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


Perennialism Lite

Comments on "Integral Post-Metaphysics"

Frank Visser

For Wilber, "post-metaphysical" just means "experiential", "evidence-based".

This essay explores the twin themes of metaphysics and evolution and how they feature in the writings of Ken Wilber. I compare this with what I myself have gathered over the years about these topics from the perennialist and the scientific literature. This is not so much to defend any position as to clarify them.

As is well know by now, Wilber has labelled his current phase as "post-metaphysical", otherwise known as Wilber-5. He also preaches a view of spirituality that has been called "evolutionary". Are these items—metaphysics and evolution—therefore incompatible? Or is a synthesis between them possible? What exactly is Wilber rejecting with this notion of a "post-metaphysical" spirituality? And does he do justice to the fullness of the perennialist tradition?

Wilber is used to claiming that the integral stance takes the best or the essence from premodern, modern and postmodern understanding. Is this true in the case of "premodernist" perennialism, i.e. the world's spiritual traditions? And is he right in claiming that the premodern traditions, including perennialism, commit the fallacy of the "myth of the given"—let's call it: naive realism when it comes to religious beliefs—which can only be remedied with an AQAL analysis, as he claims in Integral Spirituality? And how does he fare between speculative metaphysics on the one hand an materialist science on the other?

This rise of this Wilber-5 "post-metaphysical" phase has been amusing to watch. I still remember a visitor to the Integral World forum suggesting that some comments by Wilber in Integral Psychology suggested a new phase in his thought. Of course, this suggestion was met at the time with claims of misrepresentation, but slowly the idea got momentum. This is how these things go: first they are ridiculed, then embraced, then treated as gospel.

It is sometimes said that my book Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY Press, 2003) does not cover Wilber-5, which is correct, because the text of the Dutch edition was closed long before it was published in 2001. But neither does Brad Reynolds Embracing Reality, which covers exactly the same ground, though he retro-qualifies some of Wilber's writings around 2000 as Wilber-5. And in Brad's new book Where's Wilber At? he much more cautiously and correctly speaks of "Wilber 4/5" when he discusses Wilber's recent, often online writings. Brad suggests further that Wilber-5 is so "revolutionary" it is even beyond me. In my opinion, Wilber-5 is yet to crystallize.

Starting with the 2001 interview "On the Nature of a Post-Metaphysical Spirituality", which was orginally done by me and Edith Zundel for a German transpersonal journal, Wilber has most vocally and fiercely criticized what he sees as the shortcomings of perennialism: it subscribes to a mythical, speculative view of reality, untouched by the modern/postmodern revolution, which has exposed the cultural basis of many religious beliefs. Premodern spirituality is no longer "up to date". It is "mythic", "dogmatic" and "pre-Kantian". It believes in "levels of reality" independent of human consciousness.

Immanuel Kant demonstrated that speculative metaphysics is without any cognitive value. In the Kantian view, our knowledge should be based on (sensory) experience. At the same time, our subjective mind imposes a time/space framework around our experiences. If our knowledge is tied to the senses, knowledge of the super-sensible can only be speculative. Thus, the road to materialism and ultimately flatland has been paved.

This is, of course, a logical consequence Wilber wants to avoid, given his life long battle against flatland. He therefore introduces an "Integral Post-Metaphysics" (IPM), which escapes from the confines of flatland without becoming speculative metaphysics. But it comes with a price, as we will see.

In any case, according to Wilber, contemporary spirituality should be definitely "post-Kantian". From the interview:

This is therefore a thoroughly post-metaphysical, post-Kantian spirituality. It shuns ontological levels of reality for postmodern levels of consciousness (which are real as phenomenological occasions ultimately revealed as Spirit's potential for transcendence and known directly by a good broad science). (...)

Thus, where myth and dogma are the material of metaphysical, pre-Kantian spirituality, direct experience and deep science are the material of post-metaphysical spirituality

One wonders: have post-mythical and post-metaphysical become identical to Wilber now? For Habermas, who originally used the term "post-metaphysical", this is obviously the case. But Wilber should know better.

Incidentally, Kant rejected speculative metaphysics only from the standpoint of theoretical reason (or science), but not from that of practical reason (or religion). After all, he did believe in God, heaven and the soul. This parallels the distinction between truth-finding and sense-making as described by Tom Murray in his seminal essay "Collaborative Knowledge Building and Integral Theory" published on Integral World. Integralism has become as much a quest for meaning, as it has been a search for truth, especially since the launch of Integral Life Practice.

Also, one should bear in mind that "post-Kantian" can mean two different things: "following Kant" or "going beyond Kant". As we will see, Wilber's take on spirituality is post-Kantian in both senses. For while he believes our knowledge should be based in experience (Kantian), he acknowledges more avenues for experience then Kant did (post-Kantian).

Deconstructing Perennialism

In his latest book Integral Spirituality Wilber further explains and defends his notion of post-metaphysics compared to the perennialist view of reality as consisting of many realms. He deconstructs the belief in levels of reality, so dear to perennialism, by stating that (1) not only can they be reduced to subjective structures of the human mind, but (2) these structures themselves are the result of a process of development. The higher realms of the spiritual traditions more or less have vanished into thin air by this act of deconstruction. What is left is a thoroughly psychological brand of spirituality.

Wilber is not disturbed by his renouncement of the ontological aspect of spirituality, for as he remarks in Integral Psychology: "you can make essentially the same points using only the levels of consciousness". That, however, very much depends on the points one wants to make.

In the Appendix "On The Need for a Post-Metaphysical and Critical Spirituality" to the interview mentioned above, Wilber explains why he thinks a post-metaphysical move is needed:

We need to move from a metaphysical approach (which assumes that numerous planes or levels of reality exist in a radically independent fashion from the consciousness that knows them) and move toward a much more critical approach (which investigates the structures of the subject that knows the object, or in this case, that knows the levels of reality).

In the following notes, I try to make two major points: (1) we can no longer conceive planes or levels of reality as entirely pre-existing, pre-given ontological structures; (2) we can, however, continue to refer to ontologically real levels of reality, but only if they are conceived as fundamentally codependent on the consciousness that perceives and co-creates them.

This allows us to retain planes, levels, or realms of reality as separate and quasi-independent variables, but only by realizing that those levels of reality are internally related to levels of consciousness, and that if a particular human consciousness does not perceive a realm, that realm can exist only because it is a realm of consciousness held in Spirit (a Spirit that human consciousness itself can directly realize in satori or enlightenment).

This dramatically shifts independent levels of reality known by a priori metaphysical speculation, to levels of consciousness known by direct experience (and hence open to continual criticism and refinement via deep science, research, and investigation)--the shift, that is, from metaphysical to postmetaphysical spirituality.

A few comments are in order here. Kantianism may have demonstrated how the human mind is subjectively constitutive of the world we know, as far as our knowledge of the world goes, it by no means has lead to a widespread idealist view which Wilber describes, in which reality is held in the Mind of God. It has led to physicalism pure and simple. Post-metaphysical to the core.

So though any possible knowledge of "higher levels" may equally be colored by the structures of our subjective mind, it by no means should lead to the wholesale deconstruction of these worlds or realms. And was the premodern understanding of reality, especially in its more esoteric forms, actually based on metaphysical speculation, as Wilber wants to suggest, or did it perhaps have an experiential basis? Further, these realms are "internally related" to human consciousness —since levels of knowing and being are correlative —but not in the subjective idealist, phenomenological sense in which we all live in our own "world".

Interestingly, the idealistic philosophy Wilber alludes to actually leads to a realistic conception of the many worlds or realms around us. For while it may be true that ultimately these worlds exist within the Mind of God, and are therefore not so much real as ideal, for us mortals, these worlds are real enough, however much our knowledge of them is colored by subjective constraints. In this view, the higher realms are relatively real, even though ultimately they are illusory. Subjective idealism reduces the world to individual consciousness; objective idealism reduces it to Universal Consciousness.

The latter has room for many, many realms of being. This philosophy has been developed by the Dutch philosopher/theosophist J.J. Poortman, whose major work Twofold Subjectivity (1929) was a deep study of German idealist philosophers such as Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, culminating in a Western type of Vedanta. Wilber does not seem to have affinity with this vision, though in the Follow Up to the interview mentioned above, he says: "Yes, I would generally agree with that view, very much". His interpretations of subtle bodies and higher realms are strikingly subjectivistic: subtle bodies are explained as "energetic feeling", higher realms are seen as "dream worlds", etc.

Let's turn to Huston Smith for some advice on all this. In his Forgotten Truth, Smith argues that the prime difference between the tradtional, premodern and the modern view of reality is a matter of ontology. Where traditional man believed in many worlds, planes or realms, modern man knows only one level: that of matter. Science may have thought it can abolish the notion of higher worlds as superstition, according to Smith this is bases on the logical fallacy of scientism. "Reality exceeds what science registers", as Smith puts it. We hear very little of this argument in Wilber's account. How can he claim to have taken up the essence of premodernism in his integral system, if he has practically abolished this ontological aspect?

Incidentally, there's an interesting field relevant to this discussion of the knowledge of higher realms. In the tradition of Theosophy, clairvoyants claim to have been able to observe realms beyond the physical world, intimately connected to our minds, souls and spirits. They have testified to independent existence of these worlds, even if their inhabitants—the dead or those of the living who are "asleep"—are wrapped in their own subjective thoughts. This would actually qualify as a "deep science" in the sense of Wilber, for knowledge gathered by these psychic means goes beyond the boundary of the physical senses, and follows the three strands of science.

Do all metaphysical traditions commit the fallacy of the "myth of the given", as Wilber claims on many occasions in his recent work? Well, yes perhaps, in their exoteric forms, but what about their esoteric dimensions? Again, another distinction which is seldom raised these days in Wilber's writings.

Where the exoteric, mythic believer may take his religious beliefs in a naive-realistic fashion, esotericists, especially if they have a leaning towards this psychic, occult way of perception, see through these culturally conditioned beliefs and point to a wider view of reality. In exoteric religion, true believers go to heaven because their God rewards them (and non-believers go to hell because that same God punishes them). In esoteric religion, heaven and hell are seen as parts of Nature (taken to include more than the physical realm), which are to the mind what the physical world is to the body: it's natural habitat. So perennialists, who stress these universal aspects of religion, can very well perform the "post-modern" feat of seeing through our cultural conditionings.

In my understanding, post-metaphysical in the Wilberian sense means "experiential", "evidence-based". In that sense the label "post-metaphysical" is somewhat unfortunate. Every contemporary priest or vicar is "post-metaphysical" these days. Heaven and hell are reduced to psychological states of happiness of despair of living human beings. Nothing new here. (See also Wilber's approval of Trungpa's psychologization of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in my early essay "Wilber and Metaphysics" on Wilber-5.)

Wilber's brand of post-metaphysics, however, differs from the one-dimensional one, in that it is an "integral post-metaphysics". Instead of one mode of knowing, sensory knowledge on which the edifice of science is built, Wilber postulates two other, equally valid modes: symbolic knowledge, the fields of the humanities, and contemplative knowledge, the domain of meditation. And he further claims that all three "sciences" follow the same formal principles of truth-finding: instruction, perception and confirmation/rejection. This claim has to be fleshed out more, in my opinion.

Metaphysics and Evolution

Another objection Wilber has raised towards perennialism is that it doesn't include evolution, a thoroughly modern insight into reality. However, that goes for only some of the perennialist schools of thought. Where the typical perennialist sees religion as the golden past of humanity, from which the materialistic Western culture can be exposed as shallow, other schools, such as modern Theosophy, have embraced evolution from the very beginning.

As early as 1888, H.P. Blavatsky, the founder of the modern theosophical movement, critically engaged Charles Darwin on the pages of her The Secret Doctrine, who had published his Origin of Species a few decades earlier, basically claiming that Darwin was "true but partial"—sounds familiar? Blavatsky can be seen as the forerunner to the Intelligent Design movement of today.

In the Theosophical view of evolution all kingdoms of nature—minerals, plants, animals and human beings—are seen as one Chain of Being, slowly but unavoidably pushed to higher levels of consciousness by a Divine Force or Logos. Doesn't Wilber's "The Spirit of Evolution" or "Eros in the Kosmos" concept echo this view very, very much?[1]

So Wilber may be more perennialist then he is willing to confess. His understanding of evolution is also much more similar to these metaphysical schools then to the modern-day biologists, who explicitly and fundamentally deny any "pushing force" as the motor of evolution. This has been called by Dennett "Darwin's Dangerous Idea", in his book of the same title. Evolution turns out to be able to accomplish its many feats without the help of this metaphysical force. Strange as it may sound to the layman, who innocently supposes that design as found in nature—flowers, animals, the human eye, the bird's wings, etc.—invariably point to a Designer or Creator, science has tirelessly demonstrated that this hypothesis is unnecessary.

So if Wilber champions evolution, which version of evolution does he have in mind? As the "Wilberian Evolution Report" documented on Integral World shows, many of Wilber's pronouncements on biological evolution would not stand a chance before a "community of the adequate", i.e. professional biologists.

The point is not that biology has "unsolved problems" (Sheldrake), but that insisting on a Force in nature that produces evolution would be the end of science. It would be a claim without a research programme. On the basis of its naturalistic premisses, biology has discovered time and again how organic forms have evolved over time, including the human eye (the prime example used by Creationists, and Wilber, for that matter). A "spiritual" take on evolution has nothing to offer here.

So it is a bit too easy to say that perennialism rejects evolution (yes, some schools do, but some schools don't), or that evolution is a modern discovery. What type of evolution?, one should ask. Blind evolution, as science adamantly insists upon, or "spiritual" evolution, as Wilber seems to suggest? Wilber is yet to write his take on evolution, in a way that would be taken seriously by professional biologists. In a way that does justice to the various opinions that exist within that particular field of science. An Integral Biology department within the Integral Institute (or its corollary Integral University) is long overdue.

Would it matter? Wilber once claimed that, if evolution turned out to be explainable on the basis of reductionistic, naturalistic principles, then that is what AQAL theory would include:

But overall integral theory doesn't hang on that particular issue. If physicalistic, materialistic, reductionistic forces turn out to give an adequate explanation to the extraordinary diversity of evolutionary unfolding, then fine, that is what we will include in integral theory. And if not, not.

That seems like a strong statement. Isn't the idea of an onward and upward striving evolutionary process key to the AQAL model? What if the "Spirit of Evolution" turns out to be a Ghost? Given the—often emotionally charged—way that Wilber has argued for a "spiritual" view of evolution, in contrast to the "reductionist", scientific view, one almost senses that he needs science to fail on its own, to be able to promote his alternative.

Wilber's post-metaphysical spirituality still has many unsolved problems and ambiguities (such as an "immanent telos" driving evolution, not to mention the "intra-physical" nature of consciousness, as dealt with in "My Take on Wilber-5"). In my opinion, integral theory as meta-theory (or theory about theories) should decide on what type of empirical evidence—if any—it takes to falsify it. Evolution apparently isn't a candidate for this?

So according to Wilber our spirituality can be "post-metaphysical" and still deep. But it is psychological to the core. Considering the ontological depth of the perennialist traditions, this is "perennialism lite". Not the "real thing".

In itself, that is fine considering modernity's abhorrence of the issue of ontology—on the other hand, since when is modernity the be-all and end-all of all knowledge? Is Wilber rejecting ontology, or just not interested in it? What is his ontology? Where in the past he challenged modernity and postmodernity for its shallowness, from the perennialist point of view, he now seems to have brought perennialism within its limited horizon.


1. See also: Alan Kazlev, "The Integral movement in social and historical context", par. 2-V: Western Esotericism:

It might be suggested that at least the theosophical tradition of Western esotericism is actually an important branch of the Integral movement, in that many of ideas were incorporated on the one hand by Sri Aurobindo, on the other by Ken Wilber. Common themes of all three including - a "big picture" perspective, an evolutionary philosophy and cosmology, synthesis of East and West, evolution is moving to higher stages beyond the current human condition. Further common themes of Blavatsky and Wilber, in addition to the preceding, are: cosmology based on a complex linear series of stages (ditto Steiner), a teaching that is presented as a universal higher synthesis and explanation of everything, this universal approach becomes limited to the teachings of a single charismatic figure, and theory is preferred over practice (not deliberately but because of an imbalance towards the mental).

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