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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Julian Walker is a writer, yoga and meditation teacher in Los Angeles. He is interested in a model of spirituality that moves beyond magical
thinking and mythic literalism to include existential honesty,
psychology inquiry and congruency with science. Julian's work is
featured in the book 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics & Practice
long-time student of Ken Wilber's work, he was featured on
Integralnaked.com critiquing pop spirituality phenomenon "The Secret"
from an integral perspective. He has also written extensively online
about the problems with the guru/disciple model. He is the author of the ebook Devil In the Details: 3 Keys To Thinking More Clearly About Spirituality
. His website is: http://julianwalkeryoga.com/
The Patchwork Cloak
of Integral Theory
Ken Wilber's Central Blind-Spot
I was inspired by Wilber's example that spirituality and intellectualism need not be antithetical.
When I started to read Ken Wilber in the early 1990's I was thrilled. Here was a deeply intellectual author with a drive to reconcile Eastern spirituality and Western psychology. As I continued to study his work over the next twelve or more years, I found his scope expanding along to also integrate scientific method, a Gebsian analysis of cultural evolution and even the social psychology of Spiral Dynamics.
My fascination was born initially out of a personal struggle. I was deeply invested in yoga, meditation and Advaita Vedanta, but was also slowly realizing that I was emotionally disconnected and might be using some of my cherished practices and beliefs to avoid facing my life, feelings and relationships honestly.
Wilber, and later teachers like Jack Kornfield and Pema Chodron helped me to make both intellectual and contemplative sense out of the process of embracing a more deeply embodied, emotionally open approach to inner work. Rather than negate and transcend, I found great revelation and solace in the Wilberian catch-phrase, “transcend and include!”
"Mr. Trivedi has an empirically
demonstrated capacity to alter
the atomic and molecular structure
of phenomena simply through
his conscious intentionality."
I was inspired by Wilber's example that spirituality and intellectualism need not be antithetical. This was especially true because I had always felt that the more kitsch aspects of spirituality: the supernatural, ghosts, psychic powers, gods, angels, demons, souls etc, were outdated and incongruous with modern knowledge.
For me, spirituality represented a fearless inquiry into the nature of life, reality, consciousness, and being human. I was concerned not with cultivating or protecting unreasonable beliefs but with cutting through soothing delusions.
My critique of old world religion and new age spirituality lay in seeing both as ways of distorting reality so as to manage psychological anxiety. Essentially, I held an existentialist perspective that we use unreasonable beliefs to protect ourselves from facing mortality, suffering, injustice, randomness, and the absence of a benevolent invisible parent figure making sure we are always safe.
My sense remains that a sustainable modern spirituality can give us practice-based tools that support growth and healing in ways that allow us to mend the schism between critical thinking and evidence on one hand, and spiritual practices and experiences on the other.
Whatever the interior experience, surely our interpretation of it here and now has to be constrained by scientific knowledge and methods, and informed by good reasoning. For me then, an integration of spirituality, psychology and science lay in taking an existential and psychological perspective and accepting that modern spirituality could not contradict modern science without good evidence.
Another name for this might simply be “sanity.”
At first I thought that Wilber was espousing a similar position, whilst also staking out the profound and rarefied territory of contemplative experience and its inherent value beyond superstitious or supernatural claims.
You, know “trans-rational” spirituality. Right?
Not mythic literalist faith, but rather an embrace of interior experience, metaphorical meaning and personal growth.
The only problem is that a supposedly immaterial transcendent yet non-dual witnessing consciousness or “Spirit” is supernatural by any other name. More on this later…
By far my favorite piece of theory from Wilber was an essay called, The Pre/Trans Fallacy, in which he outlined a crucial distinction between “pre-rational” and trans-rational” spirituality. I thought I had finally found a perspective on spirituality that didn't have to be limited to magical thinking and it's necessary rejection of rationality.
His 4 Quadrant Model, which sought to map out the relationships between different disciplines that address interior, exterior, personal and collective domains of reality seemed to be a powerful step toward an honest and intelligent integration.
I also gleefully saw in him as a pointed critic of New Age silliness, magical thinking and the mind-numbing cul de sac formed by extreme postmodern relativism and politically correct multiculturalism.
As an online blogger and participant in spirited debates about Wilber's work, New Age spirituality and psychology, I found myself in the rational minority, but felt validated when Wilber reached out to me to do an audio interview critiquing spiritual media phenomenon, “The Secret,” on his integralnaked.com website.
The Unraveling Threads
There was always a sinking feeling in my gut about his involvement with controversial and by all accounts abusive and narcissistic gurus.
But something funny happened on the way to realizing the “Integral vision”: I read more on the various subjects in which Wilber had piqued my interest: philosophy of mind, neuroscience, psychology in general, evolutionary biology. In so doing, I began to see some problems that recast my opinion of his work as a whole.
There was always a sinking feeling in my gut about his involvement with controversial and by all accounts abusive and narcissistic gurus, Adi Da Samraj and Andrew Cohen, but when in 2010 Wilber endorsed another guru named Trivedi I was dumbfounded.
A glowing piece of prose sat on the homepage of Wilber's personal website which claimed (outrageously!) that Trivedi had the mental/spiritual power to affect matter at the quantum level, and that he was an exemplar of the “Integral Age” Ken had been predicting for his entire career:
Mahendra Kumar Trivedi
From Plato to modern psychotherapy, the conclusion is the same: humanity on the whole suffers from an interior civil war, with its lower and higher natures constantly at battle. So we're not going to have a truly unified humanity until we have a unified brain system, and then until the human organism itself is in sync with this new evolutionary Earth Energy. Guruji constantly explains that what he's doing is recalibrating the individual organism to this new planet-wide Energy that has emerged, and that human beings so far are not in unity with.
Once the individual has become in touch with this new level of bioenergy, that Energy acts, according to Guruji, as a new blueprint for the entire body, and it begins the recalibration and re-organization of virtually every fragmentation and dysfunction found in the system. If so, then this new evolutionary Energy indeed brings a new unity and coherence to everything it touches, gross, subtle, or causal, thus bringing the organism into alignment for this new transformation and evolutionary unfolding.
This bizarre turn of events prompted me to express public concerns, which only further alienated me from the “integral community.” I was given a good talking to via a righteous blog post by Wilber sidekick Joe Perez for daring to suggest that this oddly New Age detour from a man who had previously eviscerated quantum woo in the form of “What The Bleep” and “The Secret,” might sadly have something to do with Wilber's tragic illness, multiple seizures and steady diet of multiple medications.
Here, then are the interlocking reasons I found myself moving away from Wilber's perspective, body of work and community after many years of deep study and engagement:
Mind Over Matter
The Integral model rests on an assumption of panpsychism: consciousness is present in all matter, down to the level of electrons and quarks. It also goes one mystical step further, consciousness exists separate from and prior to the existence of the material universe.
The spiritual formulation of this a la Wilber is the realization in deep meditation of “your own original face before the Big bang.” This gambit combines panpsychism with an attempt to stake out deep interior subjectivity as it's own kind of scientific method, with truth-claims that cannot be evaluated by reductionist means.
“Revelation” by any other name!
This idealist stance (in the philosophical sense) combines a pseudoscience sensibility with Vedantic metaphysics to create the appearance either that:
- Science somehow confirms panpsychism, or that
- the God of the Gaps argument made possible by the incompleteness of neuroscience does the same.
At the very least, it sounds “sciencey” to mention consciousness, quarks, electrons and the big bang in the same breath as deep meditation and ever-present Spirit.
Of course, only those who have meditated for long enough are deemed “adequate” to evaluate this pastiche.
But the idealist/panpsychist claim is not well founded. All the evidence we have points to consciousness by any reasonable definition as being present only in biological organisms. Consciousness appears convincingly to become more developed as neural nets become more complex, and to talk of inanimate objects (including subatomic particles) as conscious, seems at best a kind of category error born of wishful thinking.
I hasten to add that there may be a way we could imagine the possibility of a type of proto-consciousness at the heart of all matter, but this would still not be Spirit writ large as a transcendent, eternal, immaterial intelligence that pours itself out into manifest reality to initiate a teleological journey of evolution and involution toward radiant self-realization as a human being at the “integral stage of development.”
There would also be a lot of work necessary to make this a worldview in any way congruent with science.
Pernicious Dualism and I.D. in Vedantic Drag
The core dualism then leads Wilber to adopt what I call an "intelligent design in Vedantic drag" stance.
A little inquiry reveals that these ideas about consciousness imply and indeed require mind/body dualism of the 17th century kind eschewed by the vast majority of modern scientists and philosophers. Specifically it is the assertion that mind/consciousness exists in a category distinct from matter/biology. Not even eccentric dualist philosopher David Chalmers believes this in the way that Wilber's model requires.
There are many nuanced positions in philosophy of mind, and Wilber might argue that he is double aspect monist, but the flavor of transcendentalism, the supposed discovery in samadhi of your original face before the Big Bang, and the uber-consciousness of Spirit as an ultimate reality we are all evolving toward all but screams classical dualism to me. Wilber even went so far as to suggest in one of his lectures that Rene Descartes was really non-dual Vedantic in his formulation (see also this video).
Of course, to most people this dualism is familiar in ordinary old religion: we have a soul distinct from our body that lives on after death in an immaterial place. For Christians this means being with God, for Hindus it is becoming one with God. Wilber calls God “Spirit,” but whatever the nomenclature or sophisticated intricacy, it is the inherent dualism that makes possible an immaterial soul/atman/consciousness that cannot be reduced to neurobiology.
Deepak Chopra's brand of misrepresented quantum physics meets mind-over-matter magical thinking is also close at hand, and in spite of Wilber calling Chopra confused, in a blurb on one of Wilber's books, Chopra says “Ken Wilber is one of the most important pioneers in the field of consciousness in this century.”
These ideas are irreconcilable with science and reason, yet the more I have challenged Integral-ites on this point the more I found that this appeared to be the loophole purpose of “trans-rationality” as a concept.
Of course, someone arguing a “merely rational” perspective couldn't possibly hope to understand. They had even less chance if they expected coherent, non-contradictory reasoning not based in arguments from authority. Let the circular reasoning roll!
The core dualism then leads Wilber to adopt what I call an “intelligent design in Vedantic drag” stance. It essentially amounts to a God of the Gaps/Argument from Ignorance position:
Mere biological evolution cannot hope to explain the emergence of life (“frisky dirt”) or of consciousness, and so there simply must be an immaterial dimension of reality, which has a teleological intention for us all.
God's plan, by any other name!
His “half-wing” and “half eye” non-sequiturs from A Brief History of Everything regarding evolutionary theory have been well critiqued, and this central allegiance with creationism is simply stunning from someone posturing as a serious intellectual.
This chain of reasoning requires a rather large and significant blind-spot in the “Theory of Everything,” which then perhaps makes Wilber vulnerable to charlatan gurus, and the theory itself vulnerable to more and more extreme postmodern relativism and intellectual dishonesty over time.
In turn, the Integral community is made vulnerable to the whole gamut of New Age nonsense that Wilber criticized so clearly in his earlier years. Had he been more cautious about applying scientific and psychological thinking to spirituality, and staying up to date with the exciting progress of neurobiology viz spirituality and psychology, Wilber may have been able to move beyond the old world religious metaphysics he has tried to build as-is into his model.
But as it stands, a reasonable AQAL integration of subjective and objective disciplines cannot take place with this panpsychist slant toward privileging first-person interpretations of brain states as representing good evidence for claims about the universe.
The Patchwork Cloaking Device
Because there is this elaborate set of intellectual rationalizations that no longer seek to reconcile spirituality with science and psychology in reasonable ways, but instead weaves a protective patchwork cloak for mind/body dualism, panspsychism, and the religiosity of “Spirit,” the discourse has devolved into a lot of very fancy incoherent footwork. A key example being the much-touted “Two Truths” distinction between the supposed “absolute truths” of an enlightened Vajrayana/Advaita perspective vs a decidedly postmodern attitude toward the “relative truths” described by everything (including science) that is, well, not an enlightened Vajrayana/Advaita persepctive.
The strategy is then completed by the co-opting of Spiral Dynamics to create a map of Integral stages of development in which:
- All perspectives and worldviews are somehow simultaneously true no matter how contradictory, and more importantly
- the members of the Integral Institute self-identify as being “second tier” and thus beyond the lower level concerns of actually dealing with the many inconsistencies, contradictions and mistakes of the theory.
Anyone who is “unable to hold multiple perspectives” in a way that doesn't see the flaws in trying to shoehorn creationist, panpsychist, transcendentalist, mind/body dualist, enlightened guru type ideas into a scientific and psychological worldview is merely “first tier,” probably a reductive materialist, and certainly not spiritually-informed.
TRIVEDI, DA, COHEN: SIMPLER EXPLANATIONS
This hunger for reflected grandiosity seems to be Ken Wilber's Achilles' heel.
When he endorsed Trivedi as a guru possessed of supposed magical quantum powers, Wilber described his appearance as evidence for the dawning of the “integral age” that his entire body of work had been intuiting.
In other words, the magical guru had finally arrived who “proves” the basic assumptions of Vedantic metaphysics —thus validating not only Wilber's body of work in some way, but allowing Wilber to hitch his wagon to the most important event/person ever in the history of human knowledge/existence.
This hunger for reflected grandiosity seems to be Ken Wilber's Achilles' heel.
Back in 1979 Wilber called Adi Da (then called Bubba Free John) “the first Western-born Avatar (World Teacher) to appear in the history of the world.” He continued,
“For the other great avatars — Christ, Gautama, Krishna — all have been Asian. But here, for the first time, is a Western-born Spiritual Master of the ultimate degree. . . .” and announced that “Bubba Free John stands as simple Presence for all who would have recourse to him. The times at which such Enlightened Ones have appeared are very rare; please make use of the works and presence of Bubba Free John to whatever degree you are capable."
He also called Free John's Dawn Horse Testament “the most ecstatic, most profound, most complete, most radical, and most comprehensive single spiritual text ever to be penned and confessed by the Human Transcendental Spirit.” The review continues,
“That seems an objective fact; here is my own personal and humbler opinion. I am honored (even awed) to be allowed in its Presence, to listen to and Hear the Potent Message of the Heart-Master Da. How can the soul not bow down to such a Message? “
The key here seems to be the reflected glory that comes from discovering/introducing/endorsing the super important holy evidence of any of Wilber's favorite religious beliefs.
In the case of Da/Free John, it is the guru principle —that there exist rare beings possessed of perfect enlightenment. “Enlightenment” is here quite obviously the realization of the transcendent nature of Divine Spirit as our true nature.
In the case of Trivedi, I submit that it is Wilber's already described penchant for panpsychism: consciousness as the essential element of reality that supposedly goes all the way down to subatomic levels. Trivedi's enlightenment is supposedly demonstrated by his ability to affect matter at the subatomic level —with his mind.
In both cases we see his favorite theme (and the upper case that he and Da like to use drives home the uber significance): the Reality of Spirit Itself in tangible form.
These two cherished religious beliefs are in fact central to Vedantic metaphysics: we are each souls spending a brief time in human bodies on the way toward realizing our identity as immaterial, transcendent spirit. Spiritual progress, then, can be measured in terms of how deeply someone appears to have “self-realized” this a priori claim via either deep spiritual practice, or spontaneous revelation.
If Adi Da writes luminous and prolific prose about himself as the One True Heart Master, who is Self-Evidently the World Avatar confessing his Realization, this pricks up the ears and quickens the heart of someone primed to believe that this is not only possible, but central of importance to human life.
If Trivedi claims to be able to affect matter at the quantum level via deep spiritual realization of the nature of consciousness, this too elicits a surge of dopamine in the brain of anyone who just knows intuitively that this must be true. The only difference with Wilber is that his excitable intuitions are wrapped in extremely complex intellectualizations.
Of course, the response from Integral acolytes would be that it is too reductionist to describe “spiritual knowing” as being merely the product of psychology and neurobiology. After all, Spirit is beyond those kinds of gauche limitations.
But what if a better and simpler explanation is that Adi Da Samraj is mentally ill and Trivedi is a charlatan in quantum clothing representing a grand tradition of dishonest claims?
What if we actually can reduce Adi Da's hypergraphia, megalomania, abusive behavior, frequent name changes, wild mood swings, and idiosyncratic use of language to describe his various altered states of consciousness, to the brain condition of a highly intelligent man who has tried to find the meaning of what is most likely a mental illness, in Vedanta?
What if we just use the tools of scientific method to evaluate Trivedi's claims, which surely would be the biggest news in the history of news if they were true, and place them, when they inevitably turn out not to be true, alongside the claims of pedophile billionaire god-man Sai Baba and the thousands of dishonest tricksters before him?
But what if they are true? Well, the whole of human knowledge about reality would be turned on its head. Three years after Wilber's initial announcement, we are all still waiting. As of this writing, I don't think there has been an apology or retraction.
The supposed “scientific evidence” for Trivedi's claims that he can magically make bacteria more resistant to antibiotics (useful trick… paging Austin Powers villain, Dr. Evil!) is well critiqued here.
I won't say too much about Andrew Cohen here, but Wilber's association with him is a long one, his endorsements of this “rude boy who will fry your ego” equally glowing and insistent, and the controversy around his bizarre behavior equally troubling. Suffice it to say that when the enlightened guru's mom writes a book called Mother of God exposing her son's narcissistic megalomania I tend to pause.
Perhaps too, when the outsider philosopher titles his book A Brief History of Everything and then badly mangles evolutionary theory in the first chapter, goes on to try and make a scientific case for “Spirit” and then endorses authoritarian gurus claiming everything from divine identity to quantum magic, we should do the same.