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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Jeff 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 www.wmfo.org. His blog is www.philosophyautobiography.blogspot.com and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org. This text was presented as the paper "Criticism as a Path Toward Integration" at the Integral Theory Conference 2010 held at JFK University
Integrating Psychology and Philosophy Through The Psychology of Belief
A philosophy is the expression of
One indicator that we have touched the psychological substructure of belief is defensiveness
Integral thinkers try to transcend intellectual differences within and between the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and mysticism in order to build their integral theories. Intellectual differences are pervasive in intellectual life and so make this a difficult task. Randall Collins begins his magisterial study, The Sociology of Philosophies, with the sentence: “Intellectual life is first of all conflict and disagreement.” Some disagreements can be resolved rationally, but others reach the limits of reason and become rational disagreements. A truly integral theory would need to surmount these basic disagreements. I explore the nature of the rational disagreements that intellectual discussants encounter when reason-giving comes to an end and they reach the basis of their beliefs. At that point, there are no more reasons for believing and the question of why one believes arises. Beyond our stated reasons for believing, a non-rational basis of belief is shown to undergird our rational worldviews. I describe this non-rational or psychological realm, give examples of it and show how to explore it. The result of this investigation is an integration of the rational and non-rational aspects of our beliefs and knowledge. This kind of investigation leads to an increase in self-knowledge and an alteration in collective knowledge.
Wilber and Difference
Contemporary knowledge contains profound differences in its welter of views regarding the world. Ken Wilber's integral theory exemplifies the attempt to overcome these epistemological differences. Wilber criticizes modern and postmodern thinking because it cannot organize the whole of knowledge coherently or meaningfully. Modern and postmodern pursuance of critical reason has led to an undermining of all epistemological, metaphysical and moral foundations. The problem then is how to integrate those diverse knowledge-claims to create one coherent understanding and historical narrative while respecting, what Wilber sees as, postmodernism's valuable undermining of metaphysics.
Wilber calls his current view “post-metaphysical.” The nature of reality is not set eternally for us to gradually reveal, but is ever anew created by the adoption of different kinds of perspectives. He asserts that the older metaphysics of reality has been so thoroughly criticized (“savaged” he says) that it can no longer be maintained. Reality must now be understood as perspectival.
If Wilber only spoke of perspectives as creative of reality there would be no way to assess the value of differing perspectives. Everyone would have their own perspective so the view of the sane would be as valid as that of the insane. We would have what Wilber terms an “aperspectival madness.” So he explains how a perspective “enacts” knowledge through the process of the three strands of any valid knowledge quest. A person is given an injunction or instruction on how to look at reality: “Look in that microscope,” “Sit still and focus on the breath,” “Check the evidence.” They apply that injunction and a perception results. They then take their perception and share it with the relevant inquiring community of people who have also done that injunction and see whether their perception agrees or disagrees and thereby gain an evaluation of its validity. The construction of Wilber's Integral Methodological Pluralism, like his previous model, is dependent for its validity on the validation of the relevant community of inquirers.
The key problem here, as it was in Wilber's previous model, is what to do with the differences or disagreements in the relevant knowledge communities? As I demonstrated in Bald Ambition, in the natural and social sciences, humanities and mysticism there are deep disagreements about the very subjects that Wilber needs consensus around to build his system. Wilber's integral theory itself, and the relevant knowledge communities he relies upon for the developmental constructs that build his integral model, do not provide the validating consensus of their knowledge communities. The debated and debatable nature of academic and non-academic knowledge remains.
The enemy of the consensus required for validation is disagreement. The validity of Wilber's project founders on this disagreement. He builds a massive system using materials of variable quality. My approach begins by inquiring into the fact of disagreement and asks: What causes disagreement?
The disagreements I am discussing are rational disagreements in which two or more discussants are using reason to settle an intellectual difference. They have no other interest besides settling the disagreement rationally. So there are no jobs, power, money or status at stake in the outcome of the intellectual disagreement.
It could be doubted that two or more people who pursue a rational debate to its endpoint can have a rational disagreement. A pervasive and plausible conception of knowledge acquisition undergirds this view. If we share one world and one method for gaining knowledge about that world - here the rational-scientific method of gathering evidence through our senses, testing our suppositions and obeying the law of non-contradiction - we should, in principle, be able to settle any rational dispute. Two people with conflicting views should be able, in principle, to use their shared method to determine the nature of their shared world. Their shared world acts as a check on their opinions and allows them to come to an agreement as to its nature.
But I, like Wilber, find contemporary philosophical arguments against the idea that we all necessarily share the same one world and the same method for determining its character convincing. While it can be useful in many everyday situations to assume we share a world and a method for gaining knowledge about it, the philosophical community's attempts to demonstrate this are inconclusive. Wilber's post-metaphysical turn is here similar to my (Richard) Rortyan inspired doubts in the two guarantors of rational consensus – a shared world and a shared method.
The Non-rational Basis of Belief
If a discussion between two rational inquirers who pursue their rational discussion to its end results in disagreement, what is the cause of that disagreement? I'll show that the cause of our rational disagreements is that our knowledge is ultimately based on our non-rational attachments to our grounding beliefs. Our grounding beliefs, variously called assumptions, postulates, principles or rational intuitions, are held without reason. A number of considerations demonstrate this assertion.
We justify our beliefs by giving reasons; if there are no reasons then there is no justification. The strength or weakness of our reasons determines the validity of our beliefs. This is true for all reason-givers. Yet it is commonly stated by the most accomplished practitioners of reasoning that when we try to ground our beliefs using reason we all reach a point where we have no reasons left. If reasons justify what we believe, and if at the end of our chain of reasons there is no reason, then the validity of our beliefs is thrown into question. In this sense, all our beliefs are equally justifiable. Each of us is floating in our rational boat on a shared sea, imagining that we are the ones solidly on land guiding the wayward to shore. If we are not connected to our foundational beliefs by reason, what is the nature of our connection to our beliefs?
By examining why we believe beyond the reason-giving we do to defend our beliefs, we find the animating core which motivates us to have the foundational beliefs that we have and deploy the reasons that we do. The reasons we give for believing as we do are not the real reasons we believe because they always ultimately end in circularity, regress or assumptions. Since all belief-systems, if pursued to their basis, will end in circularity, regress or assumptions, we cannot say that it is reasons that ultimately cause us to believe. There must be something else which causes us to adopt our particular reasoning chain or web of beliefs. Since in terms of their ultimate rational validity our belief-system is as good as an opposed belief-system, there must be something else which causes us to choose, and which holds us to, our particular belief-system. What is characteristic of us is not only the combination of beliefs we have woven together - since everyone does that with greater or lesser coherence - but why we adhere to this, rather than that, belief-system. In our rational discussions there is a way in which we miss the point since it is not the reasons we are deploying that cause us to believe. If we are trying to convince another person or challenge our own beliefs then we should, for more efficiency, go to the source of the belief, which is the emotional and psychic need to have the world be the way we or they believe it is.
This inquiry into the non-rational basis of belief runs counter to the dominant conception of knowledge acquisition in academia. This conception is, and has been since the ancient Greeks, that reason must be separated from emotion, affections, sentiments, desires, the passions, and all non-rational or irrational states. The dominant story since the Enlightenment is that reason and scientific inquiry won the battle with theological faith and superstition and put man on the road to objective knowledge. The enemy of rationality is the irrational superstitions, biases and prejudices that are caused, in part, by reason's antithesis: the emotions, desires and the passions. By separating ourselves from these irrationalities and employing reason as purely and neutrally as possible we can know the true and the good.
Obviously, an enormous amount of knowledge has been established by separating reason from non-reason. Before any rational disagreement has occurred rational deliberation and discussion is certainly our best way of adjudicating intellectual differences and gaining consensual knowledge. Before the endpoint of rational disagreement has been reached we need to be as detached, neutral and rational as possible.
Yet throughout modern thought the attempt to use reason and science to gain a knowledge that is true for all keeps encountering alternative trends and thinkers such as skepticism, romanticism, Hegel, Lebensphilosophie, Marxism, Nietzsche, Heidegger, psychoanalysis, the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of science, existentialism, hermeneutics, relativism, constructivism and poststructuralism. In addition, the seemingly irresolvable character of the traditional problems of philosophy suggests to some that there is something being missed by purely rational attempts to resolve fundamental differences. What is causing these continuous and diverse counter-trends to the dominant paradigm and why the profound undermining at the heart of the rational enterprise? Another, not so purely rational, aspect of knowing needs investigating.
Over the last few decades, in an unusual twist, research in neuroscience and cognitive science has rehabilitated the emotions by describing the necessary role they play in living our lives and being rational beings. This research shows the inextricable part that the emotions play in rationality and decision-making.
The role of the emotions in our believing is also evident in what are supposed to be purely rational debates. Academics generally try to maintain a collegial civility, but even in academia - and certainly outside of academia - it can be commonly observed how rational discussions deteriorate into defensive, constricted and adversarial self-assertions animated by a sometimes desperate need to have one's own view prevail. What's odd about this is that the ideal of rational argumentation suggests two detached inquirers seeking the truth of the world using more or less the same general methods of inquiry. If two discussants have the same goal – the one truth – and use more or less the same rational methods for finding it then all rational inquirers are on the same side and have little reason to be adversarial, assuming that divisive interests such as gaining tenure, selling products or having one's policy prevail, are not in play. Yet this kind of rational discussion is rare. The identification of the non-rational basis of belief explains why this is the case. Not only are we emotionally attached to our basic beliefs but our identities, the justification for our lives and our vision of the ideal way to live are at stake in the defense of our worldview. We don't just think the world is the way we say it is, we need it to be that way.
The above reasoning about the non-rational basis of belief, the countertrends in modern thought, the findings in neuroscience and cognitive science, and our emotional investment when nothing tangible is at stake, all suggest that the dominant story in philosophy which asserts the necessity of separating emotions from reason in order for reason to limn the true, the good and the beautiful is, in part, a denial of an inextricable part of our nature as knowing beings.
The Psychology of Belief
If a rational disagreement reaches a point where two people do not have reasons for their disagreement then what is the basis of their disagreement? The basis is a non-rational realm that includes our attachments to our fundamental beliefs. What is this realm like?
The structure of belief has two levels. The upper level has the array of beliefs we hold in more or less conscious and coherent groupings which flow through our minds or are activated when appropriate inputs come from visual, written or aural sources. We take in information and ideas, react to and evaluate it, decide what we think, and perhaps assert our view. All of this takes place on the upper level of belief. Underneath this upper level is a lower level containing the psychological substructure of belief. After reason-giving comes to an end we can begin to see how we are attached to our beliefs for emotional and psychological reasons. This attachment routinely reveals itself when we get agitated during what are supposed to be purely intellectual discussions; when we easily get defensive if cherished beliefs are questioned; when we overlook contradictory information; when we formulate opponent's arguments weakly; when we keep having unwanted doubts about a point we believe is settled; and when we feel an unusual urgency to make our point. This substructure of belief is the realm of our complicated psychological and emotional ties to our beliefs. It's the neglected subjective side of our belief-system; the side that has been denied in order to emulate the natural scientist and maintain the fiction of the purely rational inquirer.
Examples of the Psychology of Belief
The American Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey offers an excellent example of the psychology of belief in his description of the psychological reasons he was attracted to Hegel's philosophy which was the foremost early influence on his thought.
There were, however, also "subjective" reasons for the appeal that Hegel's thought made to me; it supplied a demand for unification that was doubtless an intense emotional craving, and yet was a hunger that only an intellectualized subject-matter could satisfy. It is more than difficult, it is impossible, to recover that early mood. But the sense of divisions and separations that were, I suppose, borne in upon me as a consequence of a heritage of New England culture, divisions by way of isolation of self from the world, of soul from body, of nature from God, brought a painful oppression—or, rather, they were an inward laceration. My earlier philosophic study had been an intellectual gymnastic. Hegel's synthesis of subject and object, matter and spirit, the divine and the human, was, however, no mere intellectual formula; it operated as an immense release, a liberation. Hegel's treatment of human culture, of institutions and the arts, involved the same dissolution of hard-and-fast dividing walls, and had a special attraction for me.
This is a powerful description of the intimate connections between a thinker's psychology and their philosophical beliefs. But this kind of examination in the psychology of belief can be more fine-grained.
Within me is an uneasy mix of a dominant Chomskyan-Marxian, socialist, political-economic worldview and a subterranean and unintegrated (Ayn) Randian libertarianism. The socialism has part of its psychic origin in an unfair familial structure which allotted the intrinsic good of attention unfairly. I was in a rigged competition with an older sibling in which I didn't get the goods. My older brother was intellectually brilliant at a young age and intellect was something my parents highly valued. I quickly resigned myself to a second-class status and developed a defense of idolization, trumpeting his exploits as a substitute for having my own. My narcissistic satisfaction occurred vicariously. The resulting unconscious frustration and anger caused me to be relentlessly critical of any status quo. The socialist ideal of a non-competitive, fair distribution of goods acts, in adulthood, as a political corrective to the personal desire to destroy that unfair competitive system. It also provides a standard by which to measure the current competitive political-economic reality that never measures up to an ideal of non-competition. Karl Marx's impassioned writings against capitalist competition offered an inspiring social and economic ideal and, on another level, a symbolic relief from a sibling competition I was resigned to losing. I continually have to “win” in fantasy what I was doomed to lose in reality.
This same situation produced a shadow political-economic vision. The lack of familial rewards caused disappointment and withdrawal. A false self-sufficiency was created since caregivers could not be relied upon and healthy dependency was seen as a danger. This false self-sufficiency thinks of itself as a healthy autonomy. The need to not need anyone and to “pull myself up by my own bootstraps” laid the foundation for an anti-socialist, uncompassionate libertarianism which believes that “it is every man for himself.” Notice that the shadow libertarian worldview is described negatively as a pathological outcome. It wouldn't describe itself in that way as evidenced by those who hold such views as their dominant belief-system. So a further exploration is possible into how one political-economic vision gained ascendancy and the ways in which the dominant vision holds sway through an invidious characterization of the subordinate worldview. The speculation then suggests itself: what would it be like experientially to actually be that shadow self?
These two political-economic outlooks could be integrated into a libertarian socialism which Chomsky has described. And they are integrated, to a small degree, on the level of political ideals and when forming opinions on current political events. But on a deeper level they remain largely unexamined. The psychological substructure of belief animates the political beliefs and holds them within certain bounds. The political views can be refined and broadened on the intellectual level through the usual means of reading, discussion and political action. But an additional method is to explore the psychic terrain from which these beliefs grew and upon which they are still dependent. As long as this is not done these beliefs will repetitively have to do the psychic work of satisfying primary needs in never-quite-satisfying secondary ways; the never-completed Sisyphean task of the repetition compulsion. The examination of the shunned Randian libertarianism may release new energies and create a novel political integration, or it may just allow a deeper more sympathetic appreciation of the character of an alien view. There's no guarantee that an integration of the other may result.
Friedrich Nietzsche once quoted Balzac to the effect that: All moralizing is a “showing one's wounds.” My highest moral ideal is the self-sacrificing person. It's enshrined in Christianity as the saint and in Buddhism as the bodhisattva. But why do I believe it is the highest ethical ideal? It contrasts sharply with a libertarian or Ayn Randian highest valuation of selfishness. Why do I adhere to it rather than to its selfish opposite? This kind of moral difference creates rational disagreements.
My family could not integrate emotions and affection. I sensed this familial fragility and suppressed those emotions and needs and sacrificed my self for the sake of the family. I unconsciously “knew” that my emotions and needs could destroy the family - my life-sustaining container - and made the ultimate sacrifice: I killed my self. I, as a child, sacrificed myself for the good of the whole. In my moral beliefs I transform that experience of self-sacrifice and adopt it as my highest moral ideal. When I get choked up upon hearing about acts of great self-sacrifice I'm both appreciating the highest that humans can achieve and mourning my greatest loss.
This kind of analysis in the psychology of belief has been done for some of the Western tradition's greatest thinkers. Ben-Ami Scharfstein psychologizes the beliefs of many well-known philosophers from Descartes to Sartre and demonstrates the psychological determinants of their philosophies. Robert Stolorow and George Atwood do the same for Freud, Jung, Reich and Otto Rank.
Methods for Doing the Psychology of Belief
We have a rationale for investigating the psychological substructure of belief, a two-tiered map that sketches the territory and some examples of it. But how do we explore this new realm?
One indicator that we have touched the psychological substructure of belief is defensiveness. During a debate or while reading an opposing view we may experience defensiveness upon encountering a challenge to our view. It may simply be that we don't readily have a defense of our view that later we can recall. Or, it may be that we need some time to incorporate the discordant fact or idea into our larger view. But it may be that we've hit upon a place where our beliefs are held for non-rational reasons. For example, whenever I hear someone decry abortion as the killing of a human life, I always feel defensive and mount my pro-choice defense either out loud or in my mind. Moral argumentation has not led to a definitive conclusion of this controversy, so our allegiances to one side or the other will have a non-rational component and so be ripe for investigation. Instead of acting out our defensiveness we need to become interested observers and explorers of it.
We can also train ourselves to observe and be interested in contradictions of our views. Contradictions are indicators of the psychological substructure because two contradictory views cannot be held rationally, so they must be held for some other reason. For example, I have a longstanding, pervasive background pessimism that something bad is going to happen and believe that this is just a characteristic of life. I have a corresponding pervasive, low-lever anxiety that I attribute to this “fact” of life. Each day, to avoid the coming catastrophe, I think over and over about the things I need to do: make that phone call, send that email, phrase that comment just right. Contradicting this belief is the fact that I've lived thousands of days in which no disaster occurs, and further, even on those occasions when I didn't do what I was supposed to do, nothing disastrous occurred. Yet each day I think the same potential for disaster exists and so my anxiety about life appears as a rational response to this “fact” of life. But if my emotional reaction is rational why is it contradicted daily?
Most people who care about ideas have been moved by a particular book. Sometimes these special books remain a touchstone for the rest of one's life. By reflecting on why that book changed things for us we can find our way into our psychological substructure of belief. Why that book? What about it had that profound an effect? For me it was Karl Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and especially one section that criticized the centrality of money in capitalism. Thirty years after reading that book I still remember that particular passage. Unpacking the content of that passage and exploring its persisting emotional resonance would reveal the emotional and desiring ties to its ideas and their centrality in my worldview.
A number of tools for doing this type of self-investigative work are available. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness that cultivates the ability to bring a witnessing consciousness to subjective experience is an effective self-examination technique. Contemplation is a different, but comparable, Western practice. Psychoanalysis and the variety of psychodynamic psychotherapies, either done with a therapist or through a self-analysis, are methods for examining the basis of one's beliefs. More particularly, Eugene Gendlin's focusing technique offers a practice and a well-developed philosophical rationale for understanding the intimate and precise links between our words and a felt sense unique to them in any given moment. Gendlin has adapted his general psychotherapeutic technique called focusing into one particularly suited to examining the development of one's thinking called “Thinking at the Edge.”
These and other techniques of self-examination allow the recovery of neglected determinants of our commitments, beliefs and worldviews.
Purpose of the Psychology of Belief
Is this merely an interesting examination of why we believe, but one which has no relevance for truth, knowledge and objectivity?
Claiming that the investigation of why people believe affects truth, knowledge and objectivity appears to violate the genetic fallacy. We commit the genetic fallacy when we think that understanding the causes of someone's beliefs is relevant to evaluating the validity of their beliefs. We evaluate the validity of beliefs not by their origin or genesis but by how well they fair when evaluated using our standards of evaluation: degree of coherence, empirical confirmation, our rational intuitions, etc. It doesn't matter why (the causes that) people believe, but it is does matter why (the stated reasons) people believe and to confuse the two is to commit the genetic fallacy.
The inquiry into the genesis of belief advocated here does not commit the genetic fallacy and yet affects truth, knowledge and objectivity. It does this by changing the ultimate criterion of validity from correspondence to communal consensus. If our assertions about the true and the good are validated by their correspondence with what is the case or the way the world is, then it doesn't matter for determining truth or goodness why people assert what they do. All that matters is whether what they assert corresponds with the true and the good. But when the ultimate criterion of validity switches to the way our assertions fare in the assessments of the relevant community, whatever affects that community's varied assessments of its participants' assertions affects what's regarded as true and good.
If communal consensus is the ultimate adjudicator of knowledge and if the criteria we choose to use are also validated and prioritized by communal consensus then whatever affects communal consensus affects what is understood as truth, knowledge and objectivity. The reflective investigations that I am proposing can alter what thinkers' believe and know and the prioritization of their criteria of knowing. By altering these we alter what is regarded as our knowledge. If knowledge is understood to be constructed by the community of inquirers, then whatever affects that construction affects knowledge. Explorations in the psychology of belief affects inquirers, their beliefs, their participation in intellectual discussions and so the community's knowledge.
Of course inquirers will still check the validity of their assertions against the facts of the world. But the situation imagined here of rational disagreement that has led to a psychological analysis of belief is one in which an appeal to the way in which things are is not yielding a resolution. In this situation the world does not simply tell us what is, it tells us what is through our means of perceiving and the validation or invalidation of that perception by our inquiring community.
This exploration will be an examination of basic beliefs and our attachments to them. It's both a self-exploration and an exploration in knowledge. But it's an examination relevant to knowledge creation because it affects the relationship among discussants and so the community of inquirers which is, in this pragmatic reading of knowledge creation, the way knowledge is validated. Integration occurs through shifting our relationship to our beliefs, our relationship to our emotions, our relationship to our opponents, and our relationship to our need to win debates. By affecting our debates it affects our knowledge.
Results of the Psychology of Belief
My approach identifies points of contact between being, belief and knowledge and describes an investigation into those points as a way of altering being, belief and knowledge. Because the subjective, emotional and interested elements of knowledge creation are inextricable on this level of examination more of the whole human being is integrated into the knowledge creation process, instead of being denied.
This integration is new because it provides rational arguments for the necessity of examining and altering the being of the rational knower as a way to alter the known. It uses reason to justify the primacy of emotion and personal psychology. It provides a means for the self-exploration of our psychology and beliefs and the alteration of both in contrast to the reigning paradigm that takes the being of the knower as irrelevant and so neglects an essential constituent of our knowing.
Historically, it hearkens back to ancient philosophical and religious precursors that combined philosophy and self-development practices. Ancient Greek schools, such as Stoicism, Epicureanism and Cynicism, recommended “spiritual exercises” that used philosophical reflection and practical techniques to change the thinking and being of the practitioner. In the East, Buddhist philosophies and methods use self-awareness and insight to cultivate knowledge, find truth and attain liberation.
Ultimately, we all believe for non-rational reasons.
The dominant Western Enlightenment epistemological tradition recommends a separation between our rational and non-rational selves for gaining knowledge. We are advised to separate our rationality from what has been variously termed: the emotions, feelings, passions, interests, biases and subjectivity. Rational debate is touted as the only means for adjudicating epistemological, political and moral differences. But rational debates, when pursued to the end, can reach points where there is rational disagreement. These rational disagreements occur because all rational participants eventually run out of reasons for justifying their beliefs. Ultimately, we all believe for non-rational reasons. In critically inquiring into the foundations of rational knowledge we find a non-rational basis of belief confirmed in results from neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy, psychoanalysis and our everyday observations.
This denied non-rational basis of belief is an essential part of the knowing process. This essential part is our personal psychology and its affect by which we are attached to our fundamental beliefs. An integration of the rational and the non-rational is needed in order to cultivate greater insight into who we are and what we know. We can examine this non-rational ground using a variety of self-investigative techniques and thereby integrate the traditional intellectual split between reason and non-reason. This self-investigation, when the limits of reason have been reached, allows the role of subjectivity in the creation of objective knowledge to be acknowledged, explored and used. The person of the knower is connected to their knowledge and so affects that knowledge. Because knowledge is understood as constructed by the relevant inquiring communities, this practice of psycho-epistemological self-investigation, by affecting what we as members of the community know, contributes to the construction of our collective knowledge. The greater integration and resulting self-awareness can improve that knowledge.
* Scott Parker alerted me to the opening quote by William James that I use as an epigraph.