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).


God is Not in the Quad

A Summary of My Challenge to Wilber

Andrew P. Smith

About two years ago, I published an online book on holarchy that, among other things, challenged Ken Wilber’s four-quadrant model, advancing in its place a single scale version (Smith 2000a). Since that time, I have developed many new arguments and criticisms against various facets of the four-quadrant model. The purpose of this article is to summarize this work, to provide an update on my critique of the Wilber model. For each major point, I have indicated the relevant references, which should be consulted for further details.

Before beginning, however, I want to make several general points in an attempt to forestall or address certain criticisms that have been or might be directed against my model. First, while there are many unique features of the Wilber four-quadrant model, in comparing his model to another, I think it's important to distinguish those unique features that follow directly from the way his model is set up from those that are simply added to it. Only the former constitute very powerful arguments in the model's favor. For example, one critic of my model argued that Wilber's model is superior because, among other reasons, it incorporates the notion of waves and streams of development. This feature may indeed increase the power of Wilber's model, and he certainly deserves credit for developing it, but it's not relevant to a comparison of our models, because it could just as easily be incorporated into mine as his. The fact that I have not done this does not represent a weakness of my model but simply an area of it which requires further development. I am concerned here with features of one model that are inconsistent or incompatible with the other model.

A second critical distinction to make is between my criticisms of Wilber's model and those features of my model which address those criticisms. To argue that my model has certain flaws or inadequacies of its own is not necessarily to defend Wilber's model. Regardless of the strength or validity of my model, Wilber must still confront the numerous problems with his. So, for example, while it's true that atoms, in my model, do not fulfill all the criteria that I have defined for identifying individual holons--a problem I myself have taken pains to point out (Smith 2001a)--this problem does not change the fact that Wilber's model has its own problems at this level of existence. As Wilber, the critic par excellence of postmodern philosophy understands, no model of hierarchy perfectly explains all relationships, but some models are better at explaining them than others.

Finally, I want to emphasize that whatever the merits of Wilber's model, the use of four quadrants, per se, does not allow the model to express or incorporate any information or data that a one-scale model can't also recognize. Wilber's supporters like to play this little game in which they try to locate the proper quadrant in which to place some phenomenon or area of interest. Many of them really seem to believe that these four quadrants make the model more powerful than other models of hierarchy, that other models don't or can't, for example, recognize social phenomena or certain aspects of consciousness. This simply isn't true. My one scale model is perfectly capable of representing societies and interiors. It's just that some of these phenomena are expressed in terms of relationships between different stages on the single axis. My model may demand that people do a little more work in identifying and understanding these relationships, but the upside is that when they do, they have a better idea of how different phenomena are connected. As I have argued elsewhere (Smith 2001l; see also below), the phenomena in each of Wilber's four quadrants seem to be separated by barriers that intentionally prevent their being related.

Keeping these points in mind, let's now consider specific areas of disagreement between our models. Though I list a number of points, they are all closely related to each other; that is, a perceived flaw or weakness in one aspect of Wilber's model implies flaws in other aspects. This speaks well of his model, indicating that it's highly integrated, with its parts dependent on one another. On the one hand, this makes the model relatively strong and resistant to criticism, because every tenet or postulate is supported by a network of others. But on the other hand, as just noted, if a flaw is found in one aspect of the model, there are bound to be others.

1. Levels and Stages (Smith 2000a; 2001a,j,k; 2002a)

In Wilber's model, higher vs. lower relationships are always expressed as levels of existence, with a higher level transcending and including a lower level. In my model, there are both levels, which transcend and include lower levels, and stages within any single level, which transform lower stages, but which do not transcend them and may or may not include them.

Wilber's failure to make this distinction simply ignores reams of evidence, and weakens his model considerably. Consider the relationships of cells, molecules and atoms. In Wilber's model, each of these classes of holons occupies a different level. This implies, or should imply, that the relationship of a cell to a molecule is much like the relationship of a molecule to an atom. But this is not so. Any cell has what I call a mixed hierarchical structure, consisting of both nested hierarchy (holarchy) as well as non-nested hierarchy. A molecule, in contrast, has a pure holarchical structure.

What exactly is the difference? In a nested hierarchy or pure holarchy, all holons are included within holons that are immediately higher than they are, like a series of Chinese boxes. Thus in a molecule, all atoms, the lower holons, are included within the molecule, which is immediately higher than an atom. In a non-nested hierarchy, on the other hand, holons may exist outside of immediately higher holons. Thus in a cell, not all atoms are found within molecules; some exist in a free or unbonded state.

Pure holarchy, moreover, can extend through several stages. For example, not only can atoms associate into small molecules like amino acids, but small molecules can associate into biopolymers like proteins, which in turn can associate into more complex structures like receptors and enzymes. Each of these holons has emergent properties not found in the holons composing it, and every relationship is nested. Thus in a receptor complex, all atoms are found within small molecules; all small molecules are found within biopolymers; all biopolymers are found within the larger complex. In the cell, in contrast, each one of these stages can exist independently. Not only are free atoms found within a cell, but also free small molecules, and free biopolymers.

This stage-like structure within cells is now very well recognized (Becker and Deamer 1991; Petterson 1996; Hartwell et al. 1999), and is critical to understanding how cells function. Wilber's model, however, is blind to these distinctions, lumping all molecules together. Wilber might reply that he is aware that there is a great variety of kinds of molecules, which he simply hasn't bothered to express in his model. Or as one person I debated this issue with argued, I am simply filling in details, not fundamentally challenging the four-quadrant model. This misses the point. Yes, I am filling in some details, but the devil is in these details--they do provide a fundamental challenge to the model. The great variety of different kinds of molecules found in nature is created by assembling smaller molecules into larger ones, like building blocks or lego units. The great variety of different cells in nature, however, is not created by assembling smaller cells into larger cells. Each type of cell has an independent origin, and has a structural plan very similar to every other cell type; the variety is created by modifications of this basic plan1. So Wilber's model does not simply leave out this critical feature of molecules, but is incapable of incorporating it without the explicit recognition that there exist stages within levels.

Nor is this level/stage distinction applicable only to atoms, molecules and cells. The same is true for the relationship of cells, tissues and organisms. Like cells, organisms have a mixed hierarchical structure, while tissues and organs within organisms have a more or less pure holarchical structure. The latter holons are built up by associations of cells into small units, the association of these small units into larger units, and so on. Such multicellular holons are not even mentioned in the Wilber model. The variety of organisms, in contrast, like that of cells, is created by modifications of a relatively few basic body plans.2

The stage/level distinction is thus supported by a large body of scientific evidence. It does not apply just to exteriors or structures, however, but also to interiors, and again, Wilber's failure to recognize this creates problems for his model. In this model, every holon has interiority or consciousness, in a broad sense--even atoms, molecules, and cells, as well as organisms, including, of course, ourselves. Moreover, since Wilber distinguishes several different levels of humanity, which emerged through a process of historical development, he must claim that humans of different historical periods have different levels of interiority. In other words, people of several thousand years ago had a lower level of consciousness than people of today.

One problem with this view, as others have pointed out (Washburn 1999; O'Connor 2001), is that it implies that the differences between the consciousness of humans today and those in the past are as great as the difference between modern human consciousness and higher, spiritual states of consciousness. If every stage of society is a different level, then to pass from, say, the magic worldview to the mythic view, or from the mythic view to the rational, is just as great a transition as to pass from the rational worldview to the higher states. At the very least, the Wilber model implies that the latter kind of transition involves the same kinds of processes as the early transitions did. That is, just as earlier worldviews were transcended with social development, and did not require exceptional efforts on the part of individuals to realize, so should higher states of consciousness eventually be realized by all members or most members of society, simply by virtue of their participation in the society. But there is no evidence that individuals can realize spiritual states quickly and easily and inevitably merely by joining a certain kind of social organization.

A second problematical implication of Wilber's view of levels of interiority is that humans of the past were able to skip certain developmental stages in order to realize higher states of consciousness. According to Wilber, normal development requires that individuals pass through each stage. This is shown most clearly by children, who do pass through these stages as they mature. If this is so, how could individuals in say, a mythic society, realize a state above rational consciousness? Wilber has tried to avoid this problem by making a distinction between states of consciousness, which are temporary and accessible to people at any level, and structures of consciousness, which are permanent (Wilber 2000). But I have pointed out logical inconsistencies in this distinction, and also noted that it still does not explain how earlier people could have realized higher states of consciousness permanently (Smith 2002a).

In any case, both this problem and the one posed by the different relationships of higher consciousness and social worldviews are much more easily and simply avoided by recognizing that Wilber's historical or biological levels of consciousness all constitute stages within a single level, whereas the state of higher consciousness is associated with a higher level transcending all of these stages. In addition to understanding higher consciousness as more than just another historical stage of interiority, this view implies that higher consciousness could have been just as accessible to people of earlier cultures as it is to moderns. This is a very important point we will consider further in the next section.

2. Transformation and Transcendence (Smith 2000a; 2001d, k)

In the Wilber model, where there is no distinction between levels and stages of development, the term "transcendence" is applied sweepingly to all higher/lower relationships. Thus in Wilber's view, a molecule transcends an atom; a cell transcends a molecule; organisms transcend cells; and some organisms transcend other organisms, Indeed, as we have just seen, in this view modern human societies transcend earlier ones, and their members as individuals transcend earlier individuals.

In my model, where a distinction between levels and stages is made, a parallel distinction between transcendence and transformation is made. Transcendence is the relationship between one level of existence and a lower level, while transformation is the relationship between one stage and a lower stage within the same level of existence. Thus a cell transcends its molecules, but molecules transform their atoms. An organism transcends its tissues, but tissues transform their cells. Speaking more generally, we can say that an individual holon transcends its component (individual and social holons), while a social holon transforms its component (individual and social) holons.

What's the difference? Both transcendence and transformation involve the creation of emergent properties. A cell has properties that its component molecules lack, and a molecule has properties that its component atoms lack. But a cell also preserves the original properties of its component holons, whereas a molecule does not. This is an extremely critical distinction that Wilber and his followers seem completely unaware of. Thus in a recent article in the journal Tikkun on Integral Politics, Greg Wilpert (2001) asserts that when atoms join together into molecules, they keep their former properties while acquiring new ones. As every high school chemistry student knows, the first part of this statement is not true. Sodium when it is part of sodium chloride (as sodium ion) has properties that free sodium does not have, but the reverse is also true. This is why sodium chloride is a vital nutrient for all cells and organisms, while atomic sodium is effectively a poison for most.

This difference between transcendence and transformation follows directly from the difference in organization of these holons that I discussed earlier. A cell has a mixed hierarchical structure, in which lower holons can exist independently of immediately higher holons. Thus individual atoms, small molecules, biopolymers, and so forth, can all exist in a semi-autonomous form within a cell, as well as in forms in which they are components of more complex molecules. When they do exist in these forms, they manifest properties essentially the same as when they exist outside of cells.3

. In molecules, in contrast, each component holon is nested within an immediately higher holon, and because it is, it no longer retains its original properties. It has new emergent properties, but it acquires these at the expense of losing the former properties. Earlier, I gave the example of sodium chloride, but this principle is much better illustrated by the kinds of molecules found only within cells, such as amino acids. When atoms are bonded into amino acids, they may acquire the ability to ionize--lose or gain an electron--under conditions that would not permit this for the free atom. They may also gain the ability to interact with other atoms they are not in direct physical contact with, that is, atoms that are located in a different part of the molecule. Conversely, however, when atoms are bonded within small molecules, they lose the ability to move freely about their environment, and to interact with certain kinds of other atoms.

The same relationships hold true for every holarchical stage within the cell. Thus amino acids within proteins gain new properties, ones not found in free amino acids, and lose former ones. Proteins within larger complexes gain and lose properties, and so on.

The same relationship is also seen on higher levels of existence. An organism transcends its tissues and cells, because some of these exist in semi-autonomous forms, with behavior that is not altered by interactions with immediately higher holons. Many kinds of cells in the immune system, for example, are not bonded into tissues, but move about the body relatively independently. In contrast, cells within tissues behave quite differently from autonomous cells. On the one hand, they have emergent properties, such as the ability to communicate with cells that are located some distance from them. On the other hand, they lose other properties, such as the abiity to grow and reproduce in a manner unconstrained by anything but the supply of nutrients.

The difference between transcendence and transformation applies as well to interiors as exteriors, and here we see how crucial it is to understanding the relationships between different stages of human development. In my model, all the historical stages of this development, just like the stages I distinguish on lower levels, have transformative, rather than transcendent, relationships with each other. This means that as people and societies evolved from say, the mythic stage to the rational stage, they acquired new, emergent properties, but also lost older original properties. The same is also true, and I believe to a much greater degree, for child development, where the differences between earlier and later stages are much better documented, and almost certainly much more profound. As children mature, they develop the ability to make, for example, concrete and formal logical operations. These features are emergent relative to earlier features, and of course, as Wilber understands, they are correlated with the development of higher brain structures. But conversely, maturing children lose the ability to sense and feel the world as directly. This is correlated with the loss or inhibition of lower brain functions as they become incorporated into larger holons involving the higher brains. Though childhood--like earlier periods of human history--is hardly an age of innocence, there is a price to pay for growing up. Paying such a price is the essence of the transformative relationship.

Understanding the difference between transcendence and transformation is especially critical in the modern world, where modern Western societies co-exist with many other cultures, including indigenous ones with ancient roots. Wilber's model has been heavily criticized by some people (DiZerega 1999; Edwards 2001) for its implication that Western societies transcend all other cultures, existing on a higher level that the latter, if they develop properly, will eventually attain. Though I agree with Wilber that Western societies are higher than other cultures in the sense of being more complex (Smith 2001d), I recognize that because the relationship is transformative rather than transcendent, other cultures have things to offer that the West lacks. A further implication of my model is that if a higher, genuinely transcending holon should emerge, it would include societies at all stages of development, just as cells contain atoms and molecules of a broad range of complexity, and organisms contain cells and tissues of different holonic development.

3. Societies vs. Individuals (Smith 2000a; 2001a,c,d,f,h,j; 2002a-c)

The level/stage distinction in my model is closely related to another critical difference I have with Wilber, concerning the relationship of societies to their individual members. In Wilber's four-quadrant model, societies and individuals occupy different quadrants on the same level of existence, neither considered higher than the other. In my model, in contrast, societies form stages that can be represented on the same axis or scale of development as the individual. These stages are on the same level as the individual, but are higher, just as molecules are higher than atoms, and tissues are higher than cells.

That societies must be considered higher than their members is supported by the virtually universally accepted criterion of emergence: higher forms of existence have properties not found in lower forms. Societies clearly have many properties that no individual member of them has. Wilber (or some of his supporters) counter by claiming that some rare individuals have properties that no society has. This simply is not true. Just because an individual has a property or quality that no or few other individuals have, it does not follow that this is not a social property. Even the rare genius who makes a highly original breakthrough does so only by virtue of being embedded within a society that provides much necessary information and other input, as well as the means for transmitting his discovery to others. If he were not so embedded, he could have no influence on the subsequent course of social development. So the genius is a social product as well as an individual, and his properties are social ones as well as individual ones. This ought to be patently obvious; if someone is a member of a group, any properties or qualities she has that affect the function of the group are by definition properties of the group as well. This is simple Aristotelian logic.

Of course, not everything under the sun is governed by such logic. Thus Gerry Goddard (2001) suggests that individuals and societies may be related to each other like the particle and wave nature of subatomic particles. Surely the appeal to this kind of argument to support an idea is a sign of intellectual desperation, an unwillingness to adopt a much simpler and more sensible position simply because of prejudice against it.

And I do mean prejudice. One of the commonest arguments used against the idea that societies are higher than their members is that this position leads to justification for dictatorships, and other oppressive forms of social organization. This claim is not only based on an incorrect view of both holarchical relationships in general, and the nature of societies in particular, but quite baldly implies that how we feel things should be should influence are ideas about how they are (See Smith 2001a; O'Connor 2001; and footnote 8, below).

So much for the criterion of emergence. A second criterion that can be used to distinguish higher vs. lower relationships is stated in one of Wilber's twenty or so tenets of holons: the lower determines the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower. Members of societies clearly determine the possibilities of their societies. That is why human societies have many more possibilities than do the societies of any other kind of organism. Conversely, societies determine the probabilities of their members. This is why the behavior of members of some human societies is very different from the behavior of members of other human societies.

These relationships can be contrasted with those exhibited by "societies" (as Wilber defines them) on other levels of existence. For example, he claims that planets are societies of molecules. Planets, however, for the most part do not determine the probabilities of molecules. If they did, the behavior of molecules on one planet should be very different from the behavior of the same kind of molecules on another planet, just as the behavior of humans in one kind of society differs from their behavior in other societies. But the behavior of molecules on different planets is essentially the same. They all follow the same laws. Depending on pressure and temperature, molecules may move faster or slower, and interact in bulk to form solid, liquid or gas phases, but these represent a rather trivial range of behavioral differences.

Another illustrative example is offered by cell colonies, which in Wilber's model are societies of cells. The behavior of a particular species of bacteria is pretty much exactly the same from one colony to the next. Given an adequate supply of nutrients, they reproduce at a more or less constant rate, and interact with each other and their environment in the same way.

Wilber should in fact agree with my analysis of both these examples--planetary groupings of molecules and colonies of cells--because they support his claim that societies as he defines them are no higher than their members. In both these cases, the "societies" exhibit very weak emergent properties, and in fact, it is just the emergence of new properties, in a genuinely higher holon that is composed of many lower holons, that affects the probabilities of certain forms of behavior of the lower holons. In other words, to state that a holon determines the probabilities of its component holons is really just another way of saying that the larger holon has emergent properties.

The critical point, though, is that these molecular and cellular "societies" are very different from human societies, which do have emergent properties, and which do, as we saw earlier, determine the probabilities of their individual members. In these crucial respects, human societies are much more like complex molecules, which in my model are societies of atoms, and complex tissues and organs, which are societies of cells. Complex molecules are exemplifed by proteins and DNA, which as we saw earlier are made up of several nested stages, culminating below in individual atoms. Likewise, tissues and organs are made up of several multicellular stages culminating in individual cells. Both complex molecules and complex tissues have substantial emergent properties, and they do set the probabilities of their members. Thus the properties of atoms are constrained in certain ways when they exist in molecules, and cells within tissues are subjected to numerous checks on growth and reproduction that autonomous cells do not have.

A third criterion, particularly favored by Wilber for distinguishing higher/lower relationships, is what I call the asymmetry rule. He notes that if all the holons on a particular level of existence are eliminated, all those holons above that level will also be eliminated, but not all below that level. Thus eliminating all cells will eliminate all organisms, but not the converse; eliminating all molecules will eliminate all cells, but not the converse; and so on. Wilber claims that this criterion indicates that societies and their members are on the same level of existence, because neither could exist without the other. Thus if we eliminate all modern humans, we eliminate all modern societies, but also the reverse. Modern humans, according to this reasoning, only came into existence in the context of modern societies, and could not exist without them. And the same is true for earlier societies and their members. In Wilber's view, there is always a symmetric relationship between human beings and their societies.

The problem with this claim is that it basically defines societies a priori in a way that makes their relationship with their members necessarily symmetric. If we are going to argue that every kind of society is associated with a particular kind of human, then of course elimination of either society or individual will result in elimination of the other. But this same approach can be applied to other levels of existence as well--and must be if Wilber is to be consistent.

Consider the relationship of cells to organisms. In Wilber's model, cells and organisms occupy different levels of existence, and in fact, he has several different levels of organisms, including those with reptilian, limbic and triune brains. What is the relationship of the cell to the organism? If we eliminate all cells, we eliminate all organisms, but what about the converse? Wilber would say that eliminating all organisms does not eliminate all cells. But suppose we make distinctions between cells according to the type of organism they are found in, just as Wilber makes distinctions between humans according to the type of society they are found in. This is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, because in fact the cells in one type of organism are very recognizably different from those in another. That is to say, the triune, limbic and reptilian brains all contain specific kinds of neurons that are not found in the other brains, or in any other tissues. So if we eliminate all triune brains, we also eliminate all cells of the kind specific to those brains. If we eliminate all limbic brains, we eliminate all limbic neurons, and so on. This argument is exactly analogous to the argument used to justify a symmetric relationship between individuals and societies, and thus leads to the conclusion that cells within organisms are on the same level as the organisms themselves. In fact, as I have shown elsewhere (Smith 2001j), this logic can be applied throughout the holarchy, to cells, molecules, and atoms, effectively collapsing the entire holarchy to a single level of existence.

So there must be something wrong with the rule of asymmetry, or the way that Wilber uses it. As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2002c), there is a critical hidden assumption in Wilber's reasoning. He states the asymmetry criterion as follows (the words in brackets are mine, and needed for clarification):

Destroy any type of holon and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons [more precisely, not all of the holons on any level] below it4

The problem emerges when we ask what exactly a "type of holon" is. How do we define it? This is the critical question, because depending on how we define it, we can come to different conclusions regarding the asymmetry principle. If we define all cells as one type of holon, then the asymmetry rule applies to the cell/organism relationship, because eliminating all organisms does not eliminate all cells. But if, as noted above, we define cells within particular kinds of organisms as a type of holon distinct from cells found in other kinds of organisms, we find that each cell type has a symmetric relationship with the type of organism it's found in. Similarly, if we define all organisms (including humans) as one type of holon, we find an asymmetric relationship of organism to society, for if we eliminate all societies, we don't eliminate all organisms. But if we define humans as a distinct holon type, we find a symmetric relationship.

What do we do about this problem? In order to apply the asymmetry criterion, we do have make some assumptions about what a "type of holon" is--that is, what group of entities is to be eliminated each time we apply the rule. This is unavoidable. Elsewhere, however, I have argued that the simplest possible definition of type of holon restricts itself to just two kinds--individual and social holons, with no assumptions about what is higher or lower (Smith 2002c). If we begin with this definition, we can proceed from there to define an asymmetry criterion that shows that societies are higher than their members.5 In this approach, all organisms are treated as a single type of holon, just as all cells are.

While Wilber is of course free to use a different approach based on a different definition of type of holon, to my knowledge he has never specified a definition. I am quite confident that if he attempts to, he will find it impossible to reach a conclusion in which societies are not higher than their members, and yet in which organisms are higher than their component cells. 6 Furthermore, he will still have to explain why his use of this criterion leads to a conclusion regarding the individual/society relationship that is different from the conclusion reached using the criteria of emergence and possibilities/probabilities. In my hands, all three criteria lead to the same conclusion.

In addition to not satisfying the commonly used criteria for determining higher/lower relationships, Wilber's view of the individual/social relationship creates many other problems and inconsistencies. For example, since higher levels in his model transcend and include lower levels, higher societies must transcend and include lower societies. But using his definition of societies, this is not the case. Human societies do not include cell societies, as he defines the latter. The latter exist outside of human societies, or certainly can. It gets even worse with societies of atoms and molecules, where Wilber has to claim that planets, for example, transcend and include galaxies. All of this mess is cleared up by recognizing that cell societies are the tissues and organs within organisms, and atom societies are the molecules within cells. With this view, higher societies do indeed transcend and include lower ones.

Finally, another inconsistency is illustrated by Wilber's view of intersubjectivity. Building on the work of postmodern philosophers, Wilber claims that all holons exist within intersubjective relationships, which they are not and cannot be fully aware of. While I contest Wilber's claim that intersubjectivity is a truly universal phenomenon (see Smith 2001l), I certainly agree with him that humans and many other organisms exist in such relationships. These relationships quite clearly arise from the social or collective aspects of holons. Sean Hargens, a follower and interpreter of Wilber who has made some excellent original contributions in this area, defines the type of holons that shape our individual subjectivities as interobjective structures (IOS; Hargens 2001, 2002). Though "each quadrant [in the Wilber model] exemplifies [i.e., reveals the expression or operation of] different sets of interobjective structures," Hargens argues, "each structure is only the Lower Right expression of a holon."7 In the Wilber model, the lower right represents societies, or the exterior aspects of social or collective holons.

In Hargens' view, IOS are social aspects of holons, neither higher nor lower than the holons they shape, at least not "in the present moment", as he puts it. However, this view raises at least two problems: a) in the Wilber model, there is a conflation of social aspects of holons and social holons (see section 5 below for further discussion of this problem); both are represented in the lower quadrants, though the claim is made that they are different things; and b) interobjective structures are considered to be largely unknowable to the holons they shape. Thus Hargens says they "can't be accessed by direct experience" and "are ontologically prior to subjectivity and objectivity". To say that something is ontologically prior to something else generally implies that it is higher. I find both of these problems most easily addressed by viewing interobjective structures as societies, or social holons.

In concluding this section, I want to point out that the society/individual relationship is the Achilles heel of the four-quadrant model. If societies are higher than individuals, as all the arguments I have presented here (and elsewhere) indicate, then there is no longer any rationale for defining separate quadrants for individuals and societies.8 The Wilber model is reduced to two quadrants, exterior and interior. But is even this distinction necessary? Let's consider it.

4. Interiority (Smith 2001a,e,g)

Wilber claims that every holon has both an exterior or structural aspect as well as in interior or experiential aspect. I accept this distinction, but have some problems with Wilber's views on interiors. Many of these problems stem from the fact that he does not seem to distinguish the so-called hard and soft aspects of consciousness or interiority, a distinction made by many philosophers (Chalmers 1996).

The hard aspects are represented by qualia, or the purely experiential features of consciousness, while the soft aspects by the functional features of consciousness--all aspects of our mentality that do not involve direct experience of something. Virtually all philosophers and scientists believe that the soft aspects of consciousness or interiority can and may eventually be fully explained in terms of brain processes, that is, what Wilber calls exteriors. In contrast, some, though probably a minority, of philosophers argue that the hard aspects cannot be so explained.

In Wilber's model, both of these aspects of interiors appear to be represented in the left-hand quadrants. That is, while the right hand quadrants include both physical/biological structures as well as external, observable forms of behavior associated with these structures, the left hand quadrants include all internal mental processes, such as thoughts, feelings and sensations. These internal phenomena are generally associated with qualia or direct experience, but they are not identical with the latter. Thoughts, feelings and sensations have components or aspects to them that do not involve direct experience. For example, if I recall what I did yesterday, I have a private, interior, "hard" experience. But the content of my recall–the specific details of what I remember, is a soft aspect of consciousness.

This results in an apparent reductionism in the Wilber model. According to the reductionist view, higher forms and features of existence emerge from, and are ultimately dependent on, lower forms. For example, to say that the properties of molecules are ultimately dependent on the properties of atoms is a reductionist position. Wilber and many other thinkers (Dawkins 1976; Weinberg 1992; Dennett 1994) make a further distinction between two kinds of reductionism, gross and subtle (to use Wilber's terminology)9. Gross reductionists claim that the higher is nothing but the lower. For example, a gross reductionist would argue that the properties of molecules can be completely explained, at least in principle if not in practice, in terms of the principles of quantum mechanics. Subtle reductionists admit that new laws or principles may emerge at higher levels of existence (the very recognition of levels strongly implies a subtle position). Complexity theory, which argues that the evolution of molecules, cells and perhaps organisms and societies of existence was driven in large part by novel kinds interactions (Kauffman 1993), is a form of subtle reductionism.

Any model of holarchy, I want to emphasize, suggests a subtle reductionist position at the outset. That is, holarchy is reductionist because it implies that higher forms of existence are dependent on lower (as stated in Wilber's criterion of asymmetry discussed above). On the other hand, the reductionism is subtle, since the recognition of different levels of existence strongly implies the emergence of new laws and principles. Therefore, to avoid the charge of reductionism, it seems to me, a holarchical model must postulate the existence of something outside or beyond the holarchy. Wilber has emphasized this position throughout his writings--expressed most simply in the ancient adage, something cannot be created from nothing--yet his four quadrant model does not seem to provide for it. That is, if everything or virtually everything is a holon, including all exteriors or structures and all interiors or experience, then all interiors as well as exteriors must be ultimately dependent on the lowest forms of existence. This is what I understand as a subtle reductionist position, and though Wilber has campaigned as vigorously against it as anyone, his four-quadrant model does seem to imply it. He--or at least many of his followers--seem to think that merely by distinguishing interiors from exteriors he avoids reductionism or what he calls Flatland, but most apparently he does not.

My model avoids this problem by distinguishing between the hard and soft aspects of consciousness. The soft aspects, in my view, emerge from exteriors, and thus can be placed on the same axis. The hard aspects, in contrast, result from something outside the holarchy, some universal entity (for want of a better term) that is essential to the holarchy's creation.. Every holon or lifeform experiences this universal entity to a degree proportional to its hierarchical development.

An additional problem created by Wilber’s treatment of interiority is that there is what I have referred to as a causal barrier between the left and right hand quadrants (Smith 2001m). That is, there is no obvious way in which phenomena in one quadrant can be connected with those in the other. Though Wilber often asserts that there are correlations between these phenomena–for example, between EEG recordings and experiences of conscious states–he steadfastly rejects the notion that either type of phenomenon can be understood to cause or determine the other kind. In science, virtually all meaningful correlations between phenomena are considered to be causal, the main exception–perhaps–being at the quantum level, where it has been hypothesized by some that correlations between the states of particles may have an acausal basis (Seager 1999). Thus Wilber must either propose a new and very different kind of relationship between interiors and exteriors, or remain stuck with a system that, in Edwards’ (2002) words, "proposes four categories of permanently separated holonic types."

My one-scale model does not completely solve this problem, because the relationship between phenomena and consciousness remains very much unexplained. By making the distinction between hard and soft forms of consciousness, however, it does greatly extend the range of phenomena that can in principle be associated causally with traditional structures or exteriors. My model accepts that a great deal of mental phenomena, the soft aspects of consciousness, will ultimately be understood in terms of brain function, and can therefore be represented on the same scale as the latter.

Moreover, not only is a connection between individual exteriors and interiors made explicit, but so is that between those phenomena and social development. In my model, interiors on any level of existence are closely associated with social stages. This reflects my belief that interiors at these higher stages develop largely through social interactions, involving such processes as language, logic, and access to new forms of communication technology. This view is in accord with the well-accepted evidence–fully accepted by Wilber–that historically interiors have developed in very close correlation with societies.

Yet Wilber argues that interiors are not higher than exteriors. As I have discussed at length (Smith 2001g,l) there are many lines of evidence against this view. Perhaps most tellingly, Wilber himself has expressed a view that contradicts the interior/exterior relationship in his four quadrant model. Thus he states that the mind is senior to the body, transcending and including it. What is the mind if not an interior?

5. The Nature of Holons (Smith 2001c,e, h, l)

The points of contention I have discussed so far directly address differences in the construction or broad outlines of our models. But from these differences others follow in certain critical details. Consider the nature of a holon. What exactly is it? Wilber appears to conflate two definitions. On the one hand, he says that every holon has a four-fold nature, including an individual and social aspect as well as an exterior and interior. But on the other hand, he distinguishes between individual and social holons. As I have shown, both of these views can't be correct within the framework of the four quadrant model. Any holon may have both an individual and a social aspect, but there is no holon that has both an individual aspect corresponding to any actual individual holon, as well as a social aspect corresponding to any actual social holon. For example, we can define a holon that has an individual aspect corresponding to some member of a society, but the social aspect of that holon is not the same thing as the society.

One way to avoid this problem, recently proposed by Mark Edwards (2002), is to dispense with the distinction between individual and social holons. Since all holons, by definition, are both wholes and parts, one could argue that every holon is both individual and social in nature. Then the task simply becomes to characterize the individual and social aspects, which correspond to the upper and lower quadrants in the Wilber model.

Edwards' position, however, ignores the very fundamental distinctions that exist between holons like cells and organisms, which can reproduce and exist autonomously outside of higher forms of life, and between complex molecules and tissues, which can't reproduce, and which can't exist autonomously (see footnote 5). In fact, it is not necessary to dispense with this distinction. It’s possible to claim that there are both individual and social holons, each type of which has both individual and social aspects. This cannot be done within the framework of the four-quadrant model, however. Gerry Goddard (2000), who also recognizes this problem, has suggested a revised model incorporating this view. However, his model is considerably more complicated than Wilber's, expanding the four quadrants to twelve. Goddard must also bring in the concept of non-vertical or hetarchical relationships, not simply between different holons of the same type, but between holons or phenomena of very different kinds. There is little if any precedent for this on lower levels, except in the quantum world.

My one-scale model solves the problem more simply, and furthermore defines the individual and social aspects purely in terms of higher and lower relationships in the holarchy (Smith 2001f,h). The social aspects of individual as well as social holons are manifested when they interact to form larger social holons, creating a higher stage within a single level of existence. The individual aspects of both types of holons are exhibited through the interactions of their component holons. Thus social aspects of holons lead to movement to higher stages within a level, while individual aspects lead to consolidation of a single stage (or all stages) within a level. This view in fact provides a way to unify the concepts of communion and self-transcendence, on the one hand, and agency and self-immanence (see below).

Wilber's conflation of individual and social aspects of holons leads to further problems. If every holon has both an individual and social aspect, as well as an interior and exterior, then holons of any particular level or stage of development should have equally developed social aspects. But this is patently not true. There are organisms that live in highly developed societies, and other organisms that live asocially, with all shades in between. Wilber might argue that social organisms are higher than asocial organisms, and in fact I would agree with him here. But the problem is that the same range of variation, from highly social to asocial, can also be observed with cells, which occupy a lower level of existence. That is, there are highly social cells, such as those found within organisms, and highly asocial cells, which live independently.

So the relationship between the social and individual aspects of holons clearly is very different from the relationship between their exterior and interior aspects. Exteriors and interiors become progressively more complex or developed as life moves up the holarchy. Social aspects do not. In fact, they become more complex as life moves up through one level of existence, but then start over at the next level. 10

6. The Properties of Holons (Smith 2000b, c; 2001b,f,h; 2002c)

The four-quadrant model and my one-scale model also lead to different conclusions regarding the properties of holons. According to Wilber, all holons have four fundamental properties: agency, communion, self-transcendence and self-immanence. I recognize the first two, but contend that the latter two are redundant. That is, self-transcendence is really the same thing as communion, and self-immanence is the same as agency.

Let's begin with communion. Wilber defines communion as the formation of hetarchical or horizontal relationships between holons. I accept this definition, but claim that such relationships always lead to higher forms of existence, and thus involve vertical change as well. Consider the bonding of atoms to form a molecule. The atoms form hetarchical relationships with each other, but the resulting molecule is a higher form of existence. The same is true of cells forming tissues, and humans and other organisms forming societies. In all cases, hetarchical relationships lead to higher forms of existence.

Wilber would agree with the first two examples, but argue, as we have seen before, that societies are not higher than individuals. This is basically why he must distinguish between communion and self-transcendence. They both involve hetarchical interactions, but in Wilber's view there are apparently two kinds of hetarchical interactions, those that lead to higher forms of life, such as atoms bonding into molecules and cells into tissues, and those that do not, such as individuals bonding into societies. To my knowledge, Wilber never addresses the question of why there should be two kinds of hetarchical interactions, and how we can tell which is which a priori--that is, why do hetarchical interactions of atoms lead to higher molecules, while hetarchical interactions of humans and other organisms lead to same-level societies? In contrast, if we recognize that societies are higher than their members, we can view all hetarchical relationships as basically of the same kind. All lead to higher forms of existence. Thus communion is exactly the same thing as self-transcendence.11

A similar argument can be made with respect to agency and self-immanence. Wilber defines agency as the assertion of a holon of its autonomy or independence from other holons. I agree, with one important qualification. Agency is a drive towards independence from other holons that are higher or on the same level (or stage) as the agentic holon. A holon expressing agency does not assert independence from its lower, component holons. On the contrary, by asserting its independence from holons outside of itself, it must more strongly embrace its component holons. This is what Wilber calls self-immanence, so the latter term, too, is redundant.

In both communion and immanence, there are processes involving interiors as well as exteriors, and by interiors I mean consciousness in the hard as well as soft sense (see section 5, above). In my model, consciousness is outside the holarchy, but is accessed by all holons to a degree related to their position in the holarchy. When communion/transformation occurs, creating a higher stage within the holarchy, there is a correspondingly higher degree of awareness. Conversely, when a holon manifests immanence, its awareness is of a stage below that in which it is associated with holons of the same or higher rank.

Do I believe, then, that there are just two fundamental properties of holons, agency and communion? Not quite. I actually distinguish four fundamental properties of holons: assimilation, communication, adaptation, and reproduction. The first three are exhibited by all holons, while the last is a property of all individual holons. I claim that all more specific properties of existence can be understood as an example of one of these more general properties.

Each of these general properties can be defined in terms of holarchical relationships. Assimilation is the interaction of a higher holon with a lower holon. Communication is the interaction of two holons on the same stage or level. Adaptation is the interaction of a lower holon with a higher holon. Reproduction involves all three of the other processes simultaneously. So assimilation and adaptation are both kinds of agency, differing only in the point of view. Assimilation is agency from the point of view of the higher holon, embracing the lower, while adaptation is the point of view of the lower holons being embraced. Communication is the same as communion, while reproduction, involves both agency and communion simultaneously.

These four fundamental properties of holons are not only found throughout the holarchy, but also correspond to the four strands of knowledge (Edwards 2000). Observation is a form of assimilation; injunction is a form of communication; interpretation is a form of adaptation; and replication is a form of reproduction. So this understanding allows us to develop a theory of knowledge that is thoroughly integrated into the holarchy; philosophy becomes understood as a specific kind of developmental process. Finally, since reproduction involves all three of the other processes, all processes in the holarchy can be understood as a form of reproduction. That is, whenever agentic or communal acts are taking place, they can be viewed as part of a larger process involving reproduction. Since reproduction is the central common element in all evolutionary theories, we can express these theories, including both neo-Darwinism and cultural evolution, in holarchical terms. In fact, both these theories can be considered subsets of a broader evolutionary theory.

7. Heaps and Artifacts (Smith 2001a)

While Wilber views most of existence as involving holons and their interactions, he distinguishes two other kinds of entities that occupy a somewhat different position in the holarchy. These are heaps and artifacts. I also recognize these, but define them a little differently from the way he does. In the following discussion, Wilber's views are represented heavily by an article by Kofman (2001), which evidently met with Wilber's approval.

Heaps. Consider heaps first. Kofman defines them as "a random pile of stuff", such as a hill of sand or a carpet of fallen leaves. A heap, in this view, is composed of holons, but is not itself a holon.

Kofman's definition, rather obviously, is quite imprecise, and exposes itself to ambiguities. Nothing in nature, perhaps, is completely random; certainly sandpiles are not. On some beaches in Oregon that I'm quite familiar with, sand dunes form in strikingly regular patterns, as a result of being shaped by the wind. Should these dunes be called heaps? A pile of rocks would also be classified as a heap, in Kofman's view, but what about a stalactite, or other kinds of rock formations that form in certain patterns? For that matter, what about a really large formation of rock, such as a meteor, or a (lifeless) planet? In the Wilber model, a planet is a society of molecules, yet a lot of randomness goes into its formation. Of course it is constrained by gravitational force, but so, on a smaller scale, is a sandpile.

Since randomness is an important element in all natural phenomena, yet rarely if ever is the sole element, I believe that a better defining characteristic of heap is required. I suggest that emergence is the best term, since it is the key indicator of vertical relationships in the holarchy. I define a heap simply as a group of individual holons that interact too weakly to form a social holon with significant emergent properties of its own. Thus a pile of sand is a heap because it has essentially no properties that are not also exhibited by a single grain of sand or very small group of grains. But so is a planet, for the same reason. As I discussed earlier, the emergent properties of planets are very weak. The relationship of molecules in a planet is not very different from the relationship of sand grains in a sandpile.

This definition differs from that of Wilber/Kofman in two important ways. First, the holons in a heap are not necessarily random in their arrangement. A crystal--exempified in fact by a single grain of sand--has a very ordered arrangement of atoms, but is still a heap, in my view, because it has no or minimal properties not exhibited by its component atoms. Second, while Kofman seems to limit heaps to physical holons, I recognize heaps on other levels of existence. For example, a colony of bacteria or a swarm of mosquitoes is also a heap, because, again, the interactions among individuals are weak, and don't lead to significantly new emergent properties.

Emergence, like randomness, is a relative term. Any group of individual holons may create some small degree of emergence. Nevertheless, groups do differ very dramatically in the degree of emergence, allowing us to make fairly precise and unambiguous decisions about what to call a heap. Furthermore, the fact that emergence does vary greatly in strength allows us to bring heaps into a clear, well-defined position within the holarchy, rather than viewing them as a sort of oddity on the periphery. In my model, development proceeds through the alternation of individual and social holons. The emergence of a new kind of individual holon--an atom, cell, or organism--begins a new level of existence. These new individual holons then associate into social holons, forming higher stages on the same level. Finally, all stages are transcended by the emergence of a new, higher-level individual holon.

In this scheme, heaps represent a transition from individual to social holons. If the weak interactions of the individual holons in a heap become stronger, they will form a social holon. If not, the heap may remain as a heap, or dissolve back into completely separate individual holons. Thus a heap represents an evolutionary or developmental phase that may or may not develop further. Again, we see that level/stage distinction is critical to understanding how to view a heap's position in the hierarchy.

Artifacts. Now let's consider artifacts. Kofman defines an artifact as "an entity created by a holon". The problem with this definition, again, is that it's too vague. All holons are created by other holons. A cell is created by another cell; an organism is created by another organism, yet Kofman does not consider either cells or organisms to be artifacts. What Kofman intends to do, surely, is make a distinction between different ways in which holons are created, but he doesn't actually do this.

The key to making this distinction, I claim, is the process of reproduction. Any holon that is not created through a process of reproduction is an artifact, while holons that are created in this manner are not artifacts. By reproduction I mean a process by which one holon creates another holon of the same kind. As I discussed earlier (see also footnote 5), only individual holons reproduce themselves in this sense, namely cells and organisms. So all artifacts, in my view, are social holons, though not all social holons are artifacts.

Let's consider the implications of this view on different levels of existence. What about molecules? Are they artifacts? For the most part, yes. Most molecules in nature, excepting the very simplest, are found within cells, where they are synthesized in processes involving other molecules. With the exception of DNA, which does dupicate itself, these molecules are not created through reproduction. Thus all enzymes, in this view, are artifacts. Kofman agrees with this.

What about tissues within the human body? Kofman would include such noncellular entities as teeth, hair and bones, and they are also artifacts according to my definition, because these tissues (or a substantial part of them), are formed of non-cellular holons that are created by cells. But what about cellular holons, like heart, lung and liver tissue, and even the brain? The cells in these tissues are created by reproduction, so to this extent they are not artifacts. But any tissue is more than just a group of cells. It has emergent properties not found in any individual cell. These properties, according to my definition, must be considered as artifacts. They are not created by, or solely by, reproduction of individual cells, but by the interactions of many cells. So in my view, almost all physiological processes in any organism--such as breathing, digestion and circulation, as well as all mental processes--are artifacts, because they don't involve the reproduction of cells. Thus artifacts at this level include not just physical structures, but also biological processes.

Finally, on the level of organisms, including our own species, we recognize as artifacts such human creations as tools, technology, information, art, and so on; we also consider as artifacts such animal productions as bird nests and beaver dams. My definition certainly includes these, but it also includes all other properties of human and animal societies that don't derive entirely from simple reproduction of organisms. Thus the organization of social insects like ants and bees is an artifact. In fact, essentially all animal behavior is an artifact.

One of the most important implications of this view is that as new levels of existence emerge, the distinction between what we consider living and nonliving breaks down. Though enzyme molecules are artifacts in the sense that they were not "born" but created, we consider them to participate as fully in the life of the cell as any other component. Though bones, hair and teeth are artifact, we consider them living parts of the organism. This suggests that what we distinguish as artifacts on our level of existence-tools, buildings, and all manner of other human-made creations-are or will be indistinguishable from living human beings from the point of view of a higher level of existence.


These are some of the major differences between my model and Wilber's, though there are others, discussed in the references to my works I have provided here. I have also challenged other notions of his that are less relevant to the four-quadrant model, including his distinctions between states and structures (Smith 2000a; 2002a), his view that sleep is a higher state or set of states than waking (Smith 2001i; 2002b), and his contention that physiological parameters such as the EEG can be used as evidence of higher states of consciousness (Smith 2000c; 2001i). These notions of Wilber's do not really depend on his four-quadrant model, though the way he uses them is very much influenced by the nature of this model.

In concluding, I want to say that I feel that the biggest losers resulting from Wilber's continued refusal to engage me are Ken himself, and his followers. A constructive dialog between us could enrich us all, and perhaps lead to development of a new model better than our current ones. In founding the Integral Institute, Wilber has said he hopes to increase awareness of his ideas in universities. The problem is not primarily one of lack of awareness, though. Many academics are familiar with Wilber's work, but simply don't take it very seriously. This is unfortunate, but understandable. Academics gain respect in large part through confronting criticisms of their work, and either rebutting these criticisms or modifying their views. In refusing to address my challenges--now comprising well over 300,000 words--Wilber is not helping his cause.


1. Eukaryotic cells may have been created in part through incorporation of the much smaller prokaryotic cells (Margulis 1971), and in this sense there is a pure holarchical relationship between the two. But the great variety of cell types found within both these classes can't be explained in this manner.

Atoms, which I regard as individual holons, also have a somewhat holarchical relationship to each other. Larger atoms are thought to have been originally created by the process of fusion of smaller atoms. But the fusion process is not as simple as the assembly of molecules, and does not create a series of distinct stages. As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2001b; see also footnote 5, below), atoms do not satisfy all the criteria I use to distinguish individual holons, which begin a new level of existence, from social holons, which form stages on any level. Higher forms of existence do, however. Thus the cell/molecule distinction is closely paralleled by the organism/tissue distinction.

2. There is a pure holarchical relationship between the nervous systems of different kinds of organisms, which Wilber is not only very much aware of, but uses as the basis for placing different kinds of organisms on different levels. But the nervous system, as important as it is to the organism, is only a part of its structure. The overall body plans of different organisms are not generated by an accumulation of stages.

3. Most holons found within cells and organisms are not found outside of these higher holons under natural conditions. However, many of them presumably did exist autonomously before the higher holon fully evolved, and many of them can exist and be studied under the artificial conditions of the laboratory.

4. Wilber (1995), p. 61.

5. I define individual holons using three criteria:

Criterion 1 (reproduction) - An individual holon can reproduce itself outside (as a noncomponent) of other holons.

Criterion 2 (autonomy) - An individual holon can exist as a fully-functional form outside of other holons.

Criterion 3 (mixed hierarchy) - Within an individual holon, not all component holons are nested, that is, some component holons do not exist within any other component holon.

Cells and organisms satisfy all three criteria, while tissues fail to satisfy any of them. Molecules fail to satisfy criteria 1 and 3, and most molecules fail to satisfy criterion 2 as well. Societies fail to satisfy criteria 1 and 3; some societies appear to satisfy criterion 2, but as I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2000a), this is because social evolution is not yet complete.

Each of these three criteria also fails to be satisfied by other reproducing entities, such as viruses or memes, and if, in criteria 1 and 2, we substitute for "other holons" the term "other entities", computer software also fails these criteria. (Whether software should even be considered a holon is a matter I won't concern myself here; I only want to make the point that it doesn't fulfill the definition of an individual holon).

The most significant weakness of these criteria, as I have discussed before (Smith 2001a,b), is that atoms, which I consider to be individual holons, do not reproduce. They do satisfy criterion 2, however, and I believe they satisfy criterion 3. So every holon I define as an individual holon satisfies at least two of the three criteria, and every holon defined as social fails to satisfy at least two of the three.

Having defined these criteria, and used them to distinguish individual and social holons, we are now in a position to rank these holons, using a revised rule of asymmetry:

If we eliminate any type of holon (individual or social), we eliminate all holons (individual or social) above it, but not all of the individual holons below it.

Thus if we eliminate all cells, we eliminate all tissues, organisms and societies--which therefore are ranked as being above cells--but not all atoms, which are therefore below cells. If we eliminate all organisms, we eliminate all societies, but not all cells. If we eliminate all societies, we do not eliminate all organisms.

Notice that this rule specifies that we are to be concerned, on the down or below side, only with individual holons. Why? Because one of the defining criteria of social holons, as we have seen, is that they can't exist outside of individual holons of which they are components. That being the case, they will always have a symmetric relationship with these individual holons.

How, then, can we determine the relationship of individual holons to the social holons contained within them? We simply add a second rule: individual holons are always higher than any of their component individual or social holons. Thus cells are higher than atoms and molecules, and organisms are higher than cells and tissues. In fact, this is a good candidate for an independent ranking rule. In my view, holons of any kind are always higher than their component holons, though if they interact weakly, the relationship may be nearly one of equality. But within individual holons, component holons always interact strongly.

Using these two simple rules, we can generate the entire holarchy, as it appears in my model, with individual holons representing levels, and social holons representing stages within these levels. I'm sure some will say I have simply devised rules that support my particular model. By defining "type of holon" so broadly, I have been able to conclude, contra Wilber, that societies are higher than organisms. But the very fact that there is any fairly consistent definition of holon type that can lead to a conclusion opposite to Wilber's ought to give everyone pause. And my definition, unlike his, 1) is about the simplest and least ambiguous one possible, a definition that distinguishes individual and social holons on the basis of one of the most fundamental procesess of existence, reproduction; 2) allows me to reach the same conclusion regarding the organism/society relationship that is reached using other criteria, such as emergence, and the setting of possibilities and probabilities; and 3) also leads to the conclusion that organisms are higher than their cells, and cells are higher than their molecules. To the best of my knowledge, no other, narrower definition of "type of holon"--which can lead to the conclusion that societies are not higher than organisms, or at least human organisms--can simultaneously lead to the conclusion that organisms are higher than their component cells, and cells higher than their molecules.

6. If, as I claim, societies are higher than their individual members, how can any application of the asymmetry criterion lead to the conclusion that they are not?. Why should it be possible to come to two different conclusions regarding the individual/social relationship, depending on how we define type of holon? After all is said and done, the fact remains that if we consider humans of different historical periods as different types of holons, they do exhibit a symmetrical relationship with their societies. Doesn't this somehow have to mean that the two holons are on the same level?

No, it doesn't have to mean this, and the reason it doesn't reflects a fundamental limitation in the asymmetry rule. Wilber assumes that the rule has universal application, that it can always be used, but it can't. To understand why it can't always be used, we have to examine why the rule works at all, the basis for its application.

During evolution, lower forms of life generally preceded higher. Atoms evolved before cells, cells before organisms. This general trend is the basis for the asymmetry criterion. There has to be lower before there can be higher to come into existence, but if the higher never evolves, the lower remains. The asymmetry rule reflects a developmental or evolutionary process.

But the lower does not always precede the higher during evolution. Sometimes lower and higher co-evolve, each necessary for the development of the other. This is very well recognized by scientists. Thus most of the molecules found in cells could only evolve along with the cells, which were necessary to protect the molecules from degradation. The cells could not emerge without the molecules, but also vice-versa. A symmetrical relationship.

Likewise with tissues and organisms. It is an obvious observation that there are no tissues found in nature outside of organisms. There are some very simple organisms that have some resemblance to tissues, but nothing like the more complex tissues and organs found in all higher organisms is found outside of the latter. Why not? Because individual tissues can't survive outside of organisms. So again, there is a symmetric relationship.

Notice that both molecules and tissues, in my system, are social holons. They represent stages within levels which can't exist autonomously, that is, outside a higher-level individual holon. Also note that the individual holons composing these stages also co-evolved with the higher-level holon. Thus cells in organisms, though sharing many of the most basic features of cells outside organisms, also have evolved new ones, primarily those enabling them to communicate with other cells like themselves. In the case of atoms, on a lower and more rudimentary level, the co-evolution is not so obvious. As I have discussed before, atoms within molecules do have properties not found in atoms outside of molecules, though chemists consider them the same entity.

In my model, humans and their societies represent an analogous situtation. They are co-evolving in a process that, perhaps, will eventually result in the emergence of a new, higher-level individual holon. But whether it does or doesn't, the existence of the co-evolutionary process is what results in a symmetric relationship. Humans of the kind who exist today do not and cannot precede their society in this developmental process, but this does not mean that they can't be lower than the society.

This, then, is why the asymmetry rule can't be applied indiscriminately. To repeat, the process of co-evolution means that the lower does not always precede the higher, and the nature of interactions between individual and social holons is such that co-evolution always involves both kinds of holons. This is why it's so critical not only to distinguish these two types of holons, but to formulate the asymmetry rule in a way that takes into account their interactions.

7 Hargens (2002). The following quotes from Hargens are from the same source. See also my dialogue with Hargens (Smith 2002d).

8. If, as I claim, the evidence and logic supporting the position that societies are higher than individuals are so overwhelming, why do Wilber and his supporters cling to their contrary view so stubbornly? There are at least two reasons.

First, as mentioned in the text, to rank societies above individuals rationalizes, in the minds of many, an oppressive state, in which the rights of individuals are subordinated to the will of the collective. Even if this were true, it would hardly constitute proof that societies are not higher than individuals. Darwinism has been criticized for rationalizing a laissez-faire form of society in which the strong prey uninhibitedly on the weak, but this is not an argument against the validity of Darwinism as an evolutionary theory.

However, ranking societies above individuals in the hierarchy does not justify authoritarian governments, and those who think it does show some ignorance of hierarchical relationships. This brings us to the second reason why, in my view, Wilber promotes the idea of individuals and societies as "separate but equal" aspects of holons. He seems to believe that higher-order holons exert a great deal more control on lower ones than is actually the case.

As evidence of this control, Wilber provides the example of a body part such as an arm, which has no choice but to move wherever the entire body moves (Wilber 2000). He contrasts this with the individual/society relationship, where individuals are free to oppose social control, even if in the extreme case it costs them their life. There are several problems with this comparison, though, including a) it mixes physical with mental forms of control; b) it overlooks the fact that while the body may control the arm, the arm also influences the movements of the body; and c) it ignores the distinction between levels and stages.

Let's begin with c). An organism exists on a higher level of existence, in my model, than any portion of it, whereas a society exists on a higher stage within the same level as its members. As I have emphasized here in the text and in many other articles, the relationship between social holons and their component holons (transformation) is different from that between individual holons and their components (transcendence). So to say that societies are higher than their members is not to imply that the relationship is necessarily like that of an organism to its component holons.

But let's look at the latter relationship a little more closely. The relationship of an organism to its body parts (more precisely, to its cells) is like the relationship of a higher level holon, perhaps the earth, to individuals. This is the higher-level analogy that is proper for a comparison. It's certainly true that all people on earth must remain attached to the planet, and move wherever it moves, just as the cells within an organism must move wherever the organism moves. Even astronauts can't sever this connection. It may happen some day that some earthlings colonize another planet, truly breaking free of the earth. But that is rather like the gametes of an organism breaking free from their creator to begin a new organism. Not all cells of an organism are forever bound to it.

Notice also that even though we are constrained by our existence on earth, we do enjoy a certain degree of freedom within these constraints. In the same way, cells within the body have a certain degree of freedom in their functioning. To say that the organism/cell relationship is a model of dictatorial control is to say that the earth/individual human relationship is also a model of such control. The control, the existence of rather rigid limits that can't be transgressed, is very much there, but because we have the feeling of freedom within those limits, we don't consider it as immediate or as oppressive as that of a rigid government. Or rather, most people don't; the kind of people who are most likely to worry about governmental control don't. Those of us who do feel this control, who understand that our membership on earth does prevent us from being completely free, seek to transcend it. This is precisely what the spiritual path is all about.

Now consider the very different relationship of a social holon to its components. Wilber notes that even in a dictatorship, individuals have the possibility of opposing control, even if fruitlessly. Yes, and in a biological tissue--the lower level analogy of a society--individual cells likewise have the possibility of defying authority-as in the development of cancer, for example. In a molecule, a still lower level analogy of a society in my model, some atoms have the possibility of splitting off or dissociating from the group. The relationship of social holons to their component holons is not as strict or as ultimate as that of higher order individual holons to their components.

So Wilber's two examples are fully compatible with my model, when we keep in mind the crucial distinction between levels and stages. Moreover, in any higher/lower relationship, control or influence flows both ways; the higher exerts control over the lower, but also vice-versa. Wilber is well aware of this. Thus one of his famous twenty or so tenets of holons states that the lower sets or determines the possibilities of the higher, while the higher determines the probabilities of the lower. What Wilber seems not to understand, though, is that this rule applies perfectly well to the society/individual relationship. Do individuals determine the possibilities of their societies? Of course. Human societies have many more possibilities open to them than the societies formed by any non-human organism. Conversely, societies set the probabilities of their members. This is why the members of some human societies are much more likely to engage in certain forms of behavior than are the members of other human societies. All human beings have the potential to engage in certain forms of behavior; it is their membership in societies that determines to a very great extent which behaviors become realized.

Does this mean, then, that societies exert control over individuals? Yes, indeed, a great deal, much more than individuals generally appreciate. Does this control provide some rationalization for dictatorships? Hardly. On the contrary, we are most likely to increase our freedom when we confront, openly and honestly, the existing constraints on our lives.

9.Whether this distinction between gross and subtle reductionism is really meaningful is debatable. I doubt that there is any reductionist so hardline that he would deny that new laws or principles of some sort emerge as existence becomes more complex. However, some reductionists are stricter than others.

10. This might seem inconsistent with the parallel between social and interior development I claimed earlier. The social and interior do follow each other closely within one level of existence. When that level is transcended with the emergence of a new, higher-level individual holon, that holon has a higher-level interior than what came before it. However, it initially has no social relationships, as it is the first holon to emerge on the new level. These relationships develop as more such holons are created (Smith 2001I).

11. Recall that in my model, the relationship between higher and lower stages within a single level of existence, which I call transformation, is distinguished from the relationship between higher and lower levels, which I call transcendence. So communion may involve either transformation or transcendence.


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