Ken Wilber's Flawed Metaphysics

By Michelle Mairesse



The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, Random House, New York, 1998 [Hereafter referred to as Sense]
A Brief History of Everything, Shambhala, Boston & London, 1996 [Hereafter referred to as Brief ]

The twentieth century has seen an odd reversal of values in both urban and pre-industrial societies. Even as Fourth World tribes trade their carved idols and medicine bundles for outboard motors and antibiotics, city-dwellers hungry for transcendence sign on with shamans for vision quests, gather around campfires to beat on drums and chant, and travel to the four corners of the earth to participate in archaic ceremonies.

Why is it that in the industrial world, where 18th century Enlightenment goals have been realized, free and equal citizens feel like race-track greyhounds in pursuit of the uncatchable mechanical rabbit of happiness? Is the golden age behind us?

Unlike recent critics who attribute unreal virtues to earlier societies and their members, Wilber reminds us that the Enlightenment revolution was a great leap forward.

"The rise of modernity--and by 'modernity' I mean specifically the rational-industrial worldview, and roughly, the Enlightenment in general--served many useful and extraordinary purposes. We might mention: the rise of democracy; the banishing of slavery; the emergence of liberal feminism; the differentiation of art and science and morality (which I'll explain); the widespread emergence of empirical sciences, including the systems sciences and ecological sciences; an increase in average life span of almost three decades; the introduction of relativity and perspectivism in art and morals and science; the move from ethnocentric to worldcentric morality; and in general the undoing of dominator social hierarchies in numerous significant ways." [Brief, p. 69].

That's the good news. The bad news is the rise of scientism, "the belief that there is no reality save that revealed by science, and no truth save that which science delivers." [Sense, p. 53].

Scientism, Wilber says, has reduced the great Kosmos to a mechanical physical cosmos. "The original meaning of Kosmos was the patterned nature or process of all domains of existence, from matter to mind to God, and not merely the physical universe." [Brief, p. 19].

Wilber maintains that the Wisdom traditions of all previous civilizations assumed the Kosmos comprised a Great Chain of Being, which typically had five levels: matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit.

"Indeed, Plotinus--arguably the greatest philosopher-mystic the world has ever known--usually gave the Great Chain twelve levels: matter, life, sensation, perception, impulse, images, concepts, logical faculty, creative reason, world soul, nous, and the One." [Sense, p, 18]. However many levels we posit, humans "have available to them at least the three basic eyes of knowing: the eye of flesh (empiricism), the eye of mind (rationalism), and the eye of contemplation (mysticism), each of which is important and quite valid when dealing with its own level, but gravely confused if it attempts to see into other domains." [Sense, p. 18].

The advocates of scientism err badly when they insist that the only test of validity is empirical evidence, says Wilber.

While "there are indeed preexisting intrinsic features in the sensorimotor world that constrain our perceptions--for example, if you drop the colored patch called an apple, it always falls to the colored patch called the ground. These intrinsic features anchor the objective component of truth (in any domain). At the same time, these objective features are differentiated, conceptualized, organized, and given much of their actual form and content by conceptual structures that themselves exist in nonempirical and nonsensory spaces. These interior structures include not only deeply background cultural contexts, intersubjective linguistic structures, and consensus ethical norms, but also most of the specific conceptual tools that scientists use as they analyze their objective data, tools such as logic, statistical displays, and all forms of mathematics, from algebra to Boolean algebra to calculus to complex numbers to imaginary numbers. None of these structures can be seen or found anywhere in the exterior, empirical, sensory world." [Sense, p. 146].

Clearly, mathematics and logic, the cornerstone of scientific method, are pure mental constructs.

Even mental constructs are not what they used to be. "Since World War II, there has been a slow shift from rational-industrial society to vision-logic informational society." [Brief, p. 325]. Vision-logic synthesizes, integrates, and sees networks. The self is aware of both mind and body as experiences. "It is not just the mind looking at the world; it is the observing self looking at both the mind and the world." [Brief, p. 191]. Logic itself is evolving, and the evolution is upward.

That's another plus for the Enlightenment, the concept of evolutionary progress. Premodern societies, says Wilber, all assumed that the world had deteriorated, that humans had lost touch with the Source, the Spirit, the God and Goddess. "But sometime in the modern era--it is almost impossible to pinpoint exactly--the idea of history as devolution (or a fall from God) was slowly replaced by the idea of history as evolution (or a growth toward God). [Sense, p. 103].

Fichte (1762-1814) was one of the first "to introduce the absolutely crucial and historically world-shaking notion of development (or evolution). The world is not static and pregiven; it develops, it evolves, it takes on different forms as Spirit unfolds the universe." [Sense, 105]. "And Spirit is found in the process itself, not in any particular epoch or time or place." [Brief, p. 50].

Wilber chafes at the inadequacy of the Great Chain metaphor, preferring to view Kosmos as a Great Nest of Being, concentric circles where each ascending level includes and transcends the previous level.

With the earnestness of a nineteenth century German philosopher intent upon demonstrating a system, Wilber begins building his nests with a unit, the holon, explaining that Arthur Koestler's coinage 'holon' refers to an entity that is itself a whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole. "For instance, a whole atom is part of a whole molecule and the whole molecule is part of a whole cell, and the whole cell is part of a whole organism and so on. Each of these entities is neither a whole nor a part, but a whole/part, a holon." [Brief, p. 20].

Every holon has to maintain both its wholeness and its partness, but its own existence depends on its fitting into its environment, its partness, a complicated maneuver because all individual holons have four facets. "So my supposedly 'individual thought' actually has at least these four facets, these four aspects--intentional, behavioral, cultural, and social. And around the circle we go: the social system will have a strong influence on the cultural worldview, which will set limits to the individual thoughts that I can have, which will register in the brain physiology." [Brief, p. 81].

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That means that the whole is at a higher or deeper level of organization than the parts alone, and that's a hierarchy, what Koestler calls a "holarchy."

"As the higher stages of consciousness emerge and develop, they themselves include the basic components of the earlier worldview, then add their own new and more differentiated perceptions. They transcend and include. Because they are more inclusive, they are more adequate." [Brief, p. 67].
But with the possibility of transcendence comes the possibility of repression. "The higher might not just transcend and include, it might transcend and repress, exclude, alienate, dissociate."

Wilber condemns the Romantics and "premodern holists" for this error. The Romantics recognized the repressiveness of feeling by rationality, but Wilber claims they frequently fell "violent prey" to what he calls the pre/trans fallacy, "namely, the confusion of prerational with transrational simply because both are nonrational." [Sense, p. 92].

Wilber observes that none of the premodern worldviews differentiated art-aesthetics, empirical-science, and religion-morals. "Although 'premodern holists' claim that this is a wonderful state of nondissociated and unified consciousness, it is actually quite the opposite." Anyone at any time could be condemned for heresy, indecency, treason, etc. by church and state. "But with the rise of modernity, the spheres of art, science and morals were clearly differentiated, and this marked the dignity of modernity because each sphere could now pursue its own truth without violence and domination from the others." [Sense, p. 48].

Intrigued by graded series of realities defining both premodern science and modern science, Wilber searched for a way to reconcile the two nested hierarchies.

"In researching this problem, I did an extensive data search of several hundred hierarchies, taken from systems theory, ecological science, Kabalah, developmental psychology, Yogachara Buddhism, moral development, biological evolution, Vedanta Hinduism, Neo-Confucianism, cosmic and stellar evolution, Hwa Yen, the Neoplatonic corpus--an entire spectrum of premodern, modern, and postmodern nests. After I had collected several hundred hierarchies, I tried grouping them in various ways, and I eventually noticed that, without exception, they all fell into one of four major types." [Sense, p. 63].
He named these types the Four Quadrants, and he divided them equally into thirteen levels each. The Upper Left-Hand Quadrant, apprehensions ranging from Prehension to Vision-logic and making up the Interior-Individual, he calls the Intentional realm. The Lower Left-Hand Quadrant, collectives ranging from the Physical-Pleromatic to the Centauric and making up the Interior-Collective, he calls the Cultural realm.

The Upper Right-Hand Quadrant, structures ranging from Atoms to SF3 (the highest structural function of the complex neocortex) and making up the Exterior-Individual, he calls the Behavioral realm. The Lower Right-Hand Quadrant, systems ranging from Galaxies to Informational-Planetary and making up the Exterior-Collective, he calls the Social realm. (These four realms, you will recall, are the four facets of all holons.)

After disposing of these disparate categories on his rather Procrustean grid, Wilber goes on to adduce many things from his display of nests. "Whereas everything in the Right Hand has simple location, nothing in the Left Hand path has simple location. This doesn't mean that value, consciousness, pride, desire aren't real, and this is where interpretation comes in. Surfaces can be seen, but depth must be interpreted."[ Brief, p. 99].

To integrate science and religion is to integrate empirical evolution with transcendental Spirit. But Idealism fell short because "it possessed no yoga--that is, no tried and tested practice for reliably reproducing the transpersonal and superconscious insights that formed the very core of the great Idealist vision."

"For practical exercises in mysticism, we must look to the perennial tradition. Both Vedanta and Zen prescribe long, continuous meditation practice sessions, and Zen takes an average of six years for the successful student to have the first profound satori." [Sense, p. 112].

Anyone can check or refute the claim using deep science:

"namely, take up the injunction or paradigm of meditation; gather the data, the direct experience, the apprehensions that are disclosed by the injunction; compare and contrast the resultant data with that of others who have completed the first two strands." In this fourth state of consciousness, Wilbur says, there is an expanded sense of self, consciousness, compassion, love, care, responsibility, and concern. "Any interior experience that passes the test of deep science may be provisionally regarded as genuine knowledge--that is, it tells us something real, something actual, about the contours of the Kosmos." [Sense, p. 202].

Wilber concludes The Marriage of Sense and Soul with a stirring appeal to join the West's Enlightenment tradition of liberal political freedom with the East's Enlightenment tradition of spiritual transcendence. "Surely both Enlightenments must be preserved. Both Enlightenments offer freedoms that took evolution billions of years to unfold. Both Enlightenments cry out to the best that we are and the noblest that we might yet become." [Sense, p. 213].

Despite his impressive display of erudition, Wilber is not entirely convincing. His contention that Fichte was the first formulator of a transcendent evolutionary theory ignores the Sufic tradition that goes back at least as far as Rumi in the thirteenth century.

He deplores contemporary industrial society's shallow, amoral, superficial worldview and believes that reinstating The Great Chain of Being (or the Great Nest of Being) will add the requisite spiritual dimension to modern progressive evolutionary theory. He believes that restricting the methodology of the Right- and Left-Hand Quadrants to their own domains will eliminate much confusion.

Unfortunately, his Quadrants appear to be skewed to favor his interpretations. His upper Right-Hand Quadrant, for example, begins at the atomic level. Why not the sub-atomic level? Is it because not all sub-atomic particles have simple location? As I understand him, he maintains that the Left-Hand Quadrant can resolve questions of value by submitting them to those who have experience in a given field. But that is precisely what we are already doing.

Why does he not speak about intuition as a method of apprehension? Surely the many sources he consulted alluded to this sticky topic.

Since Wilber sees evolution as a pathway to mystical apprehension, he should at least consider the abundant anecdotal and scientific data concerning psychedelic substances. As Aldous Huxley and other psychedelics investigators observed, the great mystics fasted, mortified the flesh, restricted sensory data, repeated sounds and syllables, spun around rapidly and in other ingenious ways changed their body chemistry in order to achieve altered states of consciousness.

Wilber is similarly dismissive of nature mystics because, he says, they confuse nature and Gaia with the ultimate Spirit, and they're just wrong. This from the man who is distressed by the monological bent of science. Isn't it possible that one of these doors of perception plus a yoga might serve the purposes of an ever-accelerating evolution?

Although he does lip service to all the perennial traditions, Wilber sees the severe Eastern Zen tradition as the summit of mysticism, a rather elitist view for one who lauds the Western democratic tradition. We can't help wondering why China and Japan, the countries where the majority of Zen meditators have lived and attained Enlightenment, have not experienced a trickle-down effect.

W. B. Yeats told a friend that he had dreamed of George Bernard Shaw as a smiling sewing machine. I believe that Wilber would be a more effective writer if he were less intent on neat sewing-machine logic and more intent on the smile of the Buddha.

What Wilber has given us as a complete map of the universe is not much better than a legendary Hindu teacher's cosmology.

    Disciple: What does the universe rest upon?

    Teacher: The universe rests on the back of a turtle.

    Disciple: What is the turtle standing upon?

    Teacher: The back of another turtle.

    Disciple: What is that turtle standing upon?

    Teacher. It's turtles all the way down.