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

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Scott Parker is a philosophy student and writer. In university, his honors thesis, Synthesizing the Kosmos: A Critical Study of Ken Wilber, was a close reading of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. He writes: "Most of the essays on IntegralWorld attempt to engage Wilber on a serious level. It is only by critiquing, clarifying, and offering alternatives that we can pursue the truth."

Is Wilber's
Integral integral?

Scott Parker


"All integral theory hinges on the question of consciousness."

In my last essay, "Winning the Integral Game?", I left off with the question of what integral means. I'd like to pick up with some reflections on that question now. Frank Visser identifies at least twelve definitions of integral.[1] Among them, ten are of the form of an integration of disparate, and often contrasting, concepts in a higher synthesis. His final definition is that integral is the integration of all integrations: the ultimate meta-theory of all theories: a theory of everything.

Ken Wilber's definition is similar. He says, "The word integral means comprehensive, inclusive, nonmarginalizing, embracing. Integral approaches to any field attempt to be exactly that—to include as many perspectives, styles, and methodologies as possible within a coherent view of the topic. In a certain sense, integral approaches are "meta-paradigms," or ways to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching."[2]

These definitions provide a good approximation of the collective understanding of the term in the integral community.  For a theory to be integral it must include as much as possible (maybe even more than possible).  It should include, we think, science and spirituality.  It should include body, mind, heart, and soul.  The bigger the theory, the more it includes, the better it is.  

The original source of these amalgamated theories is Wilber himself, who has been so influential in defining the terms, shaping the discussion, and directing the project of all things integral in recent years.  By his and other similar definitions, his theory is the most integral—it includes the most.  But before looking at what Wilber's theory might lack in terms of the project he's defined and looking for improvements, we must ask if inclusiveness is the appropriate standard of accounting for integral, or are there better measures? And then, what might integral mean if it is not synonymous with inclusiveness?  

Jeff Meyerhoff has convincingly argued that Wilber's orienting generalizations are flawed, not only in execution, but methodologically. At this point in history, we do not have the consensus that Wilber stakes his work on. Without this consensus, Meyerhoff shows, Wilber relies on a perspectival [note the space following the indefinite article] selective reading of his source material.[3] For the time being, until such consensuses are reached, the integral as inclusiveness project is dead before it is born.  

Yet, we're still interested.  We're hung up on this seductive word "integral", with its implicit promises of completeness. Wilber's own attempts at completeness know no temporal bounds. He knows that his integral theory can never be absolutely complete because of the evolutionary nature of the Kosmos, so he builds that incompleteness into his premises, thereby suggesting in a meta-theoretical, self-reflective fashion that it (his theory) is, in its anticipation of its own demise, actually final and complete (in general terms, of course).

What is it about this kind of all-inclusive meta-theory, possible or not, that captures our imagination? In other words, why do we want integral?

“Philosophy's quest reflects our craving for metaphysical comfort, as Nietzsche had put it – the desire to bring inquiry to an end in order to escape our contingency.”[4] Our psychological need for metaphysical comfort includes, in addition to philosophy, religion, literature, science, and more. Each of us individually finds, and all of us collectively find, ourselves looking out into a world we don't entirely understand, and for whatever reason—the way our brains are structured, the way our minds work, the memes that we unconsciously pick up in our earliest years—this scares us.

We crave order in the form of a narrative that can explain how and why the world exists, and most importantly, our place(s) in it. Whether our narratives are mythological, scientific, or philosophical, the motivation is the same: We want answers to big questions: What kind of place is this world and why are we here? So we tell stories to try to relieve our concerns. And these stories are memes that we arm ourselves with to face life's contingency.

These memes compete with each other for popularity in our collective consciousness in terms of applications in the world and psychological compatibility. As Wilber has described at length, at a point in history, mythological creation stories were the best narrative-memes we had, but were replaced when inconsistencies between the narratives and the world were recognized. As these inconsistencies became more apparent, scientific explanations emerged to carry the day, and over the past few centuries have increasingly become the most efficient system of narrative. Science not only tends to be compatible with the observable world, it writes this motivation into its premises. At present, it offers our best narrative worldview in terms of application and competes for the title in psychological terms with religious mythology.

The integral critique of science is that it is incomplete. It cannot account for subjectivity, the interior in Wilber's writings. An integral theory, it is argued, would account for how interior and exterior (subjectivity and objectivity) are related. While Wilber has taken on this crucial topic and modeled the relationship between interiors and exteriors, his models have been strictly expository. He has correlated the two, but never fundamentally related them. Ervin Laszlo has made the criticism of Wilber's work that for his theory to be really integral it must offer an explanation of everything, not just a description:

An integral TOE identifies the constituents of "every-thing" and states the rules by which the constituents relate to each other so as to form ever more complex things. It identifies the most basic kind of things that exists; the things that generate other things without being generated by them. Then it states the simplest possible set of rules - algorithms - that explain the emergence of the kind of things we have reason to believe exist. If it succeeds, it will be capable of explaining the origins of every-thing in the real world, together with the kind of relations that prevail among them. By extrapolating into the future, it will also be able to explain the kind of developments that are likely to occur: how the existing things transform their relations to each other in time, and transform themselves in the process.[5]

Following in Laszlo's vein, I propose the criteria that a serious integral theory must demonstrate:

  1. How everything fits together (the description)
  2. Why it fits together in this way (the explanation)

Or, put in slightly different terms, an integral theory must render a causal explanation for the physical and mental components of reality (integral = genes + memes?). Having 1) without 2), as Wilber does, is not integral because it is necessarily dependent on perspective. That is, in Wilber's case, his construction—and it is a construction: “I will be telling the story as if it were simply the case."[6]—is his perspective on reality. His method attempts to be an objective synthesis of all previous perspectives, but it can never be this because, as Jeffery Meyerhoff has argued, Wilber cannot get outside of his perspective to determine which parts of the other theories should be integrated into his meta-theory. The project, as Wilber conceives it, is flawed.

As Matthew Dallman points out, Wilber's version of integral is a perspective through which to understand the world. It is, in Dallman's terms, a lens. Becoming familiar with this lens, one develops the capability (and often the habit, as I discussed in my previous essay) to see through this lens, at which point the theory becomes, like Maslow's hammer, the tool we un-discerningly bring to every task. Psychologically, Wilber's version of integral works for some of us and not for others. We find that it gives us a useful narrative for understanding our place in the world. Or we do not. In either case, its value trades in its memetic success. That is, its success in finding fertile mental habitats in which to grow and reproduce.

If we ask the question, Is Wilber's Integral integral?, in objective terms we have to demur. Seen in the light of Laszlo's argument and the second criterion above, Wilber's theory is not integral. It is a description of reality, a wide-ranging catalogue at that. But without answering the question of what underlies this relationship between interiors and exteriors, it evades the heart of the issue. And without answering the underlying question, Wilber is left to craft his meta-theory ad hoc according to his personal tastes, leaving himself susceptible to the many flaws that have been identified in his work (characterizations, simplifications, manipulations, inaccuracies)[8].

We should keep in mind that Wilber is not only not offering a true integral theory in these terms, he's not attempting to either. Remember the quote from Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. He offers a narrative; to many a memetically effective one, but not a theory. Even if his narrative were found to be objectively accurate, it remains a description. Until it is grounded in an underlying cause with explanatory power, it won't do for philosophy or science.  

For any theory to find an underlying cause of everything, it is going to have to answer David Chalmers' Hard Question: How is it that interiors and exteriors interact? Wilber doesn't ignore this question, but he attempts to answer it in terms of an idealistic nondual "ultimate reality," that really do nothing more than explain the problem away as a sort of plague for the unenlightened. [Of course, I have now set myself for the Wilberian reading that I have not transcended the mind-body problem because of my inadequate spiritual development. Umm, maybe. It is possible that I'm just not developed enough to get it. But if we are talking about experiences brought about by either meditation or other spiritual practices, even if we grant that these experiences are in some way more direct, and more real, we do not answer the questions in the terms that they are asked. Which is to say, if we ask theoretical questions, we need theoretical answers. The question is hanging in the air: How do mind and body interact? Wilber's idealism, while conceivably true in some metaphysical sense, is not philosophically satisfying.][9]

All integral theory hinges on the question of consciousness. For anything to explain everything, it must, at least provisionally, solve this riddle.

So, a third criteria for an integral theory:

  1. It must explicitly resolve the mind-body problem

To contrast with Wilber, panpsychism and epiphenomenalism both attempt to give serious answers to the question. Panpsychists argue that because neither matter nor mind could ever give rise to the other, both must be different fundamental aspects of everything. Epiphenomonolists believe that mind is the product of brains working. We don't need to push either of these theories right now. It is enough to see that there are genuine attempts to answer a very difficult question. In the future, if science ever establishes a causal relationship between interiors and exteriors, it won't necessarily mean an integral theory, but it will allow for the possibility of one. Even now, a theory that attempts to answer the Hard Problem of Consciousness stands a chance of being the foundation of a truly integral theory, in a way that Wilber's work does not.

There are other possible bases for integral theories. Ervin Laszlo thinks that information is the fundamental basis of our universe, that it is inherent in nature and a factor in guiding evolution. If we can understand the initial conditions of information and energy we can have a valid integral theory.

My own best guess is that consciousness is emergent. As brains become increasingly complex and are able to hold more advanced models and carry out more complicated functions, the subjective experience of an "I" inside becomes more firmly entrenched. It is a fairly common view to hold. Douglas Hofstedder presents a version of this idea in his book, I Am a Strange Loop. But to some, this kind of position is an anathema. Because our "I"-ness is so often present, mediating everything we encounter, we naturally make a psychological jump to ontological conclusions. Grounding the mind in the brain then seems dismissive and overly materialistic.

We want to think that "I" is real. To think that "I" isn't real is a very hard thought for "me" to hold. Who is thinking what about whom? But proposing a source and evolutionary history for subjective experience needn't connote materialism. After all, our thumbs evolved too, and we don't doubt them. The fact that subjectivity feels real is enough to make it real. It is here. We're just not sure why. And that is what we hope science will answer for us. If we ever do come up with strong evidence for how brains produce consciousness, then emergence will be the ground for an integral theory.

If not, then something else. Until Laszlo's information or science's brains or something currently unimagined answers the Hard Question of Consciousness and gives a causal argument for what underlies all of our disparate fields, a merely descriptive theory, no mater how inclusive, will not be integral.

That said, if and when an integral theory is reached, it will not be an intellectual panacea. There will still be unanswered questions...Where does existence come from?...Why is there something rather than nothing...And because we are curious we will continue to wonder...And because we want to conclude our narratives we will continue to speculate...


[1] "Meanings of "Integral"",

[2] Ken Wilber, "Foreword", in Frank Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought As Passion, SUNY Press, 2003. 

[3] Jeff, Meyerhoff, “Six Criticisms of Wilber's Integral Theory”,

[4] Charles Guignon and David R. Hiley, Richard Rorty

[5] Ervin Laszlo, “Rationale for an Integral Theory of Everything”

[6] “Introduction,” Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Shambhala.

[7] Matthew Dallman,“The Humanities as The Integral Tradition”,

[8] As a side note, I think we all use the catalogue method in our daily lives in our searches for narratives. We select from theories we know (however much we know them) and combine them to make up our respective worldviews. In this very limited sense, though we don't live in our own worlds, it can seem like we do, because we each understand it differently. We don't do it as systematically as Wilber does and sometimes we contradict ourselves, but contradictions or not, all we require from our wolrldviews is that they be psychologically sufficient to get us through the day. As a further aside in this line of thought, suicide could be understood as a loss of adequate narrative.

[9] Wilber offers the opposite perspective in The Eye of Sprit: “ Thus, the heart of integral philosophy, as I conceive it, is primarily a mental activity of coordinating, elucidating, and conceptually integrating all of the various modes of knowing and being, so that, even if integral philosophy itself does not deliver the higher modes, it fully acknowledges them, and then allows and invites philosophia to open itself to the practices and modes of contemplation.” When integral philosophy doesn't answer a mental question, we rely on our idealist metaphysics to say that the question itself is inadequate. “We hear only those questions for which we are in a position to find answers”—Nietzsche.

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