Monday, January 9, 2012

Ken Wilber's Magnum Opus

A Brief History of Everything
Sex, Ecology and Spirituality

Ken Wilber wrote Sex, Ecology and Spirituality in 1995 and followed the next year with a condensed and more accessible version of the same ideas in A Brief History of Everything. Weighing in at seven pounds and more than 800 pages, SES is his scholarly magnum opus, replete with extensive quotations, attributions and about 200 pages of endnotes.[1] BHE, on the other hand, is 340 pages, written in an almost breezy, conversational style, employing the dialogic of the author’s questions and answers with himself, a device as old as Plato. 
There is much—tremendously much—food for thought in these books, and I am greatly impressed with Wilber’s accomplishment. He has consumed a vast amount of information and synthesized it into a developmental map of the grand process of cosmic, biological, human and spiritual evolution. Based on my own moderately wide reading in psychology, philosophy, spirituality and the natural sciences, I am prone to regard Wilber as the best mapmaker who has ever walked the planet.[2] But beyond his scholarly work of divine cartography, Wilber (according to his own accounts and to his biographer, Frank Visser) appears to be a genuine mystic who has experienced the highest stages of the vast spectrum of consciousness which he so thoroughly describes and illustrates.
Where shall we begin to cover the main points of a system that took Wilber himself a few hundred pages to summarize? Let us start with a key term in Wilber’s model, holons—a concept he borrowed from Arthur Koestler (Visser, 182). Wilber defines holons as “wholes that are parts of other wholes, indefinitely. Whole atoms are parts of molecules; whole molecules are parts of cells; whole cells are parts of organisms, and so on. Each whole is simultaneously a part, a whole/part, a holon. And reality is composed, not of things nor processes nor wholes nor parts, but of whole/parts, of holons” (Wilber, SES, viii.)
First off, I have trouble with this definition of holons (“reality is composed, not of things nor processes”). It appears to me that holons are, in fact, processes. As I see it, movement (change) is built into every holon and no holon is static. For example, sub-atomic particles are in ever-changing motion and atoms are moving also, both vibrating individually and flowing collectively in random “Brownian motion.” Since all atoms are composed of ever-moving subatomic particles (which can leap their energy shells, throw off nuclear radiation as neutrinos, gamma and beta particles, etc.), and these vibrating, ever-changing atoms comprise the material universe, how can it not be supposed that the total universe is composed of vibration, motion, flow—process? In this light, it would seem more accurate to say that the Kosmos[3] is a holonic processa seamless continuum of holons that are forever dynamic and that are distributed in a nested holarchy (a hierarchy of holons) that is truly a spectrum (featuring all the unbroken gradations of levels which the word “spectrum” implies).[4]
Anyway, back to Wilber. The backbone of his model is that reality is layered in a Great Chain of Being, and that existence can be envisioned as a nested holarchy of “spheres” or “levels” ranging from matter to life to mind to soul to God.[5] Human development ascends through the spheres of the holarchy, both individually (psychologically) and collectively (socio-culturally). In fact, Wilber applies the same model of evolutionary stages to four quadrants of development: the growth of 1) individuals 2) cultures 3) societies and 4) the physical realm of nature. He goes into considerable detail showing how each of the stages in these quadrants corresponds to analogous stages in the other three quadrants. (This is Gregory Bateson’s theme of “the pattern that connects” forged into a supreme vision.) If Wilber’s system had succeeded only in bringing together into a sensible ordering the aloof cousins of psychology and spirituality, this would have been a remarkable and important achievement. But he manages to chart into one comprehensive model of corresponding levels nothing less than the whole Kosmos, starting with atoms! That is, his system takes an in-depth accounting of the specialized fields of anthropology, history, physics, biology, psychology, philosophy and spirituality—and makes unified sense out of the whole shebang.
The spectrum of consciousness is made up of four major links, to which Wilber gives the same terminology as Huston Smith: body, mind, soul and spirit. These divisions apply not only to levels of experience, but to ontologically real dimensions (levels of reality). Additionally, these levels, although present as structural potential in all human beings, represent a series of increasing improbability of actual living experience (Visser, 243). In light of this multi-dimensional view of reality and human consciousness, Wilber strongly criticizes the prevailing Western mindset of scientific materialism which dismisses anything that cannot be measured empirically and thus remains blind to spiritual worlds beyond “simple location.” Related to this, Wilber regards it is a mistake to try to collapse spiritual experience and knowledge into physics, by using quantum physics and systems theory to explain the psychic and higher realms.[6] Yet unlike most New Age enthusiasts, Wilber does not toss out the baby with the bathwater: He is a biochemist by training and an excellent interpreter of scientific facts. Indeed, he dismisses New Age superstition and gullibility with the same passion that he criticizes the “flatland” view of scientific materialism.
All holons have an inside and an outside and also an individual and a collective aspect. Therefore, holons can be analyzed in terms of Four Quadrants: interior-individual, exterior-individual, interior-collective and exterior-collective. For example, psychology and spirituality fall within the interior-individual quadrant. Culture occupies the interior-collective quadrant, and society lies within the exterior-collective quadrant. Material science runs through both the exterior-individual and exterior-collective quadrants. Each of these quadrants has dozens of levels of holons. For example, the exterior-individual quadrant charts this progression of stages: atoms to molecules, prokaryotes, neuronal organisms, neural cord, reptilian brain stem, limbic system, neocortex (triune brain), complex neocortex, etc. These evolutionary stages correspond with the interior-individual levels of prehension (atoms and molecules), irritability (prokayotes and eukaryotes), sensation (neuronal organisms), perception (neural cord), impulse (reptilian brain stem) and so on, through emotion, symbol use, concepts, concrete operations, formal operations, vision-logic, and into the transpersonal realms of psychic (nature mysticism), subtle (deity mysticism), causal (formless mysticism) and non-dual (non-dual mysticism).[7] My next paper on Wilber will focus exclusively on his twenty tenets that describe the emergent, evolutionary path of holons.
It is to Wilber’s credit that he invites criticism of his work in journals and online forums, and he publishes monographs responding to his critics. More significantly, he critiques and revises his own work. A good example is his change of view after the publication of his first two books, The Spectrum of Consciousness and No Boundaries. In these early work, Wilber subscribed to the vision of depth psychology as originated by Carl Jung. The Swiss psychologist’s model of human development can be summarized thus: The newborn is fused with the Self, the Great Mother, and by a heroic process of individuation, slowly extricates itself from the overarching presence of the all-absorbing oceanic Self. Once the ego has been firmly established (usually in the second half of life), the ego can then confront and reunify with the Self, only this time, the union will be “mature” and conscious. The worldview of this path goes along with the archetypal motif of “the Great Return.” This was Wilber’s own view when he began writing in his early twenties, a phase he now labels Wilber 1 (he’s now up to Wilber 4).
However, Wilber’s current vision is diametrically opposed to Jung’s. In Wilber’s model, the newborn is fused with the physical body and material world, not with the Self, for at this stage the Self exists only as pure potential. The ego then develops through various stages of growth and via this evolutionary progression, the Self awakens at last. Wilber emphatically makes the point that one does not awaken to the Self by retracing one’s journey back to the pre-personal (pre-rational, pre-ego), but by continuing advance beyond the personal to the trans-personal (trans-rational, trans-ego).
These two models can be contrasted in this way: the Great Return model (of depth psychology) says that we move from the Self to the ego, and eventually return to the Self. The path describes a loop, and the rise of ego is seen as a step away from the true Self. Wilber’s model (which he has called “height psychology”) says that we move from the pre-personal through the ego and onward to the Self. The Self is not behind us, waiting for our return; it is ahead of us, waiting for our evolutionary advance.
Is this just a semantic play of no real importance? Actually, it makes a big deal of difference, Wilber insists. In the context of depth psychology (Jung, deep ecology, eco-feminism, etc.), the fact that the ego (its archetype is the masculine Hero) has separated itself from nature (the Great Mother, the Feminine) is seen as the cause of environmental destruction and every other modern evil. Since in this view nature contains (or is) the Self, we must go back to nature and the feminine. Accordingly, this vision (which Wilber calls the “pre/trans fallacy”) feeds strongly into the popular rejection of anything having to do with intellect and science. It is the source of much sentimental, romantic and regressive anti-rationalism[8] (Visser, 265-7). Wilber specifically criticizes both neo-Jungians and New Age enthusiasts (Wiccans, etc.) as trying to “get back to” the Self—of confusing experiences prior to the development of the rational ego with consciousness of the Self.[9]
Wilber welcomes the fact that the ego has differentiated itself from nature. Hooray for the rational mind! With the advent of ego (in spite of its inherently grave dangers), Wilber says we are one evolutionary step closer to the Self. In Wilber’s view, the feminine is no more spiritual than the masculine (although he concedes that the spiritual paths of men and women may emphasize different parts of the total picture). “Men and women both have to undergo the difficult process of development from pre-personal, body-bound consciousness via personal ego-consciousness to the transpersonal, spiritual consciousness of the Self” (Visser, 274). [10]
In conclusion, it should be clear that Wilber (like Plotinus, Aurobindo and others before him)[11] is a mystic, an intellectual, a scholar, a scientist and a grand synthesizer, who has deep faith in the capacity of the human mind and soul. [12] He opposes movements that denounce the rational mind and ego under the guise of spirituality and seek salvation in the romanticism of returning to the magic and myth of the pre-rational, pre-scientific past. It is not the rational mind and science that need to be renounced, Wilber argues, but materialism, “which reduces the multi-dimensional Kosmos made up of matter, life, soul and Spirit, to the uni-dimensional cosmos of visible matter” (Visser 284). Wilber deftly argues that materialism is itself a metaphysical point of view that in the modern West has taken on the qualities of a fundamentalist religion. Wilber’s view of reality is fundamentally optimistic, like the Dzogchen view of the Great Natural Perfection. It provides a wonderful antidote not only to New Age nonsense, but to the post-modern nihilism, narcissism and scientific materialism that poses as truth at virtually every hall of academia in the Western world.

Works Cited
Visser, Frank. Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. 2003.
Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala
               Publications, 1995.
--- A Brief History of Everything. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996. 

[1] It is the first book in a planned “Kosmos Trilogy.” I read online that he has just finished the third book. He has not yet begun the second book in the series.

[2] Of course, a map is only a map; it’s not the territory itself. I recently met with a small group of Wilber aficionados. One of them had read every Wilber book and taken an extensive online course offered by his Integral Institute. It was clear to me that she had memorized his map in detail—and that this abstract knowledge was somehow satisfying to her. (Who needs the tofu? Just eat the menu!) The difference between her and Wilber is that he says when he was seeking spiritual reality his quest felt for him like a matter of life and death. Such longing can never be fulfilled by a map, no matter how comprehensive and accurate.

[3] Wilber employs the Greek spelling to indicate the multidimensional Kosmos, in contrast to materialist notions of a one-dimensional (nature-only) cosmos.

[4] According to kinetic molecular theory, “heat” can be described in terms of molecular motion. The more energetic the motion of molecules in any substance, the higher is its temperature. At a theoretical chill called “Absolute Zero” (zero on the Kelvin scale), all molecular motion would cease. The frozen universe would become a perfectly still sea, devoid of temperature and all energy—what scientists call “heat death.” Today’s most popular cosmological theory is that the universe will come to its end in exactly this way! All energy will run down via entropy (Second Law of Thermodynamics) and the world will end, “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” The Goddess has reassured me personally that this will never happen, because She doesn’t intend to sit still for an instant, let alone cool down and die. However, this intuition is a bit difficult to translate into scientific jargon.

[5] Obviously, this is not a new idea (cf. Trika Shaivism, Jacob’s Ladder, Sri Aurobindo, etc.). However, the analytical detail, depth and order brought to far-reaching fields of specialized knowledge has not been seen before Wilber.

[6] Wilber is no fan of books such as The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu-Li Masters. A friend of mine labels such attempts to make the spiritual realms more acceptable to hard science, “physics envy.”

[7] Alas, the reader suffers here for lack of a visual chart.

[8] Peruse the Rainbow Connection store for a grand tour of New Age pseudo-science and the romanticizing of ancient or indigenous cultures.

[9] Interestingly, one of the few points that Jung and Wilber agree on is the importance of a strongly developed ego.

[10] This resonates with the evolutionary models of Plotinus, Sri Aurobindo, Da Avabhasa, Andrew Cohen, Theosophy, etc.

[11] This list includes Wilber’s brilliant contemporary, Lex Hixon, who died of cancer at age 53.

[12] Wilber has written 25 books in the past 20 years, even though he spent four years without writing while he cared for his dying wife, Treya. He made up for it by publishing four books the year after she died! He manages to carry out his prolific research and writing while suffering from a chronic viral illness called RNase Syndrone that robs him of energy (it is similar to “chronic fatigue” syndrome). The disease lays him out in bed for six months out of the year and occasionally sends him to the hospital.

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