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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




Bald Ambition, Chapter 4

Jeff Meyerhoff

Wilber wants to show that mystical knowledge is valid knowledge because essential aspects of his system rely upon its validity.

Wilber wants to show that mystical knowledge is valid knowledge because essential aspects of his system rely upon its validity. He claims that the Kosmos is essentially non-dual in nature and its goal is to realize this nature through a developmental unfolding. This realization of the Kosmos's own essence occurs on earth through the development of humans who, if their development unfolds naturally, will collectively realize this spiritual essence as the non-dual nature of reality. Some adepts have already realized reality's nature, Wilber being one of them. This insight brings with it the knowledge that all holons have a bit of this spiritual essence. The progressive movement from egoic-rationality to the centauric stage brings with it the capacity for vision-logic which allows an aperspectival seeing of this larger integrated picture of our unfolding. The centauric consciousness is on the cusp of the personal and the transpersonal. Beyond it are the four spiritual stages - the psychic, subtle, causal and non-dual - which essentially condense the spiritual path of all authentic mystical practices.

The mystic gains certainty into the nature of reality through experience, but to validate this knowledge to the non-mystic requires rational argumentation. Wilber uses a variety of arguments to validate mystical knowledge, but none, as they stand, are successful. While it would seem to be a good idea to legitimate the profound insights of mysticism to Western intellectuals, ultimately, I think it a losing battle. It requires that mystics and their defenders use intellectual weapons which, according to the mystics themselves, cause the delusion that mystical practice dispels. Additionally, by their nature, rational arguments can never provide the justification that mysticism needs to prevail. The linguistic turn in 20th century thinking in the humanities and social sciences has shown that absolute conclusiveness through argumentation is highly doubtful. Mysticism, which claims knowledge of an absolute beyond language, will hinder its cause by trying to fight on a linguistic terrain. It will always find itself drawn into a quagmire of interminable debates which draws its practitioners further from a way of being most conducive to realizing the insights that mystics are advocating.

To validate mystical knowledge Wilber does three things: he describes why mystical knowledge is as valid as any other form of knowledge; he counters objections to mysticism's validity; and he claims that there is a cross-cultural similarity between the core insights of the world's major mystical traditions.

Against the view that mystical knowledge is not valid knowledge, Wilber describes the “three stands of any valid knowledge quest.”[1] Wilber asserts that the three steps of any valid knowledge quest are injunction, or telling a person what to do to get the knowledge. Apprehension, or the perceiving of what is experienced through the injunction. And lastly, communal confirmation, or checking what was perceived with others who used the same injunction. This is an excellent response to those who ignorantly assert that mysticism is just mental fuzziness, but it is a problematic response if your goal is to validate mystical knowledge to support a great synthesis heavily dependent on mysticism's validity as provider of Truth.

The problem becomes clear when we compare Wilber's “three strands of any valid knowledge quest” to the philosopher Richard Rorty's description of the scientific method. The example of Rorty is significant here because Rorty is accused by his opponents of being a relativist who, in Wilber's words, believes that “cultural productions are shifting conversations with no validity claims of their own.”[2] In Rorty's article “Method, Social Science, Social Hope” he writes:

If “scientific method” means merely being rational in some given area of inquiry, then it has a perfectly reasonable “Kuhnian” sense - it means obeying the normal conventions of your discipline, not fudging the data too much, not letting your hopes and fears influence your conclusions unless those hopes and fears are shared by all those who are in the same line of work, being open to refutation by experience, not blocking the road of inquiry. In this sense, “method” and “rationality” are names for a suitable balance between respect for the opinions of one's fellows and respect for the stubbornness of sensation.[3]

Sounds like Wilber's three steps. Rorty is saying that scientific inquirers follow the “normal conventions” or injunctions of their discipline, “respect . . . the stubbornness of sensation” or what's perceived through apprehension, and “respect . . . the opinions of one's fellows” or use communal confirmation. Unlike Rorty, though, Wilber wants more certainty then a methodology like that can give. It allows mystical inquiry and the knowledge it produces to take its place among other types of knowledge, but it says nothing about whether it represents what it says it represents: Reality, Truth, or the Absolute.

Whether mysticism delivers The Truth or whether it is just one more way of knowing is a question that goes unacknowledged in SES, but makes its presence felt. If, as Wilber writes, “social practices, or social injunctions, are crucial in creating and disclosing the types of 'worldspace' in which types of subjects and objects appear (and thus the types of knowledge that can unfold)”[4] then the injunctions help to disclose/create the knowledge. The use of “creating and disclosing” is a manifestation of an ambivalence in Wilber's thinking. On the one hand, he wants to be postmodern and up-to-date by assimilating the poststructural view that we create knowledge. On this view, our practices or injunctions are so powerful that they are the determiners of the worldspace in which kinds of subjects and objects appear and hence creative of the kind of knowledge that there can be. On the other hand, he also needs to have some way of asserting that his view is supreme, and not just one among many ways of creating knowledge, because he wants it to be above competing claims and act as the grand synthetic integrator of our fragmented world. For the latter reason he needs to preserve the idea that we disclose knowledge, which retains the older, modern, Enlightenment idea that we gain knowledge by uncovering what is already there.

In the section from which the last quote was taken, Wilber is arguing for an equality of validity of mystical insight with the natural and social sciences. To do so he emphasizes practices or injunctions and communal confirmation because this allows mystical practice to have the same validity as the other sciences. They all have the same three strands of any valid knowledge quest. The problem, as he realizes a few paragraphs later, is that the unseemly taint of relativism appears. If “communal confirmation” plays such a big role in verifying knowledge, then it can be argued that what the community says goes. This is one version of a relativist theory of truth in which it is the community and not objective reality that legitimates knowledge. Sensing the specter of relativism, Wilber tacks away from relativism and back to absolutism by strongly emphasizing the disclosing part of knowledge acquisition. He writes that

paradigms are first and foremost injunctions, actual practices (all of which have nondiscursive components that never are entered in the theories they support) - they are methods for disclosing new data in an addressed domain, and the paradigms work because they are true in any meaningful sense of the word.[5]

Here Wilber simply begs the big questions in the philosophy of knowledge. Are practices nondiscursive? Could one even understand and execute a practice without discourse or the meaningful understanding of what to do and why it is being done? Practices are only nondiscursive if you conveniently forget the discursive distinction between discursive and non-discursive. And what happened to their role in creating the worldspaces, the subjects and objects that inhabit those worldspaces and the resulting knowledge?

Do “[t]he paradigms work because they are true in any meaningful sense of the word,” or is it the other way around, they are true because they work? To say the former - they work because they are true - as Wilber does, suggests there is a hard, objective, reality out there awaiting disclosure and validating those paradigms that work. Yet one can argue the opposite, that paradigms are true because they work; this is a Rortyan, pragmatic approach which suggests, paraphrasing Rorty, that 'true' is a compliment we pay to certain sentences that work for us;[6] a defensible position, which emphasizes the creative role that our practices play in making knowledge.

Finally, what is that “meaningful sense of the word” true that Wilber is using? Philosophers have been debating that for centuries; it won't be solved by simply declaring that it exists.

This ambivalence between creating and disclosing is one manifestation of a deeper schism that runs through Wilber's system. On the one hand he wants to acknowledge that language mediates our knowledge of the world, that we only know things from within social-historical contexts and that reductionism has hindered knowledge acquisition. On the other hand, Wilber wants to be the one who provides the neutral framework for all other knowledge, wants there to be a way to know reality as it is, and wants to claim that he knows the transcendent goal of all evolution. The schism goes unacknowledged but pokes through Wilber's confident discourse.

In addition to validating mystical knowledge claims, Wilber also tries to counter common objections to the validity of mystical knowledge. Depending on his imagined audience he does a good or bad job countering those objections. One audience is the average intellectual or academic who is ignorant about mysticism and believes it is synonymous with fuzziness, mysteriousness or religion. Wilber's responses to this group's naive criticisms are effective. But there is a second, smaller audience of intellectuals and academics who are knowledgeable about mysticism and can carry on sophisticated debates about it. The effective responses Wilber makes to the first, ignorant group are easily criticized by the second, knowledgeable group. A better, more sophisticated response is needed if the power Wilber claims for mysticism is going to be demonstrated to those knowledgeable about mysticism. This Wilber does not provide. In general, while his counter arguments to the most common objections to mystical knowledge - it's not knowledge, it's only subjective, and it can't be put into words - prevail, they prevail against ignorant opponents and so don't have the sophistication necessary to legitimate the big intellectual synthesis Wilber is proposing. Here again we find Wilber's usual treatment of critics: caricaturing their positions and not quoting anyone in order to avoid the difficult problems that true critics would raise.

The first objection that Wilber tries to counter is the view that “mystical states are private and interior and cannot be publicly validated; they are 'merely subjective.'”[7] That's the entire statement of the critics position that Wilber provides. I wonder what the critic means by 'merely subjective.' And isn't the question of public validation different from the question of subjectivity? Wilber doesn't notice these difficulties. He replies that if mystical states are 'merely subjective' then they share that with all nonempirical forms of knowledge. Nonempirical forms of knowledge here mean the social sciences and the humanities as opposed to the empirical disciplines of the natural sciences where the objects of inquiry are naturally occurring things like rocks, protons and cells. In the nonempirical sciences the objects of inquiry are man-made and don't naturally exist out there in the world. Without humans we wouldn't have equations, books and mystical states, but humans are not necessary to the existence of rocks, protons and cells. So mystical knowledge shares this trait of subjectivity, or non-objectiveness, with other forms of knowledge like mathematics, literature and history and can be accorded a similar validity.

While technically it's true that the objects of mathematics do not occur naturally in the world - there is no circle or root two out there in the world - the materials that mathematicians use exist out there in the world. When two mathematicians work on an equation they can write it down on paper and share what it is they are examining. This is not the case with mystical states; they exist within each mystical practitioner. Further, it's often stated that these states are ineffable, so the actual materials that mystical inquirers can share - the words or pictures representing the states - are, according to mystical inquirers themselves, a poor second to the mystical experience itself. Now you could, as Wilber does, claim that mathematical representations like equations and drawings are secondary renderings of some unrepresentable subjective creation, but it's not an issue when doing mathematics. In contrast, the ineffability of mystical states, and so their essentially private nature, is often considered one of their defining characteristics and is a central issue in debates about the epistemological status of mystical states. The two mystical inquirers cannot look together at one mystical state that exists out there. There are always two objects of inquiry, each within the subjective experience of the mystical inquirer.

Now one could argue that the one mathematical equation on paper is actually two because it is seen through two perspectives, but this is a difference that doesn't make a difference and results in a radical perspectivalism that Wilber himself would want to avoid.

In literature the situation is similar. The object of inquiry is an objective thing existing in the world that two inquirers can share: a written work. Literary critics can persuasively argue they share the same object of inquiry and not two objects as in mysticism.

The example of history seems different. Here you could argue two ways: that the objects of inquiry are the cultural artifacts of the past that have survived and so are objectively present to the historical inquirers; or, you could argue that the object of inquiry is the past itself which no longer exists, forcing historians to use the remnants of the past that have survived into the present. Further, you could argue that history is in worse shape epistemologically than mystical inquiry in that the mystic can at least have his or her object of inquiry present in the moment, whereas the historian's object of inquiry - the past - is gone forever.

The merging of two different points and his too brief statement of the critic's objection to mystical knowledge makes the objector's point unclear. There is, on the one hand, the point about mystical knowledge being “private” or “merely subjective” (although it's still not clear what the critic's point here is), and, on the other hand, there is the contention that mystical knowledge “cannot be publicly validated.” As shown above, if the point here is that public validation is dependent on the “objectiveness” of the object of inquiry in the outside world, there will be subtle differences in the different nonempirical disciplines. But public validation could be interpreted differently as referring to the degree of agreement between inquirers within and between disciplines. While mathematics may have a subject matter that, technically, is “subjective” and so isn't available publicly - i.e. no circle exists in the world - the public validation, understood as degree of agreement about the major questions in the discipline, is unparalleled among scientific disciplines. For the most part, mathematical theorems are either regarded as proved, unproved or disproved. By this criterion of public validation, mathematics is superior to all other sciences. The same type of examination for degree of disciplinary agreement could be done in all areas of knowledge. Is this the point of public validation in Wilber's laconic rendering of the critic's objection to mystical knowledge? We can't know because Wilber states the objection in one sentence, cites no one, and says no more.

The second objection to mystical experiences is that “because they cannot be put into plain language, or into any language . . . [they] are therefore not epistemologically grounded, are not 'real knowledge'” Here again it's hard to understand the critics point. Wilber seems to be interpreting this as meaning that because mystical states are described as ineffable they cannot be rendered in any language and are therefore not real knowledge. Wilber counters this by arguing that language works the same way for all phenomena described. Wilber uses Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between the signifier, the signified and the referent. The signifier is the spoken or written word, the word in its material form. The signified is the immaterial meaning in the mind or the concept. The referent is the actual thing-in-world that is being represented by the sign, i.e. the signifier and signified combined. So you have the word (signifier), the meaning (signified) and the thing itself (referent).

Wilber argues that a sign like “dog” is structurally the same as the mystic's use of “emptiness,” the only difference being the commonness of experiences of dogs and the rarity of experiences of emptiness. For both “dog” and “emptiness” there is the signifier, the signified and the referent. All experienced phenomena whether dogs or emptiness or anything else have the same epistemological status which can be captured equally well or poorly depending on the person's experience of the object and their facility with language.

There are two problems with this line of argumentation. First, is it the case that the referents of the words “dog” and “emptiness” are shared in the same way? Don't we commonly think of the referent “dog” as being the furry, four-legged thing out there in the world and “emptiness” as being experienced inwardly, or, for some, an immaterial or trans-material essence of the world? Many people have experienced the same dog as referent or object in the world, but have two mystics ever shared the same internal experience of emptiness? Mystics may call their experiences the same, but how do we know they originated from experiencing the same referent?

One possible response to this would be to claim that emptiness describes the nature of everything and so the referent is shared. The problem with this is that the only way that two experiencers of emptiness could know they had the same experience was by sharing signs and not referents. Yet two people who made reference to a dog can share the same referent.

Wilber's strict philosophical point about the similarity of structure of all signs and referents has truth to it (if we forget the above point about the unshared referent), but this strict philosophical response to the critic's objection obscures a more common and relevant objection to mystical knowledge that distinguishes it from the knowledge of dogs, plants or social life. It is that mystics themselves commonly say that their experience is ineffable, that words do not capture it and it can never be captured in words by its very nature. Does this problem arise for biologists who study cells? Do they complain that “cell” just doesn't capture the cellness of the cell? No, it's a non-issue. Do sociologists say that “group” just doesn't capture the groupness of the group? They might, but it wouldn't be a philosophical discussion of whether a thing called “group” exists and whether it can be captured in words, it would be a more pragmatic discussion of whether this is the best terminology to use to grasp this social phenomenon. It's left to philosophers to debate whether words do represent something separate called “reality.” And that is an open and hotly debated question. So the same question of whether mystical states can be put into language, plain or otherwise, is an issue different from other areas of knowledge and significantly problematic for the legitimacy of mystical knowledge.

Mystics talk about realizing the Truth, the Godhead, or Reality. Wilber writes as if what mystics say they know - the Truth - is what they know. “These are direct apprehensions or illuminations - in a word, direct spiritual experiences (satori, kensho, shaktipat, nada, shabd, etc.).”[9] He gives a cross-cultural argument, rather than a philosophical argument, for why mystics do know the Truth. He argues that all the major mystical tradition's ultimate insight is the same. This is a resuscitation of the perennial philosophy which states that the core insight of all the major mystical traditions is the same despite the differing languages, methods and rituals used by the different traditions. By studying the major mystical traditions, Wilber claims to have extracted the basic developmental sequence that all mystics pass through on their way to the ultimate realization. The four stages are the psychic, subtle, causal and non-dual. Each stage is a transcendence and inclusion of the previous stage leading to the ultimate integration of the One and the Many.

Wilber further claims that only people who have had the experience gain the requisite meaning and then can use the corresponding signifier.[10] Yet people use the words “absolute,” “emptiness” and “nirvana” sensibly without ever having experienced their referent. There are many scholars of mysticism who use these terms and are understood. So they do have the requisite signified or meaning. One could object that yes, people use the words sensibly, but they do not have the experience itself. But how do we know if people have had the experience themselves except by their claim that they have and the rightness of the words they use to describe it? For example, a spiritual practitioner I knew who was working with an enlightened spiritual teacher felt he had a glimpse of emptiness. The teacher said he was mistaken. The student disagreed, left that teacher and found another teacher who confirmed his experience. Did he know emptiness? Did his teachers know emptiness?

Wilber writes of “Shankara, Vedanta's greatest philosopher-sage (Ramana Maharshi being one of Shankara's many descendants), and Shankara's Nondual (Advaita) Vedanta.”[11] Yet Steven Katz, professor of religious studies, writes that

Shankara does not shrink from entering into heated polemics with his Buddhist opponents about the meaning of the ultimate experience, understood by him in a non-personal monistic way, or again with his more theistically-minded Hindu colleagues - and of saying that they are wrong! They do not understand! They do not have the ultimate experience! - only he and his students find the ultimate experience because only they are properly equipped to find it. [12]

It is for each of us to decide based on whether we are convinced of the mystic's experience whether the mystic is enlightened or not. Wilber exaggerates the ability of mystics to confirm each others experiences of the Ultimate when he says “Zen masters talk about Emptiness all the time! And they know exactly what they mean by the words.”[13] In a recent article, Jorge Ferrer surveys the debate between perennialists and constructivists in order to transcend their differences. About the perennial philosophy he writes that “the esotericist idea that mystics of all ages and places converge about metaphysical matters is a myth that must be laid to rest.”[14] He states that disagreement, rather than agreement, better characterizes the dialogue among mystics in different traditions and in the same traditions.

This line of argumentation presents another problem for Wilber. He says his own study of mysticism confirms that there is a common core to all legitimate mystical practices. Yet since there is no one person who has actually experienced the ultimate state from within all the major mystical traditions, and only someone who has can speak reliably about them, how can one be sure that the core of all the traditions is the same? In his book Integral Psychology, Wilber was still combating the view that there is not a common core to mystics' supreme experiences. He writes that

Daniel P. Brown's extensive work on the cross-cultural stages of meditative development deserves special mention as being the most meticulous and sophisticated research to date….What he and his coworker Jack Engler found is that “The major [spiritual] traditions we have studied in their original languages present an unfolding of meditation experiences in terms of a stage model”[15]

The italics are Wilber's. He emphasizes “in their original languages” presumably because it strengthens the reliability of the conclusion. It does, but it also acknowledges that what we are comparing when we compare mystical states is the verbal report of the state. Any cross-cultural analysis must be a textual, not an experiential, analysis.[16]

The contention that people who have an experience of the Ultimate have some advantage over those who have not in debates about the cross-cultural similarity or dissimilarity of mysticisms may seem convincing, but when examined more closely really has no bearing on such debates. According to Wilber's journals, his non-dual experience dates from the later 80's. He wrote The Spectrum of Consciousness in the late 70's, where he made his argument for the perennial philosophy. Does his not having had the ultimate mystical experience invalidate his argument? No. Let's assume he did have by that time a glimpse of the Absolute, would it have lent more credence to his argument? No, because to argue that all the major mystical traditions lead towards the same ultimate state and to argue that it requires experiential knowledge to evaluate this requires one person to have achieved the Ultimate through all the different traditions. There is no one like that. Even having a glimpse of the Ultimate through one tradition doesn't lend greater credence to one's perennial philosophy arguments, because, as Wilber himself had to do in The Spectrum of Consciousness, one still has to read the relevant mystical texts and show with words that the major mystical traditions all point to the same goal. It's the validity of the textual analysis that is the ultimate determiner of correctness whether you're the Dalai Lama, Steven Katz or Ken Wilber. This is why it's a losing battle for mystics to try to prove the ultimacy of their insight using the tools of rational debate. And it is why mystics say that one must transcend language and conceptuality to realize the ultimate insight.


[1] SES, p. 273.

[2] SES, p. 559.

[3] Rorty, Richard, Consequences of Pragmatism, (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1983), pp.194-195.

[4] SES, p. 274.

[5] SES, p. 275.

[6] Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p.10.

[7] SES, p. 266.

[8] SES, p. 268.

[9] SES, p. 276.

[10] SES, pp. 270-273.

[11] SES, p. 639.

[12] Katz, Steven T., “Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism,” in Katz, ed., Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p.45.

[13] SES p. 271.

[14] Ferrer, Jorge, “The Perennial Philosophy Revisited,” The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 32 (1): 7-30, 2000. p. 20.

[15] Wilber, Ken, Integral Psychology, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000), p. 131.

[16] I discuss the textual, as opposed to the experiential, aspect of this issue in chapter 7.

© Jeff Meyerhoff, 2003, updated 2006

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