Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Steven E. WallisSteve Wallis has a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University where he is a Fellow at the Institute for Social Innovation. He has ten years of experience as a collaborative organization development consultant in Northern California and currently teaches at Capella University. His seminal work, "From reductive to robust, finding the core of complex adaptive systems theory" may be found in Chapter One of "Intelligent Complex Adaptive Systems" from IGI Global publishers. His has recently edited an academic book, "Cybernetics and Systems Theory in Management" also with IGI Global. He also serves on the editorial board of the Integral Review where he recently co-edited a special issue on metatheory with Mark Edwards. Steve can be contacted at: [email protected]

Does Ken Wilber offer
a good metatheory?

A Response to Frank Visser's
Three Questions

Steven E. Wallis

There is no generally accepted method for evaluating theories and metatheories.

In Frank Visser's ITC 2010 report, he mentions the panel on metatheory and some questions he would like to have heard answered.

As an invited member, it was my privilege to participating on that panel. And, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the collegial conversation and intellectual stimulation. To me, the questions, answers, challenges and encouragements from the panel and attendees combined to create a profound experience that I shall always treasure.

In this posting, I will try to answer Frank Visser's questions – with a couple of provisos. First, I do not speak for the other panel members. Second, these are not meant to be “ultimate” answers. Rather, they are stepping stones in an ongoing conversation. And, in my answers, such as they are, I hope the reader might develop an appreciation for how deceptively simple questions give rise to more complex answers (although, I promise, I will try to be brief).

To recap the relevant part of his post, Frank Visser asked:

  1. Does Ken Wilber offer a metatheory?
  2. If so, does he do a good job?
  3. If not, are there better alternatives around?

As to the first:

(1) Does Ken Wilber offer a metatheory?

The philosophical answer is, “That depends on what a metatheory is, and what one might understand Wilber to have offered.” There are many definitions and understandings of what metatheory is. Some say that a metatheory is an overarching theory that combines and encompasses multiple theories. Another understanding suggests that a metatheory is a kind of fuzzy theory – one that is not required to make any specific predictions but instead provides a broad overview. According to each of these definitions, yes – it seems that Wilber does offer a metatheory. To me, however, a simple answer is suspect. And, this one is no exception. My studies into theory and metatheory cause me to question the above uses of the term metatheory. In my studies, I've come to question those understandings of metatheory. Simply put, they do not seem that they can be usefully applied to the task of advancing theory and practice.

Briefly, if one looks at the evolution of any theory, it rapidly becomes evident that every theory is (to a greater or lesser extent) the product of multiple previous theories. Wilber's AQAL is an example of such a metatheory because it was developed through the combination of multiple previous theories. However, each of those theories was doubtless created from other previous theories. Therefore, every theory might be considered a metatheory because it combines multiple previous theories. So, the very use of the term "metatheory" becomes an open question rather than a concise answer.

More practically, if we are to understand what it is to have a metatheory, it seems we need rigorous and repeatable methods for integrating multiple theories. That is, if two scholars are each provided with the same four theories, and use the same method for integrating those theories, they should end up with substantively similar metatheories. Until we understand the process of metatheory creation better, claims for status as a metatheory do not seem particularly relevant or meaningful.

The second approach for deciding if Wilber presents a metatheory is based on the idea that a metatheory is some kind of fuzzy, overarching idea. For example, one might say that the Integral Approach is a fuzzy metatheory because it implies the appropriateness and benefit of integration. It does not specify how things are to be integrated, where they are to be integrated, or why. That kind of fuzzy claim leads me to Frank Visser's second question:

(2) If so, does he do a good job?

The philosophical answer is, “That depends on the criteria used to judge his offering.”

This is an area where I have been engaging in considerable research and conversations within and beyond the integral community. Many of those insights and conclusions are contained in my recent paper in the Integral Review, "Toward a Science of Metatheory", where I present a variety of methods for analyzing theory and metatheory – along with conversations around which methods might prove most useful for advancing theory and metatheory.

A more concise presentation is included in my paper presented at the ITC2010 conference: "Techniques for the Objective Analysis and Advancement of Integral Theory''

There, I apply multiple tests to Wilber's AQAL and “Twenty Tenets” to identify how they might best be understood and improved. Rather than repeat that paper here, I will simply say that the results are mixed. Some approaches suggest Integral Theory might be useful for generating interesting insights and “aha” moments within the confines of one's own mind. Other tests show Integral Theory will not be useful in creating positive change in the wider world.

One key learning here is that there is no generally accepted method for evaluating theories and metatheories. So, there is no generally accepted method for deciding if Wilber has done a “good” job or not. This leads to Frank Visser's third question, which opens the door for an important method for validating metatheories – the act of deciding between two metatheories.

(3) If not, are there better alternatives around?

Asking if one metatheory is better than another essentially sends us back to the question of deciding if a metatheory is “good” with the added dimension of comparing between two metatheories. In this, I would encourage readers to use the methods in the above papers to evaluate multiple metatheories for themselves. I would strongly urge that any analysis use three different methods because using only one is not likely to lead to useful results. Additionally, I would suggest that the more creative scholars find ways to integrate those multiple methods of analysis.

At the ITC2010, I was encouraged by the conversations I heard where enlightened individuals were able to hold an intriguing duality. They clearly appreciated the benefits of diversity and a non-judgmental attitude. They were also clear that they needed to choose between differing metatheories in order to support more positive change that might better sustain our community and our planet. So, in deciding between Wilber's metatheory and metatheories offered by other authors, I must return to my answer above – that we have no generally accepted way of usefully choosing between them. The very fact that we have difficulty in deciding opens the door to larger questions.

One meta-level question we could be striving is to ask is, “What conversations might we engage in that would more effectively challenge and advance our thinking?” This, in turn, leads to other related questions.

For example, from an atomistic perspective, one might ask, “What is a metatheory?” This opens more doors because some look at a metatheory as a conceptual construct sitting on the top of the pyramid. Why, we might ask, does it have that seemingly privileged position? Might metatheory be better understood in systemic terms – how it is integrated with other conceptual constructs and actions? Another way to look at the question of metatheory is to ask, “How do we differentiate between metatheory and other constructs (such as theory, metaphor, mental models, schema, etc.)? More integratively, one might ask, “How is a metatheory related to other constructs?" And, importantly, are those distinctions useful in our daily lives? We might ask what goes into the construction and structure of metatheories. Alternatively, we might look at a metatheory as a “black box” and ask, "What are the inputs, outputs, and feedback loops that connect that box to other concepts, theories, and enactments?"

In this, I would encourage individual exploration and deep conversation. Only in this way, can we better understand metatheory (in any and all forms and interpretations). And, only by understanding does it become possible to transcend ourselves and our understanding – and develop something “better.” In short, I strongly encourage each reader to choose and use two or three methods of evaluation; to apply those methods to compare multiple metatheories; and to report your results to our community.

We are waiting to hear from you.

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