An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Mark EdwardsMark Edwards has an M.Psych in Developmental Psychology and a PhD in organisation theory from the University of Western Australia. He now works at Jönköping University in Sweden where he teaches and researches in the area of sustainability and ethics. Before becoming an academic he worked with people with disabilities for twenty years. He is the author of Organizational Transformation for Sustainability: An Integral Metatheory (Routledge, 2009) .

What Ken Wilber
has brought together
let no postmodernist
bring asunder ;)

A bit of deconstructing on Ferrer's problems with
"The Marriage of Sense and Soul"

Mark Edwards


In a recent article (Ferrer, 1998), Jorge Ferrer has made some very complementary and also some very critical comments about Ken Wilber's treatment of the science-religion question in the book, "The Marriage of Sense and Soul" (MSS). On the complementary side, Ferrer makes clear his agreement with, and enthusiastic support for, several key themes in the book. He states that, in MSS, Wilber has made, "many valuable and important insights "has "synthesized vast amounts of complex information with extraordinary rigour and clarity", has "shown with unparalleled force that contemporary forms of spirituality ...need to embrace the differentiations of modernity". He also writes that, among several of his "great accomplishments" in MSS, Wilber, "has expanded the Great Chain of Being by incorporating the differentiations of modernity", has given the, "perennial vision greater contemporary relevance and explanatory power than any other traditional account", and that "any contemporary articulation of spirituality that does not take into account these distinctions will be seriously deficient". Great praise indeed for a book of such scope. Ferrer also, in his opening pages at least, summarises very clearly and succinctly, even if in a rather disparaging tone, many of the very original insights of MSS.

Given his considerable appreciation and accurate summary of many of Wilber's main positions in MSS, why does Ferrer proceed to offer a critique that is so completely damning of the book? For example, after the very complementary introduction Ferrer goes on to say that Wilber, "not only perpetuates the dissociations of the modern era, but also renders the legitimisation of spiritual knowledge hopeless", and that with MSS, Wilber, "seriously undermines the possibility to legitimise spirituality". Harsh words indeed and all very strange given his strong support for many of the central propositions for the book. Why would Ferrer say of a book, that he acknowledges accomplishes so much in the science-religion debate, that it undermines and renders illegitimate spiritual knowledge? Such rather serious charges have been answered quite adequately by Wilber (1998) and Visser (2000) and I don't wish to add to that defense here. Rather, in this essay I want to look at the reasons why Ferrer (and I would add, his fellow postmoderns) can at the same time be so in agreement and so condemning of Wilber's writings. I also want to consider here what valid points might lie behind some of Ferrer's concerns. As Wilber has pointed out, people can't always be wrong a hundred percent of the time, and so Ferrer (and other postmoderns) might have something important to say on MSS. So let's do a bit of deconstructing on Ferrer's critical essay and see whether that leads us down the aisle or not (only one more marital allusion you'll be pleased to know).

What is Ferrer really so riled about?

Ferrer's main concerns with MSS lie not with the intention of clarifying the relationship between spirituality and science, not with the proposition that the Great Chain of Being model should be integrated into the modern worldview, and not with the proposition that science needs to take seriously the mystical or contemplative perspective. No, Ferrer has no real argument with these or, it seems, with many other of the main points of Wilber's book. What really gets Ferrer going is Wilber's application of his epistemological model, his, "three strands of valid knowledge" to the area of spirituality. And the reason for this is that Ferrer sees the three strands as "the core methodology of deep empiricism and deep science" (for "deep science" here just read "evil empire" and you will get the jist). The whole of Ferrer's critique basically hangs on his contention that Wilber attempts to reduce all epistemologies to a positivist method of narrow empiricism. But just what is so empirical or positivist about Wilber's three strands. The processes of i) giving injunctions and teachings/directions, ii) experiencing feelings, observations, and apprehensions, and iii) validating, confirming, and discussing those experiences may have absolutely nothing to do with science and in fact can relate to any learning or knowledge acquisition process. Wilber's three strands can relate to checking the weather, learning to read or play music, or developing any skill or learned behaviour (to give some examples that Wilber himself has mentioned). The three strands can hardly be thought of as an "epistemic straightjacket". They are general and very relaxed processes that are inherent in any reality testing or knowledge acquisition endeavour. The three strands have nothing necessarily to do with measurement, billiard balls, sub-atomic physics, positivism, scientific methodology, or any physical event. And they are certainly not the essential aspects of the scientific method as apart from methods in other domains of knowledge. Mathematics, for example, which proceeds according to Wilber's epistemological model has absolutely nothing necessarily to do with empirical science and yet the three strands operate here with great application.

Why then does Ferrer see Wilber's epistemological model as "a positivist extension of the canons of instrumental reason to all areas of life"? Why does he regard the three strands as the means whereby empiricism "colonises" spirtuality? The answer is very simple - because they, the three strands, do not include in their ranks the key element in the postmodern perspective on knowledge and the central topic in all postmodern debates about various epistemologies. This missing strand is the central insight that postmodernists, like Ferrer, have contributed to the debate about scientific method and knowledge acquisition processes. And that missing element from Wilber's theory of knowledge is the "interpretive turn", the derivation and allocation of meaning that every event in human life, be it individual of collective, entails. Personal bias, demand characteristics, cultural chauvanism, gender perspective, interpreting the data, misinformation, propaganda and the political manipulation of knowledge - the whole set of personal and collective interpretive dynamics that can accurately interpret or conversely distort, manipulate and put the spin on any set of experiences/observations. Wilber's three strands don't contain this interpretive strand and they should. His epistemology leaves out this central postmodern contribution to the philosophy of science. The three strands then are not capable of coping with the postmodernist critique of the rational/structuralist/empiricist approach to knowledge. This is the reason why Ferrer gets very touchy wherever Wilber's epistemology raises its non-interpretive head. So, Ferrer has a very good point when he critiques MSS on its lack of recognition of the postmodern critiques of Popper, Kuhn, Empiricism and his discussion of the problems of falsificationism is very much on the point.

Wilber does acknowledge the validity of the postmodern concern with interpretive processes and in many instances Wilber is much clearer and perceptive on this characteristic of the postmodern than the postmoderns themselves. Nonetheless there is no strand in Wilber's epistemological model that is clearly concerned interpretive processes (see Edwards, 1999 for a fuller discussion on this) and it becomes very easy for Ferrer to charge Wilber with "residual positivism", "positivist predjuces" and with undermining, "the central insights of the very contemplative traditions he champions". While these claims are rather wayward to say the least, I feel that Ferrer's critical focus on the "three strands" comes about because of this very important missing "interpretive" phase in Wilber's epistemological model.

The difficulty with Ferrer's critique is that he does not identify the actual problem of the missing interpretive strand as the key weakness of Integral epistemology. Instead, he locates the problem in Wilber's attempt to expand the concept of empiricism - "broad empiricism" - to include mental and spiritual data. This leads Ferrer to the bizarre position of correctly stating Wilber's position in one paragraph, i.e., that broad empiricism "embraces sensory, mental and spiritual" only to denounce Wilber's empiricism as the "positivist's dream" in a following one. Regarding mental and spiritual events as data worthy of rigorous investigation in the same way as sensory data is hardly the positivist dream. Sounds more like the positivist's nightmare to me. The point is that Ferrer can see that Wilber does not systematically accommodate the postmodern critique of science in his current model of knowledge but he doesn't clearly identify where the real culprit lies.

As I have argued elsewhere, Wilber's lack of an interpretive strand in his epistemological model means that he must arbitrarily force this issue somewhere into his structural model. So the investigation of some ontological levels (those concerned with mentality) get the interpretive dialogical treatment while others don't. And some levels (those concerned with physicality) get the monological treatment and others don't. In reality both monological and interpretive methods can be used to investigate any level and it is the interpretive framework and explanatory model of the researcher that determines whether the science is reductive or not and whether it can legitimately study the world of spirituality or not.

To further the debate with the postmodernists, Integral philosophy needs to consider several things before the debate over the relation of spirituality to science can proceed with them in tow. First it must include an Interpretive Strand and recognise that this knowledge process operates at every ontological level and not just at some. Second, it must recognise that "science" is a term that specifically refers to the right hand, objective paths to knowledge (according to Wilbers 4-quadrants model) and to speak of interior sciences invites great confusion and ongoing animosity between those who support inner interpretive dynamics (including postmodern philosophers) and those who support the objective methodologies (traditional science).

In any event, Ferrer seems to actually look forward to a marriage of some sort going ahead. But his marriage would be between a science that is made up from a post-empiricist interpretive philosophy of science, hermeneutics, feminist scholarship, and human science research, and a religion that is culturally specific, dialogical, cognizant of interpretive hermeneutics, and pluralistic. What Ferrer wants is, in effect, a marriage between a postmodern science and a postmodern religion where interpretive processes reign supreme, where everything is context dependent, and where we can all do what we like and call it spiritual science as long as there are enough of us doing it (I'm exaggerating here somewhat, but you get the drift). Wilber's ideas have moved well beyond this point, but until his epistemological model of the three strands expands to incorporate the postmodern interpretive critique his wedding ceremony will continue to be heckled by guests who feel uncomfortable about the relationship but aren't really sure why.

© 2000 Mark Edwards

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