An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
The Third Eye Fallacy
Confusing a Potential Method
for a Predetermined End Result
Simply put, opening the third eye is an adventure without an automatic conclusion.
“Authentic spirituality, in short, must be based on direct spiritual experience, and this must be rigorously subjected to the three strands of all valid knowledge: injunction, apprehension, and confirmation/rejectionor exemplar, data, and falsifiability…. It is only when religion emphasizes its heart and soul and essencenamely, direct mystical experience and transcendental consciousness, which is disclosed not by the Eye of Flesh (give that to science) nor by the Eye of Mind (give that to philosophy) but rather to the Eye of Contemplationthat religion can both stand up to modernity and offer something for which modernity has desperate need: a genuine, verifiable, repeatable injunction to bring forth the spiritual domain.”
THIS is what I have been emphasizing about Wilber's work in my essays, a reality Visser-Lane don't even deal with other than to dismiss these knowledge claims as being invalid and unnecessary. And, worse, Visser wants to emphasize that he thinks Wilber is weak on his understanding of biological evolution… whereas, in reality, Wilber is offering so much more… so much more!
First, these categories that Wilber's has employed (drawing from the earlier theological ideas of Roman Catholic thinkers such as St. Bonaventure) are not separate and distinct modalities. Anyone who does science uses the eye of the mind (or rationality) and the eye of flesh (or empiricism). The same can and often does hold true for philosophy as well (see the work of Patricia Churchland as just one instance). Moreover, we shouldn't reify these first two eyes as things in themselves, since they are simply a manner of speaking in which to focus our attention in a categorical fashion. But the most important point is that we are never absolutely certain about what either eye may find or discover, since it is open to constant flux, varying interpretations, and new vistas that get discovered when we augment our rational and empirical visions. Add a telescope and the universe expands; add a microscope and we penetrate into a vast micro world. The same holds true when we develop our rational modes of thinking, where Aristotle articulates rudimentary logic, where Euclid in his text, Elements, expands our understanding of geometry, where Newton in Principia Mathematica formulates a universal law of gravitation, where Planck provides a window into quanta with his work on black body radiation, where Turing gave us a new way of looking at computation, and the list goes on and on.
The eye of flesh or the eye of rationality is expansive, uncertain, and is continually correcting, augmenting, and opening up to new ways of knowing.
Given that this is what we already employ this in our own lives (utilizing as we do these two modes of knowing, conjoined at the hip as they are), then it should come as no surprise that opening our third eye will also be one of discovery, one of adventure, and one open to a variety of interpretations.
We shouldn't confuse the method of empiricism and rationality with a predetermined end result, since both inquiries are open-ended and allow for a multiplicity of findings and interpretations.
Thus, the contentious issue I have with Brad Reynolds' repeated admonition about invoking the spiritual eye is that he invariably intertwines it with an already preset judgment, since he consistently uses uninspected terms such as “Spirit,” “God”, “Divine Reality,” “Spirit-in-Action” and so on.
While Wilber's argument from a phenomenological perspective makes eminently good sense, the danger in his approach is that he tends to fall prey to premature reifications when he uses such words as “Buddha nature or Spirit” as if such terms have already been universally accepted by all and sundry . . . which they have not. Moreover, he tends to confuse experience with its causation-reality, forgetting in the process of how easy it is for anyone to be deceived or duped by how certain phenomena are produced.
Ironically, Wilber tends to invoke a naive realism when addressing a so-called shared reality. For example, he argues
“When we perceive an apple, and say “I see the apple,” and the brain lights up in a particular way, we do not conclude, “The apple only exists as a brainwave pattern; it otherwise has no reality.” No, we conclude that the apple is a real object in the real world, and as the brain perceives it, it lights up in various specific ways.”
While on the surface this seem evidential, the fact remains that what we could be mistaken about the perceived object and on closer inspection discover that it wasn't an apple but a pear or perhaps a 3-D paper object which only “appears” to be a real fruit. I am belaboring this point because there is no absolute given even in the sensory-empirical world, which could not potentially be mislabeled or misinterpreted. This may seem like a trivial point, but I think it looms much larger than we might at first suspect when we enter into the mystical domain which doesn't have the same overwhelming consensual feedback correctives (at least not yet).
Even here, the cognitive scientist, Donald Hoffman from the University of California, Irvine, would object to Wilber's key argument that “we conclude that the apple is a real object in the real world.” Rather, Hoffman would argue the exact opposite suggesting that the apple is “has no objective, observer-independent features.” Why so? Because “the image at the eye has countless possible interpretations.”
The point here is an obvious one: The empirical eye is not a pure and unadulterated glimpse of the physical world “as it is” but rather a constructed opening with innumerable possibilities which depends on a number of environmental factors (outside itself, both internally and externally).
The same, of course, holds true for the rationality. It is a not a virginal glimpse into the world of logic, reason, and networked thinking, but it too is a pathway with innumerable byways.
Both, needless to say, don't come with preset conclusions about what should or must be the case.
Likewise, the contemplative/meditative eye is an opening, but one which has (to quote a famous story in Arabian Nights) many doors and windowseach of which carry their own interpretative matrix.
Sam Harris, for instance, meditates and opens his third eye and remains agnostic and doesn't postulate God or Spirit-in-Action.
Swami Agehananda Bharati spoke of a zero-point experience which he claims happened to him three times in his life. He suggested it was a potential for anyone, but argued that the language we used to describe it was too often fanciful and hyperbolic. Bharati is known for his acerbic style and he argues that continual enlightenment is a literary fiction based on a misunderstanding of etic and emic modes of speech.
As one commentator elaborated,
“Bharati's most effective argument hinges on the distinction between emic and etic modes of speech. Though the nuances of these technical terms drawn from anthropology are not always clear in Bharati's work, basically emic refers to the encoded private language of in-groups; while etic refers to the language of the objective outside observer. Bharati contends that the emic speech of Indian sadhus is governed by complex, unspoken codes, codes that are rarely noticed, much less understood, by outsiders, no matter how clever or perceptive. One of the unwritten rules is that gurus must never acknowledge being in any state other than that of full realization.
"Master, how often do you enter that state of highest bliss and realization?"
"My child, I am in that state even now."
Bharati's claim is that because of the rules governing the speech of Indian mystics, the guru has no choice but to assert that he is always enjoying satchitananda, even when he knows perfectly well that he is not.
Further, according to Bharati's understanding, the very fact that the guru is exerting himself by speaking in public proves that he is not, in that moment, enjoying the state of enlightenment. If he were, there would be no motive to speak. Most importantly, from the emic perspective of insiders, there is no dishonesty in this claim to permanent enlightenment, despite the undeniable fact that it is objectively false.
Bharati asserts that a dispassionate look at the evidence will suggest, though not prove, that enlightened states are by their very nature temporary. The great mystics are those who frequently enter transcendent states and make the cultivation of the zero experience the dominant focus of their lives, but no one is permanently in the state of highest illumination. The very idea that one can experience enlightenment twenty-four hours a day is the product of a too literal etic understanding of the emic speech of professional mystics, who not incidentally benefit from this linguistic confusion.
The idea of an unmediated zero or non-dual experience is rejected by some as misleading. outlooks on the matter. As one scholar elaborates,
Two of the main opponents of this claim are Steven Katz and Wayne Proudfoot, who have argued from a constructivist perspective, maintaining firstly that the mystical experience is shaped only by various social and linguistic factors and secondly, that no experience can be unmediated. The constructivist perspective is at odds with essentialism, which regards the mystical experience to have intrinsic value. According to Katz, 'the ontological structure(s) of each major mystical tradition is different and this pre-experiential, inherited structure directly enters into the mystical occasion itself' and, therefore, the mystical occasion is wholly dependent on prior events. Regarding the reality of the unmediated experience, Proudfoot assertively states that there 'are no modes of experience and certainly no sources of knowledge that are unqualified by the cognitive activity of the mind, and that do not assume particular beliefs.' He extends the constructivist argument to religious belief, suggesting that such belief ought to be 'construed as hypotheses that are the result of inferential processes' and 'subject to much the same criteria as are any other beliefs and hypotheses.'
Others who open their “third” eye report differing experiences, such as we read in the life stories of Sri Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, Krishnamurti, and countless others.
Some point to a god, some point to no god. Some point to its ultimate meaning, some point to the brain's machinery.
The debate between John Lilly (famous for his dolphin research and deprivation tank invention) and Richard Feynman (famous Noble prize-winning physicist) wildly disagreed on how to interpret subtle, inner phenomena that arose during out-of-body experiences. Lilly argued for their distinct objectivity whereas Feynman dismissed them as hallucinations that had no real import. This led to a heated disagreement between them, but the lesson is an obvious one: there are no “givens” in any eye,
I quite understand that one can have a “non-dual” experience of oneness, which can be quite astonishing. Regardless of its magnificence, though, it still begs the question of what it ultimately means and how best to interpret it.
Simply put, opening the third eye is an adventure without an automatic conclusion.
Yes, I think there is a sound argument to be made that we should explore what meditation offers us, but we need not unnecessarily marry the same invitation with Adi Da (or any “ism”) infused theology. They are two complete distinct things and using “god-talk” and the like is merely one spin among many.
I, myself, meditate and have done so for decades and had tremendous experiences of unity and the like, but I see no compelling reason to then interlace that with some ultimate philosophy of how god is directing the multiverse.
As I often mentioned in previous articles, the original sin of humankind is that we tend to confuse our neurology with ontology. Or, in this context, using more “mystic” language, it can be phrased thusly: we shouldn't conflate our experiences of non-dualism with the overall operating system of the cosmos. That, I would suggest, is a projection gone too far, especially since others who are on the same inner quest have different purviews on what they have experienced.
Just as with our empirical and rational eye, there is no rush to judgement. We should be doubly cautious in our endeavors and not become easy prey to premature theologizing.
The mystic experience is indeed a wonderful one, but it doesn't need god-language or spirit-language to make it so. These are overlays that we place upon them, not intrinsic to the experience itself.
So, yes, Brad and I can agree on one important pathway. We just happen to fundamentally disagree about how best to interpret what happens when the tenth door opens.
There are also a few points that I think need addressing in Brad's essay, since I find them inaccurate. For ease of reading, I have numbered them.
I don't take your essays against Frank and me personally in some bad sense. To the contrary, I love when you provide your rejoinders since they provide me (and I am sure Frank as well) judicious opportunities to focus our own thinking and to double-check our own ideas.
Brad Reynolds claims “Visser and Lane persistently doubt or deny Nondual Spirit, or at least show no evidence they understand it in their essays, so the only logical conclusion I can draw is they do NOT see God.”
No, Brad, I don't deny that people can have experiences that they interpret (watch the wording here as it is instrumental) as non-dual or even God. But that's exactly where the rubber meets the road: all such mystical experiences are subject to interpretation and there is a wide range of possibilities. If you would simply say that extraordinary experiences can occur then we may see eye to eye, but when you invoke absolutist language (which, btw, is unnecessary to make a more persuasive argument) then you have succumbed to theologizing and that is merely your spin of what you think occurs. It is not necessarily the case, try as you might to make it so.
Brad writes, “To deny God-Spirit is a reoccurring fallacy perpetuated by scientific materialists (and Visser-Lane).”
No, we deny your theologizing since it is unnecessary when advocating for meditation/contemplation and utilizing the third eye. You have consistently confused a method (which I like very much) with a given absolute result or interpretation. The notion of God-Spirit is your theology, not a necessary insight of what happens when one “goes within.” Make a distinction between a process and what will be discovered, since as I have already mentioned there are innumerable variables of discernment.
Brad proclaims, “If someone wants to be a scientific materialist, fine, but that disqualifies them from being an authority on genuine Integral Theory that includes the Eye of Spirit from the start.”
Actually, the opposite is true. The best critic of Integral theory is the one that can show where and when certain parts of the mosaic are mistaken. This is precisely what Frank Visser has done in numerous articles where he systematically shows where, when, and how Wilber has been mistaken in his presentation of the known facts in molecular and evolutionary biology. Any Integral theorist worth his or her salt would welcome such criticisms. But Wilber's continually balks at such, instead opting for a Trump-like defense of how much he really knows about evolution (Ph.D. minus a thesis kind of rhetoric). Geez, it is really simple: get the science right in the first place then the patchwork of Integral will actually live up to its name and retain some much needed “integrity.”
And opening the third eye doesn't mean that it is a God opening or a Spirit opening. Those terms are overlays, interpretations, and others who have opened that same door may have completely different ways of speaking. Allow for that and perhaps we can then have a reasonable discussion of supposed transcendental realities. Otherwise, it is just more theological mumble jumble.
Brad alleges, “Nowhere, ever, do I see Visser or Lane understand this fundamental thesis of Wilber's work, ever: 'Spirit is nonetheless fully present at each and every stage as the evolutionary process itself'it cannot be said much better (or more clearly), in my opinion.”
Look at that phrase from Wilber closely. It is axiomatic to the extreme and the very opposite of an open inquiry of the contemplative eye, which I have already mentioned proffers multiple interpretations. Yet, Wilber doesn't say let the adventure begin and let us like the scientists of the rational-empirical eye venture forth and be open to correction. No, he says categorically that “spirit is present at each and every stage” without any caveats. Is this true? Can we have a different interpretation? Can he be wrong?
This isn't Integral in a good sense, but bad New Age sloganeering that does more harm to his agenda than good. This type of rhetoric is completely unnecessary if Integral theory really is a theory and not merely a preset theology. Make Integral theory open ended and avoid the god talk language that strangles the transparency of the inquiry.
Brad reveals in a nutshell why I find his thesis dogmatic when he exclaims, “God is not a verifiable proposition, but the ground of all propositions, and thus God cannot pass the scientific quiz.”
Ah, how do we know this is true? We don't, except that Brad's (and apparently Wilber's too) escape hatch is that we haven't opened our third eyes. But I beg to differ. I have employed meditation for nearly five decades, as have countless others in varying traditions. And guess what? Not everyone agrees. There are a multiplicity of interpretations and some of them don't need a God or a Supreme Deity to make sense of the cosmos. Yes, let's definitely meditate and explore our own consciousness, but there is no need to hamper the proceedings with overwrought and mythic creeds.
There is much to explore and understand before we succumb to god-talk.
My own guru in India once said to me and others, “critics are our best friends.” I think that is a helpful piece of advice. Therefore, I think Frank Visser has provided Ken Wilber with a wonderful opportunity to hone his arguments and make a more reasonable presentation. The fact that he has lashed out instead (see his perversely weird Wild West episodes) speaks volumes about Wilber's insecurities.
I like Ken Wilber. I enjoy his books. I have learned much. But each thinker is better served by his critics than by his sycophants.
This reminds of an International Conference my wife, Dr. Andrea Diem, and I attended back in 2014 at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, India. We were both plenary speakers, but my wife gave what I considered a much more insightful talk, given that she has a deep background in doing visual perception research with Professor V.S. Ramachandran, the famous neurologist who had done pioneering work on the phantom limb and other mysteries of the human mind. [Interesting sidenote here, which I have mentioned before, Ramachandran's mother was a devotee of Ramana Maharshi of South India.] Andrea's talk was on the cerebral mirage and how the brain is trickster in ways we have difficulty comprehending. She was very clear that if we can so easily be duped by the empirical and rational eye here on terra firma, we should be doubly on guard when exploring the mystical realm. Her talk was well received, especially for a community deeply devoted to spiritual practices. Here is a long, but pertinent excerpt from "The Cerebral Mirage" that dovetails with much of what I have written here.
All this serves as a necessary prelude to understand the inherent difficulties in developing a robust science of mysticism. All too often the mystic quest wants to bracket away the physics of awareness, neglecting how and why consciousness emerged as a virtual simulator to better map out future competitive strategies and thereby increase its survival rate,
More importantly, the inner journey isn't a pure and unadulterated glimpse into higher realities as such, since what we experience within is also bounded by a whole series of poorly understood pathways. If our brains evolved to neurally trick us so as to better help us make immediate judgments and future predictions in order to live an extra day, then we should be doubly cautious with what magnificent tricks it has in store for us when we penetrate into different realms of awareness.
Just as Columbus was mistaken in his map-making when attempting to find a new and perhaps faster route to the East (only to discover hitherto unknown lands), the spiritual aspirant should also be wary of prematurely confusing a preset cartography for the real territory. Interestingly, a number of mystics have also been aware of this danger and spiritual literature is replete with warning neophytes about not succumbing too early to seductive visions and experiences one achieves within meditation. Ironically, mature skepticism, a cornerstone of science, is also regarded as a virtue in certain interior pursuits since mystics, like their scientific counterparts, realized early on that much of what transpires within is also illusory.
Being skeptical shouldn't be confused with being cynical. The former is a process of actually gathering more, not less, information; whereas the latter is a way of restricting new and unexpected data by twisting its value before allowing it to settle in. The mystic, in this context, is indeed a skepticnever taking for granted that which arises to be the totality of what is, but rather, always looking behind the screen for the deeper explanation. This invokes a natural humility in such a seeker since he or she know a priori that whatever is discovered is never the ultimate as ultimate, since it is never ending quest that always increases one's sense of the infinite.
Crudely, we are like wayfarers who stand on the seashore who at first can only see fifty yards out to sea because of a dense fog. But as the sun begins to penetrate our vision of the horizon increases minute by minute. Likewise, the more we understand the limitations of our purviews, the more willing we become to transcend them with ever improving vistas. This why the mystic-scientist, Nicholas of Cusa, long ago argued that the way of knowledge is, paradoxically, through the way of ignorance. Science has made tremendous progress exactly because it is predicated upon being potentially wrong in its map making and thereby allows better-informed cartographies to replace what has come before. While tradition may be honored and respected (from Archimedes to Newton), science works best by upsetting and uprooting authorities of the past by looking for any possible errors or gaps in earlier
What all this portendsand the wise counsel it engendersis that each one of us is on open quest whether we be mystics or scientists and whatever discoveries we make on the way we must be cautious not to be dogmatic in our pronouncements, knowing too well how limited our understanding may be at any particular point in time and how easy nature can trick us in her multifarious fashions. Nicholas of Cusa, writing in Latin, called this proglomena “on learned ignorance” and famously quipped (paradoxically as it may at first sound) that the “unattainable was attained by its unattainment”. We are better educated, in other words, when we realize how little we know. Or, as Nicholas of Cusa himself penned, “For a man-even one very well versed in learning-will attain unto nothing more perfect than to be found to be most learned in the ignorance which is distinctively his. The more he knows that he is unknowing, the more learned he will be.” The warning shot for would-be mystics is that we under the spell of a cerebral mirage and to understand what consciousness is we must first come to grips with its beguiling and deceptive nature.
And to end on a positive note (last night's presidential debate reminds us once again that civility is needed more than ever), I want Brad Reynolds to know that I enjoy his contrarian views and that by providing us with his own critiques it allows me (and Frank) to be clearer in what we understand . . . even if may still have disagreements.
Thanks again, Brad, for continuing the conversation. It is an interesting and fun discussion. And I thought it might be judicious to leave you with an excerpt from a book we recently published entitled Bliss Land. It is a famous passage and an exhilarating one, even if I and others may hit the pause button on its ultimate conclusion:
He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.
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