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

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David Christopher LaneDavid 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 Eye of Ra

Ken Wilber's Eye

Exploring the Dangers
of Theological Reifications

David Lane

Note: For ease of reading, quotes from Wilber are marked by a dotted line on the left and set in bold type, just like this sentence.
There is a sort of ontological hubris in Wilber’s writing that lacks the open ended sense of wonder that an adventurer in this field should have.

I still vividly recall the night I first read Ken Wilber’s article, “Eye to eye: The relationship between science, reason, and religion and its effect on transpersonal psychology,” in the then new journal, ReVision, (Winter/Spring, Vol. 2, No. 1.). It was 1980 and I was teaching full-time at Moreau Catholic High School and working on my M.A. in the History and Phenomenology of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. For a number of months I had been undergoing a severe intellectual dilemma that was precipitated by my obsessive readings of all things scientific. Although I was deeply immersed in Indian philosophy (particularly the practice of shabd yoga and philosophically the purview of Advaita Vedanta), I felt a deep unease about how such an internal pursuit could hold up under rational scrutiny, particularly given the tremendous progress physics and neuropsychology had made over the past century.

At the time I was deeply into meditation and also deeply into skeptically analyzing my religious-spiritual outlook. I was having, more or less, an epistemological crisis. Reading Wilber’s essay was (and the pun is intended) an eye opener, since he very clearly explained three different levels of acquiring knowledge: sensory-empirical; mental-rational; spiritual-transcendental. Brad Reynolds gives a nice summary of Wilber’s tripartite schema:

Eye to Eye introduces the notion of epistemological pluralism with the (Christian mystic) metaphor of the "three eyes of knowing," i.e., sensory/flesh (sensibilia), mind/reason (intelligibilia), spirit/contemplation (transcendelia). This multi-leveled understanding then brings to light a "category error," or when one "eye" (or realm) tries to usurp the roles of the other two, or is outright mistaken for another. Therefore the "problem of proof" can be solved since each domain provides their own particular validity claims for differentiating the principle spheres of human knowledge (respectively, science, psychology/philosophy, mysticism). The presentation thus contains an extended examination of the philosophical history of science and its reductionistic tendencies (known as scientism), yet it does so by offering a rational synthesis (or a vision-logic of mandalic reasoning) which can not only include science but also authentic spirituality and contemplative practices. Eye to Eye also contains the all-important essay "The Pre/Trans Fallacy," whose conception (a few years back) overturned the common Romantic error adopted by Wilber's earlier writings. Thispre/trans fallacy clarifies a major (and disastrous) confusion in the modern world, which simply states that if we are to truly understand and accept the "form of development" (identify, transcend, integrate) at each stage of evolution in a pluridimensional universe, then we must always properly differentiate between pre- and trans- personal domains of consciousness. The book therefore offers not only a strong critique of scientific materialism, but it also brilliantly shines an illuminating light to help guide the "New Age" out of its dark cave of mythic thinking and its regressive (pre-rational) approaches to spirituality.”

I read Wilber’s article very closely several times late into the night and into the next morning. It was about 3 or so in the morning when I experienced an intellectual moment of satori, a flash of clarity about the pursuit of knowledge and its many pathways. I immediately became a Wilber convert, since he had by his clarity of thought provided me with an intellectually satisfying way to justify both my scientific and mystical pursuits. They were not, as I originally feared, mutually exclusive.

Integral Semiotics

I say this is as a prefatory to note to Ken Wilber’s latest essay Integral Semiotics (which is reportedly an excerpt from volume 2 of the “Kosmos Trilogy"), since it is in many ways a sophisticated, if still debatable, extension of Wilber’s "Eye to Eye" article which was originally penned nearly 35 years ago.

Given my earlier admiration of Wilber’s essay on methodological pluralism, I find there is much that I like in his new refinement, even though one has to be cautious not to fall prey to some of his unnecessary reifications. Wilber provides a clear overview of his thesis in paragraph three where he writes,

"But my point is that they all, in fact, exist in a specific worldspace that can itself be discovered and experienced—such as the causal or formless state of consciousness, particular stages of meditation, specific peak experiences or altered states. When one is in those worldspaces—and not simply staring at the sensorimotor worldspace—then the actual referents (the "real phenomena" of each referent)—can be clearly seen or experienced. And this changes the nature and meaning of semiotics altogether, by asserting that any given referent of a particular signifier exists in a specific worldspace, and in order to experience that referent appropriately (if it exists at all), the subject must get itself into that particular worldspace, and only then look around for the referent."

Wilber’s point, though obvious, is important in understanding that there are multiple states of awareness and to properly understand what is transpiring in any one of those states necessitates actually being within that particular stream of consciousness--what Wilber repeatedly calls “worldspace.” Otherwise, one cannot fully appreciate the inherent nuances that attend within that conscious space. I can draw on an obvious example from my own medical history to back up Wilber’s assertion here. For a number of years I completely lost my sense of smell and taste and thus an entire “worldspace” (what one may call an olfactory universe) was shut off from me, try as I might to imagine it once again. However, shortly after surgery (or a heavy dose of prednisone) my sense of smell comes back and I enter into the most wonderful galaxy of scents--from sea weed, to coffee, to Chiptole salsa! It is literally unimaginable (in terms of lived through experience) to conjure up such a sensual region unless one is immersed within that region.

Importantly, and this goes to the very heart of why methodological pluralism is vital to Integral theory, Wilber wants to argue that reality is far more than mere sensorimotor referents:

“But in addition to the sensorimotor worldspace, there are the emotional, the magical, the mythical, the rational, the planetary, the holistic, the integral, the global, the transglobal, the visionary, the transcendental, and the transcendental-immanent worldspaces, to name a prominent handful. And all of those worldspaces have their own phenomenologically real objects or referents. A dog exists in the sensorimotor worldspace, and can be seen by any holon with physical eyes. The square root of a negative one exists in the rational worldspace, and can be seen by anyone who develops to the dimension of formal operations. And Buddha-nature exists in the causal worldspace, and can be easily seen by anybody who develops to that very real dimension of their own state possibilities. But neither the square root of a negative one nor Buddha-nature can be seen in the sensorimotor world—and all the philosophies that take the material realm or the sensorimotor realm as the prime reality (or that take consciousness-free ontology as the basic given), will not be able to locate either of those, and will hence conclude they both lack a fundamental reality (unless they go out of their way to make an exception, as, for example, positivism does when it says that all that is real are things and numbers—but too bad for Buddha-nature or Spirit: just can’t be found in the realm of dirt or numbers and thus is unceremoniously erased from the face of the Kosmos.) In other words, the real referent of a valid utterance exists in a specific worldspace. The empiricist theories have failed in general because they ultimately recognize only the sensorimotor worldspace (and thus cannot even account for the existence of their own theories, which do not exist in the sensorimotor worldspace but in the rational worldspace).”

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).

This become readily apparent when right after his “apple example” Wilber writes,

“But what happens when we say the same type of sentence but a different referent, such as, when engaged in contemplation, “I see God,” and the brain again lights up in a specific way. Do we give to God the same reality we gave to the apple, and conclude that God is a real phenomenon in the real world, and the brain is lighting up as it sees this real item? No, in fact we don’t. In fact, we do just the opposite. We take whatever brainwave pattern we can find at the time—perhaps an increase in gamma waves—and we say, “When the brain produces excess gamma waves, then the subject will imagine that he or she is seeing God.” In other words, where with the apple the brainwaves are taken as extra proof that apples are real, with God, the brainwaves are taken as extra proof that God is just an imaginary object; it’s not real in the real world, but simply an imaginary product of certain brainwave patterns. What’s going on here?”

As I pointed out previously, we could potentially be wrong about an apple (and indeed this happens more than we realize), but the reason we might be doubly suspicious about a contemplator claiming “I see God” (versus him or her saying “I see an apple”) is that it doesn’t generally take a specialized skill for us to recognize an apple or something similar to it. In addition, the commonality of the experience is anything but extraordinary, which is not the case with someone claiming to see God (whatever such a nebulous term might mean and in what context). In addition, the subjective nature of meditation circumscribes how easy it is to share with others the content of what he or she encountered. For Wilber’s example to be equatable with seeing an apple necessitates a socially mediated worldview, not a purely subjective one, regardless of how real it may or may not be.

Now this doesn’t mean that the contemplator’s worldspace is something that isn’t valuable or important; it simply means that the experience of an apple which others can see and share in the same time-space referent shouldn’t be conflated with what a contemplator sees or hears or experiences in the privacy of his own being.

For instance, you cannot appreciate dreaming unless you too have dreamt. That seems obvious. But that doesn’t mean that the dreamer is somehow privileged because of that ability to know the causation or ontological status of that dream. Thus, while I applaud Wilber’s insistence that we should explore varying regions of consciousness (via mediation or otherwise), I think it is misleading to then pontificate about the “reality” or “truth-value” of such experiences by trying to equate seeing an apple in the sensorimotor arena with seeing God in contemplation and then lambasting those who argue that there may be a difference between them.

The fundamental problem, I would suggest, is not in the fact that there are many worldspaces (there are), but over how we interpret such experiences.

The fundamental problem, I would suggest, is not in the fact that there are many worldspaces (there are), but over how we interpret such experiences. The very reason we have confidence in the relative reality of an apple versus one person’s claim of seeing God is that the former can be socially mediated whereas the latter lacks such social verification. It is premature to say the least that such experiences can be properly adjudicated even if we have an idealized Wilber sangat of enlightened beings. David Blaine, the noted street magician, can easily trick onlookers with the most rudimentary of magic and all this even while we are well trained in our five senses. One can only imagine how easy it would be to trick someone into inflating their own meditative experiences into something far grander than it actually is. Furthermore, the term apple is much more specific than the word God which is far too abstract and too generalized a term to be useful in a discussion designed for specificity.

Later on in his essay, Wilber elaborates on the importance of knowing the correct “Kosmic Address” to enter into these worldspaces.

“This is also directly related to what is referred to as the “Kosmic Address” of a phenomenon. In order to locate a referent (e.g., a dog, the square root of a negative one, or Buddha-nature), one has to know the worldspace in which the referent exists. Simply giving a signifier or name to the object or event tells us nothing about whether that object or event is real (what about “unicorns,” or the “tooth fairy,” or “Santa Claus”? Turns out those are real, but only in the mythic worldspace. They cannot be found in the sensorimotor world, the rational world, the holistic world, etc., and are thus usually dismissed as fantasy, overlooking the genuine phenomenological reality those items have for those in the mythic worldspace, where those items are as real as any other object or event that can enter awareness at that level)."

I appreciate Wilber’s nice turn of phrase here about Kosmic addresses and how we need to access certain phenomena by correctly entering those domains. Phenomenologically speaking, yes we do live in a multiverse of differing states of awareness. But I think we should be cautious about how we use the word “real” when describing what these experiences ultimately mean and entail.

For instance, I remember as a young kid walking on the beach in Santa Monica and my friends and I would see gold glittering on the wet sand. For part of the day we really thought we were going to be rich since we had discovered a precious metal! Of course, our parents quickly dampened our millionaire dreams when they explained that it was only “fool’s” gold since it was simply how the light reflected off the water and sand to give it that unique sparkle.

Okay, so as a kid I had an experience of “gold” but it wasn’t really gold at all. What changed? My interpretation of the phenomenon. The thing “itself” remained the same, even though my experience was irrevocably altered.

When it comes to subtler realms of consciousness, the difficulty in determining the relative reality (or permanence? or consensually share inputs?) of what arises is much more fraught with potential missteps, given the paucity of an overwhelming agreement on such matters.

I can draw upon my own spiritual tradition to underline this epistemological conundrum. In shabd yoga circles (particularly within Radhasoami branches), it is almost axiomatic that when an initiate goes within during meditation he or she will see the radiant form of their guru who will guide them by light and sound to higher and higher regions of awareness and bliss.

Within Radhasoami Satsang Beas, to give an example from the largest sect of the tradition, meditators almost universally believe that the radiant form is a vision created by their Master’s grace from the audible life stream. However, Faqir Chand, a longtime practitioner of shabd yoga and later an acknowledged adept, came to an entirely different realization. Due to a series of now famous events, Faqir realized that inner visions of his guru and other fantastic apparitions were projections of his own mind. I still remember when I gave a copy of Faqir’s life story and teachings (see The Unknowing Sage: The Life and Work of Baba Faqir Chand) to my satsangi friend who was also my local mail woman. I caught up with her a few days later and see looked slightly distraught. I inquired about why and she said, “I started crying after I read about Faqir Chand’s revelations. It made me doubt all that I believed before concerning meditation and the Master’s radiant form.”

So let’s agree with Wilber that in order to access the inner sound current and explore subtler and subtler realms of consciousness one has to engage in some sort of meditation technique (or something similar to it). But what does that then mean in terms of “reality” or truth value? Isn’t the real issue not one of worldspaces (that is an obvious given) and not even Kosmic addresses (don’t we already know this from from drugs and dreaming?), but of competing interpretations of what such inner and outer states mean?

Wilber does write about this, but I think he assumes far too much in his mandalic way of mapping things out as if the mystical cartography has already been settled upon by earlier pioneers.

There is a sort of ontological hubris in Wilber’s writing that lacks the open ended sense of wonder that an adventurer in this field should have, particularly when even in this state of awareness we know so little, what to speak of realms yet to be explored.

This why I hesitate when he says “And Buddha-nature exists in the causal worldspace, and can be easily seen by anybody who develops to that very real dimension of their own state possibilities.”

It would be one thing to say that in certain elevated states one can experience something that MAY be interpreted by contemplators to be akin to what some Buddhists have called Buddha-nature, but it is quite another to reify (as Wilber is prone to do) what a certain state provides. Perhaps if a Faqir Chand entered into that same realm he may doubt that interpretative nexus and argue for something quite different. Simply put, if we can be easily deceived within this world by sleight of hand, neural trickery, and more, then we should be much more wary when it comes to meditative states where deceptive illusions abound as well.

I wish Wilber would stay within the bounds of reasonableness where he makes strong and believable arguments for exploring differing realms of consciousness. Where he loses me and where he sinks into spiritual platitudes is when he then moves beyond open exploration (with the operative word being “open”) and writes theological puffery such as,

“As you approach the causal, your Awareness will begin to profoundly unwind and uncoil in the vast expanse of All Space, and you will be opened to states of increasing Radiance, Freedom, Love, Consciousness, and Bliss or Happiness. Your separate-self sense will begin to dissolve in a pure feeling of I AMness, and your own highest Self will increasingly come to the fore, marked by being grounded in the timeless Now or pure Presence in the Present. As you break through into causal consciousness without an object, or Pure Subjectivity, you will recognize your True Condition as spaceless and infinite, timeless and eternal, Free and Transparent, Unborn and Undying. You will meet your own Original Face, or Divine Spirit itself, naked and spontaneous, all-pervading and all-embracing, a state from which you have never really deviated and could not possibly deviate, but one that has been there all along, in every moment, as the simple Feeling of Being. You will have a profound sense of “coming home,” met often with torrents of grateful tears and gales of endless laughter. You have, after all these painful years, arrived at your Native Condition, which does not recognize the name of suffering, is a stranger to the pain of existence, is alien to weeping, cannot pronounce agony. And then when somebody asks you, “Does God exist?,” you will be able to answer them based on direct personal experience. “Yes, and I have seen It myself.”

The problem with such statements as “I have seen It [God] myself” is that it lacks skepsis and tends by its very language to cut off further discussion or inquiry. Wilber’s continued use of such flowery descriptors as “Divine Spirit itself,” “naked and spontaneous, all pervading and all embracing”, “Buddha nature”, etc., suggests that his real goal is to bring us into his theological ballroom, but in order to accomplish this he misleadingly dresses us up with plausible personal and scientific possibilities.

In this regard, I wish I could see eye to eye with Wilber since I agree with him on a number of issues, but when he succumbs to prematurely theologizing the inner quest with unnecessary reifications, I end up cross eyed.

Perhaps if Wilber spent more time with critics of his work like Visser, Falk, Meyerhoff, [Lane] and others, than with questionable sycophants such as the now disgraced Andrew Cohen, he could better understand why erstwhile admirers of his work are not rushing into his peculiar worldspace.

I say all of this because Wilber has given us many valuable insights, but they seem hamstrung by his apparent conceit to prefigure and finalize that which is still open for vigorous debate and refutation. As Scott London tellingly explained in his review of Ken Wilber’s book, One Taste:

“Someone once observed that there are at bottom two kinds of writers, those who write what they know and those who write in order to know. Wilber clearly belongs to the former camp. His instincts are always explanatory rather than exploratory. His goal is always to reveal rather than discover.”

One yearns for more of Wilber as the explorer and less of Wilber as the pontificator. Perhaps the recent downfall of Andrew Cohen will be the necessary lesson to shock Wilber into realizing this.

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