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

"... rethinking metaphysics along worldcentric lines..."
Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Books: Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY, 2003), and The Corona Conspiracy: Combatting Disinformation about the Coronavirus (Kindle, 2020).


and beyond

The AQAL framework as Kosmic Compass

Frank Visser

As stated for the first time explicitly in the interview "On the Nature of a Post-metaphysical Spirituality", Wilber has entered the fifth phase of his work, called "post-metaphysical". What does this mean for a system of psychology that about three decades ago took most of it's inspiration from the perennial philosophy -- whose main tenet is the existence of many ontological levels of existence beyond the physical universe -- but which has distanced itself more and more from those beginnings? How does that mesh with Wilber's intention to replace the concept of the physical "cosmos" as studied by physics, by the concept of a multi-dimensional Pythagorean "Kosmos"? Can the richness of this Kosmos be captured in purely psychological terms? Should we really give in to modernity's intense dislike of ontological speculations, or should we instead try to rethink traditional metaphysics along worldcentric lines?

In this follow-up essay on "Wilber and Metaphysics" I freely explore the interface between Wilber and the esoteric field, as exemplified by modern Theosophy. In a recent Internet posting called "Excerpt G: Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies" Wilber again turns to typically esoteric concepts, where he tries to fit notions such as subtle bodies or subtle energy into his AQAL framework. Since I've written both on Theosophy (Seven Spheres, 1995) and Wilber (Thought as Passion, 2003), I feel quite at home in this territory, though much of this field is still largely unexplored.

The term "post-metaphysical" was originally taken by Wilber from Habermas to denote the modern rejection of any metaphysical speculation or religious worldview. In Wilber's terminology, it might better be rephrased as "post-mythical", given the etnocentric nature of many religious speculations. Given Wilber's constant opposition to a merely flatland view of reality, which he sees as the darker downside as modernity, it's perhaps somewhat unfortunate to stress the "post-metaphysical" instead of the "post-materialistic" nature of integralism. Does post-metaphysial mean merely non-metaphysical -- in that sense that all of psychology is by definition not interested in metaphysical issues such as "what is the soul?". Is it anti-metaphysical -- in the sense that it opts for a materialist view of reality -- which would be just another metaphysics? Does it point to a completely immanent and psychologistic view of the Kosmos, which leaves no room for ontological realities -- except the physical, visible world? How does it account for the reality of the inner world, the rejection by modern flatland Wilber once counted in The Marriage of Sence and Soul as one of his major worries?:

Flatland accepts no interior domain whatsover, and reintroducing Spirit is the least of our worries.
Thus our task is not specifically to reintroduce spirituality and somehow attempt to show that modern science is becoming compatible with God. That approach, which is taken by most of the integrative attempts, does not go nearly deep enough in diagnosing the disease, and thus, in my opinion, never really addresses the crucial issues.
Rather, it is the rehabilitation of the interior in general that opens the possibility of reconciling science and religion, integrating the Big Three, overcoming the dissociation and disasters of modernity, and fulfulling the brighter promises of postmodernity. Not Spirit, but the within, is the corpse we must first revive. (p. 142-3)

But where does this "within", this "interior in general" fit into the larger post-metaphyscial picture? In the following comments I will try to disentangle these questions, and sketch a metaphysical view of the Kosmos, that acknowledges the interior domain to the very end, is based on scientific research (albeit somewhat unorthodox) and is thoroughly worldcentric in its implications.

Heaven is only a state of mind?

Traditional religious metaphysics postulates a heaven-world for its true believers. All religions have their own variety of the afterlife, but the etnocentric and cosmocentric nature of these conceptions is striking. Who will go to heaven? Who will go to hell? are the burning and often vexed questions of theologicians throughout the centuries. All true believers in my particular creed? All true Christians, or whatever denomination? All "good" people of whatever religion? But then what's the point of believing in Christ, if being good is good enough to qualify for heaven? More often then not, the heavenworld is situated in the physical cosmos, somewhere around the sun and stars.

This premodern idea of heaven is rejected by modernity as outdated -- even though this is based on a misconception (read Huston Smith's Forgotton Truth). For one thing, science has discovered the physical cosmos is infinite, and laws of nature discovered on the earth hold true everywhere. There's simply no room left for a heavenworld. There's no heaven except the state of happiness in this life. Heaven is only a state of mind; not a geography somewhere to be found. And for this state of mind, all human beings qualify. There's a strong worldcentric quality in this conception. We no longer have to worry about who is qualified and who isn't. By the very fact of being human, we are capable of enjoying happiness. (And conversely, we can be deeply unhappy - the modernist equivalent of hell). The drawback is that this conception is purely related to this life in this world: immanent. The old transcendent view of higher worlds above and beyond the visible world seem to have lost all credibility. Modernity has become thorougly post-metaphysical. It has become tired of speculations about higher worlds with its inhabitants, tired about quarreling about who may may enter heaven and who doesn't, given the fact that none of this can be verified by any science.

In modern theosophical literature we encounter a conception of the afterlife which retains the worldcentric nature of modernist ideas about human happiness, but set in a wider Kosmic context of "planes of Nature", as the theosophical expression goes. Heaven is no longer "only" a state of mind, for where would this state exist, if not in a subtly embodied form? How can we think of surviving death without being in another environment? Going to heaven turns out to be unrelated to one's belief (or disbelief), but all the more to the state of mind we have cultivated during life. This is not surprising, for heaven IS the state of our mind, and cannot be anything else. (A comparison with dreams is instructive: happy or unhappy dreams are the result of internal dynamics of our psyche, not of Somebody rewarding or punishing us because of our deeds). The afterlife turns out to be a time of slow reworking of the experiences of the life just left behind. Nobody is excluded from this experience, much like nobody is excluded from having a dream life. Death itself is seen as a relatively minor transition to the next higher world, the "astral plane", where we find we live in a body, the "astral body", perfectly equiped to move around in this new environment. There's nothing spectactular in this conception. The western esoteric conception of the dying process even likens it to the shedding of an overcoat:

The fact is that death does not affect the real man in the slightest degree; the putting aside of the physical body no more alters his nature than does the removal of his overcoat. (Leadbeater, p. 33)

Quite a stark contrast to both traditional Christian ideas about the afterworld being totalitar aliter ("completely different"), or Tibetan Buddhist ideas about a sharp eight-step rise to the Clear Light at the moment of death itself. In this rather homely conception of the afterlife, the "other" world is seen as interpenetrating our visible world, only invisible because we haven't yet developed the senses to perceive it. The many worlds occupy the same space, and are closer to us then we've ever though possible. Together, they form the Kosmos. (Many moderns would raise an eyebrow when told that their departed relatives float around in the air above them!).

This transcendent concept of the heaven world seems to transcend and include the modernist ideas of heaven as a state of happiness, open for all, but sets it in a decidedly metaphysical context. So we have basically three broad phases related to the belief in a life after death, or a metaphysical world in general:

etnocentric worldcentric worldcentric
but cosmic
but Kosmic
only true believers go to heaven heaven is a state of happiness heaven open for all human beings

Table 1. Conceptions of the metaphysical world

As an interesting aside, the fact that the heaven world is a reality does not imply that most of its inhabitants are fully aware of this. It turns out in fact that most of them spend their time on these levels dreaming about their past life. There's ample room for a "constructivist" take on the afterlife in this esoteric conception. Even cultural conditioning lives on: many will see things they have been taught to expect, be it Christ, Krishna or angels. To become aware of the reality of the astral world requires an awakening of the senses belonging to that world.

Wilber's reformulations of the perennial philosophy into a form which is acceptable to modern taste are based on a certain strategic wisdom. If modernity intensely dislikes ontological speculations, it will never buy ideas about higher worlds, with their inhabitants, that are supposed to exist all around us, right here and now. By bracketing out these metaphysical aspects of the ancient wisdom, there's at least a small chance moderns will lend an ear. And he is convinced he can make the same points using only a psychological language. As an embodied human being, we are capable of experiencing the full spectrum of happiness and unhappiness, even to the level of the highest mystical experience of One Taste. No metaphysical framework seems to be needed to make sense of these experiences.

However, there's always a danger of falling into the flatland trap when a purely immanent philosopy is opted for. When all these states are experienced by an embodied individual, who says there not just the result of biochemical processes in the human brain? Wilber tries to avoid this trap using his All Quadrants model, which puts the neurological dimension safely away into one quadrant only. At the same time, he seems to give undue prominence to the physical level, where he proposes to take this out of the traditional scheme of worlds, and revision it as the outermost layer of all inner dimensions. But whats the ontological status of the other three quadrants, most notable the upper left, which seems to harbour many hidden layers of inner life? If this inner dimension is not reducible to brain processes, how can we avoid drawing metaphysical conclusions about its ontological status?

The physical level: lowest or outermost?

In the theosophical wordview, human beings live on all planes simultaneously, but don't have (as of yet) the ability to perceive these realities. At the moment, we are only able to see with our physical eyes. As a consequence, physcial reality seems to be the only reality there is, and physics seems to be the only true science. All other experiences are mistrusted, given their volatile nature. In theosophy, our physical body is seen as but the outermost "vehicle" used by our consciousness. In fact, we have vehicles of consciousness for every level of existence, though most of these are still in an embryonic state: we have an astral or emotional body, a mental body, a causal body, a buddhic body, etc. Basically we are a unit of consciousness or "monad" which has descended from on high, taking up body after body until we have reached the lowest level of existence, the physical plane. Conversely, after death we will shed these bodies one by one, thereby rising upwards through the spheres, until we reach our home in spirit.

Wilber has stressed on many occasions that where the ancients believed the physical world to be the lowest level, a modernist reformulation should see it as the outermost dimension of all inner levels:

The material domains are not so much the lowest rung on the great hierarchy as they are the exterior forms of each and every rung on the hierarchy (Marriage of Sense and Soul, p. 183)

That seems an overstatement to me. While it may be true that the physical brain relates to all inner experiences, high or low, this obscures the fact that (1) the physical level is a level in it's own right, and (2) the physical brain does connect to all inner processes but (3) these inner processes have their own "bodies" on their own levels of existence. In my opinion, we can't just take out one of the levels of existence (even more so since it's the only level we know of) to accomodate to modern scientific findings on the workings of the brain, if these findings can be accounted for just as well when seeing the planes as mutually interpenetrating each other. An example that Wilber is fond of using, to demonstrate the physical plane just can't be the lowest in the scheme of things is: in that traditional conception the feelings of a worm would be higher then the complexities of the human brain. To which he remarks: "Something is clearly not quite right with that scheme" (Excerpt G). But is it? Ontologically speaking feelings, however primitive, are higher then physical realities, however complex. I see no problem here. No amount of complexity can in itself explain depth of consciousness.

What is more, since we have a body in every world, a full AQAL analysis is possible for every level of existence. In the physical world, we only see each other's physical bodies, the outermost vehicles of our inner lives. On the astral plane, we would only see each other's astral bodies, the outermost vehicles of our inner lives in that dimension. And so on. The AQAL framework is a veritable Kosmic Compass that holds true on all levels of existence! Everywhere where we encounter conscious beings, in whatever level of embodiment, we can distinguish between Upper Left, Upper Right, Lower Left and Lower Right quadrants. In the case of a clairvoyant, who is able to see people's astral (and higher) bodies while being awake on the physical plane, the situation is again perfectly understandable for AQAL analysis. There's always one body the outermost vehicle of consciousness -- the UR quadrant in that particular situation -- and the community of beings living in that body make up the lower two quadrants.

In a recent paper Wilber has discussed the nature of subtle energy, or subtle bodies/fields, and allocated these to the Upper Right quadrant of the physical level. This seems to overburden the Upper Right quadrant a bit too much. While subtle energy/bodies do belong to the Upper Right category, they don't belong to the same level of existence. (Not surprisingly, AQAL analysis includes both quadrants and levels, since quadrants are notoriously bad at detecting levels). There may be an optical illusion here: since all levels have their four quadrants, seeing through all these quadrants from above it may look like physical energy/bodies and subtle energy/bodies exist within the same quadrant, but that is not the case. Astral en mental bodies by definition exist on the astral and mental planes of Nature. The fact that some clairvoyants can observe these in their fellow man does not alter this fact. (And any Life- or Mind-fields detected by physical means, as discovered by H.S. Burr, would by definition allocate these fields to the physical Upper Right quadrant only.)

Evolution as reverse video of involution?

Wilber has reconsidered his loyalty to the perennial philosophy the most in the case of the teaching of involution. Traditional esoteric philosophy holds that involution precedes evolution, and evolution in a sense recapitulates the steps taken during involution. Where involution is a downward process moving from Spirit to matter, evolution is the reverse upward process from matter to Spirit. Though Wilber has rarely elaborated on this notion of involution, not even in his early works, he always related it to he Big Bang at the start of the physical universe. According to Wilber, this leads to a view of evolution bereft of freedom, since it's only a kind of reverse video of the involution that preceded it. He has stripped the doctrine of involution of much of it's ontological specifics, leaving only a handful of "involutionary givens", such as "the great morphic field of evolutionary potential" and "certain physical laws described by mathematics". Consequently, there are no hard and fast steps on the Ladder of Life laid down by involution, only a gentle push to move upwards to Spirit. Again, notice the predominantly flatland topics mentioned here: the Big Bang, the laws of physics and mathematics, etc.

Theosophical views of involution does mention metaphysical processes all the way down from Spirit to matter, but also stress the primitive nature of involutionary life in this stage of the Kosmic process. As it passes through each of the higher spheres until it reaches the lowest plane, the physical world, it prepares the "matter" of these higher worlds so it can function as basic material for the subtle bodies of beings who are on the evolutionary, upward arc of the Kosmic process. Evolution in no way is restricted to what happened during involution, as far as it's specific content is concerned. It is however restricted to the spheres of existence itself, which form the "field of evolution" of the monads emerging from the Divine.

Listen to what Annie Besant wrote in her century old masterpiece A Study in Consciousness:

It is important to note that the evolutionary process, which leads out into expression the involved consciousness, has to begin by contacts received by its outermost vehicle, i.e., it must begin on the physical plane. (p. 69)

Here's a clear understanding of the interrelatedness of the complex processes of involution and evolution, the mechanism by which consciousness awakens from it's slumber, and the important function of the outermost body.

Breaking away from this traditional conception, Wilber has sided with Sheldrake in his notion of creative emergences, which get stabilized in the course of evolution through the mechanism of morphic resonance. This mechanism can however never explain creative emergence itself, which must remain a mystery (synonymous with "creativity" or "Spirit"). We have here the alternatives of (1) a Kosmocentric view, delineating the levels of existence, which are the steps of the Ladder of Life we can tread, and (2) a modernized view, which sees new stages of development as a Mystery, and concentrates on the way stages, once emerged, get stabilized in subsequent generations. In the older conception, ancient mystics discovered the stages of spiritual development because these were simply the levels of existence; in the modern view, these stages emerged just like that, and later generations followed their trails.

This brings me to the related, but more general question of how "real" the stages/levels are which are postulated in Wilber's system. One often encounters the attitude that ultimately all divisions are arbitrary, and we can subdivide the stages of development any way we want. The analogy of the spectrum of light is helpful here. While it is true that this spectrum can be subdivided to infinity, it is also true that (1) there are basic colors -- both primary colors, such as yellow and red; and secondary colors, such as orange, which can be readily distinguished -- and (2) by far not all colors are spectral colors, but mixtures of primary or secondary colors. One will never find pink or brown in the color spectrum, however much this is subdivided.

In the same way, stages of consciousness may be likened to spectral colors or to non-spectral colors. The mental-egoic stage seems to me to be a good candidate of a "spectral" stage of development, since it is grounded in the mental plane of Nature. An magical-emotional stage might be called spectral for just the same reason, for it is grounded in the astral plane of Nature. A "centauric" or existential stage might be likened more to a mixture of colors, since it is characterized by the integration of body and mind. However much this might be a concrete stage of development, there is no "centauric" plane of Nature to support it. Neither is the "psychic" stage of development, especially as it is described by Wilber in his early works as a decidedly paranormal stage -- to which NDE's, OOBs and ESP belong -- an example of a stage that is suppored by an ontological level of existence. Where "normal" stages of development are defined as expansions of consciousness, none of which can be skipped by human beings, the psychic stage is more like an expansion of the senses, and definitely can be skipped. Wilber has removed paranormal connotations in his reformulation of the psychic stage as a proto-spiritual stage of nature mysticism, but this leaves typically psychic faculties still to be explained.


A. Besant, A Study in Consciousness: A Contribution to the Science of Psychology, Theosophical Publishing Society, 1904.

J. Habermas, Nachmetaphysisches Denken (Post-Metaphysical Thinking), Suhrkamp, 1992.

C. W. Leadbeater, The Other Side of Death: Scientifically Examined and Carefully Described, Theosophial Publishing Society, 1904.

A.E. Powell (ed.), The Causal Body and the Ego, Theosophical Publishing House, 1928.

Smith, H. Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition, Harper, 1976.

K. Wilber, Excerpt G: Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies,

K. Wilber, On the Nature of a Post-Metaphysical Spirituality: Response to Habermas and Weis,

K. Wilber, Introduction to Excerpts, from Volume 2 of the Kosmos Trilogy,

World Research Foundation, The Electrical Patterns of Life (The Work of Dr. Harold Saxton Burr),

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