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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".
Federico Nicola Pecchini is an independent researcher and activist focusing on conscious evolution, integral development, cooperative economics and transnational sociology. He is currently based in Dharamsala, India. Contact: fpecchini @ gmail.com.
Part 1: A critique of Wilber's Panpsychism
Federico Nicola Pecchini
In his introduction to Integral theory, Ken Wilber explains that the 4 quadrants in his AQAL map are “four fundamental perspectives on any occasion (or the 4 basic ways of looking at anything)”:
What we have on the map is:
Now, Wilber states these are the “4 basic ways of looking at anything”.
Let’s say I’m looking at my girlfriend:
This makes sense.
But let’s say I’m looking at my quarter-dollar coin:
This looks a bit confusing, especially for the two left-hand quadrants, I & WE. Basically, when looking at any inanimate object through the “interior” lenses, we have to operate a switch and really consider the feelings of a living subjectindividual (me) or collective (a given culture)on the object in question.
That’s because only living beings are “subjects” in the sense of having feelings and cultural values. And therefore there’s no subjective or intersubjective awareness intrinsic to a non-living object, but only the relative awareness of a living subject towards it.
This results in AQAL taking an asymmetrical stance towards life and non-life: two of the four fundamental perspectives can be applied directly only to living subjects, while to non-living objects they can be applied only indirectly by an external subject who is perceiving them (the famous “conscious observer”).
Hence, if we include the indirect perspectives, we have at least 6 different perspectives valid for living subjects while only 4 (2 direct, 2 indirect) for inanimate objects.
This comes very close to the model proposed by Fred Kofman (2001) in reference to “artifacts”. He explains that artifacts are different from sentient holons since they lack an interior (subjective) dimension. Kofman recognizes that Wilber failed to “make sharp distinctions between sentient and non-sentient holons” in his first edition of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995), and hopes to correct some of the confusion generated by Wilber’s “implicit restriction of the term holon to sentient holons”.
In the months preceding the publication of his essay, Kofman interviewed Wilber at length on this issue, helping him to articulate his thought more clearly. As a result, Wilber distinguished four types of basic entities in the Kosmos: individual holons, social holons, artifacts and heaps (plus hybrids).
The problem is that for his model to work on a universal level, Wilber has to consider atoms and molecules as individual holons, and thus “entities that have agency and localized interiority or consciousnessin addition to unified exteriority.” He defines “atomic consciousness” as prehension, and “molecular consciousness” as irritability.
The Oxford dictionary defines “prehension” as “An interaction of a subject with an event or entity which involves perception but not necessarily cognition.” And if we check out “perception”, we find “Awareness of something through the senses” or more specifically “The neurophysiological processes, including memory, by which an organism becomes aware of and interprets external stimuli.”
Wilber’s position seems a slight reinterpretation of the panexperiential school of thought (Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb, Nobo, Griffin), where a capacity for awareness of feeling is recognized from top to bottom in the universe.
For example, atoms have prehension, so it is possible to say “the atoms in the rock have consciousness (or prehension)”. But it would be incorrect to jump to the conclusion that “the rock has consciousness”Wilber calls this the fallacy of “popular pan-psychism”. The key to understand a heap is to see that there is no relational exchange between its components (above the base physical level of being piled against each other): a bunch of logs (dead trees) is a heap, but a group of live trees is a social holon (forest). The difference is that there is a level of interaction between the live trees that transcends the mere interaction of their atoms (which definitely interact too in the heap). Since the atoms are holons, there is a social exterior dimension to them: the material world; but this is not enough to say that the heap is a collective holon.
The point here is that life is the only known phenomenon that opens the door to awareness and perception.
But if an atom is a conscious holon, and a molecule is a conscious holon, why isn’t the rock also considered at least as a collective holon of “conscious molecules”? A molecule is nothing but a number of atoms held together by chemical bonds. Kofman argues that “each crystal is a holon, but the set of them that constitutes the rock is not.” But where to draw the line? Not all crystals have covalent chemical bonding: for example a molecular crystal such as Dry Ice (solified carbon dioxide) is kept together by electrostatic forces alone. And how to classify marble (which undergoes a process called metamorphism whereby heat causes atomic bonds to break so that atoms move and form new bonds with other atoms, at times even creating new minerals with different chemical components or crystalline structures)?
As inadvertedly suggested by Kofman in the paragraph above, the fundamental difference between sentient and non-sentient holons is instead to be found at the level of interaction between living beings, which transcends the mere interaction of atoms and molecules. The point here is that life is the only known phenomenon that opens the door to awareness and perception, and hence to subjective experience. Only atoms and molecules that pertain to a living organism (or living culture) are hence part of a conscious holon, and thus it makes little if no sense at all to attribute subjective and intersubjective awareness to pre-biological compounds such as atoms and molecules.
This (fallacious) metaphysical assumption has all sorts of (negative) repercussions on Wilber’s work. For example, somewhere else he states:
“All quadrants show growth, development or evolution. That is, they all show some stages or levels of development, not as rigid rungs in a ladder but as fluid and flowing waves of unfolding. This happens everywhere in the natural world”.
If we look at the Upper Right behavioral quadrant “IT”, we see how Wilber draws a line of neurological complexity going from simple atoms to higher structure-functions of the brain such as metacognition.
Instead, if we look at Lower Right quadrant “ITS” what we see is an evolutionary line of social systems ranging from “galaxies” to “planetary”.
In both cases Wilber starts with inanimate physical objects (atoms, galaxies), proceeds through biological organisms and ecosystems, and culminates with human brains and societies.
This is the same anthropocentric perspective shared both by traditional religions and by modern positivistic science, which saw humanity as the pinnacle of universal evolution.
But at least since Relativity, we know that reality is more complex than that. There is no ultimate drive that moves the universe towards complexity, let alone towards life or mankind. Teleonomy, the apparent purposefulness and goal-directedness of a system, is really an emergent quality perceived only by living beings. Since we are intrinsically teleonomic as living organisms (we have purposes, goals), we project our teleonomy on the external world and we conclude that everything must also have a purpose and a goal.
This has many implications: initially I could just mistake natural phenomena like storms for “enraged spirits that want to destroy my village”. Then I could become convinced that the entire existence has a purpose in the mind of an absolute, eternal God. Eventually, at a closer look, i could notice how in a scale of “how purposeful are you?”, no one is more “purposeful” than me (an enlightened human spirit)! Only humans have free will, reason and great plans for the future. Only humans have “no constraints”as proclaimed by Pico della Mirandola in his 1491 “De Dignitate Hominis”, where God tells man:
“All other beings are constrained by the natural laws I have imposed upon them. You will determine them yourself, constrained by no limits, if not by your choices, to which only you must respond. […] I’ve put you at the centre of the world”.
This is, in my opinion, the fundamental bias that will later lead Wilber (and many others) to make pre-rational assumptions about a Spirit-driven universe. As explained by Frank Visser in his “Eros as Skyhook” article, Wilber believes that the entire evolution of the universe is guided by the “Divine force of Eros” a profoundly unscientific notion with no experimental evidence whatsoever..
In the video below, David Long entertainingly debunks Wilber’s idealist/panpsychist claims about the entire universe being a manifestation of an absolute, primordial consciousness (“Before the universe was, I am”).
Wilber’s “I Amness” is just another variation of the old anthropocentric delusions that mistake the projections of our perceptive apparatus for reality itself, giving us the intellectual illusion that our perceptive apparatus is the pre-condition for the existence of reality.
To postulate the conscious observer as a premise for understanding the nature of reality doesn’t help to understand neither objective reality nor consciousness. It only mixes them up and makes it even harder to tell one from the other.
Even when presented in scientific terms (as in the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Physics where an external, conscious observer is assumed to be the cause for the collapse of wave function), this view leads to a resurrection of the old Upanishad’s idea of consciousness pre-dating the universe.
On a scientific level, such claims are premature at best and misleading and wrong at worst. On a moral and cultural level, they lead to solipsistic, nihilistic views about reality. It is essentially the big flaw of Eastern traditionswhich resulted in static cultures suffering from a sort of cosmic fatigue. Neither new-age interpretations nor post-modern rationalizations of these old myths are today useful to humanity since they only reinforce our old biases.
In conclusion, I think that the map’s 4-quadrant framework can still be considered as a valid epistemological model for organizing human knowledge (albeit with some minor corrections), but that the superimposition Wilber makes of unidirectional lines of development towards higher stages of complexity is, at least for non living systems, grossly inaccurate and ultimately deceptive.
In the second part of this series, I’ll propose some possible “tweaks and hacks” that could help make AQAL a more efficient map.
 Ken Wilber, "Introduction to the Integral Approach (and the AQAL Map)", www.kenwilber.com, PDF, 46 pages.
 Fred Kofman, "Holons, Heaps and Artifacts, and their Corresponding Hierarchies", www.integralworld.net, Jan. 2001.
 Frank Visser, "Eros as Skyhook, Ken Wilber Meets Daniel Dennett", www.integralworld.net, April 2016.