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).


Reply to Mark Edwards' "Response"

Andrew P. Smith

I thank Mark for his reply to my posting. Though he expresses some general praise for my ideas, his overall view, it seems to me, is highly critical. I will respond to what I see as his main points of disagreement.

1. "Andy does not sufficiently recognize…the qualitatively different place in perspective analysis that the mental realm occupies. This is the realm par excellence of symbolising, imaging, theorising, and modelling other realms of existence. It is this holonic level that has the capacity to produce models of all other levels (and how they might appear objectively and feel subjectively) and to test for the accuracy of those conceptions of reality. Other realms either do not have this capacity or else are not concerned with pursuing that endeavour."

If Mark means by "mental realm" the inner quadrant of Wilber's model, of course I agree that it is different from the exterior. As I have emphasized repeatedly, I'm not intending to collapse the inner to the outer, and I don't believe I have. I certainly don't mean to trivialize the great range of human experience found in that realm. I am simply concerned with showing how it might be related to non-mental phenomena, or to non-mental aspects of phenomena. More on this below.

On the other hand, if Mark means by mental realm the level above the biological and the physical, my response would be a little different. The mental level, being higher than the biological and physical, has some qualitative differences from the latter, yet it also has some deep analogies, which I believe extend to inner as well as outer phenomena. For example, biological systems, such as neural networks in the brain, are also concerned with "symbolising, imaging, theorising and modelling." They are not as sophisticated at it as we are because they are at a lower level--they are only a small piece of our whole. But nonetheless, we can see in these lower-order holons the beginnings (or continuings) of mental phenomena. To the extent that we can understand these processes at this level in terms of their interactions with the stages and level above them, so, it seems to me, should we be able to understand our own mental phenomena to some extent in the same way. That is, some very general rules governing these processes may be easier to grasp in these simpler systems.

Someone may object (both Ken Wilber and Rupert Sheldrake have, for example) that such scientific studies are concerned only with exterior aspects, not interior. It is true that scientists do not study what a neuron, for example, might actually experience as it computes away in the brain. But I do believe there is such an experience, and that it is somewhat analogous to our own mental experience (though far less sophisticated, just as a cell is far less physically and biologically sophisticated than we are). It's even conceivable that such an experience could be studied (more realistically, the experience of a higher-order biological holon containing many cells), through the use of certain drugs that temporarily ablated functions of our highest biological systems.

In any case, in my model, what scientists do see at this level is really the same fundamental process that the cell sees; it's just from a different perspective. The scientist is looking from above, seeing in the experiment the functions of a large group of cells; the cell is looking from below, "seeing" that same large group. So I would say that we can see what the cell experiences , even if we don't really share its experience. And if we are serious about correlating mental and biological processes, as Ken has repeatedly made clear that he is, we should welcome the approach that this perspective offers.

2. "Andy's approach lies in the attempt to structurally reduce the quadrants into a collapsed linear model."

I can only reiterate that I am not attempting to collapse or reduce the inner. I made that point very specifically both in my original posting and in my book Worlds within Worlds. I am trying to show how the inner is related to the outer. Again, I will return to this later.

3."In any case Andy's levels/stages dimension is mathematically indistinguishable from Wilber's individual/social dimension. Wilber's model is a multiplicative one and Andy's model is an additive one. Wilber separates lines of development according to the quadrant factors. Andy puts levels and stages together in the one bag: For example, in Wilber's language - 3 levels X 2 quadrants = 6 ontological categories; in Andy's language - 2 levels plus 3stages in each level = 6 ontological categories. The result is the same."

I might begin by asking if my model is "mathematically indistinguishable" from Wilber's, and if "the result is the same", why does Mark call Wilber's model multiplicative, and mine additive? If 3 and 2 are 6 (actually, I have six stages per level, not three, but never mind), I must be multiplying, too (or perhaps we're both adding; multiplication is just a form of reiterative addition, a primary feature of holarchies). The main point, though, is yes, my model is in many ways indistinguishable from Ken's, and that simply underscores the point I have been emphasizing all along, that nothing has been collapsed or reduced. At least Mark seems to accept this with regard to the individual vs. social distinction. All of the data or experiences that go into Wilber's quadrants are still there.

What is gained, then? Why prefer my model over Ken's? Without straining my brain too much, I can come up with at least half a dozen reasons. Several of these were mentioned in my original posting. My model treats social holons more consistently, viewing the relationship of humans to their societies much like the relationship of atoms to macromolecules and other subcellular structures, and like the relationship of cells to tissues and organs. I will come back to this point later. Second, my model opens up the possibility of a unifying understanding of growth, evolution and knowledge, by showing how the four strands correspond to universal characteristics of holons at all levels of the holarchy. Third, my distinction between stages and levels allows us to understand why the transpersonal does not bear the same relationship to lower mental stages as they do to each other, an observation apparently inconsistent with Wilber's model.

Still another benefit of my model is that it integrates physical and biological evidence with that from higher domains. The distinction that I make between stages and levels is not my arbitrary invention; it has also been pointed out by Max Pettersson in his book Complexity and Evolution. When we find a phenomenon or manner of organization shared by several lower levels of the holarchy, we should at least try to determine whether it also exists on higher levels.

Perhaps the most important benefit of my model, though, is that by bringing everything over onto one scale, it encourages us to seek correlations between the individual and the social, and the exterior and the interior. Ken has never denied that there are correlations--for example, certain brain structures are associated with certain types of consciousness--and he gives his full blessing to research that seeks to identify them. But by dividing up phemomena into different quadrants, he seems to be promoting the already firmly-entrenched academic process of different investigators working in separate domains. I understand his motive; he feels that without such a separation, he will be encouraging reductionism, where we say, for example, that a certain mental phenomenon is nothing but the activity of cells in the brain. That is a danger, but the opposite danger, which I feel he is promoting, is to maintain that we can never find any kind of meaningful, which is to say causal, relationship between the interior and the exterior. We will simply conclude that a certain pattern of brain activity is always associated with a certain type of consciousness, and leave it at that, as if the two inhabited separate, but parallel universes. (Philosopher David Chalmers has indeed taken this approach, known as property dualism, but he uses it only with respect to the "hard problem" of consciousness, which, as I have emphasized, I am not dealing with in my model).

Maybe an example will help illuminate the problem, as it applies to the individual vs. social distinction. A major advance was made in biology when scientists recognized that the properties of tissues--which could be called the social aspect of cells--could be understood in significant part by understanding the properties of individual cells. This conceptual advance did not collapse the social into the individual; or perhaps to speak more accurately, it did to a degree that no one I'm aware of, including Ken Wilber, objects to. But it did open the door to a new understanding of how the properties of both cells and tissues arise. Understanding the functional capacities of neural networks, for example, has greatly depended on understanding how individual cells respond to multiple patterns of spatial and temporal stimulation. Conversely, understanding the behavior of individual cells has been greatly enhanced by an appreciation of the network of interactions that constantly impinge on them. Scientists today would not find it very helpful to refer to tissues as the social aspects of cells, and to study their properties without any reference to the properties of their individual cells. It's not that the concept of social aspects is wrong; it just isn't very insightful. And it's not that one can't learn anything about tissues without knowing anything about cells; it's just that one can learn a great deal more if one does know about individual cells.

Ken recognizes all this, of course. He puts tissues above cells in his model, on the same scale. I am simply extending this reasoning to where it should be extended. I am saying that the relationship of human societies to individuals is very much more like the relationship of tissues to cells than, say, the relationship of a lifeless planet is to its component atoms. A lifeless planet has virtually no properties that are qualitatively different from those of its atoms. Cut off a small piece of it, any piece, and it's pretty much like any other piece. Moreover, it retains its properties after separation from the main object. The same argument can be made with another one of Wilber's lower individual vs. social levels, bacteria vs. the Gaia system. Gaia has no, or only relatively weak, qualitative properties that a much smaller number of bacteria could not manifest, and if one removes some bacteria from the Gaia system, they function very much as they do within that system. (Though much has been made about the sophisticated properties of Gaia by James Lovelock, and more recently, by Lynn Margulis and Howard Bloom, the essential point is that these same properties could be supported by a much smaller number of bacteria. The system might have reduced physical extension, but qualitatively it would be very much the same).

Human societies, in contrast, are qualitatively different from their individuals. They can do things no one person can do, or that even fairly large groups of people can do--like invent language and science, for example. And one part of society is not like any other part. If an individual were murdered in downtown New York City or in some rural area in the midwest, the ramifications would be quite different from the murder of an individual in the Oval Office of the White House, for example-- or an individual in the executive offices of a major corporation, or even in the Olympic Village. Likewise, if an individual were isolated from society, completely removed from any interaction with it, he or she would eventually undergo a significant alteration in behaivor.

In other words, two key qualities that higher order holons manifest with respect to lower are extensive horizontal (hetarchical) connections, and differentiation. Individuals in societies, like cells in tissues and unlike atoms in a planet, are highly interconnected, and highly dependent on those connections for their functions, experiences and identities. Sever those connections, and their properties change, sometimes drastically. Likewise, human societies, like higher-order biological tissues--and again, unlike atoms in a planet or bacteria in Gaia--are highly differentiated. Different individual people or cells--or groups of them--may play very different roles. Some are much more significant to the larger social holon than others.

I just want to add--reiterating what I said in my original posting--that I am well aware that the analogies between human societies and lower social holons like tissues are incomplete in some respects. In my book Worlds, I have discussed this problem, and will only reiterate here that I believe a lot of the discrepancy results from the fact that our level of existence has not fully evolved. Human societies are far from completed, whereas biological organization is. But, even at this point, it seems blindingly obvious to me that if we are going to choose between human societies like tissues or human societies like Gaia or planets, that the former choice is far more consistent with our knowledge of these systems. It really is a no-brainer, and frankly, I'm surprised that Mark, with all his sensitivity to mental and cultural phenomena, prefers a comparison of our societies with the homogeneous masses of Gaia.

Indeed, there is a delicious irony to this situation. By viewing human societies like tissues, as I do, we are saying that they are highly integrated holons that have emergent properties not entirely explainable in terms of their individual members. This therefore justifies, not putting them in a different quadrant, but certainly recognizing that to some extent they have to be studied nonreductively, on their own terms. In contrast, by saying that human societies are like Gaia, as Ken does and Mark goes along with, we are saying that they are poorly differentiated groups of organisms that can be explained almost entirely as the sum of their individual members--a prime candidate for reductionism.

I'm not certain, but I suspect that some of the opposition to my view of societies vs. individuals stems from the persistent view of individual humans beings as independent, autonomous, and the highest form of life on earth. (We regard cells as regimented and tightly controlled in tissues, though modern science has made it very clear that this is a great oversimplification). I would have thought that all that has been written in recent years about "processes", "interconnectedness" and the like would have dispelled that notion, but I suppose it is the experience of most people that regardless of what anyone says or writes, they do feel independent. I say I suppose this, because that very definitely is not my experience. I am acutely aware of my dependence on larger social organizations, and the longer and further I travel on the spiritual path, the more aware of this I become. Why do we think the particular thoughts that we do? I can almost always trace them to specific social or environmental interactions with the particular biological makeup of my mind. Sometimes, in the quiet of sitting meditation, this connection is very direct, as I gradually become aware, for example, that a certain area of noise in my mind is a direct result of some noise in the external environment. That noise literally drives my thoughts. When that noise subsides, I instantly see that cloud of noise in my mind cease, too. Other times, the relationship is more complex, as when I lie in bed at night, and the theater of events of the day passes, and I see how specific thoughts, feelings and other mental phenomena arose as a consequence of specific happenings during the day. But the lesson to me has been very clear: I am not free, the thoughts I think are not under my control. They are a manifestation of various phenomena occurring throughout social and environmental organizations in which I'm embedded.

3."Wilber's dimensions are empirically based in that he has analysed hundreds of models from a huge mass of scientific and cultural data and ended up with an elegant and very parsimonious framework. Andy's model ends up being rather confusing in that it entangles self and other and one and many into a system that bears little relationship to lived human experience. I would say that Andy's approach on the subject/object distinction is more reductive than integrative."

I appreciate that Wilber analyzed a great deal of data to arrive at his model. The man's capacity for absorbing and synthesizing information is prodigious. I'm not sure what Mark means by the statement that my model "bears little relationship to lived human experience." Of course, no conceptual model can substitute for lived human experience. No one looking at a diagram of my model is going to be illuminated by a sense of what experience at any level is like. But I would say the same thing about Wilber's four-quadrant model (and some critics of his books have said just that). A map is not the territory.

Maybe Mark was expecting more from my book than I ever intended to deliver. It is not an attempt to describe the full range of ordinary , let alone superordinary, human experience. I am not nearly as well qualified to write such descriptions as others are. I'm simply trying to place those experiences in some kind of grand scheme. The whole idea of such grand schemes is not everyone's cup of tea, and I understand that. Sometimes I think they're useless, too! But Ken's work seems to have opened up interest in the area, and within that area--for the people who are interested in that sort of thing--I think my model has value.

Nevertheless, I do have great respect for Mark's intelligence, based on his paper that I responded to (I have not met him), so it is worrisome to me that he finds my model confusing and entangling. I can only say that I need more specific criticism of how it is confusing. If it leads people to a reductive view of mind I'm sorry, but I can't address that criticism without more help.

4. "Andy misapplies the holonic rule. Wilber's major emphasis on the rule is to use it within an evolutionary quadrant and not between quadrants. The value comparison of individuals against collectives is not at all what Wilber is about. This is why he makes the distinction between average mode of development and the advanced edge of individual awakening."

The essential point is that what Wilber calls within a quadrant and what he calls between quadrants is not consistent. Sorry to keep referring to this example, but in his model, for example, biological tissues are in the same quadrant as cells. Thus he applies his holonic rule to them. But as I discussed above, human societies have much the same relationship to individual humans as tissues have to cells, so it is logically inconsistent to put one relationship within one quadrant, and one in two different quadrants. Whatever the rule is meant by Wilber to apply to, it should be applied consistently. In my book Worlds within Worlds, I discuss this logical inconsistency at some length.

5."Andy does not agree that the transpersonal can be studied objectively. Well, as I point out in my paper, "The Integral Cycle", this is something that is very much occuring at the moment despite what Andy may think. Whole departments within some institutes are dedicated to the endeavour (e.g. the Max Plank Institute for Human Development). It is possible, it is being done, I did my Masters thesis on the area, go and have a look at the libraries of scientific research literature on postformal reasoning, mystical experience, the psychology of meditation, wisdom research, dialectical intelligence, transpersonal studies, religious experience, the psychometrics of spiritual and peak experience.

I am not unfamiliar with the research in this area, though I'm probably not as familiar with it as Mark is. But the fact that "whole departments within some institutes are dedicated" to this research doesn't prove that the research is valid or meaningful. Respected academic institutes have investigators dedicated to understanding various psychic phenomena, too, but that doesn't compel me to accept that these phenomena actually exist. In my own institute, we have people studying remote healing, trying to demonstrate that saying prayers for someone you've never met can improve their physical condition, but that doesn't establish that these studies are valid. In previous centuries, whole departments were dedicated to studies of physics, biology and chemistry (or what we today would call the forerunners of those subjects), studies that in many cases subsequently were shown to be badly misinformed.

I don't mean to put down all of the work that Mark refers to. I did make a point in my posting of saying that I supported the idea of doing these studies, at least some of them. But simply baldly stating "it is possible, it is being done" is not proof of anything. Many, many people besides me are questioning the authenticity problem, and it is a major reason why many highly respected philosophers outside of the transpersonal movement have very little interest in Ken Wilber's work. Unless and until this question can be settled, studies of physiological or behavioral correlates will not be taken seriously by very many people. It may yet happen that from these studies a way of validating authenticity will emerge that will prove satisfactory to most of us, but I haven't seen it yet. I invite Mark or anyone else who thinks he or she has found such validation to describe the study to me, or to point me to a specific paper or group. In the mean time, I recall the late Idries Shah's point that "there are no intellectual Sufis"--meaning that academic studies are not the way to learn about higher states of being.

6. "Andy doesn't believe we can see the transpersonal when we have not reached that level. Well Andy what can I say - I am sure that you have seen the sun set over the ocean, or gazed at a hazy moon on an Autumn night, or looked into the eyes of a smiling face. The thing about being human is that we have the opportunity to see what is there at anytime."

My experience on the path is that we see very little of what is there--and that it takes many years of effort and suffering to change that condition. Thinking we are seeing the sunset, and talking about seeing it, are quite different from really seeing it--in the sense, for example, that Castaneda's Don Juan used the word "seeing". Of course we have some experience of the world around us, precisely because we have reached the level that we call the mental. We wouldn't have that experience if we hadn't reached that level, just as we don't have experience of the transpersonal if we haven't reached that level.

I'm not denying that many people have had a taste of a higher level. But that is hardly a basis for a study of higher consciousness. Beyond the problem of authenticity even there--who's taste is real?--isn't the whole point of these studies to find the rare individuals who have had much more than a taste, in order to see how they have been changed in other ways?

7. "While there is a lot to be said for the holarchic approach, there is a tendency for thinkers in this area to let the whole thing run away into a hyperbolic discussion of higher and lower, primitive and advanced, and unfortunately Andy drifts into this area quite frequently, and actually makes some quite outlandish statements on the relative capacities of individual and cultures. Aboriginal cultures are not lower on the holonic scale, the uneducated masses are no less perfect than the enlightened masters, tribal societies are not any less representative of the good, the true, and the beautiful than nation/state cultures. Why? Because we have advanced nations which are constituted from the representation of tribal kinship systems, we have aboriginal systems of cultural and spiritual development which are so complex and evolved that we can't really say where they land on the holarchy, because we have indiginous societies that are so advanced that they can teach us about new rational, transpersonal, individual and collective paths to a healthier world.

I do recognize that applying the concept of holarchy to different individual societies steps on a lot of toes. This is another reason why some people don't like the grand schemes, and as I said before, I do have some empathy with them. I'm sure I get carried away with my model sometimes, from the point of view of others. And as I said before, our level of existence surely is still in the process of evolving. So the relationships we find between different societies are not likely to fit into categories as neat and as clear-cut as those we use for lower-order holons.

But I don't see any serious inaccuracies in what I said. Yes, "advanced nations are reconstituted from the representation of tribal kinship systems", just as human beings are reconstituted from biological systems, the latter from chemical systems, and so on. That doesn't mean we can't call a human being higher, and in an important sense more perfect, than a mass of cells, or a cell higher than a molecule. And likewise, it doesn't mean we can't call some societies higher than others. Mark himself suggests his acceptance of this by the fact that he uses words like "advanced", "uneducated" and "enlightened".

So are "the uneducated masses no less perfect than the enlightened masters"? I suppose if you define perfect in some manner that's so. I could regard the cells in my body as perfect in the sense that they function in a way that supports my physical and biological being. They do just what they need to do (most of the time). But I don't regard their kind of perfection as the kind I'm striving for. Likewise, the masses of humanity are playing some role, and from some perspective, that role may seem perfect. We're all God's children. But I have been uneducated, relative to what I am today, and I'm still uneducated, relative to what I might become, and I find no comfort in the position that I am part of some larger order perfection. Nor in the possibility that when I was younger and less educated, I might have had some perceptions or beliefs valuable to me today (there is room in my model for that, by the way). My initial attraction to the path, and what continues to drive me today, was and is more than anything else an acute sense of my imperfections, of my weaknesses, my lack of freedom.

8. "The first will be last and the last will be first. Let's all put that in our holarchic peace pipe and smoke it for a couple of millenia."

As someone who has deeply felt the experience of being last, or at any rate far from being first, I have no problem with that saying.

In conclusion, most of Mark's criticisms are directed against my one-scale model of holarchy, which for Wilberites is surely the most provocative part of my book Worlds within Worlds. Putting the individual and social aspects of holons on one axis, I feel, is an obvious thing to do. Wilber's treatment of social holons is inconsistent, sometimes putting them on the same axis as the individual ones, sometimes not. I feel very strongly that, in this respect, my model is works better--not only is it more consistent, but it has the potential to lead to a deeper understanding of both individual and social holons.

On the other hand, putting the inner and outer aspects on a single scale is not as obvious. It does seem to smell of reductionism, since it suggests that individual experiences are to be equated with social exteriors. I can understand how many people would react that way (though Mark's reaction does surprise me, because as I noted in my original posting, in his integral cycle paper he himself came very close to stating the same thing). What I feel saves the model from collapse, though, is that it regards the inner as the perception of the social as viewed from its lower, individual holons. This perception is not the same as the social exterior as seen from above, and never can be.

I have to say I'm a little disappointed in Mark's response. Okay, let's be honest, I'm very disappointed. Not just because it was mostly critical, but because he didn't make some of the criticisms I had hoped to see. Being of course more familiar with my model than anyone else, I'm also very familiar with at least some of its problems and weaknesses, and I had hoped Mark would point some of those out, perhaps from a different perspective from my own. For example: do social holons have an interior aspect, too, and if so, where does it fit in? (This, by the way, seems to be a problem or issue for Wilber's model, too. What is the interior social, which at higher levels he refers to as culture? Is it simply the sum of the interior experiences of all the individuals making up the society, or is it actually an interior experience on the part of the society itself?)

On the other hand, I remain very impressed with Mark's intelligence and background--I would recommend his article to anyone interested in the problem of knowledge--and I would be foolish not to take his criticisms seriously, as reflecting what many others are likely to think or feel if they encounter my ideas. I think part of Mark's antipathy stems from his dislike of holarchic models in general and the "hyperbolic discussions" they easily engender. Fair enough--things can get very abstract and far removed from reality. But that obviously isn't the whole story, since he likes Ken's model, even calling it "parsimonious" despite its four axes. Why does it appeal to him so much?

As I noted earlier, the four-quadrant model encourages separation of investigative approaches. There has been considerable conflict between the natural and the social sciences, with those in the latter often resenting the intrusion of the former, as they try to explain social phenomena in terms of physical and biological processes. Ken's model provides people like Mark with a domain all their own, guaranteed free from such intrusion. They can study psychological and social processes to their heart's content without worrying that a Patricia Churchland or Edward Wilson is going to come along and claim that it all reduces to biology and chemistry.

Except, of course, that the reductionists will continue to make exactly such claims, since they have little use for Ken Wilber; I doubt very much that they read him. Ken's model basically preaches to the converted. It appeals to those who already have cast a strong vote against reductionism. But in doing so, as I suggested earlier, it tends to discourage identifying the correlations between different types of phenomena that we all agree are there and need to be appreciated. It's these correlations, surely, that will ultimately show to what extent reductionist approaches are and are not valid.

September 2000

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