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

powered by TinyLetter
Today is:
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".

Jeff MeyerhoffBald AmbitionJeff Meyerhoff, M.A., L.S.W. is the author of "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" and other essays on integral theory. He majored in economics and sociology and has studied philosophy, psychology, politics and spirituality. He's been employed as a social worker for the last 18 years. His weekly radio show, "The Ruminator," is archived at His blog is and his email is an overview of the 20 (or 12, depending on how you count them) Tenets, see also: "The Twenty Tenets" in the Core Concepts Section.




Bald Ambition, Chapter 1,
Section B: The 20 Tenets

Jeff Meyerhoff

There are many anomalies and contradictions which show that the 20 tenets do not describe the 'laws'... as Wilber contends.

Wilber states that all individual and social holons follow the 20 tenets. These are the “'laws' or 'patterns' or 'tendencies' or 'habits'” that “all known holons seem to have in common.”[1] The first tenet states that “Reality as a whole is not composed of things or processes, but of holons. Composed, that is, of wholes that are simultaneously parts of other wholes, with no upward or downward limit.”[2]

Contrary to this tenet, though, there are entities that are not simultaneously parts and wholes at all. Smith writes that

atoms and cells are capable of an independent (autonomous) existence outside of higher forms of life. While some atoms exist as components of molecules, they may also be found as free forms of matter not bonded to each other. Likewise, cells can exist as unicellular organisms as well as components of organisms.[3]

One might reply that even these autonomous entities have to exist somewhere and so are parts of some larger whole. But this type of reasoning will not work because the whole that they are a part of is actually a heap. Smith observes that at the physical and biological levels of existence there are types of holons which he describes as inert.

there are inert atoms (such as helium), which form no chemical bonds with other atoms and which therefore can't become integrated into molecules . . . There are prokaryotes, which like inert atoms do not bond or associate with one another, and therefore do not form multicellular organisms. . . . Finally . . . there are invertebrates, mostly asocial organisms that live most or all of their lives in isolation from others of their species”[4]

Smith argues convincingly that the collections of these inert holons correspond to the definition of heaps rather than social holons and so are not a part of a larger whole that fits the definition of a holon. This directly contradicts tenet 1. Smith also notes that “evolutionary development of the hierarchy is a profoundly selective process; while an immense variety of holons are produced at each level of existence, only a very small proportion of them continue to develop into higher levels of existence.”[5] This fact shows the selectivity of Wilber's mapping of the Kosmos, which emphasizes “only a very small proportion” of it. That small proportion being the one that leads to humanity.

A different critique of the first tenet, and Wilber's use of the holon concept in general, has been made by other Wilber commentators.[6] The criticism is that by defining what the essential quality of all things in the Kosmos is, Wilber has contradictorily objectified the Kosmos in an effort to integrate it. Since Wilber's integral holarchic conception must include everything, a tenet which pronounces a way in which reality is beyond every other conception of reality, reduces the Kosmos to this one way of viewing, when the whole point of his integral theory was to avoid reductionism and include all other established views. Sympathetic critics such as Mark Edwards, Gerry Goddard and Brian Eddy feel the holon conception is valid if defined differently than Wilber defines it. In general, they argue that seeing the Kosmos in terms of holons should be understood as a way of seeing the Kosmos; as an interpretive device which creates a large-scale integration and sense of the Kosmos.[7]

Tenet 2 states that “Holons display four fundamental capacities: self-preservation, self-adaptation, self-transcendence and self-dissolution [later renamed and redefined as self-immanence].”[8] Self-preservation describes a holon's ability to maintain its identity over time. Wilber contrasts this with a holons self-adaptation which describes its ability to react to and be a part of its environment. Wilber says that these forces “are in constant tension . . . the more intensely a holon preserves its own individuality, preserves its wholeness, the less it serves its communions or its partness in larger or wider wholes (and vice versa: the more it is a part, the less it is its own whole)”[9] So the two forces are opposed. Yet there are examples where the two forces are not opposed, but where more self-preservation produces more self-adaptation. A democracy is a social holon that thrives when individuals and the groups that constitute it participate more or are more a part of the democratic process. In participating more they are also asserting themselves more. When they assert themselves more they become more a part of the democratic whole, when they don't assert themselves they are less a part and the democratic holon is weakened.

Likewise, successful plants are the ones that adapt to their environments best. The plants that are more a part of their environment, and draw needed nutrients from it, maintain best their identities over time. Here, the greater the adaptation the greater the self-preservation.

Wilber mentions as an example of the “constant tension” “the battle between self-preservation and species-preservation”[10] But it is commonly understood in evolutionary biology that species preserve themselves because the individual members do all they can to preserve themselves. In that way, the members with the greatest survivability survive, ensuring a greater chance of species-preservation.

A larger issue regarding this tenet hinges on the relationship between the qualities this tenet describes - agency and communion - and the definition of individual and social holons. It has been extensively discussed by Goddard, Smith and Edwards and there are fundamental, unresolved questions about it. One question raised in this debate is how to define agency and communion as aspects of the holon different from the individual and social aspects. If agency is the holons ability to persist through time, isn't that synonymous with its individuality? And doesn't the communing or adaptive part of a holon describe its sociality? How are these to be distinguished? None of the commentators mentioned here now believe a single four quadrant model can map all the aspects of holons. The other two forces are those of self-transcendence and self-immanence. A holon transcends when it becomes a new whole with new emergent properties. In becoming a new whole, the holon transcends upward. Corresponding to this is the new holons immanent, downward embrace of all the nested holons that compose it.

Andrew Smith makes a compelling argument for the redundancy of these latter two categories. He observes that self-adaptation or communion - making greater connections with other holons and the environment - is the process of transcendence, since this is how new emergent properties occur. Likewise, immanence, or the downward embrace of all the holons within the senior holon, is another way of describing the identity of the holon; so greater self-immanence just is greater self-preservation or maintenance of the holons identity.[11]

This tenet also raises the issue of defining transcendence and dissolution. In describing the process of holarchical unfoldment Wilber writes that,

normal or natural holarchy…[is]…the sequential or stagelike unfolding of larger networks of increasing wholeness, with the larger or wider wholes being able to exert influence over the lower-order wholes. And as natural, desirable, and unavoidable as that is, you can already start to see how holarchies can go pathological.[12]

Here, value-laden terms like “normal,” “natural,” “desirable” and “unavoidable” are used in a way which implies value-neutral processes. Distinguishing “natural” processes from “pathological” ones requires some value-laden worldview and is not a neutral, scientific description of natural processes.

Wilber gives the example of groups which claim transcendence, but appear, from the outside to have too much communion.[13] One can think of so-called cults like David Koresh's Branch Davidian Christian sect from Waco, Texas or the suicidal Heaven's Gate group in California. While the participants would say their group is transcendent, outsiders would say the opposite. Who is right? It depends on the viewer's values. “Cults” are notoriously hard to define. One persons cult is another's New Religious Movement, as they are referred to in academia. At various times, Zen groups, Quakers and the early Christians were referred to as cults. When dealing with humans, values are always inserting themselves when we would like to have value-neutral descriptions.

Tenet 3 states that we get novel emergence through self-transcendence. This means that the interactions of similar kinds of entities cause new properties not found in those entities to emerge. This emergence is self-transcendent or self-organized in that it occurs predominantly because of the entities within the system rather than from a cause outside the system. For example, the interaction of atoms produces molecules, which have properties not found in atoms. An important result of this process for Wilber is that it runs counter to determinism and reductionism. The emergence of new properties means unpredictability and that means processes which are not deterministic. So a higher level process or entity cannot be reduced to a lower level process because the reduction will always leave out the emergent property not contained in the lower level process.

It is certainly true that there are new properties which emerge from the interactions of similar, lower-level entities, but it's not clear what the word emergence describes. It may just be a place holder for a process we don't yet know how to explain. When we do explain the details of the process of emergence then we will be able to trace the causal determinants of that process.

Although Wilber states that “Social holons emerge when individual holons commune”[14] this is a misstatement because he doesn't want to argue that it is the communing of individual holons that produces the novel emergence that occurs through society. Why? Because then he would have to claim that social holons transcend and include the individual holons that compose them, and he doesn't want to claim this because he fears that this gives the social holon too much power over the individual holons that are its members. Wilber instead contends that social holons display emergence relative to earlier incarnations of the same social holon. Fred Kofman uses the example of a herd of elephants. The herd is not the senior holon to its individual elephant members; it is senior holon to the now extinct woolly mammoth herd and all prior evolutionary incarnations. This seems odd. Of course the elephant has new characteristics relative to the woolly mammoth, but does this constitute “emergence?” And while an elephant is certainly different from a woolly mammoth, is the elephant herd a novel emergence over the woolly mammoth herd? Perhaps elephant herds have lost emergent properties that woolly mammoths had. How could we know?

On the cosmological level we find another inconsistency. According to Wilber's evolutionary chronology, stars, which are made up of atoms, are temporally prior to planets which are made up of molecules; therefore, on Wilber's scale of social development, planets are a transcendence and inclusion of stars. Yet it's obvious that the important emergent properties of stars are not included within planets; the assertion of a developmental transition here doesn't make sense.[15]

Another problem arises for Wilber when he asserts that “social holons emerge when individual holons commune.” If this were true then a society, being an emergent property of communing individual holons, would be higher on the developmental hierarchy than the individual holons that compose it. Wilber's model is constructed around the premise that a holon has individual and social aspects which are at the same developmental level. The idea of society being a novel emergence over its individual members is the basis of Andrew Smith's critique of Wilber's holarchy and four quadrant model.

Tenet 4 states that holons emerge holarchically, which means that each new emerging whole embraces the parts that came together to create it. This is true for some holons and not for others. It is true for molecules that do embrace the atoms that come together to create them and for cognitive developmental stages that incorporate prior stages. It is not true for other holons, such as types of human social development, where prior social structures such as the stronger kinship and social relations in some tribal life are lost.

As in tenet 2, a problem arises here when Wilber says, “The point, of course, is to tease apart pathological hierarchies - where one holon usurps its position in the totality - from normal holarchies in general, which express the natural interrelations between holons”[16] The problem with the use of medical sounding terminology like “pathological” and “normal,” and biological terminology like “natural,” is that it hides the value judgments inherent in determinations of what is natural, normal and pathological. Wilber describes pathology as where “one holon usurps its position in the totality.” But is one's use of power a usurpation or a beneficial self-assertion? It depends on your values and interests. When a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs was that a pathological usurpation and a setback for evolution or a normal holarchic event? Defining good and bad holarchies is a moral decision. Words like pathological, normal and natural mask this fact.

Tenet 5 states that “Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessor(s).” “Each newly emergent holon . . . preserves the previous holons themselves but negates their separateness or isolatedness or aloneness. It preserves their being but negates their partiality or exclusiveness.”[17] Yet Smith notes that

in a cell, all of the lower holons can exist as both free (i.e., not components of the next higher stage) as well as bonded forms (in which they are components of the next higher stage). . . . some atoms exist free in cells (e.g., sodium and calcium ions), while others exist as components of small molecules. Some small molecules, in turn, exist free (individual amino acids), and some as components of polymers.[18]

On a higher level, “An organism . . . contains cells that are not parts of cell units (gametes; red and white blood cells); cell units that are not parts of tissues, tissues that are not parts of organs, and so on.”[19]

There are also counterexamples in the human world. Wilber uses the example of Hawaii. It was an independent nation but was subsumed within the United States, becoming a part of a larger emergent whole. Its being was preserved, but its separateness was negated. Poka Laenui, President of the Pacific Asian Council of Indigenous People, has a different view of what she calls, in her article, the “Colonization in Hawaii.” She quotes U.S. President Grover Cleveland on the topic:

By an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without authority of Congress, the government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has thus been done, which a due regard for our national character, as well as the rights of the injured people, requires we should endeavor to repair.[20]

But it wasn't repaired. The natives were forced to assimilate and were later annexed.

Another example comes from Wilber's own developmental social sequence. He draws a line in which human social development evolves from tribes to tribal/villages to early state/empires. Each step is a new emergent holarchic arrangement. But has the being of tribes and villages been preserved in the later social arrangements? What we have seen is the destruction of tribal and village life and the irretrievable loss of those cultures.[21] It's mistaken to think that “the basic structures and functions were preserved and taken up in a larger identity.”[22]

Tenet 6 - The lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower.[23] For example, the laws of physics describe what is possible in the lower, physical world. The higher order holons range of possibilities is set by the laws acting on them through the lower order holons that compose them. In contrast, the probable occurrence of any of these possibilities is determined by the higher aspects of the holon. The senior holon has a directing function which occurs within the range of possibilities given by the lower aspects. This sounds true, but the words possible and probable are elastic enough to be reversed. Isn't it true that the genes within an organism determine the probability of that organism getting cancer or not? Isn't that an instance of the lower - the genes - establishing probabilities for the higher - the organism? And don't humans create new possibilities for lower holons by combining them in new ways, as in genetic engineering? Does it seem more appropriate to call these novel creations probabilities or new possibilities?

Tenet 7 - The greater the number of levels of a holon the greater its depth. The greater the depth of a holon, the less the span or number of that type of holon in existence. For example, atoms have less depth then molecules. Because atoms compose molecules there will always be more atoms than molecules.

Tenet 8 - Each successive level of evolution produces GREATER depth and LESS span.[24] As a correlate to tenet 7, each new emergent feature is said to produce more depth. The greater the depth the less the amount of holons at that level of depth. So a molecule will have greater depth than the atoms that compose it, but the atoms have greater span.

These two tenets do seem to be true; although they are true by definition. A higher holon is created by the aggregation of lower holons, so there will always be less of the higher holons than the lower holons that constitute them.

Tenet 9 - Destroy any type of holon, and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons below it.[25] This is a very important tenet for Wilber because he sees it as a foolproof way of determining which holons are higher and which lower in the developmental hierarchy. This allows him to rank all holons according to their level of developmental advance in a neutral way that applies equally to all holons. Tenet 9 is a thought experiment that determines which holons are higher and which lower in the developmental hierarchy. A typical developmental sequence is atoms to molecules to cells to organisms. Imagine that all holons of any one type in the sequence were destroyed. What you will find is that all holons higher in the hierarchy are also destroyed, while all holons lower than the destroyed holons survive. So if we destroy all cells, all organisms and every holon higher is also destroyed, but all molecules and atoms and everything lower still exists. By doing this for every type of holon we have a neutral, value-free way of ranking every holon in a hierarchy. Wilber states that “this rule works for any developmental sequence, for any holarchy....there are no exceptions.”[26]

Andrew Smith has used some subtle argumentation to demonstrate that this rule undermines Wilber's entire attempt to rank holons when applied consistently. Wilber uses the destruction rule to not only rank holons as higher and lower, but to show that holons are on the same level of development. If two holons are on different developmental levels they are called asymmetric; if they are on the same developmental level they are called symmetric. Specifically, he asserts that individual and social holons have separate lines of development and should not be ranked on the same developmental scale. The destruction test bears this out. Apply the destruction test to both individual cells and the population of all cells and you find that “you cannot have cells without a society (population) of other cells, and you cannot have a population of cells with no cells at all - nothing exists alone without an environment of the similar.”[27] Smith agrees, but notes that this is only true for “unorganized and undifferentiated” populations.[28] If we apply the destruction rule to complexly organized human societies we find that society, contrary to Wilber's claims, is developmentally more advanced than the individuals that compose it. If human beings were all eliminated, human society would cease to exist. Conversely, though, if society is eliminated, human beings could still exist. We could each be a Robinson Crusoe. Therefore, society is developmentally higher than individuals. But Wilber's entire four quadrant model assumes that the individual and the social are two sides of the same developmental coin, one no more advanced than the other for each given level. He argues strenuously against those who conflate the two.

Smith does provide a possible reply for Wilber. Wilber divides human societies according to their developmental levels. For example, the modern human has a certain type of brain structure which is reflective of their use of reason and membership in a nation-state. The modern humans' development is superior to the medieval humans' mythic consciousness, the early state and empires they lived under and their brain structure. Wilber could argue that if we destroy the modern society then we destroy the modern individual (and vice versa) because a modern individual is defined as an individual that lives in a modern society. Wilber does assert that the destruction of a societal type causes a regression in its members to the less advanced developmental level. So the destruction of the individual means the destruction of the social and vice versa. Therefore they are on the same level of development. It appears Wilber is saved. But here is where Smith undermines Wilber's entire developmental model through consistent application of the destruction rule.

If we are going to distinguish between types of human beings based on their developmental achievement - rational, mythic, magic, etc. - then we should be consistent and apply the same logic to all holons. Smith notes that cells are not all alike. The cells that are found in organisms are quite distinct from the cells that exist outside of organisms. Applying the destruction test now gives you a different result. Destroy all organisms and all cells of the kind found in organisms will all be destroyed and vice versa because these kinds of cells can only exist within organisms. According to the destruction test this means that cells within organisms and the organisms which transcend and include them are on the same developmental level; this contradicts Wilber's developmental sequence. The same reasoning can also be used for atoms and molecules. This is one reason that Smith concludes that “the principle of asymmetry that Wilber uses to determine ranking in the hierarchy is rendered useless.”[29]

Other applications of the destruction test contradict Wilber's contentions. According to his four quadrant model the social organization of families is on the same developmental level as that of the individual developmental achievement of a limbic system; they are two sides of the same holonic coin. Yet when we perform the destruction test and “break up families . . . organisms do not suddenly lose their limbic systems”[30] indicating that families are a higher developmental level than the limbic system.

Tenet 10 - Holarchies coevolve. By this Wilber means that individual and social holons inseparably develop together. In Erich Jantsch formulation, microevolution and macroevolution are inseparable. Individual holons require their environment in which to develop while the environment requires the ongoing development of the individual holons to continue its development.

Regarding the evidence for this tenet, Smith notes a “very problematic aspect of the Jantsch/Wilber framework is that in attempting to demonstrate a coevolution of macro and micro, it glosses over much data that don't easily fit.”[31] The first atoms arose 300 thousand years after the big bang, but their supposed macroevolutionary environment didn't arise until 600 million years after the Big Bang.[32] Additionally, a strong argument can be made that the relationship between, on the one hand, stars to atoms and planets to molecules, and, on the other hand, organisms to their environments is so qualitatively different that tenet 10 cannot be said to hold for both.[33]

Tenet 11 - The micro is in relational exchange with the macro at all levels of its depth. This means that each micro and macro level of development remains interrelated no matter how deep the holon. For example, a human holon's physical body must remain in contact with the physical aspects of the earth; the same is true for the biological and mental levels.

In contrast to this tenet Smith notes,

there are other kinds of holons in the micro or biological pathway that are ignored by Jantsch and Wilber, and which also have no corresponding holon in the macro or stellar pathway. For example, small molecules like amino acids, and macromolecules like proteins are far more complex than very simple molecules like water and carbon dioxide, and can't possibly be lumped together with the latter. They have many emergent properties that the latter lack, and they did not exist on the primordial earth. They evolved considerably later.[34]

This means there are molecules on the micro level whose relational exchange is with the macro level of Gaia and not the planetary level as Wilber suggests, violating tenet 11. Smith goes on to question the degree and quantity of relationality between many macro and micro entities stating that “it's misleading to suggest, for example, that superclusters, clusters, or galaxies are associated with particular subatomic holons. We can only say that stars are associated with some elements, and that planets are associated with (a very few, and very simple kinds of) molecules. Beyond these two points, a correlation is not evident.”[35]

Tenet 12 states that evolution has directionality and is, perhaps, the most important and most problematic of all the tenets. Tenet 12 has five parts each with different criteria of directionality.

The first indication of evolution's directionality is increasing complexity. And while cosmologists seem comfortable speaking of an increase in complexity from the Big Bang to the present, in biology it is highly debatable whether you can speak of an increase in complexity. Richard Dawkins states that “Many people think that they know what they mean by simple, and its opposite, complex, but there have been few attempts to define these terms precisely.”[36] He, somewhat ironically, describes a possible method of comparing levels of complexity. To compare the relative complexity of two creatures, write a book about each which describes them in comparable levels of detail. Then compare the length of the two books. The longer book describes the more complex creature. Dawkins states that this “thought-experiment of the two books enables us at least to agree over what it is that we disagree about. This may not seem like much, but in the field of phylogenetic controversy it is a major achievement.”[37]

Dawkins's glibness may detract from the validity of his point, but Michael Ruse, in his sober and thorough study, subtitled The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology,[38] concurs. He concludes that “More recent work, for instance on measures of complexity, simply shows . . . that there is just no good reason to think that complexity is a necessarily ever-increasing product of the evolutionary process.”[39] And, more generally, he states that “My key point is that progress is not in evolutionary thinking today because of pure epistemic factors.”[40] In other words, the lack of an epistemic criterion for progress is why the idea of progress does not play a role in evolutionary biology.

Still, although evolutionary biologists cannot defend it, it may just seem right that life started with the simplest of organisms and that now there is a diverse array of complicated life. Stephen J. Gould makes a strong argument against this thinking. He observes that since life starts with simplicity, any change will generate some complexity (since life cannot evolve to be simpler then the simplest), but that increasing complexity is not a necessary or even common evolutionary occurrence. Many biological organisms find their adaptive success in becoming simpler after a more complex beginning. Regarding the evidence for the “macroevolutionary reformulation of life's history” Gould states that the “initial research has found no departure from the random model, and no overall preference for increase in complexity in studies that tabulate all events of speciation.”[41] What Wilber does is take one species - humans - and arrange all of evolution as if leading to it.

Wilber also contends that this process of increasing complexification also holds for human social life; so primitive tribes should be less complex than modern industrialized societies. Yet the sociologist Anthony Giddens notes that “There is simply no discernible correlation between linguistic complexity and the level of material 'advancement' of different societies” and notes that “some features of social activity found in oral cultures, such as those associated with kinship institutions, are exceptionally complex.”[42]

The second indication of evolutionary directionality is increasing differentiation and integration. This tenet can be seen as a corollary of the complexity tenet above. As entities evolve they differentiate and then form new integrations. The integration of increasingly differentiated parts could be a criterion of increasing complexity. But, as described by Gould above, there are an abundant amount of organisms that have found their evolutionary success in a process of simplification not complexification. He quotes a Times reviewer reporting on two studies of evolutionary complexity:

in two of the first studies to measure these trends, based on mammals' backbones and fossil shells, researchers say they have been unable to detect any overall evolutionary drive toward greater complexity.[43]

In the area of human social evolution, Charles Tilly names the idea of increasing differentiation as one the “pernicious postulates” of 19th century social theory. He acknowledges that “many significant social processes do involve differentiation.” but goes on to observe that the converse is true:

Many social processes also involve dedifferentiation: Linguistic standardization, the development of mass consumption, and the agglomeration of petty sovereignties into national states provide clear examples.[44]

He concludes that “we have no warrant for thinking of differentiation in itself as a coherent, general, lawlike social process.”[45]

Surprisingly, Wilber also tries to show that Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are “on board” regarding differentiation as an ever increasing evolutionary process. But the quotes he uses to prove his contention don't show that Derrida and Foucault have any belief in a directional evolutionary process. The spirit of Derrida's and Foucault's poststructuralism is captured better by David Hoy when he writes that “Not only do Foucault and Derrida give up humanism's belief in epistemological progress, they also give up its belief in social-historical progress, which is the fifth and last, but probably most important feature of the critique of humanism.”[46]

The third indicator of evolutionary progress is increasing organization and structure. I don't see how this is distinguished from increasing complexity which, as indicated above, is problematic.

The fourth indicator of directionality is increasing relative autonomy. This is unclear as Wilber defines it. He first says that “It simply refers to a holon's capacity for self-preservation in the midst of environmental fluctuations.”[47] This sounds like degree of survivability; yet if that were the case then, as Stephen J. Gould colorfully put it, “We might do ourselves in by nuclear holocaust, but prokaryotes will probably hang tough until the sun explodes,”[48] suggesting that greater survivability lies with the prokaryotes. Wilber then appears to change course two sentences later when he writes that “This does not mean greater permanence or concrete stubbornness.”[49] He then settles on saying that “Relative autonomy simply refers to a certain flexibility in the face of changing environmental conditions”[50] and gives the example of a fox that can vary its internal temperature relative to external conditions whereas a rock cannot. Yet one can argue the opposite. The rock flexibly alters its temperature while the fox is constrained by having to keep its temperature within a benign range. Or think of a fire raging through a forest. The fox dies or is driven from his home while the rock remains. The rock flexibly adapts to changing environmental conditions. Wilber needs a more stringent definition of relative autonomy.

His example of increasing relative autonomy for humans' intellectual productions doesn't work either. He contends that new perspectives on human social life from Freud, Marx, Heidegger, Foucault and others force us to rise above limited perspectives. “[E]ach time we identify a deeper context, our relative autonomy actually increases, because in identifying with a deeper perception, we have found a wider freedom.”[51] Or, we have found more confusion and fragmentation. These differing perspectives on human life don't fit neatly into Wilber's map. Each could have its own critique of the other and all could criticize Wilber's synthesis.

The fifth indicator of directionality is increasing telos. Wilber contends that inherent within the physical, biological and mental processes are goals that holons tend towards. “[T]he end point of the system tends to 'pull' the holon's actualization (or development) in that direction, whether the system is physical, biological or mental.”[52] Contradicting this for biological processes, James Lennox, in his article on teleology, terms Wilber's idea of the endpoint's pull on the system “backward causation” in which “the future goal state causally influences the events leading up to it.” According to Lennox this is one of three “illicit features” that “discussions of teleology among biologists and philosophers of science during the last forty years” have tried to avoid.[53] They try to avoid explanations using backward causation because “[t]his violates standard scientific conceptions of causation and causal explanation, according to which causes precede their effects and a phenomenon is explained by citing its causes.”[54]

Even a biologist who is one of the innovators of the new sciences of complexity upon which Wilber relies, heralds this new perspective by saying:

The "new" biology is biology in the form of an exact science of complex systems concerned with dynamics and emergent order. Then everything in biology changes. Instead of the metaphors of conflict, competition, selfish genes, climbing peaks in fitness landscapes, what you get is evolution as a dance. It has no goal. As Stephen Jay Gould says, it has no purpose, no progress, and no sense of direction. It's a dance through morphospace, the space of the forms of organisms.[55]

The difficulties that biologists have with speaking unproblematically about the telos of biological life are shared by social theorists. While individuals have goals, and various social theorists speak of social systems as goal-directed, this doesn't make it so. To buttress a goal-directed view of society, Wilber conveniently refers to Hegel, Marx, Freud and Habermas, all of whom have teleological systems, while dismissing non-teleological theorists because, as he assumes we all agree, “any decent theorist is an omega-point [teleological] theorist.”[56] Of course, this casual remark excludes indecent social theorists like Durkheim, Nietzsche, Weber, and Foucault whose theories aren't teleological. In addition, Wilber tries to pass Derrida off as a teleological theorist in order to get a poststructuralist imprimatur. He appears to quote Derrida in support of his position, but when we check the quote's citation, we find it is Harold Coward's gloss on Derrida and not Derrida himself who is being quoted.[57] To see social systems as goal directed is a value-laden choice of social theorists, not a fact of social life. It is this moral component that makes it such a vexing question in both the biological and human sciences.

Determining the goal of evolution is so difficult because of the part that values play in the determination. Early in SES, Wilber suggests that by determining evolution's own natural tendencies the fact/value distinction can be resolved. He writes that

“we are inextricably involved in judgments that are hierarchical - . . . to consciously join these judgments with the sciences of holarchy . . . the result [is] that values and facts are no longer automatically divorced”


“we are now in a position to realign facts and values in a gentler embrace, with science working with us, not against us.”[58]

One immediate problem with this rapprochement between facts and values is that it flies in the face of the fact-value gap which is a long-standing problem in philosophy. A second, bigger, problem has to do with Wilber's contention that much scientific evidence in many diverse fields points to the same holarchic processes and so demonstrates that nature's own goal has been discovered. As I have shown for the life and human sciences there are fundamental disagreements about whether there is a neutral goal that can be determined at all. In the physical sciences, the idea of a goal of nature is only used metaphorically because the entities they deal with are not considered to have intentions.

As this chapter shows, there are many anomalies and contradictions which show that the 20 tenets do not describe the “'laws' or 'patterns' or 'tendencies' or 'habits'” that “all known holons seem to have in common,” as Wilber contends.


[1] SES, p. 34.

[2] SES, p. 35.

[3] Smith, Andrew, P., “A One-Scale Model of Holarchical Existence,” at, July 2000, p. 2.

[4] Smith, “One-Scale Model of Holarchical Existence,” p. 8.

[5] Smith, “One-Scale Model of Holarchical Existence,” p. 8.

[6] See papers by Gerry Goddard, Brian Eddy, and Mark Edwards at

[7] Edwards, Mark, “Through AQAL Eyes, Part 1: A Critique of the Wilber-Kofman Model of Holonic Categories,”, June 2002.

[8] SES, p. 40.

[9] SES, p. 45.

[10] SES, p. 45.

[11] Smith, Andrew P., “God is Not in the Quad,” Sec. 6,

[12] SES, p. 22.

[13] SES, p. 46.

[14] Wilber, “On Critics, Integral Institute My Recent Writing, and Other Matters of Little Consequence: A Shambhala Interview with Ken Wilber, Part II,” at, (no date), p. 7.

[15] Andrew P. Smith, personal communication.

[16] SES, p. 50.

[17] SES, p. 51.

[18] Smith, Andrew, P., “One-Scale Model of Holarchical Existence,” p. 3.

[19] Smith, Andrew, P., “One-Scale Model of Holarchical Existence,” p. 3.

[20] Laenui, Poka, “Colonization in Hawaii,” Fourth World Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 3, July 1993.

[21] See Bodley, John H., The Powers of Scale, (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2003).

[22] SES, p. 52.

[23] SES, p. 54.

[24] SES, p. 56.

[25] SES, p. 61.

[26] Wilber, Ken, A Brief History of Everything, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996), p. 32.

[27] SES, p. 83.

[28] Smith, “One-Scale Model of Holarchical Existence,” p. 8.

[29] Smith, “One-Scale Model of Holarchical Existence,” p. 9.

[30] Smith, “One-Scale Model of Holarchical Existence,” p. 9.

[31] Smith, Andrew, P., “Wilber's Eight-fold Way,” at, May 2003.

[32] Smith makes the point in “Wilber's Eight-fold Way.” Specifics from Wikipedia online at

[33] Gerry Goddard in “Consciousness and the Holonic Infrastructure,” April 2003 and Smith in “Wilber's Eight-fold Way,” raise numerous issues with macro/micro co-evolution.

[34] Smith, “Wilber's Eight-fold Way,” in the section entitled “Erich Jantsch and Holonic Pluralism.”

[35] Smith, “Wilber's Eight-fold Way,” in the section entitled “Erich Jantsch and Holonic Pluralism.”

[36] Dawkins, Richard, “Progress,” in Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, edited by Evelyn Fox Keller and Elisabeth A. Lloyd, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 265.

[37] Dawkins, “Progress,” in Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, p. 266.

[38] Ruse, Michael, Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, (Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, 1996).

[39] Ruse, Monad to Man, p. 535

[40] Ruse, Monad to Man, p. 536.

[41] Gould, Stephen J., The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 901.

[42] Giddens, Anthony, The Constitution of Society, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 241.

[43] Yoon, Carol, “Biologists deny life gets more complex,” The New York Times, March 30, 1993, quoted in Full House, by Stephen J. Gould, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1996), p. 212.

[44] Tilly, Charles, Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons, (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1984), p. 48.

[45] Tilly, Big Structures, p. 48.

[46] Hoy, David, “Jacques Derrida,“ in The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences, edited by Quentin Skinner, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p.49.

[47] SES, p.71.

[48] Gould, Stephen J., Eight Little Piggies, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1993), p. 323.

[49] SES, p.71.

[50] SES, p.71.

[51] SES, p.73.

[52] SES, p.74.

[53] Lennox, James G., “Teleology,” in Keywords in Evolutionary Biology, p.331.

[54] Buller, David J. “Function and teleology,” from the Encyclopedia of Life Sciences, (Macmillan Reference Ltd., 1997) at

[55] Goodwin, Brian, “Biology is Just a Dance,” in The Third Culture, edited by John Brockman, online at

[56] SES, p.78.

[57] SES, p.77.

[58] SES, p.31.

© Jeff Meyerhoff, 2003

Widget is loading comments...