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

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Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).



And it's implications for four strand theories
of knowledge acquisition.

A response to Mark Edwards

Andrew Smith

I have recently read your magnificent paper, 'The Integral Cycle of Knowledge: Some thoughts on Integrating Ken Wilber's Developmental and Epistemological Models", which I discovered on The World of Ken Wilber website. I feel you show great perception concerning both what Wilber has actually said and what he appears to mean, and your main theme, the need for an additional strand in the knowledge acquisition process, is not simply well argued, but suggests a unification with Wilber's developmental model. Any approach that can do that has to be taken very seriously. Several other correlations revealed by your arguments, such as that between the strands of knowledge and the structure of a typical scientific paper, I thought were brilliant. And last but not least, you show great fairness and respect for Wilber and his ideas throughout this long paper, not a little matter to judge from the tone taken by at least a few of his other critics. All in all, I feel this paper is a model for the kind of dialogue needed in discussions of a new paradigm.

I would like to join this discussion by offering some more detailed comments on your paper. Though some of them are critical, I will say at the outset that I am in fairly broad agreement with your argument. Furthermore, the most important contribution I feel I have to make is not a criticism of your ideas, but an extension of them. In much the same way that you have attempted to strengthen Wilber's project, I am offering what I believe is an approach that will strengthen yours.

A One-scale Model of Holarchy

The heart of this approach is my contention that Wilber's four-quadrant model of holarchical existence, which plays such a central role in your argument, is unnecessarily differentiated. I have recently presented a detailed model of holarchy which requires but a single axis or scale, thus unifying both the individual vs. social and the interior vs. exterior dimensions of Wilber's model. This one-scale model is presented in an article, "A One-scale Model of Holarchical Existence", and in much more detail, in a book, Worlds within Worlds. The Holarchical View of Existence. Links to both of these documents have been posted on my own website (, and I refer you to them for more details concerning most of the points that follow.

Briefly, and incompletely, the argument goes as follows. Wilber's need for a social dimension, it seems to me, is based on a confusion or conflation of two kinds of "societies". One kind, exemplified by galaxies that are composed of atoms, and the Gaia system that is composed of prokaryotic cells, lacks much organization. These "societies" are essentially just undifferentiated aggregates of large numbers of individual holons. They have few if any truly emergent properties. For this reason, Wilber considers them to be on the same level of existence as their individual members, and I agree with him on this point. The other kind of society, however, that composed of humans, is very different. Human societies are highly organized, and very definitely do have emergent properties. They are, in my model, analogous to the higher biological stages (tissues, organs, etc.), having much the same relationship to their individual members as the higher biological stages have to their individual cells (I want to emphasize that I am not saying that human societies are "like organisms". I am saying they are analogous to certain kinds of holons found within organisms. If even this analogy seems imperfect in some respects, it must be kept in mind that whereas the higher biological stages have finished evolving, human societies have not. This point is discussed at some length in my book). Therefore, just as these higher biological stages can be (and are) placed above individual cells on a single scale or axis in Wilber's model, so, I argue, should human societies be placed above individual humans in this model.

This results in the elimination of most of the social dimension in his holarchy, that is, the distinction between it and the individual dimension. While there is still a valid distinction to be made between what I call social holons (e.g., human societies, biological tissues) and fundamental holons (e.g., cells, organisms), they can both be placed on a single scale, with the social holons (at any particular level) above the individual holons. Thus human societies are above individual humans; biological tissues and organs are above cells; large and small molecules are above atoms. The loose societies like galaxies and Gaia don't take this position, because as Wilber and I agree, they are not really higher than their individual members; but for just this reason, I don't feel it necessary to give them a special position or axis in the holarchy. We can understand that groups of atoms or groups of prokaryotes are all in one holarchical position, regardless of how many individuals are in the groups.

The argument for bringing together the exterior and interior dimensions of Wilber's model is a little more complicated, and again, I refer you to the article of the book (in the latter, this discussion appears in the last part of Chapter 4). However, there is a very quick way of making this point. All of us, Wilber included, agree that the holarchy can be described in very abbreviated terms as something like "matter, life, mind, spirit", with other levels likely or possible below and above these four. Since mind is certainly an interior property in Wilber's sense, and since the brain, as a biological organization of nerve cells, is an exterior property, it follows that mind is above the brain--not on the same level in a different quadrant or dimension as Wilber places it. Just where in the holarchy it is, and its relationship to brain on a single scale, is a question I will return to in a moment.

First, though, I do need to emphasize that in order to eliminate Wilber's interior dimension (or speaking more precisely, unify it with the exterior one), I assume that Wilber really means two things by the term interior--that is, it includes phenomena that a large number of scientists, psychologists and philosophers divide into two classes. These two classes are functional properties of mind--learning, memory, cognition, etc.--and what I call experiential properties. Functional properties are those that have some outward manifestation that another observer can measure; experiential properties are philosophers' qualia, the experience of consciousness itself. These two classes correspond to what philosopher David Chalmers (1996) calls, respectively, the "soft" and "hard" problems of consciousness. Most scientists and philosophers believe the soft properties can be explained completely in terms of the interactions of cells in the nervous system (even if we haven't succeeded in this project yet)--which is to say, exterior properties. Some theorists, however, including Chalmers, are not so sure we will ever be able to explain the hard problem in this way.

From the way Wilber has described interior properties (in, for example, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 1995), I'm quite sure he means both of these classes of mind. My arguments against a separate interior scale, however, are directed only against the soft or functional properties. I think it would be very difficult to conceive of a scale in which mind or consciousness in the hard sense bears the same relationship to, say, biological tissues and cells, as they do to still lower forms of organization. I consider consciousness in this sense as something outside or beyond the holarchy. Every form of existence has some degree of consciousness, by virtue of its position within the holarchy, and this degree manifests itself in certain functional properties. But there is in my model an irreducible concsciousness that is not dealt with on the scale. This consciousness is unitary in the sense that it pervades all of existence. For this reason, I don't feel that it can be placed on any scale which implies levels or degrees.

Nevertheless, what I call the functional or soft aspects of consciousness include a great deal of mental phenomena, including what some people might loosely refer to as experience. For example, in your article (p. 20 in my printed version, which runs to a total of 30 pages, including references) you state that "it is also the case that interiors can be included in the intepretation of purely objective data/behavior through inference and the inclusion of subjectivity as a basic element in the interpretative framework for the data." Chalmers would argue, and I agree, that all of this interior knowledge, obtained through the advances of cognitive and then evolutionary psychology that you subsequently discuss, is part of the soft aspects of consciousness. Even the dialogical discussion that I am having with you right now involves soft, not hard, aspects of consciousness. Though you define dialogical science as "that type of science that emphasizes the experiential and interpretive strands" (p. 23), one can imagine a zombie--a being with a functional mentality identical to an ordinary human being, yet with no conscious experience (Chalmers 1996)--capable of having the identical discussion. So dialogical science and interpretation are not (necessarily) experiential in the sense I am defining it, and little wonder that it can sometimes employ the same kinds of methods used successfully to obtain knowledge about exteriors (a critical point in your paper that I will return to).

Having made this distinction in interior properties, let's return to the question of where in the holarchy the soft or functional aspects of mind or consciousness are. Much of your article, and the best argued part in my opinion, is devoted to trying to convince the reader that different levels of the holarchy can be approached by both monological and dialogical methods. Much of this argument is summarized in Table 3, and in subsequent tables. While I have some differences with you over some of the examples shown in these tables (see below), there are broad areas of agreement, and particularly with a statement you make a little later (p. 17 on my printed out version, where Table 3 is on p. 16), that summarizes where you stand: "The 4-quadrants model clearly shows that the evolution of holons through the holarchy of development is fully present in exteriors and can be validly investigated from the exterior-surface perspective. The higher interior realms not only show their footprints in the lower exterior ones but are actually fully present in higher exterior worlds."

Exactly! In this quote, you come very close to saying what I'm saying: that the properties Wilber calls interior need not be placed on a second axis distinct from exterior, but can go on the same axis, at a higher level (or what I call stage on the same level). I go just one step further though, saying that they are not only "fully present" in the higher exterior worlds--they are identical to them. That is to say, in my model, the social exterior holons, on any level of existence, are identical to the interior individual holons on that same level.

This conclusion is bound to seem strange. I am saying that our social organizations and our mental phenomena are the same thing? The argument is developed more fully in my book, but basically I contend that any holon can look in three directions in the holarchy: down, at holons below itself; up, at holons above itself; and horizontally, at holons in the same position as itself. When we look down in the holarchy, at levels below us, we see what we call objects or structures--tables, chairs, rocks, trees, cells, tissues, and so on--and even our own physical bodies. These holons are perceived "objectively", as external to us. When we look up in the holarchy, at the stages (social organizations) above us, we see processes. These holons are perceived subjectively, and as internal to us. Our thoughts, in other words, represent perceptions of social holons. (Meditation, as an aside, is the process of stopping or transcending thoughts, that is to say, moving upward in the holarchy past these stages so that we are no longer below them).

The Four Strands of Knowledge as Universal Holonic Interactions

To summarize my model of the holarchy, every level of existence has fundamental or individual holons (atoms, cells, organisms), and social holons (molecules, tissues, societies). The social holons are what Wilber refers to as the social dimension or aspects of individual holons, and are simultaneously the interior aspects of the individual holons, as the latter see them. I would therefore recast your strands of knowledge as a series of horizontal and vertical interactions among these holons. Trying to do that in any detail is beyond the scope of this discussion, but I do want to sketch out briefly a way in which your strands of knowledge might be correlated with another set of relationships among holons. The latter are fundamental to the entire holarchy, and thus such a correlation would give real teeth to your claim that these strands of knowledge operate everywhere in the holarchy, not just with humans (p. 5: "the Integral Cycle of Knowledge also applies to the other levels in the ontological hierarchy and not just the mental realms of science. The four strands flow through the pre-mental, mental and post-mental ontologies and through all quadrants.")

In my holarchical model, I distinguish four basic properties of holons: assimilation, communication, adaptation and reproduction. All of these properties are well-known to students of biology, of course, and in my book, I argue that they can be observed at other levels besides the biological. For example, an atom can assimilate an electron, communicate with another atom, or adapt to an aqueous environment. This, too, has been noted by others (e.g., Land 1973). Furthermore, at any level of existence, these properties of holons can be defined in terms of their interactions with other holons. Assimilation is an interaction of a holon with another holon that is below it in the holarchy. Thus an atom assimilates an electron; a cell assimilates a molecule; an organism assimilates tissue of a plant or another organism. Communication is an interaction between two holons on the same level: atoms (through chemical bonding), cells (through physical, chemical or electrical interactions) and organisms can all communicate with each other. Adaptation is an interaction between a holon at one level and a higher-level holon (more precisely, a holon at a higher stage on the same level). Atoms adapt to molecules they exist in, cells to tissues they participate in, organisms to societies and other multi-holonic organizations (e.g., ecosystems).

In my scheme of things, reproduction is a special property. Unlike the other three, it is not characteristic of social holons, but only of individual holons. And of course, science tells us that atoms, which are individual holons in my model, don't reproduce. But in any case, reproduction in my model is a process involving all three of the other processes simultaneously. I won't pursue the argument in detail--again, it's in the book (Chapter 3)--but it's seen most clearly in the reproduction of eukaryotic cells. Such cells reproduce by dividing, and this is ordinarily done when they reach a certain maximum size. Hence, reproduction is a form of assimilation, allowing the reproducing cell to grow larger. But reproduction also involves communication with other cells in the tissue, which must permit it to do so, and adaptation to the needs of the entire tissue, which constrains the reproductive process according to certain tissue-level rules. So one definition of reproduction is a process in which assimilation, communication and adaptation all occur simultaneously in a holon.

Now with that background, note that there appears to be a fairly close correspondence between these universal properties of holons and the strands of knowledge. Apprehension is a form of assimilation, if we restrict the former term to raw sensory impressions. Injunctions are mediated through communication. Interpretation, I think, might be understood as a form of adaptation, and validation as a form of reproduction. That is to say, when an observation is validated, it is replicated by others, and this replication necessarily involves the other three processes.

I want to emphasize again that this argument is put forth tentatively; I may be open to the charge of stretching analogies a bit. However, if we continue this line of reasoning and accept that these correlations really do exist, then a still further unification is apparent. This is because in Worlds, I argue that all four of these fundamental properties of holons can be understood as different manifestations of a single property or process. I have already noted that reproduction can be understood as a process involving each of the other three processes. It remains to be explained how these latter three processes can be viewed as a single process. The key to this lies in the understanding that how any particular property of a holon appears depends on one's point of view, that is, the relationship of the observer to the holon being observed. For example, earlier I gave as an illustration of assimilation an atom capturing an electron. This is so from the point of view of the atom. But from the electron's point of view, the process is adaptation. When the electron interacts with the atom, its behavior becomes constrained in certain ways. Furthermore, if the electron that the atom assimilates belongs to another atom, a process of communication--atomic bonding--is also occurring.

In summary, I'm arguing that every property of a holon involves some kind of interaction with holons above, below or on the same plane (stage or level) as itself. By taking the point of view of these different holons, we can see that what is called one type of property from one point of view is the same as what we call another property as seen from another point of view. If we now apply this same line of reasoning to the strands of knowledge, we come to the conclusion that each strand, from a certain point of view, may be perceived as some other strand. For example, the process by which we apprehend data may be a process of interpretation for the holons being apprehended. The process by which an injunction is delivered may, from a holarchically higher point of view, be a process of apprehension. I don't expect anyone to take such specific examples too seriously, but I think the general thrust of the argument is clear: knowledge acquisition is occurring at all levels of the holarchy, with a strand at one stage or level corresponding to, indeed, identical to, another strand at another stage or level. Still further, because this scheme links knowledge acquisition with more general properties of holons, the process of acquiring knowledge can be understood as a specific example or subset of the more general process of growth in the holarchy. That is, knowledge is a kind of food that is obtained and processed through various steps involving interactions among different holons. This is not an original idea, of course. For example, it was an important part of Gurdjieff's teachings (Ouspensky 1961). But we now can describe this idea in the language of modern science and philosophy.

Before leaving this subject, I want to mention one more implication of this argument, which links knowledge acquisition closely to evolutionary theory (as your quote from Popper on p. 7 suggests it should be). I argued earlier that the validation process is a form of reproduction. What , exactly, is being reproduced? A little thought, surely, indicates that the unit of reproduction is what evolutionary biologists call a meme (Blackmore 1999). A meme can be defined in various ways, but in my book (Chapter 9) I describe it as a certain pattern of interactions between cells in the brain, or between communicating human beings (usually but not always humans), with both sets of interactions occuring in a closely correlated manner. Reproduction of memes is the basis of what is commonly called cultural evolution, but which I call evolution of social holons. In my holarchical model, both Darwinian and "cultural" evolution occur on all levels of existence, not simply the biological and the mental, respectively. Without going into further details (see Chapter 9), it should be clear that by defining validation as the process by which a meme is reproduced, knowledge acquisition becomes firmly embedded into evolutionary theory.

Can the Transpersonal be Investigated or Interpreted from Lower Levels?

Having staked out the arguments for a one-scale model of holarchy, then traced some of the implications of this model for our understanding of the four strands of knowledge, I now want to turn to some specific criticisms of your paper. Most of these criticisms are directed against your claim that knowledge of different levels of the holarchy can be obtained using methods and/or interpretive frameworks that are based on other levels. Though as I said before I generally accept this claim, when it's applied to transpersonal phenomena, I think you may be overreaching.

For example, on p. 24 you assert that: "The refashioned Integral Epistemology makes it possible for ordinary objective, monological scientists of the mental/social realms to become explorers of the transpersonal domains without ever needing to become contemplative practitioners." I disagree. In my experience, and I believe not only Wilber but many others will support me here, we can't, in our ordinary state of consciousness, see the transpersonal at all. In my holarchical model, that's because it exists on another level above us. Though I claimed earlier that holons could look above themselves as well as below themselves, their perception, in my model, has definite limits. Individuals can look at the social stages above themselves, on their own level of existence, to the extent that they participate in these stages. But they can't observe these stages if they aren't part of them, and they can't observed the next level of existence, which transcends all of these stages and organizes them into a new form of existence, at all.

How, then, can researchers using monological methods study transpersonal phenomena? Your answer to this question is on p. 15: "A researcher...could study, for example, the behaviour of several authentic teachers of contemplative practice. She could record and and analyse their private behavior, their scores on objective mental health tests and standardised tests of cognitive development, their social interactions, their brain wave patterns during meditation and during everyday activities, their emotional responses, and their language patterns." This approach, which in fact is what some researchers are now trying to do, has a critical flaw in it, contained in the phrase "authentic teachers". Who is authentic? A purely monological researcher has no way of knowing. She may ask members of a spiritual community for help in making this decision, but that merely pushes the problem back to another point: how does the researcher know that these members are capable of judging who is authentic? How does she know this community is genuine? There may be people who really do know, but how can someone who doesn't know, who doesn't experience the transpersonal, possibly identify them?

I believe we can all agree that this is, at the very least, a very difficult practical problem. Much of the work attempting to correlate physiology with higher consciousness that I am aware of is currently being carried out by the Maharishi Institute in Fairfield, Iowa, whose members believe (along with some other rather questionable ideas shared by their current candidate for U.S. President, John Hagelin) that a few minutes of meditation a day is sufficient to bring one enlightenment. In my thirty years of experience, this simply is not true (a lesson I learned in a few weeks a long time ago). Of course, some people may not believe me, but my point is that many other people do agree with me, so already we have a major problem in building a consensus on who is authentic, and therefore whose studies we are going to accept.

In science, of course, practical problems like this are encountered all the time. The crux of the matter is whether this issue, given sufficient time and effort, can be overcome. You apparently believe it can. I imagine your response would go something like this: There are people who have genuinely experienced higher consciousness, who have travelled some distance on the path to experiencing it permanently. There are in fact probably people at various levels or stages or distances along this path. These people can come to a consensus about who is where, and make this information available to people who consider themselves completely unable to judge. But again, I disagree. In my experience (which is the only argument I can use here, a position which itself underscores my point), people at one level of consciousness cannot judge those above themselves. They can't say, so-and-so has evolved to such-and-such. This means that not only can the most advanced people not be recognized by a larger consensual group, but, again, those on the monological bottom are truly lost.

What if we somehow could overcome this problem, and be certain that a few specific individuals were at a higher state of consciousness? Could a monological approach then learn something useful about them? I'm not even sure of that. One of the most important lessons I've learned--and again, this is not an original one--is the importance of blending in with the world, of appearing ordinary to other people. This is a vital necessity to me, because I have learned--again, old lesson--that everything I do has an effect on my consciousness. Getting too involved with the world creates a lot of karma, which is to say, thoughts that have to be transcended. This is not a problem that vanishes in a few years or decades, so I have to believe that authentic subjects for any study of higher consciousness are unlikely to reveal any unique behavioral attributes. The goal of the path is not to be more intelligent, insightful, compassionate, whatever, than others; it's to wake up. All of our efforts are directed towards this. Yes, our intellects, emotions and bodies do gain new powers, but not, in my experience, ones that are beyond the range of ordinary human beings. I think Ken Wilber expressed this very well in Eye to Eye (1989), when he remarked that he had never seen an enlightened master run a four-minute mile, or produce a theory like Einstein's. (And even more insightfully, Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan pointed out that becoming a warrior makes one more vulnerable, not less).

What about physiological changes? Maybe, but again, I'm skeptical. I can only argue from my own experience, and I'm well aware people have no reason to believe that I'm a very good example, but I have seen no changes of the kind that would make a doctor, for example, raise his eyebrows. Much has been claimed about correlations between brain wave activity and degree of consciousness, but anyone who has ever tried to change her brainwaves knows that there are lots of little tricks that can be learned in a fairly short period of time. That, to me, is enough evidence that brainwaves are useless as indicators of higher consciousness. I do feel that if there is one candidate physiological parameter that has some promise as an indicator, it would be energy metabolism in the brain, but even if this is so, I can certainly imagine that there might be ways of altering this through habits or practices not devoted to realizing higher consciousness.

I could go on and on about this subject, but the issue is obviously complex, and open to a lot of debate. I'm sure studies like this are going to increase, and I'm not really against them, because if I'm right, these conclusions will eventually emerge, and if I'm wrong, I will be as curious as anyone to see what some of these correlations are. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, people carrying out this kind of research are going to be subjected to a lot of criticism, entirely justifiable in my view, that their subjects are not authentic. Because of this problem, I find some of your examples in Table 3 questionable; they have the feel of data being forced into your framework, to prove that there is a complete interchangeability concerning methods, frameworks and focus of study at different levels. I don't question that Wilhelm Reich, for example, had a strong interest in the transpersonal, but that doesn't mean that his attempt to interpret physiological studies from this point of view were valid. Conversely, you list five investigators of the transpersonal domain who used methodology or interpretation of another level. I think one can legitimately argue that in some cases, these investigators, brillliant as most or all of them may have been, were confusing the transpersonal with other levels. To the extent that they were not, I would argue that they were not really using a lower-level interpretative framework. I have great respect for Stan Grof, for example, and I regard at least some of his studies of the transpersonal genuine; that is, I believe some of his subjects had genuine transpersonal experiences. But that doesn't compel me to accept that his observations can be interpreted from a prenatal framework, even if some of his subject also re-experienced this domain.

Maybe an example from my own experience will make this clearer. When I meditate under certain conditions, I am sometimes very much aware of experiences from my early childhood. I can vividly see scenes, people, and so forth that occurred a great many years ago. Since memories this vivid do not present themselves to me except in what I regard as a fairly high state of awareness, I could argue that there is some critical relationship between my early years and the attempt to realize higher consciousness. But I don't claim this, and frankly, until I became familiar with the Grof debate, it never would have occurred to me to make this connection. The pathway to higher consciousness breaks down all kinds of barriers in the mind, so it seems logical to me that it sometimes might make very old memories available. This would probably be even more true for Grof's subjects, using drugs and other techniques which, though they may make the transpersonal more accessible, may have many other, poorly understood, effects on the brain. I can accept that if some of these memories are unpleasant--and in the case of the birth experience, they surely are--some people might want to, or even have to, deal with them in some way. But I don't accept that this is necessary for everyone, or that everyone must even relive such experiences. The name of the game is suffering, but there are many ways to do that (and the devil is always inventing new ones).

Another example of where you seem to force data to fit into your general scheme is in your argument that every level of existence has a paradoxical nature. This, again is a point important to your contention that every type of approach to knowledge acquisition can be applied to every level of the holarchy. In Table 4 you present examples of paradoxes at different levels. As a trained molecular biologist, I find nothing paradoxical about the statement "The genetic information of the whole is contained in each part (the cell)." Science has a very good understanding of how genes work, and while there are to be sure still some major mysteries surrounding embryogenesis or biological development, there is nothing paradoxical about this process. The term "paradoxical" is not, of course, synonomous with "not understood". Likewise, there is nothing paradoxical to my understanding in the statement "The individual organism sustains the ecology of the whole." Ecosystems to a greater or lesser extent are dependent on their composition of individual organisms (though in Worlds, I review data suggesting that in most cases a single species is not critical to the stability of an ecosystem). So what? An airplane, as ecologists Paul and Ann Ehrlich (1981) pointed out in a famous metaphor, is sustained by its individual rivets. Is that paradoxical?

I understand completely why you are trying to find paradoxes at these levels of existence. True paradoxes do exist at or near the ends of the holarchy, in quantum effects and in transpersonal phenomena. We would like to show that paradox, too, is found throughout the holarchy. But I don't believe that it is, or that we should expect it to be. It's found in the transpersonal levels, because we are confronting something above or beyond our logical mind. Why it exists in the quantum world, I don't know, though I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that this world is not just below our own, but very far below. In Worlds, there is considerable discussion about how our perception of other holons depends on our relationship to them in the holarchy.

I do believe that there is a lot of truth in your statement, "paradox lies at the core of each event whether that be physical, psychological or spiritual" (p. 18). But this universal occurrence of paradox, it seems pretty clear to me, is rooted in the paradox of consciousness. Science at all levels makes certain core assumptions, including the independence of the observer from the observed, and the validity of inductive processes, which science itself can't prove. These problems in turn reflect, in holarchical thinking, the fact that we are in particular position in the holarchy, and therefore do not have access to the entire holarchy. In this important sense, all our observations are paradoxical and incomplete. But this doesn't mean that there are paradoxes specific to particular phenomena at every level of existence.

Ironically, given your desire to achieve a unity in the holarchy, to demonstrate the existence of common themes at every level--an aim I share with you and which probably leads me astray sometimes, too--you do not see this unity in a place where I do. On p. 14, you state: "In the final stages of evolution the boundaries that have divided the inner and the outer world and the personal and collective worlds become more permeable and less restrictive, and there is a more intimate engagement between self and other and between the individual and the collective." In my holarchical model, this dissolution of boundaries does not appear just at the final stage, though if there is such a thing, one would presume it is most final and complete there. It occurs at every new level of existence. When prebiotic molecules organized into a cell, self and other broke down, as previously separate and somewhat independent holons became unified. This cell then became an other to neighboring cells, until this self-other distinction was dissolved in the organism. In my holarchical model, each level of existence has several stages, where holons become differentiated, and the self-other distinction becomes greatest. When these stages organize into a new level, otherness vanishes, until this new level begins to differentiate. (Captured so long ago in the Hindu Creation myth of the God who looked around and became lonely; though that is usually cited as a description of involution, or stepping down from the Ultimate, it's a pretty fair overvew of an essential theme in evolution). As I discuss in Worlds, this surely is the basis of Wilber's pre-trans fallacy (Wilber 1989). If young children and people of earlier cultures seem to have some of the features of enlightenment, it's because they are enlightened--relative to the biological level from which they are just emerging. But the enlightenment pursued by an adult human being is that realized by transcending the mental level, and so is higher.)

One final example of what I view as your attempt to try to force data into your scheme is on p. 24, where you state "The conversion experience is real." Your point is that people of mainstream religions have genuine spiritual experiences, but don't understand them correctly because of the faulty interpretive framework laid upon them by their religous organizations. I can accept that there is some truth to this--and to the extent that there is, your view has great and admirable potential for bringing people of different religions together--but I believe that the majority of religious experiences , and associated conversions, have very little to do with genuine contact with higher consciousness. I have talked to individuals who have claimed to have such experiences, and frankly, I find almost no "experience" in their claims at all--nothing at all that could be used as a basis for common understanding, which surely would not be the case if they had some taste of a higher world. (Yes, their response would be that I'm the one ignorant of God--my view is certainly not one that brings all of us together). Most of these people, as far as I can tell, are told beforehand what it is they are supposed to feel, and then manage to deceive themselves that they have. I don't doubt they have felt some emotion, often powerful, but there is a big difference between emotions and a state in which, ultimately, emotions are transcended. (This leads into the question of which of Wilber's stages of human development can have access to the higher levels, which is beyond the scope of this discussion).

Conclusions: Stages and Levels, The Interior and the Social

I don't regard these criticisms as very serious, relative to what you have accomplished. I'm much more interested in the implications of the four-strand model for unifying knowledge acquisition with other aspects of the holarchy, and I have tried to point a direction here in which unification efforts should proceed. Like you, I maintain great respect for Ken Wilber, whose works are hardly diminished by what either of us have to say. Indeed, I think a one-scale view may help buttress some other weaknesses of his model. For example, it has been pointed out by several of his critics that some of Wilber's levels, such as cognitive stages in human development, do not genuinely transcend lower levels, such as the body and emotions (Goddard 1997). While Wilber, if I understand his latest thinking in this debate correctly, has tried to address this problem by bringing in a new distinction, between permanent and temporary structures, these differences in relationships, I believe, can be much more easily understood in a model which recognizes that there are both stages and levels of existence. In my holarchical model, stages transform, but do not transcend, the stages below them, whereas one level does transcend that level, and all its stages, below it. Thus human cognitive phenomena, as part of one or more stages on the mental level of existence, do not transcend the emotions or even the body, which is the first or fundamental stage on this level. That this arrangement is not simply an ad hoc way of fitting the data is made clear by the observation that a very analogous relationship is observed on lower levels of existence--tissues vs. cells, and large molecules vs. atoms. As discussed at length in Worlds, biological molecules do not transcend atoms, whereas cells do. Likewise, biological tissues do not transcend cells, whereas organisms do. Close examination of these levels, which we obviously can study much more objectively than our own, in fact reveals new insights into just what the terms transformation and transcendence mean.

Nevertheless, while I believe my one-scale holarchical model removes the necessity of Wilber's four-quadrant divisions, I do recognize distinctions between social and individual holons, which I regard as the basis of a distinction between interior and exterior qualities or properties. I understand that Ken has had very good reasons for emphasizing interior qualities, for many scientists and some philosophers do tend to overlook or at least underestimate them. Though I place them on the same scale as exterior qualities, it should be apparent from where I put them that I am not ignoring or trying to collapse them--any more than by developing the idea of holarchy itself, any of us is saying that all forms of life are one and the same. And yet, from some point of view perhaps they are, and as the holarchy is further developed, I expect it will increasingly reflect this point of view.


Blackmore, S. (1999) The Meme Machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chalmers, D. (1996) The Conscious Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ehrlich, P. A. and A. H. Ehrlich (1981) Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species. New York: Random House.

Goddard, G. (1997) "Airing our Transpersonal Differences".

Land, G. (1973) Grow or Die. New York: Random House.

Ouspensky, P. D. (1961) In Search of the Miraculous. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Wilber, K. (1989) Eye to Eye. Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (1995) Sex, Ecology, Sprituality. Boston: Shambhala.

Homepage of Andrew Smith

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