The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion

By Ken Wilber

Random House, 1998

Reviewed by Jordan Gruber (

The Marriage of Sense and Soul is a didactic masterpiece. Ken Wilber gives us marvelous short courses on: (1) the nature of science and scientific method, including a common misreading of Thomas Kuhn and the notion of “new paradigms”; (2) the dignity, and the disaster, of modernity and the Enlightenment; and (3) previous failed attempts at integrating science and religion, including Romanticism, Idealism, and a marvelous deconstruction of Postmodernism.

Wilber's main goal is to take a straightforward shot at integrating, or at least reconciling, science and religion in a manner and on terms acceptable to both. There is, he tells us, “arguably no more important and pressing topic.” Our omnipresent global scientific framework cannot, by its own internal logic, create meaning or value, while religion, both despite and because of its premodern roots, creates value and meaning for billions. As science and religion hotly deny significance and even reality to each other, we are faced with “a massive and violent schism and rupture in the internal organs of today's global culture.”

While no one may be more capable of attempting this reconciliation than Wilber (comparisons with William James and appellations such as the Einstein of consciousness are not merely accidental), any new contribution must first be evaluated on its own terms. Likewise, the complaints of Wilber's detractors—dislike for his occasional flippancy and supposed arrogance, distrust of his relentless “will to system,” and the occasional discovery and trumpeting of factual or textual errors in his writings—must also be put aside. The adulation and criticism that inevitably follow a thinker of Wilber's magnitude must, to give a fair reading, be filtered out.

In The Marriage of Sense and Soul Wilber's main argument rests on three insights. First, it is not spirituality alone that has been overwhelmed by science and modernity's differentiation of science, morals, and art into three separate value spheres. Thus, “the interior dimensions of the Kosmos were simply gutted and laid out to dry in the blazing sun of the monological gaze. [T]his was not simply or even especially an attack on spiritual realities; it was an attack on the entire sweep of interior, introspective, lived awareness and consciousness. . . . None of those interior dimensions has simple location in the sensorimotor world, and thus none of them was primarily or irreducibly real.” The first step to reconciliation, then, is to rehabilitate the interior realms in general.

Second, science has unfairly denied the validity and investigability of everything not physical or sensorimotor in nature. True or “deep” science rests on the threefold method of injunction (undertake this experiment, look through this telescope, meditate like this), data (apprehend what is there, view the results), and confirmation (discuss data within a qualified community of investigators). Deep science is more than empirical in the narrow sense of “only physical.” Not only can, and have, interior realms such as moral and spiritual development been investigated, but science itself relies heavily on the interior-only realms of mathematics and logic to conduct its investigations. If science already relies on such interior processes, how can it possibly deny value and meaning to other interior realms?

Third, in addition to having science compromise, Wilber asks religion to compromise by giving up (“bracketing”) its premodern mythic beliefs. At the esoteric core of all religion is the Great Chain (“Great Holarchy”) of Being. The myths of religion (for example, the Red Sea parting, the Virgin Birth) are simply untenable in light of modernity's differentiation of art, morals, and science: “But the deep sciences of the interior domains, disclosed by direct experiential evidence and data, evoked by repeatable injunctions, and open to confirmation or rejection by a community of the adequate [yield] precisely the genuine knowledge that religion, holding its head high, can bring to the integrative table.” A religion's mythic beliefs add color, but no religion should expect science or other religions to acknowledge them.

Following upon these three insights, Wilber brings into play the four quadrants (individual holons, collective holons, and the interior and exterior of each) of his previous work. Conceptually, at least, the conflict between science and religion is gone, and an integral science, acknowledging spiritual development, becomes a real possibility.

Applying Wilber's own criteria, this book is at least as true, scholarly, and comprehensive as any previous integrative attempt; it is good because it will bring forth discussion of this crucial topic; and it is beautiful, both because of its logical structure and because of the exceptional poetry sprinkled throughout. In sum, this is an extraordinary, not-to-be-missed effort.