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Michael Garfield has a degree in evolutionary biology and works as a scientific illustrator, live painter, essayist, and sound man. He is a graduate of JFKU's Integral Theory certificate program and a member of Ken Wilber's blog editorial team. For more information, visit: Source of this essay:, May 2007.

The Engine of

Integral Theory and Post-metaphysical Entelechy

Michael Garfield

“As the individual, moment to moment, recreates his illusory boundaries, so reality, moment to moment, conspires to tear them down.” – Ken Wilber (1986, p. 123)

For its entire existence, evolutionary biology has wrestled with the vitalist concept of a metaphysical force that guides development. Taking an antithetical (and increasingly uncorroborated) stance, most biologists flatly deny any ubiquitous trends in evolution. However, an AQAL study of evolution, informed by developmental psychology, suggests that the interplay between interior and exterior aspects of an organism, as well as those between an individual organism and its ecology, do indeed create a force that drives increasing intelligence, complexity of communicative behavior, and depth of experience. The dynamics of this process are equally apparent in both phylogeny and ontogeny[1] – and it is predominantly at this latter scale of individual development that this paper will explore them.

Syntax and Development

An energetic imperative drives the ongoing reorganization of a system towards ever-higher waves of inclusion and transcendence; the individual moves to a new level of complexity in response to demands made upon it by the environment. Martin Nowak and Natalia Komarova have formulated a mathematical description to describe this process in evolution of syntactic language, which warrants summary before put in the broader context of human development (2001, p. 288). Their model is based on the concept of a learned association matrix, which connects an arbitrary signal to its meaning (an object, or referent). Efficient construction of this matrix of significance is driven by the benefit conferred to successful communicators, defined as the probability of successful communication between two parties summed over all events and weighted according to the frequency of these events. As the number of relevant referents increases, so does the cognitive capacity required to memorize all of them, and the error rate incurred by such demands. The error rate is chaos inherent in the system, which increases with the flow of information. As explained by Ilya Prigogine's Nobel Prize-winning theory of dissipative structures, as energy and information flow through a system, it must re-crystallize in a more ordered pattern to efficiently dissipate it. The fulcrums of development described by Ken Wilber are critical points of bifurcation in the development of a system, where it requires less energy to integrate the current level's units of perception and communication as elements of the next level's syntactic structure than it does to create and use additional units at this level. According to Nowak and Komarova's model, we evolved syntactic speech because there was a point beyond which it became easier to speak in sentences than to memorize a different referent for every situation.

This conception extends individual psychological development, stage transitions occur as a consequence of self's inability to continue translating its experience with the symbols of its current level. The stage transition occurs as a twofold process – one in which the cognitive line precedes the actual identity of the self-system. Before the emergence of a consciousness that takes the level as subject, a new order of cognition appears that is capable of “faking” adequately complex communication – using the techniques of its culture of embeddedness without truly internalizing them – again, the difference between rote memorization and the internalization of generative principles. This first and cheaper strategy confers a temporary benefit; however, it becomes increasingly unstable. Given enough time, this last-ditch translation dissolves under the weight of its own limitations; the widening gap between the individual's facility with the “language”[2] of its culture and its capacity to organize its interior experience leads to more and more scenarios in which it fails to mesh intersubjectively, a crisis that cascades around the quadrants.[3]

At the boundary between Kegan's 3rd and 4th orders of consciousness, the underlying rules and roles by which the individual organizes its experience are subjugated to a broader frame of reference in which these cross-categorical elements become the constituents of an abstract ideology (1994, p. 315). The mental demands of organizing a modern world according to pre-modern units of meaning lead to an increasing strain on the underlying structure of the self-system – a growing number of instances for which the individual's learned rules and roles do not apply force an attempt to expand the translative jurisdiction of cross-categorical consciousness until it becomes easier to make one's own rule-generating system than to memorize any more of them. The error rate of mistranslations – the chaos of insurmountable demands on this level's interpretive model – actually fuels the self's release from exclusive identification with one order of consciousness and its construction of another. As Wilber explains, “any time a series of translations fails its purpose and breaks down…the individual is precipitated into a major transformation. Wherever translation fails, transformation ensues - and it can be regressive transformation or progressive transformation” [his italics] (1986a, p. 48). Any bifurcation point can just as easily lead to the holon's dissolution. If the transition to the 4th order is navigated successfully, however, the individual finds itself in a place from which it can generate cross-categorical abstractions spontaneously, according to an internally-regulated system; rather than attempting to squeeze an impossible number of relevant referents into socially-defined categories, the self learns to author its own classifications. Roles and rules become “parts of speech” in the new language of individual experience.

Transference of Order from Senior/Social Holons to Junior/Individual Holons[4]

The new order into which the self moves during a developmental transition is assembled as an approximate representation of its environment – appearing in the lower left quadrant as its “culture of embeddedness.” The functions of the social holon in which the individual holon exists become aspects of the organism itself; its ecology is internalized, whereby collective consciousness and behavior become individual consciousness and behavior. This principle, known as “Kegan's Juggler” (after Robert Kegan's conception of the 3rd- to 4th- order transition as one between a game of catch and a single person juggling the same balls)[5], is supported explicitly by modernist claims that men be their own kings and priests – as well as by transpersonal testimony to an identity with all people and finally the universe itself. The permanent nondual realization, as an extreme example, is an ultimate movement to identification with the entirety of experience – the self-system has internalized the prior-most context in which both form and emptiness emerge, and operates upon the very language of manifestation. Where left is there to go? Only onward into the unconscious; stooping back to gather up forgotten pieces to nurse them, invest and engage – or scattering into the fog of another morning. Even here, in the gloaming behind a dream, growing infinitely, impossible and invisible, before all perspectives, in throbbing stillness – a rhetorical question, begging itself.

Feedback Between Sociocultural Pressures, Interior Depth, and Communicative Capacity

Transformations, then, are a complex network of causations between individual and collective, interior and exterior aspects of a holon. The outside world grows increasingly complex, making greater demands on the social organization required for sustenance. In order to maintain its existence, the organism must find a niche in the interobjective meshwork of its social ecology, which requires must meeting the cultural requirements of communication, which requires a complexity of experience deep enough to manage the units of that culture, to inhabit all relevant areas of the intersubjective space. Or, moving in the other direction, a new capacity for communication emerges as the correlate of an order of consciousness inclusive enough to achieve mutual understanding – which is necessary for intra-social functioning, which is necessary for the persistence of the individual.[6]

This can be chased ceaselessly around the quadrants: an ecological pressure towards flexibility within the social dimension of a holon (say, the growing necessity to manage a number of discrete personas due to a heterogeneous cultural terrain) results in an increase in the complexity of its communicative repertoire, which requires heightened interior depth, which results in a more complex intersubjective terrain, which creates a more elaborate social dimension – and this cycle persists for as long as the relevant sociocultural context stays ahead of individual complexity (the requisites are discussed below).

The very movement that Nowak and Komarova describe, from a finite repertoire of signifiers to syntactic language, appears to be mirrored in the historical advent of Robert Kegan's 2nd order of consciousness – the earliest sense of self as an enduring concept and understanding of cause and effect (ie, subject-verb-object), as well as the ability to operate on one's perceptions (and thus relate them to each other) (1994, p. 314). The math, the psychological stage conceptions, and the paleoanthropological evidence all point to the emergence of syntactic language and 2nd order consiousness during when humanity transitioned from survival bands to ethnic tribes as regionally-continuous populations bred their way out of Africa. The world became too complex to be successfully navigated according to atomistic social perceptions and impulses; relevant referents began to include not just the handful of immediate occupants of one's familial environment, but an increasing tribe of many families, neighboring tribes, and the cyclical time of seasons (as human numbers increased, intra-specific competition for food appeared for the first time and necessity urged the innovation of new modes of production) (Wilber, 1981, page unknown).

Similarly, modernism can be seen as a consequence of humanity's ubiquity on the globe. The new tacit international order created by new forms of transportation and economy (themselves the product of population pressures) exposed individuals for the first time to moral systems, codes of conduct, and economic systems for which their external rule generators did not apply. A person's ability to cope with the cross-cultural demands of a 4th order society is dependent on his ability to internalize its ecology of abstractions, which requires a cognitive structure capable of sustaining that internalization, which is in turn dependent a system capable of both energetically supporting that neurophysiological transformation and sustaining sufficient complexity to require it.


The only constraints on transcendence are environmental complexity and energetic availability. There is no universal law from which emerge the myriad processes of manifestation; rather, it is through non-linear relationships such as those cursorily examined above that drive the universe. Thus, although it remains fallacious to say that there is some transcendental teleological force lifting creation ever higher, direction development and evolution, it can be said that developmental and evolutionary dynamics differentiate and integrate ever-more-complex systems wherever and whenever sufficient ecological complexity and resources exist.

This is why life appeared on Earth almost immediately after the planet cooled to temperatures that would allow such dynamically stable chemical processes; it is also why enormous religious revolution occurred so swiftly after the invention of the printing press, and why children who are not sufficiently challenged by their educational curricula start acting out from boredom and frustration. No timeless erotic principle will sprout an acorn on concrete; likewise, the security and comfort of knowing one's self through a 4rd order self-authoring identity will eventually strangle anyone who has glimpsed the window into his 5th order paradoxical self but lacks the means to enter and explore it.

Although in contemporary human culture it is unlikely that someone will actually risk physical death as the price of failing to mesh with the neurological complexity, depth of experience, mutuality of significance, and social structure of his surroundings, we still consider such individuals inept, retarded, or insane. There is, as Kegan says, an implicit cultural curriculum in human society that can be, in deliciously inventive ways, just as vicious as the “uncivilized” wild (1994, p. 9). Those that heroically achieve personal transformation beyond their cultural center of gravity do so only by expending tremendous energy to manufacture an internal model of universal order without the assistance of human culture. Nonetheless, the model remains the same: these people respond to “a higher calling,” an environmental injunction to understand the world in a way more coherent and useful than can be provided by the current frame of reference. They are answering a challenge; as Frank Vertosick Jr. points out, “[A]ll things are as intelligent as they need to be, which in the final analysis, means that all living things must be as intelligent as their competition, no more, no less” (2002, p. 291).[7] Although for social organisms like humans, that competition is often with others of our own kind, it does not have to take any specific form; it might be an internal predisposition for curiosity, or the consequence of uncontrollable external events, like the weather (although through AQAL, these in/out distinctions dissolve somewhat); either way, some critical volume of anomalous information manages to seep into a once familiar world and catalyze a grand voyage of discovery. The result is the hero's journey – an unavoidable departure from the familiar that forces immersion in a freshly complicated, transcendence-inviting universe.

The higher the level of development, the more likely emigration will stimulate developmental transition via the complexification of the navigable world – in part because of scaling issues (more complex organisms are typically larger, have a higher metabolism, and require more energy – and thus must frequently travel to avoid depleting their resources or to find a mate).[8] Thus, the ecological energetic base and the four-quadrant pressure to develop exist most pronouncedly among “social” organisms. Nonetheless, sociality itself evolved – on numerous occasions – as a syntactic response to an increasingly complex ecological relationship. Life itself is a result of this process, which operates at all scales, both pre- and trans-biotic. To encourage transformation, the environment need only be diverse enough, and with enough unexploited energy, that there remains a gap between the individual's fitness at its present organization – be it an atom or an infant – and at the next level of development. Because these values increase in concert with the development of the culture of embeddedness, both the momentum and the demands of transformative self-organization increase with each level.[9] Complexity is a positive feedback loop – an arms race – evidenced in the logarithmic calendar of biological evolution, the global society's accelerating dialectic of progress, and the frightening rapidity at which increasingly intricate educational demands are made on contemporary youth and adults alike.


Thus AQAL elucidates the mechanisms by which an individual adapts to his environment, as well as the mutually causative relationships that transform both parties, inside and out. The individual subject, in order to perpetuate itself, is driven to adopt ever-wider circles of being in order to successfully make its way through a universe of growing intricacy. Shedding exclusive identification with the translative programming at its current level and building a new identity capable of simulating the world with finer resolution and subtler meaning, the self is simultaneously supported by the world it knows and pulled deeper into a world it can not see – the jungle in the tiger, the family in the child, the god in the man, a field of fields, resonant evolutionary karma – all of the still-unclaimed aspects of its own infinite resplendence.[10]


[1] Phylogeny and ontogeny – evolutionary and developmental history – are not identical, and one must be careful in making generalizations. Each process, however, can be broken down into the complimentary actions of translation and transformation. The former is exceedingly more common and results in typological variation, whereas the latter involves a qualitative shift in which the fundamental unit of the previous level is incorporated as merely a part of the new structure – albeit one that retains its agency. It is in an attempt to clarify the confused and misleading comparisons between evolution and development that this paper is written.

[2] Again, this is a rational metaphor stretched to near-breaking over both pre-personal and trans-personal levels of development, in which the self-sense obviously does not organize itself according to linguistic abstractions.

[3] In other words, evolutionary game theory provides an explanation for why the cognitive line has a permanent developmental advantage over the self-sense line, instead of the requisite cognition developing simultaneously with the next order of consciousness.

[4] There are two distinctions involved here: one between senior and junior holons, and the other between individual and social holons (although there is some dispute as to whether individual and social holons actually exist as such, or whether they are merely different aspects of a holon – either conception will work, here). Transformations of consciousness involve the movement of an individual holon from its junior level to the senior level of its environment. The individual does not become the social holon; rather, the social holon – at least as it is experienced by the individual, seems also to transform. A 3rd order to 4th order transition in the individual relocates that individual within a 5th order social holon. Although the superficial features of any altitude are novelly constructed, the deep structure itself is not created spontaneously during transformation but redistributed from holarchically senior involutionary givens. This is not metaphysics, because it adopts Ervin Laszlo's “weak” involutionary position: conserved morphic channels, stored as holographic quantum imprints, guide development in this universe according to the development in its prior iterations (2004, p. 139). It should soon be within the reach of clever experimentation.

[5] Or “Kegan's Stickshift,” so named for another of his analogies in which automatic and manual transmissions stand in for 3rd and 4th order consciousness.

[6] A primitive example exists outside of humanity among songbirds, which favor those individuals capable of learning a wider variety of songs and thus, greater flexibility in potentially diverse courtship scenarios (Lachlan & Slater, 1999, p. 206).

[7] The poetic and insightful passage continues: “But Gaia's only competition comes from the physical universe. Gaia, the earth goddess, must therefore be as intelligent as the physical world that challenges her very existence. There's something very beautiful and moving in that concept. The biosphere has evolved to become the intellectual equal of the cosmic clockwork that spawned her.”

[8] Male mammals in particular are notorious for this. As the human world becomes more abstract, though, so too does the hero's journey (online graduate programs are one such example).

[9] As a mode of communication, syntactic language moves at speeds unequalled by even the speediest biochemical evolution. New modes of inheritance, by virtue of their quicker and more efficient communicative media, increase the rate at which relevant referents multiply.

[10] And, according to the note on the nuances of various synonyms for “bright” in the Oxford American Dictionary, effulgence and refulgence (Mac OS X 10.4.8 widget).


Bird, Richard J. (2003). Chaos and life: Complexity and order in evolution and thought. Columbia University Press.

Kegan, Robert. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Lachlan, Robert F., & Slater, Peter J. B. (1999). The maintenance of vocal learning by gene-culture interaction: The cultural trap hypothesis. The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 266, 701-706.

Laszlo, Ervin. (2004). Science and the akashic field: An integral theory of everything. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions.

Nowak, Martin A., & Natalia L. Komarova. (2001). Towards an evolutionary theory of language, in Trends in cognitive sciences, Volume 5 Number 7. pp 288-295.

Pinker, Steven. (2000). Survival of the clearest. Nature, Volume 404, 441-442.

Vertosick, Frank T., Jr. (2002). The genius within: Discovering the intelligence of every living thing. Orlando: Harcourt Books.

Wilber, Ken. (1986). The atman project: A transpersonal view of human development. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Wilber, Ken. (1981). Up from eden: A transpersonal view of human evolution. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Wilber, Ken, & Engler, Jack, & Brown, Daniel P. (1986). Transformations of consciousness: Conventional and contemplative perspectives on development. Boston: Shambhala.

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