in the holarchy is by complexity; the more complex a holon is, the higher it is. The complexity of a holon, in turn, is a function of the number and kinds of interactions beween its component holons. Thus modern societies are more complex than earlier ones because they exhibit a greater number of interactions, as well as kinds of interactions, between their individual members.

We participate in this complexity by experiencing a greater number of interactions with others than did members of earlier, less complex societies. The greater number of interactions modern individuals have with other individuals allows us to conceive of thoughts that reflect these interactions, that is, thoughts that are to a greater degree built up from simpler thoughts. For example, beginning with direct impressions of the world, we may represent these impressions in certain ways, then perform various operations on them. We can then represent these operations, and perform still other operations on them. This results in a holarchy of thoughts, the extent of which is directly related to the complexity of interactions inthe society. Such thoughts constitute much of the content of our interiority.

4. One Brain, Many Minds

As noted earlier, in the Wilber model, every holon is supposed to have a four-fold nature, consisting of individual, social, exterior and interior aspects. One weakness of this model, as I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2001c), is that many individual holons have little or no social organization. For example, most lower vertebrates and many invertebrates live outside of societies. Thus the social dimension for these holons is either non-existent or much more poorly developed than for other, more social organisms. This is not a problem for the one-scale model, where social holons are represented above their individual members, as non-social individual holons or organisms are found at the bottom of each level, while the individual holons composing the higher stages of these levels are increasingly social.

Examination of the exterior vs. interior distinction in the Wilber model reveals a somewhat similar weakness, that is, a lack of a consistent correlation between exterior and interior aspects of holons. Just as every holon is supposed to have both an individual and a social aspect, it's also supposed to have both an exterior and interior aspect. But there are portions of the Wilber model where there appear to be no distinct exterior aspects corresponding to the interior aspects. For example, the upper levels of this model represent various kinds of human beings and their societies. Each of these levels has an interior aspect represented by a particular kind of consciousness, such as magic, mythic-membership, and rational egoic. In the Wilber model, the exterior aspects of holons on these levels take the form of various kinds of brains, and these are referred to in this model as SF1, SF2 and SF3. Yet the different brains referred to by these terms are purely hypothetical. In the view of science, the brains of our earliest ancestors, fifty to one hundred thousand years ago, were essentially identical, physically and biologically, to our own.

Given that we experience a different kind of interiority from members of earlier societies, it's logical to suppose that there must be some differences in the organization of our brains that correlate with these different interiorities, even if science is unable to identify them. The question, however, is whether these differences are substantial enough to justify claiming that each type of brain exists on a different level, with a relationship to the brain on the level below it much like the relationships of the different levels of consciousness associated with these brains. It appears, in fact, that highly similar brains can support very different experiences of consciousness.

In the one-scale model, this is not a problem, because, again, levels (more accurately, stages) of consciousness or interiority are represented in holons that are positioned above the exterior forms, such as organisms, with which they're associated. Human beings with virtually identical brains can experience very different stages of consciousness because these individuals, depending on their social organization, are associated with different social stages. In this model, as I noted earlier, much of our interior experience results from our perception of the social organizations we are members of, so the more complex these social organizations, the higher the degree of interiority.

A similar relationship holds on lower levels of existence, and can help us appreciate the phenomenon better as it takes place onour level. Many nerve cells in the mammalian brain have relatively advanced properties, such as the ability to make certain kinds of visual discriminations in the organism's environment (Baron 1987; Reid 1999). Nerve cells in lower organisms, such as invertebrates, or even in lower parts of the mammalian nervous system, such as the spinal cord, lack these properties. Yet the neurons in these lower systems are very similar in their molecular and physiological properties to those in the brain. The more advanced properties of cells in the brain emerge largely because these cells are connected to many more other cells than neurons in lower systems are. The resulting multiple inputs can be processed in certain ways by the cell, leading to a much more advanced ability to perceive the environment.10

In the same way, in the one-scale model, the higher degree of interiority of members of modern societies is explained largely by their greater connectivity with other members of these societies, rather than in major differences in their brains. To repeat what was said earlier, there should be some differences in the brains of modern individuals and those of earlier societies, but these differences don't have to be very great to account for much greater differences in interiority. They only have to allow these individuals to form interactions with other members of the society, and to process the inputs resulting from these interactions in certain ways.

To summarize, in my one-scale model of holarchy, social holons are represented on higher stages of the same level of existence as their component individual holons. These social holons exhibit new, emergent properties, including a higher degree of interiority, which their member individual holons lack. However, the latter can to some extent participate in these properties, through their interactions with one another. In this way, individual holons that differ relatively little from one another in their exterior form can exhibit very different degrees of interiority. This observation can't be accounted for by a model, such as Wilber's, that does not recognize stages within levels, and particularly one that represents interiority as simply a different but not higher aspect of a holon that also has an exterior form.

5. The Dynamics of Transcendence

An important goal of any model of holarchy is to explain the process by which one form of existence moves up in the holarchy, becoming a higher form of existence. In the Wilber model, this process is referred to as self-transcendence, and he has written in some detail about how this occurs, in individuals. Thus in The Atman Project (1980) he describes the stages of interiority a human being passes through, from birth to maturity, and the dynamics by which one stage gives way to another. He then extends this discussion to the process by which a mature, adult human beingmay realize a level of consciousness higher than that at which development ordinarily terminates.

However, Wilber's description of transcendence is confined to one level of existence, our own, and largely to interior properties on that level. He has relatively little to say about how higher forms of existence are created on lower levels, and in particular, how the higher degree of exteriority is related to a higher degree of interiority. The lack of an adequately explained relationship, I believe, results directly from the fact that exterior and interior are distinguished in the four quadrant model, and treated, in effect, as though they evolved separately.

In my one-scale model, much of what Wilber calls interiority is on the same axis as the exterior properties of holons, so the evolution of one is clearly and unmistakeably related to the evolution of the other. All vertical changes are in fact explained in terms of a dialectic between two processes, agency and communion. Both these terms are used by Wilber, and we define them in fairly similar ways, but our understanding of them leads to very different implications. Agency, as I define it, is the degree to which a holon maintains itself, while communion is the degree to which it enters into relationships with other holons like itself, or with higher social holons of which it is a member. Another way of defining them is to say that agency is the interaction of a holon with a lower holon, since self-maintenance requires that a holon both organize the lower holons that compose it as well as assimilate lower holons that are not part of it. Communion is the interaction of a holon with holons of the same or higher holarchical rank, that is, on the same or higher stage of the same level of existence as itself. As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2001b,f), for evolving holons, agency and communion have an inverse relationship; the more agency such a holon exhibits, the less communion, and vice-versa.

In my model, higher forms of existence are created by the interplay of agency and communion. Communion between individual holons results in the formation of higher, social holons, and communion between these social holons results in the formation of still higher social holons, and ultimately, a higher individual holon on a new level of existence. One could just as well say that agency results in higher holons, however, because of the inverse relationship between it and communion. To say that individual holons commune to form a social holon is also to say that the social holon acts agentically to consolidate its component individual holons. Whether the process is one of agency or communion simply depends on one's perspective. In any case, however, my model does not require a distinct term for the process of self-transcendence, as Wilber's does.11 The way in which higher emerges from lower can be understood strictly in terms of agency/communion.

This view provides a fairly clear and coherent, if very general, picture of how the exterior forms of holons evolve. When atoms commune, they form molecules; when molecules commune, they form more complex molecules, and eventually cells; when cell commune, they form tissues, organs and organisms. But what about the interior properties of holons? Do they evolve in the same manner? For example, can we understand the development of human consciousness in terms of the communions of holons?

The key to doing so is provided by the concept of participation,which I have discussed at length elsewhere (Smith 2000a; 2001c,e). When humans evolve, either through the process of development to an adult, or to a still higher level of consciousness afterwards, they do so in large part by participating in progressively more complex social organizations.12 In human development, this begins when the child makes the distinction between herself and others, and continues as increasingly more complex relationships with other people emerge. By participating in these relationships, the child realizes increasingly more complex ways of thinking.

What about further development, towards higher consciousness? In my model, the next higher level of existence beyond our own is an individual holon that transcends and includes individuals as well as their societies, much as a cell transcends and includes atoms and molecules, and an organism transcends and includes cells and tissues. I believe that this higher level holon is in the process of emerging now ("now" referring to a very long period of time, stretching back into history several thousand years and going forward probably many more centuries). It has an exterior form, but as we ordinarily exist below it, we can't see this form, certainly not in the sense that we see the exteriors of cells or organisms. By virtue of our membership in it, however, we are able to realize some of its properties, just as we can realize the properties of societies by our membership in them.

This understanding of self-transcendence allows us to see at as fundamentally the same process by which higher holons evolve from lower throughout the holarchy. The evolution of molecules from atoms, of cells from molecules, and of organisms from cells, is the same kind of process as the realization of higher consciousness by individuals. If the latter appears very different, it's because the individual realizing higher consciousness is only participating in the properties of a higher-order holon of which he is a member. He is not in fact identical to this higher-order holon.13 This is another example of the fact, which I have pointed out elsewhere (Smith 2000a; 2001f), that we view processes occurring on our own level of existence very differently from the way we view analogous processes occurringon lower levels.

This view of self-transcendence has several other important implications. First, the higher level of consciousness can only fully emerge when the social organization of humanity has reached a certainstage. While in one sense it may have always existed (as discussed in the following section), it's manifest as a holon only when its component holons, individuals and their societies, have organized into a certain form. From this it follows that individuals can only realize this higher level, or fully participate in its properties, in the most advanced societies. That is, modern individuals should realize higher consciousness more fully, and in greater numbers, than people of earlier times. This may be a testable prediction of my model, though Wilber (1981) seems to come to a similar conclusion, and in any case, for reasons I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2000a), it's difficult to evaluate the degree to which people, present and past, have realized higher consciousness.

A second implication of this view of transcendence is that the process does not occur independently of other people. While an individual in pursuit of higher conciousness may withdraw from society, and minimize interactions with other people, her ability to realize higher consciousness is still dependent on changes that are occurring in other individuals and in society. These changes include those in social organizations composed of large numbers of other people, as well as the changes in consciousness that a relatively few other people may be experiencing through their meditative disciplines. The changes in social organizations contribute to the emergence of the higher level holon, and therefore to the establishment of the properties that the individual is capable of participating in. The progress of other individuals, on the other hand, determines the roles that they will play in the existence of this higher-order holon. There are different kinds of roles, and not all of them are available without limit.

This brings us to the third implication of this understanding of transcendence: the realization of higher consciousness is not open to everyone. Observations of lower order holons indicate that the degree to which component holons participate in their properties varies considerably. Not all cells in the brain are capable of the highest forms of perception that some cells exhibit, and not all atoms in cells enjoy the enhanced properties that some atoms are capable of. This reflects the fact that holons throughout the holarchy are not arranged in a fully egalitarian manner. Some holons, by virtue of their positions in higher-order holons, enjoy to a maximum extent the benefits of interactions with many other holons; other holons within the same higher-order holons have much fewer such interactions. At the most fundamental level, perhaps, this kind of arrangement reflects the fact that complexity can't be equated with either complete order or complete randomness. It represents some kind of balance between these two poles, and this balance is manifested by inequalities in the roles that component holons play within larger holons.

To conclude, the one-scale model makes it possible to understand all vertical change in the holarchy, at different levels of existence and in both exterior and interior properties, as occurring through a single kind of process, agency/communion. The Wilber model, by separating interior and exterior properties, does not achieve this unified view. The analysis Wilber has made of the way individuals change their consciousness, brilliant in many ways, can apparently not be extended to all levels and to exterior properties.

6. The Origins of Holarchy

I said at the beginning of this article that placing holons on a single vertical scale implies that higher holons on this scale emerge from lower ones. Thus molecules emerge from atoms; cells from molecules; organisms from cells. This indeed is the scientific view of how life evolved on earth. Many people, however, question this strictly bottom-up view of existence, insisting that human consciousness--let alone higher consciousness--can't be explained simply in terms of physical and biological processes. Wilber calls this view subtle reductionism, and the division of his model into exterior and interior quadrants is intended to address its inadequacy. Accordint to Wilber, not only human consciousness , but interiority at any level of existence does not emerge from lower exterior forms such as atoms, molecules, and cells.

But then where do interior properties come from? According to Wilber, every holon has both an exterior and an interior aspect, as well as an individual and social aspect. It follows that if we consider these four-fold holons, rather than just the exterior forms that they take, we could represent them all on a single scale. This scale would begin with 'atoms", or lower forms of physical matter, with the understanding that by "atoms" we didn't really mean atoms as physicists understand them, but four-fold holons that simply appear to us as atoms from their exterior, individual aspect. The holarchy would continue upwards with "molecules", "cells", and "organisms", with each of these holons a four-fold entity that only corresponded in one aspect with the form of existence we ordinarily mean by that term.

Understood in this way, the four-quadrant model suddenly looks very guilty of the reductionism that Wilber accuses other holarchical models (not just my one-scale version) of being. If I correctly understand how Wilber has defined these quadrants, they don't represent fundamental distinctions in forms of existence. These distinctions are simply made because we aren't capable of seeing holons as they really are. But if we could see them as they really are, in their four-fold nature, they would form a one-scale model in which each form of existence apparently emerges from that below it.

Is there any way that Wilber can escape the charge of reductionism? In his other writings, Wilber (1981; 1995), following Aurobindo (1985), has described the universe as originating from an involution, or stepping down, of the highest level of existence. This highest level creates the lowest forms of matter, enfolding in them the potential to evolve progressively upwards to the highest level. Thus all forms of life are ultimately rooted in the highest forms of life, not the lowest. Another way in which this concept is often expressed is to say that the highest form of life is immanent in all of the lower.

The concept of evolutionary potential or immanence, however, is not very clear. Does it mean that atoms, for example, have a tendency to form molecules, which in turn have a tendency to form more complex molecules, then cells, and so on? It presumably means something more than this, for atoms as science understands them have this tendency without postulation of any further properties necessary. Likewise, recent work in the new science of complexity suggests that the evolution of higher forms of life may also be understood in terms of inherent tendencies of molecules and cells to organize into more complex forms (Eigen and Schuster 1977; Prigogine and Stengers 1984; Casti 1992; Kauffman 1993). Whereas science has long believed that higher forms of life are the result purely of random variation and natural selection, it now appears that life to some extent may have been inevitable. This new understanding does not eliminate reductionism (Dennett 1995), for life is still understood ultimately in terms of physical processes. It just provides us with a new appreciation of what they processes are capable of doing.

So if the Wilber model is to escape the charge of reductionism, immanence must mean something more than the tendency of matter to organize into higher forms of life. Recalling that in Wilber's view, the lowest forms of existence are four-fold holons that have consciousness or interiority as well as the exterior forms that present themselves to us, we could perhaps understand immanence as the existence of this interiority in the very lowest forms of matter. This is a more radical position, for as I noted earlier, science has yet to show how consciousness can emerge from physical or biological processes.

As evolution proceeds, and higher-order holons emerge, there is a correspondingly higher degree of interiority. Cells, in Wilber's view as well as mine, are more conscious than molecules; organisms are more conscious than cells; and we are more conscious than other organisms. How does this higher degree of interiority come about? If I understand Wilber correctly, it results from an unfolding, or becoming manifest, of a potential within the holon. Just as the exterior form, the atom, has the potential to form molecules, which in turn can associate into more complex molecules and eventually cells, so interiority has the potential to evolve into a higher form. If we take this analogy seriously, it suggests that just as physical matter can self-organize into more complex forms of physical matter, so can interior experience self-organize into more complex forms of experience.

This view, it seems to me, is a form of panpsychism, in which every form of existence, even the lowest, has some form of consciousness, and the most elementary forms unite to create higher forms of consciousness. Though it has been out of favor among philosophers for a long time, it has been making a comeback, being espoused by several well-known thinkers such as Chalmers (1996) and William Seager (1999). It's as valid a view of the origin of consciousness as any other, but in the context of Wilber's four-quadrant model, it seems to lead to a problem. Both exterior and interior forms of holons are evolving together; or to put it more precisely, four-fold holons are evolving, with both their exterior and interior aspects changing simultaneously. If, as Wilber insists, interior properties are not completely explainable in terms of exterior properties, then we seem to have a case of separate but parallel evolution, with neither type of change directly causing or being affected by the other. On the other hand, if both aspects are part of the same holon, it's very difficult to understand, for me at least, how the interior and exterior properties could not be related.

So here is the dilemma: either the exterior and interior properties are related, with evolution of one having a causative relation to evolution of the other, or they are not so related. If they are related, then it seems to me that interior properties are ultimately explainable in terms of exterior properties--materialism--or vice-versa, a form of idealism. Either alternative is a form of reductionism. If exterior and interior properties are not so related, however, in what sense can they be said to be different aspects inherent in the same holon?

The one-scale model I have proposed I think avoids these problems, because much of what Wilber calls interior properties, being functional aspects of mind, emerge from exterior forms of holons, thus making their relationship to the latter very clear. To some extent, then,I have bittenthe bullet, and come down on one side of the dilemma that Wilber finds himself in: I have opted for reductionism. But at the same time, by distinguishing functional or soft features of mind from the hard property of consciousness, I have avoided a complete reductionism. Not all the interiority (as Wilber defines it) of any holon can be understood as emerging from physical and biological properties. The actual experience of mind or its lower-level equivalent results from a holon's realizing to some degree theconciousness of the universal, all-creating level of existence. Though holons realize progressively more of this consciousness as they evolve and move up the holarchy, this is not a case of parallel evolution of consciousness and matter. The consciousness is all there and fully evolved; it is only the degree to which it's realized that changes.


The distinction Ken Wilber makes between exterior and interior properties of holons was intended to combat the tendency of many philosophers, and most scientists, to view existence entirely in terms of exterior properties. Because science doesn't understand the relationship of consciousness to matter and life, it tends to get left out in descriptions of the world. By emphasizing the importance of the interior, Wilber has stimulated a tremendous amount of interest in revising both our theoretical and practical approaches to our world. As an example of this interest, one need look no further than recent articles posted at this site by Mark Edwards, Richard Slaughter and Caleb Rosado.

I don't want to spoil this party; I really don't. I agree that the exterior/interior distiction is an important one. But just because it is so important, we better be sure we draw the line in the right place. Much of what Wilber means by the term interior fairly clearly refers to functional properties of mind, operations that it performs, as distinguished from the experience we have when we perform such operations. There are very good reasons for believing that the functional properties of mind can be understood in terms of physical and biological processes, in somewhat the same way that we now understand the functional properties of the body--movement, circulation, digestion, and so forth--in this manner. Failing to make this distinction therefore has two unfortunate consequences: on the one hand, it discourages people who believe in the interior/exterior distinction from investigating relationships between mind and physical and biological processes; and on the other hand, it encourages people who believe all interiority can be so explained not to make any distinction at all.

How do we know this distinction between hard and soft, experience and function, is a valid one? One of the strongest arguments in favor of it is based on the idea of a zombie (Chalmers 1996). To philosophers of mind, a zombie is a creature just like any ordinary human being, capable of doing everything, or practically everything, that a human can do, except that it has no conscious experience at all. It can think any thought that an ordinary person can, for example; it just has no awareness of thinking. It's outward behavior is thus generally indistinguishable from that of an ordinary person. Indeed, it's not clear that there is a compelling argument for any one of us to believe everyone else is not a zombie

A zombie is only a concept, of course, a logical possibility. If we can accept that others are like ourselves, there is no such thing as a real zombie in this sense. Yet human beings are much closer to being zombies than most of us seem to realize, and Wilberites of all people should appreciate this. A time-honored teaching of the spiritual path is that human beings are asleep, that they have no awareness of themselves or their world (Ouspensky 1961; deRopp 1968). In my experience, this is going slightly too far, though only slighty. Sleep is a relative term. In what we traditionally call the ordinary or waking state, we do have some consciousness, but it's almost vanishingly small compared to full awakening realized at higher levels of existence. Just how slight our consciousness is, how much of our lives we live unaware of ourselves and what's going on around us, becomes very apparent as we gradually awaken (Smith 2000b). We could say, fairly accurately, that we live most of our lives--most of any second, minute, hour, day, month or year--as a zombie.

Yet conscious experience, if distinguishable from mental function, is still very closely associated with it. All human beings, in the ordinary waking state, have a certain degree of consciousness, and they also have a certain degree of mental activity. That is, we all think, and while the nature and the complexity of these thoughts can be very different from person to person,

the amount of thinking that each of us does, compared to that of any other organism, is pretty much the same. It's this kind of correlation that prompts me to say that the degree to which a holon realize conscious experience is related to its position in the holarchy.

In an important sense, then, I have just pushed back the problem that Wilber confronts. He makes a distinction between interiority and exteriority. I make a distinction between concious experience and mental function that allows an explanation of much of what Wilber calls interiority in terms of what he calls exteriority. But there is still something left that does not fit into the rest of the holarchy, yet which also can't be separated from it. Wilber has argued that in our ordinary state of consciousness,we can't ever understand the relationship of consciousness to the rest of existence. I agree with this, but have simply tried to propose a little better approximation.


1. This type of comparison is not straightforward, however, because in my model, members of social holons like societies participate in the properties of these societies (see discussion below). So though any earlier society would appear to be higher than any modern individual, to make an accurate comparison, we would have to have a way of estimating the degree to which a modern individual shares in the properties of modern societies, which are higher than earlier societies.

2. Yet Wilber's model ought to allow such a comparison. If society is just one aspect of the same holon that from another perspective is the individual, then what is really being compared is not any individual with any society, but any four-fold holon with any other four-fold holon. Thus comparison of a modern individual with an earlier society would just be comparison of the holon that has the four-fold nature of modern individuals and society with another holon with the four-fold nature of earlier individuals and societies. The fact that we are in one case adopting one perspective and in the other case a different perspective shouldn't matter, since the underlying reality is supposed in both cases to be the same kindof holon. Following this reasoning, then, we arrive at the conclusion that any modern individual is higher than any earlier society, which certainly sounds strange.

In fact, the reason Wilber (presumably) does not arrive at this conclusion is because--as I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2001e)--he appears to conflate two meanings of society. One meaning is the social aspect of a holon with a four-fold aspect; the other meaning is of a social holon proper. When making a comparison with a modern individual and an earlier society, Wilber adopts the second meaning of social holon (and also of individual holon), which makes appears to be so different from an individual holon as to make a direct comparison impossible. This discussion points up yet another reason why Wilber is forced to make such a conflation. If he did not, he would arrive at just such untenable conclusions as that modern individuals are higher than earlier societies.

3. It would in fact be possible to view my model as having two axes or scales, one consisting of the exterior properties of holons, including the functional aspects of mind; and the other consisting of the actual conscious experiences we have. Such a scale of interiorities is implied at every point in my model. However, explicit representation of this second scale is both unnecessary and misleading. It's unnnecessary because, since the degree of consciousness is understood to be related to holarchical position, the single scale carries or represents within itself all the information needed to indicate this degree of consciousness. A second scale would also be misleading, because it would imply that all of interior experience is to be distinguished from the exterior properties of holons., This would obscure the point that the content of interior experience--the particular thoughts we have, for example--emerges from relationships among the exterior properties of holons.

4. It might be argued that Wilber isn't equating mind exactly with interiority. He might be making the same kind of distinction I make, between the hard and soft aspects of consciousness, between conscious experience and the functional properties of mind. However, this is irrelevant to the argument, for he would still be claiming that mind is no higher than the brain. And as a point of fact, it's quite clear that he doesn't make this hard/soft distinction, that in his model, interiority refers to both these aspects of consciousness, and includes mind by any reasonable definition of that word. This is demonstrated by the fact that he defines the exterior aspects of holons on this level as certain kinds of brain structures. This definition makes it quite clear that mind, to Wilber, is not an exterior property, and therefore must be an interior one.

5. Yet this could be a problem for Wilber, too. If mind is just a different aspect of a holon that is also brain, then mind should include things like cells and molecules, since these are just an exterior view of holons of the same kind as that which is represented by mind. See footnote 2.

6. Not all our mental properties can be understood in this way, nor can most or all of the mental properties of lower organisms, many of which don't live in social organizations. In this case, these properties are represented as emerging from the interactions of cells within the brain. As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2000; 2001e), the distinction corresponds to what I call subject/object and subject/subject perception. The first kind of perception corresponds to sensory impressions, and is emergent from the brain. The second kind of perception corresponds to thoughts, and is emergent from social interactions. As human beings, we are capable of both, but I'm mainly considering now only the latter, for that is the highest form of interiority of which we are capable, and which therefore distinguishes us from other organisms and still lower holons.

7. Even if quantum coherence is not an emergent phenomenon, I think appealing to it as a non-reductionist explanation of the properties of societies or interiors misses the point. Strictly speaking, if some new property (say, mind) resulting from quantum coherence is not higher than the original, referring property (brain), we may have a non-reductionist explanation of this new property. But it's still reductionist in spirit, in that it explains the phenomenon simply in terms of physical processes. I don't see why Goddard or anyone else opposed to reductionist explanations should be any happier about explaining mind in terms of quantum effects than explaining it in terms of the interactions of neurons or of individuals. The real point of non-reductionism should be that we explain existence from the top down, the highest level, rather than from the bottom up, the lowest level. This is discussed further below.

8. Some people, including Ken Wilber and myself, believe that consciousness of some sort is a property of all forms of existence, even the lowest. This idea is an essential part of the spiritual tradition, and was especially emphasized by Sri Aurobindo (1985). Nevertheless, the kind of consciousness experienced by human beings and at least some other organisms is surely much more developed, and very closely associated with our complex brains.

9. As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2001e), we are also capable of looking down, at holons below us, and this type of interaction results in a different kind of interiority. These two kinds of interiorities I call respectively subject/subject and subject/object perception. See footnote 6.

10. This discussion has only considered the exterior properties of neurons, as those are all we are capable of observing. But it's a strong implication that these properties reflect a closely corresponding interior experience.

11. In my book Worlds within Worlds, I distinguish three kinds of evolutionary processes, translation, transformation and transcendence. The latter two are both vertical changes involving agency/communion, while the first is a horizontal change. However, even translation can be understood as a process of agency/communion among certain holons. For example, a genetic mutation involves agency/communion between a nucleotide base in the genome and a photon or some chemical substance that it reacts with. The way in which this mutation leads to phenotypic change in an organism, and the way this change may then spread through a population of organisms, involves further processes of agency/communion.

12. Not all of human consciousness is related to social organization. Our most basic ability to perceive an external world through sensory impressions is one we share with many lower organisms, including ones that do not live in societies. See footnote 6.

13. This is not to say that such an identity is not possible. This may occur on a still higher level.


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